Classical CD Reviews
Classical CD Reviews, Part 1 of 2
Published on July 1, 2004
July-August 04 – Part 1 of 2 [Part 2]
TIGRAN MANSURIAN: Monodia: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra; Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Lachrymae for Soprano Saxophone and Viola; Confessing with Faith for Viola and four Voices – Kim Kashkashian, Viola / Leonidas Kavakos, Violin / Jan Garbarek, Soprano Saxophone – Munchen Chamber Orchestra; Christoph Poppen, Conductor, with The Hilliard Ensemble – ECM New Series 1850/51 472 7842:
The breakup of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the totalitarianism that stifled so much of the music being composed in the former Soviet satellite nations has brought forth an unparalleled outpouring of new and previously unrecorded music over the last decade or so; this is especially true of the Baltic states and Armenia, where the music of Tigran Mansurian originates. ECM deserves a lot of credit for getting so much of this music recorded and into our listening rooms.
This two-disc set offers an all-star lineup, with the superb violist Kim Kashkashian (also Armenian), saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. The true highlights here are the three works that feature violist Kashkashian. Disc one contains the Viola and Violin Concertos, both accompanied by the Munchen Chamber Ensemble, deftly led by Christoph Poppen. In the Viola Concerto, Kashkashian’s instrumental tone is very aggressive, but seems to be exactly what the music calls for – she definitely has a superb mastery of the viola and is an absolute joy to listen to. The soloist in the Violin Concerto is Leonidas Kavakos, and he does a fine job with this darkly-colored music.
The second disc begins with Lachrymae, a duo with Kashkashian and Jan Garbarek. Both soloists really shine here – Garbarek, whose voicings sometimes tends to get a little out there, plays beautifully restrained – this single cut is very nearly alone worth the price of admission! The three-part Confessing with Faith follows; the Hilliard Ensemble, always in good voice, is accompanied here again by Kashkashian, and the results are mesmerizing!
The music – with its Armenian folk tradition and religious underpinnings – may be darkly mysterious and sometimes brooding, but never unpleasant. Sonically, this disc is first-class, and should not be missed. Very highly recommended!
– Tom Gibbs
BRAHMS: Piano Trios. Nicholas Angelich, Renaud Capucon, Gautier Capucon – Virgin Classics 5-456532:
At first I didn’t know what to make of this understated genteel version of Brahms’ lovely piano quartets. Having been disappointed in the late nineties with Perlman’s overwrought version, I was ready for a new interpretation. I didn’t expect this. Performers find it tempting to plunge the youthful Opus 8 into a cauldron of romantic angst, but these fellows resist. Instead they give us a rather classical rendition, one that comes deliciously close to dropping notes in certain figures, particularly in I. In II you may at first be perplexed at the sly Scherzo and wonder why it isn’t more raucous. However it fits in, as pianist Angelich refuses to overwhelm the strings like the dramatic hammerings of other recordings. In III, the Adagio could have used a bit more emotional depth, but its gradual evolution is consistent with the rest of the piece and fulfilling. Listen to the Allegro in V and see if its balance and implications strike new chords in you. The finale ends with a forceful consummation that Brahms’ may have relished. In Opus 87, the tone draws you close like a perfumed flower, not like a street musician whose performance shouts “Listen to me!” There is no gush in this piece, only solid musicianship. It is full of well-timed cadences and subtle shading, like a Ansel Adams photographic print of a western wilderness. In II, the Andante seems to reach out to touch you, but never quite reaches you. I never cared much for Opus 101. Its relentless opening always sounded a bit forced, the dotted rhythms gritty and angry. Yet this trio brings out its broadly lyrical second subject with just the right contrast. The sinuous and ghostly second movement is one of the finest in the recording. The movement is supposed to end in a whisper and it does. Tovey calls the final movement “grimly energetic,” and this trio takes it to heart. The dark minor keys and apparent cross-rhythms mark this final movement as both restless and triumphant.
– Peter Bates
SCHUMANN: 3 String Quartets, Op. 41 – Quatuor Ysaye – Aeon AECD 0418 79:03 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Recorded in 2003 at the Abbey of L’Epau by the Ysaye Quartet (estab. 1984), this is one of the most compelling chamber music discs I have audited this year, a candidate for my Best of the Year list. Schumann created his three string quartets in 1842, his so-called “song year,” where his creative imagination worked in hyperdrive, trying to establish his legitimacy as a classical composer in the Great German Tradition. Schumann took his models from both Mendelssohn and Beethoven, attempting to capture the former’s deft lightness and facility and the latter’s inventive profundity, especially in Beethoven’s use of variation techniques. Certainly Bach’s counterpoint and Haydn’s sense of proportion are no less influences. What Schumann adds of his own is an undercurrent of restless obsession, even in the scherzos, which “laugh but smile no more.”
While I am not one to play all three quartets at one sitting, each of the Op. 41 set has its own sensibility; I was drawn to the A Minor by an LP inscription by the New Music Quartet. Its scherzo is dark Mendelssohn, troubled fairies, to say the least. The Adagio comes directly from Beethoven’s Ninth. For the Andante of the F Major, Schumann takes his cue from Beethoven’s Op. 127. In both the F Major and the A Major, Schumann employs rustic, even bagpipe effects, to capture the relaxed mood of Haydn. All three quartets have a quality of chiaroscuro and emotional color that makes them idiosyncratic, a real contribution that Schumann made to a medium not second nature to him. The Ysaye ensemble has taken great pains with their readings to make the Schumann quartets as thoughtful and sonically rich as their composer intended.
TRILOGY = CHAMBER MUSIC OF DANIEL ASIA: Woodwind Quintet; String Quartet No. 2; Brass Quintet – Dorian Wind Quintet, Cypress String Quartet, American Brass Quintet – Summit Records DCD 385:
Although Daniel Asia has been recognized as a serious composer who in recent years has composed music that is “accessible,” these chamber works reveal an academic musician who reflects his teacher’s predilection for the eclectically atonal. Those teachers include Jacob Druckman, Arthur Weisberg and Gunther Schuller. That’s not to say that these works are emotionally uninteresting. In fact the one distinguishing characteristic of this music is its rapidly changing moods.
The most endearing is the Woodwind Quintet (1998), a series of six short bagatelles entitled Lively, Moderately, Fiery, Ruminative, Impetuous – darting, and Fast and mercurial. They are engaging, energetic, and playful. They were recorded at the acoustically marvelous Roundtop Festival concert hall in Texas and are played with pristine brilliance by the Dorian Wind Quintet.
The serious and difficult String Quartet No. 2 was composed in 1985 and is clearly closer to Asia’s academic roots. Within the theme and variations structure of the work lie a myriad of metric and related affective juxtapositions. The Third movement is somewhat dance-like, but the composer describes part of it as a “distorted pavane.” The last movement is a presto, but with a definite melancholy undertone. The Cypress String Quartet plays intensely but the recording, made at Skywalker Sound in California is astringent at times, reflecting the nature of the music.
The Brass Quintet of 2001 was recorded in the Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall in Aspen, Colorado in 2003. It was dedicated to the composer’s father who died in 2000. The central movement is a “elegiac and mournful in character,” and is quite emotionally dark. This mood is broken by the playful and energetic last movement. If you’re searching for a disc that explores chamber music of our time, start here.
– Robert Moon
PÄRT: pro & contra. Paavo Järvi, conductor; Truls Mørk, cello – Virgin Classics – 56302-7:
Hats off to producer Maido Maadik, who no doubt selected the compelling and wildly entertaining pieces on this disc. Culled largely from Arvo Pärt’s experimental period of the sixties, this collection features astounding forays into serialism and aleatory techniques. Who else would begin his Symphony #2 (1966) with the sounds of children’s squeak toys? Then the bad boy of the Estonian avant-garde, Pärt uses other “shocking” effects like clusters increasing in dynamics and chaos then dissolve, and calm sonorous moments assaulted with abrupt dissonance. This is not the composer most of us know, now a pious and placid figure whose work is more closely connected to the 16th century than the 20th. Pro and Contra (1966) is the most exciting piece on the disc. Its furious energy reminds me of the opening of Shostakovich’s 1959 Cello Concerto No. 1 (a piece that first-rate cellist Truls Mørk also plays). The third movement will both amuse and leave you breathless. Most uncanny is the inclusion of a socialist realist choral work from Pärt’s student days: Meie aed (Our Garden, 1959). An innocent-sounding girls choir sings of the joys of cultivating its school garden, a naïve metaphor for socialist society. Like Prokofiev’s terrified On Guard for Peace (1950) or Shostakovich’s four-square Song of the Forests (1949), it is completely tonal without a trace of irony. It provides a kick-in-the-pants contrast to the naughty works included with it. Järvi, who has recorded several Pärt discs for Virgin Classics, is stupendous.
– Peter Bates
SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Sonata, 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano – Grigory Kalinovsky, violin; Tatiana Goncharova, piano – Centaur CRC 2636:
What? Shostakovich never wrote 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano. Like the two chamber symphonies (Opus 110a and Opus 118a), which are based on String Quartets 8 and 4 respectively, these preludes are transcriptions of an earlier work. The 24 Preludes (1932-33) is a charming tapestry of introspective and dance-like piano pieces, from 42 seconds to two and a half minutes in length. They are so charming that some of them have been transcribed for orchestra (Leopold Stokowski), clarinet and orchestra, and violin and piano. In the mid-1930s, the violinist Dmitri Tziganov transcribed 19 of the Preludes. For this recording, violinist Kalinovsky commissioned composer Lera Auerbach to transcribe the remaining five (4, 7, 9, 14, and 23). That makes this the world premier of the complete violin piano transcriptions. It works. In fact, in many ways they are more engaging than the original and certainly more unsettling at times. Listen to Auerbach’s transcription of #23 and compare it to the original piano work. The addition of the violin paints a complex and compellingly eerie mood. Also on this disc is an edgy performance of Shostakovich’s only violin sonata. It leads us down arched halls of melodies and cramped antechambers of 12-tone rows. Kalinovsky makes the violin glissandos spit and fume and the piano accompaniment is wondrously grotesque, particularly in the Allegretto. This worthy disk should keep you amused for hours.
– Peter Bates
GLAZUNOV: Concert Waltz No. 1 in D, Op. 47 (trans. Blumenfeld); The Seasons–Ballet, Op. 67 (trans. Glazunov) – Per Tengstrand, piano – Pro Piano PPR223537 47:36:
The talents of pianist Per Tengstrand are totally new to me; it seems he was a Laureate winner in 1995 Long-Thibaud Competition in Paris. He has a suave, ingratiating sound, playing as he does a Hamburg Steinway gloriously captured by engineer Carl Talbot in sessions from mid-June 2002. As for the music, I have long appreciated the music of Alexander Glazunov, with its delicate balance of French-Russian impulses, its romantic innocence, and its flair for balletic sentiment, an obvious debt to Tchaikovsky. The Concert Waltz No. 1 (1883) has been an orchestral staple on disc since Frederick Stock gave it realization with the Chicago Symphony on 78 rpm. Pianist Felix Blumenfeld’s piano transcription imbues it with Lisztian gestures and often, diaphanous filigree, to which Tengstrand warms affectionately. Tengstrand “breezes,” an appropriate epithet, through the four seasons of the composer’s own piano rendering of the 1900 tableaux. The No. 10 Valse des Bluets et des Pavots allows any number of graceful lilts and cascades. I must say I find the piano colors quite evocative of the orchestral score, more power to the artist Tengstrand. But while I applaud the sheer pianistic and musical facility that allows Tengstrand to offer these world premier recordings, I cannot honestly say I would gravitate back to this recording, except to use as part of a more expansive display of the pianist’s art after he had accumulated a substantial discography.
Woodwinds galore on the next pair of CDs…
Wizards! Works! – The world series of double-reed playing – Works by POWNING, HOLIK, LHERMINIER, ALBENIZ, FASCH, SIBBING, SCHROEDER & PERKINS – Wizards double-reed quintet – Boston Records BR1052CD (Distr. by Albany):
Recording in a Catholic church in Solon Iowa (because one of the group members is a professor of oboe at The University of Iowa), this ensemble was founded over a decade ago and consists of two oboists – one doubling on oboe d’amore, an English horn, and two bassoons. It’s sort of like some saxophone quintets but instruments with a different sort of reed and sound. Woodwind lovers will wig out over this one! Plenty of nice reedy sounds in abundance here. the opening Divertimento by Graham Powning was written especially for the ensemble. Twilight is a transcription of an Albeniz piano piece. Sibbing’s Four Western Songs are transcriptions of familiar songs such as Big Rock Candy Mountain and great fun. The 70-minute program closes out with another work written just for them, Suite for Wizards! by Tedrow Perkins. The composer writes that the piece uses all elements of popular music – a consistent beat, tonal harmonies and four-square phrasing. The first of the four movements illustrates how well double reeds can mimic the sounds of the Middle East, and Down n’ Nerdy attempts some cool jazz. The closing movement mixes it up with some tunes associated with thing magical to fit in with the Wizards’ name.
Forget Me Nots = CASTEREDE: Fanfare for Lafayette; MARTINU: Concertino for Cello; AURIC: Divertimento; HENK BADINGS: Concerto for Bassoon, Contrabassoon and Winds; WILLEM VAN OTTERLOO: Symphonietta for Woodwinds – DePaul Wind Ensemble/Donald DeRoche – Albany Records TROY628:
The sense behind the CD’s title is that much of the music associated with wind bands has been military or ceremonial in nature and the more abstract chamber music for winds has been often ignored. This is a fine collection that points up the variety of works — often by well-known composers – for the rich reedy/brassy sounds of a band sans the string section. The cello isn’t often paired up with percussion but with the wind band as intermediary, Martinu’s concerto makes perfect sense. The single-movement work doesn’t get into the composer’s sometimes jazzy bag but has plenty of mood changes and drama. Badings was a rather experimental composer interested in alternate tonal systems; his combination of both standard and contrabassoon as the solo instruments shows his quirky thinking. Although subtitled “In Memorium Paul Hindemith,” the single-movement piece is more colorfully orchestrated than much of Hindemith. Otterloo was a well-known Dutch composer and conductor. His Symphonietta is a true little symphony in four movements in a most accessible post-Romantic style – perfect for winding up this superb program from the wind players at Chicago’s DePaul University.
– John Sunier
We wind up this part with a pair of more experimental efforts herewith…
Black Earth = FAZIL SAY: Black Earth; Sonata for Violin and piano; Concerto Silk Road; Silence of Anatolia; Obstinacy; Paganini Variations; Dervish in Manhattan – Say, piano/Laurent Korcia, violin/Kudsi Erguner Quartet/Gulbenkian Chamber Orch./Muhai Tang (in Silk Road); National Orchestra of France/Eliahu Inbal (in Silence & Obstinacy) – Naïve V4954:
Turkish pianist-composer Say is only 34 and has performed both classical and jazz around the world, including Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the Montreux Jazz Festival. His first recording was a Mozart disc and his second performances with the New York Philharmonic of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm Variations and Rhapsody in Blue. He also leads a “world jazz” quartet with Turkish ney virtuoso Erguner, heard on this CD. Black Earth and the Paganini Variations are solo piano works. The first is a very jazzy piece inspired by a Turkish popular song and imitating the sound of the traditional instrument the saz. The first of the pieces for piano and orchestra, Silence, is very similar in feeling and incorporates many percussion instruments. The four movements of the Silk Road concerto, describing those exotic caravans, are linked by loud strikes on a large Chinese tam tam. Dervish in Manhattan contrasts Sufi music with swing jazz – pretty wild! This is adventurous stuff but not hard on the ears. Say is just updating a bit what Mozart and others did in the 18th century in mixing exotic Turkish music with Western music!
MICHAEL GORDON: Light Is Calling – Todd Reynolds, violin/Mark Stewart, guitar/Michael Gordon, keyboards/others – Nonesuch 79801-2 (Enhanced CD):
Gordon is the creator of the score for the difficult-to-describe film Decasia, which we reviewed in our video section back in March. But there is no mention on the CD of the film at all; instead it refers to a Bill Morrison film titled Light Is Calling. Both deal with clips of old nitrate B&W film which is slowly decomposing in various artistic ways. It appears to be the same images on the enhanced video so perhaps there was a change of heart in what to call the film. Usually I’ve found the Enhanced features on most CDs not worth the bother, but in this case they were in some ways more interesting than the DVD because they moved more slowly and you could appreciate the fantastic images changing before your eyes like a dream. The seven-minute title track of this CD is just one of each selections by Gordon, who is a sort of new minimalist of NYC’s Bang on a Can school. Many feature two or three string instruments in long overlapping drones. The final tracks adds a bit more instrumental interest with guitar, banjo and mandolin joining three violins. All of this sounds almost delicate compared to the massive onslaught of the Decasia soundtrack.
– John Sunier