November 26, 2014


Schumann: String Quartets Nos. 1-3. Ying Quartet (Ayano Ninomiya and Janet Ying, violins; Phillip Ying, viola; David Ying, cello). Sono Luminus. $24.99 (Blu-ray Disc+CD).

Rued Langgaard: String Quartets, Vol. 3—Nos. 1 and 5; String Quartet Movement “Italian Scherzo.” Nightingale String Quartet (Gunvor Sihm and Josefine Dalsgaard, violins; Marie Louise Broholt Jensen, viola; Louisa Schwab, cello). Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

Bartók: Sonata for Solo Violin; Bach: Violin Sonata No. 3; Korngold: Violin Concerto. Nigel Armstrong, violin; The Colburn Orchestra conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. Yarlung Records. $19.99.

Belle Nuit—Music of Debussy, Chabrier, Fabien Gabel, Franck, Henri Duparc, Jean-Baptiste Singelée, Ravel, Honegger, Messiaen, Fauré, Bizet, Massenet and Offenbach. Kathryn Goodson, piano. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Mark Zanter: String Quartet; Three Movements for Cello Quintet; Letters to a Young Poet; Lament and Dream. Navona. $14.99.

     Fleet and lively, yet introspective and thoughtful, the Ying Quartet’s performances of Schumann’s three string quartets are involving in the manner of the best chamber music: there is intimacy here as well as drama, inward focus among the players as well as outward expressiveness directed at a larger audience. To be sure, Schumann’s structuring of these works, which are among the more-neglected in his oeuvre, facilitates the expression of this inward-and-outward duality: although strongly influenced by Beethoven and to a lesser extent by Haydn and Mozart, Schumann in these pieces created a new approach to quartet writing by producing works that unfold gently and eventually blossom, rather than ones that stride forth with nobility or intensity and use their initial presentation as a jumping-off point. One reason the quartets are not heard as often as other music by Schumann is that they are wrongly considered to be pianistic rather than string-friendly. But on a new Sono Luminus release that includes both a CD and a Blu-ray audio disc, the Ying Quartet shows how wrong this belief, which is more in the nature of a prejudice, really is. Taking Schumann’s metronome markings more or less at face value, which means playing several of the movements more quickly than listeners will likely have heard them before, the quartet members show just how effectively Schumann adapted his pianistic knowledge to strings while creating music that, for the most part, lies idiomatically on the instruments. Yes, there are places where strings are asked to perform “pianistically,” as in the scales in broken thirds in the finale of Quartet No. 1; but there is nothing here that first-rate string players cannot handle, and the music in the main is highly rewarding for both performers and listeners. All three quartets were written in the span of just a few weeks, but there are considerable differences among them as well as a number of similarities. The Ying Quartet handles each work as an individualistic piece, exploring the emotions and expressiveness of each and bringing forth their different characters to very fine effect.

     The effects of the music of Rued Langgaard are highly varied and by no means universally enjoyed – Langgaard (1893-1952) never achieved the acceptance he sought in his native Denmark, for example. Part of the problem is that Langgaard did himself no favors in making his music presentable. The Nightingale String Quartet has now completed a survey of Langgaard’s string quartets, which number more or less 10 but are hard to pin down because of numerous revisions, reuse of movements in different contexts, and Langgaard’s failure to number the works in any reasonable order (one chronological sequence goes 6, 3, 5, 4). Four of the quartets were all called Rosengaardsspil (“Rose Garden Play”), referring to a summer during which the young Langgaard fell in love, but the composer later changed three of the works’ designations, keeping the title for the fourth work but not giving that one a sequence number. Langgaard was difficult compositionally, too, with some of his works sounding genuinely modern more than half a century after they were composed. The latest Dacapo release of Langgaard’s quartets includes both his first significant work in the form and his last one. Indeed, the Quartet No. 1, completed in 1915, is Langgaard’s first major chamber work of any sort. It has never been recorded before and was performed only once, in private, in 1916. Langgaard subsequently tore it apart, reusing some elements and discarding others, then remade the whole thing in 1936. Quotations from Goethe songs and a hymnlike tune in the finale are among the work’s distinguishing features. Its most interesting movement is its third, the slow movement, in which very modern-sounding, almost motionless music is periodically interrupted by sudden agitated injections that seem to be commenting on the main material dismissively. At the other end of Langgaard’s production for string quartet is the very brief Italian Scherzo from 1950, which also gets its first-ever recording here. It was one of a number of draft elements that Langgaard wrote over the years without develop[ping them further – in this case, he said he could not be bothered to compose the remaining parts. Also on this CD is String Quartet No. 5, the last-conceived of Langgaard’s quartets, whose first form dates to 1925; it was significantly revised in 1926-28 and then modified again in 1938. This is the easiest music on the disc to listen to: Langgaard specifically wrote it as an alternative to then-modern music that he considered horrible to hear, and it has a sweetness, an idyllic flow, that is uncomplicated and comes with an old-fashioned pastoral cast. The Nightingale String Quartet handles these very different pieces with skill and understanding, allowing the thorny elements their difficulties and the expressive ones their beauties, thus showing how extreme the mood swings tend to be in all Langgaard’s music.

     Things are considerably more placid on a new Yarlung Records release featuring Nigel Armstrong, a young violinist (born 1990) with lovely technique and a high degree of comfort with music of very different eras and approaches. That is not to say that matters here are uninteresting, though – quite the opposite. Armstrong gets to show his abilities as a soloist, in chamber music and as soloist with orchestra, in an interestingly selected program that also includes the Colburn Orchestra under Sir Neville Marriner. This is a conservatory orchestra and a very fine one, but it is not the focus of the CD despite the fine support it provides in the Korngold Violin Concerto. The composer’s only work in this form, the 1945 concerto is one of Korngold’s attempts to show that he was more than a film composer, but it keeps referring to his film music, including elements from Another Dawn (1937), Juarez (1939), Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Prince and the Pauper (1937). The result is a work that adheres to classical forms but tends to feel as if it lapses into the Hollywood idiom from time to time. Armstrong plays it straight, neither accentuating nor bypassing its film-derived elements, and the result is a performance that is lush, lyrical and something of a stylistic throwback – the music is quite effective but not especially memorable. On the chamber-music side of things, Bartók’s 1944 Sonata for Solo Violin really shows a violinist’s technical abilities, requiring left-hand pizzicati played against a right-hand melody, multiple stops, artificial harmonics and other difficult techniques. It also requires interpretative subtlety to make it more than a display piece. Armstrong shows that he can certainly handle the virtuoso requirements, although he falls a bit short of making the work wholly convincing as music rather than display – one of the few ways he indicates some degree of interpretative immaturity on this disc. The performance is nevertheless an involving one; and so is Armstrong’s handling of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3, BWV 1005, whose technical difficulties are also considerable. The first movement requires a slow stacking-up of notes – a demanding technique once thought impossible on a bowed instrument – and this work’s fugue is the most complex and extensive of those in the three sonatas of Bach’s Sonatas and Partias (Partitas) for solo violin. Armstrong shows himself quite capable of handling Bach’s complex counterpoint, and he makes the fugal subject (derived from the chorale Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott) clear and expressive. In totality, this is a CD whose focus on Armstrong is well-justified by the sensitivity and skill that the violinist brings to chamber and orchestral repertoire alike.

     The focus is on a pianist, Kathryn Goodson, and the repertoire is also varied on a new two-CD set from Navona called Belle Nuit. The accent here is French throughout, although the 14 works of the 13 composers represented provide considerable variety. Of particular interest here is the way the piano mingles and contrasts with a variety of wind and brass instruments. The first CD includes four substantial pieces: Debussy’s Rhapsodie pour Saxophone et Orchestre, Chabrier’s Larghetto pour Cor et Orchestre, Gabel’s Fantaisie dans la Style de Richard Strauss, and Franck’s Sonate pour Piano et Violon, the Debussy and Franck arranged for alto saxophone and the Chabrier for horn. These four pieces highlight not only Goodson but also saxophonists Donald Sinta and Timothy McAllister, horn player Gail Williams, and bass trombonist Randall Hawes. The same four players appear as well on the second CD, which consists entirely of shorter works. These are Duparc’s Mélodies, Singelée’s Duo Concertant, Debussy’s Beau Soir, Ravel’s Pièce en Forme de Habanera, Honegger’s Mimaamaquim, Messiaen’s Vocalise, Faure’s Mélodies, Bizet’s Au Fond du Temple Saint, Massenet’s Baigne d’Eau Mes Mains et Mes Lèvres, and Offenbach’s Belle Nuit – the last three being from operas. This is a substantial release – nearly two hours of music in all – and one showcasing Goodson, Sinta, McAllister, Williams and Hawes in music both familiar and virtually unknown. The Gallic fragrance of the works produces enough similarity of sound to make the release seem well-unified, while the contrast between the deeper and more-extended pieces on the first CD and the generally lighter and shorter ones on the second makes for a very enjoyable two-recital program. Gabel’s Fantaisie, the first of the Duparc Mélodies (called La Fuite and featuring both horn and bass trombone), Honegger’s psalm setting (originally for voice and piano; the title means “Out of the Depths”), and the chamber setting (horn, bass trombone and piano) of Offenbach’s Belle Nuit (the lovely Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann) are among the highlights here; but every track has something of interest and something to recommend it.

     The chamber music of Mark Zanter on a new Navona release is more sound-oriented than melody-oriented, as is often the case with contemporary composers, and its intricacy and sonic qualities will be appealing primarily to those already fond of today’s compositional techniques and sonorities. This (+++) CD contains four works, all of them quite recent. String Quartet (2011), performed by the Ankara University Soloists String Quartet (Ellen Jewett and Orhan Ahiskal, violins; Çetin Aydar, viola; Sinan Dizmen, cello), tries to use the most modern forms of composition to bring listeners into a deeply emotional world – and works best for those already comfortable with those forms. Three Movements for Cello Quintet (2007), featuring Şőlen Dikener, also tries to pull emotions from technique, and is most interesting for its overall sonic environment. Letters to a Young Poet (2013), inspired by the correspondence of Rainer Maria Rilke with Franz Xaver Kappus, is for violin (Kristen Alves) and guitar (Júlio Ribeiro Alves), and it too is more interesting for the sound combinations of the instruments than for anything particularly stirring in its six short movements. There is also an orchestral work by Zanter on this CD: Lament and Dream (2013), played by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek. The scoring is for strings, piano and percussion, and the music is a series of seven mostly brief episodes (three lasting less than a minute apiece) intended to be evocative of the concepts of the title but sounding only intermittently expressive or dreamlike. None of the music here will stay with most listeners for very long: it sounds too much like other contemporary works created with similar techniques. But everything is well-played and given plenty of chances for the expressiveness that Zanter seeks – it is just that a certain spark of originality in the creativity of the music is, if not missing, rather dim.

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