Beethoven – Piano Sonatas 13,14, and 15 [62:18]
Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont – Piano
Resonus Classics (2014)
Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont’s new CD of Beethoven Sonatas on Resonus Classics brings a fresh approach and a superb recording to these often recorded works. The Parisian born and Brussels based French pianist has a fluent technique and produces a lovely tone, but it’s his musicality that wins here.
For the first in his Beethoven series, Dablemont has chosen three sonatas from Beethoven’s middle period, and what gems they are. Sonatas 13, 14 (Moonlight) and 15 (Pastoral) offer both the power and sensitivity that flows through all of Beethoven’s works.
Dablemont’s interpretations feature faster tempos than my favourite performances in these works, those by Freddy Kempf, Gilels and Schnabel, but they work. And, Dablemont has both the technique and musicality to bring them off. Playing his version of the famous slow movement from the Moonlight directly after Freddy Kempf’s proved a shock. Kempf is so slow (but is wonderful) and Dablemont’s positively races in comparison. Yet, Dablemont is closer to Beethoven’s marking of alla breve than Kempf. Your choice.
And, that’s the ‘problem’ with so many amazing Beethoven Sonatas on record. Choice. A serious collector will have many full sets and lots of individual recordings. I’ve recently enjoyed Angela Hewitt’s Hyperion series, the Peter Takacs set and Canadian great, Robert Silverman’s fantastic set on Orpheum Masters. Add young Dablemont’s CD to my favourites list. AK
Piano Sonata No. 13 in E flat major “Quasi una fantasia”
Op. 27, No. 1
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor “Quasi una fantasia”
(Moonlight) Op. 27, No. 2
Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major “Pastoral”
Dvořák — Symphony No. 8; Janáček – Symphonic Suite from Jenůfa [62:04]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra / Honeck
Reference Recordings FR-710SACD (2014)
I enjoyed the first Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Reference Recordings CD (Strauss). Our James Norris really liked it. The virtuosity of the orchestra and its improvement under music director Manfred Honeck is undeniable, yet, the interpretations left me somewhat cold. Here, under a warm Bohemian sun, the Pittsburgers and their man have scored a home run.
Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88 and an orchestral arrangement from Leoš Janáček’s opera Jenůfa would not seem to have much in common other than that special Czech rhythmic feeling. However different musically, they were written only six years apart and make a good pairing. And, though the opera Jenůfa is about child loss and redemption, conductor Honeck’s ‘conceptualization’ of the opera’s themes into a ‘Suite’ makes for very enjoyable listening. The pathos is there but with such wonderful and infectious rhythms, it’s hard to feel down.
Which brings us to the gloriously upbeat G Major Symphony of Dvořák (it always catches me off guard that he begins his happy symphony in G Minor). Taken from live performances, the orchestra has been scrupulously prepared by Honeck. And it would seem that he’s been hiring well for his orchestra. The new first flute, who has such an important role to play throughout, is magnificent (Lorna McGhee has guested with all the world’s great orchestras) as is the string leadership of Noah Bendix-Blagley, recently left to lead the Berliner Philharmoniker. Yes, the Pittsburgh Symphony is filled with players that good.
It is said that with Dvořák’s markings, this symphony can play itself. But, Honeck adds many musical touches and the orchestral balances are well nigh perfect. Only in the last movement do the tempos get a little extreme — when Honeck has an orchestra this good, its only natural that he wants to show off their virtuosity.
The full SACD recording is superb. Dynamic and very detailed. My only wish was there to be a little more ‘house’ sound (Heinz Hall). A small nit in an otherwise magnificent production. AK
Chopin – Piano Concertos [73:21]
Ingrid Fliter – Piano / Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Mӓrkl
Linn CKD455 (2014)
One of my very first reviews for this column (hopefully lost to posterity!) [No such luck! -Ed] was Ingrid Fliter’s lovely 2009 recording of Chopin’s Waltzes (EMI 6 983512), so the opportunity to hear artist and composer reunited was not to be passed up – especially on this wonderful pair of concertos, amongst the cream of the Romantic era. Both were completed before the young prodigy had turned 21, and they also marked the point at which Chopin turned his back on orchestral composition in favour of the solo piano works that comprise the vast majority of his oeuvre. I know that controversy surrounds the success of his orchestration, in part due to the unusual primacy of the piano’s role; but it’s an argument that the ravishing beauty of the First Concerto’s ‘Romanze’ renders moot!
Though I have several recordings of these concertos, none has ever completely satisfied me – particularly, I have never heard the aforementioned Romanze played the way I want. Thankfully, to that statement can be added the qualification “until now”. Firstly, using a chamber orchestra is both appropriate to the scoring and gives the piano a dynamic compass and expressive range that one can only believe the composer intended for it. Secondly, Fliter plays with a directness, authority and pace that cuts through the syrupy romanticism of other versions and emphasises the glorious melody and youthful passion at the heart of these works. It is, for me, a rendition that views Chopin as a successor of Mozart (to whom he was devoted), rather than the precursor of Tchaikovsky – and that is why I shall henceforth reach for it first. Linn’s sound quality is excellent; perhaps a little close and ‘loud’ for some, but undeniably dramatic, exciting and colourful. Highly recommended. AF
Pergolesi/Scarlatti/Vivaldi – Stabat Mater [2CDs - 122 mins]
Jaroussky, Lemieux etc.
Naive OP 30558 (2013 – originally 1998/2007)
Over the centuries, many composers have seen fit to set the Stabat Mater – shortened from Stabat Mater Dolorosa, approximately “mournful Mother standing” – a mediaeval Catholic hymn conveying Mary’s grief at the Crucifiction. One of these works holds a position of pre-eminence today and, indeed, has done ever since 1736, when it was completed on his deathbed by a 26-year old who would otherwise likely have lapsed into obscurity; Giovanni Pergolesi. Almost immediately hailed as a model of compositional perfection, the mystery surrounding the circumstances of its creation and many other aspects of the composer’s life lent a mystique that only fuelled the reverence in which it was held. It is thought to have been commissioned to replace a 1707 setting by Alessandro Scarlatti, with which it is appropriately coupled on this re-released 1998 recording (OP30406). Scarlatti’s finely-crafted work lacks the fresh, spontaneous feeling of Pergolesi’s luscious melodies, but is a fine companion piece.
Bundled with it is a 2007 release (OP30453) of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, plus another of his best-known sacred works, the Nisi Dominus. Though little associated today with sacred music, Vivaldi was an ordained priest, composing in a place and time that made scant distinction between church and opera house in its appetite for a glorious vocal line. While a tradition of male performance has attached (in period instrument circles, at any rate) to sacred works from this era, when only male soloists were permitted in church, the Nisi Dominus alone is here given to star countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. All three of the Stabat Maters are sung by females and, for my money, it works extremely well; the rich fullness of the contralto voice really complementing the lushness of Pergolesi and Vivaldi’s musical settings.
Combining Naive’s typically superb sound quality with wonderful performances that play to the natural drama of these works and a selection of music that belongs in every collection, this one goes straight into the “mandatory purchase” category. AF
I had no plans to revisit the Beethoven symphonies, having been so impressed by Emmanuel Krivine’s complete cycle with La Chambre Philharmonique (Naive V5258) a couple of years ago. However, having awarded a Disc of the Year nomination to Tafelmusik’s reissued set of Haydn’s Paris Symphonies (TMK 1013 CD2), this new recording demanded investigation. While most of you reading this will be familiar with the sound of these symphonies played by a full modern orchestra, the chance to hear them in a form much closer to what their creator experienced (while he still had his hearing) is less common. Though the spartan liner notes don’t address the question of authenticity, records from the premier performance of the First Symphony (staged by Beethoven himself) attest to an orchestra of 29 musicians; very similar to the 35 or so members of Tafelmusik, whose instruments also belong to that period.
While the orchestral balance and sonority is unusual, there are no real surprises otherwise; tempos are in line with the modern norm (ie. quicker than used to be the case, and slower than La Chambre Philharmonique!). The fine playing of Tafelmusik can be taken for granted and, although these are live performances, there is no hint of audience noise to betray the fact. The reduced weight to a chamber orchestra’s sound is usually compensated for by getting the microphones closer to the players, but that’s not the case here – the almost mid-hall perspective, while offering a realistically sweet sound and authentic dynamic range, does lack oomph unless played loud. For those familiar (or over-familiar) with these works, the authentic balance, sense of clarity and crisp, pungent tone of antique instruments offers them in a refreshingly new (or should that be “old”?!) perspective. AF
May 2014 Recommended Releases Update
Bedřich Smetana — String Quartet No.1 ‘From My Life’; Leoš Janáček — String Quartet No.1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ and String Quartet No.2 ‘Intimate Letters’ [71:14]
Harmonia Mundi HMC902152 (2104)
A delightful CD arrived from the superb Jerusalem String Quartet. I’ve heard them in Brahms and Schubert and they shone. Here, they give the troubled Bohemian Bedřich Smetana a right going over in his First String Quartet ‘From My Life’ (1876). The Jerusalem Quartet is solid to a man. No weak links with flawless intonation and a gusto that eludes some modern quartets. The quartet is a wonderful piece, structured beautifully, with much deference to Brahms both rhythmically and harmonically. No matter, Bohemian Brahms is still fine with me.
They combine their individual and corporate virtuosity to tackle the two Leoš Janáček Quartets. No. 1, named “Kreutzer Sonata’ (1923) inspired by the Tolstoy novel, not the Beethoven Violin Sonata and No. 2 ‘Intimate Letters’ (1928) inspired by the 700 private letters the composer wrote to Kamila Stösslová, Janáček’s ‘spiritual’ friend, 38 years his junior. And, most definitely not his long suffering wife.
Both quartets, played magnificently, define the Janáček style — unique rhythmic patterns, short passionate motifs, and seemingly endless restless energy. As in the Smetana quartet, the Jerusalem players exact their energy to match the composer’s and give what may well be definitive performances. The Bohemian provenance may be the only connection of the CD’s repertoire, but it works. From the architectural Smetana to the scattered Janáček, you will not find a better played (and recorded) quartet CD this year. Highly recommended. AK
Ligeti – Metamorphoses Nocturnes [50:20]
Aeon AECD1332 (2013)
Now recognized as one of the pre-eminent composers of the late 20th Century, a young György Ligeti had endured the post-war Soviet occupation of his native Hungary, and his earliest works were required to satisfy the censorious regime. Hence, his wildest flights of fantasy remained private, and were not revealed until he escaped to the West in 1956 – among them the First String Quartet. Comprised of a continuous sequence of short, highly-contrasted movements, it is better known by the title Ligeti gave it; Metamorphoses Nocturnes.
Perhaps more a reflection on the theme of transformation than genuinely programmatic, it is a work that has fascinated me since hearing the Casals Quartet’s recording (HMC902062). Despite the structural anarchy typical of modernist music, it was performed by the Casals with an accessibility that allowed its sheer imagination to triumph.
Named for the century’s greatest Hungarian, Bela Bartok, Quatuor Bela was formed specifically to play this music and the bleak, spartan intensity of their reading is completely convincing. Where the Casals Quartet smooth off the rough edges and angularities, Quatuor Bela hone them to razor sharpness. These same qualities are ramped up another gear for the even darker Second (and final) String Quartet, from 1968. While not music that I personally could ever take to heart, it is constantly amazing to me (as a non-musician) that it is playable at all, such is its complexity and violent contrasts. The closing Cello Sonata is a very early and more traditionally melodic work, though it was still proscribed by the Hungarian authorities.
For those with a particular interest in this music, these carefully researched and heartfelt performances will have special appeal. A word of warning, though – the title work is recorded as a single 21-minute track, so there’s no skipping straight to ‘Tempo di Valse’! Recording quality is very good, with a dry studio acoustic providing the stark clarity that this interpretation requires. AF
Locatelli – Complete Violin Concertos [5 CDs - 287 mins]
Ensemble Violini Capricciosi / Ruhadze
Brilliant Classics SCD 94469 (2013)
The High Baroque was the golden age of the virtuoso violinist, and few enjoyed greater celebrity and prestige than Pietro Locatelli. While some allowed their genius to become their downfall – Veracini springs immediately to mind – Locatelli combined a showman’s ego with a prudent business sense, which took him to Amsterdam to exploit the publishing opportunities and nascent copyright protection the city offered. That he spent his declining years in wealth and comfort was a rare feat for a musician without patronage.
The core of this five disc collection is the twelve concertos of Opus 3, published in 1733 under the title “L’Arte del violino” (The Art of the Violin). Uniquely, this publication included 24 fully written-out solo capriccios, one of which could be added to each of the fast movements to evidence the soloist’s mastery. Often rivalling the parent movement in length, and majoring on extended displays of unfeasibly rapid arpeggiation, I think it’s fair to say that – if taken in larger doses – these wear thin for all but the most dedicated student of the violin! That they took on a life of their own, though, is shown by their having directly influenced Paganini to compose his own infamous 24 Caprices, some 70 years later.
Though Opus 3’s higher-numbered concertos, particularly, feature some glorious music, the highlight of this collection for me is the two earlier, unnumbered concertos that complete it; lacking the additional cadenzas, they are relatively conventional but sumptuously musical, and previously unrecorded. The recording quality can seem lacklustre at low volume, but comes to life when wound up and reveals a very fine, natural balance. Despite the bargain price, this freshly-recorded collection features fine performances from top-flight musicians, and is a compelling offering for all Baroque enthusiasts. AF
Beck – 9 Symphonies [3 CDs – 173 mins]
La Stagione Frankfurt / Schneider
CPO 777880-2 (2013)
Franz Ignaz Beck was born two years after Joseph Haydn, and died the same year – yet their lives were vastly different. Born in Mannheim, the most advanced musical centre in Europe at the time, and a pupil of Stamitz, the young Beck rose rapidly at Court but was forced in his teens to flee Germany for Italy, the victim of an intrigue. Soon forced again to take flight, this time to Marseille, he remained in France for the rest of his life, mainly as director of the Bordeaux Grand Theatre. He enjoyed fame and prestige, became a staple at the Concerts Spirituels and cleared the tricky political hurdle of the French Revolution; not such an easy feat for a proud, stubborn man.
Most of Beck’s music has been lost, but his symphonic oeuvre is preserved in four published opus numbers from early in his career. This release includes all six symphonies from Opus 3, published in 1762, with the first three of Opus 4 from 1766 … plus a couple of much later operatic overtures which have survived. What surprises in works of this vintage is their boldness and colour, the strong contribution from the wind section and extrovert character of these sophisticated, (predominantly) 4-movement works – at a time when Haydn, often considered the father of the modern symphony, was still writing exclusively in the Baroque 3-movement idiom. Far ahead of their time, they certainly predict some of what Mozart, Boccherini and even Beethoven would ultimately achieve; yet they remain inimitably Beck in their bold dynamic swings, their restless, driving pulse and highly original melodic approach. It seems certain that scholars will, in future, grant Beck a loftier position in the pantheon of greats than he has held up to now.
The three CDs boxed together here, with original liner notes, were first released over a ten year period from 1996; the final disc, containing the Opus 4 works, is a multi-channel SACD. Its sound quality is also the worst of the bunch, with subtle dynamic compression giving it an artificial quality, plus reduced timbral bloom and top-end extension. It’s far from bad, but the two earlier discs are noticeably better; the playing of La Stagione Frankfurt’s 18-or-so period instrumentalists is superb throughout, fully up to the music’s vigorous intensity and turnkey tempo changes. A surprising and rewarding discovery, these reissued recordings are the most important contribution yet to gaining Beck the recognition he deserves. AF
Journeys: Tchaikovsky – Souvenir de Florence; Schoenberg - Verklarte Nacht [50:20]
Sony Classical (2013)
Souvenir De Florence is really the string sextet in D minor op. 70 written in 1890, revised after several performances and premiered in December 1892, less than a year before his untimely death.
It is a fine work written with all Tchaikovsky’s sense of melody , drama and poignancy and is justly considered one of his great chamber works – a shame that so much else that he wrote for the salon is rarely performed.
The Emerson’s are joined by the violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr and these two fine players give the quartet a superb richness of sound and execution that makes this performance a must if you like fine chamber music making.
The ‘Journey’ in question takes us to another supreme composition written just seven years later and marks the highpoint of Schoenberg’s romantic creativity before serialism took over his life.
Those who read my review of the Zehetmair Quartet release earlier in this post might like to compare Verklarte Nacht with the Beethoven op. 135, as the Schoenberg work was written at the time Beethoven thought his music would begin to be understood. It is a fascinating comparison.
Not wishing to digress too much, this work is more tone poem more than quartet and the Emerson players again bring a sense of drama and emotion to the piece which marks it out an outstanding performance. JN
Full review of Walton — Symphony No. 1; Violin Concerto/Tasmin Little, violin/BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner/Chandos found here.
April 2014 Recommended Releases
Vivaldi – Concertos for Two Violins [53:41]
D Sinkovsky & R Minasi - Violin / Il Pomo D’Oro
Naive OP30550 (2013)
Concertos for Orchestra [51:14]
Concerto Italiano / Alessandrini
Naive OP30554 (2013)
It has been my great pleasure to sample frequently Naive’s ongoing “Vivaldi Edition”, a project to record the massive collection of autograph manuscripts held in Turin; these are the 56th and 57th volumes. A number of remarkably fine ensembles, mainly Italian, have typically taken an eye-openingly new approach to little-known Vivaldi works, and been treated to recordings just as exceptional.
In the case of the Concertos for Orchestra – so called “ripieno” concertos, which lack the familiar soloist – the twist is that the renowned Concerto Italiano play them an instrument to a part, with a total of just seven musicians. Dating from Vivaldi’s middle and late periods, the transparency and agility of this small ensemble allow them to take these often familiar works at such an incendiary pace that even such vaunted recordings as Tafelmusik’s with Anner Bylsma (Sony SK62719), a firebrand in its day, sounds restrained by comparison! Yet this is achieved with no undue sense of haste; the string quartet-like sonority simply lends itself to this style of attack. Conversely, there are times when the weight of an orchestra is obviously missing (though fewer than you’d expect), and pushing the bass forward in the mix to provide this unbalances the sound.
When freed of the need to glorify a soloist with bravura display, Vivaldi pitches the orchestra’s two sections of violins against each other, and the resulting music is amongst his most delightful. A similar, but even more pronounced effect occurs in his concertos for two solo violins; an intricate, exquisite dialogue between the soloists, with the orchestra mostly pushed back into a supporting role. My previous experience of Dmitry Sinkovsky and his Il Pomo D’Oro ensemble was in the earlier “Per Pisendel” release (OP30538), where his luminous virtuosity delivered the finest Baroque violin playing I’ve ever heard. In this slightly less demanding material, his engaging musicality comes to the fore – with the able support of his co-soloist and a typically Italian combination of ferocious energy, charm and beguiling beauty from the 12-strong ensemble. This is simply the most gorgeous and most thrilling compilation of Vivaldi’s music that I know of, and an utterly superb recording to boot. A complete joy from first note to last! AF
Shostakovich – The Soviet Experience Vol 4 [104:28]
Cedille CDR 90000145 (2013)
In this fourth volume, the Pacifica Quartet conclude their survey of Shostakovich’s string quartets with numbers 13 to 15, plus the late Third Quartet of his countryman, Alfred Schnittke. Having awarded the previous release my Disc of the Year for 2013, expectations were high – but, though the composition of the two sets of works was not long separated in time, this recording’s mood is very different. Dark, introspective, brooding and sparse in texture, it is rare for all four instruments to play together.
The Pacifica Quartet’s supreme artistry is undiminished, but the previous disc’s ferocious contrasts and manic outbursts of energy that showcased their brilliance are largely absent in this music. The 15th (and final) Quartet dates from the year before the composer’s death and, with all six of its movements having slow tempos and titles like “Elegy” and “Funeral March”, could easily be seen as a deliberate farewell to the genre … as could its veiled references to a number of great works, including some of Shostakovich’s own; yet he still clung to the hope of writing more. As it was, his passing caused the younger generation of Russian composers to re-assess his influence – including Schnittke, whose 3rd Quartet from 1983 also celebrated the legacy of Beethoven and Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso, all in a strangely misquoted form. While clearly modernist in conception, it is more accessible than much of his earlier oeuvre.
While I find myself less enthused by this volume than the third, that is purely a personal reaction to the aesthetic of these very late works; I don’t doubt that this set, now complete, will come to be accepted as the definitive Shostakovich cycle, and its recording quality too will not soon be surpassed. Exceptionally insightful liner notes also deserve a special mention. AF
Türk – Six Keyboard Sonatas for Connoisseurs (1789) [59:43]
Grand Piano GP657 (2013)
The name of German composer Daniel Türk is still known to many piano teachers today, for the exercises he published in the late 1700s; yet, popular and feted in his own time, if his music is familiar at all to us now it is largely through the advocacy of Michael Tsalka. Of Türk’s published oeuvre of solo keyboard music, this set of six sonatas is the only one intended for performance by professional players, and is recorded for the first time. Tsalka has chosen to present them in an authentic context, using four antique keyboards from the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, representative of what Türk himself would have played.
Knowing, as we do, what turbulent emotional extremes Beethoven and, subsequently, the great Romantics were to invest in their piano sonatas, Türk can be viewed as a pioneer – emphasising as he did the expressive and emotional potential of this genre. It certainly comes as a surprise to me, then, that his favourite instrument was the clavichord; a diminutive device operating on harpsichord-like principles, with little sustain or dynamic capability, and which players inform me is considerably hard work.
The single sonata performed on it here sees the instrument emitting strange and worrying noises that suggest it may be nearing the end of its 250-year existence – though I’m sure it’s greatly accentuated by the close mic’ing! Therein, of course, lies the charm; along with the two Austrian pianos from the 1790s, both of which sound glorious for their vintage yet still issue the occasional reminder that they’re no modern Steinway, we hear the “warts ‘n all” sound that the composer heard. A recording so effortlessly natural that I never consciously noticed it is what every engineer should aim for, albeit that too many audiophiles are more impressed by overstatement than realism.
The sonatas themselves are, as their title probably suggests, more finely crafted and cerebral than flamboyant. However, those with a special interest in the development of piano music through this period will, I think, recognise the contribution that Türk made to preparing the way for Beethoven’s arrival. AF
Schubert – Symphonies 3, 4, 5
Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard
BIS – 1786
It must have been daunting for any composer living and working in Vienna during the early years of the 19th century with Beethoven striding passed your window. This may well explain why Schubert’s early symphonies never saw the light of day during his lifetime.
Even Brahms recommended that these works should only be available to musicologists and not given public performances. If Schubert lacked the vision of Beethoven he certainly had the talent of Mozart and Haydn. The great conductor Carlo Maria Guilini stated that when listening to Schubert’s 4th Symphony we should not look back to Mozart but forward to Bruckner.
The performances on this disc are terrific and make a brilliant case for the quality of Schubert’s work. These symphonies date from 1815 -1816 before he embarked on the Great C Major and his invention and sense of form are perfectly formed and coupled with sparkling melodic lines and a true sense of drama.
Thomas Dausgaard brings out the detail and freshness of these works and the playing of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra is of the finest quality.
A highly recommended release on all counts. JN
Tchaikovsky – The Tempest; Piano Concerto No. 1
Joyce Yang, piano
Odense Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Lazarev
Joyce Yang won the silver medal in the 2005 Van Cliburn Piano competition and has been building up a steady career within North America gaining excellent revues for her Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky performances.
I caught her You Tube performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Dutoit and the Suisse Romande and was impressed with her quality and assurance. So, where does this recording place her within the pantheon of great performances that are available of this work?
If, like me, you have always enjoyed the classic DG recording with Argerich or the EMI with Donohoe then be prepared for a change of outlook, because, although Yang gives a big boned performance, she manages to convey the rhapsodic elements and draws some very beautiful sounds out of the piano. I was particularly impressed with the care that both soloist and conductor take in dovetailing the piano with the orchestral accompaniment, something which is not always apparent in more aggressive performances and she does achieve near chamber music intensity in passages during the first two movements. The Finale is given with bravura and dash and overall this is a performance to put on the shelf for times when you need a little more introspection in your Tchaikovsky. Argerich would still be my first choice but Yang gave me great pleasure and she receives solid support from the Odense orchestra.
The disc is completed with a performance of The Tempest written in 1873 two years before the premier of the concerto. It does not have the immediate impact of his Romeo and Juliet but there is a substantial and vivid storm scene and overall the music is everything you get from Tchaikovsky’s musical pen. JN
Beethoven; Bruckner; Hartmann; Holliger – String Quartets
Beethoven remarked to his pupil and friend Ferdinand Ries that he didn’t expect anyone to understand his late quartets for at least seventy five years. No other composer before or since has been so bold in the vision for their music and yet it was to prove a prophetic statement. Throughout the 19th century performers and critics alike struggled to come to terms with Beethoven’s last utterances in the form and virtually his last musical statements and it is only with the benefit of time that we have come to realise how great these works really are.
The Zehetmair Quartet have attempted to put Beethoven’s vision in the context of other notable quartets written since and have produced a very intelligent two CD set comprising as the starting point Beethoven’s quartet in F op135 on the first CD coupled with Bruckner’s work which was unplayed during he lifetime and demonstrates how close he was to Beethoven if less experimental.
The Hartmann work was premiered in 1949 by the Vegh Quartet and is a densely contrapuntal work of wide emotional depth well worth discovering.
Heinz Holliger brings the genre into the 21st century with a work written for the Zehetmair Quartet dedicated to Elliot Carter who was fascinated with Holliger’s harmonic design and use of microtonal structures woven into a work with no formal time signature.
The Zehetmair Quartet gives first class performances of all four works and the recording is clear and very detailed giving a chance to hear all the harmonic development that these pieces deserve.
Beethoven wrote on the last movement of the F major quartet “Must it be? –it must be.”
And so it is - a glimpse into the future that Beethoven himself could only guess at.
A journey worth taking. JN
Haydn – Lord Nelson Mass [62:03]
Boston Baroque / Pearlman
Linn CKD426 (SACD) (2013)
To suggest that Haydn’s greatest work was written in 1798 would not be controversial, and pre-eminent Haydn scholar HC Robbins-Landon certainly agrees – but, rather than the breathtakingly ambitious oratorio ‘The Creation’, he nominates for this singular honour the Mass written while Haydn was recovering from his exhausting efforts on that preceding work. By this late stage in his career, Haydn was required only to produce a handful of Masses each year for his employer; referring to the dark cloud cast over Europe by Napoleon’s conquests, he named this one “Mass in a Time of Anxiety” but, a week before its premiere, news arrived of Nelson’s destruction of the French Navy at the Battle of the Nile, thus explaining its popular moniker. Nelson was to hear the work himself a couple of years later, during a visit to Esterhazy.
From the dramatic blare of brass and timpani in the opening movement, and the jubilant mood apparent almost throughout, there is never a doubt that that this is an exceptional work. The companion piece is one of the London Symphonies, no. 102, written four years earlier – it is, I think, the one that most closely presages what Beethoven was soon to achieve in the symphonic realm. The work’s true nickname, ‘Miracle’ – referring to a chandelier collapse at the premiere that passed without injury – has mistakenly been assigned by history to the 96th Symphony; though left unappellated here, I observe that it is becoming more common to rectify this error. The performance of both works has the sprightliness, transparency and precision of line that typically result when baroque specialists play classical-era repertoire; I also love the recording, which adds a touch of warmth, not to mention fine soundstaging, to Linn’s trademark clarity. This release has featured prominently in 2013 Disc of the Year lists, so you don’t even have to take my word for it! AF
Schubert – ‘Death & the Maiden’ + String Quintet [91:42]
Pavel Haas Quartet
Supraphon SU4110-2 (2013)
A fellow resident of Vienna, Beethoven’s music was a constant presence throughout Schubert’s life and the arc of development in his own substantial output of string quartets reflects the increasing gravitas that characterised the master’s later works. In the early 1820s, Schubert was concentrating on chamber music and what is today considered his finest string quartet, the D Minor (D810), dates from this period. It acquired the nickname ‘Death & the Maiden’ due to its quotation of excerpts from his song of that name, and the dark associations of its key – yet the poem on which the song is based viewed death as a friend, offering peace and rest, and there is no hint of morbidity. His own death was but weeks away when Schubert completed the String Quintet in C Major, a monumental work (at almost an hour long) scored for the unusual combination of string quartet plus additional cello. Interestingly, the recently-demised Beethoven had left unfinished a similar work in the same key, and evidence that mutual friends (not to mention Schubert himself) considered him to be Beethoven’s natural successor suggests a possible motive behind this work. If that were true, I think it would cause a significant revision in modern attitudes to Schubert, not to mention performance style!
The Pavel Haas Quartet give these works a beautifully nuanced performance, their youthful exuberance in the fast movements matched by the sonorous beauty of the slow. Sound quality is excellent – full, present and without edge, supported by a lovely, mildly-reverberant acoustic. The Supraphon label is associated with the golden age of audio but then seemed to drop off the radar, so I’m delighted to see it back and on top form. A compelling pairing of two of Schubert’s finest chamber works, consider this essential listening. AF
‘Grand Tour’ (Baroque Trio Sonatas) [308 mins]
Cedille CDR1002 (2013)
For some, the defining sound of the Baroque is the great oratorios of Handel or Bach’s sacred masterpieces; for others, the fiery concertos of Vivaldi or Corelli. For many, though, it is the exquisitely refined elegance of the trio sonata, produced in vast quantities right across Europe but destined not long to survive into the classical era. I was aware of the critical acclaim being heaped upon each of the individual releases comprising this boxed set – ‘An Italian Sojourn’, ‘A German Bouquet’, ‘A French Soiree’ and ‘An English Fancy’ – over the period 2007 to 2012, but somehow failed to acquire any of them.
Is it not said, though, that the last shall be first; those four discs, with their original liner notes, have been boxed together and offered at an unmissable price. The easiest way to understand the development of music throughout the Baroque era is by tracing the distinct sounds and structures endemic to these four nations; though the rich heritage of English music effectively ended with the death of Purcell, the legacy of each tradition is explored in an often unpredictable choice of programme. For a genre often thought ‘samey’, critics have invariably been struck as much by the variety inherent within each tradition as between them. This repertoire is close to the hearts of Trio Settecento (which includes well-known violinist Rachel Barton Pine), and their diligent research and preparation is as apparent as the affectionate warmth of their performances. Whether for the first-rate sound quality that Cedille routinely achieves, the thoroughness of a survey that encapsulates an entire genre of music in one collection, the irresistibly low price or the simple pleasure of generously-filled discs that delight from beginning to end, this release is eminently recommendable. That said, I’ve just heard the last (BIS 1995) of London Baroque’s similarly-formatted eight disc survey of the trio sonata, and it’s a belter – should that ever appear in a boxed set, we’ve got a serious dilemma (or is it “opportunity”?!). AF