October 27, 2016
(++++) STRING DISCOVERIES
Mozart: String Quartet in B-flat, K. 589; String Quartet in F, K. 590; String Quintet in C minor, K. 406. Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Pajarovan de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello); Michael Tree, viola. Cedille. $16.
Lalo: Symphonie espagnole; Joan Manén: Violin Concerto No. 1, “Concierto español.” Tianwa Yang, violin; Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya conducted by Darrell Ang. Naxos. $12.99.
Accompanying Herself: Works for Solo Violin by Lera Auerbach, Grażyna Bacewicz, Henriette Bosmans, Aleksandra Maslovaric, Deon Nielsen Price, Jeannine Richer, Hedda Seischab, Pauline Viardot, and Diane Warren. Aleksandra Maslovaric, violin. Feminae Records. $19.99.
Soaring Solo: Unaccompanied Works II for Violin and Viola by Grażyna Bacewicz, Ernst Toch, Alessandro Rolla, Telemann, Biber, Ursula Mamlok, Alan Hovhaness, Fazil Say, Kenji Bunch, Miguel del Águila, Hindemith, and Alfred Schnittke. Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, violin and viola. MSR Classics. $12.95.
There is nothing delicate about late Mozart – elegant, poised and perfectly balanced, yes, but there is an underlying robustness to the music that performers sometimes overlook. It is in their attention to this element of Mozart’s final two string quartets, Nos. 2 and 3 of the “Prussian” group, that the Dover Quartet’s new Cedille recording excels. Yes, there is warmth aplenty, and marvelous ensemble work, in movements such as the Larghetto of K. 589, but what is striking here is the heft of the opening Allegro and the intensity of the concluding Allegro assai, which is all the more remarkable in a quartet deliberately written in the style of Haydn. Certainly the work is upbeat, even cheerful, but the Dover Quartet plays it with an understanding that it is not Haydn, that its light veneer lies atop a considerable level of thoughtfulness. This is even clearer in K. 590, whose first movement continually hints at depths even as it proceeds with apparently effortless poise. The Andante here is all wistfulness, the Minuetto has more strength than would be expected, and the finale’s contrasts between soft and loud passages are handled with consummate skill. The Dover Quartet cites the justly famous Guarneri Quartet, which performed from 1954 to 2009 with only a single change in personnel, as its model – an ambitious reach for young performers – and has modeled this, its first recording, on the initial Guarneri release, a 1966 performance of the same two Mozart quartets. Comparisons are of little value, for sonic reasons among others, but suffice it to say that the Dover Quartet has a sound all its own, one whose clarity is as noteworthy as was the warmth of the Guarneri players. Fascinatingly for students of musical history, the CD provides a direct Guarneri connection: in the third work, the C minor quintet K. 406, the second viola is played by Guarneri founding violist Michael Tree – one of the teachers of the Dover Quartet’s members. The amazing richness of the first movement of this performance actually does recall Guarneri readings: this is the warmest-sounding movement on the disc. There is palpable release of tension in the Andante and a return to intensity in the Menuetto in Canone, after which the final Allegro brings the quintet right to the verge of the Romantic era. The performance is exemplary, and the entire CD is evidence that the Dover Quartet is a new ensemble that any lover of string quartets will want to discover as soon as possible.
Tianwa Yang was a major discovery back in 2000, when her first recording – of the Paganini Caprices, no less – established her as already, at age 13, combining exceptional technique with musical understanding well beyond her years. More recently, she has done some discovering of her own, notably recording the complete violin-and-piano and violin-and-orchestra works by Pablo Sarasate for Naxos. Her latest appearance on the label also includes a very interesting discovery, or rediscovery: the first of the three violin concertos by Catalan composer Joan Manén (1883-1971), who is now almost completely neglected but who was a formidable performer and well-thought-of composer during his lifetime. Manén’s “Concierto español” is truly a tour de force for the soloist, who barely gets any breathing room or any chances for finger relaxation. It is a superficial work, more concerned with virtuosity than with any particular depth of feeling – its ties are as strongly to the Paganini concertos as to the works of Sarasate, with whom Manén was often compared. The work’s three-movement structure is wholly conventional, front-weighted to an extended first movement that is followed by a Lamento more steeped in pathos than anything approaching tragedy, and a finale requiring near-perpetual motion of the soloist and a wide variety of techniques, all of which need to be flawlessly executed for maximum effect. Yang handles the music, which is redolent of Romantic sensibilities (it was revised in 1935 but originally dates to 1898), assuredly and with evident enjoyment of its technical hurdles. There is no real depth to her performance, but it is arguable whether that is more a matter of Yang’s interpretation or of the inherent qualities of the music. Certainly this concerto is an interesting display piece, but despite its challenges for the performer, it is neither moving enough nor colorful enough to make it likely to become a more-frequent concert offering. Yang is very ably abetted in the performance by Darrell Ang and the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya – and conductor and orchestra also do a fine job with Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, whose coloristic effects, fast-changing moods and appealing rhythms have deservedly given it a place in the standard violin-and-orchestra repertoire. Although this five-movement work is arranged as a fantasy, there is a solidity to the handling of the individual movements that provides structural strength and justifies the Symphonie title. The nearly endless flow of appealing and quite clearly Spanish-accented melody, coupled with the soloist’s required virtuosity – which, however, never overwhelms the melodiousness of the music – makes this piece a delight. Yang and Ang have a fine sense of the easy flow of the themes and the intricacy of the relationship between soloist and ensemble, with the result that this performance simply sings. The pairing of this work with Manén’s concerto is perhaps a trifle unfair, since Lalo’s piece easily outshines Manén’s, but the chance to hear these two skilled composers’ very different approaches to violin showpieces with a Spanish accent is a most welcome one.
Pretty much everything on a new Feminae Records CD will be a discovery for listeners: there are 15 short pieces (the whole CD runs just 43 minutes) by nine women composers. The desire to discover or rediscover works by women is admirable but is scarcely enough reason in itself to own the disc, especially since much of the music is quite brief and, more to the point, rather thin. However, Aleksandra Maslovaric’s sensitive, nuanced and thoroughly winning way with this material is a major plus for the (+++) CD, which includes three little pieces by Maslovaric herself: Ringelspiel, 67 Moons (composed for a video game), and Interruptions, the most interesting of the three works in its hither-and-thither meanderings. Other composers contributing more than one piece here are Henriette Bosmans (1895-1952), represented in quite an out-of-context manner by her cadenzas to the first and second movements of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, K. 216; Lera Auerbach (born 1973), with the very short Dancing with Oneself and the somewhat-more-extended T’filah (“Prayer”); Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), two of whose songs, Tarentelle and Madrid, are here transcribed by Maslovaric for solo violin; and Hedda Seischab (born 1957), whose two tracks, both called Verwandlungen (“Transformations”) but differently structured, are the longest and most elaborate pieces here. The remaining composers heard on the CD – none of them particularly familiar – are represented by one work apiece: Grażyna Bacewicz’ Polish Caprice, Jeannine Richer’s Rupture, Diane Warren’s I Learned from the Best (another Maslovaric arrangement), and Deon Nielsen Price’s Stile Antico: Tonos. There is little connection and less flow from work to work, the arrangement of the pieces clearly carefully thought out but not particularly compelling from a strictly musical standpoint. The main attractions of the disc are the very high quality of Maslovaric’s playing and the chance to hear a collection of mostly encore-length works in a variety of styles, all of them in an intimate setting. The fact that the composers are all women is a matter of sociopolitical advocacy; the fact that they are all reasonably skilled at the craft of composition is a more compelling reason to consider this recording. However, the abilities of only two people here really come through clearly: Seischab as composer and Maslovaric herself as composer, arranger and performer.
There is somewhat more heft to a new MSR Classics solo-violin-and-viola CD featuring Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, partly because of the sheer amount of music (more than 73 minutes) and partly because of the substantial communicative quality of several of the works. Interestingly, Bacewicz’ Polish Caprice appears here too, and in fact leads off the recording – in a somewhat more expansive performance than Maslovaric’s. Only three of the works here are for solo viola, but they are nicely placed on the CD. The first, Three Impromptus by Ernst Toch, is a world première recording and is rather on the slight side despite the warmth that Sant’Ambrogio brings to the material. For Alessandro Rolla’s Capriccio No. 1, the viola appears in a lighter mood; then Sant’Ambrogio returns to the violin and offers considerable stateliness and a fine sense of form for Telemann’s Fantasie No. 10, whose three movements offer the expected degree of elegance. A big surprise here for anyone not familiar with it is Biber’s Passacaglia in G minor, a very substantial and considerably extended work (twice the length of Telemann’s Fantasie) that gives Sant’Ambrogio plenty of chances to explore her instrument’s emotional range. This is a real highlight of the CD – which is a tad unfortunate for the next piece here, Ursula Mamlok’s From My Garden, which is pleasant and well-constructed enough but suffers from the juxtaposition with Biber’s work. Next is Alan Hovhaness’ Chahagir, which brings back the solo viola and some welcome warmth as well as the exoticism typical of Hovhaness’ music. Fazil Say’s Cleopatra is for solo violin and is somewhat too extended for its musical content – a little more compression would have been welcome. Kenji Bunch’s Sarabande is a knowing modern use of the pleasant flow of an old form, although it is a bit surprising that the work is for solo violin – both because of its sound and because Bunch is himself a violist. Next on the disc is another world première recording, Cortando Limones (Cutting Limes) for solo violin by Miguel del Águila; this is a well-crafted work but not one of much consequence. The following piece, however, is one of the disc’s highlights: Hindemith’s Sonata, Op. 31, No. 2, with the unusually pleasant title, “Es ist so schönes Wetter drausen,” which translates as “It is such nice weather outside.” This heimische title is scarcely what one expects of Hindemith, whose music can be learned to the point of turgidity; furthermore, the sonata is for solo violin even though, as with the Bunch work, viola might be more what a listener would expect. But put expectations aside: this piece is a real charmer, its first three little movements meandering pleasantly and its fourth, somewhat longer one offering five variations on Mozart’s song, “Komm, lieber Mai,” K. 596 – a work from the composer’s last year that gives not the slightest hint of anything beyond childlike enjoyment of springtime. The Hindemith would have made a fine conclusion to the CD, but there is one additional work here, and it returns to a more-serious mien: Alfred Schnittke’s Fuga for solo violin, which nicely showcases Sant’Ambrogio’s technical abilities but is, in its formality, a bit of a letdown after the Hindemith. On balance, this is a (+++) CD offering very fine playing, quite a few little-known works to discover, and some significant highlights in the form of the pieces by Biber and Hindemith. The disc’s title includes the numeral “II” because Sant’Ambrogio has already recorded an MSR disc of solo works for violin and viola – and listeners who own and enjoy that earlier CD, titled Going Solo, will surely find this one a companionable addition to their collections.