August 25, 2016
(++++) STRINGS ARE STRUNG
Vivaldi: La Cetra—12 Concertos, Op. 9. Federico Guglielmo, violin and conducting L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
Classical String Trios—Music by J.C. Bach, Carlo Antonio Campioni, Boccherini, Haydn, Christian Cannabich, Felice Giardini and Giuseppe Maria Cambini. The Vivaldi Project (Elizabeth Field, violin; Allison Edberg Nyquist, violin and viola; Stephanie Vial, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2; Five Melodies, Op. 35bis. Jameson Cooper, violin; Ketevan Badridze, piano. Afinat. $16.99.
Scott Brickman: French Suite; Wind Power; Divertimento for Cello and Piano; Partita for Viola and Piano; Ninety-Six Strings and Two Whistles. Eight Strings and a Whistle (Suzanne Gilchrest, flute/alto flute; Ina Litera, viola; Matt Goeke, cello); Beth Levin, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
The Crossroads Project—Laura Kaminsky: Rising Tide; Libby Larsen: Emergence. Fry Street Quartet (Robert Waters and Rebecca McFaul, violins; Bradley Ottesen, viola; Anne Francis Bayless, cello). Navona. $14.99.
There is nothing else quite like the Vivaldi performances by Federico Guglielmo and his ensemble, L’Arte dell’Arco. These are more than historically informed performances on period instruments: they sound as if Guglielmo and the other musicians have only just discovered a treasure trove of new music that just happens to be hundreds of years old, and they are playing it as if no one ever heard it before. The sheer exhilaration of these readings is infectious, and it is only a slight exaggeration to say that Vivaldi sounds entirely different here, and better, than when others play his music. The reality is that Vivaldi can stand up to lots of differing interpretations, from the well-informed to the misinformed; like Bach, he wrote music that to some extent transcends its time. Unlike Bach, though, Vivaldi wrote string music that seems perfectly wedded to strings (except, of course, when rearranged for other instruments by, ahem, Bach). And Guglielmo and his colleagues play these works for all they are worth. The title of La Cetra, the 12 concertos from 1727 (seven in major keys, five in minor), means “the lyre,” a reference to Apollo and Orpheus as well as the Habsburgs’ coat of arms, of which the lyre is a part. This La Cetra (there are other collections with the title, including others by Vivaldi) was dedicated to Charles VI, so the Habsburg reference was an apt one. And this is a fascinating set of pieces, including one concerto for two violins (No. 9 in B-flat) and two for violins with scordatura tuning; that is, tuning different from the norm (No. 6 in A and No. 12 in B minor). The virtuosity these pieces require is considerable, looking ahead to the increasing demands placed on the violin by soloists including Locatelli and Tartini. But even the more-straightforward concertos of the set show all the care of construction and excellence of balance that listeners expect in Vivaldi – and Guglielmo is careful to bring out the distinctive features of every piece, even to the point of presenting the works in an order that he considers more effective than Vivaldi’s (the first Brilliant Classics CD includes Nos. 1, 5, 4, 12, 3, and 7; the second disc has Nos. 9, 10, 8, 2, 11, and 6). Guglielmo’s use of a somewhat quirky Tommaso Balestrieri violin is exemplary throughout, and the L’Arte dell’Arco musicians give him first-rate support and accompaniment from start to finish.
A period-instrument string trio with the intriguing name of The Vivaldi Project offers seven almost wholly unknown works – none by Vivaldi – on a new MSR Classics CD devoted to trios composed at a time when trios were thought not to be composed. Indeed, with the exception of Mozart’s superb Divertimento, K.563 and a few works by Beethoven and Schubert, the Classical-era string trio is generally absent from the repertoire. But, it turns out, that is not because it does not exist – it is only because no one has looked very hard for it. All the world première recordings on this splendid disc are worthy of a place in chamber recitals, even if it is a bit of a stretch to look at all of them as “trios” in a more-modern sense. Two are really duets with bass: J.C. Bach’s Sonata in D (ca. 1755) and the Sonata in G minor (1756) by Campioni (1720-1788), which specifies either harpsichord or cello in addition to two violins. The other works all have the Trio label and all have more of a three-player flavor about them, even though the cello still tends to have a lesser role than the higher instruments: Boccherini’s Op. 2, No. 4 (1760); Haydn’s Divertimento in B minor (sometime after 1750); Op. 3, No. 1 (1773) by Cannabich (1731-1798); Op. 20, No. 2 (1778) by Giardini (1716-1796); and Op. 33, No. 1 (1780s) by Cambini (1746-1825). There are many surprises on this fascinating CD, including the fact that several of the composers, not just Haydn, had unusually long lives for their time. It would be a stretch to call any of this music profound: these are true chamber pieces, intended for what was in effect salon performance, often by amateur musicians of royal households; to some extent, these trios were the “background music” of their era. But this detracts not a whit from their charms. Melodies flow easily, harmonies are pleasant, and balance is always carefully thought through (with, as noted, a general bias toward the two violins or, in the case of the Giardini and Cambini works, the violin and viola). The members of The Vivaldi Project, who apparently had a great time digging out these works from the dust heaps of musical history, also appear to have a grand time performing them: none of the pieces has the fully “conversational” feeling of a Haydn quartet, but all are on display here as genial and highly attractive – if admittedly minor – examples of small-chamber-group thinking in the Classical era. And one thing this disc does, although this is surely not its purpose, is to show that Mozart’s deeply emotional, beautifully balanced and very extended K.563 was an even more spectacular accomplishment than it is generally known to be.
As emotional evocation by strings became increasingly important in the years after the Classical era, some composers created works of vast size and corresponding density. Others, however, found they could continue to communicate quite effectively in chamber music, and one of those, perhaps somewhat surprisingly for many listeners, was Prokofiev. Not really thought of as a chamber-music composer, he wrote some works for violin and piano that collectively span just as many moods as his better-known pieces for larger ensembles: two sonatas and five vocalise arrangements known as Five Melodies. A top-notch new CD from Afinat offers thoughtful and beautifully played versions of all this music, with Jameson Cooper and Ketevan Badridze showing a fine sense of the works’ very different moods and a truly commendable give-and-take in their performances of the music. Prokofiev worked on the two violin sonatas with David Oistrakh, and in fact the first written – which is known as No. 2 – is a 1943 transcription of a 1942 flute-and-piano sonata, made by Prokofiev at Oistrakh’s explicit request. This is essentially a neoclassical work, for all that Prokofiev is not usually thought of as a neoclassicist despite his Symphony No. 1. Sonata No. 2 requires a violinist capable of balancing its virtuosic elements with a kind of elegance that would not be out of place in the Classical era, and this is just what Cooper brings to this reading. Indeed, the balance of display and lyricism in the sonata harks back to its origin as a work for flute; yet as a violin piece it is wholly convincing when played with the conviction it receives here. Sonata No. 1 (1938-46) is longer, deeper, darker, and more difficult for listeners, with violin scales in the first and fourth movements that the composer notably described as “wind passing through a graveyard.” This is disturbing music, its dark key (F minor) standing in strong contrast to the D major of the other sonata. There is so much angst in Sonata No. 1 that the music seems barely able to hold it all, and performers sensitive to the content – as Cooper and Badridze clearly are – need to keep the darkness at bay while making it clear just how urgently the abrasive elements want to burst through. In that vein, an especially effective element of this performance of Sonata No. 1 is the apt, very strong contrast between the work’s first and second movements. It is difficult to listen to the two sonatas one after the other, as they are arranged here: the Five Melodies, placed first on the CD, might better have been positioned between the two sonatas. Created from Five Songs without Words, a set of vocalises for mezzo-soprano and piano, the Five Melodies have beauties of form and expression that lie somewhere between the emotional extremes of the two sonatas. Five Melodies is an earlier work than either sonata, dating to 1925 (the original cycle was composed in 1920). Yet these five brief pieces partake fully of Prokofiev’s style, and invite a level of expressive warmth that they receive in full from the performers here.
Composers not even born until Prokofiev’s twilight years have continued to produce some neoclassical works even though they, like Prokofiev, would scarcely be deemed neoclassicists. Scott Brickman (born 1963), for example, shows evidence of this predisposition in several of the works on a new Ravello CD – but in Brickman’s case, as in those of so many other contemporary composers, older classical forms and approaches are consciously (and sometimes rather awkwardly) mingled with deliberate forays into much newer material and into non-classical musical forms, such as punk rock. Brickman’s French Suite (2012-13) recalls the similarly titled works of Bach, for example, and the sonata form of the first movement and dance elements of the finale have some tie-ins to the earlier composer; but the entire work is based on Schoenbergian principles and is designed to highlight the individual instruments of the ensemble called Eight Strings & a Whistle. Wind Power (2011), for flute and piano, also takes Schoenberg as a model and also uses sonata form and some dancelike elements – indeed, the sonata-Schoenberg-dance triumvirate is a characteristic of Brickman’s style. Divertimento (2012), for cello and piano, has a direct Bach connection: the third movement is based on the Sarabande from Bach’s English Suite No. 3. But, again, the piece as a whole is constructed using (modified) Schoenbergian methods and incorporates passing elements, if not specific musical material, attributable to several other composers. Partita (2013), for viola and piano, has more now-familiar Brickman elements: sonata form in the first movement, homage to Schoenberg in the second and Bach in the third, and an intense finale. Brickman affirms his attachment to aspects of the past when composing works whose titles represent their forms: French Suite, Divertimento and Partita. But he also makes it clear that, like other modern composers, he likes to use evocative titles to lead listeners in a particular direction in some pieces, including Wind Power and, to an even greater degree, Ninety-Six Strings and Two Whistles. This 2014 work, in five short movements, was written for the performers heard here, with Eight Strings & a Whistle joined by the 88-key piano and, in this case, the flute and alto flute both being called for (hence the “two whistles” of the title). Up-to-date the title and concept may be, but the work’s format is an old one, with a dramatic opening movement followed by alternating lyrical and intense ones, resulting in three propulsive movements and two that are meditative. All the pieces are very well played on this (+++) CD, which comes across more as a series of showpieces for the performers than as a highly communicative audience-focused recording.
A Navona disc called “The Crossroads Project” certainly does intend audience focus, but only for a specific type of audience and only in connection with a kind of consciousness-raising and sociopolitical agenda that are not really reflected in the music. This short CD (44 minutes) includes works by Laura Kaminsky and Libby Larsen that are intended to promote activism in the field of climate change. Thus, this is chamber music with a distinct purpose, aiming to draw the audience into a predetermined set of perceptions set out by the composers in collaboration with physicist Robert Davies and under the aegis of the Fry Street Quartet, which commissioned both pieces. The performers want the works to elicit passionate devotion and transformational impulses in audiences – a great deal of freight for any music to carry, and a burden that these specific pieces do not handle particularly well. Kaminsky’s four-movement Rising Tide starts with a cleverly designed movement focusing on water, taking a snippet of a folklike tune to greater and greater strength as the movement progresses – although without any of the impact or grandeur of, say, Smetana’s Vltava. The second movement pulses with what is supposed to be the basic life force; the third features scurrying sounds intended to represent animals foraging; and the finale, the longest movement, starts with a simple chorale that becomes increasingly complex over time. Exactly how all this is supposed to motivate intense devotion to a response to climate change is not at all clear, although the music as music has a number of effective moments. Larsen’s Emergence, which the composer says is based on the water cycle, evokes varying emotions at various times, its movements’ titles telling the audience what listeners are supposed to experience in two adjectives and three nouns: “Radiant,” “Reactive,” “Rage,” “Resolve” and “Reverence.” Again, the intent is to produce a work larded with meaning, but again, the piece has some effective musical elements but in no way connects with the specific sociopolitical notions on whose foundation it was built. The Fry Street Quartet seems to have a belief that contemporary chamber music can somehow motivate listeners – some listeners, anyway – to do more to create a sustainable planet. That is a very distinct First World concept; meanwhile, in the Third World, population growth and aspirations to a better life are combining to produce a tidal wave of resource demands that no amount of First World navel-gazing and apologetic behavior has any chance of holding back. This is a (+++) CD whose rating is due entirely to the inherent musical quality of the material, not at all to the naïve social-activism agenda that the works are intended to further.