March 23, 2017
(++++) RETHINKING THE FAMILIAR
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Octet. Liza Ferschtman, violin; Het Gelders Orkest conducted by Kees Bakels; Itamar Zorman, Elina Vähälä and Corina Belcea, violins; Krzysztof Chorzelski and Marc Desmons, violas; Sebastian Klinger and Antoine Lederlin, cellos. Challenge Classics. $18.99 (SACD).
Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 20, D. 959; Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; David Del Tredici: Ode to Music. Beth Levin, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Schubert: Winterreise—visualized by William Kentridge. Matthias Goerne, baritone; Markus Hinterhäuser, piano. C Major DVD. $34.99.
Bach: Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043; Vivaldi: Concerto Grosso, Op. 3, No. 8; Franck: Violin Sonata in A. David and Igor Oistrakh, violins; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig conducted by Franz Konwitschny; Anton Ginsburg, piano. Berlin Classics. $18.99.
Who would have thought that the thrice-familiar Mendelssohn Violin Concerto would turn out to be chamber music? That is essentially what it sounds like on a new Challenge Classics recording featuring Liza Ferschtman and Het Gelders Orkest conducted by Kees Bakels. On the face of it, there is scarcely a pressing need for yet another disc of this gorgeous but overplayed and over-recorded concerto: its beauties, lyricism, structural inventiveness, warmth and cleverness have been explored many, many times before. But Ferschtman and Bakels actually manage to shine some new light on the work, helped by very fine SACD sound that integrates the solo violin with the orchestra to a greater-than-usual extent, while still allowing it to stand out more than satisfactorily. There is an overall collaborative feel to this performance that is reminiscent of the conversation-among-instruments nature of chamber works, and as a result Ferschtman is able to take some chances that might otherwise not work – for instance, a headlong rush to the end of the first movement that then highlights the bassoon transition to the second in an unusually clear way. The overall feeling of this reading is one of surpassing lyricism and beautifully flowing lines: the performance has a seamless quality that is both surprising and engaging. And as a result, the concerto reading fits very well with a rendition of the Octet that, unlike the concerto performance, was recorded live. Here Ferschtman is joined by members of the Belcea Quartet and other like-minded players, and the ensemble work is an absolute delight, especially in the marvelously lightfooted Scherzo, which might well derail at this tempo if performed by lesser musicians. The hardest movement of the Octet to bring off is the lengthy opening one, so out of proportion to the other three that it can drag the whole work down – or at least overbalance it and make the later movements seem to come from another, lighter piece. Not so here. The performers’ structural adeptness holds the movement together, and their excellent individuation of parts – Mendelssohn treated all eight instruments separately rather than handling them as four pairs, as would be more usual in an octet – leads to a movement that is expressive in multiple ways but that holds together well when the instruments play in unison. Throughout the Octet and, indeed, throughout this disc, there is a sense of rediscovering well-known music, of finding little niceties of balance and tempo that bring out elements of the scores in ways just a touch different from the usual. The result is an exhilarating recording that does not exactly break new interpretative ground but that hones the performances of both these gorgeous pieces into subtly shining smoothness.
The rethinking on the Mendelssohn disc is done by the performers, while it is the composers who do it on a new Navona CD featuring pianist Beth Levin. This is most noticeable in Ode to Music by David Del Tredici (born 1937), which takes Schubert’s three-minute song An die Musik and crafts an 11-and-a-half-minute fantasy around it. This sort of thing is very much of the Romantic era, but Del Tredici’s piece would never be confused with a similar expansion by Liszt, Thalberg or Kalkbrenner: it does remain largely tonal, but its treatment of the material is quite different from what would have been accorded the Schubert-song foundation in the composer’s own time. Ode to Music, written as recently as 2015, uses the Schubert work as a jumping-off point for Del Tredici’s creation of his own ode. Its relationship to Schubert is not always apparent, but it expands the underlying material in logical and ultimately satisfying ways. In this, Del Tredici somewhat follows in the footsteps of Schubert himself, who in his Sonata No. 20, the middle of his three huge and prepossessing final piano sonatas, expands not only upon some of his own earlier works but also upon the sonata model of Beethoven. It is interesting to compare Levin’s handling of this grand and very large sonata with her approach to Del Tredici. She brings expansive flow to the contemporary work, letting it grow well beyond the bounds of the song at its heart; but in the Schubert, she keeps matters tightly controlled, refusing to let the music veer off-track despite a certain lack of formal cohesion that long led to the neglect of this sonata and the two other final ones by Schubert. The lyrical concluding rondo – the longest of the four movements in Levin’s performance, its main theme taken from the much earlier Sonata No. 5 and used in vastly more expansive form here – balances the opening movement quite clearly in Levin’s reading, while the poignancy of the Andantino and playfulness of the Scherzo provide respite and at the same time add to the sonata’s overall cyclicality. The Schubert and Schubert-based pieces are interestingly joined on this recording by Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, which is quite obviously a Romantic rethinking of Handelian material – but a piece in which Brahms took considerable pains to restrain the virtuosity that was expected in variations in the 1850s and with which he himself, as a fine pianist, was certainly familiar and comfortable. Brahms sought something different from virtuosic display here, taking a theme originally written for harpsichord and bringing it into an age in which full, even grand piano sounds were the norm – then insisting that the material be handled with a certain degree of restraint and even delicacy. Levin understands this, and her nicely balanced, very musicianly handling of the Brahms sits particularly well between the Schubert sonata and Del Tredici’s Schubert-based fantasy. This is an unusual combination of material to find on a CD, but Levin’s sensitivity to the differences among the works, as well as their similarities, makes a strong case for all the pieces, both individually and in this particular combination.
Not all rethinkings are quite this felicitous, however. Sometimes a reinterpretation can be a touch too clever for its own good. That is the case with William Kentridge’s illustrated version of yet another Schubert work, Winterreise. As seen on a new C Major DVD recorded live at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in France in July 2014, Kentridge’s contribution to these 24 songs is a set of 24 animated films that do not illustrate the music but use it as a jumping-off point for a visual journey of Kentridge’s own. There are parallels here with Del Tredici’s personalized journey through and beyond An die Musik, to be sure, but Kentridge’s introduction of largely unrelated visual elements to a work that invites emotional involvement and internal visualization does Schubert no good. Schubert’s music itself represents an addition, of course – to Wilhelm Müller’s poems. But the interweaving of words and music is so expertly done that in a truly fine performance, anything further that is added to the music-and-words combination seems a detraction, or at least a distraction. And the reading by Matthias Goerne and Markus Hinterhäuser is a very fine one indeed. Goerne plumbs the emotional depths of these songs from start to finish, his legato and dramatic strength equally impressive, and Hinterhäuser is a first-rate partner, the piano part interweaving with the poetry, accentuating here, supplementing there, contrasting a bit in another place. Adding such visual elements as an African ibis to Die Krähe and creating references to Kentridge’s homeland of South Africa and its troubles may be intended to show the universality of Schubert’s emotional expressiveness; but really, the music itself does that quite well enough on its own. Visuals such as a scene in which a man at a desk struggles to control the mundane multiplicity of elements of his life (shown during Im Dorfe, “In the Village”), and one in which Goerne’s shadow is seen taking a shower (during Wassserflut, “Torrent”), actually make Winterreise more earthbound and more stuck in modern times than the original song cycle is in Schubert’s era. This is not to say that Kentridge’s images are ineffective: some, such as melting letters of the alphabet (in a scene in which Kentridge himself walks across pages of a dictionary) and snow made of black-paper confetti (accompanying Erstarrung, “Frozen”), are undeniably interesting and can even turn into distractions from the music. But that is exactly the problem: the visuals are either irrelevant to Winterreise or a distraction from it. Certainly Kentridge has thought through his visualizations carefully, as is made clear on the DVD in a bonus documentary featuring him as well as Goerne and Hinterhäuser. But this production is nevertheless a (+++) offering of a Winterreise performance that, without the intruding visual elements, would have deserved a (++++) rating.
The rethinking is of a different sort in a (+++) Berlin Classics reissue of 1950s recordings of Bach, Vivaldi and Franck with David Oistrakh. Performed in 1957 and 1958, the readings here are old-fashioned ones, dating to well before the era of historic performance practices, and they are of interest mainly as historical documents of their own – so listeners need to rethink contemporary expectations as to performance style, orchestral size, etc. Those who do so will hear considerable rapport in the way David and his son Igor play the Bach together, although the lower strings of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Franz Konwitschny sound somewhat undifferentiated and even muddy – likely a function of the recording rather than the orchestra’s playing. This is strong, straightforward Bach of 50-plus years ago, testament to an interesting father-and-son collaboration (although the personalities of David and Igor were generally acknowledged to be very different, the elder Oistrakh being far more easygoing than the younger). The Vivaldi, from L’Estro Armonico, is actually more interestingly interpreted than the comparatively bland Bach: the sturdiness of the outer movements stands in strong contrast to the desolate feeling of the central Larghetto e spiritoso (this concerto is RV522 – wrongly identified as “RV822” on this recording). The Bach and Vivaldi works together last less than half an hour, so there is a so-called “bonus” that is about as long as both of them together. This is Franck’s oft-played Violin Sonata in A, with David Oistrakh and pianist Anton Ginsburg. The performance is all right but not particularly compelling, filled with portamento, weighty tone and an overall seriousness that collectively tend to make the music drag – it sounds slower than it actually is, and comes across as a rather inflexible interpretation of music that is best when it flows most easily. Although this disc will be a treat for fans of the Oistrakh father and son, it is a limited-interest item, because enjoying it requires rethinking the niceties of performance as listeners have come to know them in the half-century since these recordings were made.