December 04, 2014


Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-5; Adagio in E, KV 261; Rondo in B, KV 269; Rondo in C, KV 273. Lena Neudauer, violin; Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Bruno Weil. Hänssler Classic. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra; Meerstille und glückliche Fahrt. Yefim Bronfman, piano; Schweizer Kammerchor and Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra conducted by David Zinman. Brilliant Classics. $16.99 (3 CDs).

Schumann: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume III—Cello Concerto; Symphony No. 4 (revised version, 1851). Oren Shevlin, cello; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Heinz Holliger. Audite. $18.99.

François Devienne: Flute Concertos Nos. 1-4. Patrick Gallois, flute; Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Naxos. $9.99.

Alexander Raskatov: Piano Concerto, “Night Butterflies”; Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Tomoko Mukaiyama, piano; Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.

Anders Koppel: Marimba Concertos Nos. 1-4; P.S. to a Concerto. Marianna Bednarska, marimba; Aalborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henrik Vagn Christensen. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

     Concertos, from their origin in the Baroque notion of concertino vs. ripieno to their multiple modern configurations, have long enthralled composers and audiences alike, and continue to do so – and the reasons become clear when listening to a wide variety of high-quality performances of music that spans multiple eras and styles. Mozart’s Violin Concertos are nowhere near the importance of the ones he wrote for piano, but they have a great deal of charm in and of themselves as well as a lot to tell listeners about Mozart’s own compositional development: Nos. 1 and 2 are at a very different level from Nos. 3-5, even though all the works were written within a comparatively short time span. Lena Neudauer’s handling of the pieces is distinguished by her determination to take each of them at its own face value, which means emphasizing the wild-but-decorous finale of No. 1, the carefree nature of No. 2, the lovely slow movement of No. 3, the effective structure and unusual pianissimo  conclusion of No. 4, and the multiple technical demands of the “Turkish” No. 5. It is not just Neudauer’s assured technique that makes these performances so attractive, nor is it only the fine accompaniment she receives from the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern under Bruno Weil – rather, it is the overall thoughtfulness of the performances that stands out, the notion that these works, whose virtuosic demands are comparatively modest by later standards, have a great deal to communicate that can best be put across through careful phrasing, attentiveness to rhythm and balance, and overall poise. In this Hänssler Classic  release, Neudauer brings all those elements – plus a clear enjoyment of the music – to her performances, which as a result are highly involving and emotionally satisfying. The three additional movements, two of them written as alternatives for the ones usually played in two of the concertos, serve as attractive encores and receive equally pleasant and pleasure-giving performances.

     The Beethoven Piano Concertos as performed by Yefim Bronfman, with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra conducted by David Zinman, provide evidence of just how far the concerto itself had progressed in the few years after Mozart’s death. Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (the latter being the earlier written despite being the later published) owe a considerable debt to Mozart, but Beethoven’s canvas is already larger, his modulations more daring, his formal constraints fewer as he strains at the bounds of Classical form. Bronfman handles these concertos with a light touch, but not too light, as he and Zinman give the concertos sufficient weight to show that they draw distinctly on the past but are also the first steps toward a new musical future. As in the five violin concertos of Mozart, the five piano ones by Beethoven have a turning point midway through the sequence: Beethoven’s No. 3 is altogether grander, more extensive in thematic development and intensity than either earlier work, and proceeds with a level of seriousness that makes it seem longer and broader than it actually is (Concerto No. 1 lasts longer but does not feel as if it does). And Beethoven’s No. 4 is an astonishing piece, especially in its short and very unusual slow movement, where piano and orchestra are in the sort of stark opposition that would later characterize a great deal of Romantic music – and not only concertos. After this, the grandeur and epic scale of Concerto No. 5 justify its title “Emperor” even though Beethoven did not call it that and probably would not have approved of the royalist designation. Bronfman and Zinman make this work grand, stately and thoroughly convincing, a chance for soloist and orchestra to complement each other while also competing for the audience’s attention. Bronfman has an understated virtuosity that works very well in this music, conquering Beethoven’s demands without seeming to strain to do so and without drawing undue attention to himself as a performer rather than as a conduit for the composer’s intentions. This very well-played and very well-priced Brilliant Classics release also includes the Choral Fantasia, a work that not long ago was dismissed as a mere trifle but that has grown in stature as scholars and audiences alike have come to appreciate its unusual hybrid form (a touch of concerto, a bit of cantata, all wrapped up in symphonic trappings). The set then ends, a touch oddly, with Meerstille und glückliche Fahrt, Beethoven’s vocal setting of the same two Goethe poems that would later lead Mendelssohn to write his concert overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The absence of texts for this work and the Choral Fantasia is disappointing, but the words can be found readily enough online, and the uniformly high quality of the performances more than makes up for the words’ omission.

     By the time Schumann wrote his Cello Concerto in 1850, the post-Beethoven Romantic notion of concerto construction was in full flower, with the solo instrument set distinctly against the orchestra and often competing with it. Yet Schumann’s work, although it is a mainstay of concertos of this period, is less concerned with this opposition than are many other concertos of the time. Instead, Schumann emphasizes the warmth and beauty of tone of the solo cello, producing music of interactivity rather than a high degree of competitiveness. There is certainly considerable drama here – and Oren Shevlin adeptly brings it out – but there is a spirit of conversation, if not quite of full cooperation, underlying it all. Heinz Holliger’s direction of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln is well-paced and sensitive – Holliger is a first-rate oboist and has considerable understanding of how easily a solo instrument can be subsumed within orchestral sound, to the detriment of a work’s effectiveness, and he makes sure here to treat the cello as a partner in producing music of great beauty within a highly effective structure. This third CD in Audite’s survey of Schumann’s complete symphonic works also includes the 1851 version of Symphony No. 4 – the version that is usually heard (the decade-earlier version appeared on Volume I of this series). There has been, since the 19th century, considerable argument over which version of the symphony better conveys Schumann’s thoughts: his widow, Clara, opted for the second, while his and her great friend and defender, Brahms, preferred the first. Hearing Holliger’s way with the two forms of the symphony is fascinating: he emphasizes the lighter elements of the early version and the stronger, more-intense ones of the late version, making the two sound almost like separate symphonies despite their nearly identical thematic and rhythmic progress. The fine orchestral playing here, and Holliger’s excellent sense of instrumental balance, prevent the second version from seeming turgid, as it does in some performances. Instead, what we get here is a weighty and effective reading that neatly balances Holliger’s handling of the earlier version and makes it pleasantly difficult to choose one over the other. It is a pleasure to have both of them played so well and sounding so good.

     The concertos of Mozart and Beethoven, and the cello concerto of Schumann, are standard-repertoire works, but other, less-known concertos can be just as revelatory of the concerto form and just as interesting to experience. The first Naxos volume of the flute concertos by François Devienne (1759-1803) is a case in point. These are not earthshaking, heaven-storming works, by any means; rather, they display the poise and elegance of Mozart’s time and are structurally reminiscent of Vivaldi in their neat three-movement arrangement, featuring brief slow movements that are essentially interludes between the opening and closing and that provide some aural respite without seeking to plumb any particular depths. The music here is elegant, rather detached, graceful and exceptionally pleasant to hear: the flute engages in many virtuoso techniques but never sounds strained or stressed, especially when played as well as Patrick Gallois does and with the light, finely balanced backup of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. None of these works can be considered “great” music, but all of them are exceedingly well-formed, all show a firm and fine understanding of concerto construction and of the abilities and limitations of the flute, and all – especially No. 4 – pull the listener along, seemingly effortlessly, into a sound world just a few steps beyond the fully cooperative one of the best chamber music.

     Modern concertos, on the other hand, make a whole set of new demands on performers and audiences alike. Alexander Raskatov (born 1953) has created one for piano that goes through a dozen short episodes in the course of half an hour. The work’s title, “Night Butterflies,” refers to its inspiration, which Raskatov says came from a childhood walk in the forest during which he was surrounded by butterflies. Commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, the work is performed on the orchestra’s own label by Tomoko Mukaiyama, who is perhaps better known as a performance artist than a pianist but who here shows she has plenty of technique to conquer Raskatov’s sound world. Ludovic Morlot conducts the music with a sure hand, and certainly Raskatov goes out of his way to produce as many types of miniature scenes as possible: there is a touch of drama here, a bit of tenderness there, an occasional startling exclamation, and some perhaps slightly overdone attempts to be poetic. The work is worth hearing despite its episodic nature and an overall feeling that it is more clever than genuinely thoughtful; the fine performance here certainly makes a strong case for it as a concerto in which piano and orchestra have very separate but closely connected roles to play. Interestingly paired with the concerto is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the intent perhaps being to contrast Russian works of two different times – or perhaps, as is common in concert programming nowadays, to use a well-known piece to draw audiences’ attention to a little-known one. In any case, although the Seattle Symphony’s handling of the Stravinsky is not over-the-top excellent – Morlot lets the rhythms flag a bit from time to time, and the sheer intensity of the experience is somewhat muted – this is a very worthy performance that actually does complement Raskatov’s concerto in some interesting ways.

     Even more interesting is a Dacapo SACD of the four concertos for marimba by Anders Koppel (born 1947), who – like pianist Mukaiyama – is perhaps better known for his non-classical-music endeavors: he co-founded the rock group Savage Rose in 1967. But just as Mukaiyama shows herself to be a first-rate performer, at least in the sort of music that Raskatov writes, so Koppel shows himself quite adept in absorbing the basics of concerto form and using it to produce quite interesting works for a solo instrument that is rarely heard in this context. The four marimba concertos date to 1995, 2000, 2002 (revised 2003), and 2006, and the interesting little solo called P.S. to a Concerto was written in 1995 as a kind of appendix to the first concerto. The first, third (“Linzer”) and fourth (“In memory of things transient”) concertos use full orchestra; the second is for marimba and strings. The first concerto is the most classically balanced, with a dramatic first movement, “night music” second and bravura third. The second concerto, in one movement, is more modernistic and experimental, using the marimba to measure out the passage of time through a series of tick-tocks interrupted by occasional cadenzas and other flourishes. The third concerto requires a large orchestra and places particular demands on the brass, with the marimba sometimes needing to struggle to find its place in a sound world that seems on the verge of overwhelming it. The fourth concerto is almost program music, its title coming from an inscription that Koppel saw on an old stone in a Swedish forest. Yet this work, far from being despondent, is life-affirming, even including a bit of Mozart’s Rondo alla turca from his K. 331 piano sonata. The four concertos, and the encore-like P.S. to a Concerto, give listeners a chance not only to hear some interesting contemporary music in which an instrument not usually thought of as a concerto candidate is used to very good effect – but also to experience the ways in which the concerto concept has continued to intrigue composers right up to the present day, being adapted by them to new sounds, new instruments and new structural techniques.

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