Beethoven: Septet, Op. 20; Sextet, Op. 71. Scharoun Ensemble Berlin. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).
Hindemith: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4; Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata; Brahms: Sonata No. 2 for Viola and Piano. Naoko Shimizu, viola; Özgür Aydin, piano. Genuin. $18.99.
The delights of chamber music come through especially clearly when the works are played as clearly and cleanly, and with as much emotional understanding, as they are on these two discs. The Scharoun Ensemble Berlin consists of members of one of the world’s very best orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic, and is named after architect Hans Scharoun (1893-1972) – creator of that orchestra’s world-renowned concert hall, whose superb acoustics remain among the best anywhere. It is therefore no surprise that Beethoven’s two early wind serenades sound simply wonderful on a new Tudor SACD. The Septet, which dates to 1800, and Sextet, which despite its late opus number was composed around 1796, show Beethoven at his most genial and engaging, although the works are not without depth – especially in the Adagio cantabile of the Septet. Beethoven’s Septet became annoyingly popular – annoyingly to the serious-minded composer, that is, although he did not object to the financial success it brought him. Inspired by Mozart’s glorious Divertimento, K. 563, whose title is a complete misnomer for a work of grand scope and considerable profundity, Beethoven’s Septet in turn inspired other composers, such as Hummel, Spohr and (most famously) Schubert, to produce works that similarly explored a wide variety of sounds and combinations of wind instruments. Beethoven apparently did not know Schubert’s Octet, but he is known to have disliked several other successors of the Septet, believing they lacked the proper balance of seriousness and lightheartedness. Beethoven’s own work does not, especially when played with the sensitivity that the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin brings to it. The piece gives each instrument plenty of opportunities for solo display (notably in the fourth movement, Tema con Variazioni), but it also uses the whole ensemble effectively and allocates warmth to the slow movement – and even allows, in that movement, for Beethoven’s first experiment with the transition from A-flat to C major, which was to become important in, among other places, the Fifth Symphony. The earlier Sextet (for two each of clarinets, bassoons and horns) is a less weighty work and only half the length of the Septet. Beethoven later pretty much disowned this work as being overly light, and indeed it is bouncy and engaging. But its full sound from only six instruments is intriguing, and the connections among sections in the concluding Rondo look ahead to some of Beethoven’s later formal experimentation. Here too the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin offers an excellent performance, not overly heavy but also not flippant: what depth the music has is brought forth very effectively indeed.
The depths of the three viola-and-piano works on the new Genuin CD featuring Naoko Shimizu and Özgür Aydin also come through clearly, but the main effect of this disc is one of beauty: the viola and piano sound simply lovely together. Shimizu has a full, rich tone that is very well complemented by Aydin’s carefully wrought and sensitive accompaniment. Two of the three pieces here are quite familiar to violists and those who love the instrument’s elegant middle-range sound: Schubert’s “Arpeggione” sonata (which is also sometimes played on cello, but no longer on the short-lived instrument for which it was originally written), and Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 (which is played at least as frequently on clarinet as on viola, Brahms having designated it for either instrument). In both these works, Shimizu looks for long lines, elegant phrasing and great tonal beauty, and offers performances that are strongly emotional without wallowing. Her Schubert is perhaps a touch more satisfying than her Brahms – her approach might work a little better in the first Brahms viola sonata than in the darker and weightier No. 2 – but simply listening to the quality of her playing is a pleasure. And Shimizu’s Hindemith is very well done indeed. Hindemith, himself a violist as well as a composer, had a great deal to do with the resurgence of the viola in the 20th century – he and violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) are the towering figures in this instrument’s modern history. This Hindemith sonata is an early work, and it shows more influence of earlier music than do some other Hindemith pieces. From folklike elements to instrumental color in the Debussy mode, the sonata gives evidence of a compositional approach not yet fully formed: in later works, Hindemith more fully integrated disparate styles. Nevertheless, this sonata is effective on its own terms, and the date of its composition (1919, the year Hindemith turned 24) is made clear through its pushing of the limits of tonality and its use of dissonance. Taken together, the three pieces here provide an interesting showcase for the viola as chamber instrument over a period of nearly a century – and provide warm and lovely sound from start to finish.