December 08, 2011

(++++) STRINGS, FROM ONE TO MANY

Handel: Complete Violin Sonatas. Ensemble Vintage Köln (Ariadne Daskalakis, baroque violin; Rainer Zipperling, viola da gamba and baroque cello; Gerald Hambitzer, harpsichord). Naxos. $9.99.

Franck: Sonata for Violin and Piano (transcribed for cello by Jules Delsart); Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano; Poulenc: Sonata for Piano and Cello. Anne Gastinel, cello; Claire Désert, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Schumann: String Quartets Nos. 1-3. Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington and Jonathan Stone, violins; Simon Tandree, viola; John Myerscough, cello). Chandos. $18.99.

Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat; Gade: Octet in F. Ensemble Tiramisù (Nathalie Chee, Heather Cottrell, Michael Bollin and Franziska Huber, violins; Alexander Besa and Jakob Lustig, violas; Andreas Graf and Peter Hörr, cellos). DIVOX. $16.99.

Grieg: From Holberg’s Time; Lyric Suite; Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34; Two Melodies for String Orchestra, Op. 53; Two Lyric Pieces, Op. 68; Two Nordic Melodies, Op. 63. Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bjarte Engeset. Naxos. $9.99.

     The expressiveness of a single stringed instrument is quite different from that of a group of strings – not only in volume and fullness but also in kind. Handel’s nine violin sonatas have now come fully into their own, thanks to scholarship that established that certain Handel works known for their versions for oboe or flute were actually written originally for the violin. The nine sonatas are all expressive in what can only be called the Handelian mode: eight of the nine are in four movements, unlike the typical three-movement sonata of Vivaldi, and all nine feature lovely and gentle slow movements well contrasted with bright and perky faster ones in which violin virtuosity is crucial but is not the be-all and end-all of the works (as it can sometimes appear to be in Vivaldi’s music). The provenance of the sonatas is somewhat cloudy: four of the nine were long accepted as Handel’s but now appear not to have been written by him. They are nevertheless included on this CD; but, in an intelligent bit of programming, they appear after the five sonatas that are certainly authentic and after two genuine short movements – an Andante and an Allegro – written in the same spirit as the sonatas and for the same instruments. The sound of all the works is particularly good in the performances by Ensemble Vintage Köln, with the mellow tones of Ariadne Daskalakis’ baroque violin well supported and nicely enhanced by the continuo instruments. The blending in the two authentic minor-key sonatas and the late D major sonata (HWV 371) is particularly well done.

     By a time more than 100 years later, the sound of a single stringed instrument was distinctly romantic, and Romantic; and French works for a solo string player and piano were among the most evocative of all. Franck’s Violin Sonata sounds a trifle odd when played on cello – the depth and richness of Anne Gastinel’s instrument are almost too much for the piece – but this is certainly a thoughtful and well-conceived arrangement, and an interesting if not always convincing one. The cello-and-piano works by Debussy and Poulenc (who pointedly noted that his was for piano and cello, not the other and more usual way around) are more successful. Here, Gastinel and pianist Claire Désert evoke all the emotionalism and tonal painting of the sonatas, making the brief one by Debussy – a late work, dating to 1915 – a kind of summation of his instrumental thinking, and showing in the 1948 Poulenc sonata that the younger composer was in many ways reflecting as well as advancing the tonal and expressive possibilities that Debussy had developed decades earlier. And yet there is no doubt that Poulenc’s title for his sonata is correct, since the piano takes the lead so much of the time and in so many ways. Taken as a whole, this very well-played CD provides listeners with a highly emotive experience of French music for solo string instrument with piano, covering a span of more than 60 years.

     Add some additional strings and the effect of the music is quite different. The string quartet, brought to fruition in modern form by Haydn, became one of the most expressive of all forms of music in the hands of Beethoven, and then, later in the 19th century, was used by different composers as a way to showcase their own emotional and technical predilections. Schumann’s three quartets date to 1842, a year in which he devoted himself intensively to chamber music, and they offer a combination of lyricism with some passages very clearly influenced by Beethoven’s late quartets – notably the serene melody of the Adagio of the first quartet and the densely written opening movement of the second. But the quartets are not all Beethoven, by any means, and the very well-played CD of them by the Doric Quartet disappoints by making the music entirely too Beethovenian. The emphases here are strong, the playing intense, but the freer rhythmic structure of these quartets (when compared with those of Beethoven) never really gets its due. The first of the quartets is rather too stern and harsh for the music, while the third, which in the best performances sounds positively ebullient, here seems rather flat-footed. The excellence of the playing gets this CD a (+++) rating, but the interpretations are not of the highest quality.

     There is also something a bit “off” in the very interesting pairing of the Mendelssohn and Niels Gade Octets, performed by Ensemble Tiramisù. Again, the issue is not the playing, which is excellent – but the musicality is wanting. Mendelssohn’s marvelous and very well-known work is certainly fleet-footed, but it need not be played so quickly that it sounds as if the musicians are in a hurry to get to the next movement – or get the whole thing over with. Yes, the breakneck tempos are exciting, especially in the Scherzo, but what is lost here are lyricism and a sense of the melodic beauty that flowed so unceasingly from Mendelssohn and made this work such an instant and enduring success. Gade, over whom Mendelssohn had such a huge influence that the younger composer fully developed his own style only decades after his mentor’s death, produced his Octet in very clear homage to that of Mendelssohn – even to the point of an identical tempo indication for the second movement, Andantino quasi Allegretto. Gade did not have Mendelssohn’s inborn melodic gifts, and his better works often have a Sturm und Drang sensibility that Mendelssohn almost completely lacks. But Gade’s Octet certainly contains all the right elements, allowing the eight strings to converse individually and in small groups as well as in ensemble, and keeping the string grouping fully integrated like that of a small chamber orchestra (unlike, for example, the “double quartets” of Spohr, in which four instrumentalists tend to play in opposition to the other four). In this performance, though, Gade’s Octet seems somewhat lacking in charm, and it comes across as having less individuality than it in fact possesses – a result of the rather pedestrian interpretation, not of anything inherent in the music. Like the Doric String Quartet’s CD, this one by Ensemble Tiramisù gets a (+++) rating in deference to the high quality of the playing and the excellence of ensemble. But a little more sensitivity to the nuances of both the Mendelssohn and Gade works would have been most welcome.

     Add still more strings, and a series of warm and beautifully paced interpretations, and you have the (++++) CD of music for string orchestra by Edvard Grieg – the sixth volume in Naxos’ Grieg Edition. The works here are mostly miniatures – indeed, Grieg was primarily a miniaturist, his longer works generally consisting of a series of short pieces. These are, in fact, wonderfully made miniatures, with strong ties to Norwegian folk melodies and a very pleasant lyricism that sometimes makes them come across as salon music, sometimes as the next stage to which salon music can aspire. The more-substantial pieces here are multi-movement suites – the early From Holberg’s Time (1884) contains five and the late Lyric Suite (1905) four – and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Bjarte Engeset plays everything with idiomatic understanding and a fine sense of style and pacing. From Holberg’s Time, in which Grieg deliberately subsumes his own style into that of an earlier age, is especially enjoyable to hear when performed with the lilt and high-quality playing it receives here – this is a work that often attracts amateur and school performances, but it is so much more effective when played professionally and with appropriate intensity. The four short works of “Melodies” or “Lyric Pieces” were written between 1880 and 1899, and all share common threads in their exploration of Norwegian folk tunes and in Grieg’s effective orchestration and development of melodies that are essentially simple and homespun. A CD that is pleasant rather than heaven-storming, this foray into Grieg’s string-orchestra music shows just how enjoyable an all-string ensemble can sound, even when playing works that are, by and large, not of major significance.

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