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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Some Surprises from the Early 20th Century

Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Sonata for Flute and Piano (1927) [12:02]
Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double-bass (1925) [15:30]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Sonata (1926) [38:14]
Transcribed for Flute and Piano by Felix Greissle (1899-1982) from the Quintet for Wind Instruments, Op. 26 (1923-24)

Fenwick Smith (flute)
Mark Ludwig (viola)
Edwin Barker (double-bass)
Sally Pinkas (piano) [Schulhoff Sonata]
Randall Hodgkinson (piano) [Schoenberg]

Recorded at Houghton Memorial Chapel, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, October 1982 (Schoenberg sonata); Methuen Memorial Musical Hall, Methuen, MA, May 1992 (Schulhoff concertino), Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, MA, June 1992, (Schulhoff sonata)

CHANDOS CHAN 10515 [66:03]

There is little that is more exciting to the long time music aficionado than the discovery of a new composer or some interesting heretofore unheard music. It is even more exciting when said listener had dismissed said composer for years on the unfounded pretext that he probably wouldn’t like his music anyway. Happy me then when I took the plunge and played this release from Chandos, a company never to be accused of peddling junk, and found myself falling in love with the contents.

Erwin Schulhoff who was born to wealthy parents in Prague, lived a tragically short life. He flourished in Germany during the heady years of the Weimar Republic, only to be carted off to a concentration camp during the horrors of the Nazi era, where he died of tuberculosis in 1941. He was composing his eighth symphony at the time.

Schulhoff was a modernist who fell under the influence of many of the trendy styles of the 1920s, including Dadaism and Jazz. He and Arnold Schoenberg were acquainted and there was for a time a regular correspondence between the two composers, but they were to take very different paths both in life and art. He is represented here by two compact chamber works. Both demonstrate his natural gift for melody, and move at a breezy pace. Unlike many composers, who signal the ends of movements with some sort of grand gesture, Schulhoff often says what he needs to say and abruptly stops, leaving the listener wondering what happened. His writing is quite contrapuntal, and his accompaniments often tend toward a busy moto perpetuo leaving the pianist with handfuls of notes requiring some pretty fleet finger work.

Unlike Schoenberg, Schulhoff embraced tonality. His music is sparkling with crunchy, jazzy dissonances, but there is a jaunty tunefulness also present. The performances here are first rate, and one wonders why they took so long to get onto the market. Fenwick Smith has technique to burn and tosses off some very sophisticated and busy writing with deft agility. There is plenty of spirit in his playing and Sally Pinkas in the 1927 sonata provides some outstanding partnership in a part that must be a bit of a knuckle buster.

Felix Greissle, who made this transcription of Schoenberg’s quintet at the composer’s suggestion, was a student and eventually son-in-law of the composer. Schoenberg wanted every note of his original score to be represented in the reduction. Proving to be impossible to play, Schoenberg finally consented to having certain notes written in small type so that there would at least be a visual representation of his original intent.

This is a massive piece, and it is dense in it its scoring. However, (and I confess here to being very hard to win over where twelve-tone music is concerned) I was amazed to find myself drawn to the complexities of the sounds I was hearing. It is as if Schoenberg made a conscious and even Herculean effort to make his new-ish system of composition able to be lyrical, in spite of its disdain for traditional harmony. The end result is a piece of immaculate and fastidious construction, a work that upon repeated listening bears more and more fruit.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Hodgkinson bring out every facet of this incredibly complicated score. They find the drama, the pathos and the sadness in the music, and yes, even moments of delicate lyricism. It must have been a beast to learn, especially for the pianist, but one would never know from listening to this performance that either artist ever broke a sweat..

Will this piece be suitable for every listener? Probably not, but the splendid Schulhoff works make this disc worth the money, even if they are sadly brief! Nonetheless, there are great rewards to be found here amongst all the complexity. I for one found a new appreciation for dodecaphony, in spite of my previous misgivings. That in the process I found such an attractive composer as Schulhoff was all the greater reward.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Perfect fivesomes

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Clarinet Quintet, KV581, (1789) [31:32]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 (1891) [39:00]

Karl-Heinz Steffens (clarinet)
Guy Baunnstein and Christoph Streuli (violins)
Ulrich Knörzer, (viola)
Richard Duven, (cello)

Recorded in the Kammermusiksaal der Berliner Philharmonie, 22-23 June 2005 and the Grosser Saal der Berliner Philharmonie, 5-8 February, 2006.

TUDOR 7137 Super Audio Hybrid CD [70:44]

The clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms, two of the absolute masterworks in the chamber music literature have a great deal in common. Both came late in their composers’ careers (although only by circumstance in the case of Mozart), both were composed with famous virtuoso clarinetists in mind, both are cast in four movements ending in a theme and variations, and both are works of profoundly understated beauty and richness.

Mozart was going strong when he composed this piece, and although it is mature and contemplative in nature, it shows none of the signs of finality and valediction that are present in the Brahms. Rich in melodic content, Mozart seems to go further afield from classical formality to create a piece that is as fresh and original today as it was when it was first heard in 1789.

Brahms, on the other hand, came out of retirement to write four more works (two sonatas, a quartet and the present quintet) for the brilliant principle clarinetist of the Hamburg orchestra. And what a gift these works were. Reflective, autumnal and possessing an ease and serenity seldom found in Brahms’ earlier efforts, this is music that simply flows from the composer’s mind like water. Every structure is perfect in its symmetry, every phrase a flawlessly turned essay in elegance and grace.

After about a dozen hearings, I can say with confidence that these performances are amongst the most flawless that I have ever heard. Everything about them fits the music like a glove. Perfect balance, excellent pacing, seamless ensemble and impeccable intonation cause this music to seem to play itself. Of particular merit is this ensemble’s choice of tempi, and the ease with which the music ebbs and flows. There is never a static moment, nor do we ever feel that the music will become breathless. The effortlessness with which the sounds are produced is at once engaging and unbelievably soothing.

This is my first encounter with the Tudor label, but if this is any indication of the company’s standard for quality, I cannot wait to hear more. The sound is beautifully balanced, silken in tone; warm and rich from the softest to the loudest passages. Attractive packaging and concise and informative notes make the total package a winner. Order this one right away. You won’t be sorry.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

French Violin Gems that Run the Quality Gamut.

Jean Baptiste Charles DANCLA (1817-1907)
Petite École de la mélodie, Op. 123 [29:33]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Sonata No. 1 in d minor for violin and piano, Op. 75 [22:24]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Meditation from Thaïs [5:00]

Guido Rimonda (violin)
Cristina Canziani (piano)

Recorded at Teatro Civico, Vercelli, Italy; 6-7 August, 2007.

CHANDOS CHAN 10510 [57:20]

Italian musicians Guido Rimonda and Cristina Canziani take a little vacation in France to bring us this rather intimate and delightful hour of music that ranges from salon bonbons to a fairly serious work to a rather overcooked favorite. Although the music spans the quality scale from 1-10, there is still much to enjoy in this recital that is very long on lovely tunes.

Jean Baptiste Charles Dancla was one of the last of the school of French violin playing that was started some decades earlier by Giovanni Batista Viotti. It was a school that emphasized lyricism over substance and virtuosity over depth. These twelve musical candies are rather the epitome of salon music; pretty and not particularly complicated, meant to entertain. In addition to their blatant tunefulness, there is also a didactic element at play, as the composer explores various technical challenges for the violinist in each movement. The piano alas is left to play simple accompaniments that range from languid arpeggios to jaunty boom-chucks.

Saint-Saëns’ first of two violin sonatas is his most popular work in the genre. At times rhapsodic and at others achingly lyrical, this is a work that stands easily beside similar works by Cesar Franck and Gabriel Fauré in its scope and quality. Saint-Saëns is a composer who is often passed over except for a few major popular pieces. It’s a joy to hear some chamber music from a composer whose gifts are far too underrated by today’s listeners and performers.

Guido Rimonda is a violinist with a rich amber tone and plenty of technical prowesses. He is most certainly of a romantic bent, but never goes overboard, even in the easily overwrought Dancla pieces. He performs with conviction and has a good sense of form, pace and balance. He particularly shines in the Saint-Saëns, where he delivers a performance that is at times ethereal and at others dark hued and passionate. Ms. Canziani finally gets an opportunity to show her stuff here, and she makes her way around the keyboard with ease and flair.

The program is rounded out with the ever popular Massenet Meditation, which is played lovingly and with great expression.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Elegant Telemann

Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)

Twelve Fantasies for Solo Violin, TWV 40:14-25

Fantasie No. 1 in B-flat Major [6:41]
Fantasie No. 2 in G Major [6:04]
Fantasie No. 3 in f minor [4:09]
Fantasie No. 4 in D Major [4:12]
Fantasie No. 5 in A Major [4:39]
Fantasie No. 6 in e minor [6:48]
Fantasie No. 7 in E-flat Major [7:21]
Fantasie No. 8 in E Major [4:37]
Fantasie No. 9 in b minor [5:32]
Fantasie No. 10 in D Major [4:13]
Fantasie No. 11 in F Major [4:52]
Fantasie No. 12 in a minor [4:46]

Augustin Hadelich, (violin)

Recorded at St. John Crysostom Church, New Market, Canada, 31 August to 3 September 2007.

NAXOS 8.570563 [64:52]

Georg Philipp Telemann was four years Sebastian Bach’s senior and was the Leipzig Town Council’s first choice to be cantor of the Thomaskirche, a position which eventually went to Bach as, if it is to be believed, about the third runner-up. The deal proved to be a boon to Telemann, who got a considerable raise in salary at Hamburg, and a thorn to both JSB and the good council of Leipzig, whose relationship was to be stormy throughout its duration. Telemann went on to outlive Bach by some seventeen years and his output would span at least two style periods. A master musician, Telemann was famous for his ability to play a number of instruments exceptionally well. Consequently, his music is some of the most idiomatic of any composed in his era, and seems even in its most complex and technical passages to fit perfectly within the scope of its intended instrument. One of the most prolific composers of his generation, Telemann left behind 1046 Church cantatas, more than 40 Passion settings, dozens of operas and countless works for chamber ensembles and orchestra.

The Twelve Fantasies for Violin without bass were geared toward the amateur and student market. In today’s publishing lingo, they might be dubbed as ESH works (easy, sounds hard) and they exploit the possibilities of the solo violin including double and triple stops and string crossings that imply polyphonic writing not otherwise possible on a melody instrument. Bach would exploit the solo violin’s expressive nature to the fullest in his Six Sonatas and Partitas (BWV 1001-1006), but in these works, Telemann seeks a less thorny path, one that is more easily traveled by talented players of less than professional ability.

At times tuneful and lyrical, at others jaunty and dance-like and at still others almost mournful and melancholy, these brief works run the gamut of expression. Yet, there is a serenity to all of them that makes for engaging listening. Augustin Hadelich, who in 2006 took the gold medal at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis plays with deft ease. Although he is playing on a modern steel stringed instrument, he manages to produce a light, even airy tone that is not overwrought with vibrato and romantic shellac. It takes a real master to bring out all of the grace in what to him must be fairly simple music to play, but Mr. Hadelich never condescends. Each piece is delivered with commitment.

Hadelich’s handling of the faster movements is worth particular mention. Although Telemann only hints at polyphonic textures, Mr. Hadelich connects the lines in such a way that we definitely get the illusion of more than one voice. His attention to melodic shape is most evident in the slower movements, particularly those cast in the minor mode. He sings with his instrument, breathing in all the right places and balancing tension and release to perfection. This is lyrical music making of the first order, and although the works themselves are less than completely profound, they are so well crafted as to be satisfying for player and listener alike.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fine Wine from Old Bottles

Piano Concerto in a, Op. 54 (1841-45) [28:02]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in a, Op. 16 (1868, rev. 1907) [28:33]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in g, Op. 22 (1868) [22:25]

Howard Shelley (piano and conductor)
Orchestra of Opera North

Recorded at Victoria Hall, Leeds Town Hall, England 4 and 5 July 2008.

CHANDOS CHAN 10509 [79:00]

The romantic piano concerto falls into two categories: the virtuoso showpiece, in which the orchestra is treated as a necessary evil to accompany the flashy finger work of the composer/pianist; or, the symphonic expression, perhaps best exemplified by Brahms, in which the orchestra and soloist are of equal importance in telling the musical story. The three works on this disc seem to fall into the former category, although they are not as shallow as say the concertos of Liszt and Chopin which exhibit ultra flimsy orchestrations and somewhat shallow contributions from the soloist.

Schumann’s ubiquitous concerto, composed for his virtuoso wife Clara gets a refreshing performance here from Howard Shelley, England’s no nonsense yet tastefully expressive piano master. Clarity of line, spot-on choices of tempo and just enough romantic ache to remind us that the music was composed in the 1800s are the high points of this elegant and masterful reading of a piece that can easily succumb to either overt gush or tired indifference. Shelley proves himself to be at home with both orchestra and instrument in this well balanced reading.

Grieg’s equally over-performed work is also held in the bounds of good taste here. Unquestionably influenced by Schumann, Grieg adopts most of the elder composer’s conventions by eliminating a lengthy orchestral exposition, by linking the middle and outer movements without pause and even by choosing the same key. This tuneful work can often come across as elementary and trite in the wrong hands. Not so here. Again, good choices of tempo and a lack of fussiness make this performance fresh and enjoyable.

The real treat is the Saint-Saëns. Perhaps the most lyrical of the French master’s five piano concertos, Mr. Shelley plays with a great deal of élan, proving the composer’s own adept keyboard virtuosity. Saint-Saëns is a composer whose music has a certain classical balance to it. He was quite prolific, and it would be a good thing if more of his music, particularly the chamber works made it to the stage more often. Howard Shelley is fleet of finger, finding gallant lyricism in the filigree and bringing out the substance of thought that lies only inches beneath the surface of what could be interpreted as a mere showpiece.

This is my first encounter with the Orchestra of Opera North. They prove to be a very able band indeed, providing clear and balanced accompaniment, spot on intonation and clarity of line. Quite able to shine in the passages without the soloist, they also provide a fine and stable underpinning when the pianist is to the fore.