May 13, 2010


Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Viola and Piano; Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano (transcribed for viola by Csaba Erdélyi). Roberto Díaz, viola; Jeremy Denk, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Mozart: Duets for Violin and Viola, KV 423 and 424; Divertimento for Violin, Viola and Cello, KV 563. Francesco Manara, violin; Simonide Braconi, viola; Massimo Polidori, cello. Concerto. $16.99.

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 16. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

     Chamber music is, in a sense, an elaborate dance for two or more players. Although it is often described as a “conversation,” it is one done to specific rhythms and is filled with nuances that always approximate the elaborate interconnection of dance partners – with movements sometimes literally in dance forms. Thus, even though there are no overt dance movements in Brahms’ two viola sonatas (although the Allegretto grazioso of the first comes close), a worthwhile interpretation makes it sound as if the viola and piano are dancing with each other – now together, now apart, always in figurative as well as literal harmony. Roberto Díaz and Jeremy Denk for the most part get this sense of interconnectedness just right in their warm and well-played versions of the sonatas. The second of the two – a more introverted work – comes across particularly well, progressing with seeming inevitability from start to finish, the instruments intertwining with delicacy and skill. In the first sonata, in which the performers take a few unjustified and unneeded liberties with tempo, the result is not quite as effective, although when Díaz and Denk do let the music flow naturally, they mesh very well indeed. They are effective too in violist Csaba Erdélyi’s D major transcription of Brahms’ G major Violin Sonata No. 1 – which the composer himself transcribed into D for cello. This work does not lie quite as comfortably on the viola as do the two sonatas (which are at least equally often played on clarinet): Brahms does seek richness in tone throughout his music, and this proves an effective use of the violin in this sonata as well as an attractive handling of the cello in the composer’s own transcription. The viola arrangement, in contrast, works all right as music but does not have the emotional heft of either the violin or cello version. Still, it is always nice to have another well-crafted work for viola players to bring to the chamber-music dance.

     Certainly Mozart knew how to give every possible grace to every instrument – even ones he did not especially like, such as the flute. Mozart’s two duets for violin and viola may not be among his major works, but neither are they throwaways. In fact, they show Mozart’s willingness to treat the viola as an equal partner of the violin – in contrast to the instrument’s handling by Haydn, who generally used violas only to fill in harmonies. The first duet, in G, is better known than the second, in B-flat; but in the performance by Francesco Manara and Simonide Braconi, it is the second that shines. It is longer than the first (20 minutes vs. 16) and comes across as a more elaborate, more thoroughly worked-through piece, especially in its final Andante con variazioni. And having shown Mozart’s skill (and their own) at the violin-and-viola dance, Manara and Braconi then join Massimo Polidori for a piece that is one of Mozart’s most remarkable: the Divertimento in E-flat, a work of amazingly broad scope whose six movements give the three players every possible opportunity to play as soloists, in duets and as a full complement of three. The emotional depth of this music is quite astonishing – and stands in lovely contrast to its lighter, overtly dancelike elements, including two minuets and a finale whose rocking motion is as gentle as it is infectious. The performance here is at times a touch restrained – a little bit of sheer exuberance goes well in this context – but is admirably balanced, with fine integration of the instruments’ sound and great sensitivity shown by each player for each of the others. Always a lovely work, this divertimento here comes across with all its profundity and most, if not quite all, of its joyfulness.

     For sheer joy in dance motion, it is a small step from the ¾ beat of the minuet to the ¾ beat of the waltz, and there have been few composers who could churn out danceable waltzes with such consistency as Johann Strauss Sr. Unlike the more-famous, more-symphonic waltzes of his sons, Johann Jr. and Josef, those of Johann Sr. rarely pretended to be more than occasional pieces – trifles perhaps, but delicious ones, with clear rhythms created for the express purpose of making it impossible to stand still while Strauss Sr. led his orchestra. The 16th volume in the continuing Marco Polo series of Strauss Sr.’s music shows yet again that there is no finer exponent of these works than Christian Pollack, and no orchestra that plays them with more verve than the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina. There are six waltzes – actually waltz sets, each of them containing as many as five mini-waltzes – on the new CD, plus two Quadrilles, one each for the name days of Emperor Ferdinand I and Empress Maria Anna. All eight works here date from the period of November 1842-August 1843, and it is wonderful to hear the unending flow of melodies produced by Strauss Sr. with such apparent ease. However, it must be said that some of these waltzes seem a touch pale, because one of the pieces here is among the composer’s greatest: Loreley-Rhein-Klänge, a lengthy and thoroughly winning piece that unfolds with a combination of naturalness and beauty. Die Dämonen (“The Demons”) is nearly at the same level, featuring some especially neat twists in its tunes. The other waltzes on this CD – Künstler-Ball-Tänze, Tanz-Capricen, Brüder Lustig and Astraea-Tänze – are less distinguished, although the last of these is pleasantly animated and quite upbeat. If chamber music is a dance of sorts, then the dances of Johann Strauss Sr. – which were often played by small ensembles, not full-size orchestras – qualify as dances writ large, and ones that still retain their bounce and beauty.

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