December 16, 2021


Metamorphoses: Arrangements of works by Bartók, Chopin, Debussy, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff. Maiburg Ensemble (Anette Maiburg, flute; Pascal Schweren, piano; Matthias Hacker, double bass; Fethi Ak, percussion). Ars Produktion. $19.99 (SACD).

Grieg: Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano; Janáček: Sonata for Violin and Piano; Dvořák: Mazurek. Shea-Kim Duo (Brandan Shea, violin; Yerin Kim, piano). Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

Richard Strauss: Le bourgeois gentilhomme—Orchestral Suite; Milhaud: Le carnaval d’Aix; Britten: Young Apollo; Gerald Finzi: Eclogue. Joshua Pierce, piano; Slovak State Chamber Orchestra of Zilina and Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra of Bratislava conducted by Kirk Trevor. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     A fascinating foray into arrangements that tread the line between classical music and other forms – and frequently cross that line with a great deal of panache and considerable interpretative skill – the new Ars Produktion disc featuring the Maiburg Ensemble is above all a celebration of intimate musical communication among four performers whose instruments, on the face of it, seem more likely to conflict than to cohere. Lower Rhine Musical Festival Artistic Director Anette Maiburg actually has even more-elaborate arrangements and rethinkings of some of this music for the festival itself – Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, for instance, comes with a dance component. But even without the visuals, the cleverness and sensitivity of the musical thought here come through clearly, although certainly not in a way at which purists will nod with immediate approval. As flautist, Maiburg often dominates on this SACD, although she herself has actually arranged only one of the 14 works on the disc, Ravel’s Kaddisch (the other arrangements are by Christoph König and Maiburg Ensemble pianist Pascal Schweren). Yet “dominates” is not quite the right word for so collegial an enterprise: even when the flute is front-and-center, it is clear that the piano, double bass and percussion are equally crucial. This ensemble is closer to a jazz quartet than anything traditional in classical music, and indeed, many of the arrangements bespeak familiarity with and love for the jazz idiom. This is particularly clear in several Romanian folk dances by Bartók, done in something approaching “swing” style – but surprisingly, it is also apparent in the unexpected arrangement of Debussy’s Syrinx (here retitled Syrinx Reloaded), which retains the feeling of the original but employs harmonies that would seem to throw the music off-kilter if they were not handled with such consummate skill in blending. Six Bartók dances make him the dominant composer here, but in truth, it is the ensemble itself rather than any individual composer that dominates the disc, which includes a Mendelssohn Scherzo, an additional Ravel work (L’enigme éternelle, its exoticism emphasized in this arrangement), a brief foray into Chopin (here called Frédéric’s Dance), a traditional Armenian dance called Hov Arek, and, of all things, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The very wide selection of repertoire certainly shows the Maiburg Ensemble’s boldness and willingness to tackle unexpected material in often-clever ways. But not everything here is equally convincing – the Mahler, in particular, is arranged to emphasize the music’s dreamlike qualities, but in so doing robs the material of some of its heartfelt elegance (not to mention its context). As a showcase for beautiful small-scale performances that sensitively combine genres, this release is a pleasure. Listeners who already know the original versions of the repertoire will find these new ways of arranging and performing the material especially engaging. Nevertheless, this is a specialized disc, not one that will attract an audience seeking authenticity or careful attention to the music as written – and the recording may not stand up particularly well to repeated hearings, except for people for whom the pleasures of the Maiburg Ensemble’s performance camaraderie come through with particular intensity.

     The music offered by Brendan Shea and Yerin Kim on a new Blue Griffin Recordings CD stays firmly within the realm of classical chamber music, and the close-knit performances are as expressive as one could hope for in these works. Except for the Dvořák Mazurek, a popular display piece heard often as an encore, the works are not especially well-known, but Shea and Kim make a good case for them. The most-substantial piece here is Grieg’s third violin-and-piano sonata – which is in many ways his least “Griegian” work in this form. The mostly sunny Sonata No. 1 and significantly darker No. 2 both date to the 1860s, while the third sonata was composed 20 years later and was actually Grieg’s final work composed in sonata form. It is a large-scale three-movement piece that fits more firmly into the German Romantic tradition than do the earlier sonatas or many other works by Grieg: it has some ties to Norwegian folk material, but they do not leave a significant lasting impression. Shea and Kim get the broad scale of the sonata right, and are particularly effective in the intense first movement (marked Allegro molto ed appassionato); they are, however, rather less attentive to the espressivo element of the second movement, which accordingly does not balance the emotions of the first as effectively as it can. The bright elements of the finale come across well, although the cantabile second theme is another element whose expressiveness is underplayed. The overall performance is a bit on the staid side, although the playing is first-rate throughout. The only violin sonata by Janáček is more interesting. It is an odd work, the first two of its four movements having very similar moods and moderate tempos, the fourth movement on the slow-and-dissonant side (it is marked Adagio), and the third movement (Allegretto) featuring some genuinely striking string swirls and piano chords that give this shortest of the sonata’s movements the work’s greatest emotional punch. Shea and Kim are at their best here when conveying the turbulence and uncertainty of the material, and there is enough of that to make the overall reading an effective one. But it is the shortest work here, the Dvořák Mazurek, that really seems to resonate with these performers: it opens rather than closes the CD, and it is played with such verve and style that it creates an expectation for the remainder of the music that these interpretations never quite fulfill. It is also odd that the disc has such a short running time: just 47 minutes. There is plenty of room on it for, say, one of Grieg’s two earlier violin-and-piano sonatas.

     The longest work on an MSR Classics release featuring pianist Joshua Pierce and conductor Kirk Trevor dates to the same time period as the Janáček sonata, which was written in 1914: Richard Strauss’ suite Le bourgeois gentilhomme includes music composed between 1911 and 1917. Strauss is not thought of as a composer of delicate music or works inviting intimate performance collaboration, but Le bourgeois gentilhomme is unusual Strauss, with two movements tied directly to Jean-Baptiste Lully and more-delicate scoring in several places than is typical of Strauss. Pierce and Trevor prove fine collaborators here, each deferring to the other as appropriate, almost like two courtiers bowing to each other in turn in the execution of an elaborate, dancelike ritual. The other extended work on this CD, Milhaud’s Le carnaval d’Aix, also fares well. Milhaud labeled this a “fantaisie pour piano et orchestre,” but even though Milhaud created the work for himself as pianist, it is less a showpiece of virtuosity than a pleasant, often sweet, sometimes gently self-parodistic set of 12 balletic movements, only three of which reach as much as two-minute length. This is a fine opportunity for a pianist to collaborate with an ensemble instead of competing with or trying to overwhelm one. Here as in the Strauss, Pierce and Trevor achieve a very well-balanced and sensitive reading, with the Slovak State Chamber Orchestra of Zilina sounding as good in accompaniment as it does when front-and-center. The group’s strings also do well with Britten’s Young Apollo, a work that sounds in the main like chamber music despite the larger string complement it requires. Pierce manages to be both the focus of the material and a kind of first-among-equals chamber musician both here and in Eclogue by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), for which the ensemble is the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra of Bratislava (also conducted by Trevor). Finzi originally planned this as the slow movement of a concerto, so it would be reasonable to expect greater prominence for the piano than the work in fact offers. This is delicate music that seems to ruminate on themes presented with a kind of unassuming gentleness – it is pleasant rather than profound. Actually, that is a fairly apt description of all the works on this disc: nothing here delves deeply into feelings or emotions (except, to some extent, Britten’s Young Apollo). Both Pierce and Trevor make the unassuming superficiality of the material as attractive as it can be, and listeners who are interested in this specific combination of 20th-century works will find much to enjoy in the congenial way Pierce and Trevor handle the repertoire.

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