May 04, 2017


Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 11-13. Marie Kuijken and Veronica Kuijken, fortepiano; La Petite Bande. Challenge Classics. $18.99 (SACD).

Mozart: Trio for Oboe, Viola and Piano (“Kegelstatt”), K. 498; Oboe Quartet, K. 370; Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat, K. 493. Ensemble Schumann (Thomas Gallant, oboe; Steve Larson, viola; Sally Pinkas, piano) and Adaskin String Trio (Emily Ngai, violin; Steve Larson, viola; Mark Fraser, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Prokofiev: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Rudolf Koelman, violin; Musikkollegium Winterthur conducted by Douglas Boyd. Challenge Classics. $18.99.

Federico Moreno Torroba: Guitar Concertos, Volume 2—Homenaje a la seguidilla; Tonada concertante; Concierto de Castilla. Pepe Romero and Vicente Coves, guitar; Extremadura Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manuel Coves. Naxos. $12.99.

Lou Harrison: Concerto for Violin and Percussion; Grand Duo; Double Music. Tim Fain, violin; Michael Boriskin, piano; Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Naxos. $12.99.

Jeffrey Jacob: Awakening for Piano and Orchestra; The Loch before Sunrise; A Mirror upon the Waters; Music for Haiti; Remembrance of Things Past; Sonata for Cello and Piano; Reawakening. Navona. $14.99.

     Modest in instrumentation and, by and large, in emotional effect, Mozart’s first three concertos written for his own subscription concerts in Vienna (1782-83) receive buoyant, historically informed and altogether pleasant performances on a new Challenge Classics SACD that features Marie Kuijken in No. 11 and Veronica Kuijken in Nos. 12 and 13. Despite the numbering of the concertos, the first written was actually No. 12 (K. 414 in A), and it is in some ways the most forward-looking of the three. Its central Andante, although lacking the emotional heft of later Mozart piano concertos’ slow movements, is notable for quoting a work by Johann Christian Bach, Mozart’s onetime mentor. J.C. Bach had died shortly before Mozart wrote this concerto, and the slow movement comes across as a tribute to him – not a deeply elegiac one, to be sure, but one of poise and elegance. Indeed, poise and elegance are hallmarks of all three of these works, which are small-scale enough to be played a quattro, using only piano and string quartet. La Petite Bande is in effect a somewhat expanded chamber group, and reducing it to quartet size, as for this recording, makes perfect sense. First violinist Sigiswald Kuijken takes one significant liberty with Mozart’s scoring, replacing the cello with a double bass (played by Elise Christiaens; Sara Kuijken plays second violin and Marleen Thiers is the violist). This alteration is done on a well-argued basis from a musical standpoint that nevertheless changes the texture of the concertos in some unexpected ways. They are also interesting ways that listeners familiar with the concertos in their more-usual orchestral form will find intriguing. In some ways the piano-quartet versions of these concertos throw an unexpected light on some formal features that stand out despite the works’ comparative conventionality. This is particularly true in No. 11 (K. 413 in F), which features a first movement in three-quarter time (a rarity in Mozart piano concertos) and a final Tempo di minuetto – also a rarity. No. 13 (K. 415 in C) is perhaps the least successful of the concertos from an analytical standpoint – its opening, prior to the piano’s entry, is engaging and involving and more impressive than anything that happens after the piano part appears. But here the concerto sings with warmth and gentle beauty, and the performance – like those of the other two concertos – is historically informed, and elegant enough to keep listeners involved no matter how well they know these works.

     Sigiswald Kuijken’s alteration of Mozart’s instrumentation is well and intelligently argued – for one thing, Kuijken points out that the chamber versions of the concertos were intended for amateur performance, and most households would have a cello available far more readily than a double bass. Kuijken might also have noted that other changes in Mozart’s performance recommendations are by no means uncommon. For example, the “Kegelstatt” trio was originally written for clarinet, viola and keyboard – the first work ever composed for that particular combination, the clarinet at the time being quite new. Apparently as a result, when the work was published in 1788, it was designated as being for violin, viola and piano, with the clarinet part listed as an alternative; and Mozart himself seems to have approved of this change. Novelty is all very well, after all, but music was meant to be sold and performed, and the work was more likely to find buyers in the violin-viola-piano arrangement. And it is also worth noting that the piece was apparently conceived not for piano but for harpsichord: Mozart started writing “ce” (for cembalo, harpsichord) in the first movement before changing it to piano forte, but left cembalo as the designation for the second and third movements. So it is hard to be sure just what can be considered “changed” when this trio is performed today. And that in turn opens up what Ensemble Schumann has done for the work in a recording for MSR Classics: here the trio is performed on oboe, viola and piano. There is no historical justification for this at all, but the instrumental mixture makes for subtle changes in what is already a subtle piece of music, whose three movements (Andante, Menuetto, Allegretto) are less strongly contrasted than are those in many other Mozart works. The performance, a world première recording of this version, is a pleasant one that flows lyrically, and the use of oboe rather than clarinet (or violin!) gives the work a different flavor that seems not “wrong” but simply an enjoyable alternative. The other two pieces on the CD complement this version of the “Kegelstatt” nicely. The Oboe Quartet is an earlier work (1781) that at times requires the oboe to play higher in its range than did other music of this time: the quartet has, in fact, some of the flavor of a concerto! Thomas Gallant handles it with plenty of skill and flexibility – the same characteristics he brings to the oboe version of the “Kegelstatt” trio. The third work here, the Piano Quartet K. 493 (1785), is more commonly heard on recordings with its G minor predecessor, K. 478 – but it nicely complements the major-key, oboe-focused works on the disc, and is played with warmth and insight.

     Insight and performance skill also abound on a Challenge Classics release featuring much later music: the two concertos for violin by Prokofiev. If Mozart’s three early piano concertos ones for Vienna are as striking for their similarities as for their differences, something similar may be said of these Prokofiev concertos. These live recordings of readings by Rudolf Koelman and Musikkollegium Winterthur under Douglas Boyd show performers clearly concerned with showcasing both the similarities between the works and their differences. No. 1 (1923) is largely a Romantic or neo-Romantic work, following an emotional arc that begins with considerable lyricism (Prokofiev marked the violin melody sognando, “dreamily”) and, after a far-more-angular and modern-sounding Scherzo, returns in the third movement to calmer feelings in which the violin is accompanist as much as soloist. The piece ends by fading away – a conclusion handled with particular skill by Koelman and Boyd. Concerto No. 2 (1935) is also pervaded by grace and simplicity, with a greater folk-music feeling than in the earlier concerto – and a distinct Spanish flavor in the finale, where castanets are prominent. But the work’s overall sensibility, like that of its predecessor, is far less bold and forward-looking than some earlier Prokofiev works – less overtly Romantic than the first concerto, perhaps, but scarcely possessed of a more-than-a-decade-later set of rhythmic and harmonic sensibilities. Koelman is a sensitive, highly involved performer: Prokofiev himself said he wanted the second concerto to be completely different from the first in content and form, but Koelman is as attuned to the works’ similarities as to their differences, which often seem to be matters more of emphasis than of overarching sensibility. And Koelman’s understanding of how to make the solo violin stand out from or blend with the orchestra, depending on what is needed, is excellent – perhaps being traceable to his years as concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The one possible disappointment for listeners is that the CD includes only the concertos, which together last not even 50 minutes. Other fine performances are available that offer additional, complementary music.

     Prokofiev’s second violin concerto may have traces of Spain in it, but in that respect it does not come close to the guitar concertos of Federico Moreno Torroba (1891-1982), which are much less frequently performed and recorded. Torroba wrote about a hundred works for guitar, and Naxos is in the middle of releasing a three-volume set of Torroba guitar concertos featuring Pepe Romero; his onetime student, Vicente Coves, who is an absolutely first-rate guitarist in his own right; and Coves’ conductor brother, Manuel, as orchestra leader. The second volume of this music includes Homenaje a la seguidilla (1962), a tribute to a song and dance form that is intimately associated with Spain – Torroba’s music is redolent of the nation’s musical heritage. Also here is Tonada concertante (1975-80), an alternately inward-focused and extroverted-and-playful work with which Romero (who also performs Homenaje a la seguidilla) seems intimately acquainted, and in which he appears to take great joy. Coves is the soloist for Concierto de Castilla (1960), whose pervasive lyricism clearly evokes Castile – a region with which Torroba strongly identified. In all three works, the Extremadura Symphony Orchestra plays with real panache, reveling in the concertos’ rhythms and responding quickly and with apparent ease to Manuel Coves’ direction. Torroba himself was a conductor of some skill, notably in his own music, and would likely have appreciated Manuel Coves’ attentiveness to the contrasts between these works’ soft and gentle sections and their bold and flamboyant ones. Listeners with any interest in 20th-century guitar compositions – of which Torroba was an acknowledged master – will likely want not only this CD but also the preceding one and the third volume that is yet to come.

     Another Naxos release, featuring the music of Lou Harrison (1917-2003), is a bit more of a (+++) niche recording and a matter of individual taste. Indeed, like many productions featuring the venturesome Post-Classical Ensemble, the disc is defiantly different, exploring music that remains outside the mainstream even though some of it dates to the 1940s. Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion (1940/1959) is as much a display piece for percussion, of which Harrison was extremely fond throughout his career, as it is a showcase for violin. It is one example among many of Harrison’s use of interval control as a compositional device: it employs only a small number of melodic intervals, resulting in a rather dry texture that is characteristic of much of Harrison’s music. Tim Fain plays the work skillfully, and Angel Gil-Ordóñez leads it with his usual flair and sure understanding of music that does not necessarily lend itself to ready comprehension. Harrison, like his friend John Cage, was preoccupied with the Balinese gamelan and the fusion of elements from Eastern and Western music – the two men were innovators in that mixed form, which has since become so common as to be something of a cliché. How well Harrison and Cage worked together may be heard in the jointly composed Double Music (1941), which was created for a series of Harrison-Cage percussion concerts in San Francisco and which exemplifies, in the short span of seven minutes, many of the composers’ interests in sound and in music that in significant ways moves beyond traditional notions of what is musical. Again, Gil-Ordóñez brings both knowledge and a sure hand in sound shaping to the performance. Even more gamelan-infused than Double Music is the latest work on this CD, Grand Duo (1988), featuring Fain and Michael Boriskin. An extended five-movement chamber suite, lasting well over half an hour, it is filled with percussive techniques that often make the piano approximate the untuned percussion instruments that Harrison so favored elsewhere; and at the same time it offers some intriguing, if highly unconventional, sound contrasts between the violin and the piano. Harrison’s music, scarcely to all tastes or intended for everyone, provides listeners who are disposed to pay attention to boundary-breaking works ample opportunities to stretch their ears in new and often-unexpected directions.

     Although the works by Jeffrey Jacob on a new Navona CD are more recent than those by Harrison, their sound world is less exotic. Jacob, who plays piano in all the pieces here that require one, uses the instrument more conventionally than Harrison does and with greater lyricism and attention to harmony. There are several concertos or concerto-like works on the disc, most of them evocative rather than abstract. Awakening features Jacob with the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba under Enrique Perez Mesa. It is a fairly straightforward spring-and-rebirth piece, inspired by a Thomas Hardy poem. The Loch before Sunrise and A Mirror upon the Waters, both featuring Jacob with the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey under Daniel Spalding, are impressions of Alpine lakes. Music for Haiti and Remembrance of Things Past, both with Spalding directing the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, have a wind-instrument focus. The former uses a piccolo to try to reflect earthquake devastation in Haiti, the music following a wholly predictable path from sorrow to hope to rebirth. The latter focuses on the oboe and combines virtuoso passages with inward-looking, meditative ones. All five of these works have concerto elements; the remaining two on the CD do not. One is Sonata for Cello and Piano, played by Jacob and Lara Turner, in which two equal-length movements are nicely contrasted – the first gentle and the second considerably more acerbic. The final piece here is Reawakening, for solo piano, in which Jacob recalls and to some extent rethinks Awakening as a solo work. This (+++) CD will be of considerable interest to listeners familiar with and strongly involved in Jacobs’ music: it provides a great deal of insight not only into how he thinks musically but also into how he brings those thoughts through with his own performances. However, more than an hour of Jacobs’ music will be a bit much for listeners not already enamored of it: the expressions and gestures tend to become familiar, and the repeated attempts to move impressionism into a more-modern idiom start to sound much the same after a while. The CD nevertheless shows Jacob to be a fine craftsman of concerto-style material as well as other forms.

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