December 10, 2015


Schubert: String Quintet in C, D. 956. Michael Kannen, cello; Brentano Quartet (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Lee, cello). Azica. $16.99.

Bliss: Morning Heroes—A Symphony for Orator, Chorus and Orchestra; Hymn to Apollo. Samuel West, orator; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

James Brawn in Recital, Volume 2: Music of Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Grieg, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Gershwin. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).

     There are few Romantic-era chamber pieces as challenging to perform as Schubert’s final chamber work, the String Quintet in C. As broad in scope as anything in chamber music – lasting nearly an hour – it requires excellent ensemble playing and unremitting beauty of tone from all five players, plus an understanding of the exceptional warmth of sound for which Schubert was striving when he added a second cello rather than the more-typical second viola to the traditional string quartet. The second-movement Adagio, in particular, 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 a new Azica CD – which was put together from three live performances offered over a single weekend at Amherst College in Massachusetts – show just how much depth the music truly has. This is Schubert’s only string quintet and, although composed just two months before his death, it is quite pensive but not at all death-haunted. A better description of the music would be “autumnal,” an adjective applied often to Brahms but rarely to Schubert; yet it fits here, particularly as the Brentano String Quartet – plus Michael Kannen, one of the quartet’s founding members – present the music. Indeed, Schubert’s work inspired Brahms’ Piano Quintet, which the later composer originally scored for the same instruments used here by Schubert. The sound of the two cellos gives the music a rich, burnished sound, which the performers here are careful to give plenty of time to unfold. The movements are taken mostly at a stately pace, although the Adagio is actually a touch on the fast side by the clock (but it never feels the slightest bit rushed). The intimacy of this music is exceptional, and these performers know it: the reading is colorful and controlled, intimate and (in the Scherzo) outgoing, involving from start to finish, and altogether convincing. The excitement of live performances comes through even before the rapturous applause at the disc’s conclusion, but the audience is remarkably quiet during the playing itself, no doubt as entranced by the intricate beauty of this music as are the first-rate performers.

     A work of similar length, grander scale, but ultimately less effectiveness, Sir Arthur Bliss’ Morning Heroes—A Symphony for Orator, Chorus and Orchestra gets  appropriately reflective treatment from Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a new Chandos SACD. The work is as much cantata or oratorio as symphony, using a narrator (the very fine Samuel West) to intone war-related texts from The Iliad, Walt Whitman, Wilfred Owen and Robert Nichols. The work’s quietly unfolding beginning, during which West speaks lines from Homer’s epic, establishes a mood of quiet and remembrance that is sustained throughout – and that drags somewhat through its sheer persistence. Bliss dedicated this work, first performed in 1930, to the memory of his brother, who was killed on the Somme in 1916; Bliss himself was wounded and gassed during World War I. But there is no anger in Morning Heroes – although there is intensity in two martial scherzos that enclose a central slow movement. The work gives the overall impression of a thoughtful, mostly quiet requiem for all the victims of what was at the time still called the Great War. It has some effective moments, such as the start of the finale, when words by Owen are accompanied only by timpani. But emotionally, it is both rather pallid and a bit of a stretch in comparing grinding trench warfare to a Homeric epic. Morning Heroes is particularly effective as a choral work – the writing for chorus is very fine – but is ultimately not particularly trenchant or emotionally convincing, despite its fraught subject matter. It is paired here with the première recording of the original (1926) version of Hymn to Apollo, which is actually more effective in communicating wistful sadness, anger and anguish in less than 10 minutes than Morning Heroes is in 55. The comparison is inevitable, since both pieces are tributes to Bliss’ brother and reflections of feelings engendered by World War I. Bliss was scarcely a miniaturist, but in this case he made a better connection in a short form than in a rather overblown long one. The Apollo of this hymn is the physician and seer – Apollo as god of the sun is heard only near the end – with Bliss developing a ritualistic procession from quiet woodwind and harp phrases at the start of the work. Bliss significantly revised Hymn to Apollo in 1964, both in form and in orchestration, which he reduced; he said his second thoughts on his works were generally better than his first. In this case, though, the original version makes a strong impression in juxtaposition with Morning Heroes. This is a (+++) recording, simply because the music is not especially compelling and has not worn particularly well; but it is certainly very well-played and will be attractive for listeners interested in Bliss, or simply in British music between the two world wars.

     The time frame is much greater in a new two-CD release featuring pianist James Brawn. In an hour and three quarters, Brawn handles nearly 300 years of music for MSR Classics. How well he spans the centuries, though, is a matter of opinion – and not because of his playing, which is as high-quality as usual. The issue is rather one of this being a kind of “greatest hits survey” even without actually including many “greatest hits.” For example, Beethoven is represented only by the charming trifle Für Elise, while Rachmaninoff gets five preludes. Chopin gets more music here than anyone else: seven pieces, including three preludes and four études – but the other quintessential Romantic-era composer/pianist, Liszt, is represented by a single piece, Consolation No. 3. It is hard to see this release as being more than an indulgence by and for Brawn. He includes seven works written for harpsichord – two Scarlatti sonatas and five Bach preludes from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier – plus minute-and-a-half works by both Grieg and Gershwin. From Mozart there are the Fantasia in D minor and Rondo alla Turca from the K. 331 sonata – the latter being a piece that does indeed qualify for “greatest hits” status. But Schubert is represented only by Moment Musicale No. 3 and Impromptu No. 3, Brahms by the little Waltz in A-flat minor and more-substantial Intermezzo in A, Scriabin by a single étude, and Prokofiev only by the Toccata in D. The chronological arrangement of the release, starting with Scarlatti and ending with Gershwin, emphasizes its “survey” character, and the inclusion of Chopin both at the end of the first CD and at the start of the second is clever in turning the composer into a sort of bridge between halves of the program. The program itself, though, is one that it is hard to listen to with much enthusiasm: this (+++) release would do well in a music-instruction context, perhaps, and could serve as an example for piano students of the sorts of works that they could learn to perform over time. But any serious listener surely already has these pieces already, in their correct context (and, in the case of Scarlatti and Bach, played on the intended instrument). Brawn breaks no new interpretative ground with this material, playing it well but, in the end, not to very much purpose.

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