November 29, 2008
This month, I will spare readers an entry from my musical diary because I have posted elsewhere my reviews of the two wonderful operas I saw this fall in San Francisco — Boris Godunov and Idomeneo – and a marvelous chamber music concert with the Takacs Quartet here in Washington.
Instead, I will weigh in on the tide of terrific new CD releases so as to keep you up to date on the latest musical treasures. I shall begin by picking up the strands from composers whom I have touched upon previously, more of whose work is now available.
I recently attended a concert at the Washington, D.C. Kennedy Center that featured the chamber works of Mieczyslaw Weinberg — his Piano Quintet and his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. They were performed by the artists of the ARC Ensemble, who recorded them on RCA Red Seal. I have already recommended this recording and was thrilled to hear the group perform live. I think Weinberg’s Piano Quintet rivals Shostakovich’s great piece in that genre.
Several new recordings add to the impression that Weinberg must have been the greatest Polish composer of the 20th century. Chandos has released a CD of four of Weinberg’s concertos. The Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra has a drop-dead gorgeous melody, cloaked with a touching nostalgia. When you listen to it, you will wonder how something this beautiful could only now be receiving a recording. The one possible excuse is the enormous amount of music this man produced — 7 concertos, 26 symphonies (now being recorded by Chandos), 17 string quartets, 19 sonatas, and more than 150 songs, among other works. The two flute concertos on this CD are delightful and sprightly. The Clarinet Concerto was apparently inspired by Carl Nielsen’s music and, to its advantage, sounds like it. These four works are among Weinberg’s most immediately attractive. The soloists and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Thord Svedlund, are given thoroughly realistic, highly transparent recordings.
The CPO label has begun a traversal of Weinberg’s 17 string quartets with the Danel Quartets. The first two volumes are out — with Nos. 4 and 16 and Nos. 7, 11, and 13. This is not easy music: The quartets are Weinberg’s diary of the soul through times of harrowing sorrow and suffering, including the Stalin years in the Soviet Union, through which he lived. There is a great quality of interiority to this music. It constitutes a significant part of Weinberg’s spiritual testament. It can be searing; it can be heartbreaking in its attempts at gaiety with its sad little dances; it is at all times truthful, with beauty never far away. The Danel Quartet delves deeply into this inwardness and captures its intimacy. If you appreciate the Shostakovich quartets, you must try these.
One of Shostakovich’s great predecessors in the chamber music field was Sergey Taneyev (1856-1915). No label has done more for the resuscitation of this master’s music than has Northern Flowers, with its reissues of the recordings of the great performances by the eponymous Taneyev Quartet from the Soviet era, including his incomparable ten string quartets. Now Northern Flowers give us a 2-CD packet containing the "Complete Trios." Three of the trios are for strings, and one for piano, violin, and cello. The members of the Taneyev Quartet had this music in their blood, and the sound from the late 1960s and late 1980s is perfectly fine. There is only one quibble: It is not complete. The issue omits the unfinished Trio from 1913, Taneyev’s last work, which one must go to the MDG Belcanto Strings recording to hear.
Before leaving Russia, I want to bring attention to the mid-price reissue of Neeme Jarvi’s complete set of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies (with both versions of the Fourth), recorded in the mid-1980s with the Scottish National Orchestra by Chandos. I remember favorably reviewing several of these recordings for High Fidelity magazine at that time. I found them riveting then, and I still do. This is extremely exciting music-making in stunning sound. If you are in the market for a Prokofiev set at a very reasonable price, do not hesitate.
We are not too far from Russia with Swiss composer Paul Juon’s chamber music. He was born in Moscow and studied with Taneyev. I celebrated at the discovery of his music, occasioned by the Musiques Suisses label’s recordings. Now it is a trend: CPO had entered the competition with an excellent CD of the Piano Quartets, Op. 50 and Op. 37. These two works would have done Taneyev proud. They are both masterpieces of the genre from the early 20th century — Romantic, melodically compelling, and life-giving. You must get at least one of the available versions.
I have repeatedly praised Naxos for its fidelity to the music of English composer William Alwyn, and I am not going to stop now. Naxos, after issuing a superb set of his five symphonies and then his two piano concertos, now brings us two CDs of his piano music, another of his gorgeous orchestral music, and, perhaps most importantly, his String Quartets Nos. 1-3, with the Maggini Quartet. From an earlier recommended CD of Alwyn’s chamber music, featuring the moving Three Winter Poems for String Quartet, I suspected there were more treasures in this genre from this superb composer, and here they are. This is, at times, very touching music. Try the exquisite delicacy of the adagio in the First Quartet for a sample of the quality. Again, one can only be astounded that music this good has been overlooked for so long. The Maggini Quartet has done a number of English string quartet recordings for Naxos, and they are all first-rate.
With its previous releases of the five symphonies, the four string quartets, and the violin, viola, and cello concertos, I think the CPO label has laid out an irrefutable case that Ahmed Adnan Saygun (1907-1991) was the greatest Turkish composer the 20th century. In fact, he would be a composer of standing in any country, including Hungary. It was from Bela Bartok that Saygun learned some of his most valuable lessons. Now CPO gives us the Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, with the Bilkent Symphony orchestra, under Howard Griffiths, brilliantly played by pianist Gulsin Onay. In them, one hears the influence not only of Bartok but of Stravinsky as well. What a staggering, luxuriant garden of the imagination this man had: Saygun thought on a big scale, and his orchestrations are fantastic. The music is only occasionally harsh, and always fascinating.
More good news: Naxos has released a CD of Saygun’s solo piano music. With Bartok, Saygun went around Turkey collecting its folk music, and that is what one hears here. Folk music and dance forms invest these works with great color and charm, in Zeynep Ucbasaran’s deft performances.
One never knows what wonderful thing the budget Naxos label is going to do next. The latest is the start of a traversal through the 17 string quartets of Australian/New Zealand composer Alfred Hill (1869-1960). Volume 1 has Nos. 1, 2, and 3; Vol. 2 has Nos. 4, 6, and 8, all performed by the excellent Dominion Quartet. Though Hill lived long into the 20th century, his music, at least as heard here, stayed safely in the 19th. At first I thought this was fairly conventional music. But the more I listened, the more the quiet, down-home quality of Hill’s melodies and their development insinuated themselves. I had heard this kind of music before. Then it struck me: The touchstone here is Dvorak. Hill was an Australian Dvorak. Perhaps his music is not on the same consistently inspired level, but listen to the beguiling "The Dream" movement from the Second Quartet for an example of the kind of sustained beauty of which Hill was capable. This enchanted reverie is by itself worth the price of the CD. This music is for pure enjoyment, the kind you want playing when the fire is burning on a cold fall evening.
I cannot leave without telling you of two other chamber music gems. One is a CPO disc with the Quartets Nos. 1 and 3 by the famous conductor Felix Weingartner (1893-1942). CPO has been releasing Weingartner’s symphonies, which suffer from all the weaknesses of late Romanticism — too much feeling and not enough spine. No excuses need be made for the quartets. They are brilliant, moving, tightly argued pieces, as delivered by the Sarastro Quartett. They are real discoveries. The other gem is Franz Krommer’s Divertimento for string trio and his piano quartet, on Phoenix Edition, with the Kontraste Koln. If you care for Haydn, Mozart, balance, refinement, charm, and grace, leap for this deliciously well-performed CD. It is a joy.
Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com. E-mail him at [email protected].