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Highly Reviewed Recordings

November 28 - December 11, 2012

MAHLER: Symphony No. 10 in F sharp major
(Haenssler Classic: CD93.124)

MAHLER: Symphony No. 10 in F sharp major

This is without a doubt the finest Mahler 10th currently available, and a performance that more than any other vindicates Deryck Cooke’s work as the closest to what the composer’s intentions must have been at the moment of his death. As Gielen himself points out in his more-coherent-than-usual comments in the accompanying booklet, by letting the score’s bare bones remain, and only doing minimal filling out of contrapuntal lines and textures, Cooke allows us to hear just how much Mahler there really is in the piece as it stands. In the hands of a great Mahler conductor, which Gielen certainly is, there’s more than enough meat on this particular skeleton to offer a fully satisfying listening experience, and he achieves this by sticking to the fundamentals: clear textures, idiomatic phrasing, and a deep understanding of Mahler’s particular sound-world.

The opening Adagio is taken a couple of minutes more slowly than on Gielen’s previous recording (of that movement only), but this only serves to heighten the music’s passion and intensity, with the two main tempo areas strongly and purposefully characterized. The big climax has seldom sounded so expressionistic, but also organically in its correct place. Gielen’s handling of dynamics, the way he makes the screaming trumpet dovetail into the violins’ descending answer, reveals just how imaginatively he solves the various problems of phrasing raised by the music’s incomplete state. In the second movement, by ensuring absolute clarity of its contrapuntal lines, he gets the piece to sound far more detailed and filled-out than usual, and he reinstates the cymbal crash at the very end. As might be expected, the Purgatorio is full of menace, with huge freedom of tempo in the central section and a particularly ominous conclusion.

In Gielen’s hands the second scherzo attains a rare cogency and logic, not by minimizing its inherent contrasts, but by maximizing them. For example, by underlining those two nasty opening chords and the initial snare drum roll, they come to serve a structural function whenever they return, clarifying the music’s onward progress. Recognizing these important gestural elements is critical to any successful Mahler performance. Gielen also puts the xylophone part back in at the opening, which helps to outline the music’s main motives, and the ghostly coda has seldom sounded so idiomatically natural. A single drum stroke joins the fourth and fifth movements, another correct decision. After a positively terrifying introduction, Gielen finds more rapture in the flute/violin cantilena than any previous performance, partly a consequence of bringing out the countermelodies in the strings.

Exceptional contrapuntal clarity and a good, swift tempo go a long way to making the central allegro section snap and snarl as it should, and Gielen wisely opts not to add extra percussion to the dissonant climax, after indulging us with a positively cataclysmic crash from cymbals and tam-tam. I’m not saying it can’t work with some extra stuff in the noise department, but no one has succeeded yet with their various solutions, so it’s best not to make the attempt. Once again the concluding string outpouring rises to expressive heights that other performances merely hint at, and the final pages are poetry incarnate. Fabulous playing from the SWR orchestra, stunning sonics, and a single-disc format provide the gratifying final touches on a gripping experience that no Mahlerian can afford to miss.

-David Hurwitz © 2012

FUCHS, K.: Atlantic Riband / American Rhapsody / Divinum Mysterium / Concerto Grosso (London Symphony, Falletta)
(Naxos / American Classics: 8.559723)

FUCHS, K.: Atlantic Riband / American Rhapsody / Divinum Mysterium / Concerto Grosso (London Symphony, Falletta) LSO play music tailor-made by American Fuchs

This is the third CD of Kenneth Fuchs’s orchestral music arising from the enthusiastic partnership of JoAnn Falletta and the LSO. United Artists on the second CD (3/08) was a tribute to that orchestra and now the viola concerto Divinum Mysterium has been written for the LSO’s lead viola, Paul Silverthorne.

As with Fuchs’s Canticle to the Sun, for LSO horn player Timothy Jones, this concerto is based on a hymn-tune. This time it’s ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’, originally plainsong, and it’s interesting to trace the use of that fine melody, which emerges in full about two-thirds of the way through. The concerto, obviously rewarding to play, has cadenza material but is temperamentally more poetic than display. There’s a similar approach in American Rhapsody for violin and orchestra but the discourse is more meandering, as the title suggests.

Fuchs is not an original figure: he’s affably conventional and undemanding. The opening of Atlantic Riband, celebrating the transcontinental shipping lines, recalls the triads of Vaughan Williams, while Copland has affected the melodic spacing as well as the brass-writing in the overture Discover the Wild. That lasts less than five minutes and there are five pieces on this CD lasting less than 60 minutes. So nothing is over-extended and the performances are hand-in-glove with the composer. LSO play music tailor-made by American Fuchs.

-Peter Dickinson, © 2012 Gramophone

BACH, C.P.E.: Keyboard Concertos, Wq. 14, 17 and 43/4 (Rische, Leipzig Chamber Orchestra, Schuldt-Jensen)
(Haenssler Classic: CD98.653)

BACH, C.P.E.: Keyboard Concertos, Wq. 14, 17 and 43/4 (Rische, Leipzig Chamber Orchestra, Schuldt-Jensen)

More Fine CPE Bach Piano Concertos from Rische

Even in major keys C.P.E. Bach’s music remains unpredictable, arresting, and delightful. Consider the finale of the E major Concerto, and consider that this music was composed in 1744, when J.S. Bach was still very much alive and active. You really can hear the emergence of a new musical style, and the difference between the father and his scarcely less gifted son. And as with the first volume in this series, the music has never sounded better than it does when played on Bach’s own preferred instrument, the piano.

Also as previously, Rische includes one of Bach’s “concertos” for solo keyboard, in this case that in C minor, Wq.43/4. It’s a remarkable piece in four movements, including a minuet, actually giving it the shape of a full-fledged sonata or symphony (in cyclical form, no less, as the finale recapitulates themes from the previous movements). The other work on the program, the Concerto in D minor, resembles one of Bach’s best known works (Wq. 23 in the same key), and like its brother concerto it immediately brings to mind the elder Bach’s famous harpsichord concerto in the same key (BWV 1052).

Rische plays all of this music with unaffected gusto, adapting the large sound of the modern piano to the scale of the music without any suggestion of inhibition, retaining a healthy range of tonal shading and touch. The Leipzig Chamber Orchestra matches him with playing of impressive precision, although we could do without the attempt to adopt “period” style in minimizing the vibrato timbre that we can be pretty sure the composer actually would have wanted. Excellent sonics make this release just as desirable as the first disc, in what we can only hope will become a major series.

-David Hurwitz, © 2012

JANACEK, L.: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (Mandelring Quartet, Teuffel)
(audite: Audite92.545)

JANACEK, L.: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (Mandelring Quartet, Teuffel) Leoš Janáček is a unique phenomenon in the history of classical music. He was born in humble surroundings in 1854 in the small Moravian town of Hukvaldy. After his studies he became the head of his own music school in the town of Brno. Until 1895 he devoted himself mainly to folkloristic research. His early musical output was unremarkable and influenced by contemporaries such as Antonín Dvořák. His later, mature works incorporate his earlier studies of national folk music in a modern, highly original synthesis. This was first evident in the opera Jenufa, which was premiered in 1904 in Brno. In the year 1916, at age 62, Jenufa was performed to great acclaim in Prague. When Jenufa was staged in the opera-houses of Vienna (1918) and Berlin (1924), he finally achieved international recognition. In the eight years before his death at age 74, he astonished the musical world by completing five more operas.

In the summer of 1917, while on holiday at his beloved spa Lucacovice, he met a beautiful woman half his age, with whom he fell madly in love. A love-affair never materialized, but she was to remain the object of his affection for the rest of his days. While staying faithful to her husband and children, Kamila Stösslova maintained an extensive correspondence with the aging composer. Some six hundred letters that Janáček wrote to her have been preserved and published, and a large number of his works are dedicated to her. The inspiration Janáček found in his love for Kamila not only prompted him to compose five operas, but also made him turn to the more intimate medium of chamber music. In his final years he wrote a string quartet, violin sonata, wind quintet, the Concertino for piano, the Capriccio for left hand piano, and his last completed instrumental composition, the second string quartet of 1928.

Both string quartets are dedicated to Kamila Stösslova, and both have nicknames. The first is called ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ after the Tolstoy novel, which refers to Beethoven’s Violin sonata of the same name. Janáček called his second quartet ‘Intimate Letters’, and in a letter to Kamila we read: ‘today, it’s Sunday, I’m especially sad. I’ve begun work on a quartet; I’ll give it the name Love Letters’. Each movement evokes a certain point in their relationship, and when the quartet was near its premiere he wrote that ‘you stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses - no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately’.

To symbolize that love, Janáček chose an instrument that embodies the feminine form both in sound and appearance: the viola d’amore. The viola d’amore is part of the old viol family; it has seven strings plus five resonating strings. The tuning is based on a major triad, not on fifths like the violin. It was very popular in the baroque era, and Antonio Vivaldi wrote several concertos for the instrument. When the viol family was replaced by the modern violin, viola and cello, the viola d’amore lay dormant for several centuries. In the twentieth century, with its renewed interest in old music and instruments, it came to life again. Paul Hindemith, among others, was responsible for resurrecting its use. Janáček fell in love with its sound and used it in his opera Katya Kabanova, another work that was dedicated to Kamila. When he started his second quartet, he decided that he would substitute the viola with a viola d’amore. The viola d’amore has one severe drawback: the sound that it produces is very delicate and soft, and there is no way that it can compete with the much more forceful violin and cello - even when played on gut strings. Janáček abandoned the idea and reverted to the normal viola. Unfortunately an original score has not been preserved.

The Mandelring Quartet asked viola d’amore player Gunter Teuffel to make a reconstruction of Janáček’s original ideas. Teuffel worked out a performance version in which the viola d’amore is reinstated. In a very thorough and elaborate text in the booklet, he explains his decisions. Better yet, the label Audite has provided us with a video that has been published on youtube. In this clip Teuffel explains the way the instrument is built and played, and together with the other members of the quartet he plays important excerpts from the score. He tells us (in German) that the other players are holding back, but to tell the truth, what we hear is a full-blown string quartet. One must assume that the recording technician helped a little in redressing the balance.

Audite presents two recordings of the second quartet, first the published version, and next the reconstruction. An ear-catching difference occurs in the very opening, where the full chords in first and second violin are delivered pizzicato, not arco. This creates space for the fragile sound of the viola d’amore to blossom. To detect most of the other changes one really needs a score - available free of charge in the Petrucci library on the internet. In the video we notice that on the last page of the score it is not the first violin, but the viola d’amore that delivers the high embellished notes that float over the whipping chords of the other instruments.

The Mandelring Quartet consists of three siblings: Sebastian Schmidt leads, his sister Nanette plays second violin, and brother Bernhard cello. Roland Glassl is the viola player. They record exclusively for the label Audite and have won praise for their award-winning issue of the complete string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. Musicianship is impeccable and intonation is spot-on. The rough-and-ready attack that mars so many recordings of these very orchestrally conceived scores is fortunately missing. The large helping of general pauses in these pages can turn tricky, but here they are realized to perfection.

The recording is exemplary. The position of each player is defined very precisely, which is something that really matters in the case of the reconstructed Second Quartet. The viola d’amore is placed slightly to the right of centre, and can be followed very easily. This is a must-have for Janáček-fans and chamber music aficionados alike.

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