May 10, 2012


Vivaldi: Sonate da camera a tre, Op. 1, Nos. 1, 3, 4, 7-12. L’Estravagante (Stefano Montanari and Stefano Rossi, violins; Francesco Galligioni, cello; Maurizio Salerno, harpsichord and organ). Naïve. $16.99.

Rued Langgaard: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3 and 6; Variations on “Mig Hjertelig Nu Længes.” Nightingale String Quartet. (Gunvor Sihm and Josefine Dalsgaard, violins; Marie Louise Broholt Jensen, viola; Louisa Schwab, cello). Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

Debussy: Premier Quatuor; Deux Danses; Premier Trio; Rêverie. Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland and Ian Belton, violins; Paul Cassidy, viola; Jacqueline Thomas, cello); Sioned Williams, harp; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

Christian Gottlob Neefe: Twelve Sonatas; Beethoven: Nine Variations on a March by Ernst Christoph Dressler. Susan Kagan, piano. Grand Piano. $24.99 (2 CDs).

William Bolcom: Complete Gospel Preludes. Gregory Hand, organ. Naxos. $9.99.

      Chamber music as we know it today essentially began with Vivaldi (which is not to minimize Corelli, Albinoni and others of the time); Vivaldi’s chamber works essentially began with his Op. 1, a dozen works for two violins and continuo.  This is decidedly early Vivaldi, first published in 1703, when the composer was 25; and if it is not likely the first music he wrote, it is certainly among his earliest.  Already there is evidence here of Vivaldi’s skill as a violinist as well as his careful balancing of parts among multiple musicians.  He skillfully selects a wide variety of dance movements to keep the set of sonatas interesting, and he concludes the whole thing in spectacular fashion with Follia, a D minor set of 20 variations that deliberately invites comparison with Corelli’s earlier “La Folia” in the same key, but handles the theme with much greater dramatic flair.  Vivaldi, known to be something of a showman when playing the violin – a trait that did not always endear him to his contemporaries – shows in his Op. 1 that he can create effective display pieces as a composer, too.  Harmonically inventive and far more expressive than other music of its time, the Op. 1 chamber sonatas sound anything but staid in an excellent, period-sensitive performance by the group called L’Estravagante.  This is Volume 50 of a Vivaldi collection that will eventually result in the release of some 450 works by Naïve, and it upholds the clarity, high musical quality and considerable enjoyment consistently offered by the earlier volumes.

      The Nightingale String Quartet’s performance of three quartets by Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) is the first volume of a series that will eventually include all nine of the composer’s string quartets.  It is an auspicious debut.  This is a recently formed quartet (2007) and a young one: all four members are students at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.  The performers bring considerable youthful enthusiasm to the Langgaard quartets, but even more interestingly, they seem fully comfortable with Langgaard’s sometimes uneasy blend of nostalgia and Romanticism, on the one hand, and complex and forward-looking mood swings, on the other.  Indeed, Langgaard here sounds like a more-modern composer than he frequently does in performances of his 16 symphonies (or 17, counting the two very different versions of No. 5): the quartets are both more intimate and at times more acerbic than the larger-scale works.  The programmatic Quartet No. 2 offers interesting scene-painting in movements entitled “Storm Clouds Receding,” “Train Passing By,” “Landscape in Twilight” and “The Walk.”  No. 3 is a generally intense work, with such tempo indications as “Furioso,” “Furioso mortifero” and “Mosso frenetico.”  No. 6, in one movement, is a milder piece that incorporates a Swedish folk tune in its final section.  In addition to the quartets – the ones on this SACD date from 1918 to 1924, although No. 6 was revised as late as 1931 – the Nightingale String Quartet performs the intricate Variations on “Mig Hjertelig Nu Længes” (which translates as “I Heartily Now Yearn,” although the tune’s actual title is “Oh Sacred Head, Now Wounded”).  Generally slow, but with some outbursts of intensity, this is a thoroughly Romantic quartet work whose overall effect is very moving, nicely complementing the more-intense mood changes of the numbered quartets.

      Established far longer than the Nightingale String Quartet, the Brodsky Quartet celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with, among other things, a CD whose music is every bit as Romantic as Langgaard’s, but in a very different way.  Debussy’s early Premier Quatuor (1893) and even earlier Premier Trio (1880, when the composer was just 18) are scarcely indicative of the impressionistic works for which Debussy was to become far better known.  Indeed, the quartet – which despite its numbering was never to have a successor – sounds strongly dramatic in a way not at all typical of Debussy’s later and better-known works.  Nevertheless, there is considerable sensuality here, and the quartet’s cyclic structure takes the work beyond traditional classical form, with the result that the piece, if not exceptionally original in mood, does not sound especially like the work of any other specific composer.  The trio, though – which is for violin, cello and piano – is rather reminiscent of Saint-Saëns.  Even this very early work shows Debussy’s melodic skill and his ability to extract sweet sounds from a small complement of instruments.  The remaining music on this Chandos CD is better known, although not in the form heard here.  Deux Danses (the Danse sacrée and Danse profane) are usually performed in orchestral guise, but were originally written for chromatic harp (a Pleyel invention that never caught on); they are heard here in an arrangement by Fabrice Pierre for pedal harp and strings.  And Rêverie, a charming piano piece written for the salon, is here heard in Paul Cassidy’s string-quartet arrangement, in which it sounds just as lovely as on a keyboard.

      The few keyboard works of Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798) are virtually unknown nowadays; but then, so is Neefe himself.  A fairly well-known opera and Singspiel composer in his day, Neefe is nowadays relegated to a mere footnote in music history as one of Beethoven’s earliest music teachers.  Susan Kagan, who has taken unto herself the role of exhuming the piano music of composers surrounding Beethoven (notably Ferdinand Ries), has now turned her attention to the 12 sonatas of Neefe that date to 1773.  Kagan is an exemplary performer of the lesser music of this era, which she handles judiciously, not blowing it out of proportion but also not minimizing it or making it sound trivial by comparison with the works of greater composers of the time.  Kagan’s readings tend a bit toward the thoughtfully academic rather than the impassioned, but that works quite well in Neefe’s sonatas, which are written in a variety of styles but all seem to tread the tightrope between the Baroque and Classical eras – despite the fact that, by 1773, Baroque style had been thoroughly subsumed into later musical approaches (even Telemann, who had died in 1767, had tried some modest adaptations to the new style).  The Neefe sonatas are short, ranging from six to 12 minutes each, and more in the style of Scarlatti sonatas than in the more-expansive one of the sonatas of Mozart and, to a lesser extent, Haydn.  Written in two or three movements and primarily in major keys (although one is in D minor and two are in C minor), they are well-made anachronisms, their movements reminiscent in form of those of Bach’s suites even though Baroque-style counterpoint has mostly given way to Classical-era melody with accompaniment.  Kagan complements the Neefe sonatas with Beethoven’s very first published work, Nine Variations on a March by Ernst Christoph Dressler, written when the composer was 12 years old.  Beethoven was not the consummate prodigy that Mozart had been, and these variations do not exactly represent what the preteen Beethoven created (he revised them slightly in 1803), but the work is nevertheless interesting not only for its place in musical history but also for the way in which it foreshadows some of what was to come.  In particular, the key change from C minor to C major for the final variation looks ahead to Beethoven’s very last piano sonata, Op. 111 – and also to the finale of his Symphony No. 5.  It was Neefe who arranged for the publication of these variations, which are as intriguing in their way as Neefe’s own sonatas are in theirs.

      Intriguing keyboard works of a much later age, our own, the Gospel Preludes of William Bolcom (born 1938) bear fascinating testimony to the compositional virtuosity and multifaceted style of one of America’s most important composers.  Written in four “Books” of three preludes each, the works are all tied to hymns but are scarcely devotional in any generic sense.  Although the underlying melodies are quite familiar – including, among others, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace” and the Ives favorite, “Shall We Gather at the River” (which gets a very Ivesian treatment) – the musical treatment is as varied in its way as were Ives’ own hymn-pervaded works.  Yes, there is contemplative quietude from time to time, but there are also jazz and swing, and there are brilliant figurations and out-and-out virtuosity, the overall effect being one of wide-ranging musical exploration of works that can all too easily degenerate into bland affirmations of a lightly held faith.  Gregory Hand plays all 12 of the preludes with sureness and understanding, providing full solemnity when it is called for while offering out-and-out exuberance when that is what Bolcom requires.  The spirit of Ives seems to hover over the whole endeavor, not only in the frequent flouting of convention and musical expectation but also in the realization that it was for the organ that Ives wrote his Variations on “America,” turning a patriotic hymn into a series of popular and sometimes very dissonant dances.  Bolcom’s wonderfully variegated preludes contain, in the final analysis, more spirit and life affirmation than is generally present in the usually sober handling of the hymn tunes at their core.

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