March 16, 2017


Mendelssohn: Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2. Julia Fischer, violin; Jonathan Gilad, piano; Daniel Müller-Schott, cello. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Brahms: Piano Quintet; Schumann: String Quartet No. 1. Menahem Pressler, piano; Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello). Cedille. $16.

Henri Marteau: Serenade, Op. 20; Clarinet Quintet, Op. 13; Alexander Zemlinsky: Trio, Op. 3. Members of the Phoenix Ensemble. Navona. $14.99.

Sergio Cervetti: Chamber Music. Navona. $14.99.

Alla Elana Cohen: Chamber Music. Ravello. $14.99.

Michael G. Cunningham: String Quartets Nos. 1-7. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     The attraction of the conversational and intimate nature of chamber music transcends the eras in which individual pieces are written, but certainly the nature of the conversation changes over time. Mendelssohn’s two piano trios, the first from 1839 and the second from 1845, share minor-key construction (D minor and C minor, respectively), a strong piano part that at times overshadows the strings, and elegant interweaving of the three instruments. But the topics, so to speak, of the trios are quite different, and it is the balance of similarities and differences that comes through so well on a new PentaTone release featuring Julia Fischer, Jonathan Gilad and Daniel Müller-Schott. There is lightness and exquisite balance throughout the recording, abetted by unusually clear SACD sound. But there is also a firm understanding of the differences between the two works. The first is filled with joy and lyricism, but has a yearning and wistful undertone that the performers bring out with particular skill: the first movement, after all, is marked Molto allegro agitato, and the underlying agitation is apparent here. The second trio is darker, more imbued with the implications of its minor key, and features a seriousness evidenced by a quotation from Bach’s Herr Gott, Dich fürchten wir alle. There is greater chromaticism in this trio, a move further away from the classical models that Mendelssohn always respected and employed in variously modified form throughout his life. Fischer, Gilad and Müller-Schott play the works with carefully modulated intricacy, pacing them well and successfully balancing their poise with their heartfelt emotion. As conversations go, these are unusually thoughtful ones.

     Schumann dedicated his String Quartet No. 1 to Mendelssohn; it was written midway between Mendelssohn’s trios, in 1842. Its short and fleet Scherzo is especially Mendelssohnian, but the work as a whole has poise and balance that are reminiscent of much of Mendelssohn’s music, and a certain sunniness of disposition that shines through again and again, especially in the lovely and gently flowing Adagio, despite the quartet’s home key of A minor.  A sparkling new recording by the Pacifica Quartet on Cedille plumbs all the depths of the music while keeping the conversation among the instruments flowing easily and in a spirit of superb cooperation – the ensemble work of the members of this quartet is remarkable for balance and style. Yet as good as it is, the Schumann rendition is surpassed by that of the Brahms Piano Quintet, in which Menahem Pressler, who was 90 years old when this performance was recorded in 2014 and is now 93, joins the much younger string players in a knock-your-socks-off reading whose intensity, involvement, strength and emotional punch are nothing short of extraordinary. This is well-known music that these players seem to know, and feel, better than just about anyone else who has recorded it. How is it possible that Pressler has never recorded this piece before? His technique seems made for it, precise and emotive and exceptional both in the way it blends with the strings as appropriate and with the way it stands out from them when that is apt. From the wonderfully expansive first movement, its warmth and cragginess equal factors in its effect, to the lovely respite of the Andante, un poco Adagio (perfectly paced here), through a Scherzo that aspires to the heights of emotional conveyance, to a finale that glides with apparent effortlessness from beauty to beauty, this is an exceptional reading that every lover of this music will be delighted to hear. Pressler and the Pacifica Quartet shed new light on the quintet again and again through a superb mixture of technique and musical understanding. Anyone who thinks there is nothing more to be learned from the instrumental conversation in this captivating work deserves to spend time with this revelatory performance. This CD has all the hallmarks of an honored “legacy” recording – which, given Simin Ganatra’s departure from the quartet and Menahem Pressler’s age, it is likely to become.

     Written during Brahms’ lifetime but far less frequently performed than Brahms’ chamber music, Alexander Zemlinksy’s Trio, Op. 3 is for a complement of instruments quite different from those used by Mendelssohn in his trios: clarinet (Mark Lieb on Navona’s new recording), cello (Alice Yoo), and piano (Wayne Wang). This is a highly involving and emotionally expressive work with distinct late-Romantic flavor, as befits a piece written in 1896. The extended first movement, as long as the second and third together, grows and develops in ways that highlight the aural similarities of clarinet and cello while allowing the piano to interject brighter sounds and more directly compelling arguments – in contrast to the sweeping lyricism of the other two instruments. The second movement is a rather placid Andante, its expressiveness fairly ordinary, but the concluding Allegro is a gem: bright and warm, filled with interesting rhythms and unusual turns of phrase, all delivered with wonderful ensemble writing that nevertheless maintains the clarinet as first among equals. The other two works on this disc are even less-known than Zemlinsky’s. They are by Henri Marteau (1874-1934), a French violinist and composer whose Clarinet Quintet, Op. 13 (1908) has a distinctively French sound that is immediately apparent in the way the clarinet plays off against the strings at the start of the work. The performers here are Lieb, who is founder and artistic director of the Phoenix Ensemble, and Ensemble members Igor Pikayzen and Bryan Hernandez-Luch (violins), Eva Gerard (viola), and Carrie Bean Stute (cello). The performers successfully seek a sense of difference within similarity in this music, whose overall pacing is moderate in all four movements: tempo indications for the first two include the word moderato, while those for the third and fourth include sostenuto. The music does tend to meander rather too much from time to time, while having a disconcerting stop-and-start quality at other times. The result is a work that feels as much like a suite as a carefully shaped piece of chamber music. There is a kind of monochromaticism to the instrumental sound that can be pleasantly lulling but that drags after a while – and this is not a short work (it runs 32 minutes). The relative lack of attention that has been given to this piece is easier to understand than is the comparative neglect of Zemlinsky’s. The total absence of attention to Marteau’s Serenade, Op. 20 (1922) is, however, much harder to comprehend: this is the world première recording of the piece. This really is a suite, its four movements only loosely connected and its moods shifting while remaining essentially lighthearted. It is a nonet for winds, which in itself makes the work unusual. The performers are Catherine Gregory and Andrew Rehrig (flutes), Arthur Sato and Michelle Farah (oboes), Lieb and Moran Katz (clarinets), Angela Shankar (bass clarinet), and Daniel Hane and Edward Burns (bassoons). From the clever opening Entrata, the work moves to a sweet little Adagietto, a Scherzino that bubbles along infectiously, and a concluding Tema con variazoni that is well-crafted, clever and altogether winning. Lieb and his ensemble deserve considerable credit for essaying these less-known works and showing just how much pleasure listeners can find in unfamiliar chamber music.

     Chamber works are much more recent and use many more instrumental combinations on a new Navona CD featuring Sergio Cervetti’s music and a disc from Ravello devoted to pieces by Alla Elana Cohen. These are (+++) recordings that will primarily appeal to listeners already familiar with the composers and interested in their particular way of handling their respective ethnic heritages. Cervetti’s roots lie in France, Italy and South America, and the six pieces hear draw on all of them. Two are for solo piano and are performed by the composer: Some Realms I Owned (2010) and I Can’t Breathe (2014, for piano and percussion). The first of these is largely tonal, declamatory and rather repetitive; the second is dissonant, jazz-inflected and quite short (just over two minutes). There is also an interesting work here for solo harpsichord: Ofrenda Para Guyunusa (2011), played by María Teresa Chenlo. One of the remaining works is a clarinet quintet that barely sounds as if it uses the same instruments employed by Zemlinsky. It is called And the Huddled Masses (2015), and its complexities of sound and expression – typical for much contemporary music – are such that it requires a conductor (Enrique Pérez Mesa) in addition to Alden Ortuño Cabezas (clarinet), Leonardo Pérez Baster and Luis Alberto Mariño Fernández (violins), Yamed Aguillón Santa Cruz (viola), and Lester Monier Serrano (cello). Unceasingly dissonant and multithematic, it is more a collection of sounds that a structurally unified piece of music – although the multiplicity of elements appears to be included by design. The dissonance in Sunset at Noon (1995), for violin (Vit Muzik) and viola (Dominika Mužíková) fits the material better: this is a four-movement work in which each movement is marked “In Memoriam” of a different individual. The first, second and fourth movements of this 18-minute piece are largely what one would expect for a memorial work: slow and somber. The third, however, is a pleasant surprise, upbeat and propulsive, with attractive pizzicato elements, presumably reflective of the personality of the person in whose memory Cervetti created the music. The final movement is explicitly labeled Hymn, and sounds like one; but the very last piece on the disc is even more explicitly hymnlike, being an a cappella setting of Lux Lucet in Tenebris that dates to 2002 and has a distinctly Baroque sound as performed by the Kuhn Choir conducted by Marek Vorlicek. Listeners familiar with Cervetti’s compositional versatility will get a considerable dose of it here.

     The heritage on which Cohen draws is a Jewish one, and her approach to composition is almost self-consciously inventive, as if she tries through instrumental combinations and even through works’ titles to communicate just how creative the material is. In fact, all the works here – each of them consisting of multiple short movements – contain interesting and even clever elements, but after a while the cleverness seems somewhat forced and the music comes across as if Cohen is trying a little too hard. For example, there is a vocal work on this CD, but the difference between Cohen’s approach and Cervetti’s is evident from the very first notes. Cohen’s piece is called “Inscriptions on a Bamboo Screen” series 4 for soprano and viola in 6 movements (with addition of cup gong in the last movement), and it is performed by the composer (lyrics and cup gong), Rachel Schmiege (soprano), and Alexander Vavilov (viola). The most interesting element here is not the vocals but the combination of cup gong with plucked viola in the final movement. There are three pieces here in a series that Cohen calls “Inner Temple.” They are “Inner Temple” volume 2 series 1 “Brachot” (“Blessings”) for string quartet in 3 movements, played by Marissa Licata and Melissa Bull (violins), Alexander Vavilov (viola), and  Sebastian Baverstam (cello); “Inner Temple” volume 1 series 12 “Brachot” for Chamber Orchestra in 3 movements, whose 10 performers are Bianca Garcia (flute), Izumi Sakamoto (oboe), Todd Brunel (clarinet), Timur Rubinshteyn (timpani), Aaron Trant (vibraphone), Matt Sharrock (marimba), plus the quartet of Licata, Bull, Vavilov and Baverstam; and “Inner Temple” volume 1 series 11 “Shabbat Nigunim” in 4 movements, this one featuring 11 performers – the same 10 as in the previously mentioned work plus the composer on piano. The instrumental combinations are a big part of what Cohen employs as communicative devices: the complex intertwining of individual instruments and instrumental groups comes across as enough purpose for these works to have – the specific matters they communicate are secondary to the way they communicate them. This is a very different approach to chamber music from that of earlier composers or, indeed, many other contemporary ones. This is clear throughout the CD, but perhaps particularly so in Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano “Red Lilies of Bells, Golden Lilies of Bells, White Lilies of Bells” in 3 movements, with Licata on violin, Baverstam on cello, and the composer on piano and providing the recitation of a Russian poem – twice, once in the original language and then, after a central instrumental section, in English. The two remaining works on this CD are Triptych for Chamber Orchestra “Homage to Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais,” with some performers heard elsewhere and some different ones: Garcia, Sakamoto, Brunel, Rubinshteyn, William Manley on vibraphone, Sharrock, Licata and Ethan Wood on violins, Vavilov, Baverstam, and the composer on piano; and a work that comes as something of a relief from the complexly planned multi-instrument ones, “Hoffmanniana” series 3 for solo Cello in 4 movements, nicely played by Baverstam. The musicians certainly give their all to this music, and Cohen herself handles her piano parts and other roles well, but the CD comes across as strictly a limited-interest item for audiences that already know what Cohen seeks to communicate and how, and want to hear a considerable amount of it at one time.

     The instrumentation is much more traditional and straightforward in the seven quartets of Michael G. Cunningham heard on a new two-disc release from Navona. The quartets were written over nearly half a century, from 1959 to 2005, and show very definite changes in Cunningham’s compositional style. They also show ways in which his style did not change, such as fondness for glissandi and other special sounds. The quartets are given in the order in which they were composed, a wise decision that allows fans of Cunningham’s music – clearly the target of this (+++) release, which offers too much material from this single composer to be appealing to listeners not already interested in his output – an easy way to trace his compositional thinking over quite a long time. All the performers handle the music with skill: the Sirius Quartet (Nos. 1 and 2), Moravian Quartet (Nos. 3 and 7), Pedroia Quartet (no. 4), New England String Quartet (No. 5), and Millennium Quartet (No. 6). Except for the first quartet (1959), all these works have titles: No. 2 (1967) is “Three Satires,” No. 3 (1975) is “Partitions,” No. 4 (1985) is “Interlacings,” No. 5 (1988) is “Aggregates,” No. 6 (2001) is “Digital Isorhythm,” and No. 7 (2005) is “Back Home.” The titles are in some cases reasonably good guides to Cunningham’s intentions, but not always. Individual quartets and, indeed, individual movements contain distinctive elements that make them stand out: the lyrical second movement of No. 1; the unison proclamation that opens No. 2; the play of glissandi against pizzicati in No. 3; the second, Scherzo movement of No. 4, which sounds a bit like Mendelssohn run through a blender; the juxtaposition of trill and glissandi in the first movement of No. 5; the odd combination of march-like certainty and drifting in the finale of No. 6; the surprisingly long lines of the first movement, Con Carita, of No. 7; and many more. Listeners who enjoy explorations of stretched tonality, outright dissonance, rhythmic strength (with frequent rhythmic variation), and a skilled and thoroughly modern approach to writing for string quartet will find the musical conversations embodied by these works to be involving ones with clear contemporaneity in evidence throughout.

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