July 24, 2014


Hindemith: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4; Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1; Der Schwanendreher; Trauermusik. Antoine Tamestit, viola; Markus Hadulla, piano; Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi. Naïve. $16.99.

Hindemith: Nobilissima Visione; Five Pieces for String Orchestra. Ko-ichiro Yamamoto, trombone; Emma McGrath, violin; Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Berlioz: Harold in Italy; Rêverie et Caprice; Overtures—Roman Carnival; Benvenuto Cellini. Lise Berthaud, viola; Giovanni Radivo, violin; Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.

Bartók: Chamber Works for Violin, Volume 3—44 Duos for Two Violins; Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano; Sonatina for Piano, transcribed for violin and piano by Endre Gertler. James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violins; Michael Collins, clarinet; Andrew Armstrong, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Brahms: Violin Concerto; Sibelius: Violin Concerto. Erich Rühn (Beethoven), Gioconda de Vito (Mendelssohn), Yehudi Menuhin (Brahms) and Georg Kulenkampff (Sibelius), violins; Berliner Philharmoniker (Beethoven, Sibelius), Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI (Mendelssohn), and Lucerne Festival Orchestra (Brahms) conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Andromeda. $12.99 (2 CDs).

     The violin continues to get most of the attention as a solo stringed instrument, but that is not for want of skill in both compositions and virtuoso-level performances focusing on the viola. Although pickings are scarce for violists in Baroque and Classical times (Telemann’s Viola Concerto and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante are among the few often-played works), matters certainly improved in the 20th century, thanks partly to violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) and partly to composers such as Walton, Bartók and, especially notably, Hindemith. Hindemith’s music tends to be thorny, even dense, making its acceptance – even half a century after his death – less than a sure thing. But when well performed, especially as well performed as it is by Antoine Tamestit on a new Naïve CD, it makes a compelling case for the special virtues of an instrument tuned just a fifth lower than the violin but having vastly expanded emotional capabilities as a result of its larger size and that bottom C string. In Hindemith’s Sonata for Viola and Piano with Markus Hadulla, Sonata for Solo Viola, and two works with orchestra – Der Schwanendreher and Trauermusik – Tamestit consistently offers beautiful tone and a vibrant understanding of Hindemith’s emotional as well as structural depths. These are deeply committed performances throughout, with Tamestit – abetted by very fine work from the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Järvi – paying special attention to the close relationship between the two viola-and-orchestra works. Trauermusik was written on January 21, 1936, the day after King George V of England died, and received its première the same evening – and it quotes from Der Schwanendreher, whose scheduled performance on January 22 was cancelled because of the king’s death. Trauermusik also quotes from Hindemith’s 1934 Symphony: Mathis der Maler, as listeners familiar with that work will quickly notice. But Trauermusik is more than its components: it is a highly engaging work that takes full advantage of the viola’s ability to mourn both movingly and with beauty. Der Schwanendreher, a full-fledged viola concerto from 1935, is based on folk songs and handles them with considerable compositional skill – Tamestit giving a particularly involving reading of the first movement, “Between Mountain and Deep Valley.” The chamber works are equally effective in their own ways, with Hadulla performing as a true partner in the viola-and-piano sonata and Tamestit’s gorgeous tone and sure stylistic sense keeping the solo-viola sonata involving throughout. Here is a CD that shows just how unfair is the comparative neglect of both the viola and the music of Hindemith.

     Hindemith was quite capable of giving the violin as well as the viola a starring performance role, or at least one of first among equals: his Five Pieces for String Orchestra (1927) do just that, delivering effective contrasts between slow, moving vignettes and quicker, more-spirited ones. A new Naxos CD offers them played very well indeed by violinist Emma McGrath and the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz. The main event on the disc is the complete ballet, Nobilissima Visione, a 1938 work in 11 musical numbers that is almost wholly unknown today, although the three-movement suite that Hindemith created from it is one of his more frequently performed works. The suite contains less than half the ballet’s music, however, and this recording is, surprisingly, the first one of the complete ballet. The ballet traces the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and although the specific elements of the stage work are not directly audible in most of the music, the movements are well individuated: it is easy to hear Hindemith’s attempt to create a piece to complement dance and become part of a theatrical experience. Sections such as “March,” “Festival Music” and “Meditation” are self-explanatory, while ones such as “Appearance of the Three Women” and “Wedding with Poverty” are effective in themselves, even for listeners unfamiliar with the scenes to which they were attached in the choreography by Léonide Massine. Schwarz conducts this work with considerable sensitivity, and Ko-ichiro Yamamoto handles the prominent trombone part with a smooth, well-rounded sound.

     Smoothness is also the main impression given by violist Lise Berthaud in her recording of Berlioz’ Harold in Italy, one of the few real masterpieces for viola and orchestra dating to Romantic times. Originally written for Paganini, who was as adept with viola (and guitar) as with violin, the work was famously rejected by him for having insufficient virtuoso requirements and too many sections in which the viola was silent – that is, Berlioz had written something other than a soloist’s showpiece. Paganini eventually realized the work’s quality, and violists have long enjoyed its combination of warmth and out-and-out (but carefully calculated) display. The Orchestre National de Lyon under Leonard Slatkin delivers a spirited, sensitive and highly idiomatic performance on a new Naxos CD that showcases the ease and naturalness with which this ensemble handles the music of Berlioz. The two well-known overtures on the disc get equally warm and knowing treatment, the fine points of their orchestration – Berlioz was a ne plus ultra orchestrator – coming through clearly, with Slatkin’s tempo changes well chosen to reflect the works’ changing moods. Also here is the only work Berlioz wrote for solo violin and orchestra, his Rêverie et Caprice, a short and elegant piece handled skillfully and feelingly by soloist Giovanni Radivo and showing again the sensitive understanding of Slatkin and the ensemble.

     The violin’s dominance over the viola did not end in the 20th century, even though the viola repertoire was immensely enriched during that time period. Long before Bartók wrote his concerto for viola – which was left unfinished at his death – he created a number of works focusing on the violin, of which one of the most significant is the 44 Duos for two violins (1931; the composer arranged six of them for piano in 1936, under the title Petite Suite). The importance of the duos lies in their being pedagogical rather than concert-oriented. Intended for young students’ use, they are scarcely simple – and they show with considerable clarity how Bartók used folk music, since all 44 are based on Eastern European folk tunes that are treated with considerable rhythmic and harmonic freedom. When they are as well played as they are by James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti on a new Chandos disc – the third entry in the label’s recordings of Bartók’s chamber music for violin – the 44 Duos rise above their provenance both as folk music and as educational aids, becoming a microcosm of the composer’s interest in folk tunes as well as an exploration of his methods of enlarging and elaborating the simple songs and dances that he spent so many years collecting. The comparative simplicity of the 44 Duos mixes well on this CD with Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, a late work (1938) that takes Hungarian and Romanian folk melodies considerably further. This is actually music in a single mood, despite its three movements’ contrasting speeds. The violin and clarinet parts are well developed and contrast nicely with that of the piano, with Ehnes, Michael Collins and Andrew Armstrong melding well in a performance both poetic and pointed. Ehnes and Armstrong also offer a pleasant reading of the short Sonatina of 1915, as transcribed in 1925 by Endre Gertler. This is a work of some charm but not very much consequence, nicely placed to separate this disc’s two longer offerings and provide some respite – or a palate cleanser – between them.

     The point of the best-known violin concertos is to focus attention on the soloist, with the orchestra and conductor assuming a subsidiary role, if a crucial one. It is, however, the conductor who is the focus of a new two-CD set – and perhaps not surprisingly, since the conductor is Wilhelm Furtwängler, frequently described as one of the two greatest conductors of the first part of the 20th century, the other being Furtwängler’s great rival, Arturo Toscanini.  Music historians know that Furtwängler and Toscanini represented opposite temperaments, but not as might be expected: Toscanini, the Italian, was the more-rigid, intense and driven conductor, while Furtwängler, the German, although equally driven, was the one focused on pulling emotion from scores. To Toscanini, the score was everything, to be followed carefully in order to convey what the composer intended; to Furtwängler, it was a starting point from which performers extracted the feelings that the composer put into it – even when that meant playing pieces with many tempo and emphasis changes that did not appear anywhere in the works themselves. Furtwängler was not alone in this view: he shared some of it in his own time with Bruno Walter, for example, and Leonard Bernstein exemplified it to some extent among later conductors. But Furtwängler took his approach to scores to extremes, resulting in performances that were often sloppy, imprecise and quite distant from what modern-day listeners have come to expect. The four concertos on the new Andromeda release feature only one soloist who is well-known today, Yehudi Menuhin. The other violinists are certainly skilled and handle the music well, though, and Georg Kulenkampff (1898-1948) – widely considered one of the finest violinists of his time – performs at the absolutely highest level. The two readings with the Berlin Philharmonic have considerable historical value, having been made in Berlin during the Nazi era: the Sibelius on February 7 and 8, 1943, and the Beethoven on January 12, 1944. Furtwängler’s relationship with the Nazis was intricate, complex and controversial, and included more than one shouting match between him and Hitler because Furtwängler unsuccessfully demanded respect for Jewish musicians and composers. The Brahms performance dates to August 29-31, 1949, and the Mendelssohn to March 11, 1952, some two-and-a-half years before Furtwängler’s death. The new remasterings presented here cannot bring the sound anywhere close to modern standards, although they are perfectly respectable; and the performances will likely be of only historical interest to the vast majority of listeners – they sound capricious, overdone and frequently rhythmically flabby when compared with the best (or even the better) recordings of more-recent times. Furtwängler’s attempt to get to the emotional core of the music flounders in a sea of imprecision that modern listeners will find difficult, if not impossible, to accept. (Toscanini’s performances, which often sound rushed and emotionally unconvincing, have not worn particularly well, either.) The low price of this set, and its historical interest, give it a (+++) rating, especially for anyone interested in Furtwängler himself and the era he represents. Strictly on a musical basis, though, none of the performances here – however well played – will likely be a modern listener’s first or even second or third choice.

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