December 26, 2013
(++++) FORMS OF INTIMACY
Paganini: 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, Op. 1. Ilya Gringolts, violin. Orchid Classics. $16.99.
Schubert: String Quintet in C, D. 956. Anne Gastinel, cello; Quatuor Diotima (Yun-Peng Zhao and Guillaume Latour, violins; Franck Chevalier, viola; Pierre Morlet, cello). Naïve. $16.99.
Ravel: String Quartet in F; Introduction et Allegro; Chansons madécasses; Cinq mélodies populaires grecques. Ellie Dehn, soprano; Yolanda Kondonassis, harp; Alexa Still, flute; Richard Hawkins, clarinet; Spencer Myer, piano; Jupiter String Quartet (Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violins; Liz Freivogel, viola; Daniel McDonough, cello). Oberlin Music. $15.99.
Joseph Summer: The Fair Ophelia. Navona. $16.99.
The King’s Singers: Great American Songbook. Signum Classics. $17.99 (2 CDs).
Sultans of String: Symphony! McKhool. $12.98.
Music lovers might anticipate that the one-to-one communication between solo instrument and listener would be the most-personal music experience of all, but whether that is so really depends on the specific music being played. Paganini’s Op. 1 Caprices are so wide-ranging, so symphonic in scope, so deep in terms of the technique they require and the auditory rewards they provide, that spending 75 minutes with them – certainly in a performance as outstanding as that of Ilya Gringolts on Orchid Classics – seems more expansive than inward-looking. The hardest thing to do in these works – and something on which Gringolts’ interpretation focuses, to marvelous effect – is to get past their enormous technical challenges to the musicianship underneath. These are certainly display pieces, with many serving as marvelous encores in innumerable recitals, and they are certainly études of the most elevated kind (although Paganini pointedly did not call them that); but they are also small gems of music-making, a fact that tends to get lost in the displays of sheer virtuosity that they require. Gringolts has so mastered the extreme difficulties that he takes listeners to, through and beyond the fireworks into a realm of sensitivity, fascination in the sheer variety of sounds that can be called forth from the violin, and even into puzzling and unusual musical structures, such as that of No. 12. Never overdone but always done to a turn, Gringolts’ Caprices are anything but capricious: they are carefully thought-through and elegantly presented in a manner that subsumes their technical intricacies beneath a covering of genuine beauty.
There is beauty of an altogether different kind in Schubert’s String Quintet in C, D. 956, although this too is a highly challenging piece to perform. True chamber-music intimacy is very much central to the gorgeous Adagio, which gets particular attention and care from Anne Gastinel and Quatuor Diotima. The movement is so lovely, so intimately involving, that it has been picked up as an atmosphere-setter in a wide variety of films – but it is far deeper than those superficial uses would indicate, and the performers on this Naïve CD show just how much depth it truly has. This is Schubert’s only string quintet and his final chamber work (composed just two months before his death). It is quite pensive but not at all death-haunted, although some commentators have tried to find ways in which it presages the composer’s demise. There is more of an autumnal quality to some elements of the quintet than is usual in Schubert – perhaps one reason that it inspired Brahms’ Piano Quintet (which was originally scored for the same instruments used here by Schubert). It is the use of the second cello – rather than a second viola, which is more common in string quintets – that gives Schubert’s work its burnished sound and contributes to its richness. And the performers here give the music plenty of time to unfold: this is a stately, even slow reading, although it never drags – rather, it dwells. The intimacy of this recording is at the highest level and is a great deal of what the best chamber music is all about.
A new Oberlin Music CD, featuring performers from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, is certainly cognizant of chamber music’s intimate nature: the disc is actually entitled “Ravel: Intimate Masterpieces.” None of the works here is at or near the level of Schubert’s quintet, but all have much to commend them and all are quite well played. The earliest and longest piece is the string quartet, which dates to 1903 and shows Ravel still seeking a voice entirely of his own: the subtlety of his melodic and harmonic thinking is present already, but there is some uneasiness in the work between its formal elements and its expressiveness. Introduction and Allegro is from only two years later, but written with a surer hand, and here the harp part is particularly well played by Yolanda Kondonassis. Cinq mélodies populaires grecques (1906) pairs Kondonassis with soprano Ellie Dehn in a work that does not sound much like what listeners expect from Ravel but that is filled with clever formal touches, essentially being a presentation of forthright folk melodies over “Ravelian” harmonies – an uneasy combination and a very winning one as interpreted here. The latest work on the CD, by far, is Chansons madécasses (1926), and here again Dehn is instrumental (no pun intended) in making the piece effective: these songs not only include lyrics that were controversial in their day but also utilize Schoenbergian sound to an extent that many would not expect in Ravel’s music. The “Intimate Masterpieces” title for the CD is a bit of an overstatement, since not all these works are especially intimate and none really deserves a “masterpiece” designation. But a touch of hyperbole is understandable when one has such interesting music to present and such fine performers presenting it.
The second “Shakespeare Concerts Series” CD from Navona is far less focused on the music of Joseph Summer than was the first, which was called Shakespeare’s Memory. This disc is entitled The Fair Ophelia and is entirely devoted to music inspired by Hamlet, including four works by Summer plus a very intriguing mixture of ones by other composers: Brahms, Richard Strauss, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Schumann and John Cage. Actually, the connection of the pieces to Hamlet is not always direct, as in the case of Schumann’s Herzeleid. But the sheer variety of the music within the overall Hamlet context makes this a more-intriguing CD than the earlier one. The Shakespeare Concerts series, which began in Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin islands in 2003, is but one recent attempt to find new or additional ways in which the Bard of Avon can connect with the audiences of today. The atmosphere of Shakespeare’s plays is actually established in part through music – there are songs throughout them, and instrumental music is frequently called for – so the concept of this concert series is right in line with Shakespeare’s own intentions. Whether a work such as Cage’s Ophelia makes sense in a Shakespearean context is really beside the point – what matters here is the intelligence with which this CD has been assembled, the interesting ways in which Summer himself creates Hamlet-related pieces (two longer and two shorter), and the nicely wrought performances of these works by vocalists and instrumentalists alike. Hamlet is, among other things, a very intimate tragedy, a tale of family betrayal and ruination, and the sad role of Ophelia within the play is well established and nicely filled out through the works heard here.
The singing is excellent but the music itself of less consequence in the (+++) Signum Classics release, The King’s Singers: Great American Songbook. The singers’ presentations vary from the intimate to the ebullient in one disc of 17 songs delivered a cappella and one presenting eight of the same songs with orchestral accompaniment. The setup is a trifle odd, except perhaps for listeners interested in hearing different ways to offer, among others, At Last, The Lady Is a Tramp and My Funny Valentine. The blending of The King’s Singers’ voices is as finely honed as always, and the orchestral arrangements by Alexander L’Estrange are well handled by the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Firman. The greater intimacy and more-effective communication, however, are to be found in the a cappella tracks, where the natural interweaving of the vocal sextet is attractive throughout. All the songs here are from the early 20th century, and an hour of them (plus another half hour of the orchestral versions) is a bit much, although certain pieces clearly stand out – such as Cole Porter’s Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye and Let’s Misbehave. Fans of The King’s Singers will enjoy their foray into this repertoire, although the music itself is somewhat too light to take full advantage of the sextet’s considerable vocal capabilities.
The quintet known as Sultans of String (Chris McKhool, Kevin Laliberté, Eddie Paton, Drew Birston and Rosendo “Chendy” León) also goes beyond its usual more-intimate presentations on a new (+++) CD on its own label. The music here is crossover of a sort, although what sort is difficult to say: the quintet uses six-string violin, multiple guitars, basses and percussion, among other instruments, plus vocals by McKhool, and on its new CD not only performs with symphonic musicians but also brings in guest artists for additional singing and to play oud, ukulele, trumpet, pennywhistle and Uilleann pipes – all being added to a 55-piece orchestra conducted by Jamie Hopkings. The 10 tracks here are all over the place geographically and to some extent musically as well, as the Sultans of String go out of their way to show all the ways they can extract sound from their instruments and juxtapose it with the sound of a traditional symphonic complement. The songs themselves are less intriguing than the way in which the performers deliver them, resulting in a CD that is fun to hear once but is unlikely to have a great deal of staying power after the ingenuity of the presentation wears off. Symphony! is scarcely symphonic, but it is far enough off the beaten track to be enjoyable for listeners hoping to hear some new and different sounds, including a smattering of exotic ones blended or contrasted with others that are more familiar.