West Chester U Wind Ensemble Has “Second Thoughts”

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SECOND THOUGHTS / DANIELPOUR: Toward the Splendid City. BARBER: First Essay for Orchestra (arr. J. Levey). SCHUMAN: New England Triptych. DEL TREDICI: In Wartime / West Chester University Wind Ensemble; Andrew Yovziak, cond / Mark Masters 52989-MCD

The title of this CD refers to the fact that three of these four works were revised for wind band either by the composers themselves or under the direction of the composer (the Samuel Barber Essay). David Del Tredici’s In Wartime is the odd one out, as it was written for the Texas University Wind Band from the start. Richard Danielpour’s Toward the Splendid City, written in 1992 as a tribute to the New York Philharmonic, receives its world premiere recording on this disc.

Danielpour’s work is the most chipper and tonal of the group, but is also marked by unusually complex polyphony. I was surprised and delighted to hear such complexity from him at such an early point in his career. In the liner notes, he claims that, in his view, New York in the 1980s and early ‘90s was similar to Paris in the 1920s, a city at its most vibrant and optimistic—surely a result of the Reagan economic boom and the defeat of the USSR. The various lines and counter-lines in the music keep moving like a kaleidoscope, which holds the listener’s interest, and the moto perpetuo rhythm put me in mind of some of George Antheil’s music. In this revision for winds, Danielpour has done a remarkable job of focusing on instrumental color; indeed, this aspect of the score is another of its glories. I really liked it!

Barber’s First Essay for Orchestra, premiered by Arturo Toscanini and first recorded by Eugene Ormandy, remains one of the composer’s finest works. Joseph Levey’s band transcription, naturally, omits the deep string sound that originally opened the piece, replacing it, surprisingly enough, with clarinets playing in their low or chalumeau register rather than trombones, which I would have expected, as the use of low reeds takes the feeling of heaviness away from the music. Whether due to the scoring, Yovziak’s conducting or the recorded sound, however, the strong dynamic contrasts in the original piece, which are what drew me to it in the first place, are “smoothed out” here. It comes across as a much more pleasant piece whereas the original was very emotionally powerful (both under Toscanini and Ormandy, be it noted). I also found Yovziak’s tempi too fast, which also contributes to the performance’s glibness. Perhaps, with a conductor more sensitized to the work’s underlying drama (it was written in 1937-38, when Europe was on the brink of a World War), this arrangement would come off better.

William Schuman is, in my view, one of the most overlooked and forgotten of all great American composers. This arrangement of his famous New England Triptych is very clever; despite the upbeat mood of the music, it is very well written with several original touches. Once again, Yovziak conducts with a blithe spirit, quick tempi and lack of drama, but in this music such an approach is wholly appropriate.

Del Tredici’s two-movement suite In Wartime was composed in 2003 as a reaction to President George W. Bush’s pointless, money-wasting war with Iraq, surely one of the low points in American history. Seldom has so much money and manpower been wasted on so little of a result, and ironically this war had broad bipartisan Congressional approval. The opening Hymn is quixotic and somewhat ironic in nature, bringing out Del Tredici’s frustrations with the war’s supporters. He uses the old hymn Abide With Me as a basis, around which some pretty wild and crazy contrapuntal figures fly. The second movement, Wartime: Battlemarch continues the same mood, but becomes more aggressive, with strongly contrasting rhythms working against the initial theme, eventually transforming it into something both martial and ironic. In this work, Yovziak gives a very emotional interpretation indeed. Swirling clarinets, flutes and piccolos add to the melee as it nears its climax. This, too, is an excellent piece, superbly played.

Kind of a mixed bag, then. Good music throughout, with outstanding performances of the first and last pieces, but the Barber greatly disappointed me.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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John Wilson Conducts Richard Rodney Bennett

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BENNETT: Concerto for Stan Getz. Symphony No. 2. Serenade for Small Orchestra. Partita / Howard McGill, t-sax; Gordon Rigby, timp; Scott Dickinson, vla; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; John Wilson, cond / Chandos CHSA 5212

In my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, I made particular mention of Richard Rodney Bennett’s superb Concerto for Stan Getz, yet had some reservations about the performance I chose as an example because the soloist, John Harle, made no attempt to sound like its dedicatee. This is a perfect example of what I claim is the Achilles’ heel in the “historically-informed” movement in the classical music world. If you can’t sound like the artists for whom a work was written, and particularly those who premiered it (Getz, sadly, died before he got the chance to play the concerto), then how can you claim that your ahistorical fiddling around with orchestral sonorities and playing with straight tone are what the composer heard or wanted? Answer: You can’t.

Happily, Howard McGill, the soloist on this recording, does a credible job of trying to sound like Getz, particularly in the second movement where he emulates his model’s warm, breathy tone. But that’s only to be expected since McGill studied both jazz and studio music at the Guildhall School of Music, and in fact won the BBC Don Lusher Prize at age 21 as the best up-and-coming jazz musician in Great Britain. I would call his interpretation here definitive, and a model for many young saxists to emulate. As for the music, it is a happy fusion of jazz and classical, including improvised sections, and may be the pinnacle of Bennett’s writing in a “third stream” style. The afore-mentioned second movement is the most song-like, or one may say the most approachable environment for a jazz artist to work in, particularly Getz himself who did some of his best work in slow tempi, but the first and third movements are densely written and by no means “cheap” or “easy” for the symphony orchestra to play. The odd staccato rhythms that open the third movement may seem antithetical to the Getz aesthetic, but the music quickly changes and opens up, allowing the soloist to play in a much jazzier manner. I can’t say enough about McGill’s performance here; he is in a league of his own, as far as I’m concerned, and unless an American saxist with similar sensibilities comes along to tackle the work, he is surely the best interpreter of it at this moment. Kudos! Wilson’s conducting is also wonderful, similar to that of the excellent Barry Wordsworth in the premiere (I had no qualms at all about his contribution).

Shifting gears, we next hear the early (1967) second symphony. This is a much more modern-classical sort of piece, using piquant harmonies and spiky melodic lines. It almost sounds like a different composer, much more in the line of today’s music. In between the jagged brass figures, however, there is some real musical invention going on to offset the “shock” value. As Bennett himself said, although his music at this time was grounded in serialism, “I am very anxious that people should not be conscious of it…in fact, the more I use serial technique, the less I am inhibited about making sounds which relate directly to tonality.”

This is evident in the symphony’s interlinked four movements, and as one listens one is constantly drawn to Bennett’s tonal palette and its almost magical interweaving of themes. It is even more clear in the wonderful Serenade which, though lighter fare than the symphony, is by no means banal or geared towards low musical tastes. Bennett’s score is delicately crafted but full of rhythmic and textural surprises, with wonderful melodic snippets that he weaves together.

The Partita, too, is light music, but in this case a bit more for popular tastes. This doesn’t mean it’s not well constructed, only that it is less engaging for the sophisticated music listener.

If the music on this CD seems to be a succession of diminishing quality—the Partita is, really, the kind of stuff one hears all too often on classical radio stations, and quickly turns off—make no mistake: the concerto and the symphony are first-class works which you really need to hear, and the Serenade isn’t bad at all. But this is what happens when one decides to record a certain composer’s music complete and that composer worked in different venues for widely varying audiences. At least half the disc is valuable and interesting, thus I can give it a qualified recommendation.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Ismailova Plays Karayev

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KARAYEV: 24 Preludes. 6 Kinderstücke. The Statue in Tsarskoye Selo. Don Quixote (excerpts) / Elnara Ismailova, pno / Avi Music 8553398

This CD presents the piano works of Azerbaijanian composer Kara Karayev (1918-1982), who combined lyrical melodies with modern harmonies. The program here presents his complete series of 24 Preludes, spread over four books, his Children’s Pieces and a few other works.

The Preludes may be thought by some as modern-day tributes to the same style of music created by J.S. Bach, but his stylistic variety is far greater, and Ismailova, who has an energetic approach to playing as well as a fine technique, rips into them enthusiastically. Karayev’s “singing” quality is also on display here, i.e. the second prelude of Book 1, which sounds a great deal like something Prokofiev would have written.

In the fifth prelude, one hears the kind of traditional Azerbaijan harmonies of the country’s folk music, deftly woven into the musical texture. All of this is attractive music that would not unduly upset the sensibilities of the “average” concertgoer, yet still has great interest for the connoisseur. This is especially evident in the minor-key, modal prelude No. 8, where Karayev uses a sinister running bass pattern in dotted quarters and eighths against a strangely sinister top line. The tenth prelude has another running bass line, this time in continual eighths, at a faster tempo while the right hand sometimes joins it and sometimes plays against it. And prelude No. 23 has a decidedly jazzy feel to it.

Indeed, the sheer variety of Karayev’s preludes will delight and astonish you. There’s never a dull moment in his music, and much of this, as I’ve said, is due to the marvelous playing of Ismailova. Indeed, Karayev’s Children’s Pieces are certainly not for kids to play, but the rhythmic energy of them are engaging—at least, for a child who has some appreciation of finer music. The Statue in Tsarskoye Selo is a pianistic fantasia even more than a tone poem, although it bears some resemblance to the kind of descriptive pieces that Debussy wrote—with an Eastern European accent. At one point, he even steals a quote from Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune!

The excerpts from Karayev’s Don Quixote are slow, sad pieces, reflecting the character’s isolation from society, rather than portraying his eccentric madness—except for the last of them, titled “Travels.”

This is interesting, diverse music, and I especially commend this disc to those modern composers who fall into a stylistic rut, where everything they write sounds alike, as an indication of how much can be done with music if you just think outside the box.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Banse’s “Das Marienleben” Deep, Penetrating

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HINDEMITH: Das Marienleben (original 1923 version) / Juliane Banse, sop; Martin Helmchen, pno / Alpha 398

Having given a glowing review to Rachel Harnisch’s recording of the 1948 revised version of Hindemith’s ever-popular song cycle Das Marienleben, I was curious to hear how Juliane Banse, one of my favorite sopranos, would handle the original 1923 version.

What I heard was a complete surprise. Banse, who I’ve long admired for her vocal control and musical phrasing, sings here with the kind of depth in interpretation I haven’t heard from her before; in fact, I would put this performance on a par with the kind of interpretations one heard from such great lieder singers as Elena Gerhardt, Christa Ludwig and Marjana Lipovšek.

If one notes that the three singers I mentioned above were all mezzo-sopranos, this was yet another shock for me. Banse’s voice has become deeper and richer with time; she vacillates between soprano and mezzo singing throughout this cycle, and prior to hearing it I would never have suspected that she had this quality in her voice. Moreover, her accompanist, Martin Helmchen, has a more fluid approach to the music, imbuing a legato flow to the music that Harnisch’s accompanist sometimes missed. The combination of their approach gives the music a deeper, more reflective quality, tying the music closer to the songs of Brahms than one might otherwise expect. Following the text, one notes that every word and phrase is given a deeply-felt, poetic reading. In a song such as “Die Darstellung Maria im Tempel”—a much longer version here than in the 1948 revision—Banse is downright dramatic, opening up her voice with surprising power, and in “Maria Verkündigung” she sings with breathless anticipation.

As one continues through the cycle, one is continually amazed at Banse’s ability to shift emotions and, with them, her shading and coloring of her voice. This is almost a master class in lieder singing; every note and phrase means something, and is different from every other note and phrase. In their capable hands, the music comes alive in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible prior to hearing this performance. She reaches the depths of feeling in “Vor der Passion” and “Pietà,” as well she should. In the latter, Banse’s very first note is attacked ppp, then slowly opens up like a bud into a flower via a slow crescendo. This is astonishing singing, and it is more than just showing off her technique. It is meaningful singing, rather impressive considering that the text is based on a fantasy image of the life of Mary, the mother of Christ.

This is clearly the benchmark performance of this song cycle; I can’t imagine that it has many competitors as strong in both vocal management and interpretation.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Marty Elkins Swings Oldies in New Release

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FAT DADDY / ALTER-MITCHELL: You Turned the Tables on Me. RAZAF: On Revival Day. WALLER-RAZAF: How Can You Face Me? OTIS-OWENS: That’s All There is to That. POWELL-SAMUELS-WHITCUP: It’s Too Hot for Words. RAYE-DePAUL-CARTER: Cow Cow Boogie.  GREEN-HEYMAN: I Cover the Waterfront.* REID: It’s a Pity to Say Goodnight. COSLOW-JOHNSTON: My Old Flame. MEDLEY-SANFORD: Fat Daddy.* + BLOOM-KOEHLER: I Can’t Face the Music. PINKARD-MITCHELL: Sugar. STRACHEY-MARVELL: These Foolish Things. JOHNSON: Trav’lin’ All Alone* / Marty Elkins, voc; Jon-Erik Kellso, tpt; James Chirillo,  gtr; Joel Diamond, *pno/org/+a-sax; Steve Ash, pno; Lee Hudson, bs; Taro Okamoto, dm/tamb; +Leopold Fleming, perc / Nagel Heyer Records CD 124

This CD, due out July 6, spotlights East Coast jazz singer Marty Elkins (born in Jersey City) in a program of older swing tunes (she calls it “traditional jazz,” but that label belongs to the New Orleans fans). This follows on the heels of her prior release, Walkin’ By the River, which contained such older songs as If I Could Be With You, There’ll Be Some Changes Made, Comes Love (one of my favorite Helen Forrest-Artie Shaw recordings), Runnin’ Wild, When My Sugar Walks Down the Street, I’ll Never Be the Same and Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.

Elkins has a pleasant, light voice of the type once heard with regularity during the period she prefers, running from Annette Hanshaw to Lee Wiley. Her sense of swing and rhythmic timing contains some elements of Billie Holiday (her ability to fraction the beat), Helen Ward (her appealing, open-voiced approach) and Anita O’Day (her scatting), though she isn’t as musically adventurous as the latter. It’s also a very pretty voice, something you don’t hear much of nowadays, and her backup band really swings—just listen to the way Elkins and the band tear through Andy Razaf’s On Revival Day, a song I can’t recall any contemporary jazz singer doing in the past half-century. On this number Elkins really opens up her voice and does a tremendous job of sounding like a black singer. Veteran swing trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso is also wonderful on this one, playing a plunger-muted solo with echoes of Cootie Williams, and at the end the group in the recording studio breaks out into spontaneous and well-deserved applause.

If anything, Elkins does a jazzier vocal on How Can You Face Me? than Fats Waller himself. Her creamy voice is, tonally, unique; she doesn’t remind me of anyone from the ‘30s or ‘40s that I’ve ever heard, not even such top-drawer jazz singers of the time as Ella, Mildred Bailey or Alice Babs, although she does possess some of Bailey’s wonderful ability to “ride” the beat. In addition, Elkins’ rhythm section is sheer perfection, playing together with the kind of tightness one heard from the old Count Basie and Glenn Miller bands—a completely integrated piano-bass-guitar-drums sound that I really miss in most jazz groups nowadays. Tara Okamoto is a surprisingly understated drummer, clearly more modern in approach than the Jo Joneses, Gene Krupas or Sid Catletts of the swing era, though occasionally I missed the kick those older drummers could give an ensemble. Don Raye’s old tune about a doped-up cowboy “raised on loco weed,” Cow Cow Boogie, is given an almost boogie-calypso beat and really cooks.

Elkins’ rendition of I Cover the Waterfront is unique for her inclusion of the seldom-heard opening refrain before she sings the much more famous chorus. Kellso plays a lovely solo on this one with a standard mute, and in the following chorus Elkins does a splendid job of displacing the beat and improvising on the melody (a rare gift, much overlooked by modern singers). In Billy Reid’s wonderful, swinging It’s a Pity to Say Goodnight, Elkins channels a little of Ella Fitzgerald’s style but filters it through her own sensibilities.

I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive about hearing My Old Flame, a song so corny that, along with Neil Moret’s Chloe, I can’t even imagine it sung seriously since I grew up on Spike Jones’ versions, but Elkins puts it through her Billie Holiday filter and thus gives it some dignity and swing. (I felt the same way about The Glow-Worm until I heard the Mills Brothers redefine it.) James Chirillo plays an excellent guitar solo on this one, and thank the stars, he plays it in a jazz style and not a rock style. In Fat Daddy, Elkins and pianist Joel Diamond give the music a Professor Longhair beat—R&B calypso-blues, complete with trumpet and alto sax playing the New Orleans-styled riffs, and in the second half Elkins does a credible job of once again sounding like an African-American singer. Fats Domino, eat your heart out!

I Can’t Face the Music is a nice, laid-back tune given a laid-back rendition, and the old Maceo Pinkard standard Sugar is taken at a nice medium tempo. These Foolish Things is given in ballad style, and here the swing is subtle and understated, riding over the soft cushion of Diamond’s organ. Elkins stays in a relaxed groove for the finale, Trav’lin All Alone.

A very fine disc by an obviously very gifted singer; this one is a winner.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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New Video Recaps Birgit Nilsson’s Career

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BIRGIT NILSSON: A LEAGUE OF HER OWN / A film by Thomas Voigt and Wolfgang Wunderlich / Unitel/C Major DVD 800008

Normally, I stay away from singer retrospective albums and DVDs. Having seen so many singers in my lifetime – some extremely good but completely or partially neglected by the record companies – I’ve taken a jaundiced view towards such things.

Having grown up in the “Birgit Nilsson era,” so to speak, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size and “cut” of her voice. I heard her mostly on Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, and my uncle John owned a copy of her RCA Turandot with Björling, Tebaldi and Leinsdorf, a fine recording if not quite capturing the frisson of her voice. Fortunately, I heard once in person, when she was still in her prime, a 1975 Newark Opera performance of Turandot with Placido Domingo and, believe it or not, Licia Albanese. In case you’re wondering, Albanese actually sang extremely well but her acting was appalling. But of course, I was there to hear Nilsson, and review the performance for a local New Jersey arts magazine.

Whoever provided me with the comp tickets must not have liked me. They gave me front row right, where I sat opposite the timpanist. All night long, the timpani was whacking right in my ear. And then there was Birgit. Everything you’ve heard about her voice was true. She had the power, and timbral sound, of an air raid siren going off at full blast…and I was seated at Ground Zero. Between Nilsson’s singing and the timpani, I had one hell of a headache by the time the performance was over, but I did hear Nilsson.

It was the biggest soprano voice of its time, possibly of all time. Some old-timers argue that Kirsten Flagstad’s voice was just as big but more lyrical, but I knew Dr. Louis Leslie, co-founder of the Gregg Shorthand System, who had been going to the Met since 1918 (yes, he actually heard Caruso sing!), and his comment was, “We thought Frida Leider had a big voice until we heard Flagstad, and then we heard Nilsson, and her voice was as big as both of them put together!”

But Nilsson was scarcely a subtle interpreter, and only a so-so actress—especially before 1966. Big emotions were her stock-in-trade, not nuance. Thus, over the years, though at one time I owned both of her “Ring” cycles (Decca-London and Philips), I eventually gravitated towards sopranos like Martha Mödl, Astrid Varnay and Berit Lindholm, who had warmer voices and subtler interpretations. The problem is, however, that Nilsson was the last truly stupendous Wagnerian soprano. Most of what we have nowadays are bad jokes: wobbly, strained voices that can barely negotiate the music.

And after working with Wieland Wagner at Bayreuth in 1966, she admitted that she finally learned how to express emotions with the voice. Wieland himself said that “Nilsson became famous before she became great,” and she was shocked and saddened by his early death. Her late recordings of Elektra, Tristan und Isolde (both the 1968 studio recording with Wolfgang Windgassen and her 1974 live performance with Jon Vickers) and Macbeth are a great improvement on all of her earlier discs. As for the complaint that few if any recordings captured her voice well, I’d have to say that the EMI Turandot, which I cannot stomach because of Franco Corelli’s pig-and-a-half singing style, the live Tristan and the Böhm “Ring” cycle on Philips show it pretty well.

Yet no one would deny that Nilsson was a professional and conscientious artist and, better yet, a down-to-earth woman in a world full of phony “divas.” A real farm girl from Sweden, she pursued a singing career against her father’s wishes and so got a late start in both studying and performing. This wonderful video is as honest a chronicle of her ups and downs, her pranks and her rustic sense of humor, as it is of her career. I hadn’t known that one of her voice teachers was tenor Joseph Hislop, an immensely talented but churlish fellow who felt that insults and put-downs were part of vocal coaching. Yet he did help Nilsson to secure her high range just as he did nearly two decades earlier for her countryman, tenor Jussi Björling. Not a single detail or anecdote is left out of his documentary. We hear about Hans Knappertsbusch swearing at her like a sailor in rehearsals for Salome, of her irritation at Herbert von Karajan’s arrogance (“He was a great artist but a small human being”), and of the time Corelli refused to go on stage with her in the last act of Turandot until Met manager Rudolf Bing suggested that instead of kissing her in the last act, he bite her on the ear. Birgit later confirmed that Corelli never bit her but Bing never knew it because he had fled the Met before the third act, fearing a confrontation. Nilsson decided to get back at him by sending him a telegram that she couldn’t sing with the company in Cincinnati “because of severe bite wounds”!

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Birgit in her customized miner’s helmet, 1968

Indeed, her less-than-diva personality and country-girl sense of humor are what kept her sane through her very intense 36-year career. She was as well known for her sharp witticisms as for her piercing high notes. At the Metropolitan in 1968, she was so upset with Karajan’s numerous lighting rehearsals (“82 for the lighting and only one for the orchestra!” she later complained), which mostly resulted in a stage set so dark that she almost tripped over herself, that she had a special miner’s helmet made for her and wore it to rehearsal. Needless to say, Karajan was not amused, and it was the last time she ever sang with him.

Backstage, too, Birgit was one of the warmest and most down-to-earth professional singers in the world. Once, when rehearsing Tristan with Vickers and noting his tension, she took him fishing to loosen him up (this story, unfortunately, is not in the video). She gave little parties in her dressing room for her fans, one time even cooking up Swedish meatballs on a hotplate for them (that is in the video), and once, in Vienna, the standees—meaning those who had the least money but who loved her the most—pooled their meager resources and had a special ring made for her with her face on it as Isolde. She was so delighted that she wore it in the next performance, and during curtain calls held her hand up and flashed the ring to the audience. Later, backstage, she told these fans, “Now we are officially engaged!”

The only story they don’t tell is of Nilsson’s own personal stalker, a young New York “model-actress” named Nell Theobald. Theobald, who according to Nilsson “looked like Marilyn Monroe only with dark hair,” followed her around from performance to performance, begged the soprano to let her be her friend (“I choose my own friends,” Nilsson replied), and then started sneaking into the soprano’s dressing room, stealing personal items like jewelry and underwear. She even dressed up like a geisha to serve Nilsson food in a Japanese-style restaurant. The nightmare finally ended in 1977 when Theobald committed suicide.

By the time this video ends, you will have fallen in love with this warm, witty yet hard-working woman who took her art very seriously and stopped singing at age 64 because she knew it was time. Her final performance wasn’t even announced as a farewell; she just sang it and then told the press she was retiring. No-fanfare Birgit. She had an operation for cancer in 1968 but told everyone it was gallstones. “I couldn’t stand the idea of people pitying me,” she said in 1995 when revealing the truth.

This, then, is a wonderful portrait of a major singer who was also a quality human being. Well worth the investment, though at this point you may have a hard time watching James Levine onscreen (I know I did). Well worth checking out!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Yang and the Alexander Quartet Do Mozart

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APOTHEOSIS Vol. 2 / MOZART: Piano Quartets: in g min., K. 478; in Eb, K. 493 / Joyce Yang, pno; Alexander String Quartet / Foghorn Classics CD2018

Those readers who have been following my reviews for several years know that I place the Alexander String Quartet among the elite groups of their type in the world, and in my view are the best such American group (particularly now that the belated Colorado String Quartet, which was certainly their peer, is no more). In person they play a fairly diverse repertoire, including modern works, but on records they pretty much stick to older repertoire such as this.

Nonetheless, they manage to infuse this more conventionally-written music with life and drive that belies its age, and this disc is no exception. An ex-friend of mine, who cut himself off from me 20 years ago, used to say that Mozart was always more expressive in minor keys than in major, pointing to the string quintets, piano concerti (Nos. 20 and 24) and Symphony No. 40, all of which are considered among his greatest works (not to mention the overture and finale of Don Giovanni and portions of the Requiem), and the piano quartet in G minor is no exception. For whatever reason, Mozart seemed to ignore his usual rule of writing music that “pleased the public without their being aware of the subtle little touches I threw in” and, however temporarily, bared his own feelings in music.

No, this quartet is not quite as intense as the Piano Concerto No. 20 or the Symphony No. 40, but it clearly exists in a different emotional world from his major-key works, and the Alexander players (here omitting 2nd violinist Frederick Lifsitz) give it their all. Pianist Joyce Yang, their most frequent collaborator (cellist Sandy Walsh-Wilson has told me via email that she is practically a fifth member of the group), is also outstanding here. I’ve heard a couple of Yang’s solo recital discs, and although she is a very good soloist, on a par with Andras Schiff or Anne-Marie McDermott, she really outdoes herself as an ensemble player (as do Schiff and McDermott). Her combination of nuance, clarity and just enough emotion complement the Alexander strings (here playing on a special group of instruments, built in 1987 but modeled on 1705-1709 Stradivari loaned from the Ellen M. Egger Quartet). This is absolutely world-class playing; I would pit them not only against the very finest of modern European groups, but also against such legendary names as the Amar, Capet, Busch and early (1932-38, their real prime) Budapest Quartets. Not a note or phrase is played without careful attention to dynamics, shading, or emotion. They think and breathe together, and this includes Yang on piano. Just listen, for instance, to the breathtaking unity of thought and flow in the crescendo-diminuendo phrases in the first quartet’s slow movement which, although in the major, is as deeply felt as the minor-key first movement.

The quartet in Eb is one of Mozart’s most lyrical works, and here the players imbue it with a tender, spacious reading, also full of nuance. Indeed, there almost seems to be a feeling of loss or sorrow in the way they play it, caressing each note in the strings as the piano part—less sensitive in feeling, but commenting on the musical progression—weaves it way in and out of the ensemble. And, lo and behold, the final movement (“Allegretto”) dips into the minor, providing an effective contrast with the major-key theme statements.

This is surely one of the finest recording of these two works ever committed to disc. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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