June 01, 2017


Telemann: Concerto for strings and basso continuo, TWV 43:E2; Concerto for viola, strings and basso continuo, TWV 51:G9; Concerto for flute, strings and basso continuo, TWV 51:D2; Quantz: Concerto for flute, strings and basso continuo, QV 5:45; Concerto for two flutes, strings and basso continuo, QV 6:8a. Claire Guimond and Alexa Raine-Wright, flutes; Jean-Louis Blouin, viola; Arion Baroque Orchestra conducted by Alexander Weimann. Early-music.com. $16.99.

Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1; Gubaidulina: In tempus praesens. Simone Lamsma, violin; Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan and Reinbert de Leeuw. Challenge Classics. $18.99 (SACD).

Ravel: Jeux d’eau; Sonatine; Miroirs; Gaspard de la nuit; Pavane pour une infante défunte. Stewart Goodyear, piano. Orchid Classics. $13.99.

Ives: A Symphony—New England Holidays; Central Park in the Dark; Orchestral Set No. 1—Three Places in New England; The Unanswered Question. Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir. Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

     Sometimes the combination of material in a concert or on a CD makes the totality of the listening experience particularly interesting – a kind of “whole greater than the sum of its parts” situation, musically speaking. This is the case with the new Arion Baroque Orchestra recording of works by Telemann and Quantz on the Early-music.com label. This orchestra, conducted by Alexander Weimann (who also plays the harpsichord), is reliably excellent in performances that are closely attentive to period style and instrumental performance techniques. And the ensemble certainly has plenty of works to choose from among Telemann’s vast outpouring of music in all forms and Quantz’s flute-focused pieces. There is nothing especially outstanding in any single work here: all are very well-constructed and provide ample virtuoso opportunities for the performers (soloists and ensemble alike), with the two-flute concerto by Quantz perhaps the most interesting piece by virtue of being the only one in a minor key (G minor). What stands out here, however, is not so much the individual works as the combination of them. Telemann and Quantz were contemporaries and worked in similar late-Baroque style, but their handling of themes and harmonies differs in interesting ways, and the differences in their use of the flute are particularly distinctive: Quantz was a famed flute virtuoso and clearly expects a great deal of flute soloists, while Telemann is more concerned with blending the flute with the strings and having it stand out as first among equals. The three works featuring flute are intriguingly combined here with one using a solo viola – and therefore having considerable warmth and a feeling of greater depth than many Baroque works for string soloists (those being principally violin). And it was clever to include here one concerto that is only for strings, which gives the Arion players a chance to shine on their own and showcase the individual virtuosity that, in the other works, is largely at the service of the soloists. This is a beautifully played disc featuring very-well-made music that is distinguished not only by its innate quality but also by the way the individual works fit into the overall conception of a CD whose content has clearly been very carefully thought out for maximum effectiveness.

     The juxtaposition of the Russian/Soviet violin concertos on a new Challenge Classics SACD is similarly thoughtful and equally successful. Some 60 years separate the two concertos, the original version of the Shostakovich having been written in 1947-48 and the Gubaidulina in 2007. But while there have been changes, arguably advances, in musical language between one and the other, there are surprising resonances of expression and emotion that make the two, heard one after the other, into a striking duality. Shostakovich’s first concerto is also his first or second use of the DSCH motif, referring to himself, that was to become increasingly prominent in his later works. And it is music that echoes or pays homage to that of several other composers: Elgar (cello concerto) in the first movement, Beethoven (“fate” motif) in the third, Stravinsky (Petrouchka) in the fourth. Yet the work has an undeniably individual stamp, and indeed ushers in a series of pieces in which Shostakovich’s music became more and more personal and self-referential. Written for David Oistrakh and later modified by him in collaboration with the composer, this concerto offers four movements of specific musical types: nocturne, scherzo, passacaglia and burlesque. Intensity, sometimes to a demonic extent, dominates after the expansive and expressive first movement. The second is an angular, vehement dance; the third is portentous in its use of both the “fate” motif and the DSCH motto; and the finale’s surface appearance of devil-may-care abandon may well belie a more serious purpose in the same way as does the finale of the Fifth Symphony. The challenge for performers – one to which Simone Lamsma and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under James Gaffigan rise commendably – is to maintain the concerto’s overall flow while allowing the distinctive elements of each movement to come forth clearly. This performance is both warm and biting, heartfelt and driven. As such it nicely complements Lamsma’s reading of Sofia Gubaidulina’s second concerto, this time in a live rather than studio recording, one in which the orchestra is conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw. Gubaidulina called her first violin concerto “Offertorium” and labeled her second “In Tempus Praesens.” Like Shostakovich, Gubaidulina had a specific violinist in mind when writing her second concerto: Anne-Sophie Mutter, who has been an indefatigable advocate of the work since giving its première. Lamsma’s reading shows that this music rises above the for-one-violinist-only perspective. The music, which unfolds in a single movement lasting half an hour, resembles that of Shostakovich in its lurching from silence and solemnity to violent and unpredictable outbursts. But the five episodes of Gubaidulina’s concerto come across as spiritual challenges facing humanity at large, or perhaps an Everyman character, rather than ones as personal as those that Shostakovich encountered. Gubaidulina’s orchestration is dark – omitting violins in the orchestra – and highly colored, including harpsichord, celesta, harps, Wagner tubas and a gigantic tam-tam. The music is intricate and powerful, and if it somewhat overreaches at times and sometimes seems rather overdone in its sheer intensity, it nevertheless comes across as impressive both for its virtuosic requirements (the solo violin plays almost continuously throughout) and for the theatricality of the demands it makes of the audience. As a companion to the Shostakovich concerto, Gubaidulina’s work is even more interesting than on its own.

    This is not to say that it is necessary to mix composers in order to create effectively contrasted performances. Pianist Stewart Goodyear plays only Ravel on a new Orchid Classics CD, but the works themselves are varied enough and different enough in effect to make the disc a nice combination of moods. Opening with the directly impressionistic Jeux d’eau (1901), Goodyear then offers the pleasant (if rather inconsequential) Sonatine, presented with a pleasant lilt and a kind of salon-music overview that fits the material quite well. Miroirs, finished at about the same time as Sonatine (1905), is a significantly more substantial piece, technically very difficult and at the same time highly evocative of everything from sadness to ocean waves to bells. Giving the piece a sense of forward movement despite its basically unconnected, suite-like structure, is difficult, but Goodyear does so, and in the process shows a very different and strongly contrasted side of Ravel in comparison to that heard earlier on this release. Then Goodyear offers another technically very demanding and complex suite, Gaspard de la nuit (1908). The first movement of this work, Ondine, is actually reminiscent of Jeux de l’eau, a parallel of which Goodyear is clearly aware – to good effect. Le gibet is taken at a rather fast tempo here, although it is no less eerily atmospheric for all that, the distant bell sounds setting the mood effectively. Scarbo, on the other hand, is if anything slightly slower than usual, with Goodyear handling the work’s repeated notes and double climax in first-rate fashion that evokes a nightmarish mood quite different from that in Le gibet. Goodyear concludes this recital with the earliest work on the disc, Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899), which returns listeners to the atmospheric world of Jeux de l’eau and complements the peculiarities of Gaspard de la nuit by providing a strong contrast that shows both the diversity of Ravel’s piano music and the ways in which his characteristic approaches persist through works of very different types.

     In a similar vein on a Chandos SACD, Sir Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra showcase both the similarities among variegated Ives works and the differences that make the pieces distinctive. Ives wrote four numbered symphonies, and he also used the word “symphony” to describe New England Holidays, whose movements, however, can be and often are played as individual pieces (an approach of which Ives approved). This work shows Ives’ version of impressionism, which is as different as can be from that of Ravel. The whole piece gives impressions of scenes associated with four specific American holidays. Washington’s Birthday, for example, evokes cold and a dreary winter through dissonant whole-tone chords, then uses dissonance differently to portray a jostling crowd during a barn dance, while Decoration Day opens with music that clearly reflects meditation and memory and then moves into specific tunes evoking the solemnity of a cemetery (including Taps). The third movement, The Fourth of July, features quotations from various patriotic songs, while the finale, Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day, offers sounds of a Puritan past through music that Ives originally composed for a church service. Davis treats the work with seriousness and a kind of universality that comes across surprisingly well, considering the uniquely American nature of the holidays that Ives here celebrates. In fact, the Melbourne players show equal sensitivity toward Three Places in New England, although those places are about as distant from Australia as they can be. The orchestra and conductor have clearly tapped into a layer of underlying meaning in Ives that is superimposed on his distinctive national (if not nationalistic) music-making. Ives intends to have listeners experience the three places by hearing the music representing them – again, in this respect he is creating an impressionistic work – and if the folk tunes through which Ives communicates may not be well-known to the Melbourne players, the piece’s attempt to present an accessible and forthright display of old-fashioned American ideals and patriotism clearly resonates with the performers and conductor. The remainder of the recording features two works that might have been presented more effectively if heard one after the other, as they sometimes are with the titles A Contemplation of Nothing Serious and A Contemplation of a Serious Matter. However, with their more-common titles of Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question, they are frequently played as entirely unrelated pieces, and are used here as shorter works that, first, separate the longer ones; and, second, conclude the recording with one of Ives’ most innovative and still-impressive feats of thoughtfulness and scoring (trumpet, flute quartet and strings). Central Park in the Dark offers sounds of the night, sounds of a city street, sounds of competitive pianos – it is music, for sure, but also a work showcasing the noises of the city in Ives’ time. The Unanswered Question, on the other hand, has sounds that seem to come from another world and from a timeless realm, its contrast with the down-home earthiness of much other Ives music apparent from start to finish. Ives was himself a fascinating musical mixture of the crude and sophisticated, the tonal and the polytonal, the 19th century and the avant-garde of the 20th. This recording manages to show many of his sides and, in so doing, leaves an impression of a single composer made of a great many parts that are potentially conflicting but that in actuality add up to a highly complex whole.

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