July 18, 2024

(++++) SEASONS OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS

Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano; Women of the Minnesota Chorale, Minnesota Boychoir, and Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $42.99 (2 SACDs).

     The famous opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities contains not only the juxtaposition of the bright and the dark but also the remark that “it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” And that is a particularly apt, if reversed and oversimplified, way of looking at and listening to Mahler’s monumental emotional explorations in his Symphony No. 3. Performances that get to the heart of the feelings underlying the music by unfolding its structure with care and eloquence are always uplifting experiences. And the completion of Osmo Vänskä’s superb Mahler cycle – occurring after his departure from Minnesota, because of COVID-related scheduling issues – beautifully fulfills the promise of his earlier recordings.

     The excellence of this reading announces itself from the very beginning, as the eight horns ring out with tremendous clarity, as if with a call to arms. But then the music subsides into perfect, evocative silence: the SACD sound from BIS is excellent, and that includes lack of sound. Vänskä makes the movement’s procession almost funereal at first, but soon broadens the scope so it gives the impression that something enormous is awakening. Is it benign? Malign? Indifferent? An open question at this point. The brass is remarkably effective here, with Vänskä bringing out some midrange material that is not often clearly heard. The pace picks up after about six minutes, and the delicacy of the scoring becomes apparent: Vänskä highlights individual touches to excellent effect. Again and again the music subsides into quietude, seeming to contemplate where to go next; again and again, Vänskä pulls it forward into new realms that connect surprisingly seamlessly with ones already explored – while opening new vistas ahead. Getting the silences right is surprisingly important in Mahler, and in this enormous movement it is truly crucial – a fact that Vänskä clearly understands. Holding this massive movement together is an achievement for any conductor; granting it cohesiveness despite the ways in which it meanders is an even bigger accomplishment. The silken playing of the orchestra focuses listeners' attention throughout and produces a feeling of anticipation for what comes next. Vänskä allows each of the interwoven episodes of the movement full expressiveness while providing an effective overarching view of the music, which in this performance is on one level a self-contained tone poem (in this one way along the lines of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4) – but on another level, and at the same time, is a gigantic curtain-raiser for even more exploration and splendor still to come. The percussion use two-thirds of the way through is especially outstanding, actually carrying along the more-melodic instruments to the recapitulation of the opening – which thus makes perfect sense in this context. Vänskä gives the impression of taking his time throughout the movement, but the pacing is not actually slow: it is expansive, which is exactly what the movement requires for its full effect. The ending, partly as a result, is genuinely thrilling.

     The gentle simplicity and straightforward prettiness of the Tempo di Menuetto contrast strongly with the multifaceted complexity of the first movement. The pacing is essentially andante, walking pace, and the effect is of a pleasant and largely unchallenging stroll through nature, with some underlying yearning, although for what is not (yet) clear. Here Vänskä keeps all themes and sectional balance as clear as possible, and touches of special delicacy, such as the solo violin two-thirds of the way through, are handled effectively and with affection. Then the third movement brings a light and almost humorous rhythmic bounce, nicely paced to contrast with the second but never too fast. Much of the music seems to float placidly and lightly, but periodically there are contrasting full-orchestra passages whose dissonance is emphasized. Again Vänskä perfectly approaches the chamber-music-like touches of solo trumpet, solo violin, solo flute, and of course the posthorn – whose sound, although warm and beautiful, seems to come from a world different from that of the rest of the movement. The contrast of the solo posthorn with the massed French horns is particularly well done. The movement percolates toward its end with increasing disquiet that helps foreshadow the concerns of the fourth movement. The ability of the orchestra to play extremely quietly – individuals and sections alike – is especially noteworthy, producing an otherworldly sense of space and sound as the movement glides toward its emphatic but somewhat unsettled conclusion.

     The exemplary BIS sound shows its value throughout this recording, and no more aptly than in the extreme quiet of the beginning of the fourth movement, before Jennifer Johnston’s voice emerges as if from palpable darkness. Johnston sings with deep expressiveness and feeling, complemented by instrumental passages that skillfully underline and highlight Nietzsche's words, the emphasis on ewigkeit as fraught with meaning here as ewig will be much later in Mahler’s music, at the end of Das Lied von der Erde. After this, the contrasting brightness of the start of the fifth movement is immediate, but this movement’s words soon turn darker – despite the children's voices elevating the discourse. The verbal promise of heavenly joy seems less than certain because of Mahler’s contrast, skillfully put forth under Vänskä, between the words and the instruments underlying them. Thus, the concluding bell sounds raise hope, if not expectation. It is left to the profound sense of peace that Vänskä immediately evokes at the start of the final movement to pull the audience toward eternity and its joyous placidity. The pacing of this movement is key to its success, and Vänskä knows this, avoiding too broad an approach but keeping it at a slow enough speed to let all the beauties and subtleties of the orchestration emerge bit by bit, as if the petals of a gigantic flower are opening gradually to the sunshine of everlasting love. By the time the material from the first movement recurs, the emotional transformation through which the composer has taken listeners is complete, the evanescence of life now absorbed into eternity. What Mahler has done here musically is truly remarkable – and by the time of the monumental conclusion of the movement, what Vänskä has done to elucidate the composer's world-encompassing concept is so convincing that it cements Vänskä's Mahler cycle as one of the very best available anywhere.

(++++) SOUND THINKING

Brahms: Eleven Chorale Preludes for Organ, Op. 122, orchestrated by Virgil Thomson; Intermezzo in A, Op. 118, No. 2, orchestrated as “Black Swan for Orchestra” by Bright Sheng; Piano Quartet No. 1, orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg. Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern. Reference Recordings. $16.98.

Danny Elfman: Percussion Concerto; Wunderkammer; Are You Lost? Colin Currie, percussion; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Sony. $13.98.

     Brahms’ approach to orchestration was rich, even opulent, but his last works – although still suitably characterized as “autumnal,” an adjective often used of Brahms’ music – were solo or chamber pieces in which he deliberately eschewed massed sound in favor of clarity and his own version of delicacy. It may therefore seem like something of a fool’s errand to orchestrate some of those final Brahms works, but if so, there are some mighty fine foolish orchestrators out there, as a very unusual and very appealing Reference Recordings release shows. Its most striking element is Virgil Thomson’s orchestration of Brahms’ final, posthumously published Eleven Chorale Preludes for Organ, created after the death of his longtime friend and apparently unrequited love, Clara Schumann, whom Brahms outlived by less than a year. The nine Lutheran chorales (No. 10 is an additional setting of No. 9 and No. 11 an additional setting of No. 3) are simply and elegantly presented as organ works, expressive without being over-decorated, emotive without wallowing. They are lovely – and are considerably more spiritual than might be expected of Brahms, who although baptized a Lutheran was a humanist/agnostic (and from whom Dvořák famously became estranged as a result). Whether it was Clara Schumann’s death, his own approaching end of life, or some other factor – or a combination of elements – that led him to these simple, beautifully evocative spiritual settings, the chorale preludes show a side of Brahms that is rarely to be heard elsewhere in his music. And Thomson, himself a fine (and underrated) composer, was technically careful and emotionally respectful when orchestrating the works in 1957-58. Michael Stern leads the Kansas City Symphony in a performance that mirrors the care brought to the orchestration by Thomson while also adhering to the underlying spirituality – which includes a degree of sadness – that is incorporated by Brahms into all 11 of these short works. Stern and the ensemble also produce a warm, caring performance of a Brahms orchestration that does not hew quite so closely to the composer’s original concept. It is Black Swan, an arrangement by Bright Sheng (born 1955) of another late Brahms work with a strong Clara Schumann connection: Intermezzo in A, Op. 118, No. 2, which Brahms dedicated to her and which she in turn praised to the composer for its “wealth of sentiment.” By giving his orchestration its own title, Sheng indicates that he is doing more than simply adapting this piano piece for an ensemble. And indeed he takes the music a step beyond Brahms’ original, using sectional sounds to accentuate its passion, emotional heft and closing wistfulness. The underlying melodies and harmonies remain those of Brahms, but the more-expansive emotionalism of the piece – well-communicated under Stern’s direction – is Sheng’s contribution. Yet Sheng does not personalize this music to the extent that Arnold Schoenberg does Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1, a much earlier work (written in 1861, when Brahms was 28) that Schoenberg (1874-1951) adapted late in his own life, in 1937 (there is a Clara Schumann connection here as well: she was the pianist in the quartet’s first performance). Brahms’ chamber music often possesses symphonic qualities, so to some extent it is scarcely surprising that another composer would seek to bring them out. And Schoenberg, for all his fame (or notoriety) in twelvetone composition and atonality, had considerable respect for Brahms. But he was also very much steeped in his own compositional style, and his expansion (it is more than an orchestration) of this Brahms quartet makes that abundantly clear. Schoenberg insistently finds symphonic elements throughout the quartet – more than Brahms put into it, except perhaps by implication – and brings them out through his own considerable skill at orchestration and willingness to take the music well beyond Brahms’ own harmonic and expressive world. The adaptation is interestingly reflective of Schoenberg’s own creative production, which began with late-Romantic works before becoming famously acerbic and decidedly un-Romantic in sound and orientation. Schoenberg does not hesitate to update elements of Brahms’ sound world to his own – the percussion use in the finale is an especially clear example – nor does he feel obliged to adhere to Brahms’ own notions of harmony and balance. The result is a work that feels a bit like a pastiche, a bit like a tribute, a bit like a rethinking, and a bit like something altogether new. It is really not the Brahms quartet at all, despite being foundationally derived from it. But it is quite fascinating to hear and is often exceedingly cleverly structured – and it is presented with considerable verve, as well as understanding, by Stern and his very fine orchestra. The disc as a whole will perhaps be of greatest interest to listeners who already know Brahms’ own versions of the music – but even those who do not will find much to enjoy and explore here, although one would hope they would eventually seek out these pieces the way the composer himself conceptualized them.

     There is no question about either the concept or the presentation of the music of Danny Elfman (born 1953) on a new Sony CD, but there are certainly some surprises here. Elfman is known almost entirely as a film composer (he has written music for more than 100 movies) and singer/songwriter; his association with the concert hall is tenuous at best. This disc, however, shines a different and thoroughly engaging light on his work. In fact, listening to Elfman’s Percussion Concerto shortly after hearing Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 – especially that work’s finale – is quite an intriguing experience, the juxtaposition shining as much light on Elfman’s skills with percussive thinking as on Schoenberg’s. Elfman’s music is more overtly accessible than much of Schoenberg’s oeuvre, though, and the Percussion Concerto is nothing if not involving. It is a significant tour de force for Colin Currie, for whom it was written, and also requires JoAnn Falletta to put the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra through a considerable set of paces – which she and the ensemble manage with genuine panache. For all its performance complexity, the Percussion Concerto continually gives the impression that it is not to be taken overly seriously, at least not by the audience: it is fun above all, and Elfman’s skill at producing readily accessible, interestingly conceived music that may not be profound but is certainly listenable, is everywhere apparent. The concerto is in four movements: Triangle, which in the absence of three Curries requires three percussionists; DSCH, the initials of Dmitri Shostakovich, which that composer himself incorporated into many of his works and which Elfman uses to indicate a sort-of-tribute; Down, a slow meandering through more-extended harmonies than Elfman uses elsewhere; and Syncopate, which relieves any hint of auditory stress from the previous movement by splashing sound all over the place with a level of exhilaration that is thoroughly infectious. Complementing this unusual and appealing concerto on the CD is the world première recording of Wunderkammer, a word referring to a room filled with a random assortment of odd and appealing knickknacks. It turns out that the piece is more appealing than odd: here Elfman’s skill at film composition is everywhere apparent, with each of the three movements sounding as if it is accompanying some sort of unseen visualization – and the use of vocalise adds to that impression. Although not designated as a percussion concerto, this work certainly gives the percussion section a considerable and near-constant workout – although, to be fair, all the orchestral sections get pushed to extremes, not of subtlety but often of volume, as the piece progresses. There is nothing the slightest bit subtle about Wunderkammer: even its attractive central slow movement, although it provides respite from the hectic material that precedes it and largely avoids exclamatory percussion, offers the sort of straightforward emotion-weaving that is to be expected in music intended to underline the visuals of films. And the finale, unsurprisingly, offers the sort of noisily emphatic martial proclamations with which Elfman appears particularly comfortable – it is full of sound and fury even if it signifies, well, not very much. The CD does, however, conclude with a bit of a surprise: a song from Elfman’s Trio called Are You Lost? Although there is percussion here, it is comparatively downplayed in scoring that also includes women’s voices, piano and strings; and the piece (sung in French) is gentler and quieter than is usual in Elfman’s music. It is scarcely profound and certainly breaks no new musical ground – consonance, harmony and facile expression of easily perceived emotions are hallmarks of the work – but it is, all in all, somewhat less intense and insistent than the rest of the music on this disc. It is far from subtle or deep, but it at least ends the recording by providing some respite from material that, although salutary, is frequently a kind of aural assault – a pleasant and well-crafted one, to be sure, but scarcely an experience to which most listeners will want to subject themselves on an ongoing basis – although these Elfman works are certainly worth experiencing from time to time, perhaps in somewhat smaller doses than are provided by this all-Elfman recording.

July 11, 2024

(++++) WORKS OF THEIR TIMES

Richard Strauss: Josephs Legende (complete ballet). Staatskapelle Halle conducted by Fabrice Bolton. Naxos. $19.99.

Alessandro Stradella: Mottetti. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $16.99.

Bruckner: Mass No. 2; Motets—Ave Maria, Locus iste, Virga Jesse, Os justi, Christus factus est; Aequali Nos. 1 and 2. Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Peter Dijkstra. BR Klassik. $20.99 (2 CDs).

Lukas Foss: Symphony No. 1; Ode; Renaissance Concerto; Three American Pieces. Amy Porter, flute; Nikki Chooi, violin; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $19.99.

     Sumptuous in concept and elegant in execution, Richard Strauss’ ballet Josephs Legende dates to 1912-14 and speaks eloquently of a world in transition. It is flowingly Romantic in overall design despite harmonic hints of a changing sound world; it is also something of a throwback, in its story of the purity of its title character, to a time distinctly at odds with that of Strauss’ Salome (1905). Yet there is plenty of percussive drama in some sections, reminiscent of that in Salome and other Strauss works, and the very large orchestra is expertly managed to communicate the sensuality of the underlying material (Potiphar’s wife’s desire for Joseph), the exoticism of the setting (“a huge pillared hall in Palladian style”), and the contrasts between ensemble pieces and very delicately scored individual ones. In broad outline, the story of the ballet closely follows Genesis 39:7-20, but the ballet’s structure makes ample room for additional coloration with dances for boxers, an Oriental Witches’ Dance, and more. The performance on Naxos, featuring Staatskapelle Halle conducted by Fabrice Bolton, is a very fine one: ballet music is essentially accompaniment rather than standalone material (which is why so many ballets are less-than-effective in recorded form), so Bolton wisely focuses on the rhythmic elegance and aural beauties evoked by Strauss through his skillful orchestration and wonderfully flowing themes. Interestingly, Potiphar’s wife (unnamed in the Bible) does not really have a theme: she is almost a force of nature, identified through mood and sound and competing with the deus ex machina angel that eventually rescues Joseph. In contrast, Joseph and his thoughts and dreams receive music of utmost purity that unfolds at a mostly deliberate pace, as if it exists outside time and the driving insistence of Potiphar’s wife’s urges. The whole good-vs.-evil notion of the ballet and its underlying story is scarcely new, but in the context of a world approaching a devastating, empire-destroying war, Josephs Legende takes on additional meaning and significance – if only in retrospect. The music of Strauss did undergo changes after the war, but his stage works remained quite recognizable in their style and approach, including his postwar ballet, Schlagobers, whose staging is even more elaborate than that of Josephs Legende and regarding which Strauss directly stated, “I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy.” That tragic time was not yet quite upon Strauss and his audience when Josephs Legende was created, but musically, stylistically, and thematically, the ballet, for all the pervasive beauty of its themes, has about it the feeling of the incipient end of an era.

     Like Richard Strauss, Alessandro Stradella (1643-1682) was more a composer of his own time than one who advanced music in significant ways – but Stradella’s operas and oratorios have retained their effectiveness and their attractiveness to listeners who enjoy works of the 17th century. What has never had much currency is the shorter sacred music of Stradella – in fact, of the five motets on a beautifully played Naïve CD featuring Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini, four are world première recordings. Stradella’s 17 motets that are known from manuscripts at the Biblioteca Estense in Modena, Italy, were generally conceived as occasional pieces – for the Nativity and designated date of the Immaculate Conception, for example – but in some cases were intended for more-general use. Exultate in Deo Fidelis, for which Stradella himself wrote the text, is the only motet here that has been previously recorded, and its sure-handed melding of solo voice with instruments shows Stradella’s high level of skill at putting across a sacred message through a gymnastic vocal line combined with some very effective instrumental material. In fact, Stradella was a skilled orchestrator, as Alessandrini clearly shows in the two sinfonias included here to complement the motets – each for two violins and basso continuo. Certainly these are works representative of their time (one lasts three minutes, the other less than 90 seconds), but their careful balance and well-controlled emotional expression make them engaging and effective. As for the never-before-recorded motets, Nascere Virgo Potens uses three voices; In Tribulationis, in Angustiis uses five; Convocamini, Congregamini calls for six; and Sistite Sidera, Coeli Motus Otiamini is for a solo singer. What Alessandrini’s presentation of all the works shows is close attention to period style and a suitable level of emotive expression, mixed with very carefully executed balance between the vocal and instrumental material: Stradella kept the words paramount throughout, as was expected for this sacred music, but he found ways to expand upon and underline the meaning of the texts through skillful employment of instruments. This CD offers a winning combination of scholarship – the playing and instrumental sound are certainly authentic – with genuine engagement: even listeners unfamiliar with the concepts and language of these motets can admire the skillful way Stradella assembles his material and the vivid way in which Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano bring it to life.

     The approach to motets and other sacred music had changed dramatically by the middle of the 19th century – although the changes were gradual and seem extensive only when Stradella’s motets and those of a composer such as Bruckner are heard in close proximity. The five Bruckner motets on a new BR Klassik release are all a cappella works, lacking the instrumental accompaniment that enriches Stradella’s motets but achieving richness of sound through Bruckner’s adept and sensitive handling of the chorus – and the excellence of Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Peter Dijkstra. Each of the motets heard here has its own salient characteristics, but all are clearly mid-19th-century works in their harmonies and their intense emotional expressiveness. Ave Maria, for seven-part mixed chorus, shows just how far motet writing had come since the Marian motets of Stradella. Bruckner’s expert separation and then joining of the male and female voices makes for a particularly effective presentation. Locus iste, like some of Stradella’s motets, is an occasional piece, written for a chapel consecration and using the key of C to affirm the solemnity of the circumstances. Os justi is more contemplative and deliberately affirms older forms of church music, being written in Lydian mode. Christus factus est retells the Passion story with considerable drama and a wide dynamic range. And Virga Jesse has some of the scope of Bruckner’s symphonies – plus a kind of tribute to Handel in its final “Hallelujah” section. Just as Alessandrini’s Stradella release mingles brief instrumental works with the vocal elements, Dijkstra’s Bruckner recording includes two short, early (1847) instrumental pieces. These are scored for three trombones – alto, tenor and bass – and are intended as solemn chorales that hark back to earlier times. All these pieces, vocal and instrumental, surround the major work here, the second of Bruckner’s three Mass settings. Mass No. 2 is in E minor and is quite unusual for its time – indeed, for any time. Bruckner wrote it for eight-part choir and wind instruments, using those instruments to produce clear Romantic-era harmony while keeping the vocal material deliberately archaic and psalm-like in sound. Dijkstra has clearly studied this work very carefully and figured out how to manage its many complexities – its slow tempo being one such, especially for the singers – with great skill. The Münchner Rundfunkorchester is as attuned to the subtleties of the work as is possible, and the chorus proclaims the familiar words of Mass No. 2 with fervor and emotion befitting the spiritual intensity of the belief underlying the texts. This Mass fits interestingly into Bruckner’s music taken as a whole, and for those who are fluent in German, BR Klassik includes with the recording a second CD called Wege zur Musik: Bruckners Welt (“Paths to Music: Bruckner’s World”) that contains extensive discussion of the material recorded here, with musical examples illustrating many points. Alas, no translation of anything on the bonus disc is available, so it is usable only by German speakers – but for them, it will certainly be a worthwhile expansion upon the purely musical presentation under Dijkstra’s direction.

     Chronologically, Stradella was of the Renaissance, living at a time that continues to interest composers and produce works intended as tributes, interpretations or rethinkings of the era. It is nevertheless a bit surprising to find out that certain specific composers looked back to Renaissance times: Lukas Foss (1922-2009) would scarcely seem to have been interested in that age. But Foss’ Renaissance Concerto, written for flute and orchestra as recently as 1985, does indeed hark back to Stradella’s time – albeit with harmonic twists that show the period in which it was actually composed. Foss does not specifically reference Stradella in this four-movement work, but he does include a movement “after Rameau” and another “after Monteverdi.” However, the very opening of the first movement, Intrada, immediately shows how far from Renaissance ideals of consonance and balance the piece will be; and as the work progresses, Foss is at pains to ensure that if there are rhythmic recollections of Baroque dance forms, the actual themes and their harmonizations are very much of the 20th century rather than the 17th or before. The fugue-like opening of the concluding Jouissance pays the most-direct tribute to an older time, although here too the music soon shows its true time period. Amy Porter handles the solo material for flute very ably on a new Naxos recording, with JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra providing top-notch support – in very modern guise, to be sure, but that is clearly what Foss intended. The three other works on the disc are many decades older. Ode dates to 1944 (revised in 1958) and, unlike Richard Strauss’ somewhat anticipatory ballet from before World War I, connects directly with World War II: it is a well-made if rather obvious expression of grief for lives lost and the dismal realities of warfare. The style here is neo-Classical – an approach that Foss favored when in his 20s – and somewhat derivative, although the work is skillfully crafted and delivered by Falletta and the orchestra with appropriate seriousness. Three American Pieces dates to the same time period, specifically to 1945, although the work was not orchestrated until 1989. Here the influence of Copland is clear, and the use of a solo violin (amiably played by Nikki Chooi) adds to the feeling of spaciousness associated with a considerable amount of American geography. Again, the work is on the derivative side, pleasant enough in its own way but not particularly consequential – although the concluding Composer’s Holiday movement and its pervasive “fiddling” style are enjoyable and certainly worth re-hearing. The most-substantial piece on this CD is Foss’ Symphony No. 1 (1944), which is shorter than his three later symphonies and quite different in character. There is some Copland-esque material here as well, but the primary evident influence is that of Hindemith, with whom Foss studied. The straightforward neo-classical structure of the symphony is evident from its clear home key (G) and traditional four-movement arrangement. The piece is somewhat scattered in approach – notably, the second movement starts with an elegant horn theme but soon engages in a rather trivial central section. The third-movement Scherzo has the most originality in its treatment of dance rhythms and orchestration, although the bouncy main part of the finale has an attraction all its own. Falletta conducts the symphony with the same flair she brings to all the music here, and if the disc gets a (+++) rating for the less-than-top-level attractiveness of its content, that is certainly no criticism of the performers, who give the somewhat bland and not entirely original material all the dedication and excellence of presentation that an audience with a strong interest in Foss’ music could wish for.

(++++) STRINGS STRUCK AND STRUMMED

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 28 and 29 (“Hammerklavier”). James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos Nos. 1, 3, 4, and 5. Tianqi Du, piano; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Jonathan Bloxham. Naïve. $16.99.

Live in Aspen. Sharon Isbin, guitar; Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Bangash, and Ayaan Ali Bangash, sarods; Amit Kavthekar, tabla. ZOHO Music. $16.99.

     It’s about time. More than a decade after James Brawn’s recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas began appearing on MSR Classics – with a first disc oddly including Nos. 1, 3 and 23 (“Appassionata”) – the ninth and last volume of the cycle is now available. And it caps the series with the same mixture of excellence and oddity that has been part of Brawn’s offerings throughout. The conclusion of Brawn’s so-titled “Beethoven Odyssey” includes the two sonatas that Beethoven designated “Hammerklavier,” although the title stuck only to the second and much larger of them. A strange way to end the sequence, this is nevertheless a most worthwhile disc for the opportunity it presents to hear these two very different works in juxtaposition (notwithstanding the reality that they were composed several years part). Brawn is above all a thoughtful pianist, using his excellent technique not for display purposes but to color in the nuances of Beethoven’s music and present its challenges as communicative opportunities. He is especially strong when contrasting movements that have very different characters: the gentle opening of Sonata No. 28 and the Marschmässig second movement are particularly telling here, after which the very short but lovely Langsam und sehnsuchtvoll third movement reinforces the underlying contrasts with which this sonata abounds – and the forthright strength of the start of the finale makes the differences clearer still, while providing a thoroughly engaging and unusually clearly played capstone for the entire work. The same approach stands Brawn in very good stead in the ever-challenging Sonata No. 29, which invites performers to display virtuosity first and foremost – an invitation that Brawn firmly declines. For example, after the suitably proclamatory opening of the first movement, Brawn emphasizes the foundational lyricism of the music and downplays (so to speak) the difficulty of performing it. His ability to harness his technique, making it subservient to his view of the composer’s expressive intentions, is what shines through here, and indeed permeates his entire Beethoven cycle. Brawn shows just how packed with material the very brief second movement of No. 29 is, and then – again providing excellence of contrast – he allows the Adagio sostenuto expansiveness that is so involving that it is hard to see where the music will go next. Where it does go, of course, is into the very complex concluding fugue, wherein Brawn does a fine job of allowing the contrapuntal material to show through while simultaneously emphasizing the drama and emotional heft of this extraordinary movement. There is very little to quibble about in any of Brawn’s recordings in his Beethoven sequence – except for the fact that the sonata mix on individual CDs is often decidedly peculiar, and the whole cycle has taken so devilishly long to emerge. A boxed set of the complete nine-disc series would be most welcome – although it would be even better (if less likely) for the completed sequence to be released, now that it is complete, in a rearrangement into the actual order in which the 32 sonatas are normally presented.

     Rearrangement of a different sort is entirely typical when it comes to Bach’s harpsichord concertos, which are regularly and incorrectly dubbed “keyboard concertos," as if that somehow justifies playing them on the piano. The fact is that these wonderful works were conceived for an instrument whose strings are plucked, not one whose strings are hammered – and the use of a modern piano, no matter how sensitively played, is fundamentally at odds with the sound that Bach explored and evoked in these pieces. Of course, none of this stops pianists from wanting to perform the concertos; nor should it. It is another matter for listeners, though, as is clear from Tianqi Du’s playing of four of the concertos on a Naïve CD. The forthright brightness of the playing of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Jonathan Bloxham contrasts unsettlingly with the warmth and emotional evocativeness of Du’s piano playing, even though Du does not overuse the pedals or engage too greatly in effects of which the harpsichord is incapable. Still, the sustaining chords and somewhat murky trills of the finale of Concerto No. 1 are evidence, if any were needed, of the fact that this music was not intended for the (then-nonexistent) piano. The decorations in the first movement of Concerto No. 3, using the deep key travel of today’s piano effectively, pull the music toward the Romantic era, and the emotive Adagio e piano sempre that follows does so to an even greater extent. The bounciness of the solo part in the first movement of No. 4 fits the piano somewhat better, but the pietà sound of the Larghetto is overdone, and Du makes the concluding Allegro ma non tanto a bit too much about the soloist. The gloom of the first movement of Concerto No. 5 is also overdone here, thanks in large part to the mellow piano sound – this concerto is thoughtful but scarcely melancholy, a distinction that comes through somewhat better in the central Largo here. The back-and-forth exclamations and recurrent trills of the concluding Presto, however, never really establish a mood that blends or contrasts particularly well with the ensemble’s sound. This is a (+++) recording that is quite well played on its own terms – but its terms are not Bach’s and should not be confused with his.

     Strings can be used to evoke sound in ways other than plucking (harpsichord) or striking (piano), of course. And they are central to the music of multiple traditions. This can lead to some fascinating aural blendings for audiences inclined to find cross-genre music-making intriguing. An example is the Live from Aspen CD featuring guitarist Sharon Isbin with four performers on instruments from India – a disc resulting from the musicians’ playing together in the summer of 2022. The attractions of this (+++) disc are somewhat on the rarefied side – the sound of the individual and combined instruments matters more than the specific pieces performed – but audiences seeking less-common sonorities and sonic blends, and those favoring excellent guitar playing both in solos and in mixed instrumental company, will find much to enjoy here. Francisco Tárrega’s Capricho Árabe, the guitar solo that opens the disc, gives Isbin the chance to make a very fine impression with the coloristic effects of her instrument and the emotional variety of which it is capable. It is the remainder of the disc, though, that will especially appeal to the niche audience that will find it enjoyable. The lutelike Hindustani classical sarod is heard throughout the remainder of the CD, along with the paired hand drums known as tabla. The performers informally introduce and explain some of the material to a volubly enthusiastic audience at the Aspen Music Festival. An understanding of ragas, an enjoyment of improvisations, and a fascination with the differing sounds brought forth by stringed instruments from varying traditions go a long way toward making this disc enjoyable – it is, for example, important to know the symbolism underlying the various ragas used as the basis for Sacred Evening, By the Moon and the other pieces here. Of particular interest is Raga Bhatyali—Folk Music of Bengal, within which appears a folk song composed by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. Strictly from the point of view of mingled sound, however, the most-engaging multi-instrument work here is the concluding Romancing Earth, in which the considerable contrast between Isbin’s guitar and the Indian instruments produces an emotionally affecting melding that seeks, with some success, to bridge the gap between the cultures that produced the differing means of making music. Nevertheless, to many Western ears, the Asian instruments’ qualities will likely share a sameness that leads the individual pieces on this disc to sound much like each other – even though they are derived from different elements of their own traditions. This is a CD for those of an exploratory bent who find the experience of cross-cultural outreach and cooperation more than enough reason to hear music generated by instruments that use strings in ways uncommonly heard outside the Indian subcontinent.