October 14, 2021


Bach: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4. Concerto Copenhagen conducted by Lars Ulrik Mortensen. CPO. $16.99.

Classical String Trios, Volume 3—Music by Giovanni Battista Sammartini, Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen, John Antes, Francesco Zannetti, Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Leopold Hofmann, and Paul Wranitzky. The Vivaldi Project (Elizabeth Field, violin; Allison Edberg Nyquist, violin and viola; Stephanie Vial, cello). MSR Classics. $14.95.

Mieczysław Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4. East-West Chamber Orchestra conducted by Rostislav Krimer. Naxos. $11.99.

     If the 19th century was the age of gigantism in music, the late 20th and 21st are times for a refocus on the small – rediscovery of the power of communication through reduced ensemble size. In some cases, all that has been necessary is to return to the original approach of composers, often with remarkable results. That is what a new CPO recording of Bach’s orchestral suites (which Bach himself called overtures) does to exceptionally fine effect. Lars Ulrik Mortensen plays the harpsichord on this disc and also leads Concerto Copenhagen – an ensemble of a mere 11 players, including Mortensen himself. But there is nothing “mere” about their handling of this music. Their approach goes well beyond their use of period instruments and carefully studied historical performance practices. It involves a return to Bach’s original conception of the suites, which means playing them without the familiar trumpets and timpani that have long underlined these works’ ceremonial, festive character. Mortensen and Concerto Copenhagen proceed on the basis of recent scholarship indicating that the suites, long thought to have been composed in the 1730s, were in fact only modified at that time – with their more celebratory instruments added – but were written decades earlier and in a plainer style, for much more modest performing forces. The back-and-forth arguments about provenance are the stuff of musical scholars’ lives, but what will matter to listeners is how the suites sound when performed in accordance with this particular scholarly analysis. And they sound very fine indeed – having a surprisingly impressive effect in this reduced/authentic instrumentation, with the crucial contrapuntal material coming through with exceptional clarity and the balance among the instruments carefully calculated and executed with thoroughly engaging precision. Using so small an ensemble for this music requires handling the pieces as, essentially, chamber music, which means all the performers are equally audible and all contribute noticeably to the overall effect – the give-and-take here is different from that in later chamber music, but the suites in this version do have a flavor of intimacy and close interpersonal (and inter-instrumental) communication that is altogether suitable. With their unerring feeling for pacing and their unobtrusive excellence in period performance, these musicians transport listeners back to the sound and effects of Bach’s own time – while offering a salutary contrast to the grander approach that is more often heard in this music. This CD makes that more-common approach seem, if not actually bloated, a touch overdone and unsubtle by comparison with this one.

     Subtlety and unaffected beauty are the watchwords for all the small-scale pieces being explored by the members of the Vivaldi Project in their first-rate series of recordings of classical string trios. To be precise, these are capital-C Classical pieces – pieces of the Classical era – mixed with some from the late Baroque, or at least with a strong Baroque flavor. Elizabeth Field, Allison Edberg Nyquist and Stephanie Vial know that there are many, many of these, even though the string-trio form has been far less explored than that of the same time period’s string quartets. It is easy, in some ways, to see why: these trios are largely unchallenging pieces both to play and to hear, having often been written for performance by amateur court musicians and heard in intimate settings as the equivalent of 18th-century background music. But that does not in any way diminish the appeal of the works or the skill with which the mostly little-known composers of the time created them. The Vivaldi Project’s third MSR Classics release in this series offers seven pieces by composers mostly known to scholars and aficionados of 18th-century music – and in some cases likely unknown even to them. Like Concerto Copenhagen, the Vivaldi Project is a period-instrument group, and Field, Nyquist and Vial are so well-versed in the style of the period they are exploring here that their performances flow with natural ease that fits these works perfectly. The pieces themselves are not particularly consequential – none strives to be more than a pleasantry – but the charm they all possess is so well extracted and reproduced by the performers that the CD is a delightful listening experience from start to finish. And even though the works here date from more-or-less the same time period – roughly mid-1750s to early 1790s – they do show differences in construction and handling of the instruments. Four of the pieces are in two movements, two are in four, and one is in three – and that one, a trio by John Antes (1740-1811), is the only minor-key offering on the CD. There is nothing emotionally trenchant in this D minor work, however, and not even anything particularly melancholy – the piece, for two violins and cello, is interesting mostly for being one of the earliest known chamber works by an American composer (Antes was born in Pennsylvania). Two of the two-movement pieces, a sonata by Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen (1745-1818) and a Trio Concertant by Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812), are also for two violins and cello. Of the other two-movement works, a sonata by Giovanni Battista Sammartini (1700-1775) is for two violins with harpsichord or cello, and a trio by Francesco Zannetti (1737-1788) is for violin, viola and cello. As for the four-movement pieces, the interestingly labeled Trio ô Divertimento by Leopold Hofmann (1738-1793) is for first violin or flute, plus second violin and cello, while the Trio Concertant by Paul Wranitzky (1756-1808) is for violin, viola and cello. There is a good deal of intriguing history associated with some of these minor composers: Sirmen was unusual both for being a female composer and for being a well-known singer and violinist; Hoffmeister was primarily a publisher and a close friend of Mozart (whose String Quartet No. 20, K. 499, is the “Hoffmeister”); and Wranitzky’s singspiel Oberon was an inspiration for Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Knowing some of these historical tidbits adds to the pleasure of hearing these composers’ music, but there is enjoyment aplenty to be had here simply by sitting back and letting these small gems sparkle in the presentation by the members of the Vivaldi Project.

     Much-more-recent composers also knew that less can be more when it comes to the effective communication of musical thoughts and feelings. Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), whose thinking was distinctly symphonic, had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with instrumental size in his works: he wrote 26 symphonies and 17 string quartets, but at times seemed to find the traditional symphony orchestra somewhat more than he wanted – his Symphonies Nos. 2, 7 and 10 are for strings only. And toward the end of his life, Weinberg stopped producing out-and-out symphonies and instead created four chamber symphonies (two in 1987 and one each in 1991 and 1992) – and the first three of them are in turn based on some of his string quartets, the very first chamber symphony being an outright quartet transcription. This rather complex back-and-forth of ensemble size and communicative prowess makes the new Naxos recording of Chamber Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4 all the more intriguing. The East-West Chamber Orchestra, which has fewer than 20 players, has already released (also on Naxos) Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, and it is clear that Rostislav Krimer has a deep understanding and appreciation of this music, which the ensemble plays idiomatically and with a well-balanced mixture of intensity and relaxation. Weinberg’s ambivalence about effective ensemble size for his musical thoughts shows in the creative way he structures the two chamber symphonies heard on the new CD. No. 2 includes a timpani with the strings, with the timpani especially important at the work’s start (where it urges the Allegro molto music onward) and conclusion (where it has the work’s last word). Chamber Symphony No. 2 revisits a 1944 string quartet but rearranges it significantly: the quartet’s second movement, for example, becomes the symphony’s finale. This chamber symphony is a three-movement work filled with tension and a kind of sternness of expression. It is a rather dour piece that communicates an overall sense of desolation, if not quite despair. Chamber Symphony No. 4 is different in almost every way. It is in four movements played continuously, and six of its seven tempo indications are slow: aside from a partial-movement Allegro molto, the markings are Lento, Moderato, Adagio, Meno mosso, Andantino, and Doppio più lento (Adagissimo) – the last being a highly unusual way to end a work. This chamber symphony calls for clarinet and triangle as well as strings, but while the clarinet (played here by Igor Fedorov) has a significant contribution to make, the triangle is used only in the final movement and is heard just four times. All this is testimony to the care with which Weinberg tried to use a small ensemble to color his musical thoughts and present them with clarity. Like much of Weinberg’s music, this piece is somber and has a plaintive air about it, and its final pizzicato chords (with a single triangle note) share some of the resignation of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Chamber Symphony No. 4 was Weinberg’s last completed work, indicating that at the end of his compositional life, he was thinking – as did many earlier composers – that big ideas can sometimes be best communicated by the careful use of small musical ensembles.

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