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Monday, October 26, 2009

Some Hasty Brahms

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

String Quartet No. 1 in c minor, Op. 51, No. 1 [34:33]

Piano Quintet in f minor, Op. 34 [43:21]

Quatour Ébène

Pierre Colombet (violin)

Gabriel Le Magadure (violin)

Mathieu Herzog (viola)

Raphaël Merlin (cello)

Akiko Yamamoto (piano)

Recorded at Ferme de villefavard en Limousin, France on 5-8 May 2008 (Quartet), and Fondation Singer-Polignac, Paris, 1-3 October, 2007 (Quintet).

VIRGIN CLASSICS 50999 216622 2 S [78:42]

Brahms’ Piano Quintet, which was published in 1865, saw several incarnations before taking on its masterful final form. It began life as string quintet with two cellos, modeled after Schubert’s famous example in C major. Neither Clara Schumann nor Joseph Joachim found much good to say about this initial effort. Brahms later cast the work as a sonata for two pianos, which pleased him, but was still met with a cold shoulder from his mentors. The conductor Hermann Levi encouraged Brahms to visit the composition a third time and in the summer of 1864, he finally created what was to be one of his finest examples of chamber music. The work was immediately declared a masterpiece by Clara, Joachim and Levi.

The stormy opening is full of sweeping gestures, thunderous episodes and complex rhythms. The Quatour Ébène and Akiko Yamamoto tear into the music with youthful abandon, and although their playing is of the highest technical order, I found the tempi to be rushed and breathless, leaving little room to express Brahms’ sweeping lines and seldom allowing phrases to settle before the next one is begun. Things go better in the slow movement where the music is allowed to breathe more and there is elegance in the turns of phrase. The Scherzo and trio hops along at good pace and the finale is performed with confidence and power in spite of the tendency to again rush a bit. Overall balance is fine and there is good give and take between the players, each allowing the other a moment in the sun where needed.

The same observations can be made of the String Quartet, a work that caused Brahms a bit of apprehension given the shadow of his predecessors Brahms and Schubert and their supreme achievements in the genre. Again, the ensemble seems too often to be on the verge of a loss of control where tempos are concerned. Too often I heard unseated phrases, gestures that were not given enough time to breathe and come to completion before the next idea was barreled into. Things were better in the slow movements, and it is evident that this group can play with a sense of lyricism when it has a mind to. It would have been nice to have heard a little more self-control in the outer movements though instead of just pure virtuosity for its own sake.

A Little Sample of von Karajan's Ego

Herbert von Karajan, Maestro for the Screen
A film by Georg Wübbolt. (2008)

ARTHAUS MUSIC 101459 [52:00]

Herbert von Karajan was not only one of music’s giant conductors; he was without a doubt in possession of one of its most giant egos. In an effort to secure his place in history, he left behind a huge trove of filmed performances, oftentimes reworking music from the standard repertoire with each new development in technology. The result is a trove of hundreds of hours of performances that document Herbert von Karajan. Oh yeah, and there is some pretty nice background music by Beethoven, Bach, Strauss, Schumann, Wagner, and Brahms et. al.

Georg Wübbolt has put together and interesting portrait of Karajan the technology buff by using very candid interviews by some of the key people who helped make his films possible. He speaks with members of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, Karajan’s personal secretary, music journalists, directors and key figures in the recording and television industry.

Karajan was practically unrivaled in his use of technology. The only other superstar musician to exploit the media so completely was Leonard Bernstein, who was rather a constant thorn in Karajan’s side having adopted especially the use of television some years earlier than his German colleague. Members of the Berlin Philharmonic began to have a love-hate relationship with Karajan’s media exploits, being annoyed at the amount of focus being placed on the conductor as opposed to the music and the orchestra, but at the same time, relishing the considerable extra income they received from the filming sessions and royalties. Much emphasis was placed upon appearances and musicians were forbidden from wearing beards and bald players were required to wear wigs.

Karajan’s relationships with film directors were often nightmares and after a few years, Karajan became his own director, further slanting all of his projects to be all about him. Whether or not the music suffered from the conductor’s ego can be debated. What is certain however is that Karajan was an innovator and pioneer, and despite his self-centered nature, he was a master musician. As such, he delivered the goods with the orchestra. His interpretations of the standard repertoire, particularly the romantic literature are often second to none.

This brief documentary (in German with French, Spanish, English and Italian subtitles) is a rather fascinating look at a man of tremendous talent and ability who for good or ill left an indelible stamp on the world of classical music. It is most interesting to see how the filming of music performances evolved from the earliest television broadcasts into the 1990s and how von Karajan learned, adapted and developed with the technology and the times. I am not sure that this is a DVD that deserves a permanent place on the shelf, but it is definitely worth renting once or twice.

Some Lovely Choral Music from Rheinberger

Joseph RHEINBERGER (1839-1901)

Sacred and Secular Choral Music

Morgenlied [4:49]

Abendlied [2:29]

Warum toben die Heiden [3:03]

Es spricht der Tor in seinem Herzen [3:06]

Adoramus te [3:11]

Ave vivens hostia [3:36]

Salve Regina [3:25]

Dextera Domini [2:36]

Eripe me [3:52]

Missa Sanctissimae Trinitas, Op. 117 [16:40]

Waldblumen, Op. 124 [18:52]

Regensburger Domspatzen

Georg Ratzinger, conductor

Eberhard Kraus, organ

Recorded July 12-15, 1993 at St. Emmeran, Regensburg and at the Tonhalle der Regensburger Domspatzen.

ARS MUSICI 232154 [67:09]

Joseph Rheinberger belongs to that large swathe of composers whom musicologists term “minor masters.” Usually well respected or even famous in their own time, for whatever reason these often prolific and highly skilled craftsmen have failed the test of time. Thanks to the seemingly endless thirst for underperformed or undiscovered works in the digital age, a number of these musicians have made a post-mortem comeback. One such composer is Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger, a man of considerable ability whose refined technique and graceful style might easily compare favorably to that of the early romantics such as Schubert and Schumann and especially Mendelssohn, a composer with whom Rheinberger shared a very similar harmonic language.

Choral and instrumental music shared an equal place in Rheinberger’s output. His deep personal faith is reflected in his many works for the church which include numerous motets and mass settings and a sizeable collection of pieces for the organ. His intimate knowledge of renaissance counterpoint and thorough grounding in classical forms make for a winsome combination in his compositions. Couple his taut formal structure with a delicious harmonic language and you get music that is always pleasing to the ear.

This performance was a pleasant surprise to these ears, ears that as a rule find men and boys choirs a bit of a chore to listen to for very long. Over the years I have found that many a cathedral choir lacks the elements that make for a good choral sound. The boys are often shrill, the men harsh and abrasive and the blend nonexistent. Not so this choir which was initially established in the year 975! Truly deserving of their international reputation, this ensemble sings with a sweet and refined tone and with unanimity of sound that allows these gorgeous harmonies to ring out. This is the kind of music that is just awful if sung out of tune. With its predominance of dominant seventh harmonies and subtle shifts of tonality, one wrong turn can lead to an intonation disaster. Maestro Ratzinger shapes lovely phrases and only seldom is there a hint that a third or two might be pushed a little higher.

Highlights in this consistently fine recital include the lovely and contrasting Morgenlied with its joyous and sweeping melodies, and the intimately prayerful Abendlied with its text from the gospel of Luke in which the disciples implore Jesus to remain with them as the night is falling and they are afraid. Also of merit is the compact Missa Sanctissimae Trinitas, a work that is sharply contrasting to the expansive and glorious Cantus missa,(not recorded here) which is scored for double choir and won the composer a special citation from the Pope.

Rheinberger shows the influence of Schubert and Schumann in the charming set of nature poems Waldblumen. These little songs about the birds and the flowers are quite charming indeed, but Ars Musici are most remiss in providing no translations for the texts, an inexcusable act for an international release. That little flaw notwithstanding, this is a delightful collection of music, sure to please casual and serious listeners alike.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Elegant Chamber Music

Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Piano Quintet No. 1 in d minor, Op. 89 (1905-6) [30:59]
Piano Quintet no 2 in c minor, Op. 115 (1921) [32:17]

Cristina Ortiz (piano)
Fine Arts Quartet: Ralph Evans and Efim Boico (violins); Yuri Gandelsman (viola); Wolfgang Lanfer (cello)

Recorded at the Performance Arts Center at purchase College, Theater C, Purchase NY, 20-22 December 2007.

NAXOS 8.570938 [63:24]

Gabriel Fauré was the youngest child in a family of six, the son of a school administrator and teacher with aristocratic connections. Encouraged as a child to pursue his musical interests, he was fortunate enough to study with Camille Saint-Saëns, with whom he maintained a close relationship until the elder composer’s death in 1921. Fauré would begin his career as a teacher and organist in smaller parishes, all the while composing songs. Ever self-critical, particularly where larger musical forms were concerned, it would be a few years into his career before he established himself as a major composer and pedagogue. Eventually his career would take him to the organ benches of several major Paris churches and to the directorship of the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils would include the likes of Koechlin, Ravel and Nadia Boulanger to name but some of the stars.

Unlike many composers, Fauré seemed to have lived a charmed life, free from much of the poverty and personal stress that faced many of his predecessors and colleagues. He held steady jobs in worthwhile institutions throughout his career, was happily married and raised two sons, and lived to see his work internationally respected and to leave a legacy in the hands of several renowned composers that were his pupils. Consequently, his music reflects the serenity of his life. Although it never lacks passion, it seldom contains much angst, and as such has a soothing quality about it that makes most any work from his pen immediately appealing.

Harmonically, Fauré was a bridge figure between the romantics and the more modernist composers that were to be both his contemporaries and successors. Although often subtly adventuresome, his harmonic vocabulary never strays far afield and yet has a certain individuality that makes it both instantly appealing and rather difficult to play, given its tendency to turn right when you expect left, as it were.

These two major works of chamber music are nothing short of masterpieces, and show the care and time that Fauré took in composing them. At times dreamy, as in the opening movement of Op. 89 with its delicious d minor piano arpeggios, at others luminescent as in the gorgeous Andante of Op. 115. This is music that is indeed melodic, but not necessarily tuneful. In other words, a listener will get up having had a beautiful experience but perhaps not whistling any themes.

Cristina Ortiz and the Fine Arts Quartet are very welcome additions to Naxos’ endless supply of fine artists, giving us performances that are marked by understated virtuosity, subtle shadings of color and finely honed ensemble playing. The strings perform with a shimmering uniformity of tone and the balance between the keyboard and strings is never off. Ms. Ortiz has had a distinguished career as a soloist, her early concerto recordings of Villa-Lobos and Shostakovich garnering her many rave reviews. Here as a chamber musician, she proves herself to be similarly superior, playing with verve and panache, and as a complete partner in the music making.

This is music of immeasurable elegance. Yes, there are technical challenges to be met, but this ensemble plays with such refined finesse that the only thing that comes across is beauty. These are performances in which a listener can simply luxuriate, thoroughly enjoying the wash of sound that comes out of the speakers. Let’s hope that these artists come together again soon. Perhaps some Brahms and Schumann? Shostakovich maybe? The possibilities are exciting just to think about!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Some Flawless Violin Magic from James Ehnes


Disc One

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Tzigane [10:44]

Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré [2:50]

Sonata for Violin and Piano in g Major [18:40]

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Sonata for Violin and Piano in g minor [13:26]

Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in d minor, Op. 75 [22:41]

Disc Two

Henryk WIENIAWSKI (1835-1880)

Polonaise brilliante No. 2 in A, Op. 21 [8:32]

Polonaise No. 1 in D, Op. 4 [5:30]

Mazurka (Obertass) Op. 19, No. 1 [2:01]

Scherzo-Tarantella, Op. 16 [4:36]

Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 15 [11:06]

Pablo de SARASATE (1844-1908)

Spanish Dances, op. 21 [9:42]

Spanish Dances, op. 22 [9:50]

Spanish Dances, op. 23 [8:21]

Introduction and Tarantella [5:00]

James Ehnes (violin)

Wendy Chen (piano, disc one)

Eduard Laurel (piano, disc two)

Recorded December 20 and 22, 1999 at the Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto (disc one) and May 20-21, 2003 (disc two).

CBC RECORDS MVCD 1177-2 Disc One [68:17] Disc Two [65:34]

James Ehnes is almost without question the finest violinist of his generation, and as his career grows and he adds maturity to his immense talent, will surely soon rank as one of the greatest in history. Possessed of a flawless technique (British violinist Jack Liebeck once told me that his playing was “bulletproof”) and peerless musicality, Ehnes has a remarkable ability to shift from style to style with complete ease and facility. Whether playing big romantic concertos with the world’s finest orchestras or in this recital with piano, Ehnes is totally in his element, pulling off challenge after challenge with utter ease, poise and control.

In this combination of French masterpieces and Spanish fluff, Ehnes shows off both his serious side and his penchant for flashy showmanship. He pulls both off with aplomb and good taste. Joined by pianist Wendy Chen for a collection of staples from the impressionist canon, Ehnes plays with spot on intonation and natural sound. Of particular merit is the Ravel Sonata, which flows from dreamy to sexy to almost raunchy with its blues movement. Ehnes plays with silky elegance while not eschewing a foray or two into pure cabaret sensuality. Saint-Saëns more classic harmonies make for a pleasant contrast to all the languid impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. A composer that should be far more respected than he is, Saint-Saëns never ceases to amaze as one of the true musical craftsmen of his era. There is nary a genre in which he is not completely facile. His writing is idiomatic, his sense of form and structure are all but flawless and his works have a way of sticking to your musical ribs in a way few other composers’ music can. Ehnes and Chen spin out line after seamless line to make this tuneful showpiece a thrilling ending to the first disc of this set.

Joined on disc two by his long time recital partner Eduard Laurel, Ehnes gives us a sizable program of virtuoso gems from two of the better nineteenth century musical circus acts, Wieniawski and Sarasate. If you are seeking depth and profundity here you won’t find it, but you will leave the room satisfied with some catchy tunes and amazed at how easily James Ehnes can execute every technical magic trick in the book. I confess that I am not really as in love with this music as I am the French, but one cannot help but sit back in awe of just how well this music is performed. Alas, Mr. Laurel, who has in other outings has proven himself to be a pianist of exceptional abilities, does not get to shine in the way that Ms. Chen does in the more demanding works of the first disc. Nonetheless he seems to have a good time and plays with panache.

To date, I have not found a bad recording in all the discs that Mr. Ehnes has released and this is no exception. Now that he has recorded a great deal of the classic repertoire, it would be great fun to hear him tackle some more modern works. Maybe Paul Moravec will compose a sonata or concerto for Mr. Ehnes. Good idea, no?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A New Piano Discovery

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Sonata quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2 (Moonlight) [16:03]

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 [28:13]

Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1839)

Fantasie Op. 49 in f minor. [13:02]

Kevin Kenner (piano)

Recorded at the Opole Philharmonic Concert Hall, February 2008.

DUX 0633 [55:57]

The idea of the Fantasy (Fantasie, Fantasia, Phantasy…pick your preferred spelling) has been around for a few hundred years. And why not? What would be more tempting to a composer than to let his or her imagination run free, unrestrained by the rules of form? Works by some of the earliest keyboard composers in the early sixteenth century bear the title. The romantic composers had a field day with the genre, producing some magnificent and original works.

Beethoven’s two sonatas Opus 27, which bear the name “quasi una fantasia”, make use of this musical free-wheeling in their opening movements. The “Moonlight” so named by the poet Heinrich Rellstab when he commented that the first movement reminded him of the moonlight over Lake Lucerne, opens with what in other hands could have been a monotonous chord progression of broken traids, followed by a rather out of character and jaunty second movement, and ends with a c-sharp minor thunderstorm by which a pianist could easily sprain a wrist.

Robert Schumann’s collection of miniatures is intentionally programmatic, each with whimsical titles. Rapid-fire shifts of emotion mark these gems that can at one moment lull the listener into reveries and at the next send him bolting out of his easy-chair.

Chopin gives us a work on a far grander scale, a composition that runs the gamut of emotions from serenity to broad rushes of emotional turbulence.

It is all delivered with great finesse by the American Pianist Kevin Kenner, heretofore unknown to me, but who seems to have established a fine working relationship with the Polish Dux label. A musician of excellent pedigree, Mr. Kenner plays with great technical authority and with a fine sensitivity to structure, form, tonal shading and expression. Perfectly able to exhibit technical brilliance, Mr. Kenner chooses to disguise his prowess in subtleties rather than to blast us with unseemly keyboard pyrotechnics. His playing of the much over-recorded Beethoven sonata is governed with impeccable taste. Even the flashy finale is rendered with much elegance, with careful attention to inner voices, and with special care to make the perpetual arpeggios come across with clarity and precision.

His Schumann can be positively dreamy where allowed; powerful and authoritative where appropriate. The contrast between Evening with its serene melody and Soaring with its jet engine power is so pronounced that the shift between movements can be startling.

Finally, Mr. Kenner delivers a beautifully restrained account of Chopin’s Op. 49. It is so easy to romp through Chopin’s music just to show off, and somewhat rare to find a player who has discovered the poetry in the music. Kenner is just such a musician, and he is able, through carefully crafted phrasing and a fine singing melodic line to bring off this music in such a way as to never belie its technical sand traps.

As always, the highest compliment I can pay to a recording is that it left me wanting to hear more from the artist. This is just such a disc. Kevin Kenner is a fine discovery; one that I hope will come to even more international attention in the future.