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Friday, May 29, 2009

Stunning Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major, K. 207 [20:07]

Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216 [22:29]

Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major for violin, viola and orchestra, K. 364 [29:56]

Renaud Capuçon (violin)

Antoine Tamesitt (viola)

Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Louis Langrée

Recorded 17-20 September 2007 at the Perth Concert Hall, Scotland


VIRGIN CLASSICS 502112 [72:56]

Although Mozart was himself a fine violinist, his five violin concertos, dashed off in a record eight month span in 1775, were most likely written for Antonio Brunetti, a virtuoso in the court orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Given that Mozart detested both men; it is no wonder that he never composed another violin concerto thereafter. They are of course perfectly crafted and tuneful and even poignant in the slow movements, but they do not hold a candle to the magnificent body of concertos for the piano that Mozart composed throughout his life for his own able use.

The Sinfonia Concertante, a form that Mozart discovered during his 1777 visit to Mannheim is quite the horse of a different color. Mozart composed three such works (if you count the Concerto for Flute and Harp which was written for a father-daughter pair of wealthy patrons). The example for violin and viola is without question one of his finest works, a masterpiece that stands with the late symphonies and piano concertos and the stunning Clarinet Quintet in its utter perfection of construction and its magnificent exploitation of the coloristic possibilities of the two solo instruments.

Virgin Classics continue to capitalize on the remarkable talents of the Brothers Capuçon whose remarkable musicianship has yet to fail in some two dozen recordings thus far. Violinist Renaud is featured here in these fine performances of the first and third violin concerti. Capuçon is noteworthy for being unafraid to be original. His tone, while always luminous and full throated, is not generically sweet like we so often hear on cookie cutter recordings of the standard repertoire. Indeed he is not afraid to risk a little aggression from time to time, and that tendency makes these performances of rather standard-fare concertos most refreshing.

It is however in the Sinfornia Concertante¸ joined by an artistic and emotional equal in the person of Antoine Tamesitt that the music springs to life. Like in the recent recording with brother Gautier of the Brahms Double Concerto (Virgin Classics 95147 see my review), the performers have a unity of purpose that is striking. Each musical gesture is of one accord, as best noted by some stunning octave work. The middle movement is as gorgeous as Michelangelo’s David, marked by breathtaking phrasing and a seamless legato. Round it all off with a joyous presto that brings you to the edge of your chair and you have one of the outstanding recordings of the year.

Hats off to youth and a brilliant new generation of performers. Classical music is a dying art form? Mmmm, I don’t think so.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On A Change of Life

Time is the most valuable thing there is. Sadly, we do not own it. It is lent to us by a power greater that us, and it can be taken from us by the most petty and ruthless beings known on earth. Therefore to waste it on worthless pursuits is amongst the greatest of sins. I propose that the use of time be our most selfish expenditure, a currency to be spent only on that which is fulfilling to us and on efforts to elevate others to a position of being able to do the same.

Material goods are the physical manifestations of that which we lack in emotional and spiritual health. They are not biodegradable and they clutter our mental landscape. Use only what you need. Collect only what is uplifting to your spirit. Treasure the ethereal over the tangible. Eat only enough to nourish your body. Share your excess or give it away. Make use of that which has already been used; don't be ashamed to display something that was purchased second hand. Invite others to use those things which you may have but they cannot afford. Use your money more to supply the needs of the downtrodden rather than to stoke the furnace of your own greed.




Be willing to change your mind. Make an effort to change the minds of others.

Promote music and poetry. Write, even if you think your ideas are too small and your syntax is too weak. Open your ears to new sounds . Find what music there is in silence. Look inside chaos and listen inside noise to find a hidden singular beauty.

Inasmuch as your responsibilities to your loved ones allow, live first for yourself. Do not find yourself on the right-hand side of old age having regretted that you failed to take a risk, that you passed up a chance for adventure and enlightenment.

Try a new food every day.

And most importantly, never, ever, be afraid to say no.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Less than Stellar Beethoven

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Violin Sonata No. 9 in A¸ Op. 47 “Kreutzer” [40:03]

Violin Sonata No. 5 in F, Op. 24 “Spring” [24:09]

Kalina Macuta (violin)

Daniel Blanch (piano)

Recorded 12-13 August 2008 in Barcelona. Specific venue is not listed. Live concert recording.


Kalina Macuta and Daniel Blanch serve up a concert performance of Beethoven’s two most popular and in turn demanding sonatas for violin and piano. The “Kreutzer” dedicated as a second choice to the French violinist and teacher Rodolphe Kreutzer, is one of the most involved and taxing of Beethoven’s ten such compositions. The “Spring” so named for its lyrical first movement and its sprightly but scant scherzo is arguably the most popular thanks in part to its abundance of pretty tunes. While such a pairing has the potential for a most satisfying recital, there is also the danger that less than stellar performances will grate on the ear. Alas, that is what is on offer in this release from Columna Classics.

Thigs get off to a pretty bad start from the first bar. Ms. Macuta’s fairly chilly tone is not helped by a very dry and boxy acoustic. The Kreutzer opens with an unusually long and complex movement, beginning with a slow unaccompanied solo that sets a serious mood for the rest of the work. Ms. Macuta stomps through the music will precious little finesse. At times she growls on the lower strings producing a tone that barely resembles pitch. In her upper register, intonation problems mar the sound, and often there seems to be no connection between her and her collaborator. They are noticeably out of sync on more than one occasion.

The theme and variations gets better treatment, but one wants a good deal more emotional commitment (subjective as such a comment may be) than comes to the fore. It is as if both musicians are breathing a sigh of relief that this slower music is easier to keep together. The finale is more accurate but no more beautiful to listen to with more grunting sounds produced from a harsh digging at the strings in the lower registers.

The “Spring” comes off sweeter, but there are so many exemplary performances from which to choose of this music, (try Pinchas Zukerman and Mark Neikrug for the Spring on RCA667888 or Vadim Repin and Martha Argerich in the Kreutzer on DG966302) that this release begs the question, “Why bother?” There is just not enough rewarding music making here to justify the outlay of cash. Add to the mix annoying and unnecessary applause at the end of each work and the project is pretty much dead in the water.

Side note: for a most evocative performance of the first movement of the Kreutzer, visit British violinist Jack Liebeck’s website at He and Katya Apekisheva serve up a brilliant performance in a 2002 film directed Tim Meara, based on the Tolstoy story “Kreutzer Sonata.”

Monday, May 04, 2009

Some Fine Prokofiev

Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75 [32:07]

Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat, Op. 83 [19:20]

Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 [ 22:52]

Ayako Uehara (piano)

Recorded 11-13 October, 2007 in Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London.

EMI 5 17852 2 [74:37]

Much has been said about Prokofiev’s rebellious spirit and his overused monkier of enfant terrible has lost any significant meaning. Of course, by Soviet standards, he was a maverick indeed, not to mention someone seemingly fearless in taking risks. He composed some pretty dissonant stuff during a period when Stalin’s henchmen would haul subversive artists off in the middle of the night.

Prokofiev composed Romeo and Juliet in 1935-6. The piano transcriptions are his own, certainly meant for his own use. Anyone familiar with the orchestral score (of which Solti’s recording on Decca is superb as is Dutoit’s) will immediately appreciate the brilliant condensation of his powerful masterpiece into the sonic confines of the piano. More impressive is how idomatic the keyboard writing is, and how Ayako Uehara is able to bring out the subtle drama of the score with such finesse. This was a work that made its Leningrad producers nervous. The ballet was no fairy tail filled with dancing swans. The characters were very real, and Prokofiev finds their psychological complexities in this most descriptive music. Nothing of the pathos is lost in the transcription for piano, and Ms. Uehara explores the characters she portrays with great depth and understanding. This is no mere virtuoso display, but a welcome exploration of feelings and emotins.

The piano sonata of 1942 is a portrayal of the war time suffering and anxiety felt by all Russians. The work went on to win a Stalin Prize, which given its sometimes harsh dissonances and its overtly angular rhythms, comes a somewhat of a surprise perhaps. The music music have resonated with the party brass. Again, Ms. Uehara shows her abilty to bring out myriad colors and shadings. When called for, her performance is a technical tour de force. And yet, there is a lyrical beauty to her work, particularly in the second movement in which Prokofiev turns off his anger for a few minutes of inward reflection. Ms. Uehara is careful to choose a brisk but playable tempo in the finale, allowing Prokofiev’s alluring melodies to come out over the din of octave clatter.

The Visions Fugitives take their name from a poem by Konstantine Balmont. Brief and often wistful, these little episodes seldom last more than a minute. And yet they are diverse in mood. Prokofiev always had a gift for melody, and these little gems condense that ability in to a potent concentrate.

Ms. Uehara chooses a Yamaha instrument on which to perform, which is a bit unusual for big label commecial recordings. These pianos tend to be far more bright in the treble and thundery in the bass than do Steinways or Bösendorfers, a trait that can get in the way of sonic beauty, especially in aggressive music like much of what is presented here. To her credit, Ms. Uehara tames the trebly beast and brings out a wide array of tonal color. Here is a fine artist at work. One who has spent some time thinking through more than just the technical demands of them music. She has much to offer, and will hopefully offer us much more and soon.