August 15, 2019


Brahms: String Quintets Nos. 1 and 2. New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello); Maria Lambros, viola. Naxos. $12.99.

Jan Järvlepp: Woodwind Quintet; Ferdinando DeSena: Sonorous Earth—Quintet for Low Winds; David MacDonald: Stumpery; Craig Peaslee: Dirge & Second Line; Kenneth A. Kuhn: Variations on a Commoner Theme, No. 1. Arcadian Winds (Vanessa Holroyd, flute and alto flute; Jennifer Slowick, oboe and English horn; Rane Moore, clarinet and bass clarinet; Clark Matthews, French horn; Janet Underhill, bassoon and contrabassoon). Navona. $14.99.

Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings; Dvořák: Serenade for Strings. Archi di Santa Cecilia conducted by Luigi Piovano. Arcana. $18.99.

Alla Elana Cohen: Music for Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Ensembles. Ravello. $14.99 (2 CDs).

     Quartets tend to be more-common instrumental combinations in chamber music than quintets, with the result that quintets start off with a comparatively greater expectation of sonic exploration and higher aims for expressive potential. Among the composers fully aware of the significant additional expressiveness made possible by one added instrument were Mozart and Brahms, both of whom wrote string quintets using two violas – resulting in a richer, warmer sound than in their quartets, but one that never risks becoming muddy or gloomy (Brahms also wrote two string sextets, taking matters even further). Brahms’ two quintets are very different in structure and effect, requiring performers who can probe their intricacies in distinct ways while retaining an overall sense of Brahms’ stylistic characteristics. The members of the New Zealand String Quartet, with the addition of violist Maria Lambros, understand these works’ needs exceptionally well and play the quintets on a new Naxos CD with the warmth and density that both require – neatly highlighting both their similarities and their differences. Brahms’ music is often described as “autumnal,” and this adjective fits Quintet No. 2 – which, inexplicably, is placed first on the CD – very well indeed. This was the last chamber work Brahms wrote before discovering and becoming enchanted by the chamber-music potential of the clarinet, which figured in all his chamber music afterwards (one piece being his Clarinet Quintet). String Quintet No. 2 is a large-scale work with near-symphonic scope in parts (the first movement actually originated with Brahms’ sketches for a fifth symphony). It is a generally inward-looking piece that treats the five instruments, at times, as a kind of miniature orchestra, requiring full sound from the performers at the same time as clarity of individual lines. There is little that “cuts loose” here until the Presto conclusion of the last movement: the quintet is serious throughout, although not stolid, and these performers understand the distinction clearly. Quintet No. 1, written eight years earlier (1882), is an altogether sunnier work, in three movements rather than four – although the central Grave ed appassionato essentially contains a Scherzo in the middle. Brahms is almost never ebullient, but in Quintet No. 1 he is often good-humored, and the work as a whole is much less tightly knit than the latter quintet – which means performers have to hold things together in section after section while still moving the quintet toward a sense of unity that it achieves only in the finale. The skill with which these chamber players handle the two very different Brahms quintets makes this disc a particularly enjoyable one.

     A Navona CD of quintets – for woodwinds rather than strings – is highly enjoyable as well, and is one of those rare anthology discs on which all the composers’ pieces will likely be appealing to listeners who find that they enjoy any of them. The five contemporary composers heard here all write with skill for varying woodwind ensembles, and all have a fine sense of the capabilities – from virtuosic to humorous – of these instrumental groups. Jan Järvlepp’s three-movement Woodwind Quintet starts with a light and bouncy air about it, continues with something more sonorous and serious, and concludes with an athematic movement that neatly reflects its title, “Pyrotechnics.” Ferdinando DeSena’s Sonorous Earth uses lower-pitched wind instruments than are generally heard in ensemble: alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon – plus the more-standard French horn. The result is a work with very interesting sounds, almost harmonium-like at some times and often distinctively dark-hued. David MacDonald’s Stumpery is intended to reflect the intertwining roots of trees, but whether or not listeners perceive it as doing so, it is certainly a piece in which the various winds’ sonorities reach for, extend into and ultimately twine around each other in very intriguing ways. It does drag a bit, though. Dirge & Second Line by Craig Peaslee does not: an in memoriam piece intended to reflect some of the sounds of New Orleans jazz processions, it moves along at a deliberate pace for a while before bopping into a much-more-upbeat section of the sort for which New Orleans “jazz funerals” are known. Even more fun than this is Kenneth A. Kuhn’s Variations on a Commoner Theme, No. 1, which is a delight from start to finish. Kuhn’s idea is to create one of those “commoner” (not “more common” but the opposite of “noble”) themes and then have it strive, through a set of variations, to assert its underlying nobility. This is silly in exactly the right musical way: the theme is catchy but not especially distinguished, and the variations are all over the place in speed, accentuation and emotional impact (or lack thereof). Finally, and this is really well done, Kuhn takes this ordinary-sounding set of notes and creates a triumphant final variation that really does have a “noble” sound – success at last for the “commoner” and a thoroughgoing delight not only for listeners but also, it seems, for the Arcadian Winds players, who handle everything on the disc with first-rate style but seem to have reserved a fillip of additional enthusiasm for Kuhn’s work. To be ruthlessly pragmatic, this cannot be the case, since these pieces were recorded at different times and Kuhn’s was not the last, but so infectious is Variations on a Commoner Theme, No. 1, that it creates an uplifting conclusion for this entire delightful CD.

     There is, of course, no particular reason for composers of chamber music to stop at an ensemble of five – or six, seven, eight or nine. At some point, though, chamber pieces start to shade over into the realm of works for chamber orchestra, which in their turn usually exist on a broader canvas than smaller-ensemble pieces and proffer a more-substantial sound world – although not necessarily more-complex ideas. The 24-member Archi di Santa Cecilia ensemble provides an interesting example on a new Arcana recording of the string serenades by Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. This is a (+++) CD that is filled with both charms and disappointment. The charms are, first, those of the serenades themselves, which are abundantly packed with beauty for its own sake and a sunniness that, although frequent in Dvořák’s music, is much less often heard in Tchaikovsky’s; and, second, those of hearing expert ensemble playing by highly talented musicians who are surely of soloist quality but who here go out of their way to subsume their individuality into a finely honed group. The disappointment lies in what conductor Luigi Piovano does with all the skilled musicianship at his disposal. All the notes are in place here, but the spirit of the works is lacking: these are expert but unidiomatic performances. In fact, although the Dvořák and Tchaikovsky serenades have some superficial similarities and date to roughly the same time (1875 and 1880, respectively), their sound worlds are as different as can be. But here they sound as if they were composed, well, not by the same composer, but by two much closer in temperament than Dvořák and Tchaikovsky were. The similar sound of the two works’ waltz movements makes this particularly clear: the waltzes both sound rather dreamy and placid, with neither the more-upbeat nature of Dvořák’s nor the slight melancholy of Tchaikovsky’s ever becoming clear. It is a pleasure to have these two highly pleasurable works together on a CD as well-played as this one, but this is nevertheless a (+++) release because of its failure to highlight the substantial differences between the pieces as well as their charming similarities.

     A new (+++) two-CD Ravello set of music by Alla Elana Cohen mixes chamber-orchestra pieces with ones for much smaller groupings – and there is even a string quartet called Three Tableau Noir taken from a chamber opera. Here are a six-movement Partita for chamber orchestra, another chamber-orchestra piece called Inner Temple, plus two works called Prophecies for the same size-ensemble; the string quartet and a quartet called Querying the Silence for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano; a different Inner Temple for cello and piano; and a different Querying the Silence for oboe and cello. The confusing titling is one element that is a bit off-putting here, although the titles do have a purpose: Cohen collects her works in “volumes” and “series” according to what she is trying to communicate, so, for example, the oboe-and-cello Querying the Silence is Volume 1, Series 9, while the identically titled piece for piano and winds is Volume 1, Series 8, with both works having the same philosophical underpinning of trying “to listen to the echo of one’s own words and one’s own thoughts.” All this is well and good – although it could be argued that music in general helps people focus on their own words and thoughts, or distract them from both. But it seems unlikely that most listeners will plod through the 90 minutes of Cohen’s music on these two CDs seeking the specific forms of self-enlightenment to which she wants the works to be devoted. There is certainly cleverness here, notably in Cohen’s Partita, which has touches of humor throughout amid movements with titles such as “Stumbling Sarabande” and “Crazy Courante” – and not even a passing reference to Baroque style, despite those titles. There is some clever orchestration here as well, notably in percussion, but after a while, the piece seems to exist mainly to draw attention to that cleverness and becomes rather overdone. This is a descriptor for most of the music here, in fact: because Cohen writes atonally and with little interest in melody (except in snippets), the main distinctions among the works lie in their instrumentation rather than their musical content in terms of the notes that are played. The oboe-and-cello pieces have clarity that some of the larger-ensemble works lack, but the traditional conversational element of chamber music is always absent, as Cohen creates soundscapes in which the instrumentalists relate to each other only incidentally. In the larger-ensemble pieces, the sound often verges on being actually unpleasant, no doubt deliberately (and in service to the philosophical foundations of the music), but to the detriment of listenability. There is some ethereality to the piano-and-winds quartet that sets it apart from the rest of the music here, and this work’s comparative serenity also contrasts with the mood of most of the other music. But taking all this material as a whole, it is all so similar in sound and approach that listeners who are not already fans of Cohen’s work will likely decide that when you have heard a little of this chamber-and-beyond writing, you have heard it all, or at least enough of it.

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