September 11, 2008

(+++) CHAMBER MUSIC MARCHES ON

Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A minor. Yefim Bronfman, piano; Gil Shaham, violin; Truls Mørk, cello. Canary Classics. $12.99.

Bartók: First Rhapsody; Liszt: Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth; David Popper: Mazurka; Serenade; Kodály: Adagio; Dohnányi: Ruralia Hungarica; Sonata in B flat minor; Rózsa: Toccata capricciosa. Mark Kosower, cello; Jee-Won Oh, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Ralph Evans: String Quartet No. 1 (1995); Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 2, “Company” (1983); George Antheil: String Quartet No. 3 (1948); Bernard Herrmann: Echoes for String Quartet (1965). Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Yuri Gandelsman, viola; Wolfgang Laufer, cello). Naxos. $8.99.

     The wide selection of chamber works on these three CDs barely scratches the surface of small-ensemble music, some well-known and some much less known, now becoming available in recorded form. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio is, if anything, too well known, often being used as a recital piece by up-and-coming young musicians who do not yet have the maturity to plumb its considerable emotional depths. Perhaps because the piece is so often performed, the standards for a professional recording are quite high – and on that basis, the new one by Yefim Bronfman, Gil Shaham and Truls Mørk is not quite top-of-the-line. It is not that the performers are in any way incapable of handling the work’s demands – it is more a matter of their giving the piece short shrift, presenting a rather matter-of-fact reading that gets the notes right but not always the spirit. The ensemble balance is a bit off, too: this work is piano-heavy, and has often been criticized on that basis (although Tchaikovsky wrote it that way deliberately, in tribute to pianist Nicolai Rubinstein after Rubinstein’s death). But Bronfman takes his prominent role too seriously, especially in the louder passages, when he completely overshadows the strings and often seems to be hammering the keyboard. Shaham plays with sensitivity – Canary Classics is his CD label, and he presumably pays close attention to how he comes across – and Mørk offers warmth and solidity but is generally relegated to the far background. Individual parts of the Trio are quite effective – the fugal eighth variation in the second movement, for example – but the overall performance falls a little short. And the CD itself is also a little short: only the 47-minute Trio appears on it.

     The CD by Mark Kosower and Jee-Won Oh offers far more music – it runs 74 minutes – but not a great deal of depth. Entitled “Hungarian Music for Cello and Piano,” it includes a single substantial work: Dohnányi’s Sonata in B flat minor, whose sweeping Romanticism is parallel to that of Tchaikovsky (and whose concluding movement, like that of Tchaikovsky’s Trio, is a theme and variations). Kosower and Oh play this piece with grandeur and sweep; it would have been nice to have other music here worthy of their expressive talents. But most of the remaining works are surface-level. The two by David Popper are salon pieces by a famed 19th-century cello virtuoso; Liszt’s study of the Nonnenwerth Cloisters is moody, effective and brief; and several pieces draw on folk songs and are written in lighter style. The Rózsa piece, placed last on the CD as an encore after the Dohnányi Sonata, is a fine display work for solo cello; and indeed, all the pieces here have their charms. But only the Dohnányi Sonata has real substance.

     The four 20th-century quartets played by the Fine Arts Quartet show some of the very different directions in which chamber music moved in the last century. All but the Glass are extended works, and all are more tuneful than listeners might expect from music of this era; but in other ways the four are quite different. The Glass, whose four movements zip by in less than nine minutes, derives from a theatrical performance of a Samuel Beckett work, “Company” (hence the quartet’s subtitle). The Evans work is lively and tuneful, and not surprisingly gets a top-notch performance from Evans’ ensemble. The quartet by Herrmann – best known for his film scores – is in a single movement whose 10 sections are skillfully linked in an understated way. And the Antheil is fun – it is the composer’s last quartet and has the sound of folk music, although the tunes are filtered in a manner quite different from that of the music of Bartók and Kodály on the CD of Hungarian works. In fact, the Fine Arts Quartet’s CD and the one by Kosower and Oh, played one after the other, offer some real insight into the different ways Hungarian and American composers have handled chamber music – even music that is not necessarily of the deepest seriousness.

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