June 18, 2015


Brahms: Sextets. Soloist Ensemble of the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam (Ursula Schoch and Nienke van Rijn, violins; Vincent Peters and Jeroen Quint, violas; Johan van Iersel and Benedikt Maria Enzler, cellos). Bayer Records. $19.99 (SACD).

Ives: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Quincy Porter: String Quartets Nos. 5-8. Ives Quartet (Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier, violins; Jodi Levitz, viola; Stephen Harrison, cello). Naxos. $12.99.

Alkan: Trois Petites Fantaisies; Minuetto alla tedesca; Marche Funèbre; Marche Triomphale; Petits préludes sur les 8 gammes du plain-chant—No. 6; Capriccio alla soldatesca; Le tambour bat aux champs; 25 Préludes, Op. 31—No. 8; Esquisses, Op. 63—No. 49. Vincenzo Maltempo, piano. Piano Classics. $13.99.

Reynaldo Hahn: Le Bal de Béatrice d’Este; Concerto provençal; Sérénade; Divertissement pour une fête de nuit. Ensemble Initium and Orchestre des Pays de Savoie conducted by Nicolas Chalvin. Timpani. $18.99.

     Some composers seem to have thought in pairs, Brahms definitely being one. His four symphonies are essentially pairs, with Nos. 1 and 2 strongly contrasted and written just a year apart, after which six years passed until No. 3 – which strongly contrasts with No. 4, written two years later. Brahms wrote two serenades for orchestra, two piano concertos, two sonatas for clarinet or viola and piano, and other paired pieces – including his two early sextets (1859-60 and 1864-65). Unlike the very different symphony pairs or paired serenades, though, these sextets have a great deal in common in their sound and approach, with a richness that is often described as “autumnal” where Brahms is concerned even though they are music by a man in his late 20s and early 30s. The Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, one of the world’s finest ensembles and one with exceptionally well-burnished strings, has a nearly ideal sound for the music of Brahms, and the six players offering these sextets are true to the orchestra’s quality: the music sounds warm, at times almost glowing, and the structural approach that Brahms took here – using formal classical models but altering them through, among other things, asymmetrical musical subjects – comes through very clearly and not at all academically. These are major-key works (in B-flat and G, respectively), but as so often in Brahms (and in an even more pronounced way in his later music), they have periods of minor-key-like melancholy that never quite becomes sadness but instead presents a kind of wistful pathos. There is probably some biographical reason for this where the sextets are concerned: they were written after Brahms, who never married, precipitated a breakup with a woman to whom he had secretly become engaged, and there is some evidence in the musical themes themselves that this subject was on the composer’s mind when writing these works. Yet whatever autobiography Brahms may have inserted here is irrelevant to enjoying and being moved by the music, which the Concertgebouw players handle on a new, very well-recorded Bayer Records SACD in a way that beautifully melds their formal structure with their emotional underpinnings.

     The pairing of Ives’ first two symphonies is a convenience of recording rather than anything integral to the works themselves, but in fact they make a fascinatingly contrasted duo – and share certain elements as well as containing some that are strikingly different. Ives is in many ways a quintessentially American composer, but a very fine Chandos SACD featuring the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis shows just how internationally understandable his music has now become: these are first-rate performances that thoroughly explore the essentially European nature of the first symphony and the much more overtly nationalistic American elements of the second. Symphony No. 1 dates to 1898 and was Ives’ graduation project at Yale, under the supervision of the very conservative and by all reports prickly Horatio Parker, an important composer and educator of the time but by no means one willing to encourage Ives’ experiments in tonality, hymn-tune use, popular songs or other forward-looking elements. Redolent of Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Dvořák, Ives’ First has little of the composer’s unique personality about it, yet it is a very well-made work with some fine melodies, and it shows a thorough mastery of sonata form, counterpoint and other traditional compositional techniques that Ives was later to jettison – but with which he was clearly quite familiar (and at which he was certainly adept). Symphony No. 2, which spans the 19th and 20th centuries, dates to 1897-1901, and its slow movement may be the one that Ives originally planned for the earlier symphony but had to remove because it was too harmonically daring for Parker’s taste (although it scarcely sounds that way today). The themes of Ives’ Second, unlike those  of his earlier symphony, are often drawn from hymns, folk songs, marches, even student songs, and even listeners who do not recognize the specific tunes will sense a level of humor and playfulness here that is absent in Symphony No. 1. Yet by and large, the lighthearted elements are encased in traditional, serious symphonic form, and it is this that makes the pairing of these symphonies and their first-rate handling by Davis so intriguing: Ives knew quite well how to write conventional Romantic-era symphonies, and very deliberately tuned his back on them and on this type of music in general. In a sense, the final chord of Symphony No. 2 – an 11-note dissonance added by Ives decades after he initially composed the symphony – is a perfect metaphor for looking both back and ahead. Its sound is as startling as can be and in that sense seems very much of the 20th century, but its origin is in a 19th-century dance-band custom of ending an evening by having every player play any note at all, as loudly as possible.

     As the 20th century progressed in American music, the influence of European-focused composers and teachers such as Parker (1863-1919) faded, being replaced by that of other composer-educators such as Quincy Porter (1897-1966) – who, like Ives, attended Yale University and was taught by Parker. Ives himself was always an outlier in American music, his works almost wholly unknown until close to his death in 1954 – but today it seems quite apt to have music by Porter performed by a quartet that takes its name from Ives. A new Naxos CD of Porter’s String Quartets Nos. 5-8 (he wrote nine in all) complements a 2008 release by the same performers of Quartets Nos. 1-4; in fact, parts of the new recording date to 2008, although the performances were not completed until 2012. These are mid-century quartets (1935, 1937, 1943 and 1950), and all look back in exactly the way that Ives’ music did not. They are short, none running even 19 minutes, and uniformly well-constructed. All were written after Porter returned to the United States from three years in Paris, and all show solid familiarity with string writing and a rather modest use of dissonance (which became more pronounced in works that Parker wrote later than these). The eighth quartet, the shortest of these four, is the most structurally interesting, being in two movements (the first featuring slow-fast-moderate sections) and concluding with an Adagio molto espressivo rather than the expected quick finale. Porter’s chamber music is not as well-known as his orchestral works and not as influential, but this CD shows its strengths clearly and in well-balanced, idiomatic performances that fully explore the quartets’ sophistication and careful construction.

     The notion of pairing is not a significant one in the Porter quartets, but it is important in a new Piano Classics recording of music by Alkan. Vincenzo Maltempo, a first-rate interpreter of this repertoire with a deep understanding of Alkan’s peculiarities, excellent qualities and limitations, here offers a recital that seems at first glance like a hodgepodge: a collection of largely unrelated works taken from various sets of Alkan pieces, composed at different times in the composer’s life (1813-1888). There is, however, method rather than madness to Maltempo’s selection for this recording. He performs here on a restored Érard piano – Alkan’s favorite instrument. The specific piano used by Maltempo postdates Alkan – it was built in 1899 – but it is still constructed in the Érard manner, and the manner of other pianos designed prior to the Steinway innovations of the 1850s. For example, Steinway created cast-iron frames made in a single casting, and invented crossed strings that produce wonderful evenness and purity of sound. But Alkan did not initially have access to such instruments and had long since stopped giving public recitals by the time they became available. Like Bach writing for the harpsichord or clavichord – rather than the piano – Alkan wrote for an instrument different from modern ones, a piano whose bass and highest treble ranges had an inherently different sound from that of the middle range. And Alkan incorporated the effects of those sonic differences (which it would be wrong to deem limitations) into his piano works. Maltempo has chosen for this recording a group of works that he feels showcase to particularly good effect the advantages of playing Alkan on an Érard. Among them are two pairs: Marche Funèbre and Marche Triomphale (Opp. 26 and 27) and Capriccio alla soldatesca and Le tambour bat aux champs (Opp. 50 and 50bis). Maltempo makes an excellent case for using an Érard to show the contrasts between these paired pieces: the drum effects alone in the Marche Funèbre are enough to show the special qualities of this piano. Equally impressive is the concentrated tragedy of Le tambour bat aux champs, which, like its companion piece, subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) undermines the notion of military glory. Every work on this CD showcases elements of the special sound and percussive – and expressive – qualities the piano Maltempo uses. For example, there is distinctive near-modernity in Trois Petites Fantaisies, especially in the first and third pieces, with the near-childlike sound of the middle piece serving as a strong contrast. And in the eighth of the 25 Préludes, Op. 31, there is an absolutely stunning level of originality in expressing the work’s title, which is, with quotation marks, “Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer” (“Song of the madwoman on the seashore”). The tone painting here is truly remarkable, and a considerable amount of its effect comes from the sound world of the Érard on which Maltempo performs the piece. This is a fascinating disc from start to finish.

     Of lesser but still considerable interest is a new Timpani CD of music by Reynaldo Hahn, born the same year as Ives (1874) but, unlike the American composer – who essentially stopped creating music around 1920 – continuing to produce works until the end of his life in 1947. A naturalized Frenchman born in Venezuela, Hahn is best known for his songs. He was a child prodigy and for a time a considerable presence in the musical life of Paris, being not only a composer but also a conductor, music critic, diarist, theater director, and even a salon singer. Hahn’s music is well-crafted and pleasant, not particularly challenging, and generally – like Porter’s – something of a throwback to earlier times. One pair of pieces on this disc has been recorded before; the other pair is of world première recordings: the unpublished Sérénade for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, which dates to 1942, and Divertissement pour une fête de nuit for winds, piano, percussion and string quartet (1931). The former of these is pleasant chamber music with attractive interaction among the winds. The latter is atmospheric and interestingly scored, its four movements variously establishing nighttime, presenting a lakeside scene, and offering concluding al fresco waltzes. There is a certain persistent delicacy to Hahn’s music, which has some characteristics of Impressionism, coupled with a grace and neoclassical balance: Hahn as a conductor specialized in Mozart, and some of his music’s poise may come from that source. There is expert detailing in these works, akin to that in Hahn’s prose – a characteristic he shares with Marcel Proust, his lifelong friend and sometime lover. The early (1905) Le Bal de Béatrice d’Este, a seven-movement suite for winds, piano, two harps and percussion, shows this just as clearly as does the late (1944) Concerto provençal for flute, clarinet, bassoon and strings. This last work is a three-movement suite that sounds nothing like Respighi’s Pines of Rome but that pays similar musical tribute to trees, in this case in France rather than Italy: plane trees, pines and olive trees. There is something of the affected, occasionally even a touch of the effete, in Hahn’s music as heard on this disc: it seems more of the salon than of the concert hall. Smooth on its surface, much of the music sounds as if there is little if any depth beneath the well-polished exterior. The performances here are very fine and clearly committed to the pieces, but the works themselves make this a (+++) recording – albeit one of special interest to anyone wanting to explore some less-known French music of the early to middle 20th century.

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