May 06, 2021


Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano. Ailbhe McDonagh, cello; John O’Conor, piano. Steinway & Sons. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Respighi: Gli Uccelli; Suite for Strings and Flute; Melodia and Valse Caressante for Flute and Strings; Serenade for Small Orchestra. Roberto Fabbriciani, flute; Orchestra Sinfonica Abruzzese conducted by Nicola Paszkowski. Tactus. $16.99.

Vivaldi: Bassoon Concertos, Volume V—RV 467, 476, 479, 481, 486, 489, and 497. Sergio Azzolini, bassoon and conducting L’Onda Armonica. Naïve. $16.99.

Eleanor Alberga: No-man’s-land Lullaby; Shining Gate of Morpheus; Succubus Moon; The Wild Blue Yonder. Navona. $14.99.

     The communicative power of string instruments is central to classical music and has been for centuries: orchestras, and even smaller ensembles, are typically dominated by string sections, with other instruments adding color and their own forms of expressiveness. So it can be a bit surprising to realize that in some forms, strings’ prominence and independence emerged rather late. Beethoven’s five cello sonatas are instructive in this respect – and also rather neatly encapsulate the three compositional periods into which the composer’s music is generally divided. Splendid new performances by Ailbhe McDonagh and John O’Conor, released on the Steinway & Sons label, show the similarities and differences among the five sonatas particularly clearly. The first sonatas, Op. 5, Nos. 1 and 2 – in F major and G minor, respectively – are essentially piano works with cello accompaniment. O’Conor strives to provide equality of interpretative standing to McDonagh, who certainly rises to the occasion when given the opportunity, but both these two-movement pieces use the cello more for tonal color (often having it double the left-hand piano part) than for thematic or structural independence. Each work has a long first movement, with a slow introduction and then a faster main section, followed by a rather peppy second movement. These sonatas are sonically somewhat overdone in this performance, with McDonagh’s Andrea Postacchini cello postdating Beethoven’s time and possessing a highly sumptuous sound, and with O’Conor performing on a sonorous modern Steinway quite different from the pianos of Beethoven’s time. The sonic beauty carries through to the third sonata, Op. 69 in A, where it is somewhat more appropriate. Here Beethoven, now in his “middle period,” composes independent material for the cello in much the same way as in his Triple Concerto of the same time frame. This means that cello and piano are much closer to equal partners than in the first two sonatas, with both having virtuosic as well as expressive opportunities throughout the three-movement work. Lasting nearly half an hour, this is the longest of the five sonatas, and in the hands of McDonagh and O’Conor, it is spun out with elegance and a kind of restrained passion that fit it very well. Equally effective, if not more so, are the fourth and fifth sonatas, Op. 102, Nos. 1 in C and 2 in D, which date to the beginning of Beethoven’s “late period” and use the instruments quite differently from the way they are used in the earlier sonatas. These are thoughtful and inward-focused works, despite their key signatures, and here there is genuine dialogue between the instruments, which often pick up and finish each other’s phrases as if ruminating on the same thoughts. The sonorous warmth of the cello and piano used here, even if not truly authentic (especially in the piano’s case), fits the emotional underpinnings of these works quite well. And McDonagh and O’Conor seem highly attuned (so to speak) both to the music and to each other: their balance is flawless, and their pacing has a natural quality that makes it sound as if these works could not possibly be played at any other tempo. The performances on this two-CD set, recorded during the unfortunately much-diminished celebration last year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, clearly show how much Beethoven still has to offer performers and listeners after two-and-a-half centuries.

     By the early 20th century, composers were sometimes using strings, with contrasting instruments, to look back as well as forward – as Respighi did repeatedly in works derived from earlier music. Thus, the small-orchestra suite Gli Uccelli (“The Birds”) uses strings, complemented by a modest number of winds and brass plus a celesta, in an unusual form of Impressionism: the five movements draw on works by Bernardo Pasquini, Jacques de Gallot, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Jacob van Eyck to celebrate birdsong while trying to portray avian activities in music. It is a fascinating notion, a work in which obviously imitative material is drawn from music of the 17th and 18th centuries but transformed, through skillful orchestration, into a work that definitely has the sound of its own time period (1928). Yet by the time of Gli Uccelli, Respighi had been down the transformative road before, not only in the first two suites of Antiche arie e danze (1917 and 1923) but also in even earlier works. The brief Serenade for Small Orchestra of 1904 is one example that is heard moderately often – and it has an interestingly Russian sound, surely influenced by Respighi’s studies with Rimsky-Korsakov. Slightly melancholy throughout, with the clarinet lending emphasis to the strings and providing contrast to them as well, the piece is pleasantly introspective – and very well played on a fascinating new Tactus recording featuring Orchestra Sinfonica Abruzzese conducted by Nicola Paszkowski. Even more intriguingly, the disc also includes two pieces of a similar type that here receive their world première recordings: Suite for Strings and Flute (1905) and Melodia and Valse Caressante for Flute and Strings (1902). These are works that show multiple influences, all filtered through Respighi’s well-wrought use of strings with woodwind contrast (flute in these cases). Melodia and Valse Caressante opens with a touch of Russian sound but in the balance of the first movement, and throughout the second, has more of a French turn-of-the-century flavor. And the Suite for Strings and Flute, against all odds, sounds positively Viennese: the start of the first of its four movements sounds astonishingly like the music that Franz Lehár was writing at precisely the same time. Here the string complement is at its warmest and most romantically, even erotically engaging, and as the suite proceeds from Badinage through Valse, Berceuse de Noël and a final enthusiastic Furlana, Respighi shows repeatedly just how well, even in this early work, he understood the emotive power of strings and the effectiveness of providing them with contrasting touches from instruments such as, in these cases, the flute.

     It is a different woodwind, the bassoon, that complements and contrasts with the strings in the 66th Vivaldi Edition release from Naïve. This is the fifth disc in the series to be devoted to Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos, and its seven concertos bring to 33 the total number recorded in the overall sequence. The two minor-key works here – RV 481 in D minor and RV 497 in A minor – have particularly interesting first movements: RV 481’s is positively mysterious and more inward-focused than is usual in Vivaldi’s concertos, and RV 497’s is highly operatic in its dramatic unisono opening, followed by a full stop that is genuinely disconcerting. Actually, there is something special about every one of these concertos: one thing the Vivaldi Edition shows again and again is that the canard about Vivaldi’s concertos all sounding alike because of their fast-slow-fast structure simply fails to acknowledge the composer’s tremendous creativity within the basically similar arrangement of movements. The alternation of tutti and soli in the first movement of RV 467 is delightful, as is the scurrying start of the finale of RV 476. The central Largo of RV 479 shows the bassoon in particularly warm guise, while the similar tempo in RV 486 gives the instrument more of a singing quality. And the finale of RV 489 is positively ebullient. These are just some of the highlights of a CD that features absolutely first-rate playing and conducting by Sergio Azzolini – and a wonderful string ensemble, assured and historically informed, in L’Onda Armonica. Both bassoon and strings can be unashamedly playful from time to time in these concertos, and that is all to the good, showing how serious music-making can be a great deal of fun for performers and audience alike. Like so many Vivaldi Edition discs, this one is revelatory of a side of the composer that until recently remained very little explored. It also explores some less-known sides of the bassoon itself: far from being the comical instrument that it became in later years, here the bassoon is a full-fledged, fully capable woodwind whose ability to amuse is just one element of its charm – which also includes considerable lyricism and, in Vivaldi’s writing, a mixture of drama and emotional intensity.

     Emotional intensity in strings and the instruments that contrast with them is a big part of many contemporary approaches to chamber music, such as the four works of Eleanor Alberga (born 1949) on a new Navona CD. The disc opens and closes with pieces for violin and piano: No-man’s-land Lullaby (1997) and The Wild Blue Yonder (1995), both played by Thomas Bowes on violin and Alberga on piano. The other two pieces here are for string quartet plus one other instrument; both pieces are performed by Ensemble Arcadiana (Bowes and Oscar Perks, violins; Andres Kaljuste, viola; Hannah Sloane, cello). Shining Gate of Morpheus (2012) features Richard Watkins on horn; Succubus Moon (2007) has Nicholas Daniel on oboe. Although the pieces were composed (and recorded) over a 25-year period, they clearly share some characteristics. The two single-movement quintets contrast peaceful scenes with ones that are considerably more intense, using the strings for quiet and reflective settings and the contrasting solo instruments to lead the music into more-disturbed realms. Thus, Shining Gate of Morpheus has the string quartet portray the gentleness of sleep, which is then disturbed and confused by the world of dreams, in which the horn figures prominently. Succubus Moon, somewhat similarly, contrasts lunar and nocturnal tranquility – dreamy in its own way – with more-intense material representing frightening creatures of the night, the oboe taking the lead in this element of the work although the strings too take part in it. As for the violin-and-piano pieces, they show quite clearly how far the string-plus-piano combination has come since Beethoven’s time: the instruments are absolute equals, each leading parts of the material and accepting a subsidiary role elsewhere, each equally engaged in emotional reaching-out and both equal in establishing and sustaining the changing moods of the music. No-man’s-land Lullaby is unsettling and mildly dissonant at first, then increasingly disturbed and intense – no surprise, inspired as the piece is by the horrors of World War I. Even without knowing the work’s provenance, listeners will be swept into its sound world, which strongly contrasts more-relaxing material with elements that are unsettling to the point of unpleasantness. Alberga’s use of silence and near-silence is notable here, the music’s quiet passages being as emotionally fraught as its loudest ones. The Wild Blue Yonder again uses the two instruments in equivalent if not always precisely equal roles, the importance of the work’s title here being less apparent and not particularly crucial for experiencing the music: this is a work in which fragmentary material appears tentatively and uncertainly, in one instrument or the other, joining bit by bit at times and then separating again, with climactic cacophonous sections rapidly dropping into a kind of near-silence that here and elsewhere is used so carefully that it becomes a hallmark of Alberga’s style. Somewhat unusually for contemporary music, all four of these pieces make sense at their given lengths of 10 to 14 minutes, being neither truncated nor overextended: each has elements of a tone poem whose exact story may be unclear but whose arc of presentation, communicated by strings enhanced by the presence of other instruments, comes through to fine effect.

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