Monday, August 25, 2014

Mariann Shirinyan Takes Over Mozart Series

Mozart: Piano Concertos Volume 4
Concertos Nos. 12 and 23
Marianna Shirinyan, piano
Odense Symphony Orchestra
Scott Yoo, conductor
Bridge Records

Although this is the fourth volume of Bridge Records' survey of the Mozart piano concertos, it's actually the first to feature pianist Mariann Shirinyan. She replaces the previous soloist (who has since left the label) to continue the series with Scott Yoo and the Odense Symphony Orchestra.

Not to worry, though. Shirinyan is more than capable of continuing the series. She performs with a light touch, and subtle phrasing that sometimes is only apparent after repeated listening. The liner notes suggest that Shirinyan wrote her own cadenzas. Whether she did or not, Shirinyan seem to take the opportunity to delve deeper into the music rather than dazzle with fireworks, making them sound like organic parts of the movement, rather than the showstoppers they can sometimes become.

All in all, a pleasurable listening experience from start to finish. I look forward to volume five!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Gilbert Kalish Performs Old Favorites

Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert
Gilbert Kalish, piano
Bridge Records

In this recording, Gilbert Kalish presents an appealing program of works he knows well. The opening and closing works are the final piano sonatas of their respective composers -- Haydn and Schubert, with a selection of short works by Beethoven in the middle.

Haydn's Sonata No. 62 in E-flat (Hob.XVI:52)  was composed for a gifted performer, and is one of Haydn's more complex piano works. Nonetheless, Kalish keeps things light and elegant. His well-rounded phrasing and subtle emphasis captures Haydn's reserved elegance perfectly.

Kalish also plays Franz Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat, D. 960 in a slightly reserved fashion -- but it works. Rather than overwhelming the listener with emotion, Kalish's performance reveals the beautiful construction of the work. One hears the intricate patterns and lines of the sonata, rather than a furious rush of notes.

The Bagatelles, Op. 119 of Beethoven balance nicely with the two sonatas. These are short, relatively simple works (by Beethoven standards). Each bagatelle is lovingly performed by Kalish, turned into miniature gems by his musicianship.

Kalish plays with the fluid assurance that comes from a lifetime of music-making. He isn't trying to prove anything, or even assert his personality. He just plays, and it sounds like he's enjoying every moment. As did I.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Early Vaughan Williams Chamber Works

Vaughan Williams: Piano Quintet; Quintet in D major; Six Studies in English folk Song; Romance for Viola and Piano
London Soloists Ensemble

Ralph Vaughan Williams withdrew many of the works he wrote before 1907. Based on this release, he was too modest. In this collection of early chamber music performed by the London Soloists Ensemble, one can tell RVW's compositional voice isn't fully formed, but there's a simple beauty in them, nevertheless.

The disc opens with the 1903 piano quintet in C minor. Although RVW would withdraw it a few years later, at the time he considered it one of his most important compositions.

There's a dramatic sweep and expansiveness that keeps things moving along. Sometimes it sounds as if Vaughan Williams is trying a little too hard to top Brahms (or perhaps Schubert -- the works shares the same instrumentation as the "Trout" quintet). On the whole, though, it's a solid work, looking forward to RVW's pre-war masterpieces.

The 1898 Quintet in D major for violin, cello clarinet, horn and piano is a thrilling, late romantic work. RVW employs a free-wheeling style, letting the evocative melodies unfold as they will. But while the work may follow Germanic romantic tradition, there's still a certain Englishness to the music. I heard it in the harmonic progressions that sometimes employ the false relationships of English renaissance music.

It was only after his death that RVW's "Romance for Viola and Piano was discovered. This short work features a sinuously weaving melody sounds like it could have been an early sketch for "The Lark Ascending" (although it wasn't). Violist Sarah-Jane Bradley gives an emotional reading to this welcome rediscovery.

"Six Studies in English Folk Song" (1926) has seen many incarnations. Originally written for cello and piano, Vaughan Williams arranged it for other instruments, including the clarinet version heard here. Anthony Pike players these small tunes in a quiet, straight-forward fashion in an utterly charming performance.

Of course this is a must-have for Vaughan Williams completists. But these (mostly) suppressed works are of sufficient quality that most anyone who enjoys chamber music would appreciate the music on this album.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Quiet contemplation on loss and war

Weinberg: Symphony No. 18; Trumpet Concerto
Andrew Balio, trumpet
St. Petersburg Chamber Choir
St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Lande, conductor

Mieczyslaw Weinberg's 18th symphony is the final part of a symphonic trilogy, "On the Threshold of War." Symphony No. 18, subtitled "War -- there is no word more cruel" isn't so much an anti-war statement as it is an honest portrayal of the emotional depletion felt by the survivors of conflict -- even if their victors. Overall, the work is quiet, expressing deeply-felt sorrow and loss; elegiac rather than maudlin.

Mieczyslaw's symphony uses Russian poetry quite effectively. "He was buried in the Earth," the text of the third movement is set as a simple chorale, very Russian in character -- appropriate for this poem about the death of a common foot soldier. The third movement adapts a Russian folksong that carries an undertone of disquiet before splintering into  a kaleidoscopic fugue. In the final movement, the chorus sings the poem "War -- there is no word more cruel," and the work ends with not a bang, nor whimper, but rather a calm acceptance of war's cost.

The Trumpet Concerto provides welcome emotional balance to the album. To my ears, the work uses some of Prokofiev's "wrong-note" technique, with seemingly simple melodies and harmonies not going quite the direction one expects. Trumpet soloist Andrew Balio plays with clear, full sound. Attacks are consistently clean, and the phrasing smooth and expressive. This concerto imbues the trumpet with a little bit of attitude, and Balio delivers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

This week's Vivace: Melody and Enchantment

One of the least-known 19th Century British composers must be Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen (right), who was born Hyman Cohen in Kingston, Jamaica.  We'll hear a symphony by him during the first hour of Vivace this Friday.

At 7 am, we have a delightful trio for guitar by Francois de Fossa, whose music was heard recently on Melodiya.  At 7:30, we have a Violin Sonata by Franz Xaver Mozart and then some tranquil music to keep you calm in a busy morning.

After 8 am, we have a harp sonata by Rosetti and then we head over to France.

We will have a birthday celebration for Cecile Chaminade and then we stay in France for music of François-Adrien Boieldieu. 

Cécile Chaminade and François-Adrien Boieldieu

We'll end by heading south to Spain for a delightful work by Joaquín Rodrigo, the 1st Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez. 

The focus is on melody and enchantment this week on Vivace.  As ever, I hope you'll join me, 6-9 am, here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Pleyel Quartett Köln continue Pleyel's Prussian Quartet cycle

Ignaz Pleyel
Prussian Quartets 1-3
Pleyel Quartett Köln

When Frederick William II became King of Prussia in 1786, many German composers paid the cello-playing monarch tribute with dedicated compositions. One of the first gifts to arrive was a set of twelve quartets by Ignaz Pleyel. With this release, the Pleyel Quartett Köln continues their traversal of the "Prussian" quartets.

Although similar in style to his contemporaries Haydn and Mozart, in comparison Pleyel's quartets seem to have a stripped-down simplicity. The melodies have an elegant balance to them, moving in a logical fashion from cadence to cadence. Pleyel might not be breaking new ground with these works, but there's enough originality to make them worthy of repeated listening.

The Pleyel Quartett Köln continues the same high quality of performance they established with the previous releases in this series. Their period instruments give the works a somewhat soft sound, especially on the unison attacks. The players nicely balance classical reserve with expressive energy, which I think adds to the attractiveness of the works. My only complaint is that the ensemble seems to be recorded a little too distantly (with no room ambiance to compensate).

CPO began this series with quartets Nos. 7-9, then released Nos. 4-6. Perhaps Nos. 10-12 will follow shortly. I, for one, am looking forward to the completion of Pleyel's attractive coronation gift.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Di Vittorio masterfully inteprets Respighi

Respighi: The Birds; Trittico botticelliano
Chamber Orchestra of New York
Salvatore di Vittorio, conductor

Ottorino Respighi is known for his brilliant orchestrations -- but for most listeners, that knowledge is based on his Roman trilogy of tone poems. Salvatore Di Vittorio and the Chamber Orchestra of New York dig a little deeper into the composer's catalog. Their discoveries reaffirm Respighi's reputation, while providing an enjoyable listening experience.

The Suite in G for strings and organ is an early work, yet Respighi's genius for orchestration is already in place. This would be an excellent companion piece to Saint-Saën's Third Symphony, although Respighi's neo-classical work might sound a little understated in comparison.

The Seranta is a short, simple work that still manages to dazzle with its imaginative orchestration over the course of its five-minute playing time.

Gli uccelli (The Birds), like Respighi's more famous tone poems, show the composer's skill at painting with music. Respighi incorporates bird calls into the music, but in this performance their recognizable, but not overdone. Rather, the calls were fully integrated into the music presenting impressions -- rather than literal interpretations of -- the birds depicted in each movement.

The Trittico botticelliano is (in my opinion) the strongest work on the album. Maestro di Vittorio and his ensemble deliver a spirited performance of "Spring," the first movement. "The Adoration of the Magi," the middle movement is played with sensitivity and delicacy, and the finale, "The Birth of Venus" fairly shimmers in places.

The chamber orchestra is a group of young players, and sometimes that shows. Sometimes the strings lacked precision in more active passages, and there seemed to my ears to be some slight intonation problems in the Seranata. Still, they play with a very rich and warm sound, which is especially gorgeous in the slow movements. Performing these works with a chamber -- rather than full -- orchestra gives the music a feeling of transparency. It was a sound that seemed perfectly suited to these works.