November 22, 2017
(+++) SOME USES OF STRINGS
Saint-Saëns: Complete Works for Cello and Orchestra. Gabriel Schwabe, cello; Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. Naxos. $12.99.
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 2; Viktor Ullmann: String Quartet No. 3; Szymon Laks: String Quartet No. 3. Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello). Cedille. $16.
The richness and versatility of strings make them ideally suited to convey the widest possible variety of moods, and Saint-Saëns used them to finely variegated effect throughout his career – especially notably with regard to the cello. A new Naxos CD featuring Gabriel Schwabe contains all the cello-and-orchestra music Saint-Saëns wrote, even including a Paul Vidal arrangement for cello and orchestra of The Swan, the sole part of Carnival of the Animals that the composer allowed to be published in his lifetime (he thought the rest of the piece too trivial and dismissible). Schwabe is one of those young cellists with technique to spare but expressive maturity still to come, as is instantly clear in his performance of Cello Concerto No. 1, the composer’s best-known cello-and-orchestra work. This is a speedy, fluid, beautifully played rendition of the concerto that hits all the right notes except the emotional ones. Schwabe, abetted by the rather bland accompaniment of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Marc Soustrot, never characterizes the music as much of anything except a display piece. It is more than that, and deserves to be given some emotional heft and depth; Schwabe may come to that in time. For now, what he offers is genuinely impressive technique at the service of – well, not very much. Schwabe does somewhat better with Cello Concerto No. 2, perhaps because this work is less-known and there is less competition against which a cellist tends to measure himself or herself. Written in 1902, three decades later than the first concerto, the second is technically more difficult and emotionally less trenchant – a combination that seems to fit Schwabe just fine as he scales the work’s many difficulties with clarity and skill (despite some thinness of tone). This is a highly worthy performance of music that is more interesting than it is usually credited with being – although it is not as satisfying as the earlier concerto. The third extended work on this CD is the Suite in D minor, which is very late Saint-Saëns (1919) and shows clearly the musically conservative streak that became more pronounced as the composer aged. This piece has many of the hallmarks of Baroque suites, being a five-movement work consisting mainly of dances. But it is not rhythmically or harmonically imitative of the Baroque except in very general terms. It requires sensitivity of balance between cello and orchestra and a firm rhythmic hand from the soloist. Schwabe is somewhat less convincing here than in the second concerto – he seems less emotionally in tune with this music – but his first-rate technique results in a convincing performance. Also here, in addition to The Swan, are two short works that are interspersed with the longer ones and provide useful musical punctuation points in the recording: the Romance in F (1874) and Allegro appassionato in B minor (1873-76). Neither is of much consequence, but both are pleasant and are nice to have for, among other things, the sake of completeness.
String use is quite different for the three composers whose works are played by the Dover Quartet on a new Cedille disc. The quartets here all date from World War II, and they have some other elements in common as well, such as the folk-dance character of the opening of the Shostakovich and the pervasive folk elements in the quartet by Szymon Laks (1901-1983). The musical argument of the CD tries to connect the quartets in a different way: the disc’s title is “Voices of Defiance.” But this is a bit of a stretch. The Shostakovich, from 1944, is the composer’s first ambitious and large-scale quartet (lasting 36 minutes), and it has notable dramatic elements, such as passionate violin declamations in the second movement, which is labeled “Recitative and Romance.” But there seems more uncertainty, and perhaps bitterness, in the music than defiance of anything specific or general. The quartet progresses in a distinctly odd way, opening in its official key of A but ending up in the finale in A minor – about the only way in which anything by Shostakovich closely parallels anything by Mendelssohn, whose Symphony No. 4 progresses the same way. The Dover Quartet catches the emotional elements of the quartet well, although the players seem a touch unsure of what to do with the speedy waltz of the third movement, which admittedly (and deliberately) fits the rest of the work uneasily. The performers are more comfortable with the Laks quartet (1945), whose pervasive Polish folksiness takes on an added dimension for listeners who know that Laks was condemned to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which he survived by working as music director of the camp’s orchestra. On its own, without the historical background being known, this is a well-made quartet that needs some fine ensemble playing to pull it effectively together – and it gets exactly that from the Dover Quartet. The performers also do a fine job with the quartet by Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), whose deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau had a far more tragic ending than that of Laks: Ullmann was killed in the gas chambers there. Ullmann’s Quartet No. 3 (1943) was written at Theresienstadt, the camp to which the composer was first sent, and is unusual in structure: an extended first movement is followed by a very short second that ends Poco largamente. Ullmann had a strong personal style that incorporated the thinking of the Second Viennese School without being firmly bound to it. His Quartet No. 3, if it qualifies as “defiant,” does so through contrast, offering a kind of impressionistic beauty rather than any overt expression relating to the circumstances of its composition. The Dover Quartet is at its best here and in the Laks quartet, finding the works’ centers and bringing out their emotions to very fine, if not necessarily defiant, effect.