January 18, 2007


Schumann: String Quartets Nos. 1-3. Fine Arts Quartet. Naxos. $8.99.

Bax: Sonata for Viola and Piano; Concert Piece for Viola and Piano; Legend for Viola and Piano; Trio in One Movement for Piano, Violin and Viola. Martin Outram, viola; Laurence Jackson, violin; Julian Rolton, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

     The works on these CDs – all but one – were written when the composers were in their 30s or younger.  Many are “learning” works, at least to some extent, and yet all show considerable mastery of form and instrumentation.  And all are somewhat outside the main set of works for which the composers are best known today.

     Schumann wrote all three of his string quartets in June and July of 1842, when he was 32.  They were part of his attempt to move beyond the piano works to which he had previously devoted himself – he wrote a piano quartet and piano quintet in the same year – and they represented Schumann’s assiduous study of older models, notably those of Haydn, Mozart and especially Beethoven.  The models show through here and there: the monothematic first movement of the second quartet, for example, echoes Haydn, while the scherzo of the first quartet is reminiscent of the music of Schumann’s friend, Mendelssohn.  But the expressiveness of the themes is clearly Schumann’s, as is the balance among the four instruments.  Careful tone blending is important in these works, which frequently show Schumann’s attentiveness to counterpoint – for instance, at the very start of the first quartet, where instruments enter one after the other in imitation.  The Fine Arts Quartet – Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Yuri Gandelsman, viola; Wolfgang Laufer, cello – plays the works with sensitivity, apparent ease and a fine sense of give and take (perhaps not surprisingly: all the players except Gandelsman have been with the group for more than 20 years).  The variations making up the second movement of the second quartet are a highlight, as the players expertly rebalance themselves for each new treatment of the theme.  Schumann’s quartets are not exactly neglected but are not heard especially often.  The Fine Arts Quartet makes a strong case for all of them.

     There is less of consequence in the works on Naxos’ new CD devoted to Arnold Bax.  But the focus on the viola makes this release especially interesting.  Bax, born in 1883, wrote his Concert Piece in 1904 and his Trio in 1906 (thus, both are works of his 20s).  His Sonata dates to 1922 (his 30s).  Only the lovely Legend, which ends with great serenity and is Bax’s last completed work for viola, was written later in life (in 1929, when Bax was 46).  All these pieces owe their genesis to famed violist Lionel Tertis, who in the early 20th century urged young British composers to write music for his often-neglected instrument.  Tertis gave the first performance of Bax’s Concert Piece; and Bax, as pianist, actually recorded his Sonata with Tertis in 1929.  The Concert Piece, Sonata and Legend all lie very well on the viola, and all give violists a chance to express far more moods than the serenity or gentle melancholy to which other composers frequently confine them.  The first movement of the Sonata has a very unusual beginning, and its scherzo is especially difficult, full of pyrotechnics usually associated with the viola’s smaller cousin, the violin.  The Sonata is the most substantial piece here, but none of these works has quite the scale and sweep of Bax’s Viola Phantasy, which he originally designed as a concerto.  Still, within the chamber-music realm, they are all effective combinations of virtuosity and reflective moods.  Martin Outram plays his 1628 Hieronymous Amati instrument with finesse, and Julian Rolton accompanies him with sensitivity and fine style.  They are joined by violinist Laurence Jackson in Bax’s early Trio, which fits the viola less well than the other works here (Bax said the part, which lies high on the instrument, could alternatively be played by a clarinet).  The virtuosity of the piano part and the prevalence of Irish folk tunes make the Trio a light and interesting conclusion to a showcase of less-often-heard works by a composer best known for his tone poems and symphonies.

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