February 02, 2012


Bartók: Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Piano; Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Piano; Andante in A Major. James Ehnes, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 3; Saxophone Quartet; Michael Nyman: Songs for Tony. sonic.art Saxophone Quartet (Ruth Velten, soprano saxophone; Alexander Doroshkevich, alto and baritone saxophone; Martin Posegga, tenor saxophone; Annegret Schmiedl, baritone saxophone). Genuin. $18.99.

Rachmaninoff Romances. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone; Ivari Ilja, piano. Ondine. $16.99.

Couperin: Motets. Soloists of New College Oxford and Collegium Novum conducted by Edward Higginbottom. Novum. $18.99.

     In music both instrumental and vocal, the contrasting effects of solo-focused and group-focused recordings are substantially different – equally enjoyable, but in very distinct ways. Violinist James Ehnes is very much the center of the first CD in a planned series of Bartók’s music for violin and piano. This is Ehnes’ second Bartók CD for Chandos, the first having offered exceptionally well-performed versions of the two concertos for violin and the one for viola. Here Ehnes shows himself equally at home in Sonata No. 1 in C-sharp minor (which dates to 1921 and offers wide mood swings in an essentially traditional formal structure) and Sonata No. 2 in C major (which came only one year later but represents a completely different, thoroughly non-Romantic approach, sounding more like an introduction and allegro than a sonata). Ehnes is equally fine in the two Rhapsodies, both dating originally to 1928 (the first was revised in 1929, the second not until the composer’s last year of life, 1945). Unlike the sonatas, these works are imbued with Hungarian folk elements, which Ehnes brings out effectively while also proclaiming the exuberance of the music. Included at the end of the CD are the earliest surviving violin-and-piano work by Bartók, a pleasant Andante in A from 1902, and an alternative ending for the second part of Rhapsody No. 1. There are charms aplenty here, with Ehnes’ ability to bring them out supported and enhanced by the fine pianism of Andrew Armstrong – who nevertheless takes a back seat to the violinist, on whose skill and interpretative nuances the entire CD relies.

     The CD of saxophone-quartet music by sonic.art Saxophone Quartet is, in contrast, a collegial offering. Philip Glass is fond of the saxophone, having written Play for two saxophones in 1965, Two Down for two saxophones in 1967, and Façades for two saxophones and strings in 1981. But his 1995 quartet (which also exists in an orchestral version) is richer and in many ways more interesting than the earlier works, thanks to some significant contrasts among the movements. It is not a particularly profound work, but it is one that sounds very good indeed when played by an ensemble as skilled as the one heard here. The 1985 String Quartet No. 3, known as Mishima, also gets a fine performance, although this arrangement does not seem to lie as naturally on the saxophone as the original does on strings. The playing is nevertheless quite impressive, with each individual performer subsuming his or her personality within the whole ensemble, producing beautiful sounds and lovely effects. The Glass works are nicely complemented by Michael Nyman’s Songs for Tony (1993), which was written for saxophone quartet and in memory of Nyman’s business manager, Tony Simmons. This entire piece has memorial elements, from the first-movement transcription of a song that Nyman wrote to words by Mozart to a finale that is explicitly designed as a remembrance of Simmons. Songs for Tony encourages each individual player to display communicative powers, and in this sense is less of an ensemble piece than either Glass work on this CD. But it is not quite the sort of display piece that listeners will hear in Ehnes’ Bartók recording, for the individualized elements are placed at the service of an overall ensemble feel that overrides any strictly virtuosic approaches.

     With a new CD featuring baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, listeners are once again in the soloist-focused area, this time vocally rather than instrumentally. This (+++) CD homes in so intently on its title, Rachmaninoff Romances, that it comes across as offering a surfeit of beauty and emotion: 26 tracks, some secular and some sacred, with varying but closely related forms of expressiveness that neither Hvorostovsky’s voice nor the excellent accompaniment by Ivari Ilja can prevent from sounding somewhat repetitious. The songs are taken from a variety of cycles and are arranged so that most deal with interactions between people (that is, love and loss) while a few, saved for the end, express more-spiritual feelings: the final song is Khristos voskres, “Christ is risen!” Hvorostovsky’s rich, expressive voice is both a positive and a negative here: he sings with considerable feeling, but it is essentially the same feeling from song to song, resulting in a CD that will certainly please fans of his very warm and emotive baritone but that more-casual listeners may find rather cloying, or at least better taken in small doses than all at once.

     In contrast, the new disc of Couperin motets and other sacred music, conducted by Edward Higginbottom, uses solo voices solely to highlight choral elements and pinpoint particular words to which the composer wanted to draw special attention. This (++++) CD is unusual for containing Higginbottom’s restorations of three motets whose string elements were lost long ago: Resonent organa, Ornate aras and Exultent superi. Higginbottom composed string parts based on what he believes Couperin might have done: he is an expert on this composer and has a strong sense of Couperin’s style. The resulting performances of these three pieces take up almost half the CD – and even though Higginbottom’s work is in no way authentic or restorative in a traditional sense, it says much about his compositional skill and his understanding of the composer that the three pieces with newly created string sections fit absolutely naturally among the six works here that are entirely by Couperin. The singing throughout, both choral and (when called for) individual, is very fine, the voices blending with skill and beauty and the cadences of the Latin texts falling naturally within the musical structures. This is a lovely disc of sacred music and is fine testimony to the effectiveness of a focus on multiple performers rather than a single central star singer or player.

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