May 05, 2011


Saint-Saëns: String Quartets. Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Nicolò Eugelmi, viola; Wolfgang Laufer, cello). Naxos. $9.99.

Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano; Scherzo from FAE Sonata. Arabella Steinbacher, violin; Robert Kulek, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Stravinsky: Duo Concertant for Violin and Piano; Sonata for Two Pianos; Requiem Canticles; Abraham and Isaac; Élégie for Solo Viola; Bluebird Pas de Deux. Jennifer Frautschi, violin; Jeremy Denk, piano; Ralph van Raat and Maarten van Veen, pianos; Sally Burgess, contralto; Roderick Williams, bass; David Wilson-Johnson, baritone; Richard O’Neill viola; Simon Joly Chorale, Philharmonia Orchestra and Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $9.99.

     The “conversational” element of chamber music is among its major attractions, and Camille Saint-Saëns was particularly deft at bringing it out in his two string quartets – both of them late-in-life creations. Saint-Saëns’s cleverness and his creation of music intended to delight the ear are well known, and his string quartets offer both these characteristics in abundance – making the composer’s apparent hesitation to attempt the form until he was in his 60s something of a mystery. The quartets’ relative lack of popularity is a mystery, too, because both are very well-formed works, tuneful and filled with understanding of the capabilities of the instruments. The first, in E minor, was written in 1899 (when Saint-Saëns was 64) and is dedicated to Eugène Ysaÿe, who quite admired it and hoped (unfortunately in vain) for many more. The famed violinist’s appreciation is understandable: although the quartet does not give the first violin unusual prominence (except in the slow movement, where it does lead the other instruments), it requires considerable virtuosity of all the players, and features such interesting effects as the use of mutes for the opening of the first movement – followed by their removal for the movement’s main section. The Fine Arts Quartet plays the work with sure-fingered mastery and excellent give-and-take among the instruments. The players do equally well with the very late second quartet, which dates to the composer’s 73rd year, 1918 (three years before his death). Although in G major, this wartime quartet is scarcely sunny or triumphant, and it is a thornier work than the first quartet: Saint-Saëns once described the first movement as “youth” and the second as the sad loss of it. It is easy to see why this quartet was not popular in its own time: it is absolute music and fully tonal. And it is true that the work needs more than one hearing to produce a strong effect, since some of its techniques, such as the repeated use of plucked open strings, sound a touch odd at first. This is, in fact, a work of more depth than Saint-Saëns sometimes gets credit for being able to create, with the excellent performance here being a clear indication that the composer had more to say in chamber music than some critics and listeners may realize.

     Brahms’ works for violin and piano are more career-spanning than are the Saint-Saëns quartets. The earliest piece on the new SACD by Arabella Steinbacher and Robert Kulek is Brahms’ scherzo from the rarely performed FAE Sonata, written for violinist Joseph Joachim by Brahms, Schumann and Albert Dietrich. The work’s title comes from Joachim’s personal motto, Frei aber Einsam (“free, but lonely”); but Brahms’ movement uses the F-A-E notes negligibly – an argument, incidentally, for performances of the entire sonata, to put Brahms’ contribution in context. This scherzo was composed when Brahms was just 20, in 1853, and shows skill, if no particular depth. The three violin-and-piano sonatas, though, are another matter. The first dates from 1878-79, the second from 1886 and the third from 1886-88, and all require maturity of approach, elegance of style and intensity of commitment – which they receive from Steinbacher and Kulek. The first sonata is built around thematic material from songs that Brahms had composed several years earlier, and it became a favorite work of Clara Schumann, to whose son’s serious illness the second movement pays close attention in the form of a funeral march (young Felix Schumann died in February 1879). None of the personal background is needed, though, for listeners to be swept into the heartfelt emotion of this sonata, much of which has an overall feeling of darkness despite the work’s tonic key of G major. The second sonata is also in a bright key – A major – and it too is based in part on songs that Brahms composed separately. Like the first sonata, it is an intimate and personal work, truly reflecting the notion of chamber music as being intended for performance among friends and family, in a small room rather than a grand hall. Steinbacher and Kulek realize this, giving the sonata its proper scale and not attempting to make of it a grander or more far-reaching piece than it is. For the third and final sonata, though, the performers correctly open things up, for this is an altogether broader work – not as long as the first sonata, but built on a bigger scale than either of the earlier ones, in four movements rather than three, and clearly intended for concert performance. Structurally, the third sonata is more conventional and less deeply emotive than the first two, and it responds well to Steinbacher’s and Kulek’s appreciation of its grand gestures and broadly constructed themes.

     More than 40 years later, when Stravinsky wrote his Duo Concertant for violin and piano in 1932, the roles of the instruments – and of chamber music itself – had changed considerably. The latest entry in Naxos’ ongoing Stravinsky series by Robert Craft is a hodgepodge CD that is, more or less, an offering of chamber works from various times in the composer’s career – although in truth, the disc is rather arbitrarily put together, with little significant relationship among the included pieces. The Duo Concertant shows Stravinsky trying to reconcile the differing tones and methods of sound production of violin and piano – the composer maintained for years that the instruments were largely incompatible. This sonata, inspired by Virgil’s Georgics, gradually gives the piano the lead role and features some very clever and interesting rhythmic variations. The Sonata for Two Pianos (1943-44) is more lighthearted and upbeat, despite being a wartime composition, and features a central theme-and-variations movement based on a Russian folksong. Élégie for Solo Viola is another chamber work from the same time (1944), and is a lovely and emotionally moving piece that contains elements of both a song and a fugue. And Bluebird Pas de Deux (1941), an arrangement of four short excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet for chamber orchestra, shows a light, chamber-music-like touch and some clever instrumental rethinking of the original score – although Craft’s suggestion that Stravinsky’s addition of a piano and change of a flute duet to one for flute and clarinet make the Stravinsky version far superior to the composer’s original is, at best, an arguable overstatement. The remaining works on this CD are larger in scale, vocal in focus and not a very good fit with the chamber pieces. Both were written much later in Stravinsky’s life: Requiem Canticles in 1965-66 and Abraham and Isaac in 1962-63. The latter, subtitled “A Sacred Ballad for Baritone and Chamber Orchestra,” has a portentous sound throughout as the singer declaims the tale of God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice his son, Isaac – and Abraham’s willingness to do so. A story fraught with difficult implications for many biblical scholars, the tale gets an absolutely straight treatment from Stravinsky. It is sung in Hebrew, and there is even some tone painting (rapid clarinet notes to indicate the fruitfulness of Abraham’s seed, for instance). Requiem Canticles gets a very carefully thought-through structure as well, consisting of six vocal movements divided in half by an instrumental dirge, with a prelude at the start of the whole work and a postlude after the final vocal section. Craft himself led the world première of both these late pieces, and his interpretations in this new recording are sure, intelligent and exceptionally well-informed. Indeed, the whole CD seems to be as much about Craft as about Stravinsky – which, given the quality of the performances, is not a bad thing at all.

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