November 05, 2020


Schumann: String Quartet No. 3; Caroline Shaw: Three Essays; Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 9. Calidore String Quartet (Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violins; Jeremy Berry, viola; Estelle Choi, cello). Signum Classics. $17.99.

Schumann: Frauenliebe und Leben; Fantasie in C; Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte. Kindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano; Jeffrey LaDeur, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Music for English Horn by Meera Gudipati, Hannah Kendall, Faye-Ellen Silverman, Jeni Brandon, Karola Obermüller, Lisa Bielawa, and Cecilia Arditto. Jacqueline Leclair, English horn. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The highly personal nature of chamber music, with just a few instruments in tonal conversation, can be an ideal conduit for emotional communication. Indeed, the title of Sibelius’ 1909 string quartet, Voces intimae (“inner voices” or “intimate voices”) is entirely fitting for a very large number of chamber works. The interrelationship of spoken voices and musical ones is foundational to a new Signum Classics CD featuring the Calidore String Quartet, which calls the disc “Babel” and tries to use that title to unify three disparate pieces. This does not actually work very well – the three quartets here are insistently different, and the “Babel” reference, which refers directly to one-third of the Caroline Shaw work, is a rather forced one. However, the actual performances on the CD are very fine indeed, and if the overarching theme does not quite work, the individual components of the disc come through very effectively. Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3 is given first. It is his final quartet, but where Schumann is concerned, that is scarcely meaningful, since he wrote all three of his works in this form in the summer of 1842, in one of his periodic bursts of intense attention to a specific form that he would never revisit. The emotional basis of the quartet appears with the two-note downward motif heard at its start, generally thought to represent the composer’s beloved Clara. The Calidore players present it with apt warmth and carry it through the movement well; they are also particularly attuned (so to speak) to the slow, swaying Adagio variation in the second movement. The challenging third movement, which ranges from the rhapsodic to the driven and obsessive, is suitably disturbing here, and well-contrasted with the generally jovial finale. This quartet “speaks” in many tongues, so following it with the Three Essays, written for the Calidore by Caroline Shaw (born 1982), makes sense, since the first “essay” deals with the Tower of Babel and its prime mover, Nimrod. But musically, the juxtaposition of Shaw with Schumann does not pay particularly rich dividends. Shaw’s first “essay” has a few things in common with Schumann’s third movement in the way Shaw’s work starts gently but soon unravels and fragments. But any resemblance is at most superficial. And Shaw insists on making the rest of Three Essays very abstruse indeed. The second “essay,” called “Echo,” is supposed to somehow reflect computer programming in a specific language plus the echo effect of social media, while the third, called “Ruby,” actually bears the name of a programming language and is somehow supposed to connect that technological element with the gem. The music has worthwhile elements throughout, but it will be of interest mainly to those who know and understand its underlying references. On the other hand, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9, which dates to 1964, is directly and strongly communicative without any need to impose a specific program or set of explanatory words on it. A lighter and less-complex work than his previous quartet, No. 9 starts with a greater dose of simple (well, fairly simple) humor than is usual in Shostakovich, retains a degree of calm that carries over into the solemnity of the second movement, and starts to sound truly characteristic of the composer only in the central Allegretto scherzando (all five movements of the quartet are played without pause). The Calidore String Quartet handles the biting and edgy material of this third movement particularly well, and carries the sense of strangeness right into the Adagio that follows – which is in fact a strange movement, especially with the pizzicato chords in its center. Shostakovich pretty much sums up the first four movements in the fifth and longest, and here the Calidore players do a particularly fine job with the material, whether it is speeding along, having a folksy sound, hammering chordal passages at the audience, bringing back the fourth movement’s pizzicato material, or seeking (perhaps a better word is yearning) for greater positivity at the end. This Shostakovich quartet is a kind of “Babel” in and of itself, and certainly these performers handle the mercurial music with great skill and with excellence both in solo passages and in ensembles. Although the CD does not quite coalesce around its supposed overall theme, it does offer some absolutely first-rate playing throughout.

     Music by Schumann also dominates an MSR Classics disc featuring Kindra Scharich and Jeffrey LaDeur – and here the conversational elements of the music are made especially apparent by the inclusion of a human voice in one of the Schumann works and in the Beethoven song cycle that is also offered by the performers. The three works here, for all their substantial differences, have a distinct musical element in common: the sixth and final song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, titled Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder, is directly quoted by Schumann both in the sixth song of his cycle and within the Fantasie in C. Presumably this connection is what led Scharich and LaDeur to mix these otherwise somewhat ill-assorted (if very beautiful) works on the same disc. As with the Calidore String Quartet’s “Babel” attempt, the concept is fine, if somewhat forced; but what makes the Scharich/LaDeur recording worthwhile is simply the quality of the performances. Frauenliebe und Leben, another of the musical love letters from Schumann to Clara, is a still-affecting eight-song cycle that traces the life and love (one great love) of a woman. This is music that ranges from hopefulness to exaltation to anger and resentment at the end, when the man leaves the woman a widow and the music has her fading into the background, with the entire cycle concluding only on the piano – which reprises the opening song. This is a wonderful touch that would lead beautifully into the Fantasie, but instead this disc has the Schumann songs succeeded by Beethoven’s. It is an odd arrangement: placing Beethoven first would work better (his songs are the earliest music and are the ones quoted by Schumann), as would having the piano at the end of Schumann’s cycle pick up the Fantasie on its own, but neither of those approaches is the one chosen here. In any case, the Beethoven cycle is one of his most proto-Romantic works, filled with longing and desire for an unreachable love and building to that final and longest song urging the beloved to “take then these songs” as tokens of a love that loses nothing in intensity despite its distance. Then, after the Beethoven, LaDeur performs the Fantasie, which is actually longer than either of the song cycles. The performance is well-considered and often eloquent, exploring the work’s contrasting moods with considerable skill and clearly building toward the sublimity of the finale – which, like the final songs by both Schumann and Beethoven, is a capstone for the music and a summation of all the feelings it has been evoking. The fine singing and playing on this disc are its primary attractions, although it may be best to listen and respond to the three works separately to obtain their full effect, rather than hearing them in a sequence that somewhat undermines their individual power and meaning.

     No matter how much introspection is musically possible among four performers or between two, there is nothing more intimate than material written for a single player – such as the works for solo English horn on a new disc from New Focus Recordings. These seven contemporary pieces, ranging in length from three minutes to 10, add up to a very short CD (40 minutes) that nevertheless offers more solo-English-horn music than most listeners are likely to have heard at any one time. Jacqueline Leclair covers considerable emotional territory on the disc. Ray of Hope by Meera Gudipati (born 1993) contrasts the English horn’s lower and higher ranges. Joe by Hannah Kendall (born 1984) focuses more on its lower range and its sinuous capabilities. Layered Lament by Faye-Ellen Silverman (born 1947) uses one of those “electronic impressions of space” backgrounds and a variety of techniques that exploit rather than explore the English horn’s capabilities. In the City at Night by Jenni Brandon (born 1977) has a bluesy feeling and a sense of yearning and loneliness – which the English horn is well-suited to express – while different forms of phosphorus (the title is all lowercase) by Karola Obermüller (born 1977) requires precise and extended breath control to convey a series of rather foghorn-like sounds. Synopsis #10: I Know This Room So Well by Lisa Bielawa (born 1968) is brief and effective in the way it mixes lyricism with a sense of uncertainty. The disc concludes with Música invisible by Cecilia Arditto (born 1966), which is one of those “listen to how clever I am” pieces using electronically modified vocal and other sounds and not really having anything to do with the English horn at all – a point it makes in just a few seconds and then keeps making for more than five minutes. Leclair handles everything on the disc with skill and (where permitted) warmth, and the CD as a whole very definitely shows the varying capabilities of the English horn and the differing ways in which contemporary composers use what is essentially an extended oboe (about 50% longer than the oboe itself and pitched a fifth lower). If none of the individual pieces is especially memorable, the combination of them all makes the CD an unusual one and a worthy exploration of one of the musical world’s less-prominent instruments.

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