November 06, 2014


Hummel: Piano Trios, Volume 1—Nos. 2, 3, 6 and 7. Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin; Alice Neary, cello; Benjamin Frith, piano). Naxos. $9.99.

Glazunov: String Quartet No. 5; Franck: Piano Quintet; Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5. Delray String Quartet (Mei Mei Luo and Tomas Cotik, violins; Richard Fleischman, viola; Claudio Jaffé, cello); Tao Lin, piano. Centaur. $16.99.

Jacques Hétu: Complete Chamber Works for Strings. New Orford String Quartet (Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan, violins; Eric Nowlin, viola; Brian Manker, cello); Steven Dann, viola; Colin Carr, cello; Timothy Hutchins, flute. Naxos. $9.99.

Peter Sculthorpe: Complete String Quartets with Didjeridu. Del Sol Quartet (Kate Steinberg and Rick Shinozaki, violins; Charlton Lee, viola; Kathryn Bates, cello); Stephen Kent, didjeridu. Sono Luminus. $27.99 (Blu-ray Disc+CD).

     Chamber music tends to be more explicitly conversational than music for larger ensembles, but the nature of the conversation changes as the size and makeup of the chamber group does. It changes as well over time, as composers seek different forms of communication among the performers and between performers and audience. The Gould Piano Trio’s first volume of Hummel Piano Trios for Naxos showcases a conversation that is light, balanced, elegant and warm. The four works here, all in three movements and all in major keys, treat the strings essentially as equals and the piano as a slightly-more-imposing presence – Hummel was a piano virtuoso, and his works often make the piano primus inter pares, although rather less so in these trios than in some of his other music. Hummel is finally starting to get his due as a major transitional composer whose works lie between the Classical and Romantic eras and temperament, partaking of elements of both, rather than someone whose music is “neither here nor there.” These trios lie more on the Classical side: all have short and not terribly profound slow movements, and all conclude with bouncy, well-formed rondos, including a Rondo alla turca at the end of No. 2 and a Rondo alla russa completing No. 7. The “exotic” elements of these rondos are less significant now than they would have been in Hummel’s time, but they are audibly present, and they show Hummel’s ability – even when writing lighter music – to produce well-formed works filled with attractive tunes, considerable lyricism and well-defined, pleasing rhythms.

     The type of communication is considerably more emotional in Glazunov’s String Quartet No. 5 and Franck’s Piano Quintet, and not just because of the increased number of players – although that is one factor in these works’ communication. Glazunov’s work, despite its D minor home key, is scarcely a heavy one, even though its seriousness is clear. Trying to make the quartet deeper than it is tends to make it sound rather dour, especially in the first movement, so it is good that the Delray String Quartet allows the music to expand and breathe without making it seem more emotive than in fact it is. The difficulty with this quartet is to have it sound serious without making it seem weighty, and the Delray Quartet does this well, presenting the music as warm, almost glowing at times, and quite Romantic in outlook and approach – but scarcely profound. Franck’s sole Piano Quintet is a deeper work, although a rather self-involved one. Here the performers, including pianist Tao Lin, balance the work’s emotional forthrightness with an understanding of its structure, in which the two four-bar phrases that permeate the first movement recur from time to time throughout the second and third. The warm string tone and elegant piano elements of this performance are winning, with the Franck coming across as a significantly more-substantial work than the Glazunov, both technically and emotionally. The third piece here is a piano quintet arrangement by J. Nurse of the lovely Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – and whether a listener cares for it will be a matter of taste. Certainly it is well played, and certainly the music is surpassingly lovely even when heard in this form rather than, as Mahler intended, on strings and harp. But this piece was never supposed to be a standalone work, and in fact it is designed for a crucial developmental point within the symphony in which it appears. So hearing it this way is a bit like walking into the middle of a conversation whose topic is not entirely clear – and then walking out again before the  discussion is clarified. The work is effective enough as an encore (although, oddly, it is placed first, as a sort of curtain raiser, on the Centaur CD); but its emotional power, which is considerable, is largely vitiated when it is played out of context.

     The conversational power of the chamber music of Canadian composer Jacques Hétu (1938-2010) is of a different sort and is largely confined to what can be communicated through use of 20th-century compositional techniques. The new (+++) Naxos CD of Hétu’s complete chamber works takes listeners back to 1960 for his first string-quartet piece, Adagio and Rondo, which proves to be brief, witty and not especially noteworthy stylistically. His two string quartets show significantly improved mastery: No. 1 (1972) combines techniques of the time with an older harmonic language in a rather uneasy alliance, while No. 2 (1991) is a more balanced and emotional work, with an Andante in memory of Hétu’s mother – not, interestingly enough, a more-typical Adagio or Lento. The other quartet work here is a short and effective Scherzo from 1992 that contrasts interestingly with the Adagio and Rondo. The conversation is broader in the other two pieces on the disc: Sérénade (1988) is a quintet for flute and strings, a three-movement piece distinguished by an overall lyricism that is unusual for compositions built using many of the techniques pioneered in the 20th century. And Hétu’s final chamber work, the Sextet of 2004 for two violins, two violas and two cellos, is unusual as well: in a single movement, it combines elements of lyricism, intensity and virtuoso writing – not a piece that is particularly tightly knit, but one that certainly shows that its composer had developed his own voice and determined how he wanted to use it in a chamber-music context.

     The quartets by Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014) presented on a new (+++) Sono Luminus release certainly show the composer creating unusual instrumental combinations and using his own methods of producing musical discussions. In fact, he intended the discussions to go beyond the music, to encompass issues involving  Australia’s indigenous people and the nation’s European colonists. Hence the inclusion with string quartet of the aboriginal woodwind/drone instrument, the didjeridu, in a total of four Sculthorpe chamber works, all of them offered here on CD and two presented in surround-sound Blu-ray as well. The didjeridu is actually designated as optional in these pieces, but its inclusion in a fine performance by Stephen Kent significantly expands the works’ sonic impact and helps unite the titles of the pieces and their movements with the music as it is performed. String Quartet No. 12, “From Ubirr,” is an intense one-movement work based on Sculthorpe’s earlier orchestral composition, Earth Cry. “Ubirr” refers to an area of Kakadu National Park, in Australia’s Northern Territory, that is known for its aboriginal rock art. Australia’s colonial history underlies String Quartet No. 14, “Quamby,” which mixes pastoral elements with exotic sounds. “Quamby” in Tasmania is the area where Sir Richard Dry, the first Tasmanian-born premier and the first Tasmanian to be knighted, lived. String Quartet No. 16 is a five-movement work based on Sculthorpe’s sympathy for Afghan refugees held in remote Australian detention camps – its movements’ titles, “Loneliness,” “Anger,” “Yearning,” “Trauma” and “Freedom,” make the composer’s sociopolitical viewpoint clear enough, although the music itself does not fully support the political agenda. Sculthorpe’s final quartet, No. 18, is more effective, including a mixture of aboriginal tunes with 19th-century hymns –the contrast of indigenous people and Europeans made musically clear – while also using wild-animal-like sounds to indicate the land within which the cultural clashes take place. The sympathies of Sculthorpe, born in Tasmania and of European heritage, were not with those of his own background, as this quartet makes particularly clear: after its opening “Prelude,” the movements are “A Land Singing,” then “A Dying Land,” then “A Lost Land,” before a somewhat optimistic “Postlude” fails to remove the downcast elements that pervade the earlier elements. It is the exotic sounds and interesting tonal colors of these Sculthorpe quartets that listeners will find attractive; their social agenda, reminiscent of the “socialist realism” required of composers in the days of the Soviet Union, is of considerably less interest. The works are, in any case, very well performed by the Del Sol Quartet, which is particularly adept at bringing out their tonal beauty. As works largely of advocacy, though, these come across less as conversations than as monologues for didjeridu and strings.

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