02 SokolovMozart, Rachmaninov Concertos & “A Conversation That Never Was” A Film by Nadia Zhdanova
Grigory Sokolov
DG CD/DVD479 7015

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (May 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

Grigory Sokolov is legendary for his rejection of celebrity. He gives no interviews and for some years now has stopped performing with orchestras. He also dislikes and avoids recording studios. It’s something of an achievement therefore, for Deutsche Grammophon to have obtained Sokolov’s agreement to reissue two live performances from 2005 and 1995 in Mozart, Rachmaninov Concertos & “A Conversation That Never Was” A Film by Nadia Zhdanova (DG CD/DVD479 7015). The addition of the film (on DVD) makes this set unusual. Zhdanova interviews Sokolov’s friends and colleagues and adds newly found archival material to create a portrait of this very private and sometimes reclusive artist.

The Mozart Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major K488 is the more recent performance. Recorded in 2005 in Salzburg with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Trevor Pinnock, it’s an intimate reading with Sokolov’s characteristic crisp, clear staccatos punctuating the opening of the final movement.

The other performance is with the BBC Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995. The Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor Op.30 is loved by audiences and equally feared by pianists for its technical challenges. The speed at which Sokolov takes the opening of the final movement is scarcely believable. The same rapid repeats of chordal passages appear in the first movement, where Sokolov gives the piano such a pounding that some notes in the upper register begin slipping out of tune and make for a few interesting effects as the performance proceeds without a pause to correct the matter. Still, the scale of Sokolov’s interpretive conception is awesome and often startling.

06 Benelli Mosell RachmaninovRachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, Corelli Variations
Vanessa Benelli Mosell, London Philharmonic Orchestra
Decca 481 393

Review

The following review is an excerpt from Keyed In (May 2017) which can be read in its entirety here.

With a handful of recordings already in her discography, 30-year-old Italian pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell has now added her orchestral debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, Corelli Variations (Decca 481 393). The concerto is a staple in the repertoire. The sheer beauty of Rachmaninoff’s writing makes it a good choice for a young performer breaking into the market. The real test of this work is, however, the second movement and it’s here that Mosell truly proves herself as a musician. This movement is much less dense than the outer ones and leaves the performer quite exposed with sparse lines and slow tempos. What holds this movement together for Mosell is the honesty of her playing. Nothing’s contrived. Her phrasings are straightforward but clearly the product of much thought. She and Rachmaninoff are the perfect match.

The disc also includes Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op.42. The 20 variations are an extremely demanding set to perform. Mosell plays through them with impressive ease, meeting every demand for big powerful sound as well as the deepest introspection. It’s obvious she has invested a great deal in her interpretation and the impact is even more profound than her performance of the Concerto No.2. It’s quite surprising that the small filler piece on the recording’s program steals the show so convincingly.

01 Orlando di LassoOrlando di Lasso – Laudate Dominum
Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal; Andrew McAnerney
ATMA ACD2 2748

Review

Orlando di Lasso is generally considered to be one of the last and one of the finest composers of the Franco-Flemish school, a school (if that is the right word) that begins with Dufay and includes several great composers: Ockeghem and Josquin, de la Rue and Isaac. The forms that di Lasso’s motets take are often complex. Of the 13 on this disc none are in the standard four parts: six are for double choir (with eight, nine or ten voices), one is 12-part, one ten-part, one eight-part, one seven-part and one six-part. The organization within these parts also tends to be complex. In the six-part Te Deum the odd-numbered parts are plainchant and the even-numbered polyphonic. Omnia tempus habent sets the presentation of youth against old age by having a high voice choir of four sing the former and another four-voice choir, of low voices, sing the latter.

The Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal was founded in 1974 by Christopher Jackson and has, since Jackson’s recent death, been directed by Andrew McAnerney. On this record the choir consists of 13 singers who perform a cappella. This is challenging music, for the listener and the performer alike. The singing is glorious and the disc is strongly recommended.

02 Amabile ChoirsSing Your Song – Music by Matthew Emery
Amabile Choirs of London
Centrediscs CMCCD 23617

Sixteen unique choral works by Canadian composer Matthew Emery are performed here with passion. An alumnus of London’s Amabile Boys & Men’s Choirs, Emery uses his experience with choirs’ abilities to create soundscapes of shifting harmonies and glorious colours. One of CBC Music’s 30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30 for 2016, Emery is a musical individualist in his tonal yet offbeat harmonies, word settings and phrasings.

A number of the songs deal with death and parting. In the opening track Sweetest Love, John Donne’s words are set to tonal harmonies with the occasional atonal note sneaking in. Especially moving are the high notes on the word sleep. Likewise in Still Colors (Velvet Shoes), the astounding tight ensemble performance with low and high harmonies drives the reflective mystery of this parting song.

All is not sadness. Let Your Voice Be Heard is a rousing song with a nod to minimalism as the line “let your voice be heard” is repeated as a reminder to be yourself. The Newfoundland folk song Haul on the Bowline has men’s voices working hard to get a boat to shore, while percussion and fiddle add a traditional flavour. The closing title track Sing Your Song is an upbeat work with driving percussion and piano adding to the pop music and sing-along qualities.

All the Amabile Choirs of London give first-class enthusiastic performances. Matthew Emery composes choral music at its very, very best.

03 WinterreiseSchubert – Winterreise
Matthias Goerne; Markus Hinterhäuser
Cmajor 738008

It is fascinating to observe how new pressures from audiences and technology constantly induce change in the way we consume art. Vinyl and tape having been first supplanted by CD, DVD and Blu-ray, quickly gave way to live streaming and playing hi-fi music on definitively low-fi smartphones. None of this has ever happened without controversy – remember the brouhaha accompanying the introduction of surtitles in most opera houses of the world?

Here is a recording of a conventional voice and piano performance augmented, or diminished (choose your side), by visual projections designed by William Kentridge. Only vaguely related to the music, these graphic designs and animated images seek to appease the multisensory needs of modern audiences. Or are they designed to stop them from checking their Twitter feed or Facebook updates during the concert? Whatever their purpose, they surely did not work for me, detracting from the performance, rather than enhancing it. And what a performance! Goerne, who is surely one of the world’s leading singers of Lieder, especially by Schubert and Mahler, is in fine voice here. Compared to previous recordings, his voice sounds rounder, more velvety and supported across the tessitura, while developing a darker, more intriguing timbre. So, this is a great performance, whether you close your eyes (me) or keep them wide open (some of my ADHD, millennial, image-hungry colleagues).

04 Krassima StoyanovaPuccini – Complete Songs for Soprano and Piano
Krassimira Stoyanova; Maria Prinz
Naxos 8.573051

In the booklet that accompanies this CD Robert Ignatius Letellier writes that these simple song settings “could hardly be more different from [Puccini’s] operas.” Perhaps so; yet it seems to me that an unsuspecting listener, when confronted with any one of the songs here, would immediately cry out: “Puccini!” While the writing of songs must always have been a by-product of his main work, it is remarkable that they date from so much of his creative life. The two oldest are from 1875, when Puccini was in his 17th year; the last is a pompous proto-fascist song which hymns Rome and Victory and which dates from 1919. Of the songs presented 17 are solos, the remaining two are soprano-mezzo duets. Here modern technology allows the soprano to sing both parts.

Krassimira Stoyanova is a Bulgarian soprano, who has sung in many of the world’s leading opera houses. Her repertoire includes Dvořák’s Rusalka as well as the Marschallin in Strauss’ Rosenkavalier and the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos, but the centre of that repertoire is clearly the music of Verdi (and definitely not Puccini). On this recording her voice comes across as full and warm. She does justice to the demands of these songs. Even if Puccini’s songs can never be seen as holding the centre of his work, it would be a pity to be without this recording. Many of the songs are attractive. They would often lead Puccini to further explorations in his operas as the essay in the booklet suggests and documents.

05 Buxton OrrBuxton Orr – Songs
Nicky Spence; Iain Burnside; Jordan Black; Edinburgh Quartet; Nikita Naumov
Delphian DCD34175

The works of the Scottish composer Buxton Orr (1924-1997) were not previously known to me. That is clearly my loss as the songs on this recording are attractive and show an interesting range. The disc opens with a lush setting of a lush poem by James Elroy Flecker. It then progresses to settings of early Scottish poems by Blind Harry, Dunbar, King James I, Robert Burns and John Skinner before turning to the comic worlds of Edward Lear and the Cornish poet Charles Causley. The record then ends with a group of six songs, Songs of a Childhood, again set to Scottish texts. There is an informative essay in the accompanying booklet (by Gary Higginson) but the reference to Burns is misleading. Higginson writes that the words of Tibby Fowler were collected by Burns but it is the tune that is traditional and Burns wrote the words himself (though they may incorporate some traditional elements).

These are all tenor songs and the singer, Nicky Spence, has an attractive lyric voice. He is also sensitive to the different demands of the various songs. There are small accompanying ensembles; the pianist (Iain Burnside) and the clarinetist (Jordan Black) are especially good.

06 Michele LosierTemps Nouveau
Michèle Losier; Olivier Godin
ATMA ACD2 2720

Review

Recognizing the versatility and musical quality of French poetry – and inspired by the German Lied – French composers of the 19th and 20th century made the lodie immensely popular. The rich and resonant qualities of Michèle Losier’s voice along with the impeccable technique of pianist Olivier Godin suit this repertoire beautifully. The mezzo-soprano’s “deep affection for the works of Massenet, Gounod and Bizet” is clearly evident in her mature and evocative delivery. Deep emotion tempered by tenderness and sensitivity is brilliantly executed in Massenet’s Dors, ami and Élégie.

Remarkable in French art song is the manner in which composers treat the flow and contour of the language, freeing themselves from the strophic and emphasizing subtleties of phrasing and rhythmic patterns that only a native French speaker like Losier can master. And, with experience performing Mercedes in Carmen, she implicitly understands the dramatic qualities of Bizet’s Absence and the playful humour of his La Coccinelle. In the title track by Saint-Saëns, Temps Nouveau, the New Brunswick-born singer conveys her absolute delight in nature and its ever-changing seasons. The interpretations are both warm and highly intelligent.

07 Aida GarifullinaAida Garifullina
Aida Garifullina; ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; Cornelius Meister
Decca 478 8305

Review

Perhaps it is the wind from the steppes of the Russian Federation that keeps blowing in soprano after soprano, the likes of Anna Netrebko, Olga Peretyatko, Ekaterina Siurina… and now this young spinto from the Tatar republic, Aida Garifullina, Decca’s newest star, a favourite of Valery Gergiev and Placido Domingo whose Operalia Competition she won in 2013.

 Already a darling of TV audiences in Europe: at the Bastille Day big open air concert in Paris, partnered by Juan Diego Florez, with the great Gatti conducting; her sensational appearance as Queen of the Vienna Opera Ball singing her signature tune Ah! Je veux vivre was a sight to behold! No wonder the Mariinsky Theatre and the Vienna State Opera snapped her up pretty quickly for some lead roles.

This debut disc shows off her stunning voice in predominantly opera, her main interest, of French and Russian composers – Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff – in opera and Lieder repertoire plus, as a tribute to her Tatar ancestry, some native songs. Fearlessly she tackles the formidably difficult Bell Song from Lakmé right at the beginning with spectacular coloratura acrobatics mingled with a wistful oriental charm supported beautifully by the lush orchestration. Oriental flavour continues with Song of India sung with rapt sensuous enchantment and I was very pleased by the surprising inclusion of the gorgeous but rarely heard Seduction Aria from Le Coq d’Or, a recently acquired favourite of mine.

Suitably conducted with great panache by Staatsoper conductor Cornelius Meister and beautifully recorded in Vienna, one could say with the song This could be the start of something…great.

08 Mercadante FrancescaSaverio Mercadante – Francesca da Rimini (Pier Luigi Pizzi, direction; Gheorghe Iancu, choreography)
Soloists; Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; Fabio Luisi
Dynamic 37753

Saverio Mercadante composed some 60 operas, but unlike his contemporaries Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, he’s completely unrepresented in today’s active repertoire. Francesca da Rimini wasn’t even performed until this world-premiere production at the 2016 Valle d’Itria Festival.

The ill-fated 13th-century adulterous lovers, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, have been depicted in Dante’s Inferno and many operas, notably by Zandonai and Rachmaninoff. Historically, Lanciotto Malatesta killed his wife and brother upon discovering them in flagrante. In Mercadante’s version, Lanciotto instead sentences them to death. Francesca’s father, Guido, rescues them but when Lanciotto tracks them down, they commit suicide.

There’s some lovely music here, particularly Francesca’s Act One aria recalling past pleasures, and her love duet with Paolo, both episodes enhanced by prominent harp arpeggios. Soprano Leonor Bonilla (Francesca), mezzo Aya Wazikono (Paolo) and tenor Merto Süngü (Lanciotto) are dramatically convincing while negotiating the score’s coloratura demands. Bass Antonio Di Matteo adds forceful stature as Guido.

A grey architectural backdrop serves as a wall of the palace, the dungeon and the convent where the lovers die. Wind-blown, flowing robes, gowns and curtains create incessant stage movement. Conductor Luisi keeps the music moving as well, but Francesca still takes over three hours to unfold. What the booklet notes call “Mercadante’s propensity to a slower theatrical pace” likely contributed to posterity’s neglect of his operas. There’s enough good music, though, to make Francesca worth watching and pique curiosity about Mercadante’s many other forgotten works.

09 Rigletto Traviata ToscaAndrea Andermann presents 3 Live Films: Rigoletto in Mantua; La Traviata in Paris; Tosca in Rome
Various Artists; Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale RAI; Zubin Mehta
Rada Film Production 2.110374-77

Firstly a large marquee credit must go to Andrea Andermann who produced these three made-for-television films of Verdi’s Rigoletto and La Traviata, and Puccini’s Tosca. Dreaming big with an uncompromising attention to detail Andermann brought together the finest production team, found classic locales and a stellar cast featuring Placido Domingo, Julia Novikova, Eteri Gvazava, Catherine Malfitano, and of course, the great Zubin Mehta to conduct and a legend, Vittorio Storaro to film it all. Still, one must also confess to wondering how on earth the producer, and directors Marco Bellocchio (Rigoletto) and G.P. Griffi (Traviata and Tosca) were going to make the grandeur of design and scale work for the small screen. More than anything the solution came in the form and miracle of Storaro for it is the cinematographer who made the grandeur of locations look equally grand for television – and therefore DVD as well. His use of lighting to bring lifelike proportion to characters on screen was no less extraordinary as was his ability to make long shots and big close-ups leap out at you.

You absolutely cannot go wrong with perfect scores and librettos in the hands of Mehta, who brought all of this to life aided and abetted by superb (film) direction, casting and the creation of atmosphere so transcendent that it felt as if you had been teleported to the Italy of a time long gone by. And then there was the conjuring of Verdi in the Mantua of Rigoletto, and the Paris of the real Marie Duplessis, the fallen woman Violetta Valery of La Traviata.

In both cases the intense melodrama of Verdi’s works becomes the very epitome of the word “operatic” as he addresses themes of love, betrayal, violence, power and death. Above all there is his genius for matching unforgettable melodies to moments of high drama that sustains his name even today. Of course there seems no one better suited than Domingo to play Rigoletto despite having to sing well below his preferred tenor range, for Verdi cast his principal character here as a baritone. Domingo pulls it off with aplomb. Still he is almost completely upstaged by the pristine soprano of Novikova. A more perfect Gilda there will not be in this lifetime nor is there likely to be a La donna è mobile as devastatingly wonderful as Vittorio Grigolo’s Duke of Mantua.

The music of La Traviata cannot be faulted although it flopped at its Venice premiere on March 6, 1853. And yet the opera – based on the life of Marie Duplessis, written by Alexander Dumas fils in La Dame aux Camélias (1852), grew to become one of the world’s favourite operas. Griffi’s film is just as lyrical and dramatic as the arias, including opera’s most famous brindisi, Libiamo ne’ lieti calici, sung here by José Cura (Alfredo Germont), Violetta’s lover. The extended duet between Violetta and Giorgio Germont and Violetta’s swooning last testament are perfectly nailed by Rolando Panerai and Eteri Gvazava.

Another casting coup appears in the form of Catherine Malfitano who plays the lead in Puccini’s memorable opera and appears to be as inspirational to Griffi in the role of Tosca as Sarah Bernhardt was said to have been for Puccini himself. Her fiery temperament that powers Act II as Tosca confronts Il Barone Scarpia (Ruggero Raimondi) as each uses sex as a weapon until Scarpia dies at her feet is the high point of the opera. Keeping pace with the action, Puccini’s orchestration is at its stormiest forever after as passion is substituted for poetry.

10 Wagner LiebesverbotWagner – Das Liebesverbot
Soloists; Chorus & Orchestra of the Teatro Real; Ivor Bolton
Opus Arte OA 1191 D

Finding a decent position as Kapellmeister with a provincial opera house, 20-year-old Wagner took Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure as a source to write an opera, his second, where a tyrant tried to reform society by banning all fun and lovemaking, but ended up made a fool by a clever, beautiful woman. Das Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love) did get performed in Magdeburg and predictably failed disastrously and was buried for some 150 years, but now rediscovered comes to us from Spain’s Teatro Real, Madrid, in this immensely entertaining, creative and gorgeously colourful show you’ll love. Failure aside, the action is quick-moving, full of surprises and humour, the music full of Italian charm and melody, lively rhythms and all very un-Wagner. We with 20/20 hindsight will be amazed at the young fellow’s uncanny feel for theatre, his writing for voices and ensembles, his orchestrating skill and occasional outcroppings of genius.

Brilliantly directed by Kaspar Holten with an ingenious multilevel set lit with neon lights, stairs, hidden corridors and cavernous spaces that can become a noisy bar in one moment and a nunnery or a prison the next, a young, wholesome, talented cast propelled by conductor Ivor Bolton who, like an energized bunny, moves the whole rip-roaring show like a steamroller. I am gratified by seeing leading lady Manuela Uhl again with her gorgeous and powerful high soprano towering above the cast, but Christopher Maltman as Friedrich the hypocritical tyrant, principal baritone (Cardiff’s Singer of the Year), is a worthy foil. Even the lesser roles are all excellent: Peter Lodahl, Ilker Arcayürek – two strong and sensitive tenors who end up winning the girls – plus the hilarious police constable Ante Jerkunica pining after the luscious subretta Maria Hinojosa.

11a Vaughan WilliamsVaughan Williams – Riders to the Sea; Holst – At the Boar’s Head
Soloists; Warsaw Chamber Opera Sinfonietta; Lukasz Borowicz
Dux DUX 1307-1308

This fine CD set is an innovative collaboration between Warsaw’s 2016 Easter Ludwig van Beethoven Festival and the Yale Opera Program directed by Doris Yarick-Cross. Riders to the Sea is convincing and gets even better towards the end. The libretto is an abridgement of the celebrated play (1903) by John Millington Synge who, staying in the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, saw a body wash up on shore. Synge was well-versed in local speech and customs and knew the threat of tremendous storms to fishermen. Vaughan Williams’ chamber opera reflects the story’s pathos and resignation in melancholy, restless parallel chords underpinning the idiomatic rhythm and line of the singers’ dramatic recitative. Compared to the play though, folklore and overall Irishness are much reduced with no Celtic music or Irish accents; the music is early modernist with considerable dissonance. The orchestra is less than classical-sized, but directed by Łucasz Borowicz, the Warsaw Chamber Opera Sinfonietta strings are precise and full-bodied. Woodwinds provide evocative solos and added ocean-wave sounds are effective.

Maurya is the mother of five sons lost to the sea. The tragedy becomes unbearable when Kathleen Reveille sings eloquently of the sixth and last, “Bartley will be lost now,” in her rich, haunting mezzo-soprano backed by the wailing women’s chorus. Soprano Nicole Percifield and mezzo-soprano Evanna Chiew as her daughters, and baritone Gary Griffiths as doomed Bartley, emerge as distinct personalities with clear diction and emotional depth.

11b HolstGustav Holst’s At the Boar’s Head (1924; the Boar’s Head is a pub) arose from the idea of fitting scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV involving the character Sir John Falstaff to English folk-song tunes. To appreciate this one-act comic opera, with material familiar to English audiences then but less so to us now, one must read the libretto beforehand and check out Elizabethan English vocabulary (sometimes bawdy or sexist). Fortunately, Shakespeare’s dialogue and rhetoric are outstanding and with coaching by Yarick-Cross, this cast’s projection and tone are impeccable. As the opera progresses events become more and more tangled as does the music, for example when Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet sing a ballad while young Prince Hal (the future Henry V) delivers an aria with the text of Shakespeare’s sonnet “Devouring time, blunt thou the lion’s paws.” Excitement mounts as Falstaff’s enemies start to appear; I won’t reveal the ending.

Bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu is spirited and sounds wonderful as Falstaff. Tenor Eric Barry is smooth and pure-voiced as Prince Hal, especially in the sonnets which also include When I do count the clock that tells the time. I would have liked to hear more of Hal’s nasty side in his singing. As in the Vaughan Williams, Nicole Percifield as Doll and Kathleen Reveille as the Hostess are convincing dramatically and musically. With roles for bass Pawel Kołodziej and three baritones the production becomes a feast of low male voices, recommended for those interested in Shakespeare and English song.

12 Bernard RandsBernard Rands – Vincent
Soloists; Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus; Arthur Fagen
Naxos 8.669037-38

Not every artist’s life can be called operatic. Yet the life of Vincent van Gogh certainly fits the bill. Born into a family dominated by an Old-Testament-God-like father, Theodorus, a preacher, Vincent was destined to fail at everything he tried.

He fails as an art gallery director in Paris. His feverish religiosity first garners him a position as a rural preacher, only to have that zeal undermine the position. His attempts at relationships are pathetic: he tries to marry and “save” a prostitute, only to have his noble intentions rejected. His friendship with Gauguin collapses, leads to (or according to some scholars, not at all) the famous ear-cutting episode. The only constant in van Gogh’s life is the love and support of his younger brother Theo, the source of money, paints and canvasses. Alas, progressive epilepsy and beginnings of mental illness (perhaps with a touch of lead poisoning) defeat Vincent. The final irony is of course the sale of his first paining shortly after his death and then posthumous fame.

This is an epic life, condensed here into two acts of beautifully representative music. The only flaw is the lack of an overture. This element, so brilliantly deployed not so long ago by Bernstein in Candide, is increasingly eschewed by contemporary composers, here to a fine work’s detriment.

13 Romberg Student PrinceSigmund Romberg – The Student Prince
Petersen; Wortig; Blees; Ezenarro; WDR Radio Choir and Orchestra; John Mauceri
CPO 555 058-2

I presume that those of us who enjoy operetta, and others, are familiar with the many deservedly popular songs from The Student Prince, if only from the movie version featuring the singing voice of Mario Lanza shown again recently on TCM. Sigmund Romberg was born in Hungary, studied in Vienna, emigrated to the USA in 1909 and in 1914 became a US citizen. The Student Prince with lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly opened on Broadway in December of 1924 and ran for an astonishing 608 performances, a record number that stood through the 1920s and 1930s. It even outpaced Jerome Kern’s Show Boat that played for 572 performances. The many memorable songs include the Serenade (Overhead the Moon Is Beaming), Deep in My Heart, Golden Days and, of course, the rousing Drinking Song.

The cast of classically trained singers under John Mauceri, who is at home in all genres of music from symphony hall to Broadway, are well-chosen for their roles. There are nine soloists, the leading roles sung and spoken by Dominik Wortig as Karl-Franz, Anja Petersen as Kathie, Frank Blees as Dr. Engel, Arantza Ezenarro as Gretchen and Vincent Schirrmacher as Graf Hugo-Detlef. This winning, naturally balanced recording of the complete score includes some dialogue and the entr’acte music and opening ballet for Act Three.

01 Phoenix Ensemble clarinetChamber Works of Henri Marteau & Alexander Zemlinsky
Mark Lieb; Phoenix Ensemble
Navona Records NV6076

Admiration for excellence of execution blends poorly with even mild disappointment in the material presented. Still, one must applaud the playing on this new release on the Navona label. In it, the Phoenix Ensemble presents chamber works of Henri Marteau, a little-known French composer, and Alexander Zemlinsky, a well-known Viennese one. The playing is clean and true, articulations are matched scrupulously, intonation is carefully maintained, all in service of pleasant if somewhat banal material.

Zemlinsky’s Trio in D Minor Op.3, for clarinet, cello and piano, is almost a retelling of his mentor Brahms’ late chamber work (Op.114) for the same grouping. Zemlinsky became, with Arnold Schoenberg, a major influence on European modern music, but in this piece we hear the emergent student demonstrating his ease with an idiom already becoming dated when it was published (with help from J.B., who recommended it to Simrock, the elder’s publisher). Full of wild passionate gestures and chromatically lush harmonies, the trio is high art conceived by a relative tyro, celebrating the grandness of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Mark Lieb on clarinet, Alice Yoo on cello and pianist Wayne Weng match one another flawlessly in service of this charming work.

Henri Marteau’s Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet Op.13 opens with a kind of call and response between solo clarinet and ensemble, leading through a saccharine Andante into an aimless Moderato. And on and on. Marteau seemed to possess the means to say a great deal, yet have only platitudes to speak. I wondered if I was missing a cryptically concealed form, but my attention kept reverting to the question: what is going on here? The remainder of the disc is a woodwind Serenade by Marteau. Listen for anything beyond diverting and deft bits of fun if you will. I stand in admiration of any chamber group that puts flutes beside clarinets and makes it work.

Back to top