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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?