May 16, 2013

(++++) CHAMBER FORCES AND LARGER


Wolf: Italian Serenade; Puccini: Crisantemi; Verdi: Quartet; Turina: La oración del torero; Piazzolla: Four, for Tango; Paganini: Capricci, Op. 1, Nos. 6 and 24. Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland and Ian Belton, violins; Paul Cassidy, viola; Jacqueline Thomas, cello). Chandos. $18.99.

Kenneth Fuchs: String Quartet No. 5, “American”; Falling Canons—Seven Movements for Piano; Falling Trio. Delray String Quartet (Mei Mei Luo and Tomas Cotik, violins; Richard Fleischman, viola; Claudio Jaffé, cello); Christopher O’Riley, piano; Trio21 (Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Kinga Augustyn, violin; Robert deMaine, cello). Naxos. $9.99.

Jörg Widmann: Violin Concerto; Antiphon for Orchestral Groups; Insel der Sirenen for Solo Violin and 19 Strings. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding. Ondine. $16.99.

Vagn Holmboe: Concerto for Viola; Concerto No. 2 for Violin; Concerto for Orchestra. Lars Anders Tomter, viola; Erik Heide, violin; Norrköping Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

Ernest John Moeran: Cello Concerto; Serenade in G; Lonely Waters; Whythorne’s Shadow. Guy Johnston, cello; Rebecca Coffey, soprano; Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.

     The very varied works on these fine CDs – some familiar, many quite unfamiliar – showcase the contrasting communicative power of small (chamber) groups with that of soloists set against larger (orchestral) ensembles. The new Brodsky Quartet CD for Chandos, entitled “In the South” in an attempt to establish connection among pieces that are really very different in tone, style and intent, is a beautifully played, warm and heartfelt hour-plus of music that speaks sometimes to its composers’ strengths and sometimes to byways in their thinking. Hugo Wolf’s well-known Italian Serenade is lovely here and seems all too short, while Astor Piazzolla’s Four, for Tango, one of his better-known works, nicely blends the dance with a grander canvas. Joaquín Turina’s La oración del torero is less-known but is quite effective here in its singing style and emotive gestures, while the première recording of string-quartet versions of two famous Paganini Capricci (arranged by violist Paul Cassidy) is every bit as much a showcase as one could wish – and the music sounds deeper and more involving, less surface-level virtuosic than in the original solo-violin version. And then there are the instrumental pieces by opera composers who barely tipped their creativity into the quartet medium: Puccini’s lovely Crisantemi, whose evocative expressiveness will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the composer’s operas, and Verdi’s early and very effectively structured Quartet – the longest piece on this CD – which does not sound like the composer’s operatic productions but which shows he had considerable skill as a craftsman, if not perhaps very much creative individuality, in purely instrumental music. The CD as a whole is very pleasant if not particularly challenging listening, especially notable for the Brodsky’s Quartet’s expressive and beautifully balanced playing.

     The music of Kenneth Fuchs (born 1956) is considerably more modern, of course, but Fuchs is so expert a composer that even the more-challenging aspects of his work – for both players and listeners – seem to flow logically from his concepts rather than to be created out of a misplaced sense of “necessary modernity.” Two of the works on the new Naxos CD trace to the same source: Fuchs’ Falling Man, written for baritone and orchestra in the aftermath of the September 11, 2011 terrorist mass murders in New York City. Falling Canons takes the main theme of Falling Man through a series of elegant and rigorous movements for solo piano, which Christopher O’Riley handles with sensitivity and just the right amount of virtuoso display – which is to say, not too much. Falling Trio uses the same principal theme for a one-movement work that, like Falling Canons, has seven parts – in this case, seven variations, all of them expertly developed and very well played by Trio21. As for String Quartet No. 5, “American,” it is a larger-scale work than either of the others, but resembles them in one key way: it too is based on a single theme, which Fuchs adapts, arranges, tosses about and develops in a series of clever and often elegant ways through four movements lasting nearly half an hour. The Delray String Quartet plays the work with verve and considerable sensitivity, and this CD as a whole shows why Fuchs’ music is some of the most popular worldwide among performers and audiences interested in modern American composers.

     There is a mixture of chamber-like and full-orchestra music by Jörg Widmann (born 1973) on what Ondine says is the first CD release devoted entirely to this composer’s works. Widmann, a clarinetist, has written some interesting chamber music in a series of string quartets, one of which includes a soprano voice, and some unusual orchestral music that interrelates vocal forms and orchestral ensembles. The pieces on this CD, though, are more straightforward, and although they are well-constructed, they suffer from a common contrivance among modern composers in being somewhat self-consciously accretive and sonically experimental. The Violin Concerto (2007) is the most traditional piece here, and the longest, and it stands up quite well in its genre, thanks in large part to the intensity and enthusiasm with which it is performed by Christian Tetzlaff and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding. Widmann shows that he has a firm command of orchestral forces and a good sense of ways to balance soloist against orchestra, highlighting one or the other. But the concerto, although not devoid of ideas, is not exactly brimming over with them, either – it is interesting enough, but not particularly memorable. Insel der Sirenen (1997) is more intriguing: it too sets the solo violin against an ensemble, but the smaller instrumental grouping here, and the fact that it consists entirely of strings, combine to inspire Widmann to greater creativity both thematically and in the sound of the instruments – what could be monochromatic comes across as quite nicely varied, and this piece, which lasts just 12 minutes, does not overstay its welcome. The third work on this CD, Antiphon (2007/08), shows how well Widmann can balance orchestral elements and instrumental sections, playing them off against each other or combining them in interesting ways. A sort of short concerto for orchestra (lasting about 19 minutes), Antiphon is formulaic in some ways but hangs together well as a whole, requiring skill in performance reflecting Widmann’s care in constructing it.

      The Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) wrote an even shorter Concerto for Orchestra, which lasts just 13 minutes and was never even performed before being recorded for Dacapo’s new SACD of Holmboe’s music. A very youthful work, dating to 1929, it is heavy on brass and percussion and is not particularly distinctive harmonically or thematically, nor does it point clearly toward Holmboe’s mature style; it is thus more a curiosity than a substantial addition to the repertoire. It does show, however, that even at this age, Holmboe had the ability to produce effective orchestral music that would sound good while giving performers something of a workout. For that reason alone, it is an attractive work to hear. The much more significant pieces on this SACD have far greater depth and are considerably more mature, although – oddly enough – neither has been recorded before: Concerto No. 2 for Violin dates to 1979 and Concerto for Viola to 1992. Holmboe went through a wide variety of influences in his compositional life, from Sibelius and Bartók to Nielsen, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, and was particularly distinguished as a symphonist, producing 13 symphonies between 1927 and 1994. The second of his violin concertos was written more than 40 years after the first, and it is notably free of experimental or modernistic tendencies, being primarily tonal and influenced by folk music, as are many of Holmboe’s works. Erik Heide plays it with relish, and gets fine support from the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under Dima Slobodeniouk. The ensemble does a first-rate job backing up Lars Anders Tomter as well, and Tomter handles the viola concerto with real flair. It is probably inevitable to see any 20th-century concerto for this instrument through the lens of the two preeminent ones – by Bartók and Walton – and while Holmboe’s does not quite measure up to those, it does take advantage of the viola’s warmth and singing abilities, coupled with its virtuosic potential, to showcase the instrument effectively. Holmboe is a composer who is not particularly well-known outside Scandinavia but whose musical acquaintance is well worth making.

     So is that of the Anglo-Irish Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950), another composer strongly influenced by folk music, whose flair for melodic invention and firm handling of scoring produced some particularly interesting works in the mid-20th century. Naxos’ new CD features a warm, singing rendition of the Cello Concerto of 1945, with lovely playing by Guy Johnston and excellent support from the Ulster Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta – who is proving highly adept at conducting orchestras worldwide. This concerto, inspired by Moeran’s not-always-happy marriage to cellist Peers Coetmore, is expressive without being overly sentimental, virtuosic without being overbearing, and deserves more-frequent performance. So does Serenade in G, heard here in the original, eight-movement version from 1948. A work that recalls Baroque suites in its sequencing of dance movements, including some distinctly old-fashioned ones, the serenade is very well scored and somewhat weightier than its title might indicate. Also on the CD are two touching and emotive pieces from 1931: Lonely Waters, a rhapsody in which the orchestra is joined at the end, to fine effect, by lines of melancholy poetry sung by soprano Rebekah Coffey, and Whythorne’s Shadow, which reaches back even beyond the Baroque, to Elizabethan madrigals, for a short and warm fantasy. Moeran was deemed rather old-fashioned in his time because of his folk-music interests and some superficial musical parallels to Delius, Ireland and Vaughan Williams, but his music bears re-hearing and reconsideration for its fine structure and warmly lyrical qualities – which Falletta’s performances fully explore.

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