May 12, 2016
(++++) WHEN SOLOISTS SOAR
Schumann: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume IV—Violin Concerto; Piano Concerto. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Dénes Várjon, piano; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Heinz Holliger. Audite. $18.99.
Schumann: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume V—Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 92; Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 134; Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra; Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra. Alexander Lonquich, piano; Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Paul van Zelm, Ludwig Rast, Rainer Jurkiewicz and Joachim Pölti, horns; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Heinz Holliger. Audite. $18.99.
Victor Herbert: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Irish Rhapsody. Mark Kosower, cello; Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
First Day: Music of José Bragato, Bohuslav Martinů, Caleb Burhans, Alberto Ginastera, George Enescu, Dan Visconti, Marin Marais and Francis Poulenc. Laura Metcalf, cello; Matei Varga, piano. Sono Luminus. $15.99.
Having long since proved himself a superior oboist, Heinz Holliger is now well on the way to proving himself a very fine conductor as well. The fourth and fifth volumes of his Audite series of Schumann’s complete symphonic works, featuring the excellent playing of WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, give Holliger a chance to move into some hyper-familiar territory and show what sorts of nuances and new approaches he can bring to it. It turns out that Holliger’s view of the music is refreshingly clear-headed and generally straightforward, breaking no major new interpretative ground but at the same time not striving unnecessarily for some sort of unwarranted attention based on pushing the music in directions in which it does not necessarily want to go. This is especially clear in the ever-popular Piano Concerto, for which soloist Dénes Várjon dishes up a suitable degree of lyricism and a good sense of the finale’s dance rhythms, but neither he nor Holliger seeks to expand the work beyond its comparatively modest dimensions or treat it as more than a piano fantasy (which is what Schumann originally planned the first movement to be) with some marvelously expanded lyricism. The performance, although light and fleet, is not small-scale: it is appropriately scaled for the music, and works well as a result. The less-often-heard Violin Concerto fares quite well here, too. Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a big reason for this: she takes the music at face value and allows its essentially symphonic structure to dominate, not seeking violin supremacy when Schumann did not really provide it (the first movement even lacks a cadenza). Holliger, likely benefiting from his own role as a soloist, provides just the right balance of backup here, with the orchestra dominating much of the time but with Kopatchinskaja coming to the fore when given the opportunity. The concerto itself is on the heavy side, especially in the first movement, and can easily become turgid; but both soloist and conductor manage to prevent that from happening through judicious instrumental balance and a particularly strong sense of dance in the finale, with its pronounced polonaise rhythm.
Kopatchinskaja does a commendable job with the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra as well. Like the Violin Concerto, this is late Schumann, and like the longer work it can be problematic to interpret. The violin writing tends to be rather routine, its figurations prosaic, and the orchestral accompaniment is somewhat foursquare. Yet the urgency and lyricism of the Fantasy shine through here despite the work’s undoubted weaknesses, and as in the concerto, Holliger has a fine sense of when to bring the orchestra to the fore and when to hold it back. The two piano-and-orchestra works that Schumann designated Konzertstücke are more successful than the violin one of the same basic type, and will put listeners in mind of the first movement of the Piano Concerto in their free-ranging lyricism and the warm communicativeness of the thematic material. The pianist here, Alexander Lonquich, does a creditable enough job, although his playing does not have much personality: it is more than satisfactory technically but not especially idiomatic. Still, these two concert pieces come across quite effectively, thanks again in large part to Holliger’s sensitivity to instrumental balance and his understanding of the best way to give the soloist plenty of chances to be out in front of the orchestra and just as many to pull back and let the orchestral musicians come to the fore. Also on this CD is the always fascinating Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra, one of Schumann’s experiments in instrumentation and one instance among many in which the composer attained somewhat less than total success but nevertheless produced a work filled with charm and unusual sonorities. Here the horn soloists need to perform as a quartet almost throughout, blending their different lines while accepting Schumann’s differing characterizations of horn sounds: here a signal, there a lyrical line, here a traditional hunting call, there a full symphonic calling-forth. The four horn players here are well-balanced and have nicely complementary tone: all are longtime members of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, with Paul van Zelm being principal horn and Ludwig Rast second principal. And Holliger – again with considerable sensitivity to soloists’ roles – does a fine job of balancing the horn quartet against the orchestra as a whole.
Balance with an orchestra is particularly difficult to attain when the solo instrument is a cello. One reason Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is so consistently impressive is that the composer fits the cello into the orchestral fabric so expertly, while at the same time finding ways for it to stand out without having the orchestra seem to recede totally into the background. But Dvořák’s work did not spring forth without precedent: it was in fact directly inspired by Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 2, whose success in cello-orchestra balance deeply impressed Dvořák and is adeptly demonstrated by JoAnn Falletta and the Ulster Orchestra on a new Naxos CD. Dvořák chose B minor for his work; Herbert had picked E minor. But the two concertos have little in common aside from their minor keys and their composers’ skill in balancing the orchestral and solo parts so the cello would not be subsumed within the larger string ensemble. Herbert’s work is tuneful and lyrical, much smaller in scale than Dvořák’s, and in fact more tightly knit than Herbert’s own prior cello concerto in D major. Grace and a kind of modest emotionalism are the hallmarks of both the Herbert concertos, which date to 1884 and 1894. Mark Kosower handles both with just the right balance of emotion and reserve: there is nothing in either that approaches Dvořák’s concerto’s last-movement in memoriam section, and both Kosower and Falletta clearly understand that Herbert, while a skilled orchestrator and pleasant tunesmith, was not particularly innovative either in instrumental sonority or in his approach to form. Neither of the Herbert concertos is really a virtuoso showpiece, and neither is given that treatment here: the performers offer well-paced, well-thought-out readings of works of modest scale and moderate inventiveness. And the CD contains a bonus that is more fun than either concerto, if no more profound: Herbert’s Irish Rhapsody of 1892, essentially a pastiche of once-popular (and in some cases still-popular) Irish tunes, done to a turn and orchestrated with greater inventiveness than is evident in the concertos. The Irish Rhapsody is salon music writ large, which does not in any way make it less enjoyable.
The enjoyment of a new Sono Luminus CD featuring cellist Laura Metcalf and pianist Matei Varga is of a different sort. There is a tendency nowadays to produce recordings aimed at a performer’s fan base rather than at music lovers in general – an approach that is actually quite old but seems to be accentuated by the many releases touting “first this and first that.” In this case the recording is the first solo release by Metcalf, a very fine cellist with a penchant for contemporary music and unusual sounds, as shown in her work with the string quartet Sybarite5 and the cello-and-percussion group Break of Reality. The pieces on this (+++) CD are clearly of importance and meaningfulness to Metcalf, and likely to Varga as well, but they are such a varied mixture that they seem designed to be heard by the family and personal friends of the performers rather than a wider audience. The best-known piece here is Marin Marais’ Variations on “La Folia,” whose multiple moods Metcalf and Varga handle well. The most interesting works on the disc, though, are two rarities: a one-movement Sonata in F minor by George Enescu, written when the composer was 17 and already showing this child prodigy to be in full command of instrumental writing, and the folksong-based Variations on a Slovakian Theme by Bohuslav Martinů. The rest of the music is of varying quality and interest, including Francis Poulenc’s warm Les Chemins de l’amour, Alberto Ginastera’s rhapsodic Pampeana No. 2, José Bragato’s pleasant but rather inconsequential Graciela y Buenos Aires, and world première recordings of cello versions of works by Caleb Burhans (Phantasie, originally for trombone and piano) and Dan Visconti (Hard-Knock Stomp, originally for viola). Listeners interested in finding out what sort of music Metcalf and Varga like will enjoy this foray into their musical preferences; but beyond the personal connection, the recording has no underlying thematic connectivity and nothing special to offer except some very fine playing – which, to be sure, is a strong attraction, even if not all the music will be as widely appealing as is Metcalf’s skill.