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Friday, February 20, 2009

Pleasant Violin Concertos

Pierre RODE (1774-1830)

Violin Concerto No. 7 in a minor, Op. 9 [17:53]
Violin Concerto No. 10 in b minor, Op. 19 [20:14]
Violin Concero No. 13 in f-sharp minor, Op. post. [19:53]

Friedemann Eichhorn, (violin)
South West German Radio Orcheatra, Kaiserlautern
Nicolás Pasquet

Includes free downloadable bonus track available from

Recorded at the SWR Studio, Kaisrlautern, Germany from 29 January to 1 February, and from 6-9 February 2007.

NAXOS 8.570469 [58:00]

Pierre Rode was a prominent violinist in his day and was one of the founders of the violin department of the Paris Conservatoire, newly reformed after the ouster of Louis XVI. He was respected by Beethoven, and was a friend of the Mendelssohn family. Favored by Paganini, he enjoyed a fairly successful career as a soloist, spending a brief span as the solo violinist at the Paris Opera, and four years in Russia as violinist to the Tsar. Upon his return to France in 1808 his playing was received with far less enthusiasm than it had been in the past, and his fame diminished. A disastrous comeback attempt in 1828 ended his performing career, and his friends claimed that the failed concert hastened his death in 1830.

He left behind thirteen violin concertos, none of which has a place in the modern repertoire. Friedemann Eichhorn has attempted a bit of a revival here as a part of Naxos’ ongoing and laudable quest to give us a recording of every note of music ever penned. The result is some fairly elegant stuff, worthy of the occasional listen, but with little chance of ousting Mozart, Beethoven or Mendelssohn on the concert stage.

To modern ears, this is classical music through and through. Structured and somewhat formulaic, one might mistake it for the work of a lesser Beethoven upon first hearing. These concertos were, however, somewhat groundbreaking in their time, with their emphasis upon the soloist as the hero. The solo parts are indeed more prominent than what Mozart allowed in his concertos, and the music is at turns dramatic, lyrical and jaunty. Well crafted, concise and to the point, they provide the needed aural pleasure to pronounce them good, but they will hardly change the world.

Mr. Eichhorn plays with a sweet and airy tone, well suited for the light-heartedness of the music, even when it is cast in the minor mode. There is ample technical display to support Rode’s reputation as a virtuoso, and Eichhorn carries off florid passages with ease. The Kaiserlautern Orchestra is a fine ensemble, playing with a taut rhythmic drive and a fine sense of balance and intonation. Maestro Pasquet never lets his players overwhelm the soloist and he has chosen brisk but never breathless tempi.

It would be nice to see some of these works revived into the student repertoire perhaps or in the professional realm as matinee material. They are pleasant excursions, and worthy of a listen or two, especially at the Naxos bargain price!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Peerless Schubert

Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 99, D898 [36:08]

Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 100 D929 [43:29]

Wu Han (piano)

Philip Setzer (violin)

David Finckel (cello)

Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, April, 2008.

ARTIST LED 10802-2 [79:37]

There has been quite a bit of apocalyptic talk in the press of late about the demise of the major classical recording labels. For those hell-bent on nostalgia, this is a bad thing, but in the grand scheme of things, the (rumored) death of big labels like Decca and the über-consolidation of companies like RCA and Sony, coupled with the relative ease and low cost of producing recordings, might just leave the paths clear for artists to produce their own material on their own terms. I see little but good in such a scheme.

Some years ago cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han and friends founded just such an independent label, Artist Led. Every aspect of the process of making and marketing a recording is left completely to the artists, giving them the freedom to choose their repertoire, oversee the engineering and mastering process and design the packaging and promotion material. What has resulted is a small but impressive catalogue of recordings of mainly standard repertoire. The quality of the playing and production has been consistently high, and this present issue is no exception.

Philip Setzer and David Finckel of Emerson String Quartet fame are joined by Finckel’s pianist wife Wu Han to perform these two late masterpieces from Schubert. Given that the publishers assigned them consecutive opus numbers, they have been looked upon over the years as musical twins. Yet, there are striking differences between the two works; the B-flat trio being mostly sunshine and the E-flat more serious and stormy, just to mention the obvious. Composed very near the time of Beethoven’s death in 1827, Schubert took his task very seriously indeed, trying and succeeding to produce works with the depth and scope of Beethoven’s Archduke and Ghost trios.

Opus 99 begins with a rollicking and joyous Allegro, notable for its catchy tunefulness and its well worked-out construction. Given Schubert’s tendency to run on a bit in longer-form works, this movement could have been an indication of a new maturity in Schubert’s writing, a maturity which alas was cut short by his untimely death in 1828. The lyrical Andante is as winsome as any song that Schubert produced. The tunes are simply sublime, and the lovely forays into the minor mode are breathtakingly elegant. The jaunty Scherzo is a fitting contrast to the lush second movement, and the work ends with a virtuosic rondo.

The Opus 100 trio was of significant importance to the composer. It received its first performance in December of 1827 and was performed again as the centerpiece of an all-Schubert concert given in Vienna on 26 March, 1828, the anniversary of Beethoven’s death. The concert was a watershed for the young composer, who alas did not live to enjoy the would-be fruits of its success. Grander and more serious than the Op. 99 trio, the opening movement, although rhythmic and in a major key, very quickly turns serious and takes very little time to start exploring the minor mode and other somewhat distant key centers. The brooding second movement is almost funereal with its constant pulsing, march-like rhythm. The scherzo is a bit more light hearted but still retains a bit of minor key gloom. Perhaps it is safe to say that Schubert was trying very hard in this work to make an artistic statement, and thus while it certainly contains music of great beauty, the beauty is there to make a point, to express ideas and not simply to entertain.

These are artists who obviously know each other inside and out. Their ensemble is so finely tuned that one could almost believe there was one person playing all three parts at once. Of particular merit is Wu Han’s ultra clear pianism, marked by dozens of shades of nuance and color, and by clarity of execution that falls like crystals on the ear. Finckel and Setzer, who for years now have made music together, perform like twins, bringing off some splendid duets, particularly notable in the Op. 99 scherzo. I was moved by the contrast of tone and musical “attitude” for lack of a better word that the players displayed between the two works. There is the same clarity and attention to detail, but it is palpable that these musicians have gotten inside Schubert’s head and are channeling his intentions to a modern audience.

The recorded sound is quite warm and handsomely balanced and worth special notice here. We are never overpowered even in the loudest passages. Although recorded in a fairly sizeable room, the sound is intimate and close and gives the illusion that the musicians are right in your living room playing for your personal enjoyment.

Friday, February 06, 2009

James MacMillan Channels Britten in Some Interesting New Music

James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)

Three Interludes from “The Sacrifice” (2007) [14:28]

Quickening (1998) [45:37]

The Hilliard Ensemble

City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

BBC Philharmonic

Simon Halsey, chorus master

James MacMillan

Recorded in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 3 March 2007 and 22 February, 2008.


James MacMillan has met with a good deal of international success, and for good reason: he’s one of the rare composers who actually takes the time to write music of substance and structure, devoid of the episodic blips, bleeps and snarls that make much modern music fall somewhere between boring and unbearable. Couple this with a dramatic flair not seen since Benjamin Britten and a fine knack for choosing good texts and meaty subject matter, and you get some winsome art indeed.

If these three interludes from MacMillan’s 2007 Opera The Sacrifice are any indication of the quality of the whole work, then we have something indeed to look forward to, and should encourage Chandos to release a recording of the complete opera. MacMillan is obviously influenced by Britten, and these interludes, although quite original, do bear the handprint of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes in the way that they conjure up such a picturesque atmosphere. Colorful orchestrations and rich, pungent sonorities make this music gripping from the start. Concise and well constructed, the listener’s attention is grabbed from the get-go and held until the end. Of particular merit is the brilliant Pasacaglia. It is nice to see a modern composer mastering such an ancient form while still making it his own.

The 1998 cantata Quickening is scored for very large forces, and is clearly modeled structurally on Britten’s War Requiem. The subject is childbirth, perhaps more accurately conception, and was inspired by the recent fatherhood of both composer and librettist. The texts are exceptionally well crafted, but I would caution first listeners to sit down with words in hand as the thick orchestral textures and large choral forces make the text a bit difficult to understand on first hearing, despite the CBSO Chorus’ excellent enunciation.

MacMillan uses his available sound palette to full effect here. His use of unusual percussion instruments adds a layer of the exotic that nicely punctuates the rather mysterious and wonderful nature of the subject at hand.

It is often said that composers do not always make the best interpreters of their own music, but in this case it is safe to say that MacMillan’s ideas for execution are as solid as his ideas for composition. He leads performances here that are dramatically well paced, and he has chosen outstanding forces. The magnificent CBSO Youth Chorus deserves special mention for their haunting virtuosity.

Quickening is a work that may take more than a single hearing to sink in, but it is well worth the effort. MacMillan has something significant to say, and he says it eloquently. Whether this work will find a permanent place in the repertoire remains to be seen, but this performance is an introduction that bodes well for the future.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

An Interesting Collection of Debussy's Orchestral Music

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Pelléas et Mélisande (Symphonie, arr. Marius Constant) [25:05]
Clair de lune (orch. André Caplet) [4:34]
Nocturnes [25:26]
Berceuse héroique [4:55]
Trios Etudes (orch. Michael Jarrell, 1991) [13:31]

Orchestre National de Lyon
MDR Radio Choir, Leipzig
Jun Märkl

Recorded at the Auditorium de Lyons, France, 15-20 July 2007, 15-19 January 2008, and 11-12 February 2008.

NAXOS 8.570993 [74:09]

Three fine orchestrators give us a most welcome addition to the near-perfect output of Claude Debussy with these well-crafted arrangements of music from the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and of four piano works, one ubiquitous and three slightly more obscure. Throw in the popular Nocturnes, and the lesser heard Berceuse, and you get over an hour of delicious listening.

Debussy’s only opera, a dreamy medieval tale of love, betrayal and tragedy, sees far too little daylight really. This is perhaps in part to its general lack of catchy tunes and the tendency of French texts to be extremely wordy. It does, nonetheless, possess page upon page of lusciously gorgeous music, particularly for the orchestra. Rumanian composer Marius Constant has taken a sizeable portion of Debussy’s thematic material to create this Symphonie, an engaging work, full of rhapsodic gestures and subtle harmonies. Mr. Constant is a more than capable orchestrator, but it is always difficult to put yourself into another composer’s head, and as such, we still miss a tad of Debussy’s remarkable originality. The music however is lush and lovely and it is a good thing to hear some of Debussy’s ideas in this form.

Little need be said about Claire de lune. Its beauty speaks for itself. Caplet’s orchestration is sensitive and colorful and does nothing to detract from the original.

The centerpiece is the Nocturnes. These masterpieces of orchestration were originally intended as solo violin works for Eugene Ysaye, but Debussy later decided that the orchestra was their preferred home. Thanks be to God! Jun Märkl leads well paced and finely balanced performances here and the Lyon orchestra obviously knows its way around the literature. One might have wanted a bit more shimmer from the strings, but in all this is an excellent reading. Few recordings top the stunning readings by Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra or Charles Dutoit and the Montreal band in the music of Debussy and Ravel, but Märkl leads quite acceptable performances. The women of the MDR Radio Choir of Leipzig deserve a special mention for their hauntingly beautiful wordless singing in Sirens.

The disc is filled out with the Berceuse Héroique, a seldom heard little gem, and three selections from Debussy’s homage to Chopin, the Twelve Etudes for piano, deftly orchestrated by Michael Jarrell. These arrangements work quite well indeed and successfully bring out some interesting colors in the harmony that might be missed in the piano versions. They are a fitting ending to an interesting collection of works. This disc is well worth the effort.