August 06, 2009


Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4; Scherzo in G Minor. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Douglas Bostock. NCA. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Mendelssohn: String Quartets (complete). Gewandhaus-Quartett (Frank-Michael Erben and Conrad Suske, violins; Olaf Hallmann, viola; Jürnjakob Timm, cello); Volker Metz, viola (in Op. 44, No. 1). NCA. $69.99 (4 CDs).

     The mutual support and admiration of Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn is no secret. Schuman brought the manuscript of his Symphony No. 1 (“Spring”) to Mendelssohn for a critique, and made changes in the work on the basis of Mendelssohn’s remarks; Mendelssohn then conducted the work’s first performance. Schumann, an adept music critic as well as a composer, helped bring Mendelssohn’s String Quartets, Op. 44, Nos. 2 and 3, instant success with a review offering his fellow composer “the highest accolade” and saying the works “occupied as beautiful a human sphere as we have come to expect from him as an artist and human being.” And these are but two of the many elements of the composers’ relationship. Small wonder, then, that the music of these two contemporaries, despite their very distinctive styles, often shows signs of cross-pollination, especially in terms of Mendelssohn’s influence on Schumann’s harmonies and orchestration.

     The orchestration element is important to the new set of Schumann symphonies on the NCA (New Classical Adventure) label, because these recordings, made in 2002, were the first to use the new Brietkopf & Härtel critical edition of the works. Most of the performances in this Urtext (original text) version will not sound significantly different to listeners already familiar with Schumann’s symphonies, except in one particular: Schumann’s orchestra was only about half the size of a modern symphony orchestra and had far fewer strings. As a result, the winds and brass of the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra really stand out, not because Douglas Bostock is overbalancing, say, the Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”) to emphasize them, but because they are naturally a more prominent part of the work when they are up against fewer strings. All of Bostock’s performances are strong: he nicely captures the dancelike lilt that pervades Symphony No. 1, the classical balance of No. 2 (whose troublesome first movement sounds both more delicate and more propulsive than usual here), the juxtaposition of seriousness and folklike tunes in No. 3, and the carefully integrated forward flow of No. 4. Bostock, like most conductors, uses Schumann’s revised version of No. 4, which is often criticized for being heavy-handed and even overbearing in its orchestral doublings – but here, thanks to the restoration of the original orchestral size, comes across more as emphatic than as overdone. These are very fine, poised performances that capture Schumann’s symphonic spirit quite effectively, and even show hints of Mendelssohnian lightness in some passages (such as the scherzo of No. 2). The one irritation of the set is the near-absence of pauses at the ends of symphonies – instead of a reasonable 10 seconds or so after a finale and before the start of the next work, NCA includes only about two seconds. This is very disconcerting if you play a CD straight through. On the plus side, the two-CD set includes a small bonus: a Scherzo in G Minor that is the only surviving movement of one of Schumann’s early, incomplete attempts at a symphony. The orchestration is a reconstruction, and the movement is pleasant but rather characterless; however, it is a nice additional element to have.

     There are “additional elements” galore in NCA’s set of all Mendelssohn’s string quartets, which not only includes the early Op. 12 (in E-flat) and Op. 13 (in A minor), the famous three of Op. 44 (in D, E minor and E-flat), and the strange, dark and exceedingly emotional Op. 80 (F minor), but also the composer’s earliest quartet (in E-flat, without opus number) and a collection of four unconnected quartet movements (the first two from 1847, the third from 1843 and the fourth from 1827). The Gewandhaus-Quartett, which consists of leaders of Mendelssohn’s own Gewandhaus Orchestra and has existed under the same name for 200 years, knows the ins and outs of this music viscerally and plays it beautifully. The earliest recording, of Op. 44, No. 1, dates to 2000 and was made with violist Volker Metz; the other recordings were made from 2006 to 2008 and include violist Olaf Hallmann. The playing is in every case exemplary: these musicians offer a seamlessly integrated approach to the music, their instruments blending beautifully and their ensemble playing so smooth that it seems intuitive rather than rehearsed. Contrapuntal sections are clearly delineated (for example, in the scherzo of Op. 44, No. 3, which includes a fugue and double fugato); the famed Mendelssohnian lightness is as fleet as it can possibly be (for instance, in the 1847 scherzo from the Four Pieces for String Quartet); and the influence of earlier composers on Mendelssohn is brought out with subtlety and careful attention to detail (for example, in Op. 13, which reflects Beethoven’s Op. 95 and Op. 132 quartets). The Gewandhaus-Quartett brings a particularly high degree of intensity to two of the minor-key quartets: the aforementioned Op. 13, which tends to be overshadowed by the more overtly appealing Op. 12 (actually composed two years later, despite its lower opus number); and Op. 80, one of the most intense cries of despair in all chamber music, written after Mendelssohn’s beloved sister Fanny died suddenly and featuring all four movements in the same dismal F minor. It is hard to think of comparisons to this quartet’s intensity – Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 (“La Passione”) is in the same key, and three of its four movements are in F minor; and many years after Mendelssohn, Mahler, employing larger forces with chamber-music delicacy, brought similar intensity to his Symphony No. 6 in A minor. But in truth, comparisons are inapt: Mendelssohn’s Op. 80 is unique in its anguish and unique among Mendelssohn’s chamber works; indeed, it does not sound “Mendelssohnian” at all. What is remarkable about the Gewandhaus-Quartett’s performance of this and the rest of the quartets here is the players’ underlying understanding of the composer’s development. Mendelssohn is sometimes critiqued as not having progressed significantly from his outstanding teenage compositions to his mature ones, but this recording gives the lie to that canard. The early E-flat quartet clearly shows the influence of Haydn and Mozart and attentiveness to classical compositional models; by the Op. 44 quartets, Mendelssohn’s grace and his stretching of traditional forms are quite evident; and in Op. 80, in addition to the unending outpouring of grief, the formal structure itself moves in entirely new directions. The quartets are not presented on these CDs in order of composition, but a listener who takes the time to hear them in that order will be rewarded with new comprehension of just how much Mendelssohn’s works changed over time – and will also gain the reward of hearing some truly outstanding and perceptive readings of everything he wrote in string-quartet form.

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