August 13, 2015


Mendelssohn: Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2. Sitkovetsky Trio (Alexander Sitkovetsky, violin; Leonard Elschenbroich, cello; Wu Qian, piano). BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Korngold: Piano Trio in D, Op. 1; Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Piano Left Hand. Daniel Rowland and Priya Mitchell, violins; Julian Arp, cello; Luis Magalhães, piano. Two Pianists Records. $16.99.

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 2; Evocation á la Chapelle Sixtine; Buxton Orr: A Carmen Fantasy; Martinů: Variations on a Theme of Rossini; Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Figaro. Lachezar Kostov, cello; Viktor Valkov, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Sibelius: String Quartet, “Voces Intimae”; Britten: Three Divertimenti; Turina: La Oración del Torero. Skyros Quartet (Sarah Pizzichemi and James Moat, violins; Justin Kurys, viola; William Braun, cello). Navona. $14.99.

American Dreams: String Quartets and other works by Peter Schickele, Ken Benshoof, Janice Giteck, and Bern Herbolsheimer. St. Helens String Quartet (Stephen Bryant and Adrianna Hulscher, violins; Michael Lieberman, viola; Peter Stockley, cello); Lisa Bergman, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Michael Matthews: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3; Miniatures. Clearwater Quartet (Gwen Hoebig and Daniel Scholz, violins; Yuri Hooker, viola; Karl Stobbe, cello). Ravello. $16.99.

     It was Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 that led Schumann to make the famous comment that Mendelssohn was “the Mozart of the 19th century.” The trio is in fact a wonderful “bridge” work, with much Mozartean fleetness in the strings but a more forward-looking, Romantic piano part that in fact is reminiscent of some of the music of Schumann himself (Mendelssohn actually revised and expanded the piano’s role, on the advice of fellow composer Ferdinand Hiller). Despite the piano’s importance, the cello also plays a significant role in the work, notably in the first movement. But the finale, the movement that Mendelssohn changed the most on Hiller’s advice, is largely a piano showpiece – although contrasting cantabile sections provide moments of relaxation and thoroughly Mendelssohnian respite. Interestingly in light of the Mendelssohn-Mozart comparison, this trio is in D minor, like Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20; and like that concerto, it emerges at the end into D major. The Sitkovetsky Trio plays the work with considerable brio in a new BIS recording, emphasizing its light and fleet moments while never downplaying its more-serious ones. The performers have a very fine sense of balance, and their handoffs among the instruments are always managed with alacrity. This skill also stands them in good stead in Piano Trio No. 2, which – like the Symphony No. 5 – quotes an old chorale in its finale, in this case the 16th-century Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit, known in English as “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” Brahms used melodies from this trio twice in his own works, once in Piano Sonata No. 3 and once in Piano Quartet No. 3. In Mendelssohn’s hands, the work flows with apparent effortlessness from start to finish, and its C minor tonality – which, interestingly, is that of Mozart’s other minor-key piano concerto, No. 24 – gives it both heft and wistfulness, but no sense of anything dire or doom-laden. Here as in the first trio, the performers’ excellent sense of ensemble combines with their individual skill to produce a winning combination that serves the music very well indeed.

     The music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is undergoing something of a reconsideration these days, and Two Pianists Records is poised to play a significant role in it through a series it is calling The Korngold Project. The first volume includes Korngold’s only Piano Trio, which is his first published work and was written when he was just 13 – showing him as a Mendelssohn-like prodigy. The trio was written when Korngold was studying with Alexander Zemlinsky, and it contains both late-Romantic intensity and high levels of lyricism. It also has some clever compositional elements, to which the performers are careful to pay close attention: notably, it has an almost circular structure, with the work’s opening theme repeated and reworked at the conclusion of the finale. Although it is easy to hear echoes of Brahms and Richard Strauss in the music, there is nothing overtly imitative in it, and its harmonic language is right in line with what would be expected for its time period (1909-10), showing that Korngold understood very early in life the direction in which music was going – even if he often chose in later works not to go that way. The Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Piano Left Hand is later Korngold (1930) and significantly more mature in the sense of being written in a more-definitive, more-personal style. But it too draws largely on late-Romantic notions of harmony and emotional communication, and its five movements are evocative of exactly what their titles suggest: Präludium und Fuge, Walzer, Groteske, Lied and Rondo-Finale (Variationen). It was commissioned by pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I and was very pleased with the left-hand concerto that Korngold had previously written for him. Less thoroughly integrated than the early Trio, as befits a work labeled a suite, this piece gives the performers plenty of chances to showcase their individual parts (including a very demanding opening piano cadenza) as well as their ensemble work – Korngold was skilled at creating equal contributions to chamber music for all the participants. This entry in the budding Korngold revival bodes very well indeed for future releases in the same series.

     The cello-and-piano duo of Lachezar Kostov and Viktor Valkov offers three of its own arrangements of music and three works by composers for this instrumental combination on a new Navona CD. The performances are quite something: Kostov and Valkov seem determined throughout to push their instruments and their own abilities to the limit. Their arrangements of the first two Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt strongly emphasize virtuosity over what Liszt thought of as gypsy authenticity: Kostov and Valkov wring all the speed and intensity from the works that they can, along with some over-the-top emotion. Their paraphrase of Evocation á la Chapelle Sixtine is something different: it sounds only marginally like Liszt’s original, using Liszt as the basis for a sonic exploration of contemporary compositional and performance techniques. The result is something far from authentic and not really very much in line with what Liszt himself wrote, but highly intriguing to hear – at least once in a while. Whether it will have Liszt’s staying power is doubtful, although it could become a training work of sorts for other modern cello-and-piano duos. The three other works here were intended for this combination of instruments from the first. Buxton Orr (1924-1997) offers one of the many compilations of tunes from Carmen that have been created by various composers and for various instruments. In this case, that means a work whose salient features include an emphasis on carefully controlled use of vibrato on the cello. Variations on a Theme of Rossini by Bohuslav Martinů deliberately places Rossini’s music in 20th-century garb, using Martinů’s own harmonic interests to bring Rossini “up to date” while producing a virtuoso showpiece. The work makes for an interesting contrast with, for example, Manuel Rosenthal’s updating of Offenbach in Gaité Parisienne. The original material is certainly there in both cases, but its treatment – while respectful, at least in a sense – is decidedly out of what would have been each original composer’s comfort zone. And speaking of comfort zones, Kostov and Valkov must have a wide one to include not only the Martinů treatment of Rossini but also the one by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, whose Figaro takes the ever-popular Largo al factotum from The Barber of Seville through a paraphrase that, in addition to its undoubted virtuoso elements, is poised and graceful. This CD is an outgoing one from start to finish, providing listeners with some unfamiliar takes on familiar music, all with performances that showcase playing that couples a high level of musicianship with very considerable virtuosity.

     The virtuosity is more inward-looking on a new Navona CD featuring the Skyros Quartet in works by Sibelius, Britten and Joaquín Turina. The Sibelius “Voces Intimae” quartet, Sibelius’ fourth in the form but his only mature one, is the major work here: an extended five-movement exploration of emotion and thought whose very long slow movement is central both in placement and in meaning. The harmonic language here is noticeably that of mature Sibelius (the work dates to 1909, between the Third and Fourth Symphonies), and the piece includes folk and folklike elements; but the quartet has a strongly inward-looking feel throughout, a sense of thoughtfulness and even of looking back at life that might seem difficult for a young ensemble such as the Skyros Quartet to manage comfortably. Yet the performers seem quite at home with the music, allowing it to flow naturally among their instruments and never pushing it too far, too fast or too hard. The quartet members seem to have thought about this music for some time before recording it: their playing is not only technically assured but also very well attuned to the internal emotional focus of the music. The remainder of this CD is more colorful, more forthright and more extroverted. Turina’s La Oración del Torero gives the quartet a chance to show off its rhythmic adaptability to flamenco style and its flair for more-modern sounds than Sibelius offers. And Britten’s student piece, Three Divertimenti, offers just the right sort of diversion in its three short movements: March, Waltz and Burlesque. The titles are self-explanatory and the music is forthright, surface-level, enthusiastic and simply fun – nothing profound here (as in the Sibelius) and nothing exotic (as in the Turina), but a chance for the Skyros Quartet to throw itself with aplomb into short characteristic pieces that offer plenty of opportunities for display and plenty of chances for listeners to enjoy themselves.

     Two other new quartet recordings, one featuring American works and one focusing on Canadian composer Michael Matthews, are somewhat less winning and get (+++) ratings. The Navona CD called American Dreams is one of those offerings of music that straddles the classical and popular-music worlds, in this case including a large dose of folk music as well. Jazz influences are inevitable in music that crosses lines in this way, and Peter Schickele’s String Quartet No. 1, “American Dreams” (1983) is packed with them. It is a large-scale, five-movement work with vaguely rural imagery implicit in its choice of tunes, and it is a deliberate attempt to fuse classical, jazz and folk elements into a coherent whole – an effort that is worthy even though it does not quite succeed. More interesting as an experiment is Swing Low (2004) by Ken Benshoof, which shifts tones, harmonies and rhythms of the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot through eight variations that are not so much changes in the original as they are deconstructions and reassemblies of elements of it. Benshoof’s six-movement Diversions (2005), for violin and piano, also arranges and rearranges its material in some interesting ways, although neither of these works seems as directly communicative as his short Remember (1977), with its evocative cello part. Also here is a five-movement suite by Bern Herbolsheimer called Botanas (2008), which uses Mayan melodies in an attempt at a Mexican evocation and flavor. The contrast of the pizzicato and legato elements in the half-minute movement X’ni Pe (That Means Dog’s Nose) is a highlight. The CD is completed with two brief pieces by Janice Giteck: Where Can One Live Safely, Then? In Surrender (2005) and Ricercare (Dream upon Arrival) (2012). They are insistent works that try to communicate something about the inadequacies of modern living, but although they are well-made, they do not really relate to the topics their titles suggest.

     As for Ravello’s Michael Matthews CD, it too features music that is supposed to reflect on societal conditions but does not really do so except in the very general way of any serious and thoughtfully composed work. Miniatures (2000) is the least esoteric and least fraught work here, and comes across best. It is simply a sequence of 11 numbered movements, lasting from 17 seconds to just under three minutes, that collectively come across as a series of fragments, as if they are scattered memories of dreams or events in the composer’s life, set down in an order that could just as easily be a different one, beholden to Webern and other 20th-century modernists but with a sense of questioning uncertainty emerging from time to time. This is highly intellectualized music, yet it is less so than the music of the quartets here, which simply insists on being heard (and interpreted) with the utmost seriousness and portentousness that, unfortunately, shades over again and again into pretentiousness. Quartet No. 2 (2002-03) seems to ask numerous questions and answer none, following in the footsteps of Schoenberg and his followers into a musical language that insists the fault is in the listener if he or she fails to accept what is being said and how. Quartet No. 3 (2008/2013) is more Shostakovich than Schoenberg or Webern, opening with intensity and continuing through second, third and fourth movements that are played attacca and that produce only a feeling of a stasis of pain. This is difficult music, but unlike much that is complex and has come before, it does not really repay the effort needed to plumb what depths it has. It is music that insists on its own importance, but in so doing minimizes itself. Matthews wants to raise significant existential questions through these works, but because he never fully involves listeners – never moves them in any way beyond the purely intellectual – what he creates contains its own distancing mechanisms, so that it ends up being interesting material (especially when heard more than once) but never makes the sort of visceral, emotional connection that would render its complexities worthwhile for most listeners to explore at greater length.

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