01_Women_Composers.jpg20th-Century Women Composers
Trio des Alpes; Lorna Windsor
Dynamic DCS 7717

This is inspired programming, with the works on this disc thoroughly complementing each other. All three composers represented here were born within a quarter-century of each other. They each write in an expressive style that marks the transition from romanticism to modernism. None are musical innovators. But as women, they are rightly regarded as pioneers today.

Amy Beach, who was born in Boston in 1867, is the most well-known composer here. Her Trio for violin, cello and piano is a complex, virtuosic work, which ends with a memorable flourish. Swiss soprano Lorna Windsor’s performance of four art songs are engaging enough to make me want to explore more of Beach’s enormous song repertoire.

English composer and violist Rebecca Clarke enjoyed what she called her “one whiff of success” when she introduced her Viola Sonata in 1919, and then, soon after, this lovely Trio. Flamboyant, intense, driven, this is an exciting work, especially as performed by the Swiss-based Trio des Alpes.

The youngest composer here, Frenchwoman Lili Boulanger (sister of the influential teacher and composer Nadia), was only 25 when she died in 1918. The Trio des Alpes brings out the moody expressivity of her two contrasting pieces for piano trio, the first, D’un soir triste, plaintive, the second, D’un matin de printemps, exuberant.

These fine pieces are too rarely heard, making this thoroughly enjoyable disc particularly significant.

 

02_Shostakovich.jpgShostakovich – Piano Quintet;
String Quartet No.2
Takács Quartet; Marc-André Hamelin
Hyperion CDA67987

This recording of Shostakovich’s chamber works is an absolute delight – hauntingly beautiful, insightful and, above all, highly sentient to the mix of turmoil and soaring of Shostakovich’s life as expressed through his music. Chamber music was perceived as an act of bourgeois elitism in Stalin’s Soviet Union, even though it was precisely the form that allowed the most intimate connections between composer, musicians and their audience. So it is no surprise that Shostakovich composed eight symphonies before his second string quartet was premiered in 1944. Interestingly enough, 13 more string quartets followed in rapid succession.

String Quartet No.2 in A Major shows little connection to the stormy events of the Second World War (as opposed to his symphonies), appearing to be much more personal. It was composed in a mere 19 days and includes wonderful folk melodies, syncopated rhythms and minor modes of Gypsy/Jewish inflections. The Takács Quartet’s playing is robust and energetic in the first movement and deeply touching in the Recitative, where violin improvisatory lamentations are supported by the rest of the ensemble playing soft seventh chords. Outstanding solos are intercepted with close-knit ensemble sound in the third and fourth movements, which end majestically yet uncharacteristically in the minor key.

The Piano Quintet in G Minor premiered in 1940, becoming one of the most beloved piano quintets of all time. It contains five movements, with the emotional tension peaking in the ethereal Intermezzo and ending with a cleverly innocent Finale. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin is dominantly powerful in percussive sections while adding sublime textures to the ensemble sound in contemplative parts. Highly recommended.

 

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03_UK_DK.jpgUK DK
Michala Petri; Mahan Esfahani
OUR Recordings 6.220611

Another offering from Danish recorder player Michala Petri’s own label, this disc serves up a smorgasbord of modern-era music from Denmark and Britain, played by Petri and Tehran-born, London-based harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. It’s to be much appreciated that Petri remains so committed to the commissioning, performance and recording of new works for the recorder.

Off the top, Malcolm Arnold’s Sonatina reveals the interpretive unity and precise ensemble which make this such a successful duo, and the six little movements of Benjamin Britten’s Alpine Suite receive the best performance they’ve probably ever had. Gordon Jacob’s Sonatina and Encore are quite beautiful, but marred a little by some pungent tuning on the alto recorder. (That said, when Petri plays at blistering speed or sings a counter melody along with herself, she’s right on the Cleartune money.)

Given the title of Henning Christiansen’s piece – It’s Spring – one might expect the recorder to be typecast in its centuries-old role of bird imitator par excellence; and indeed it is, with the addition of some harpsichord bumblebee imitation. The aleatoric, post-modern angst of Daniel Kidane’s Tourbillon and Axel Børup-Jørgensen’s Fantasia provide a different mood and are very welcome here. Along with Vagn Holmboe’s Sonata, they also strike a more equal musical partnership between the two instruments than much of the other music. Mahan Esfahani’s playing is a real delight and I find it a little sad that the harpsichord parts here don’t all make better use of him.

 


04_Rochberg.jpgGeorge Rochberg – Complete Flute Music 1
Christina Jennings; Lura Johnson;
June Han
Naxos 8.559776

The WholeNote’s 20th season has brought symmetry: in the September issue I reviewed Marina Piccinini’s marvellous CD of Paganini’s 24 Caprices; in this last issue the recording of George Rochberg’s flute music includes 20 of his 51 Caprice Variations (on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in A Minor), a significant addition not only to the already long list of compositions based on this work but also to the flute repertoire.

Like the original Caprices, Rochberg’s variations were written for the violin. Jennings has adapted “…those best suited to the flute while representing the enormous stylistic range of [the] whole set.” It is to her credit both that the Caprice Variations sounds as if it was written for the flute and that her formidable technique is up to its prodigious technical demands.

The common thread binding the other two compositions, Between Two Worlds and The Fires of Autumn, could be considered to be the obsession of 20th-century composers with finding a new musical language. I can hear the composer’s voice in the atonal language of the first and the adopted Japanese idiom of the other if I consider them explorations, part of this search; but, Rochberg’s language and his voice seem most convincingly related in the Caprice Variations, which are so deeply rooted in the western musical tradition. Perhaps T.S. Eliot was right: “…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

 

05_Morton_Feldman.jpgMorton Feldman: Two Pianos and other pieces 1953-1969
John Tilbury; Philip Thomas
Another Timbre at81x2
(anothertimbre.com)

Along with John Cage and Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman was a key figure in the mid-century development of indeterminacy as a component in composition, creating works that emerge anew in each performance. This 2CD set focuses on a crucial period in his development and includes pieces for two pianos as well as pieces for three and four pianos and piano in various small ensembles. While the earliest, Intermission 6 (1953), presents the performers with various bits of notation and the direction to play in any order, the other pieces employ sequential notation that plays with time, whether using notes without rhythmic values or instructing musicians to sound a note when the decay of the previous one has begun.

In his extensive notes (available through anothertimbre.com), Philip Thomas emphasizes Feldman’s preoccupations with sound and time: they’re key to the way this special world ultimately involves us. While these works are designed to develop great structural complexity, the focus on sounds and their incremental evolution draws us ever further into the instant of the work’s coming into being, its evolving architecture stretching to erase its own boundaries. These works lead directly to Feldman’s later massive essays in time without being overshadowed by them.

Here John Tilbury and Philip Thomas bracket their program with two performances of Two Pianos (1957), each subtly distinct from the other. The complexity expands on the later Two Pieces for Three Pianos (1966) and the ensemble piece, False Relationships and the Extended Ending (1968). Tilbury may be Feldman’s most incisive interpreter (he first performed one of his works in 1960); his collaborators here share his attention to sonic nuance.

 

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01_Isserlis.jpgProkofiev; Shostakovich – Cello Concertos
Steven Isserlis; Frankfurt Radio Symphny Orchestra; Paavo Järvi
Hyperion CDA68037

Prokofiev began this concerto in Paris in 1934, where he was urged by fellow émigré Gregor Piatigorsky to write such a work. Piatigorsky was enthusiastic over the first movement and the opening of the second but at that point Prokofiev returned to Russia. The work waited until 1938 to be completed in Moscow where it debuted to resounding indifference. The cellist had played it, against the composer’s wishes, as a sentimental piece and the conductor had no opinion. In 1940 its debut in the United States by Koussevitzky and Piatigorsky in Boston was hardly a triumph.

The 1956 recording of the concerto by János Starker and the Philharmonia under Walter Susskind is a polite affair and while beautifully played the overall mood misses the pungency that Prokofiev must have intended. The 1972 performance by Christine Walevska conducted by Eliahu Inbal is a far cry from the Starker, animated and alert and well recorded by Philips.

Recorded in concert in 2013, Steven Isserlis and Paavo Järvi together have set the record straight with new eyes on the score, delivering a fresh, vital interpretation. The first pages of the first movement announce that this is to be a compelling performance. The third movement, a set of theme and variations, is totally engaging, more rhythmic and interesting than previously revealed.

Their Shostakovich, too, is outstanding. One would believe that in his several recordings Rostropovich, the dedicatee, had the field covered. Easygoing tempo and high-spirited playing provide a most attractive alternative, especially with the tidy yet dynamic orchestral collaboration. The sound and wide range of the recording are state of the art. The Prokofiev solo March, arranged by Piatigorsky, is a jaunty little encore.

 


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