January 07, 2021


Beethoven: Piano Trios, Op. 1, Nos. 1-3; Op. 70, Nos. 1 (“Ghost”) and 2; Op. 97 (“Archduke”). Trio Sōra (Pauline Chenais, piano; Clémence de Forceville, violin; Angèle Legasa, cello). Naïve. $26.99 (3 CDs).

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3; Mahler: Symphony No. 10—Adagio. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Beau Fleuve. $15.

Florent Schmitt: La Tragédie de Salomé; Musique sur l’eau; Oriane et le Prince d’Amour—Suite; Légende. Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano; Nikki Chooi, violin; Women’s Choir of Buffalo and Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $11.99.

     Given Beethoven’s seminal position in the Romantic era, it is all too easy to forget that he really straddled Classical and Romantic times and formed his reputation based on his handling and modification of musical forms perfected by such Classical masters as Mozart and Haydn – to both of whom Beethoven owed a greater debt than he tended to acknowledge. Beethoven’s piano trios make his provenance particularly clear as they progress from his first published works (1795) through the well-known “Archduke” trio (1811). Trio Sōra offers compelling readings of six of the trios in a new three-CD Naïve release. There are other Beethoven piano trios, for a total count of 12, including WoO 38, written before the Op. 1 trios, and the “Gassenhauer” (Op. 11 of 1797), originally for piano, clarinet and cello but often performed in its alternative version for piano, violin and cello. But the fact that the Trio Sōra recording makes no attempt to be comprehensive does not diminish the quality of the project or the effectiveness with which the performers show Beethoven’s development from his earlier period into his middle one. The Op. 1 trios are very clearly derived from the Mozart/Haydn era, but they already show Beethoven’s distinctive voice, and Trio Sōra takes full advantage of this. The opening of the very first trio is an ascending arpeggio known in Classical times as a “Mannheim rocket,” and Beethoven’s use of it affirms his ties to the Mozart/Haydn era while giving Trio Sōra an immediate opportunity to display the joie de vivre and tendency toward faster tempos that are evident throughout these performances. The group takes its oddly spelled name from a Native American word meaning “a bird that sings as it takes flight,” and seems determined to live up to that designation from the very first notes here. A single-word description of the Trio Sōra performances could be “high-spirited,” but at the same time, Pauline Chenais, Clémence de Forceville and Angèle Legasa do not hesitate to provide intensity when it is called for, as in Op. 1, No. 3, which is in the portentous-for-Beethoven key of C minor. Indeed, because Trio Sōra uses modern instruments, including a full-sounding Steinway piano, there is ample warmth and depth when called for – sometimes even a bit more than is called for, although the trios’ slow movements are generally handled without undue sentimentality. Still, the players seem particularly happy to be engaged in much of the lighter material in Op. 1, such as the finale of the second, G major trio. When they move to the Op. 70 trios, their clarity of attack and articulation serves them particularly well, and their willingness to explore the emotional depth of the Largo assai ed espressivo of Op. 70, No. 1 – the movement that gave this work its “Ghost” nickname – stands them in good stead. The players’ handling of the dynamic range of the later trios is especially impressive, with focused attention on the pianissimo sections as well as the louder ones. The fine blending heard in Op. 70, No. 2, a work unjustifiably neglected between the “Ghost” and “Archduke,” is particularly impressive and makes a strong case for the music. The “Archduke” itself, however, is a bit problematic here. The second-movement Scherzo is halting rather than flowing, with the players pausing after each four-bar phrase at the opening just long enough to impede the forward motion. And the finale’s opening is odd: the Trio Sōra members start the movement hesitantly and only gradually build up to the designated Allegro moderato main tempo. They never lose their sense of ensemble, however, and the concluding Presto material is impressively handled. Still, this “Archduke” is a bit less convincing than the other works offered here. On the whole, however, Trio Sōra proves itself a very high-quality ensemble, skilled at interpreting these Beethoven trios and absolutely first-rate in the give-and-take that the music requires.

     The on-the-cusp-of-Romanticism elements of Beethoven’s music are the primary reason-for-being of a new Beau Fleuve recording featuring the composer’s “Eroica” symphony played by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta. It is not really possible to pinpoint a specific work or specific date and say, “the Romantic Era began here,” but Falletta’s choice of Beethoven’s Third is certainly an arguable point of demarcation if one feels the need to choose one. The notion underlying the recording, which is dubbed “The Romantic Age,” is that Beethoven ushered in that emotion-packed era in music and Mahler escorted it out through the first movement of his Symphony No. 10, with which the Beethoven is here paired. The choice of the Mahler work from 1910 is less defensible than that of the Beethoven – why not Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 (1908) or Pierrot Lunaire (1912), or (to move matters much later) Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (1940)? Falletta did not offer the two works on this CD under this disc’s title as a concert pairing: the Beethoven was recorded live in May 2019 and the Mahler in February 2020. So the juxtaposition seems more expedient than anything else. Still, there are interesting contrasts between the pieces, and the Buffalo Philharmonic plays them both with strength and intensity – and very fine string sound, which is especially crucial in the Mahler. Falletta starts the “Eroica” less than decisively in its first two chords, but quickly rights matters with a well-paced first movement (a bit on the fast side) whose propulsiveness is convincing. The omission of the exposition repeat is, however, unconscionable and indefensible. The second movement is stately rather than emphatically funereal, sad rather than tragic – and lightened to a greater-than-usual extent by its woodwind elements and some of the string figurations. This makes the “Eroica” less definitively Romantic than its inclusion on this disc would indicate, but it fits the movement well and effectively sets up the final two movements, which can sometimes seem tacked-on after the very expansive first two. The light and speedy opening of the third movement works well in Falletta’s interpretation, and the strings play enthusiastically. The horn entry in the trio slows matters down a bit, but the horns’ very fine hunting-call sound is most welcome. The third movement ends speedily and moves attacca into a finale that is notable for its bounce and rhythmic vitality, and that concludes with genuine panache. All in all, this is a well-integrated, well-thought-through performance that successfully presents the symphony as a whole instead of placing the majority of emphasis on the first two movements. It would be interesting to hear whether Falletta would handle Mahler’s Tenth in an analogous way: although not completely orchestrated, the work was essentially finished at the composer’s death and has been offered as a complete symphony in many versions. This makes it much less reasonable to extract its first movement, one of the two left 100% complete (the third movement being the other), and to play it as a standalone work, as Falletta chooses to do. The performance itself is fine: the straining against tonality of the music comes through as clearly as does its sense of constant yearning, and the eerie effects that Mahler coaxes from the orchestra are played with understanding. Mahler habitually treated his large orchestras as extended chamber groups, requiring sections, parts of sections, or individual players to emerge from the whole ensemble and then fall back into it. Falletta and the Buffalo musicians handle this aspect of the music quite well. The decision to play only this single Mahler movement is a questionable one, and the label “The Romantic Era” for this disc is more a matter of marketing than musicianship, but the performances here are worthy, and there is insight to be had in hearing these very different composers’ works in close proximity.

     Beethoven’s influence extended to and past Mahler, but the Germanic style that he epitomized was not the only prominent one in the Romantic era and afterwards. Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) represents a different approach, a French style along the lines of Fauré and Massenet, with both of whom Schmitt studied. It is interesting to contrast the balletic elements of Beethoven’s Third, whose finale derives from a theme the composer used earlier in The Creatures of Prometheus, with the ballet-originating sounds in the Schmitt works that are heard on a Falletta/Buffalo Philharmonic release for Naxos. Schmitt was primarily an impressionistic composer, as is evident in all four pieces on this disc. La Tragédie de Salomé, a two-part symphonic poem that dates to 1910 and started out as a ballet, unusually includes, in the second part, a mezzo-soprano voice. Less intense, impassioned and frenetic than Richard Strauss’ one-act opera of five years earlier, Schmitt’s work opts more for Oriental flavor and an overall feeling of the exotic than for Strauss’ mixture of seductiveness and murderous intent. Schmitt’s music is very well performed by the orchestra, and as on the Beethoven/Mahler disc, the ensemble’s fine string section does a first-rate job of tone painting, while Susan Platts handles the vocal elements with aplomb. Platts is also heard in the 1898 voice-and-orchestra version of the brief Musique sur l’eau, which lacks the sweep and atmosphere of Debussy’s La mer (1903-05) but has a pleasant flow of its own. Schmitt’s music tends to pale by comparison with that of better-known composers, but it stands up well when heard on its own, without preconceptions. On that basis, the suite from Oriane et le Prince d’Amour is finely colored, nicely orchestrated, and offers effective contrasts among its sections. It is also clearly late-Romantic in sound despite dating to 1934-37 – further evidence, if any were needed, that the door to the Romantic era did not close after Mahler’s Tenth. The Schmitt CD concludes with a work from 1918, the violin-and-orchestra version of Légende, a piece originally featuring solo saxophone and perhaps more interesting in that guise. Nikki Chooi plays it well and with feeling, but it has a rather ordinary and undistinguished sound to it. Falletta is a strong advocate for Schmitt’s music, and certainly Schmitt deserves better than the obscurity into which he has fallen. But the reality is that although he was a skilled craftsman, he was not, on the basis of the works heard on this (+++) CD, especially innovative: most of these pieces sound like somewhat warmed-over versions of music by composers with an equal sense of style but a greater portion of creativity and inventiveness.

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