July 12, 2012

(++++) PERSONAL APPROACHES


Bruckner: Symphony No. 2. Northern Sinfonia conducted by Mario Venzago. CPO. $16.99.

Brahms: String Quartets Nos. 1-3; Clarinet Quintet. Juilliard Quartet (Robert Mann and Joel Smirnoff, violins; Samuel Rhodes, viola; Joel Krosnick, cello); Charles Neidich, clarinet. Newton Classics. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Rachmaninoff: Moments Musicaux, Op. 16; Études-Tableaux, Op. 33; Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. Xiayin Wang, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

Mieczysław Weinberg: Complete Piano Works, Volume 2—Sonata No. 4, Op. 56; Partita, Op. 54; Sonatina, Op. 49. Allison Brewster Franzetti, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.

      The third volume in Mario Venzago’s quirky and highly unusual Bruckner cycle brings listeners a third orchestra, as Venzago continues to seek ensembles that he feels are best able to realize his very personalized view of these symphonies.  The first volume, containing the Fourth and Seventh, used a traditional Bruckner ensemble, the Sinfonieorchester Basel, but treated the works with more transparency, even delicacy, than they usually receive.  The second release, of Nos. “0” and 1, featured the Tapiola Sinfonietta and was even more clearly intended to bring forth the symphonies as works of less sheer heft, although no less import, than they are usually deemed to be.  Now comes an excellent performance of No. 2 with the Northern Sinfonia, and again Venzago has chosen well: this orchestra does not have a traditional “Bruckner sound,” but Symphony No. 2 does not require one – indeed, should not have the same sound as that of the later symphonies.  This is Bruckner’s most Schubertian symphony, and it requires a lilt, a dancelike lightness, a sense of brightness and pleasantry, quite different from what the later symphonies need.  It also requires some very good double-basses, because in this symphony Bruckner treats them as an independent section, not merely (as in his later symphonies) as a way to double the cello parts at the octave.  Venzago gets all these elements from the Northern Sinfonia, and for his part brings along sensitivity to the music and a fine sense of sectional balance.  The result is a beautifully handled, thoroughly assured performance of what was once called the “Rest Symphony” because of its frequent general pauses – which were to be more thoroughly integrated into the texture of later symphonies, but which make perfect sense here as Venzago handles them.  The finale, in particular, is excellent, taken for the most part at a very fast pace that takes some getting used to (Bruckner is more often performed at deliberate speeds) but soon proves itself completely convincing.  Venzago’s Bruckner cycle is shaping up as one of the most unusual in recent years, and one of the most interesting.

      The Juilliard Quartet’s recording of Brahms’ three string quartets and his Clarinet Quintet is not as recent – the recordings date to 1993-94 – but is every bit as strong as when it was first released.  These chamber works are particularly personal statements by the composer, and the Juilliard Quartet brings that personal element effectively to the fore.  The first quartet, in C minor (the key of Brahms’ First Symphony as well as Beethoven’s Fifth), is dark-hued throughout, united by thematic references in the finale to the first movement and also by a sense that the turmoil of the opening must be wrestled with to the end (which is in the minor).  The second quartet is also in a minor key – A minor – but is more expansive and even charming, its intensity muted in particular because of its final two movements: a minor-key minuet with major-key trio, and a finale featuring a syncopated and dancelike main theme.  These two Op. 51 quartets both date to 1873, three years before the First Symphony, and seem in some ways, like Brahms’ two Serenades, to be exploring ways to produce sonic weight without unnecessary heaviness or muddiness.  The Juilliard Quartet makes both of them weighty indeed, but never at the expense of lyricism or of their lighter, contrasting sections.  The third quartet, in B-flat major, also predates the symphony, but only by a year, and here Brahms explores in different ways.  There is greater calm in this quartet, with some unusual forms of emotional expression, such as a kind of pathos in the Agitato third movement, in which the viola takes the lead and is the only instrument not muted.  This quartet’s finale, a set of interestingly developed variations, uses a form that the composer had explored in 1873 in the Haydn Variations and would eventually bring to a pinnacle in the Fourth Symphony.  Later than all the string quartets, the Clarinet Quintet of 1891 is a work in which the fully mature composer offers the mellowness and slight melancholy that together are usually described as “autumnal.”  The quintet is beautifully constructed in a way that is quite personal to Brahms, with a highly unified first movement that is followed by second and third movements in which certain sections contrast strongly with others until Brahms reconciles them.  And then the finale, another set of variations, caps the whole with both beauty and subtlety – two words that also describe the performance by the Juilliard Quartet with clarinetist Charles Neidich.

      Young pianists seeking to make personal statements of their own have increasingly turned to Rachmaninoff in recent years – an interesting development, since the composer-pianist went through a long period of being discussed dismissively as an overly emotional tonal reactionary when he was talked about at all.  A fine recent recording of the composer’s Études-Tableaux, Op. 33 and Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42, by Nareh Arghamanyan for PentaTone, has now been joined by an equally fine one by Xiayin Wang for Chandos.  Arghamanyan’s disc also includes the Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3, while Wang’s offers the Moments Musicaux, Op. 16, but this is scarcely the releases’ only difference.  Wang’s performance is technically excellent, with an emphasis on the virtuoso elements of this music: she shows clearly that these are piano works composed by a top-notch pianist.  Especially in the Études-Tableaux, Wang plays the music for all it is worth, producing a great deal of drama and excitement – her dexterity and prowess are considerable and are quite impressive.  The Moments Musicaux could use a bit more delicacy and sensitivity from time to time, but they too are played very adeptly and with impressive finger work.  The Variations on a Theme of Corelli are a touch less successful: this piece needs more than sheer virtuosity for greatest success, requiring a degree of thoughtfulness and emotional empathy – call it maturity – that Wang does not yet seem to possess, at least here.  Although her playing is never metronomic, there is a certain coldness to it, perhaps intended to offset Rachmaninoff’s reputation as being swooningly Romantic or perhaps designed to reflect the days of Corelli himself.  In this case, though, a little more warmth and sense of involvement would have served the music better – although it must be said that there is nothing to fault in Wang’s sheer pianistic skill either in this work or in the others on this CD.

      Maturity is one thing that Allison Brewster Franzetti brings in abundance to her performances of the piano music of Mieczysław Weinberg.  Her first volume on the Grand Piano label included the Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2, the Lullaby (Op. 1), Two Mazurkas, and the Sonata, Op. 49bis – a 1978 reworking and expansion of a 1951 piece that Weinberg labeled Sonatina.  That 1951 work, which bears Op. 49, appears on Volume 2 of Franzetti’s survey of the composer’s piano music, and makes an interesting contrast with the later revision: it is considerably shorter, more lyrical and delicate, and leaves quite a different impression with the listener.  Also on Volume 2 are the lengthy and full-of-contrasts Partita, Op. 54, in which intimate passages alternate, sometimes quite abruptly, with ones that are intensely dramatic.  This work, which dates to 1954, shows with unusual clarity why Weinberg has been mentioned as the third major Soviet-era composer, along with Shostakovich and Prokofiev: his sensibilities were different, but clearly formed by some of the same circumstances and expressed in some similar ways (especially close to those of Shostakovich).  The third work on this CD is another of Weinberg’s six piano sonatas: the large-scale No. 4 in B minor, Op. 56 (1955).  This nearly half-hour piece comes across as the most intensely personal work on the disc, retreating constantly into melancholy despite sections of rhythmic inventiveness and a number of themes that sound inspired by folk music.  Franzetti continues to make a strong and effective case for Weinberg’s piano music, although in fact the composer, who lived from 1919 to 1996, was better known for his orchestral works (which include 22 symphonies and seven operas), plus his chamber music (17 string quartets) and film scores (about 40).  Franzetti’s series should lead to a closer consideration of Weinberg as a piano composer as well.

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