January 02, 2020


Tchaikovsky: String Quartets Nos. 1-3; Quartet Movement in B-flat; String Sextet, “Souvenir de Florence.” Quatuor Danel (Marc Danel and Gilles Millet, violins; Vlad Bogdanas, viola; Yovan Markovitch, cello); Vladimir Bukač, viola; Petr Prause, cello. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Elliott Miles McKinley: String Quartet No. 8; A Letter to Say I Love You, and Goodbye, for violoncello and piano; Piano Trio No. 1, “The Shadow Dancer.” Navona. $9.99.

Leo Brouwer: String Quartet No. 6; Christopher Walczak: Four Dreams; Vũ Nhật Tân & Vân-Ánh Võ: Mây [Cloud]; Alexandra du Bois: Within Earth, Wood Grows. Navona. $14.99.

     Sibelius gave his string quartet of 1908-09 the Latin title Voces Intimae, meaning “intimate voices” or “inner voices,” and the phrase is remarkably apt for many other quartets and for much chamber music in general: small-ensemble pieces usually have, by design, a high level of personal expression and of close interconnection among their performers. Tchaikovsky’s quartets certainly do, and while they are not among his best-known works, they explore much of the same territory and are often every bit as melodious as his symphonies, concertos and ballets. Striking, robust performances by Quatuor Danel on a new two-CD release from CPO provide considerable insight into the works’ structure and elicit plenty of emotion from them. The first quartet, in D, has one of Tchaikovsky’s loveliest movements, the Andante cantabile, which truly sings in this performance as it wafts gently from instrument to instrument. Well-known as a separate piece, this movement is of course only part of the total quartet, and Quatuor Danel does an excellent job of highlighting it while also showing it in context, as a respite from the preceding Moderato e semplice that ends with considerable intensity, and a gateway to a scherzo and finale that contrast effectively with the slow movement’s gentleness. This quartet is not Tchaikovsky’s earliest surviving work in the form: there is also a single movement in B-flat that is striking in its own way and that receives a strongly propulsive performance here. The second quartet, in F, shows greater compositional maturity than this movement or the first complete quartet, with a rhythmically complex second movement and a well-wrought fugue within the rondo form of the finale. Although it is less immediately appealing than the first quartet on an emotional level, the second provides strong evidence of how much Tchaikovsky developed as a composer in the few years between the two works (1871 and 1873-74). The members of Quatuor Danel make a strong case for Quartet No. 2, excelling in particular in the contrast between ensemble passages and those given to individual instruments. And the players are even better advocates for the third and most heartfelt quartet, written in the unusual key of E-flat minor and redolent of tragedy: it is in part a tribute to Ferdinand Laub, who had played first violin in the premières of Tchaikovsky’s first two quartets but who died at age 43 before the third, which is dedicated to him, was written. Intimate this quartet certainly is, but it does not wallow in grief along the lines of the finale of the Sixth Symphony: its funerary third movement is heartfelt, but its effect is that of an extended song rather than a dirge. Again, Quatuor Danel takes the full measure of the music and keeps its darker elements in perspective: Tchaikovsky very effectively balanced them with brighter, if scarcely lighter, material, and the performers handle the contrasts with nuanced skill. Joined and complemented by Vladimir Bukač and Petr Prause, they also do a first-rate job with Souvenir de Florence, a far more upbeat work despite the fact that it too is in a minor key (D minor). When played as well as it is here, this sextet sounds almost too big to be a chamber work, so well does Tchaikovsky use the massed forces of six instruments to deliver full and warm sound – and so well does he contrast the ensemble passages with more-delicate ones for single instruments or a subset of the six. The give-and-take among the performers is at the highest level here, with themes passed back and forth with apparent effortlessness that encourages listeners to engage in the beautifully managed flow of the music among the four movements and within each individual one. The combination of individual instruments’ clarity and grouped instruments’ warmth makes this Souvenir de Florence performance, and indeed this entire release, a real pleasure.

     The string-quartet medium continues to attract 21st-century composers with its promise of intimate communication, although modern harmonic language is quite different from that of Tchaikovsky. A new (+++) Navona release of chamber works by Elliott Miles McKinley shows this clearly. McKinley’s String Quartet No. 8 (2016) uses strong dissonance and techniques such as extended pizzicato passages as basic tools of communication. It does lapse into lyricism from time to time, but not for extended periods, even though that might be expected in its central and longest movement, marked Nocturne (lento e onirico). The dreamlike qualities of this movement are more agitated than comforting, if not quite nightmarish. The first and third movements are more disconnected-sounding and consciously “modern” in sound, although the finale makes occasional oblique, brief references to older musical forms. The overall quartet, though, does not come across as especially conversational among the players or as establishing an intimate connection between them and listeners – even though the performance itself, by the Auriga String Quartet (Erik Rohde and Hillary Kingsley, violins; Jacob Tews, viola; Isaac Pastor-Chermak, cello) is quite fine. A Letter to Say I Love You, and Goodbye (2011) has, on the other hand, a more personal feeling about it, owing partly to its use of only cello (Patrick Owen) and piano (Sarah Bob). Although not designated a nocturne, this piece has a nighttime quality about it, or at least a crepuscular one. Its extended (indeed, overextended) spinning-out of insistent warmth shows that McKinley is well aware of the uses of consonance and lyricism for communicative purposes, even if he somewhat overdoes it here: 10 solid minutes of music that sounds a bit like the accompaniment to a movie love scene is a bit much. Lying between these two works in its instrumental complement (three players rather than four or two), McKinley’s Piano Trio No. 1, “The Shadow Dancer”(2018) is a six-movement work in which each movement’s title starts with the words “Dancing in the Shadows of.” At nearly 40 minutes in all, this is quite an extended piece, each of whose movements is intended to be a tone painting of specific shadow-related or shadow-inducing elements: firstly, brilliant sunlight, soft moonlight, and shimmering starlight; and secondly, the more-inwardly-focused ideas of hope, dreams and infinity. This is a big concept, and certainly the members of the Janáček Trio (Irena Jakubcová, violin; Jan Keller, cello; Markéta Janačkova, piano) do their best to encompass it. But the work is not especially convincing, despite its lofty ambitions. The attempted nature focus of the first three movements is comparatively straightforward, and it is clearly the final three movements that are intended to carry listeners into the realm of thoughtfulness and deeper meaning. But they do not really do this: the plodding single-note-at-a-time opening for “hope,” the vaguely Debussy-like impressionism of “dreams,” and the insistently Ligeti-ish sound of “infinity” are intermittently interesting but do not add up to a convincing entirety. The music has intriguing elements, but does not establish as intimate a connection with the audience as chamber music can; nor does intimacy among the performers seem a priority in any of these works, except to some extent the cello-and-piano offering.

     A mixed bag of chamber music on a (+++) Navona CD features the Apollo Chamber Players and various guest artists in works of varying instrumental complement and provenance, using the traditional Western string quartet as a basis but also including the đàn bầu (a single-stringed zither from Vietnam) in two pieces and additional instruments in one of those. Leo Brouwer’s String Quartet No. 6 (2018) is called “Nostalgia de las Montañas” (“Nostalgia of the Mountains”) and intended as a tribute to Brazilian landscapes. Although well-crafted in standard contemporary atonal/dissonant mode, it is not particularly evocative of mountains or any other landscape. Brazilian dance forms, which would be expected in a piece of this sort, are absent, although Brouwer’s use of multiple rhythms vaguely recalls some of them. The piece seems more an esoteric exploration for cognoscenti than a reaching-out of any sort. Christopher Walczak’s Four Dreams (2016), also for string quartet (Anabel Ramirez Detrick and Matthew J. Detrick, violins; Whitney Bullock, viola; Matthew Dudzik, cello) has nothing dreamlike about it: the piece is supposed to explore aspects of the Australian Aboriginal notion of “Dreamtime,” a creation myth that has inspired a number of composers. Although no more aurally accessible than Brouwer’s work, Walczak’s is more effective at evoking communication among the performers, although what is transmitted to the audience is less clear-cut. Heard as pure music rather than referentially to a creation myth, Four Dreams includes a number of attractive musical elements and a strong sense of athematic forward motion, with the use of the viola being particularly engaging. Mây [Cloud] (2018) brings in the đàn bầu (played by co-composer Vân-Ánh Võ) to extend the string quartet, and the Vietnamese folk instrument immediately sets the tone for the piece at the ethereal and deliberately exotic-sounding opening. The Western instruments remain subservient to the sound of the đàn bầu pretty much throughout this 18-minute tone poem, which Vũ Nhật Tân says is supposed to reflect childhood experiences in Hanoi but which, in the absence of direct referents (at least for a Western audience), simply comes across as a chamber work using an unusual-sounding instrument to lead the more-often-heard ones. The sonically unfamiliar elements wear thin after a while, although it is fascinating to hear the low thrumming and odd (to Western ears) buzzing-with-overtones of which the đàn bầu is capable. Whatever its intent, the work is more intriguing intellectually than engaging emotionally. The same is largely true of Alexandra du Bois’ Within Earth, Wood Grows (2010), which uses the biggest instrumental complement on this disc: string quartet, additional viola, đàn bầu, and members of a wind ensemble and a wind-and-percussion one, all conducted by Jerry Hou. This is also a piece tied to Hanoi – it was commissioned to celebrate the city’s 100th anniversary – and tied as well to the ancient Chinese I-Ching. As usual when works are redolent of specific references, it is necessary to know and understand those references to get the full effect of this piece – and that is unfortunate, since it is unreasonable to suppose that listeners in general will have the needed familiarities. However, beyond the attractions of a work that engages the intellect by admirably exploring the differing tones and techniques of instruments, Within Earth, Wood Grows contains in its slow-motion progress a sense of striving, of attempting to rise in some imprecise way toward some unknown future. The music meanders rather than progressing linearly toward a knowable destination, but the colorations of the instruments make the slowly unwinding journey to wherever-it-is an involving one for listeners. This is the most musically effective work on the CD and, despite its larger-than-chamber-size instrumental complement, the one that best expresses the idea and ideal of intimate communication among musicians and between performers and their audience.

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