January 21, 2010


Dvořák: Piano Quartets. Helena Suchárová-Weiser, piano; members of the Vlach Quartet Prague (Jana Vlachová, violin; Karel Stadtherr, viola; Mikael Ericsson, cello). Naxos. $8.99.

Gade: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano. Hasse Borup, violin; Heather Conner, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Ligeti: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; Andante and Allegretto. Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong and Karen Kim, violins; Jessica Bodner, viola; Kee-Hyun Kim, cello). Naxos. $8.99.

     The works on these three CDs, all of them nominally chamber music, exist in very different sound worlds – but all of them reflect, in their own ways, the compositional progress of the men who wrote them. The first Dvořák piano quartet, op. 23, is one of his earlier works, dating to 1875, and is strongly imbued with Czech melodies and inflections. The second of its three movements, an andantino with variations, is especially interesting, notably when the final variation moves from two-beat meter to three-beat (actually – and unusually – 6/16). Piano and strings are more or less equal partners in this work, with the cello lending particular weight to the music. The second quartet, op. 87, dates to 1889 and is significantly more emphatic and intense, with less overt nationalistic influence – although the finale has a characteristic Bohemian rhythm. There is drama and mystery here, especially in the first of the four movements, although the third movement – a lyrical and lovely waltz – lightens things considerably. The performers, all Czech by training, handle both the grand sweep and the small details of this music with ease and understanding, producing a CD that argues effectively for Dvořák’s importance as a composer of piano quartets, even though he wrote but two of them. And the players do a top-notch job of contrasting the earlier, somewhat more superficial work with the later and deeper one.

     The playing is less effective on the new CD of Gade’s Violin Sonatas, which gets a (+++) rating. These sonatas, like the Dvořák piano quartets, are essentially Romantic in sound; and like them, they span a large part of their composer’s lifetime. But here the progress from lighter work to deeper is by no means clear. Gade’s first sonata, op. 6, dates to 1842 (when the composer was only 25) and is dedicated to Clara Schumann – but, despite the dedicatee’s fame as a virtuoso, there is nothing grand about it. Its challenges lie in complexity rather than boldness, and are shared between the two instruments – making the piece a tad curious to hear, since its character is one of simplicity despite the difficulties involved in performing it. Hasse Borup and Heather Conner both play quite well, but neither is especially subtle here, and Borup in particular seems at times to overwhelm the music. The performers are more comfortable with the second sonata, op. 21, which dates to 1849 and is dedicated to Robert Schumann. This is Gade’s only violin sonata in a minor key (D minor), but the storms of the first movement are swept away in the D major finale, and the middle movement – which alternates slow and fast sections – has a fine sense of balance. As for the third sonata, op. 67, it dates to 1885, just five years before Gade’s death, but there is nothing autumnal about it: it has considerable substance in its four movements, but in many ways looks backward through its almost Mendelssohnian scherzo and the full-fledged Romanticism of its lovely and moving Romanze. Borup and Conner seem at times a trifle impatient with this work’s heart-on-its-sleeve emotionalism, but for the most part they do a fine job of exploring the music.

     By the time György Ligeti wrote his two string quartets, though, chamber-music language had changed considerably. Ligeti’s first quartet, called “Métamorphoses nocturnes,” dates to 1953-4 and shows a heavy sonic debt to Bartók. Although it has some interesting formal elements – it is in a single long movement that, however, can be heard as being in anywhere from four to eight sections – it is not especially distinctive music for its time; nor is it atypical of the rather formulaic musical approach that Ligeti took at this point in his career. By the same token, the Andante and Allegretto, from 1950, has little that is identifiable as Ligeti’s style in it – although, interestingly, it is the piece on this CD that is closest to the sound world of Dvořák and Gade, and is most readily accessible for listeners not already familiar with Ligeti’s work. Those who are familiar with the composer will be most interested in the second quartet (1968), which falls firmly into Ligeti’s “electronic” period even though it is written for traditional instruments. The five movements here bear such titles as “Allegro nervosa” and “Come un meccanismo di precision,” and the piece is, from start to finish, a study in contrasts: abrupt pizzicato vs. gentle, wavelike rhythms; near-complete stillness vs. near-frantic activity; and so on. This is a work that is more interesting than involving – there is something distancing about its insistence on contrasting elements of presentation. Certainly the Parker Quartet plays it, and the other pieces here, with attentiveness and considerable skill; but the performers do not really pull listeners into the sonic environment of these Ligeti works – they simply perform within Ligeti’s boundaries. Those interested in Ligeti’s changing approach to chamber music will find this CD quite valuable, but it gets a (+++) rating for the general listener.

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