September 08, 2016


Bartók: String Quartets (complete). Chiara String Quartet (Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon, violins; Jonah Sirota, viola; Gregory Beaver, cello). Azica. $16.99 (2 CDs).

Between the Echoes—Music of Daniel Burwasser, Allan Crossman, David DeVasto, Michael Lee, and Georges Raillard. Navona. $14.99.

Sounds of a Different Universe—Chamber Works of André M. Santos. Ravello. $14.99.

     Sometimes an apparent gimmick turns out not to be one at all. That is the case with the Bartók quartet cycle by the Chiara String Quartet, which is called “Bartók by Heart” and makes much of the fact that the performers play the six quartets from memory. This is no doubt an impressive thing to see in concert, and indeed the recording follows a series of performances in which the Chiara String Quartet played the cycle without recourse to the sheet music. On an audio recording, however, the presence or absence of the score is undetectable and quite irrelevant: the readings stand or fall entirely on the basis of how they sound, not on the basis of how the performers look when offering them. What is interesting about these mostly excellent performances, though, is that the memorization routine really does seem to have freed up the four musicians to focus on the music’s communicative side, its inner as well as external structure, its reaching-out to the audience through the medium of the performers. This is a particularly close-knit ensemble in the first place – the second violinist and cellist are married – but the closeness does seem to rise to unusual heights in these recordings. Bartók demands more than mere attentiveness from string players: he requires bowing on the fingerboard, on the bridge, with martellato strokes, with delicacy at one moment and col legno playing at another. The six quartets are thus a tour de force of string techniques as well as musical communication with the audience, and these highly assured performances impress from both standpoints. Among the especially effective moments here are the third movement of the first quartet, which is based on a simple folk song called “Fly Peacock Fly” but displays the music with all the colors of a peacock’s tail; the opening of the second quartet, which starts in Brahmsian mode but rapidly becomes fragmented and dissonant, as well as the work’s second movement, which is energetic to the point of abandon; the overall sense of control in the third and shortest quartet; the grotesque effects of the fourth quartet, especially its cluster chords; the blazing finale of the fifth quartet; and the overall peculiarity of the sixth quartet, from its strange viola opening to its odd harmonics and its four movements all marked Mesto. Almost everything in the Chiara String Quartet’s Bartók cycle is convincing and truly seems to come from the heart – but not quite everything. Some of the tempos here are almost too quick – this works in transforming the opening of the second quartet, for example, but not always – and the players seem more comfortable, all in all, with forte than with piano. That is, a number of sections move from forte to fortissimo even though Bartók called for piano, then forte. The opening of the third quartet, for instance, is scarcely pianissimo here, and the start of the fifth quartet’s central Scherzo sounds overdone and is not really piano. But these are details and very definitely matters of interpretation and individual taste. The overall impression of this cycle is one of unity among the four players, a genuinely concerted effort to bring these often difficult-to-hear (as well as difficult-to-play) pieces to audiences with all the emotional complexity that Bartók put into them. These performances are indeed by heart, but that is a technical matter only. More importantly, they are from the heart, and that is what makes them so winning.

     Bartók’s quartets still sound very forward-looking indeed, but contemporary composers have pushed chamber music much further in the 21st century than Bartók did in the 20th. A new Navona anthology CD called Between the Echoes gives some sense of some of the ways modern composers are using small ensembles. One of the works here is actually a string quartet: Michael Lee’s Farewell… (the ellipsis is part of the title). But in contrast to Bartók’s terseness and careful organization, Lee here offers super-compression – the work lasts just six minutes – and a set of constant mood shifts that make it hard for an audience to hold onto the music long enough to respond strongly to it. This is despite a solid performance by violinists Vit Muzik and Igor Kopyt, violist Dominika Mužíková, and cellist Petr Nouzovský. A more interesting, if in some ways more conventional work is Allan Crossman’s Florébius for violin (Monica Gruber) and piano (Hillary Nordwell). The two movements here are intended to reflect the two characters through whom Schumann communicated his views on music: introverted Eusebius and outgoing Florestan. Also here is a performance  by the Arcadian Winds (Vanessa Holroyd, flute; Mark Miller, clarinet; Jane Harrison, oboe; Laura Carter, French horn; Janet Underhill, bassoon) of a quintet by Daniel Burwasser called Whirlwind. The short piece – three movements in less than nine minutes – has a particularly attractive finale, which achieves some classical poise despite its modern sound. A trio called His Branches Run Over the Wall by Daniel DeVasto, performed by Sam Stapleton on violin, Emmalee Hunnicutt on cello, and Seong-Sil Kim on piano, is a single movement of about the same nine-minute length, its dreamlike qualities inspired by the biblical tale of Joseph as the pharaoh’s dream interpreter. The CD concludes with Sinking Islands by Georges Raillard, a work for solo guitar (played by David William Ross) that manages to come across as meditative without being particularly thoughtful. This (+++) CD, like most anthologies of contemporary works, seems designed primarily to appeal to existing fans of these specific composers or to listeners who simply want to sample some of the varied chamber-music works being composed in our own time.

     A (+++) Ravello disc of the music of André M. Santos is even more of a “fan” production: it offers six of the composer’s chamber pieces that, individually and collectively, show Santos to have a distinctive sound that is nothing if not polarizing. Santos bends over backwards to be clever in both his titles and the construction of his music; those who think he succeeds will enjoy at least parts of the CD, while those who think he is mainly entertaining himself will find little here of interest. A Skeleton in the Closet is a trio for flute (João Vidinha), oboe (Salvador Parola),  and piano (Cândido Fernandes). It comes across as mostly a series of intermittent flourishes. Word Study: Manipulation, for classical guitar (Miguel Vieira da Silva), clarinet (Sérgio Neves), and accordion (Carisa Marcelino), is supposed to portray a psychological state, and does have some nervous energy at least part of the time; a similar intent underlies a piece for solo accordion (this time played by João Barradas) that is called Insiste, persiste e não desiste! This translates as “Insist, Persist and Don’t Give Up!” – but all but the most Santos-loving listeners will quickly give up on its formulaic repetitiveness. A more-successful solo work, this one for classical guitar (da Silva again), is Fantasias, whose three movements feature some highly unusual and interesting sounds from the instrument, although the individual movements and work as a whole do go on too long. Also here is a trio for clarinet (Bruno Graça), oboe (João Miguel), and piano (Fernandes again) called Lima, intended to evoke images of the city by mixing bits of traditional Peruvian music with often-strange extensions of the instruments’ usual sounds. The CD concludes with Sounds of an Annoyed Person for marimba and vibraphone (Marco Fernandes) and electronics (handled by Santos himself). The mixture may or may not provoke annoyance in listeners – it sounds more quizzical than irritating, although it does go on and on, and the inclusion of voices asking “are you ready for this?” and saying “let’s go” and similar inanities is just plain silly. One thing this work may well lead anyone interested in chamber music to do is to contemplate the sometimes strange directions in which small-ensemble music has gone since the days of Bartók’s string quartets.

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