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Highly Reviewed Recordings

May 18 - May 31, 2011

TANSMAN, A.: 24 Intermezzi / Petite Suite (Reyes)
(Naxos: 8.572266 )

TANSMAN, A.: 24 Intermezzi / Petite Suite (Reyes) Alexandre Tansman was a mid-20th century composer who stuck to his own personal composition style -- essentially a neo-classical one -- and remained a generally admired talent during his life even when other composers, including those he respected, such as Stravinsky, turned increasingly to serialism. After his death, however, his reputation faded, and his music is often neglected except for several works for guitar.

On this 2010 album, Eliane Reyes gives listeners a chance to hear his piano miniatures, a form in which he worked his entire career. The bulk of the recording is devoted to his cycle of 24 Intermezzi, set out in four books. The one characteristic that is shared by nearly all the intermezzi is Tansman's use of tonality and harmony, wandering between keys and modes in a way that is very reminiscent of Scriabin's music.

The Intermezzo No. 21, which Tansman reused in a piano sonata, actually also shares other traits with Scriabin's Vers la flamme. Many of the intermezzi are melancholy and/or introspective, played with gracefulness and suppleness by Reyes. There are others that are spikier or, in the instance of No.18, downright aggressive. The way Reyes switches moods so easily between the gentler No. 17 and No. 18 is impressive. Tansman seems also to have had a playful side.

No. 6 is in sharp counterpoint and appropriately finishes with a Bach-ian cadence. The ones marked scherzando or capriccioso are just that: joking or whimsical. The Petite Suite is the earliest set of miniatures Tansman wrote, dating 20 years earlier than the Intermezzi, and like the larger set, each selection represents a single mood, but these are a little more stable in tonality.

The final piece that Reyes presents is the 1940 Valse-Impromptu, something of a miniature cousin to Ravel's La valse. Reyes' skillful presentation of Tansman's music should be well-appreciated, and those who enjoy the piano music of Stravinsky, Scriabin, and Ravel are likely to find something pleasing in these pieces as well.

Patsy Morita,

GOLDMARK, K.: Symphony No. 1, "Rustic Wedding Symphony" / Merlin (Philharmonie Festiva, Schaller)
(Profil: PH10048)

GOLDMARK, K.: Symphony No. 1, We would probably know less than we do of the music of Carl Goldmark if it wasn’t for the continuing popularity on disc of his First Violin Concerto and, even more so, his First Symphony. Composed within two years of each other – with the symphony, dating from 1875, the earlier work – they indicate the high-water mark of the self-taught Hungarian’s achievements. Long hidden within the shadows cast by his illustrious contemporaries Brahms and Mahler (both of whom, along with the eminent critic Eduard Hanslick, admired his music) Goldmark has struggled to gain critical traction in the near century since his death at the age of 84 in 1915. It isn’t difficult to hear why. There’s a deceptive prettiness to the watercolor mellifluousness of the music that risks sounding superficial on first acquaintance, a suspicion that seems compounded by a disappointing lack of complexity beneath. But the fleet fluidity of the self-taught Goldmark’s easy-going amalgam of past and present – the folk idioms of his native Hungary and the romantic sweep of Wagner (whom he regularly eulogized in his contributions to the Berlin journal Konstitutionelle Zeitung) – is easy on the ear, immediately digestible and draws attention to itself with exotic dotted details drawn from the accents and mannerism of the Orient. Judged on its own terms, it proves to be the music’s actual strength rather than its apparent weakness.

Certainly the Op. 26 E-flat major First Symphony positively revels in a lightly worn charm whose gleam and glow was sufficiently attractive to persuade Hans Richter to conduct its premiere in Vienna in 1876. In truth, more a tone poem (or even an orchestral suite) than a symphony, it offers five evocative snapshots of the Rustic Wedding of its subtitle. In unabashedly lyrical and romantic mood, it conjures the marriage celebrations with a casualness that has the capacity to entrance even as it seems to be its undoing. Having established their Goldmark credentials with last year’s account (also for Profil) of his second opera, Merlin, conductor Gerd Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva – whose members are drawn from three leading Munich-based orchestras – continue their championing of the composer with this elegantly sure-footed account of the First Symphony, recorded live in the Max Littmann Saal in Bad Kissingen, Germany.

The opening ‘Wedding March’ – at nearly 17 minutes, the longest section in the symphony – is a nimbly constructed set of 13 variations on a march theme that employ surprisingly crisp contrasts of tempo, rhythms, mood and orchestral forces. Part fanfare, part overture for the nuptial festivities that follow, it is realized by Schaller with the lively and loquacious lightness of touch that colors the whole performance. The deliciously capricious ‘Bridal song’, boasting a striking combination of dulcet clarinets and soft triangle tones, and the five-part, scherzo-like ‘Serenade’, that makes attractive use of rhapsodic woodwinds and strings, are both adroitly dispatched, with Schaller finding much of interest in the centerpiece Andante (‘In the Garden’) which moves elegantly from pensiveness to passion to poetic repose. The ‘Dance’ finale prompts some spirited playing from strings, brass and percussion full of well-proportioned energy.

Completing the disc, the Act I Prelude from Merlin is played with a bravura sense of drama and offers its own encouragement to explore the opera in more detail. In all, this is pleasant music pleasingly performed, Schaller’s reading of the symphony noticeably more demure than Leonard Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic (Sony), not as bustling as Jesús López-Cobos and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Decca), and sounding every bit as vivacious as the Royal Philharmonic under Yolandi Butt (ASV).

Michael Quinn, March 25, 2011

BRAHMS, J.: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3 / Scherzo, WoO 2 (Steinbacher, Kulek)
(PentaTone: PTC5186367)

BRAHMS, J.: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3 / Scherzo, WoO 2 (Steinbacher, Kulek) Brahms’ works for violin and piano are more career-spanning than are the Saint-Saëns quartets. The earliest piece on the new SACD by Arabella Steinbacher and Robert Kulek is Brahms’ scherzo from the rarely performed FAE Sonata, written for violinist Joseph Joachim by Brahms, Schumann and Albert Dietrich.

The work’s title comes from Joachim’s personal motto, Frei aber Einsam (“free, but lonely”); but Brahms’ movement uses the F-A-E notes negligibly – an argument, incidentally, for performances of the entire sonata, to put Brahms’ contribution in context. This scherzo was composed when Brahms was just 20, in 1853, and shows skill, if no particular depth. The three violin-and-piano sonatas, though, are another matter. The first dates from 1878-79, the second from 1886 and the third from 1886-88, and all require maturity of approach, elegance of style and intensity of commitment – which they receive from Steinbacher and Kulek.

The first sonata is built around thematic material from songs that Brahms had composed several years earlier, and it became a favorite work of Clara Schumann, to whose son’s serious illness the second movement pays close attention in the form of a funeral march (young Felix Schumann died in February 1879). None of the personal background is needed, though, for listeners to be swept into the heartfelt emotion of this sonata, much of which has an overall feeling of darkness despite the work’s tonic key of G major.

The second sonata is also in a bright key – A major – and it too is based in part on songs that Brahms composed separately. Like the first sonata, it is an intimate and personal work, truly reflecting the notion of chamber music as being intended for performance among friends and family, in a small room rather than a grand hall. Steinbacher and Kulek realize this, giving the sonata its proper scale and not attempting to make of it a grander or more far-reaching piece than it is.

For the third and final sonata, though, the performers correctly open things up, for this is an altogether broader work – not as long as the first sonata, but built on a bigger scale than either of the earlier ones, in four movements rather than three, and clearly intended for concert performance. Structurally, the third sonata is more conventional and less deeply emotive than the first two, and it responds well to Steinbacher’s and Kulek’s appreciation of its grand gestures and broadly constructed themes.

BLOW, J.: Venus and Adonis [Opera] (Kenny)
(Wigmore Hall Live: WHLive0043)

BLOW, J.: Venus and Adonis [Opera] (Kenny) Unless you have an aversion to baroque pastoral, you should be charmed by this recording. The Wigmore Hall is my favourite classical music venue and I wish I’d been there last May when this concert was given. John Blow rather unfairly plays second fiddle to his contemporary Purcell; though I’m a great fan of Purcell, Blow’sVenus and Adoniscan lookDido and Æneassquarely in the eye. The few recordings that have been made of this work have all been good – an old, long-deleted SEON version, Philip Pickett on Decca Oiseau-Lyre 478 0019 and René Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi HMG 501684, the latter two still available at mid-price. This live recording steals the field, not least for the short works with which the main dish is seasoned. The recording places the performers a little more distantly than I’d have liked, but that’s a minor reservation. The download comes at the attractive price of £4.99 – and that includes the booklet with the texts.

Brian Wilson, Music Web International

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