Pity the poor composer who needs must provide music meant to be ignored! Such is the case for Biber’s collection of genteel pieces for dining, the six suites for strings entitled Mensa Sonora (Sonorous Table) served up in 1680 for the gustatory delectation of his then employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg. Not initially expecting anything special, I was pleasantly surprised at the cunning of Biber’s art. He manages by dint of the off-kilter asymmetries of his melodic craft to project a sub-text of sophistication completely over the head of his patron. Biber marvellously subverts the conventions of the genre, concluding the whole enterprise with a disjointed denouement worthy of Haydn. He proves himself a visionary as well with the celebrated, outlandish Battalia in 10 parts of 1673 in which one finds innovations not to be exploited again until centuries later: the snap-pizzicato of Bartok; playing with the wood of the bow à la Berlioz; and, in the loopy inebriation of a scene depicting drunken soldiers, the polytonality and collage technique of Charles Ives. As director and concertmaster Gerry Clarke mentions in his liner notes, Biber (1644-1704), the Bohemian-Austrian violin virtuoso and composer, was regarded by Paul Hindemith to be “the most important Baroque composer before Bach”, yet it is only in recent decades that his music has seen a significant revival. The Chicago-based Baroque Band, formed in 2007, plays this music to perfection with a highly effective blend of subtlety and precision. Truly delicious!
Early, Classical and Beyond
The viola d’amore was demanding. It has the complication of resonating strings, is crafted as if it were a viol but is played like a violin, and is the size of the already-existing viola. And yet it survived throughout the Baroque and has even inspired modern composers.
Hélène Plouffe’s selection shows how sensuous this instrument is, notably in von Biber’s Partia VII, with its soothing praeludium, allamande and aria. The skill it requires is demonstrated in the concluding arietta variata.
If the viola d’amore is rare in North America, try finding a bass chalumeau - the link between recorder and clarinet. Hélène Plouffe did so and Graupner’s Trio in F major is the result, the allegro and vivace above all expressing both instruments’ qualities.
Bach’s St. John Passion allows us to see the viola d’amore supporting the human voice but those wishing to hear the instrument at its plainest will enjoy Ah que l’amour, an extract from Milandre’s Méthode facile pour la viole d’amour. This exercise proves that the instrument does indeed have an individual sound.
And so to Petzold’s Partita in F major, a collection of early baroque dances. As with the Milandre piece, the music for solo viola d’amore played here best shows off what the instrument can bring to its audience, particularly with Hélène Plouffe’s interpretations.
Although resident in Quebec since 1993, Paris-born Patrice Lare studied in Moscow for 8 years, and is steeped in the Russian piano school tradition. His playing provides a massive foundation for the Complete Rachmaninov Piano Trios (XXI-CD 2 1700) with his wife, cellist Velitchka Yotcheva (also Moscow-trained), and Canadian violinist Jean-Sebastien Roy. Rachmaninov’s Trios Elegiaques are both early works in his Romantic, post-Tchaikovsky mold. No.1 is a single-movement trio in G minor from 1892, and No.2 a three-movement work in D minor, written after the death of Tchaikovsky in late 1893 and dedicated “To the Memory of a Great Artist”. This is big but always sensitive playing, perfectly attuned to the style and nature of the music. Recorded at the Radio-Canada studios in Montreal, the sound quality matches the tremendous performances.
I’ve sometimes wondered if the technical heights reached by Lang Lang are always matched by the depths of his interpretations, but he certainly does his artistic reputation no harm with his first chamber music CD, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov Piano Trios with Vadim Repin and Mischa Maisky. Presumably this is his final major release from Deutsche Grammophon (477 8099), following his $3 million signing with Sony; if so, it’s a fascinating farewell, suggesting chamber music as a new field with huge potential for him. The Rachmaninov trio is the G minor, and both here and in the Tchaikovsky A minor trio Lang Lang really seems to avoid “showy” playing, getting to the heart of the music and clearly sharing the interpretative view of his Russian colleagues. Again, the standard of the recording matches that of the two outstanding performances.
At first sight, there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the works on the latest CD from faculty members at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music (XXI-CD 2 1699), but they are in fact closely related. Jonathan Crow (violin), John Zirbel (horn) and Sara Laimon (piano) open with a beautifully warm reading of the Brahms E flat Horn Trio. This was the first work written for this instrumental combination, and was inspired by the death of the composer’s mother. Brahms chose to use not the newly-developed valve horn but the natural waldhorn, with its sentimental ties to his family and his youth in Hamburg. It was, in turn, a request from a Hamburg pianist for a horn trio to be played along with the Brahms that led György Ligeti to write his own Horn Trio in 1982; moreover, Ligeti had also lost his own mother earlier that year. Sub-titled “Hommage à Brahms”, it is a demanding, complex and multi-layered work in the same four-movement form. Again, the performance is exemplary. Brahms’ mentor Schumann wrote his Adagio & Allegro for horn and piano in 3 days in February 1849; the first substantial solo work to fully explore the potential of the new valve horn, it is still a demanding piece, and Zirbel and Laimon are terrific. Recorded at the acoustically-excellent Schulich School, the sound quality is outstanding.
Stravinsky - Pulcinella; Symphony in Three Movements
Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Pierre Boulez
CSO RESOUND CSOR 901 920
At the ripe old age of 85 Pierre Boulez remains as fit as a fiddle and twice as stringy. This recording from the Chicago Symphony’s own Resound label captures a concert from February 2009 featuring Boulez, currently celebrating his 15th season as CSO principal guest conductor, in fine form in familiar works by Stravinsky with an exceptionally attentive and virtuosic Chicago Symphony. The largest work here is the complete ballet score of Pulcinella, Stravinsky’s strategic retreat into neo-classicism from 1920. The work for small orchestra includes vocal contributions from a trio of fresh-faced singers, mezzo Roxana Constaninescu, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, with Phan making the lasting impression. I am happy to see that the texts and multiple translations have been provided.
Though this is certainly not Boulez’s preferred period of Stravinsky’s oeuvre, he provides a genial performance nonetheless, though rather insouciant compared to the composer’s own account of it. It is bested by a magnificent performance of the Symphony in Three Movements of 1945, which revives the old spark of Stravinsky’s early rhythmic drive, and the enigmatic Four Études from 1914. The notably desiccated acoustic of Chicago’s Symphony Hall complements both the laser-like precision for which Boulez is celebrated and the dry champagne that is Stravinsky’s music.
Tchaikovsky - Rococo Variations; Prokofiev - Sinfonia Concertante
Gautier Capuçon; Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre; Valery Gergiev
Virgin Classics 9 694486 0
This excellent CD is a live recording of a Christmas Eve 2008 concert at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg.
Gautier Capuçon is an outstanding player, although I feel he tends to favour detail over the bigger phrase at times. Such an approach is fine in the Rococo Variations, where the virtuosic demands outnumber the emotional, and Capuçon handles them with ease and style.
The Prokofiev is clearly another matter, but Capuçon rises to the challenge. Dating from the early 1950s, when Prokofiev was still under censure for his “antidemocratic tendencies”, the Sinfonia concertante is a reworking of his Op.58 Cello Concerto from the late 1930s, and marked a return to his true style. Even so, Prokofiev was wise enough to supply an alternative – and more orthodox! – version of the finale for the premiere. Gautier has apparently loved this fascinating work since his childhood days, and it shows in his convincing and nuanced performance, full of the “calm power and serene strength” that he rightly says the cellist needs.
The orchestral support from superstar conductor Gergiev and the OMT is, not surprisingly, of the highest order. The recording ambience is warm and natural, with no hint of audience noise. The booklet notes are excellent, and are particularly illuminating on the publishing history of the Tchaikovsky.
I may still a bit reluctant to fully jump on the Capuçon bandwagon, but this CD certainly has me now hanging on to the tailgate!
Mahler - Symphony No.7
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich; David Zinman
RCA Red Seal 88697 50650 2
Integral sets of Mahler symphonies have run amok as the double whammy of the composer’s sesqui-and-centennial anniversaries approach (born 1860, died 1911). Among the finest of these is the ongoing series, released in chronological order, by David Zinman and the Swiss Tonhalle Orchestra.
The Seventh Symphony has long been regarded as the problem child of the set, a true test of a conductor’s insight due to its multi-faceted interpretive challenges. It is, relatively speaking, an uncharacteristically optimistic work and one which hints at advances in Mahler’s harmonic thinking to which he would return in his uncompleted Tenth Symphony. Critics of the past regarded the composer’s appropriation of a sunny disposition in this work forced and disingenuous. Influential curmudgeon T.W. Adorno declared the work a complete failure, dismissing Mahler as “a poor yea-sayer”, while Mahler’s acolyte Bruno Walter avoided this work throughout his career. Today Mahler’s puzzling ambiguities have captured the imagination of our own era to such an extent that he now rivals Beethoven in his universal appeal. Zinman approaches his task with characteristic thoroughness and a scrupulous adherence to Mahler’s exacting performance directions. His admirable control of orchestral balances is well captured by RCA’s production team. Though Zinman’s performance of the three central movements of this vast, symmetrical five-part structure are beyond reproach, the convulsions of the weighty first movement are less well defined and the rollicking finale, though certainly festive, falls short of the triumphant atmosphere established by Bernstein and Abbado in their multiple recordings of this work. Despite the rather undernourished sound produced by the Zurich string section and Zinman’s micromanagement of events hindering the spontaneity demanded by Mahler’s more operatic moments, this is nonetheless a major recording which I heartily recommend.
Piano Music of Edward Grieg, Volume 2
Independent CHM 0901120 (www.sandramogensen.com)
Edvard Grieg was not an especially complicated composer – yet, ironically, his style offers something of a challenge for performers. On one hand, a pianist should respect the heart-on-sleeve emotionalism and down-to-earth directness of Grieg’s ideas. On the other hand, this music demands interpretation: a pianist must do something with it.
And Sandra Mogensen, a Canadian pianist who lives in Stratford, Ontario, does plenty with it. With all of the 23 selections recorded here, there’s a strong sense of mood and dramatic purpose. In her hands, each piece on this clear-sounding disc captures an image or tells a story.
For instance, there’s a Schumannesque flutteriness to Butterfly (Op. 43. No. 1); and a sunny, pleasant disposition to Gade (Op. 57 No. 2) – a musical portrait of Grieg’s teacher Niels Gade. As well At the Cradle (Op. 68 No. 5) is suitably dreamy, and Bell Ringing (Op. 54 No. 6) is dark and mysterious. For Nordic folksiness look to Springdans (Op. 17 No. 1) or Norwegian (Op. 12 No. 6).
Some of these pieces go beyond the expression of a single idea, enfolding contrasting material into single movements. Mogensen’s performance of the famous Solveig’s Song (Op. 52 No. 2) is alternately mournful and sweet. And the enigmatic Vanished Days (Op. 57. No. 1) – the longest piece on the disc – runs the gamut from introspective wistfulness to intense high drama, with some playful passages thrown in for good measure.
For those with a penchant for sterner stuff, some of the pieces recorded here will no doubt seem overly sentimental. Be that as it may, Mogensen pleads Grieg’s case sincerely and well.