May 16, 2019


Mozart: String Quartets Nos. 20-23. Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violins; Paul Yarbrough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello). Foghorn Classics. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Abide with Me: Great Hymns in New Settings. Lisa Bontrager and Grace Salyards, horns; Timothy Shafer, piano; Sarah Shafer, soprano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Freedom & Faith. PUBLIQuartet (Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violins; Nick Revel, viola; Amanda Gookin, cello). Bright Shiny Things. $15.99.

     The great chamber music of the past continues to involve and thrill performers and listeners alike, and to be subject to multiple interpretations that emphasize varying elements of works that are multifaceted and have genuine depth. Among such works are Mozart’s final four string quartets, which get very fine, highly conversational performances from the Alexander String Quartet on a new Foghorn Classics release. Quartet No. 20 in D, K. 499, dates to 1786 and is something of an “outlier” among the quartet series, a kind of quasi-pastoral way station with decided proto-Romantic elements that the Alexander String Quartet clearly enjoys bringing forward. The tempos here are mostly on the moderate-to-relaxed side, but without ever dragging – although the performers have plenty of spirit when it is called for, as in the bright and bracing finale. The three remaining quartets, collectively known as “Prussian,” date to 1789-90 and were supposed to be the first three of a never-completed set of six. No. 21, K. 575, is in D; No. 22, K. 589, is in B-flat; and No. 23, K. 590, is in F. The Alexander String Quartet’s approach to these works is much the same as it is to K. 499, in terms of pacing the works with care and balancing the parts so that the inner voices get considerable prominence – as is not always the case in readings of these works. The quartets are all characterized by changes of emotional tone between and sometimes within movements, and the performers handle those very well without ever losing sight of the cohesiveness of the music. The emotionalism of the final quartets, although certainly not “heart on sleeve” in the still-to-come Romantic manner, is an important element of their impact; and if there is a single touchstone for the Alexander String Quartet’s performances here, it is the performers’ willingness to engage the works’ emotional centers and devise some rather leisurely interpretations in terms of pacing for the sake of plumbing the inward focus of much of the music. Thankfully, the performers do not treat these works as “valedictory” in any sense – certainly Mozart never intended them that way – but instead showcase the highly effective and often quite original ways in which Mozart balances the strings and uses instrumental combinations to evoke an emotional response.

     The emotions for which Lisa Bontrager aims on a new MSR Classics recording are quite different. This (+++) CD features 15 arrangements of traditional hymn tunes, some for single horn, some for two horns, and some (but not all) featuring voice. This is an interesting and somewhat experimental method of presenting these hymns – many of which will be familiar to the traditionally religious – by giving them a new sound and still exploring their emotional centers. The varying forms of the hymns give the CD some musical interest even though the underlying musical material is scarcely inventive. In terms of the forms of arrangement, Crown Him with Many Crowns is for soprano, horn and piano; When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Praise the Holy Trinity and two combinations – of Were You There? and Jesus Paid It All, and of Before the Throne of God Above and Great Is Thy Faithfulness – are for soprano, two horns and piano. Well-paced, well-played, and sung with apt emotional involvement by Sarah Shafer, these arrangements are nevertheless less musically interesting than the ones that include no voice at all. Those are Abide with Me, Hyfrydol Fantasy, It Is Well with My Soul, Be Thou My Vision, Deep River, Oh Danny Boy, ’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus, and My Shepherd Will Supply My Need for solo horn and piano, and When Peace Like a River and the combination of Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing and Jesus Loves Me for two horns and piano. Bontrager describes the hymns as a source of comfort for her, especially as she faces the aging of her parents, and the music is likely to provide equivalent comfort for those who share Bontrager’s belief in the form of worship where this music has long been central – although modern emphasis on contemporary music in churches has pushed some of the traditional hymns into the background. The reason the non-vocal arrangements are so effective here is that the music itself provides a level of comfort and even uplift – perhaps even for people who may not know the hymns’ specific words or may not feel a personal relationship to them. The richness of Bontrager’s horn sounds, and those of Grace Salyards in the two-horn arrangements, help provide the CD with an overall feeling of warmth, and Timothy Shafer’s pianism nicely complements the horns by providing them with a harmonic foundation without ever attempting to assume a central musical role. An hour of hymns, even in attractive arrangements, may well be a bit much for many listeners, but those who take comfort in the sound and thoughts of this music may find themselves listening to the CD at various times rather than straight through – and then returning to it again and again for a kind of spiritual tonic.

     In a sense, the CD of hymn arrangements is a “cause” disc, attempting to preserve the hymns’ meaning despite musical changes affecting many churches. A new Bright Shiny Things recording by PUBLIQuartet is a “cause” CD as well, with a title that directly includes the word “faith” and an overview indicating that the material deliberately focuses exclusively on women composers. As a “cause” production, though, and even in strictly musical terms, the (+++) disc falls somewhat short of reaching out to people concerned by or involved in “freedom and faith.” The reason is that, in strictly musical terms, what it offers is not much different from what other committed-to-a-contemporary-sound chamber groups present: genre-bending, mostly highly dissonant, partially improvisatory material that includes “covers” (basically reinterpretations that thoroughly subsume the originals) of older music. Also like many contemporary ensembles, PUBLIQuartet has “initiatives” from which the performers draw the material performed here. One such initiative is simply the group’s commissioning of new works, such as Jessica Meyer’s Get into the Now, which pulls acoustic sounds in their usual modernistic ways by employing extremes of the instruments’ ranges, percussive additions in which the players hit their instruments, and so forth. There are improvisatory elements here, too – scarcely a surprise – but there is also a less-expected hint of lyricism now and then, notably in the work’s second movement; and under the circumstances, this offers some aural relief while freeing listeners from the need to undertake intellectual exercises in order to appreciate what Meyer and PUBLIQuartet are doing. Most of the rest of the CD comes from an initiative called MIND | THE | GAP, in which the quartet members reinterpret and/or run roughshod over material ranging from Hildegard Von Bingen’s O ignee Spiritus to Ella Fitzgerald’s version of A Tisket a Tasket. Then the disc concludes with a Shelley Washington piece called Middleground, which mixes ostinato elements and vaguely folklike themes with pauses for single-instrument solos and, eventually, a conclusion that just stops where it happens to be. Whatever the merits of another woman-composer-focused CD may be – there have been quite a few of them recently – what is attractive here is not the gender of the composers (which in any case is never evident from their music) but the skill with which PUBLIQuartet presents their compositions. Much of what listeners will encounter here is scarcely new on the contemporary-music scene, and the overall sound of the disc is largely indistinguishable from that of many other “with-it” contemporary offerings. But the playing itself is quite good, and if the music itself is less than memorable, the devotion, even fervor, with which the material is presented may be all that an audience already enthusiastic about the latest trends in chamber-music composition and performance needs in order to find the CD enjoyable.

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