SCHOENBERG: Verklärte Nacht. TCHAIKOVSKY: String Sextet in D min., “Souvenir de Florence” / Jan Mráček, Markéta Vokáčová, vln; Kristina Fialová, Karel Untermüller, vla; Petr Nouzovský, Ivan Vokáč, cel / ArcoDiva UP0223
This CD presents six musicians from the Czech Philharmonic, all of whom appear on the cover to be relatively young, playing Schoenberg’s classic early work Verklärte Nacht and the much more Romantic-oriented Tchaikovsky Sextet, “Souvenir de Florence.”
In a way, this album presents in microcosm the dilemma that encompasses 80% of all modern-day classical releases: to wit, the constant repetition of older works which have received a multitude of outstanding recordings in the decades and, by now, in the full century past. As it turns out, these young musicians’ reading of Verklärte Nacht is wonderfully intense, one of the best performances I’ve ever heard, easily as good if not better than the one by the Schoenberg String Quartet in their superb set of the complete Schoenberg String Quartets on Chandos. But what if it wasn’t? And believe me, most of these new recordings you see flooding the market of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Debussy etc. just aren’t worth more than a cursory listen.
I suppose that, because I’ve had such a wide exposure to not only all kinds of music of all genres but also to a wide range of classical music (including much more modern works than most people will listen to) and, more importantly, an extremely wide range of performing styles dating back to the end of the 19th century, I just have a more informed view of things. Moreover, in classical music performance one doesn’t really have that much latitude in terms of interpretation or style. One must judge a performance not only by the score but, as B.H. Haggin pointed out, by how far away from the score a performer may be allowed to go without distorting or harming the music. A very few number of performing geniuses came along in the 20th century who had their own way of hearing/looking at music, and they made a tremendous impact. In the past 30-odd years, I would say that only a handful of performers deserve the term “genius” applied to then, and unfortunately the ones I admire the most never seem to record half as much as All The Others.
In a sense, this discussion applies very much applies to the musicians on this disc. Note that they do not perform regularly as a sextet; they just happened to get together to make this recording. But I will tell you confidentially that, as a rule, I gravitate towards Hungarian, Czech, Russian and often Polish performers because they tend to have more intensity in their work almost by birthright. A few Italians also do, though less in recent years than in previous decades. Riccardo Chailly, one Italian conductor whose work I generally admire, has been around for so long now that he’s almost at the age that Toscanini was when he left the New York Philharmonic in 1936.
But to get back to this particular CD, what struck me other than the music style were two things: 1) the consistently bright timbres of these six musicians’ instruments, and 2) the effortless manner in which they mesh together as a unit. The second of these undoubtedly stem from their experience within the Czech Philharmonic, where section playing is an art unto itself. I’m wondering if they plan to perform more as a group now that the Coronavirus pandemic has pretty much closed down live orchestral performances. It would make sense if they do. They’re certainly very good musicians, each of whom has a distinct musical personality yet who as a unit come together in an extraordinary manner.
I’m sure that some listeners will feel that their music-making is too intense, but I would have to disagree. Schoenberg, believe it or not, was a very emotional and passionate person who always wanted his music to be performed with feeling, even when it was not 100% score-accurate. His own recording of Pierrot Lunaire tells us as much. And heaven knows that Tchaikovsky wore his heart on his sleeve a wee bit too much at times, though he was a conscientious composer who always tried to write music that was technically correct yet original in form.
And, believe it or not, it was the Tchaikovsky performance that impressed and startled me the most. I’m used to excellent performances of Verklärte Nacht, but to hear the way these musicians tear into Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” will pin you to the wall. It’s so intense that they almost make Tchaikovsky sound like Dvořák or Martinů, and that’s really saying something. I half-expected them to be quite good in the Schoenberg, but this was an absolute revelation to me. As in the case of the Schoenberg piece, they bring out the inner voices with an almost unbelievable 3-D quality. This is music-making at the very peak of perfection, both technically and interpretively.
This is clearly one of those discs that you really need to hear to fully appreciate how good these musicians are, and in a way it’s sad that they aren’t a regularly formed group because, in a way, I think this will hurt them in terms of record sales and promotion. But WOW, what a terrific disc!
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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