December 31, 2008


Elliott Carter: 100th Anniversary Release. New Music Concerts Ensemble conducted by Robert Aitken. Naxos. $8.99 (CD+DVD).

Bartók: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano; Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Ahmed Adnan Saygun: Suite, op. 3; Sonata, op. 20. Tim Vogler, violin; Jascha Nemtsov, piano. Profil. $16.99.

Elgar: Violin Concerto. Gil Shaham, violin; Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Zinman. Canary Classics. $16.99.

     Personal elements involving the composers, the performers or both abound in these new releases of music from the 20th and 21st centuries. The Elliott Carter release, which marks the composer’s 100th birthday, provides a fascinating overview of 10 of his short pieces – plus a reminder of just how long Carter has been a huge force in American music: One of the works, from 2001, is called Figment No. 2 (Remembering Mr. Ives), and Carter did indeed know Charles Ives, whose “Concord” Sonata and Hallowe’en this work for solo cello recalls. There is also Figment No. 1 (1994), another work for solo cello – Carter’s first, written when the composer was a mere 86. The two longest works on the CD are Mosaics (2005), for solo harp with seven instruments, and it too has an Ives connection, being inspired by a harpist who was involved in both Ives’ life and Carter’s in the 1920 and 1930s; and Dialogues (2004), an attractive one-movement work for piano and orchestra. The remaining pieces here are Scrivo In Vento (1991), for solo flute; GRA (1993), for solo clarinet (the title is the word “play” in Polish); Enchanted Preludes (1988) for flute and cello; Steep Steps (2001), an unusual work for solo bass clarinet; and Riconoscenza (1984) and Rhapsodic Musings (1999), both for solo violin. Carter’s skill in writing for individual instruments and small groups is evident throughout this attractive, well-performed CD – and the included DVD is a nice bonus, presenting a 22-minute documentary from 2006 in which the composer talks with conductor Robert Aitken, plus excerpts from some of the works presented on the CD. The whole package provides a strong feeling of personal connection between Carter and listeners/viewers, and provokes renewed admiration for a composer who is venerable in years but clearly still agile of mind and exploratory in creating new music.

     The new music created by Béla Bartók and the less-known Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun was personal in a different way, as was their relationship. Both men were dedicated to studying their nations’ folk music and developing works based on it. In collecting folk tunes, Bartók had decided that the music of Anatolia (which includes most of modern Turkey) had Arabian-Persian roots. Not so, said Saygun in a letter to Bartók – and the communication so intrigued the Hungarian composer that he went to Istanbul and spent three months with Saygun, studying the music of the region and collecting folk songs. The fascinating new CD of Bartók’s and Saygun’s music shows how both composers applied their findings from the folk realm when writing chamber music for concert performance. Bartók’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (1922) includes Hungarian peasant music, while his Rhapsody No. 1 (1928) focuses more on Gypsy tunes. Both pieces incorporate their folk elements and go beyond them to become fully developed chamber works. Saygun’s music sounds less familiar but is no less conscientiously attentive to its folk roots. His Sonata of 1941 (which gets its first recording here) and Suite of 1956 are both four-movement works, the former more closely adhering to a “Bartókian” model by subsuming folk elements within modern classical compositional techniques, the latter relying more heavily on the folk music itself for some very effective dance-like writing. Tim Vogler and Jascha Nemtsov play all the works idiomatically and with spirit, their personal interest in this music coming across in strong performances that shape the works well while never losing sight of their folkloric underpinnings.

     There are also personal elements in both the composition and the performance in Gil Shaham’s new CD of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, but here they do not meld quite so happily. The lengthy and technically demanding concerto, which dates to 1910, is filled with longing and deep emotion, and is built entirely from a six-note B minor phrase that first appears in the orchestra as the work begins. This can be a deeply moving piece, but Shaham seems unwilling to give it its full emotional due, with the result that there is something of a mismatch between him and David Zinman, who leads the Chicago Symphony with strength and intensity. Canary Classics is Shaham’s own label, so of course he can release whatever he likes on it, but this is a case in which it might have helped to have a producer willing to tell the violinist that, for all his technical skill, he dilutes the potential emotional impact of the music. The producer might have added that it would have been nice to put something additional on the CD: the concerto is alone here, resulting in a 48-minute disc that will be attractive only to listeners who are determined to have Shaham’s version of the concerto, whatever its shortcomings may be. Thanks to Zinman’s sensitivity and a certain amount of eloquence in Shaham’s playing, the CD gets a (+++) rating, but the concerto here is not as effective as it can be, and the disc, despite some undeniable merits, is certainly no bargain.

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