September 17, 2015


Mendelssohn: Complete Chamber Music for Strings. Mandelring Quartet (Sebastian Schmidt and Nanette Schmidt, violins; Andreas Willwohl, viola; Bernhard Schmidt, cello); Gunter Teuffel, viola; Quartetto di Cremona (Cristiano Gualco and Paolo Andreoli, violins; Simone Gramaglia, viola; Giovanni Scaglione, cello). Audite. $29.99 (4 CDs).

Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 5; Suite from Dracula; String Sextet. Carducci String Quartet (Matthew Denton and Michelle Fleming, violins; Eoin Schmidt-Martin, viola; Emma Denton, cello); Cian O’Dúill, viola; Gemma Rosefield, cello. Naxos. $12.99.

Szymanowski: Violin Sonata in D minor, Op. 9; Nocturne and Tarantella, Op. 28; Reynaldo Hahn: Romance in A; Sonata for Violin & Piano in C; Nocturne in E-flat. Tamsin Waley-Cohen, violin; Huw Watkins, piano. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Haydn: Violin Concerto No. 1; Sinfonia Concertante. Pinchas Zukerman, violin and conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. PentaTone. $15.99 (SACD).

     Transparency of sound and clear interplay of instruments are hallmarks of chamber music, and there is also, in the best performances, a high degree of emotional connection that comes through clearly to listeners as it develops through the close interaction of a small instrumental group. This is the impression that emerges with the greatest clarity from the four-CD Audite set of Mendelssohn’s complete chamber music for strings, performed by the Mandelring Quartet. Originally issued in SACD format as four separate discs, these recordings from 2011 and 2012 sound just as strong and just as involving as CDs. The release itself is strangely packaged, though. It never gives the names of the Mandelring Quartet’s members or those of the members of the Quartetto di Cremona, which joins the Mandelring Quartet for Mendelssohn’s fleet-footed octet – a distinct highlight of the release, flowing easily and with sure understanding and grace. The only person named is Gunter Teuffel, the violist who joins the Mandelring Quartet for Mendelssohn’s two unfairly neglected quintets. Those works get exceptionally understanding readings here, with the distinctly Mozartean elements of the first quintet brought to the fore and well contrasted with the broader, more symphonic approach of the second quintet, written nearly two decades after the first. There are pleasures in every work recorded here: the seven quartets (including one in E-flat that was written when the composer was 14 years old), the two quintets, the octet, and the four posthumously published string-quartet movements. What is remarkable in the Mandelring Quartet’s presentation is the fluidity with which the performers move through each individual piece and through this cycle as a whole. Every work gets its own special characteristics highlighted, yet there is a cohesiveness to the performances that makes the impact of each separate piece that much greater. There are many especially impressive moments here. The pathos of the opening of the A minor quartet, Op. 13, is particularly telling. The structural understanding that the Mandelring Quartet brings to the three Op. 44 quartets is substantial, and the intensity and conviction with which these works are played are highly impressive. As for the harrowing Op. 80 quartet, in which Mendelssohn stretches his emotionalism and sense of structure to the utmost in agonizing response to the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, here the Mandelring Quartet members communicate the composer’s despair with such palpable intensity that the work is actually difficult to listen to, so deeply felt is its evocation of anguish. This is an absolutely first-rate release of Mendelssohn’s chamber music for strings, paying as much tribute to the performers as to the composer – and showing just how much impact music for a small ensemble can have when the group is as talented and committed as this one is.

     The pleasures are somewhat more rarefied in the music of Philip Glass on a new (+++) Naxos CD. Glass’ String Quartet No. 5 is less than typical of Glass’ approach, and different in sound from his first four quartets. Indeed, it does not really sound like Glass until the second movement: the first movement is more pensive and delicate than listeners who know other works by the composer will likely expect. The third, scherzo-ish movement is rhythmically vital, the fourth is somewhat stolid in its melancholy, and the fifth – which is the longest – is surprisingly vibrant and polyphonic, ending in a mixture of moods in which slow, chromatic material (taken from the first movement) alternates with more-playful elements. The work is interesting and occasionally genuinely involving, but does not really seem to have very much to say, despite the fine performance it receives from the Carducci String Quartet. Suite from Dracula is a more intriguing creation. Written in 1998 to accompany the famous Tod Browning Dracula of 1931 that starred Bela Lugosi, Glass’ music assiduously avoids horror clichés in favor of creating an atmospheric, aesthetically pleasing depth that actually goes beyond that of the film itself. Glass seems to want to pull listeners into the attractive, even seductive elements of the vampire tale, and thus uses his music to tempt and intrigue rather than to accentuate any sort of fright. This is, however, clearer in the full version of Glass’ score, which runs more than an hour, than in the 19-minute suite heard on this CD, where it receives its world première recording. Here there are eight short movements that can best be described as boilerplate Glass. There are the repeated, rhythmically steady chords, minor thirds and other building blocks of the “Glass sound,” and not much that is genuinely distinctive. Whether or not the Glass score helps the film is a matter of taste and opinion; but when heard simply as music, this suite from the Dracula music neither helps nor harms – it does not do very much one way or the other. As for the String Sextet, this is an arrangement by Michael Riesman of Glass’ Third Symphony, “Heroes.” The symphony dates to 1995, the sextet version to 2009. Hearing the symphony in sextet form is not as big a stretch as might be expected: the work was originally written for the 19-member Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and Glass’ commission called for him to treat each player as a soloist. So the six-player version, although it inevitably sounds different from the chamber-orchestra one, gives up little in terms of sonic impact. The work is rather traditionally classical by Glass’ standards, written in four movements and focusing especially on the third, which is essentially the slow movement and most clearly gives the individual musicians their own lines and their own roles to play. In sextet form, this movement gains somewhat in clarity of the lines but loses a sense of the sheer number of layers: the movement is in the style of a chaconne. Like the other works on this CD, and indeed like much of Glass’ music, the String Sextet has points of interest and points of familiarity (at least for those who have heard music by Glass before). What it does not have is the sort of visceral emotional connection at which chamber music can excel.

     Emotional impact is certainly what Karol Szymanowski was looking for in his 1904 Violin Sonata, Op. 9. A turbulent and intense work showing some influence of Chopin and even more of Scriabin, the sonata tends to be dragged down a bit by the chordal piano writing, which holds back its intended emotive flow. But the slow movement, which neatly contrasts bowed and pizzicato elements, is effective. The intense, virtuosic Nocturne and Tarantella (1915) draws on different influences: Debussy, to an extent, with a soupçon of Stravinsky and some traces of Middle Eastern culture and folklore. These are not among Szymanowski’s most important works, but they have many intriguing and colorful elements, and are very well played on a Signum Classics release featuring Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Huw Watkins. The rest of the CD, though, is of somewhat less interest. Reynaldo Hahn’s C major Violin Sonata of 1926, although a work of Hahn’s maturity, looks back some 50 years to Gabriel Fauré’s sonata in A of 1877. There is expressiveness here, to be sure, but it is restrained almost to the vanishing point; and while the scherzo-like second movement comes across well, the third and concluding one meanders rather aimlessly through gentleness, melancholy and nostalgia. The sonata is pleasant enough but somewhat overextended: the second movement, which provides the only respite from the work’s otherwise rather tentative tone, lasts just three minutes out of a total of 23. The other two Hahn works on this CD, Romance and Nocturne, fulfill the promise of their titles in fairly short order and nicely break up the musical sequence on the disc; but both pieces are rather slight. And the combination of Szymanowski with Hahn is rather strange – certainly in the case of these specific pieces – resulting in a (+++) recording that is more notable for the quality of its playing than for what is played.

     The playing is also first-rate on a new PentaTone release of music by Haydn – music that, although written for small orchestra, has all the fluidity and easy charm of chamber music – and the remastering of the 1977 and 1979 performances for this SACD is technically top-notch. But there are disappointments of several sorts in this (+++) recording. For one thing, it is the length of an LP – 44 minutes – but through a significant printing error or some sort of peculiar intentional mislabeling, its length is given as 76 minutes. For another, Pinchas Zukerman is a wonderful violinist, but he is not an especially skilled Haydn interpreter; and what passed for good Haydn in the 1970s, before the rise of the historic-performance movement and a greater understanding of the way music of Haydn’s time should be played, no longer passes muster in the 21st century. Both the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the Sinfonia Concertante sound lovely here, and the obbligato performances by Ronald Leonhard (cello), Barbara Winters (oboe) and David Breidenthal (bassoon) nicely complement and contrast with Zukerman’s. But although these are good mainstream readings from nearly 40 years ago, there is nothing particularly special about them for modern listeners – certainly not for ones who have become familiar with the tuning, bowing, gut-stringing, absence of vibrato, and overall clean sound that Haydn sought to create and that he expected performers of his time to produce. Fans of Zukerman will enjoy this recording, and certainly from a strictly aural standpoint, it sounds very good indeed. But these renditions show their age through their approach to the music; and only a dedicated Zukerman fan is likely to want to spend this amount of money for such a brief foray into the way Haydn used to be performed.

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