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