April 14, 2011


Schubert: Winterreise. Konrad Jarnot, baritone; Alexander Schmalcz, piano. Oehms. $16.99.

The Vanishing Nordic Chorale: Music of Bach, Buxtehude, Charpentier, Crüger, Grieg, Hassler, Mendelssohn, Nielsen, Pachelbel, Pederson, Praetorius and Scheidt. Musik Ekklesia conducted by Philip Spray. Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Vita: Music of Monteverdi and Scelsi. Sonia Wieder-Atherton, Sarah Iancu and Matthieu Lejeune, cellos. Naïve. $16.99.

Brahms: Double Concerto; Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto. Itzhak Perlman, violin; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Apex. $6.99.

Mendelssohn: Sonata for Viola and Piano; Sonata for Clarinet and Piano; Trio for Violin, Viola and Piano. Ana Chumachenco, violin; Hariolf Schlichtig, viola; Eduard Brunner, clarinet; Adrian Oetiker, piano. Tudor. $19.99.

Alessandro Rolla: Sonatas for Viola and Piano, Op. 3, Nos. 1 and 2; Duetto for Violin and Viola, Op. 18, No. 1; Sonata in C for Viola and Piano; Esercizios Nos. 1 and 2; Esercizio e Arpeggio. Jennifer Stumm, viola; Connie Shih, piano; Liza Ferschtman, violin. Naxos. $8.99.

     The admirable recording of Die Schöne Müllerin by Konrad Jarnot and Alexander Schmalcz now has its counterpart in an equally admirable – perhaps even better – disc of Winterreise. Written in 1827, four years after Schubert’s first song cycle on poems by Wilhelm Müller, “Winter Journey” is a darker work and a more mature one – not only in Schubert’s writing, which essentially gives the piano and voice equal weight in telling much of the story, but also in Müller’s poetry, which lacks the headiness of youthful exultation that appears early in Die Schöne Müllerin and is subsequently dashed. In Winterreise, all is bleak from start to finish – and it is precisely this bleakness at which Jarnot excels (his few weaknesses in the earlier recording were in the more exuberant songs). This is more a work of middle age, or at least maturity, than is the earlier cycle, which is clearly all about youth and young love (and loss). Schmalcz, whose contribution to the earlier recording was exemplary, comes fully into partnership here, as Schubert and the music demand, and Jarnot’s sensitive, nuanced singing blends beautifully with the piano to produce a heartfelt and heartbreaking performance of a work that, while well known, is understandably less popular with audiences than the brighter and more naïve story of the miller’s daughter. There are, however, some flaws in the production of this CD that undermine the excellence of the performance: there are no notes about the music included at all, and while the texts of all 24 songs are provided, they are offered only in German. Listeners deserve better.

     The curiously titled CD called The Vanishing Nordic Chorale combines vocal music that is quite well known (such as Bach’s Lobe den Herren) with some that is virtually unknown (Hassler’s Herzlich lieb) and some that is known only in certain circles (the traditional Swedish song Der mange skal komme, “Many Shall Come”). The objective here is to present chorale settings by a variety of northern European composers and perform them in Nordic Chorale tradition (although with American singers). The works are of widely varying quality and interest, and the arrangement of the CD is odd (for instance, there are three Nielsen pieces separated, between the second and third, by a Buxtehude setting). The interest of some of the music and the quality of the singing gain the disc a (+++) rating, but it is strictly a limited-interest disc that lacks cohesiveness or a clear reason to appeal to anyone other than those who simply love chorales.

     A similar oddity of arrangement appears on another (+++) CD, the very well played but programmatically odd cello disc called Vita. Here French cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton, along with Sarah Iancu and Matthieu Lejeune, presents some music (much of it arranged for cello) by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), interlaced with works by Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), whose music is separated from that of Monteverdi by more than the 300 years or so separating their lives. Scelsi generally wrote music based around a single pitch, altered by using microtonal oscillations and changes in timbre and dynamics. The relationship of this music to Monteverdi’s is far from apparent, and the reasons for interconnecting the composers are personal ones for Wieder-Atherton that, while intriguing, are not especially convincing from a strictly aural perspective. The CD is certainly well played, and the juxtaposition of very dissimilar composers is experimentally interesting, but this is really a specialty disc for fans of Wieder-Atherton who are interested in her arrangements of old music and her “take” on some unusual newer works.

     The cello came to the forefront neither in Monteverdi’s time (when it and its predecessors were primarily continuo instruments) nor in Scelsi’s, but in between, as for example in its pairing with the violin in Brahms’ large-scale and still-fascinating Double Concerto, which is heard in a (++++) live performance from 1997 on an exceptionally well-priced Apex CD. The grandeur and warmth of this concerto are fully in evidence in the partnership of Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma, with neither of these superstars of strings insisting on overshadowing the other – and with Daniel Barenboim leading the Chicago Symphony with flair and understanding. The now-well-known work, which was quite innovative in its day, comes through with a wonderful combination of virtuosity and musicality. And so does Mendelssohn’s ultra-familiar Violin Concerto, here in a Perlman/Barenboim performance recorded live in 1993. This concerto has been famously described as easy for a virtuoso to play, but extremely difficult to play well, and this recording shows why: the concerto requires far more than getting the notes right – the performer most provide sweetness (but not too much), exuberance (but, again, not too much), and exceptional purity of tone, giving the work Classical-era size and balance with Romantic emotional sensibility. Perlman’s performance shows just why he is one of the world’s great violinists: he takes nothing for granted in this music and never gives it short shrift, performing it as if it is a newly discovered gem – with the result that it sounds like one.

     Other works by Mendelssohn are newly discovered gems, or will be for many listeners. A new (++++) Tudor chamber-music recording includes three of them – all wonderful and all very rarely performed. These are works by a very young Mendelssohn indeed: the Trio from 1820, when the composer was only 11, and the two sonatas from just a few years later (1823-24). Just as Mendelssohn’s String Symphonies, which date to this same time period, showed tremendous precocity and understanding of musical form – together with a remarkable gift for melody – so these early chamber works are well structured, tuneful and remarkably beautiful. Their formal design is not always as well-thought-out as the structure of Mendelssohn’s later works would be – the scherzo movement of the Trio is almost over before it begins, and the first movement of the Clarinet Sonata is far weightier than the other two – but the unfailing creativity, the sure understanding of the compass and special tonal attributes of the instruments, and the sheer pleasantry of the themes (including an extended theme-and-variations in the Viola Sonata) make for utterly delightful listening. And the performers here do an exemplary job of involving themselves in the music while avoiding overweighting it – they handle all the pieces with delicacy, fine balance and excellent instrumental interplay.

     Violists may be surprised to find out that Mendelssohn, at any age, wrote a viola sonata – many believe the instrument really came into its own for solo purposes only in the 20th century. But anyone of that opinion, and anyone not expecting a sonata by Mendelssohn, may be even more surprised at an entire CD of still-earlier viola music – not arrangements, but works originally written for the instrument – by Alessandro Rolla (1757-1841). Rolla was a teacher of Paganini and performed with him in concert; but in addition to being a violinist (and conductor), he was a considerable virtuoso on the viola – an instrument that, it should be remembered, Paganini also favored (he commissioned Harold in Italy from Berlioz, then rejected it because there were too many sections in which the soloist stayed silent). Rolla’s viola works feature Classical-era poise and charm, as well as virtuoso demands in the faster movements and (in the case of the Duetto for Violin and Viola) a fine, idiomatic interplay of instruments. The three works called Esercizios are practice pieces as well as showpieces, somewhat in the manner of Paganini’s Caprices although not at the same level of difficulty. Jennifer Stumm is a wonderful advocate for this music, playing with a sure sense of rhythm, unfailingly warm and beautiful tone, and (where appropriate) a genuine sense of playfulness. None of these Rolla works can really be called “great” music, but this CD nevertheless fully merits its (++++) rating for its fine playing, its introduction of listeners to worthy and unfamiliar repertoire, and the overall pleasantness and skill of its presentation. Even non-violists will enjoy hearing it; violists may well want to track down the pieces and perform them.

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