January 22, 2015


Josef Suk: Complete Works for String Quartet; Piano Quartet. Minguet Quartett (Ulrich Isfort and Annette Reisinger, violins; Aroa Sorin, viola; Matthias Diener, cello); Matthias Kirschnereit, piano. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Federico Moreno Torroba: Guitar Concertos, Volume 1—Concierto en Flamenco (1962); Diálogos entre guitarra y orquesta (1977); Aires de La Mancha (1966); Suite castellana (c. 1920). Pepe Romero and Vicente Coves, guitars; Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Manuel Coves. Naxos. $9.99.

Bach: Cantatas, Volume 1—BWV 182, 81 and 129. Chorus and Orchestra of J.S. Bach-Stiftung conducted by Rudolf Lutz. J.S. Bach-Stiftung. $29.99.

     Surveys of the complete works of composers, or of their complete music for particular instruments, are becoming increasingly common – and have proved very worthwhile for understanding how a composer developed, from what roots and into what branches and what sort of flowering over time. These surveys are not necessarily of interest to all listeners, though, since they inevitably contain works of varying importance and quality: even recordings of, say, the complete symphonies of Mozart or Haydn will showcase works of lesser inspiration alongside those of undoubted brilliance. Still, for understanding a well-known composer or being introduced to a less-known one, a “complete” recording of one sort or another can be most welcome. This is especially true when the performances are as fine as are those in all these new releases. The Minguet Quartet is simply wonderful in its recording of the quartet music of Josef Suk (1874-1935), who is generally remembered more as a violinist and for his relationship with Dvořák and Brahms than for his compositions. It turns out that Suk progressed significantly in his musical conceptions over time, starting out in a typical late-Romantic idiom but eventually producing a quartet so modern in its musical language that it caused something of a furor in Berlin in 1912 – earning the composer comparisons, not by any means always complimentary, to Schoenberg. Suk had a habit of revising and reconsidering his earlier works in light of his later interests, a fact that sometimes resulted in rather odd hybrids. His String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat, op. 11, for example, dates to 1896, and it is well-made and lies well on the instruments, featuring a finale with a recurring three-note motto that sounds like nothing less than Shostakovich. But some two decades later, Suk decided this finale did not work, so he created a new one in which – among other things – the motto becomes more prominent, the overall structure becomes far more dissonant, and the movement’s length is 50% longer. This new movement, presented here as Quartet movement in B-flat, really does not fit the quartet at all, but it is fascinating evidence of Suk’s later thinking about the quartet medium. That thinking is even more in evidence in the notorious String Quartet No. 2, op. 31, which has no specific home key and does indeed sound like something out of Schoenberg even though it does not adhere rigidly to twelve-tone or any other specific systemic structural device. It certainly fits with the time in which it was written: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was first performed in 1913, the year after the première of Suk’s quartet. The remaining works on this very well-recorded CPO release may be of lesser importance, but they have charms of their own. The early Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 8 lies firmly within late Romanticism, being fleet and pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable to hear, with the piano generally subsumed within the totality of the ensemble but asserting itself at a variety of appropriate places – especially in the rollicking Scherzo, whose opening would not be out of place in a work by Saint-Saëns. The other four pieces here are short and not especially significant, but are included for the sake of the completeness for which this release is designed. They are a Menuet in G, a warmly affecting Ballade in D minor, a brief Barkarole in D minor, and the thoughtful Meditace na Starocesky Choral, Op. 35a (“Meditation on the old Bohemian Hymn ‘St. Wenceslas’”). All are played with assured warmth and a fine understanding of Suk’s place in Czech music and the rising Czech national consciousness during his lifetime – the result being a release that provides valuable insight into some fine music by a neglected composer.

     Also important for nationalistic reasons and also comparatively little-known outside his native land, Federico Moreno Torroba (1891-1982) was as important for his use and understanding of Spanish folk music in the context of classical composition as was Ástor Piazzolla for his adaptation of the Argentine tango to the classical milieu. The first of three planned Naxos CDs that will collectively include all of Torroba’s guitar concertos offers an exceptionally well-played combination of concerto music with works written for guitar solo. Each of the two guitarists plays one work of each type. Pepe Romero, world-renowned for his flamenco performances, brings forth all the color, virtuosity and drama of Torroba’s Concierto en Flamenco and is also heard in a suite of music focusing on the central Spanish region best known for the fictional Don Quixote, Aires de La Mancha. This set of five short movements mixes dances with musical visions of the area’s geography, and Romero plays it with assurance, warmth and a strong feeling for local color. The similarly evocative, much earlier three-movement solo-guitar Suite castellana, which includes the Danza that was Torroba’s first-ever guitar composition, also gets a sure-handed and understanding reading, in this case from Vicente Coves. And Coves shows himself a very fine classical soloist in the fascinating Diálogos entre guitarra y orquesta, which plays off the guitar against harp and celesta as well as the usual orchestral instruments, producing an extended concerto-like work that is playful, colorful, highly evocative of Spain and its folk music, and altogether winning. The Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra under Manuel Coves provides very fine support in the two concertos. Listeners unacquainted with Torroba’s music will find this disc a first-rate introduction to it.

     The music of Bach, unlike that of Suk and Torroba, is exceedingly well-known, and is also exceedingly extensive: recordings of Bach’s complete works range from 155 to 172 CDs. The Bach cantatas alone take up more than 50 discs – and have been recorded as a cycle several times. This has not stopped new groups from producing new versions of the music, however, nor has it interfered with the creation of entirely new recording labels devoted to Bach’s music. J.S. Bach-Stiftung, founded in 2011, is one such. Based in Switzerland, it is a subsidiary of the J.S. Bach Foundation and is engaged in a 25-year project to release live recordings of Bach’s complete vocal music, using period instruments and authentic (which is to say small) vocal forces. On the basis of the three works on the label’s first CD of Bach cantatas, this will be a top-notch series of releases. The sound is warm and complements the intimately scaled performances beautifully. The singing and playing are historically informed and manage to be “correct” without sounding at all stilted: there is genuine involvement of the performers in the music. There does not seem to be any particular rationale for the order of the cantatas presented, indicating that these releases are really targeting listeners who want the cantatas as a complete set without regard to chronology or the specific religious occasions for which the works were created. Thus, BWV 182, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, was written for Palm Sunday; BWV 81 – Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? – is for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany; and BWV 129, Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, is for the first Sunday after Pentecost. All are sung and played here with solemnity and liturgical understanding, but without heavy-handedness; the organ parts are especially noteworthy, coming through clearly in the finely managed sonic landscape and within the small instrumental forces. Not all listeners will be willing to wait years for the full set of releases from J.S. Bach-Stiftung, but those who have wanted to build a collection of the Bach cantatas gradually will find this project highly attractive and a worthwhile alternative to existing recordings of the full set of these works, which were so very central to Bach’s life and his music.

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