January 10, 2013


Mendelssohn: String Quartets (complete). Bartholdy Quartet. Acanta. $24.99 (4 CDs).

Mozart: Piano Sonatas (complete). Bart van Oort, piano. Brilliant Classics. $24.99 (5 CDs).

Hummel: Piano Concertos, Volume 1—Concerto in A minor, Op. 85; Concertino in G, Op. 73; Introduction & Rondo brillant in F minor, Op. 127 (“Le retour de Londres”). Alessandro Commellato, fortepiano; Solamente Naturali conducted by Didier Talpain. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 23. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

      Packaging is an unheralded element of recorded-music production, but it can make a great deal of difference to listeners interested in a set of works. Some such sets lend themselves to single-release boxed offerings; others may work that way as well but be packed as separate, individual discs for reasons of marketing or recording – the creation of the sets may be a multi-year project, for example. Although there are complete boxes of Wagner’s Ring cycle and even of Bach’s organ works, the single-box approach is more often used for music that can fit on three or four CDs, and whose similarity lends itself to their being packaged together. The Mendelssohn set by the Bartholdy Quartet (Joshua Epstein and Max Speermann, violins; Jörg-Wolfgang Jahn, viola; Annemarie Dengler, cello) is a good example of the all-in-one box. These are lovely performances, with fine flow and great rapport among the performers, and in fact the set is more than complete, containing not only all the familiar quartets but also one that Mendelssohn composed at the age of 14 – plus the quartet-in-all-but-name cobbled together from multiple works and known as the Andante, Scherzo, Capriccio and Fugue. The order of presentation of the music is peculiar: the first CD includes Op. 44, No. 1 and Op. 13; the second has the early work, without opus number, and the not-quite-quartet; the third features Op. 12 and Op. 44, No. 2; and the fourth offers Op. 44, No. 3 and Op. 80. Actually, with some judicious juggling, and without caring about presenting the quartets out of order (which is already the case), this could have been a three-CD rather than four-CD set.  But of course what really matters is the music itself and the quality of the music-making that goes into the performances. Mendelssohn’s quartets encapsulate his life in some very remarkable ways. The one he wrote at the age of 14 clearly shows that he had already mastered counterpoint and elegant compositional techniques, while the last quartet, Op. 80 – an F minor work written after the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, and not long before his own death – has drama, intensity and heartbreak far beyond anything else in the quartets or, indeed, in most of Mendelssohn’s other music.  The Bartholdy Quartet members have a talent for nuance, and bring out the differing expressions of the quartets to excellent effect, and the set as a whole leaves a strong impression – and a good sonic one, too, despite the fact that these are remasterings of analog recordings dating to 1973-74.

      Bart van Oort’s recording of Mozart’s 18 piano sonatas is newer – it dates to various times between 1997 and 2005 – and digital in origin. It is also expressive in a wholly different way that is just as effective in this music as the Mendelssohn recording is in the later composer’s quartets.  Van Oort performs the works on the instrument for which they were written, the fortepiano, or more precisely on five fortepianos, including modern copies of ones dating to 1785 and 1795 and a 1785 original.  Furthermore, van Oort thoroughly understands the differences in technique and sonority between the fortepiano and its modern descendants, pointing out in the booklet for these performances that “instrument and style were tied together within the spirit of the time.”  These are poised, elegant performances, and van Oort understands the time in which they were written so thoroughly that he does not attempt (as so many other pianists do) to play the notes exactly as written and with metronomic precision. Instead, there is a degree of free-flowing rhythmic liberty here, a suitable amount of ornamentation, and a general fluidity of line that make these works all the more effective.  There is no wholesale rubato, which would be inappropriate in this music, but there is nevertheless considerable tempo variation – usually of a minor sort, providing an instant or two of emphasis and gone almost before the listener realizes it – that sounds just right, as if Mozart wrote the lines precisely that way.  But in fact the opposite is true: Mozart wrote the lines imprecisely, at a time in musical history when improvisatory performance was the norm, and van Oort’s adherence to the expectations of Mozart’s time (rather than slavish reproduction of the scores’ notes exactly as they appear on the page) makes for an altogether involving, even immersive experience in sonatas that are generally considered pleasant enough but not usually thought of as being among Mozart’s more-profound creations.  The sonatas are presented in numbered order, based on their Köchel listings, and that is helpful in allowing listeners to hear Mozart’s progress in this form through the years. For example, van Oort clearly appreciates the fact that K. 284, in D, is a grander and more-expansive work than those that came before (as well as the first sonata in which Mozart included a set of variations). He handles the A minor sonata, K. 310, feelingly, but without overdoing its emotion.  The well-known K. 331 in A, which starts with variations and ends with the “Rondo alla Turca,” fits clearly into the progression; the C minor, K. 457, holds to tragedy throughout and looks ahead structurally to Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata; and so on.  There are many felicities here and a great deal of delightful – and often moving – music, all handled in a way that preserves Mozart’s intended approach while speaking clearly to 21st-century listeners.

There is similar sensitivity to period style and instruments in the first volume of Brilliant Classics’ cycle of Hummel’s piano concertos – which actually would make a good boxed set, but is being released a single CD at a time.  The performances by Alessandro Commellato, with Solamente Naturali under Didier Talpain, are the first these works have received on period instruments, and the result is quite delightful: Hummel’s ties to Mozart emerge very clearly in these readings (especially when Mozart’s piano works are also played on the instruments for which they were written), while the forward-looking elements in Hummel (which glance toward the Romantic era) come across even more clearly than they do on modern instruments.  The first CD in this series is actually a bit odd in its selection of music. There is only a single concerto here, and it is No. 4 among the eight that Hummel composed (counting two early, distinctly Mozartean concertos as Nos. 1 and 2).  A large-scale work of considerable drama, as befits its minor key, this is a concerto with breadth as well as emotion, and its ties to the Romantic era are particularly clear. It contrasts very pleasantly indeed with the Concertino, Op. 73, which is sort of a sonatina to the concerto’s sonata – well-constructed, filled with felicitous touches, but on an altogether smaller scale.  And the third piece on this CD, the Introduction & Rondo brillant, is a pianistic showcase – Hummel was a fine and well-known pianist, and this is a work meant for display and virtuosity, although (again) not to the extent that Romantic-era composers would demand just a few years after Hummel’s death in 1837.  Hummel’s concertos are in need of a complete period-instrument recording, and the first disc in this sequence indicates that they are in the process of getting a very fine one.

      Speaking of “in process,” the excellent Marco Polo series of the works of Johann Strauss Sr. has now reached its 23rd volume, with Christian Pollack continuing his wonderfully idiomatic conducting and the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina still playing with all the upbeat spirit that these works demand. Yet this volume includes pieces from a time of considerable turmoil: 1848, the year of the famous insurgency against the “old order” in the person of Chancellor Klemens von Metternich.  A number of the compositions of Strauss Sr. from this year – the second-last of his life – are in the form of marches celebrating military triumphs or otherwise connected with the uprising.  Most famous of all, and indeed the most famous piece Strauss Sr. ever wrote, is the Radetzky-Marsch, heard here in its first version, with lighter orchestration and without the drumroll for which it subsequently became well-known. The Österreichischer Nationalgarde-Marsch (“Austrian National Guard March”), Marsch der Studenten-Legion (“March of the Legion of Students,” which includes a quotation of a well-known student song – much as Brahms was later to include Gaudemus igitur in his Academic Festival Overture), Freiheits-Marsch (“Freedom March”), and Marsch des einigen Deutschlands (“March of the United Germany”) are further testimony to the turmoil of the times and to Strauss Sr.’s skill in the march form.  Also here are two polkas (Fortuna-Polka and Wiener Kreuzer-Polka, the latter named for the Viennese Kreutzer Society, which collected funds for the needy), and a quadrille that, like the marches, reflects the times in its title: Quadrille im militärischen Style (“Quadrille in the Military Style”). Yet despite the tensions, Strauss Sr. did continue to produce some excellent waltzes: Aeaciden (“Aiakos,” a title referring to a judge in the Greek underworld), Amphion-Klänge (“Amphion Melodies,” another Greek reference – this time to a famed mythological lutenist), Aether-Träume (“Ether-Dreams,” written for a doctors’ ball at a time when the anesthetic was still experimental), and Sorgenbrecher (“Stress Relievers,” a title surely much appreciated by Strauss Sr. himself as well as by the Viennese populace at large).  Like the other volumes in this ongoing series, this one shows again and again just how skilled Strauss Sr. was in the musical forms of his time, and just how little he deserves to have been so thoroughly eclipsed over the years by the triumphs of his eldest son, Johann Strauss Jr.

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