October 01, 2009


Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Symphony No. 5, “Reformation.” Louis Lortie, piano and conducting Orchestre Symphonique de Québec. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Mendelssohn: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 5; Capriccio in E minor; Fugue in E flat major. New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello). Naxos. $8.99.

Spohr: Double Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. Forde Ensemble. Naxos. $8.99.

Schubert: Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Volume 1. Julia Fischer, violin; Martin Helmchen, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     Canadian pianist Louis Lortie shows himself to be a skilled interpreter of Mendelssohn – both at the keyboard and on the podium – on a new CD with an interestingly varied program. The pairing of Mendelssohn’s two mature piano concertos (from 1831 and 1837, respectively) is nothing new, but adding the “Reformation” symphony gives this disc unexpected depth. The symphony, begun in 1829 with the intention of having it played in 1830 for the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Augsburg Confession, was not actually heard until 1832 – and was so controversial (because of Mendelssohn’s family’s conversion from Judaism to Protestantism) that Mendelssohn came to hate it. Yet the work has remarkable richness and sobriety, as well as an exuberant finale based on the chorale Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott. When played with warmth and lyrical sensitivity, on the one hand, and with a light touch and lively tempos, on the other – as the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec performs it – the symphony is wonderfully effective. So, in Lortie’s hands, are the concertos. The more outgoing No. 1 sparkles in this bright, fast-paced reading, while the seriousness of No. 2 (especially its first movement) gets its full due here. All this music is familiar, but not in this combination, and Lortie makes a strong case for everything – including his own skill in the dual pianist/conductor role.

     The New Zealand String Quartet also continues to show warmth and skill aplenty in its second volume of Mendelssohn’s String Quartets. The standout here is Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13, a Beethoven-influenced work (drawing on his Op. 95 and Op. 132 quartets) that nevertheless shows Mendelssohn developing his own voice in this medium. The fluidity of the playing, and the ease with which each player hands off material to the next, give the performance fine flow and a strong sense of thematic as well as instrumental unity. In Quartet No. 5 in E flat, Op. 44, No. 3, the scherzo’s fugue and double fugato are well handled, and the energetic finale comes across particularly well. Accompanying the quartets are two movements from a set of four published posthumously as Mendelssohn’s Op. 81: a Capriccio from 1843 and a Fugue from 1827. They are sometimes played as the third and fourth movements of a posthumous quartet, although in fact the work does not hang together particularly well in that form. Here, the New Zealand String Quartet treats them as individual pieces, focusing on the grace and lightness of the Capriccio and the rather staid formality of the Fugue. The top-notch ensemble work on this CD is what makes these performances stand out.

     An equally strong sense of ensemble is an absolute necessity for performing Louis Spohr’s four Double Quartets, the first two of which the Forde Ensemble handles with aplomb. These Spohr works are unique in chamber-music literature: the eight players are treated not as a small string ensemble but as two independent but interconnected groups of four. Thus, the ensemble breaks down into Quartet I (violinists Janice Graham and Helena Wood, violist Andriy Viytovych and cellist Caroline Dale) and Quartet II (violinists Nicole Wilson and Alison Dodds, violist Alexander Zemtsov and cellist Julia Graham). The Double Quartets – No. 1 from 1823 and No. 2 from 1827 – require players to interact both within their respective four-member groups and as members of a larger one. For example, the first work opens with a unison for all eight instruments; then the ensemble splits into two quartets, which enter one bar apart. Spohr was a skilled quartet composer – he wrote 36 regular string quartets in addition to the four double ones – and does a fine job exploiting the sonorities of individual instruments in addition to playing the two quartets against each other. What is less than distinctive, though, especially in the first double quartet, is the musical material itself. The first work pays considerable homage to Mozart, whom Spohr greatly admired and during whose lifetime Spohr was born (in 1784). This double quartet not only follows classical form but also invokes compositional techniques of both Mozart and Haydn, the result being a sonically very pleasing work but one that breaks no new musical ground. The second double quartet is more interesting in this regard. Its second movement, marked Menuetto, is more creative – with its strong contrast between the main section and the Trio – than the corresponding movement of the first double quartet, which is marked Scherzo. The second double quartet’s slow movement also has more heft than the earlier work offers, and the finale is particularly tuneful and catchy. Both these double quartets are in the final analysis of more interest for their form than for their substance, but the Forde Ensemble certainly makes a very good case for them, and this CD provides a fine opportunity to enjoy some little-known and very engaging chamber music. Hopefully a Naxos CD of the Forde Ensemble playing Spohr’s other double quartets is forthcoming.

     Another good case for not-quite-first-class music is made by Julia Fischer and Martin Helmchen in the first volume of a planned two-disc set of all of Schubert’s works for violin and piano. The pieces here are melodiously lyrical, frequently virtuosic and occasionally harmonically adventurous – yet they have understandably been overshadowed by Schubert’s more-innovative accomplishments in other forms, and also by the violin-and-piano sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven. Fischer and Helmchen do not try to make this music larger or more significant than it is, playing it with straightforward beauty and very little grandstanding – an attractive approach to attractive, if minor, Schubertiana. Most of this SACD – whose sound, as usual from PentaTone, is superb – is taken up by the three Sonatas (Sonatinas), Op. 137, Nos. 1-3 (D. 384, 385 and 408). The double designation of these works’ form is in line with their neither-quite-here-nor-quite-there construction: the first, a very Mozartean three-movement piece in D, is lovely but slight; the second, a four-movement A minor work, is the longest and most substantial of the three; the third, also in four movements and in a minor key (G minor), has tinges of melancholy but lacks significant emotional depth. Schubert was 19 when he wrote these works, and they are certainly pleasant and tuneful enough. But the fourth work offered here, the Rondo Brillant in B minor, Op. 70 (D. 895), is of a different order. The composer created this piece 10 years later, only two years before his death, as a virtuoso showpiece for the Bohemian violinist Josef Slavik. This extended rondo – longer than all of D. 384 – has more Romantic sweep and far more display opportunities for the violin than do the earlier works. Fischer and Helmchen make it sing – without, however, overloading it with overbearing technique. This disc’s interest lies in exposing listeners to one of the less-known sides of a composer, many of whose works have become very familiar indeed.

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