May 08, 2014


Shostakovich: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Truls Mørk, cello; Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Ondine. $16.99.

Christos Hatzis: Departures—Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra (2011); Overscript—Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (1993/2012). Patrick Gallois, flute; Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexandre Myrat. Naxos. $9.99.

Ernst Toch: String Trio (1936); Adagio elegiaco (1950); Cello Sonata (1929); Divertimento (1925); Violin Sonata No. 1 (1913). Spectrum Concerts Berlin. Naxos. $9.99.

John Cage: Music for Two (1984/1987); Three Dances for prepared pianos (1945). Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo (Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer). Naxos. $9.99.

Haskell Small: The Rothko Room—Journeys in Silence (2010); Visions of Childhood (2011); A Glimpse of Silence (2013). Haskell Small, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Schumann: Fantasie in C; Bruckner: Fantasie in G; Zemlinsky: Fantasien über Gedichte von Richard Dehmel; Brahms: Fantasien. Stanislav Khristenko, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

     It is inevitable that any cellist performing the Shostakovich concertos will be compared with Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom they were written and who gave the first performances of both, in 1959 and 1966, respectively (the Second actually received its première on Shostakovich’s 60th birthday, September 25). But if cellists will inevitably stand in the shadow of Rostropovich when it comes to these works, that does not mean they are doomed to second-class status in their performances. Quite the opposite, in fact, when it comes to a cellist as fine as Truls Mørk and, equally importantly, a conductor as superbly involved in Shostakovich interpretation as Vasily Petrenko. Yevgeny Mravinsky conducted the First Concerto at its debut, and Yevgeny Svetlanov led the Second, and while both were outstanding Soviet-era conductors, Petrenko is something else: a conductor whose considerations and reconsiderations of the music of Shostakovich continually shed new light on the composer’s works. And so the collaboration of Petrenko with Mørk on a new Ondine CD is an outstanding one. Mørk certainly has the necessary technique and emotional sensitivity to make these large, complex works comprehensible and emotionally trenchant; Petrenko, for his part, has a visceral understanding of this music as well as tremendous sensitivity to its nuances. The Oslo Philharmonic is not really an ideal orchestra for these lush but highly angular scores – its overall sound, although well-balanced, is somewhat bland – but Petrenko brings forth the various sectional elements to excellent effect, and throughout both concertos, Mørk weaves the cello lines in and out of the orchestral palette with tremendous skill and admirable sure-handedness. Rostropovich’s own performances of these concertos remain available – several different ones, in fact – and they have tremendous historical value as well as musical validity. But these works transcend any individual soloist and speak to and through other first-rate performers with a different and equally compelling voice. Mørk and Petrenko make them their own, and the result is highly satisfying even for dyed-in-the-wool admirers of Rostropovich’s versions.

     Satisfying in a very different way is a Naxos recording of flute concertos by Canadian composer Christos Hatzis (born 1953). Like many contemporary composers, Hatzis draws influences from a variety of sources beyond traditional classical models – in his case, all filtered through the lens of Christian spirituality. Thus, Departures, which is a memorial both on a personal level for Hatzis as well as to the victims of the 2011 tsunami at Fukushima, Japan, incorporates blues and Japanese music as well as some incongruous burlesque touches that, in Hatzis’ accretive style, work better than would otherwise be expected. Overscript is an even more complex work, managing the highly unusual technical feat of incorporating Bach’s entire G minor flute concerto, BWV 1056/I – in fragmented form – within Hatzis’ composition, so that Overscript becomes a musical commentary on music. An overarching element of these Hatzis works is that they sound, descriptively, as if they are over-clever and more of an intellectual exercise than an emotionally communicative one – but in fact they lie very well on the flute and other instruments and are considerably more emotive than a description of their derivative elements indicates. Patrick Gallois is a very effective advocate of this music, and the other soloists in Overscript – Dimitrios Kalpaxidis on oboe, Georgios Politis on bassoon and Marilena Liakopoulou on harpsichord – also show a well-wrought combination of understanding of the Baroque and comprehension of Hatzis’ intentions in reinterpreting Bach. The Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra under Alexandre Myrat may not be a world-class ensemble, but it is sturdy and serviceable and commands a string section quite strong enough to put these concertos across effectively. Both these works are world première recordings, and they will likely whet many listeners’ appetites for more music by Hatzis, a composer who is scarcely unusual in the multiplicity of his influences but is decidedly out of the ordinary in how he combines those elements and uses them to evoke expressions for a modern audience.

     A Naxos recording of chamber music by Ernst Toch (1887-1964) shows a composer whose expressive success varies by work and also by the period in which each work was created. Spectrum Concerts Berlin here offers pieces as early as 1913 and as late as 1950, and the changes in Toch’s style among these works are quite apparent. Violin Sonata No. 1 is effectively structured and decidedly in 19th-century mode, with little originality in design or communication and a serviceable but scarcely original approach to its thematic material. Divertimento and the Cello Sonata are more-advanced works, the former very brief and pointed (its three movements last only seven minutes) and the latter pleasant, with elements of elegance and a generally effective use of the cello’s range and expressive ability. This sonata, however, is not as emotive as the String Trio, the most effectively communicative music on this CD: it is a work of strength, passion and dedication, in straightforward three-movement form but with a level of intensity and personal involvement largely missing in the earlier-composed works on this disc. The short Allegro elegiaco is expressive as well, but in a heart-on-its-sleeve way that is somewhat overdone and that belies the sincerity it intends to project as a memorial to Holocaust victims. Toch’s music is well-made and shows considerable understanding of the solo instruments and ensembles for which he created it, but it is not particularly distinctive and does not have characteristics that would lead a listener unfamiliar with it to identify it as indelibly “Toch-ian.” As a result, this CD gets a (+++) rating despite the very high-quality performances that the musicians lavish on these works.

     The performances are also quite fine on another (+++) CD from Naxos, and here the music is certainly distinctive in its own way, but it is a way that wears extremely thin quite quickly. John Cage (1912-1992) remains a controversial figure even today, as well as a highly influential one. His focuses were many, ranging from a study of the relationship between performers and audience (as in his famous 4’33”, in which the performer sits quietly and listens to the audience), to reproducing the sounds and effects of the Balinese gamelan on Western instruments, to making instruments do things and produce sounds that they were never intended to create. Music for Two and Three Dances for prepared piano are fair samples of Cage’s approach, and both would be highly interesting to see in a live performance – Cage’s works always had a significant theatrical element to them. But as heard on an audio CD, they are long, overdone and, after only a short time, distinctly boring. Music for Two includes bowed piano techniques as well as the strongly percussive ones that Cage favored, and goes on (and on) for nearly half an hour. Three Dances for prepared piano has much of the gamelan flavor that Cage fancied and requires the performers to “prepare” the pianos in such a way that they make sounds – bangs, yowls, screeches, percussive explosions and more – of which they are quite capable but that fly in the face of the instrument’s primary reason for existence. There is, by design, nothing melodious, harmonically significant or rhythmically graspable in these works: Cage became a darling of the avant-garde in his time and afterwards by denying the basic elements of musical structure that had served as building blocks for more than 300 years. More than two decades after Cage’s death, his work remains divisive and debatable, a basic question being to what extent it can even be called music. He will continue to be celebrated for his iconoclasm and his willingness to stretch instruments’ sounds and listeners’ perceptions, but even when performers throw themselves (to some extent, literally) into his works, as do Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer, the result is something far less than compelling.

     Silence – the absence of sound – was important to Cage, although in that respect his preoccupations were nothing new: even Haydn thought it crucial to get the silences right when composing. Total silence is, of course, the opposite of sound and thus in a sense the opposite of music even while being a part of it. And the concept of silence can be interestingly interpreted with music, which is what Haskell Small (born 1948) tries to do in The Rothko Room and A Glimpse of Silence. Small has a particular fascination with silence as interpreted through music: he is a fine and wide-ranging pianist, and one work with which he is particularly associated is the more-than-hour-long Música Callada ("Quiet Music") by Catalan composer Frederic Mompou (1893-1987). With Small’s new MSR Classics CD, devoted entirely to world première recordings of his own music, it is easy to see the silence/sound dichotomy to which Small is attracted. Parts of The Rothko Room, which as a whole is a narrative of the life of Rothko (1903-1970), are tumultuous, while others make their points quietly or without sound altogether. The extended single-movement work falls into four distinct parts, each loosely related to one of the four Rothko paintings on display at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. A combination of impressionism in the Mussorgsky tradition with an attempt to paint a musical portrait of Rothko’s life, this is an ambitious work that will be most meaningful for those who know the specific Rothko paintings that inspired Small or, at the very least, are familiar with Rothko’s biography. A Glimpse of Silence, a shorter and more-straightforward piece, has an overall feeling of quiet and mysticism, with a predominant mood of serenity. Visions of Childhood is the most immediately appealing work on this disc. Like Schumann’s Kinderszenen, to which it traces its heritage, Small’s work is a series of brief scenes in which an adult looks back at a largely idealized picture of childhood. Small’s 10 scenes take only 15 minutes to perform, and several really do zip by – in under a minute. The once-upon-a-time approach is set up through the first piece, “A Long Time Ago,” and continues with lighthearted elements (“Frolicking,” “School’s Out!”) and some thoughtful ones (“Feeling Lonely,” “Lullaby”). The juxtapositions are generally quite well managed – the concluding “Lullaby,” for example, is preceded by “Roller Coaster” – and Visions of Childhood as a whole has a pleasantly nostalgic feel. Small’s music, especially insofar as it echoes some New Age-y elements of ethereality, will not be to all tastes, but this (+++) CD is a fair introduction to the composer/pianist’s thinking in recent years and in particular to his interest in having his works encompass large themes, including that of silence, within musical structures that verge on the miniature.

     It is not Schumann’s Kinderszenen but his Fantasie in C, Op. 17 that anchors the new (++++) Steinway & Sons CD featuring Stanislav Khristenko: his performance of this work helped lead Khristenko to First Prize at the Cleveland International Piano Competition last year. Schumann’s Fantasie is an emotionally charged piece with deliberate echoes of and quotations from Beethoven (it was intended to help raise funds for a monument to Beethoven in his birthplace, Bonn). It is difficult to sustain for its half-hour length, but Khristenko has taken its measure and manages a fine balance between its technical complexity and its emotional heart. Similarly, Brahms’ late and complex Fantasien, Op. 116, look back to Beethoven in their use of small motivic fragments as building blocks of grander structures – and here, too, Khristenko approaches the work with sensitivity as well as the necessary virtuosity in its three Capriccio segments. The Fantasien are seven miniatures that collectively produce an impact well beyond their individual elements, and Khristenko manages to communicate this through attention focused on the individual pieces’ characteristics while never losing sight of Brahms’ overall structure. This is a particularly impressive performance for a 29-year-old pianist: Schumann’s Fantasie was written when the composer was 26, and many of its sentiments are those of a young and somewhat headstrong man; but the Brahms Fantasien is a work of that composer’s late life, and what Brahms’ communicates here is a level of complexity that also sums up many of his pianistic techniques and emotional concerns. It says much for Khristenko’s skill that he can make both these very different works so effective, each in its own way. And the two other pieces on this CD are fascinating discoveries. Bruckner’s Fantasie is a brief, quiet and lyrical work that shows a little-noticed side of the composer. And Alexander Zemlinsky’s Fantasien über Gedichte von Richard Dehmel is fascinating. This is a set of four movements inspired by works written by the same poet whose Verklärte Nacht led to Schoenberg’s masterful 1899 string sextet. Zemlinsky’s piano work was written a year earlier and in more distinctly Romantic (indeed, Brahmsian) style. The music itself is poetic, limpid and often quiet, and Khristenko performs it with the combination of skill and sensitivity that he displays throughout this highly impressive debut CD.

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