April 02, 2015


Vivaldi: Complete Cello Concertos. Francesco Galligioni, cello; L’Arte dell’Arco conducted by Federico Guglielmo. Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (4 CDs).

Zemlinsky: Complete String Quartets. Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland and Ian Belton, violins; Paul Cassidy, viola; Jacqueline Thomas, cello). Chandos. $37.99 (2 CDs).

     Lovers of classical music typically own at least a few “complete series” recordings: the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, a set of Mozart piano concertos (not necessarily all of them), Haydn’s “London” and “Paris” symphonies, and so forth. Increasingly, though, it has become possible to find exceptionally well-performed sets of music that listeners are unlikely to have encountered in complete format before. The results, sometimes, are highly salutary, as they are in the case of Brilliant Classics’ release of the 27 solo-cello concertos by Vivaldi. These are exceedingly attractive performances, featuring Francesco Galligioni performing on a Paulo Antonio Testore instrument from about 1740 and, on one of the four CDs, a five-string French cello from the 19th century. Galligioni is a simply splendid interpreter of this music, treating every one of the three-movement works as an individual, carefully crafted piece rather than in blasé form as “just another Vivaldi concerto.” The fact is that these concertos – along with nine others that Vivaldi wrote for cello plus other solo instruments and, in one case, for two cellos – show the Venetian violinist to have been highly sensitive to the instrumental capabilities of his time, as the cello progressed to true solo capability rather than use only as a continuo contributor. Since the dates of Vivaldi’s solo-cello concertos are not precisely known, their sequencing for recording purposes needs some other basis, and Galligioni has found a perfect one: he arranges them according to their musical requirements. Thus, one CD includes concertos that he says need “lightness despite their intrinsic complexity” and that therefore come across as “solemn”; another features works requiring a high string – so Galligioni plays them on a five-string violoncello piccolo; another includes simpler concertos; and the fourth disc offers miscellany, including a concerto for which Vivaldi included a bassoon obbligato and two others for which Galligioni also thought the bassoon inclusion sensible (Vivaldi wrote more than three dozen concertos for bassoon and was particularly fond of the instrument). Galligioni plays all the concertos with real flair and tremendous stylistic understanding. For example, the works are split between minor keys (14 concertos) and major ones (13), and Galligioni knows just how deeply to probe the minor-key ones and just how bright to make the major-key ones sound. The outstanding period-instrument ensemble L’Arte dell’Arco, conducted by Federico Guglielmo, provides exactly the right accompaniment for the soloist, functioning at times as a true tutti and at others as, in effect, chamber-music players in a somewhat-larger-than-usual chamber ensemble. The net effect of all this expertise and liveliness is exhilarating, and the way in which this exceptionally well-priced set of concertos showcases a less-known side of Vivaldi (compared with his violin concertos) makes the collection a delight from the first notes to the last.

     “Delight” would be a stretch in describing the string quartets of Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), whose seriousness of purpose and multifaceted intensity pervade all five of the works offered in a new Chandos recording. Zemlinsky was a very careful craftsman whose music is not especially approachable; he is nowadays known as much for being a lover of Alma Schindler before she became Alma Mahler, and for being Arnold Schoenberg’s brother-in-law, as for his compositions. The Schoenberg connection is actually a crucial one for these quartets, figuring largely in No. 2 (1913-15) and to a lesser extent in No. 3 (1924). Before these two quartets, Zemlinsky composed two others. One, in E minor, dates to about 1893 and is here recorded for the first time. It is quite an accessible work, especially by the standards of Zemlinsky’s music, with – in particular – a first movement whose harmonic ambiguities and metrical irregularities look ahead to the composer’s later creations. It uses the four instruments well and shows considerable understanding of their individual capabilities, but it is a somewhat uneven work, with second and third movements not up to the level of the first and with an energetic but not especially distinguished finale. The second quartet to be composed – the one designated No. 1 (1896) – takes Zemlinsky’s approach to harmony and meter somewhat farther, and is more thoroughly integrated. It is partly a response to criticism that Zemlinsky received from Brahms: the finale actually includes’ Brahms’ musical motif F-A-F (for frei aber froh, “free but happy”). The quartet is not, however, particularly Brahmsian: here Zemlinsky is already starting to solidify a style of his own. By the time of String Quartet No. 2, however, Zemlinsky was writing something much more personal. This quartet, whose dissonances and pervasive sense of despair make it difficult to listen to even today, reflects personal and professional reverses that Zemlinsky himself had suffered (including the end of his affair with Schindler) and, to an even greater extent, the affair that his sister – Schoenberg’s wife – had with the young painter Richard Gerstl, which led to Gerstl’s suicide and Schoenberg’s consideration of it. Knowing the tremendous turmoil that underlies this quartet helps a great deal in understanding its sound, which at times seems to be deliberately unpleasant. The work is so intensely personal that a really good performance – and the Brodsky Quartet’s is really good – makes a listener feel as if he or she is party to some deep and embarrassingly personal secrets, which is pretty much the case. String Quartet No. 3 can be hard to hear for a different reason: it is a dry and acerbic commentary on many trends in 20th-century composition, including Schonberg’s twelve-tone system. It is a lighter work than No. 2 – parts of No. 3 even sound playful – but one of very serious purpose, as well as a piece with strong parodistic elements. String Quartet No. 4 (1936), written after Zemlinsky was forced to leave Germany because of the Nazi takeover and had moved back to his native Vienna, is subtitled “Suite” and modeled in part on Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, written 11 years earlier and dedicated to Zemlinsky. There are homages to Bach, Beethoven and Wagner here as well as to Berg, although the quartet’s careful structure and the interplay of highly serious contrapuntal elements with meditative and expressive ones clearly show Zemlinsky’s own style. Zemlinsky’s music, unlike Vivaldi’s, does not have wide immediate appeal to those unfamiliar with it, so this excellent quartet cycle will likely interest a more-limited audience than the Vivaldi cello concertos. Each of these collections, though, provides a welcome opportunity to explore a complete set of works in which a composer demonstrates all his interests and preoccupations regarding a specific instrument or instrumental group.

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