Emilie Mayer’s Piano Trios

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MAYER: Piano Trios: in D min. (c. 1845-55), No. 3 in Eb, in A min. (c. 1859) / Klaviertrio Hannover: Katharina Sellheim, pno; Łucja Madzier, vln; Johannes Krebs, cel / Genuin 22790-1

Readers of this blog know how bowled over I was when I finally discovered Emilie Mayer (1812-1883) about two years ago—a woman composer who easily stood comparison with the best male composers of her time, yet has been marginalized and forgotten. This new CD by the talented Klaviertrio Hannover presents three of her piano trios that have never been previously recorded, although two of Mayer’s later piano trios (Opp. 13 & 16) have been recorded by Trio Vivente.

Although Mayer’s family was not the least musical—her father was a pharmacist—she evidently had an incredible talent from a young age, and she was very fortunate to find a composition teacher who was both a first-class musician and open-minded towards women in the arts: none other than Carl Loewe, one of the greatest song composers Germany ever produced. As Kaja Engel’s liner notes observe,

In addition to their supposed lack of artistic ability, women were largely kept away from artistic activities because they were assigned a fixed place in the household.  In the classic family arrangement, the woman took care of the children and the household, thus freeing her husband for professional realization. [Think of poor Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel.]  Mayer eluded this role assignment by remaining unmarried. This reduced her domestic obligations, but also meant that she had to earn her own living.

Mayer’s music contained much of the same surprising and unconventional twists and turns that characterized Loewe’s songs, but she was able to apply this skill to larger forms such as chamber works like these and symphonies. Of course I haven’t heard her full output—it hasn’t all been recorded—but everything I have heard is on the same level as these piano trios. This music can easily hold its own in comparison to Johannes Brahms, at any period in his development as a composer, and that’s saying quite a bit. In fact, I often find Mayer’s music to be more emotional and inspired than much of Brahms from this period. He was a composer who, like Meyerbeer, spent long hours considering which note went where on the page, whereas Emilie Mayer, though of course taking classical form into consideration, seemed to me to write much more spontaneously.

MayerWhy her music faded from view is unclear. During her lifetime, it received not just positive but rave reviews from critics whenever and wherever it was performed. Ludwig Rellstab, writing of Mayer’s pieces in April, 1850, said that “We may place her work on an equal footing with most of what the young world of musical artists … has produced today, a wreath of honor that music criticism can rightfully present to female talent.” It is, then, rather a shame that now that she is being rediscovered as a composer, she has become a poster child for gender debate in the arts. A great composer is a great composer, regardless of race or gender…or at least, so it should be. Yet the “feministas” out there simply have to make an issue of such outstanding composers as Barbara Strozzi, Elizaneth Jacquet de la Guerre, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and Mayer. This attitude has led to deifying Clara Schumann, whose own music wasn’t even half as good as that of Pauline Viardot-Garcia, let alone that of her late husband or Brahms, into some sort of paragon in the arts. Sadly, women composers of merit are still marginalized for the most part. A few, like Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Kaja Saariaho and August Read Thomas, are celebrated, but what of Errollyn Wallen, Nancy Van de Vate, Libby Larsen, Barbara Kolb and Outi Tarkainen? Still relegated to “freak” status when they are mentioned at all.

But concerning the music on this CD, it is simply wonderful, tightly written, exciting, and harmonically daring for its time, veering back and forth between major and minor with impunity. Several of the melodic lines she used, even in fast movements like the last of the Piano Trio in d minor, are memorable and catchy, but unlike Brahms she did not get hung up on producing “melodies.” Rather, she used them as a springboard into often wild and unpredictable development sections; the tunes were secondary to what she was able to do with them. Perhaps this is another reason why she was forgotten.

I was also thrilled with Klaviertrio Hannover’s performance style, crisp and exciting. They take the attitude that this is music worth playing and hearing, regardless of the composer’s gender. I was also very happy to read in the notes that they have edited these scores for publication, finally, by Furore Verlag. Hopefully, this splendid recording will spark interest in other chamber groups to play her music more often, but don’t hold your breath. The Standard Repertoire is just that, standard, and formerly unknown outsiders like Emilie Mayer keep a-knockin’ but they can’t come in.

One of the few let-downs on the entire CD, in my personal view, was the slow second movement of the Trio No. 3 in Eb. It’s technically well written, but to my ears doesn’t really say a lot; it sounds more like a time-filler, as if Mayer had to write a slow movement and so came up with this. But of course, you are free to feel differently. The sprightly, smile-inducing finale, however, makes up for this.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Moncado Plays 20th Century Violin Sonatas

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MONCADO: Hindemith: Violin Sonata in E, Op. 11. POULENC: Violin Sonata. BARTÓK: Violin Sonata No. 1 / Elias David Moncado, vln; Hansjacob Staemmler, pno / CAvi 8553577D

This is the debut CD of German-Spanish-Malaysian (there’s an ethnic combination for you!) violinist, Elias David Moncado, winner of the 2021 International Valsesia Musica and Vladimir Spivakov competitions. My readers know that, to me, winning competitions really don’t usually amount to a hill of beans unless you show me that you have real talent and not just technical skill, but considering that Moncado is only 21 years old, and that this CD shows a temperament that is both fiery and poetic in turns, does matter to me.

I have recordings of the Hindemith sonata by two excellent violinists, David Oistrakh and Frank Peter Zimmermann, but I would put this performance above both of them in terms of his consistently emotional connection with the music. Interestingly, Moncado uses straight tone in the slow movement of the Hindemith, which of course was not standard practice among violinists of his time (and certainly not German violinists, who then preferred a rich, plummy tone), but it works because, somehow, Moncado avoids sounding whiny and abrasive, yet another feather in his cap. Would that all modern violinists who use straight tone could produce as beautiful a sound as Moncado does here; and beyond the sheer sound, his playing is deeply heartfelt, even touching. I think Hindemith would have loved this performance.

Even more startlingly, he attacks the Poulenc sonata as if it were Bartók or Beethoven. I say this is startling simply because most French violinists, particularly in Poulenc’s time, tended to favor a light, skimming sound on their instruments (think of Thibaud, Merckel, Tzipine and Delbos); only Ginette Neveu  had a more emotional approach to the instrument; but Moncado is every bit Neveu’s equal in both technique and temperament, and I enjoyed his performance immensely.

Needless to say, when Moncado gets to the Bartók sonata, he is simply astonishing—explosive in the fast passages, sensitive in the lyrical ones—and since his timbre resembles that of Joseph Szigeti to a large degree, there is no question that these performances are not the kind that the composer would have envisioned. And of course I should add that his accompanist, Hansjacob Staemmler, is every bit Moncado’s equal as an interpreter, giving his all on each and every track.

This is quite a debut disc. I can’t wait to hear what Moncado has in store for us next!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Korstick’s Superb Beethoven Concerti

Beethoven Korstick cover

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerti Nos. 1-5. Piano Concerto in D, Op. 61a (listed here as Concerto No. 7). Piano Concerto No. 0 in Eb, WoO4. Rondo in Bb, WoO 6. Piano Concerto No. 6: I. Allegro / Michael Korstick, pno; ORF Radio Symphony Orch. Vienna; Constantin Trinks, cond / CPO 555 447-2

While the rest of the world was Pandemic-ing at the end of 2020, pianist Michael Korstick was a busy beaver. Working in a Viennese recording studio with the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra and Constantin Trinks, his own personal choice as conductor, he recorded the five numbered piano concerti of Beethoven as well as the piano version of the Violin Concerto. He wanted the concerti to be played and conducted his way, which he felt was truest to Beethoven: brisk and taut, with the energy of Toscanini’s performances, a little more breathing room but without the rallentandos and luftpausen that so many performers insert into them despite the fact that they’re not in the scores.

And now, we have the final result. I’m sure that he, who is well aware of historical Beethoven recordings, knows that his set will be measured against all the others. I can’t claim to have heard all of them because many such sets didn’t appeal to me, but between following my own tastes and, occasionally the recommendations of others (particularly in my younger years, before I was confident enough to follow my own muse), I’ve listened to these:

Artur Schnabel/Malcolm Sargent – in brief, Schnabel excellent, Sargent businesslike
Wilhelm Kempff/Ferdinand Leitner – slow, Kempff mannered, Leitner dull as dishwater
Rudolf Serkin/Eugene Ormandy – actually an excellent set despite a few rallentandos, but you’ve GOT to stick to Ormandy and NOT fill in with Serkin/Bernstein
Leon Fleischer/George Szell – 1 & 2 oddly slow & stiff, 3-5 generally excellent
Friedrich Gulda/Horst Stein – surprisingly two-dimensional for the usually fiery Gulda
Alfred Brendel/James Levine – #1 was an ass-kicker, the other 4 not that great
Richard Goode/Iván Fischer – the opposite of the first set: Fischer exciting, Goode businesslike
Stefan Vladar/Barry Wordsworth – not too bad but not great, either
Stewart Goodyear/Andrew Constantine – both sound businesslike but solid
Dénes Várjon/András Keller – a real set of risk-taking performances; despite Várjon’s occasional rushing the notes, causing some smudges, this is really incendiary Beethoven

And of course I have the incomplete NBC Symphony set, No. 2 by Kapell/Golschmann (another recording that Korstick greatly admires), Nos. 1, 3 & 4 by Toscanini with three different pianists (Dorfmann, Rubinstein and Serkin).

Listening to Korstick makes you realize two things: he really is an artist, and he really does understand Beethoven. Generally speaking, he walks a tightrope between the no-holds-barred style of Várjon and the more orthodox but still fine playing (for its day) of Serkin, and as it happens these were my two favorite recordings of these concerti.

Until now.

Although I still find that Ormandy’s conducting is a shade more exciting than Trinks’, at least a couple of these recordings were made in live performance and that always makes a big difference. Perhaps wanting to avoid Schnabel’s occasional over-accenting of certain notes, Korstick tried to be truer to the score, at least enough to produce musically consonant performances. Put another way, he plays each and every note with its full musical value whereas other pianists (Schnabel and Várjon, and in places Serkin) would clip some notes just a hair short in order to create more “springiness” in their playing.

But this is not to say that Korstick is orthodox in his phrasing. On the contrary, there are innumerable little moments of rubato here that I wish Stewart Goodyear had done to make his playing sound less routine. Like his superb set of the Beethoven piano sonatas, Korstick gives us some fire in every piece here without resorting to exaggeration. Yes, perhaps these performances would have gained a shade more frisson had they been “live,” but when you compare them to every other studio-only set, Várjon/Keller is the only one I can put on the same level for different reasons, and as I already mentioned, Várjon sometimes let the excitement of the moment override his accuracy.

A comment made by Korstick to Dr. Christoh Vratz in 2012, in the liner notes for his Beethoven Piano Sonatas set, explains his philosophy:

Things are different in a concert. There, I do not want to deliver exactly the same thing one hundred percent, of course, or I would just send the CD onto the podium. In a concert, spontaneous inspirations and insights in the detail can lead to different results…With a studio recording, much less is due to chance or the given moment. That is why I listen very attentively to what I have just recorded, in order to be sure that each note is shaped as I imagine it. It sounds paradoxical when I say that I love studio productions because I can risk much more there. But that’s how it is. If I get on the wrong track, there’s a second chance right away in the studio.

Moreover, Korstick’s piano is beautifully recorded, which occasionally brings out more detail that I’ve ever heard in anyone’s performances of these pieces. Listen, for instance, to the slow movement of the Concerto No. 1, where his bass line fairly bounces against the right hand, producing a rhythmic tension that no one else I’ve heard has ever achieved, at least on record. And then, at 10:03 when the orchestra stops and he plays that high-lying phrase in the right hand, the notes almost make you feel tension, as if you didn’t really know where the music was going until he releases it and moves on to the final passages. And the way he digs into the opening of the last movement will have you on the edge of your seat.

Perhaps because they respect each other so much, Trinks is with Korstick every step of the way; his conducting never disappoints, although my ears tell me that the pianist led the conductor and not the other way round—which is undoubtedly what happened when Beethoven played these concerti himself (sometimes he acted as his own conductor from the keyboard). And there is more yet, the way Korstick “rounds off” certain phrases, as if creating musical cells within a movement that are meant to stand out without sounding forced or artificial. In his own way, then, his interpretations of these concerti are as revolutionary as Várjon’s, just more carefully articulated. I suppose a combination of excitement and neatness says it best. He wants you to experience the drama in the music, but he’s not going to slop over a few notes in order to do it.

Strange as it may seem to you, for me the acid test of any complete Beethoven Concerto set is not the first, or the third, or the fifth concerto, but the second—not because it’s the best but because it’s weaker than the first. Beethoven knew it, which is why he published it as No. 2 even though it was written earlier than No. 1. To bring this concerto to life requires the utmost from both conductor and soloist, and fortunately both Trinks and Korstick were up to the challenge. Only Kapell-Golschmann and, in their own idiosyncratic way, Várjon-Keller compare to what this duo does here, largely due not to the excitement that Korstick generates but to those small, subtle moments when he pulls back just a bit to shape a certain note or phrase in a way that no one else has done.

As I consider the second concerto to be the hardest to pull off in the series, I think of the third as Beethoven’s most pivotal. Indeed, the step up from the first (actually second) concerto to the third was just a big as his step up from the second to his third symphony (and perhaps I am alone in the world for thinking that the last movement of the “Eroica” Symphony was a cop-out that doesn’t really fit with the other three movements…but it doesn’t really; it’s a nice, bracing theme-and-variations when in fact this symphony called for the orchestral parallel to the last movement of the “Appassionata” Sonata). The only moment in this performance of the third concerto that I thought was just a shade wrong was the slow-down that Trinks took at the end of the exposition, just before the pianist’s entrance. It just sounds a little too much like “Ta-daaa! Here comes the pianist!” whereas a more clipped, in-tempo playing of those notes would actually have been a bit more dramatic. On the other hand, it’s in keeping with the slight weight (rubato touches) that Korstick brings to bear on the solo part. He also manages to make the rippling figures in the first-movement cadenza sound as if they were related to the solo part in the “Emperor” Concerto, something I never quite noticed before.

In the second movement, Korstick and Trinks depart quite a bit from the pace taken by Artur Rubinstein and Arturo Toscanini, adding nearly a full minute. Yet somehow, the two performances don’t really sound too radically different when played one after the other because Toscanini relaxed the tension and Trinks keeps the rhythm moving forward despite the slower pace. In the third movement, both Toscanini and Trinks take almost identical tempi, and Korstick plays his part with a wonderful “lift” in the rhythm…there’s almost a touch of Chico Marx’s sparkle in a few passages.

Moving on to the Fourth Concerto, we hear Korstick doing something that almost no one ever does, and that is to play the first movement in fairly strict time with none of those Romantic but unwritten rallentandos that pianists love to throw in to show how “sensitive” they are. (I quickly tired of such pianists early in my exposure to classical music; my line always was, “Watery-eyed ascetics do not impress me.”) This decision was a wise one; not only does it follow what Beethoven wrote, but it brings out the work’s structure better—and Korstick plays certain passages with such a nice lift and forward momentum that the listener is never bored by the musical progression. The remaining two movements go very well, too. This has always been a Beethoven concerto that I’ve liked but not loved; too much of the music seems to ride on the surface, with not much to recommend it other than a nice entertaining 35 minutes or so, but Korstick’s interpretation made me re-think this piece.

The “Emperor” Concerto sound as grand as it should, but this is the one Beethoven piano concerto that always seems to bring out the best in both pianists and conductors anyway. And well it should; the music is so good that it almost, but not quite, plays itself if conductor and soloist just follow the dots (notes) and put into it what Beethoven directed. This, then, was in a sense the least surprising performance for me, but at least there was no let-down as there was in the Brendel-Levine set.

Rather than fill out the third disc with the Choral Fantasy, a piece that I think I love more than most people do, Korstick chose to play the piano version of the Violin Concerto, based on the fact that the composer himself made the transcription, although circumstantial evidence suggests that he did so in part because the premiere of the violin version was one of his few bombs. Korstick and Trinks again do not let the music linger; they take it at the written tempo, as only a few violin-version recordings do (among them Heifetz-Toscanini, Milstein-Steinberg, Heifetz-Munch and Tetzlaff-Ticciati). I’ve only heard a few recordings of this edition of the concerto—Pietro Spada with Sir Alexander Gibson, Jenő Jandó with Bela Drahos and Gottlieb Wallisch with Martin Haselböck—and somehow the music fails to make much of an impression. In the case of the first two it’s because the tempi are still a tad sluggish and the pianists really don’t sound firmly committed to the score; as for the third, the tempi are wonderfully brisk but the orchestra plays with that non-historical constant straight tone in the strings and the soloist, I swear, sounds like he’s playing a xylophone instead of a piano.

Trinks and Korstick do not make the same mistakes. In fact, the conducting here is not only brisker than that of Haselböck, but also has the kind of muscle one heard in Toscanini’s recording of the violin version. His only fault is that he does not have the lower strings articulate their figures as clearly as Toscanini, Steinberg or Munch were able to do, but that isn’t such a big thing. The real gem is Korstick’s firmly committed performance; he sounds as if he’s playing the second concerto, meaning that he gives it his all, and the results are stunning. Listen to those chords at the 4:28 mark—he attacks them for all they’re worth, and it isn’t just that specific moment in the performance. The whole thing bristles with excitement. There are moments when the “spring” in his rhythmic attack makes the piano sound like a young lamb joyously leaping over a fence. I’ve never heard the like, and strange as this may seem to you, this may actually be the defining moment in the entire set and the principal reason you should buy it. As I say, it’s not just Korstick who makes this performance work. Trinks drives it as if it were the “Eroica” Symphony, and that’s saying something. But what can I say? Kortick’s first-movement cadenza will absolutely blow you away; it’s that exciting and that interesting. He plays it flawlessly, and there’s a part for the tympani behind him in the second half that will perk your ears up if nothing else will.

In the second movement, Korstick’s pearl-like attack makes the slowly spaced notes sound like diamonds dropping slowly onto fine china. No violinist has, or probably could, make such an effect since their instrument is entirely different. Also, the way Korstick leads in from the second movement to the third is different from the violin version, and also more exciting.

But there’s more! On the fourth CD are Korstick’s performances of the oft-ignored “Piano Concerto No. 0” written by the 13-year-old Beethoven in 1784, before his 14th birthday, the Rondo in Bb which was the original finale of Piano Concerto No. 2, and the single surviving movement (the first) from the Piano Concerto No. 6. The latter may confuse some people since the piano version of the Violin Concerto is sometimes referred to, and listed on CD covers, as “Piano Concerto No. 6,” but they are entirely different works.

I already owned a recording of the “Concerto No. 0” in Naxos’ Big Box o’ Beethoven that came out last year, played by Martin Galling with the Berlin Symphony conducted by Carl-August Bünte. This one is entirely different, with a new orchestration commissioned especially for this recording, but there are other differences as well. The tempi are faster, and Korstick plays the piano part as if this were a significant concerto, investing the music with his usual blend of passion, legato, rubato and a bit of dazzle in the first-movement cadenza. He almost convinces one that it’s a wonderful piece, but it falls short of being great though it shows that, at age 14, Beethoven had certainly learned the rudiments of composition as they were known in his time. The second and third movements in particular reveal its weakness: they sound like sub-par Mozart (or C.P.E. Bach, whose music he knew fairly well at the time), very pretty but rather inconsequential music, yet Korstick is still in their pitching, trying to make you think that it’s on a par with the other concerti. Trinks gives it all he has as well.

Even in the Bb Rondo, written in 1793, we hear a distinct improvement in Beethoven’s approach to composition. There are several moments here, as in the sudden rising up of the orchestral music as if exploding up a mine shaft, that has Beethoven’s fingerprints all over it. Yet it is the one surviving movement from the Piano Concerto No. 6 that most grabs your attention, for this is fully mature Beethoven with no apologies necessary. Yes, I felt that the very opening, with its soft orchestra theme, followed by the pianist playing keyboard flourishes, is somewhat weak, but once the orchestral tutti arrives to carry us off, we’re in mid-period Beethoven at his best. One thing that struck me as quite different for him was his use of falling chromatics and other bold, immediate key changes in the middle of phrases, something that just wasn’t done in his time and in fact that he wouldn’t revisit until the late String Quartets, but here it is in this fully developed piece written in 1814-15. The only reason I can think for his having abandoned it, other than the dramatic key changes, is that the movement bears a bit of resemblance to the opening movement of the “Emperor,” but I really do feel that this piece should be in the standard repertoire like Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. This movement was completed (Beethoven only left 256 bars) a few years ago by Nicholas Cook and Hermann Dechant; it was recorded previously by Sophie Mayuko-Vetter with the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Ruzicka (Oehms Classics), but both Trinks’ conducting and Korstick’s full-blooded, emotionally committed playing are far better than her version. Once again, Korstick provides an amazing rhythmic “lift” to certain phrases that will put a smile on your face; he just knows where to go and what to do with the music.

So that’s my assessment of this set. There are performances that will meet your highest expectations,  those to make you re-think the music and those that exceed expectations. The piano version of the violin concerto, however, succeeds on all three counts. Trinks and Korstick seldom put a foot wrong in this entire set. From start to finish, it’s a gem.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Nicholas Milton’s Fascinating Brahms

cover Prospero Classics PROSP00345

BRAHMS: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Academic Festival Overture / Göttinger Symphonie Orchester; Nicholas Milton, cond . Prospero Classics PROSP00345

This strangely neglected set, culled from individual previous releases which were also neglected by most music lovers and critics, embody what I feel is, on balance, the best digital recording of these symphonies yet made. The reasons for their being neglected probably boil down to two: 1) most people have never heard of Nicholas Milton, and 2) the majority of music lovers have probably never heard, as I had not previously heard, of Prospero Classical, which suggests to me that not only are they a small independent label, but they must have very little budget for promotion and advertising.

I discovered online that Nicholas Milton is a 54-year-old Australian violinist and conductor who previously directed the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.  In 2015, he and German pianist Joseph Moog earned a Grammy nomination in the best classical instrumental solo category for the record Grieg & Moszkowski: Piano Concertos. But being well known in Canberra and receiving a Grammy nomination, but not an actual Grammy, apparently doesn’t carry much weight. Milton has been Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Göttingen Symphony since 2018.

After listening to a cross-section of this set and being greatly impressed by it, I looked online…and looked and looked and looked…but the only review I could find was written by Remy Franck on April 11 of this year. An abridged version of this review follows; you can read the whole thing on his Pizzicato website.

Nicholas Milton has been Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Göttingen Symphony Orchestra since 2018. With this formation, he has recorded the Four Symphonies as well as Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture for Prospero. The fact that Brahms stayed in Göttingen several times may have been an incentive for this production, but much more important is the fact that these interpretations turned out so well… full of tension throughout, and although the recording is somewhat bass-heavy, the transparency is immediately noticeable. Milton, who certainly realizes the urgency of the music and always enlivens its flow with accents and rubati, sharpens the dialogue between the various orchestral groups. Many passages become so interesting that one listens closely to register novel-sounding developments. How excellently the Australian structures and shapes the music is shown – to cite just one example of many possible – by the beginning of the last movement, which becomes particularly meaningful.

It is fascinating what Milton does in terms of details, how he structures the various levels, and achieves great transparency in the process. And so I can only say: here we have a top-class complete recording of the Brahms symphonies, which can only be recommended and which also is enriching for listeners who know their Brahms very well.

My judgment, which I hope to justify in the extended review below, is that these are not only the best Brahms symphony recordings of the digital era but one of the best sets ever made, period. These recordings not only rival the historic complete sets by Felix Weingartner and Arturo Toscanini (1, 3 & 4 with the Philharmonia Orchestra, No. 2 with NBC), but they are better than everyone who came after them. Even Michael Gielen, whose set of these symphonies I previously admired, comes in a distant third to what Milton does here.

Having made a comparison of Milton’s achievement to Weingartner and Toscanini, I must make clear that his tempi are generally slower, at times considerably so. The most extreme example, in fact, is the first movement of the first symphony which clocks in at a little over 16 minutes, far slower than almost anyone else, even slower than Joseph Keilberth who often conducted relatively slow performances of the standard repertoire. Yet since Brahms, unlike Beethoven, did not use metronome markings but did indicate very meticulous and precise tempo changes when necessary, the comparison holds up in terms of orchestral detail, which is absolutely incredible. Time and again, you will hear little details in these movements that even Toscanini did not bring out as clearly, and Milton accomplishes this without exaggerating or over-italicizing those details. They’re just there.

The recorded sound is closely miked but not shrill or over-reverberant; on the contrary, the sound is warm and rich, giving the Göttinger orchestra a sound profile similar to the early 1950s recordings made by the old Philharmonia Orchestra for EMI, yet at the same time the high range is not muffled or too badly covered. All of this helps you focus on the music and what Milton does with it, and as one who knows these scores pretty darn well (not as well as the Beethoven or Mahler Symphonies, but well enough), I can tell you that he is an absolute stickler for following what Brahms has written, not only in the orchestral detail but in the small but frequent tempo changes and dynamics.

Since I had no access to a booklet for this recording, I can’t tell you how large the Göttinger forces used on these recordings were, but they sounded like less than the usual 110-to-120 musicians normally used nowadays. To check, I went to the orchestra’s official website, totaled up the musicians listed, and came up with 69 musicians as follows: 23 violins, 6 violas, 7 cellos, 4 basses, 3 flutes, 4 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 5 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, 1 harp, 1 tympanist and 2 percussionists. This, too, helps with the orchestral clarity.

One thing that separates Milton’s slower tempo from, say, those of Otto Klemperer or Hans Knappertsbusch in Brahms is his greater forward momentum, but unlike Weingartner or Toscanini who pushed the beat, Milton seems to pull it, and there’s a difference. Under his baton, the music assumes a flow and not a stampede—although, to be fair, Toscanini’s live performances of the Brahms symphonies with the Philharmonia were much more organic and less nervous-sounding than several of his NBC broadcasts and recordings of them.

The second symphony has always been the problem child of the set: quiet and reflective music rather than dynamic and exciting, it sometimes fails to make as much of an impression than the others. Weingartner, Leopold Stokowski, Charles Munch, Toscanini and Michael Gielen solved this problem by increasing the speed, which did work in its own way, but here Milton manages to keep the musical river flowing without dragging at more conventional (or slightly slower than conventional) tempi. Again, Milton takes a fairly slow tempo in the first movement, but not exaggeratedly so; in fact, it’s not that far off from the Toscanini-Philharmonia performance. One difference is that he does use more rubato and rallentando effects, all of which are in the score.  Another is that Milton observes all of the repeats, which other conductors do not. His treatment of the third movement has a lightness and dance-like rhythm similar to a Mendelssohn scherzo. At just about the two-minute mark in the last movement, there’s a very tricky syncopated passage (look it up in the score; it looks even more complicated than it sounds) which Milton handles as easily as if he were rolling off a log. VERY nicely done! He also handles the sudden slower tempo at 3:57 in this movement as well as the rubato effects in the middle of this passage with aplomb.

The Third Symphony, which many (including myself) consider to be Brahms’ best, also includes many more moment of rubato that one is used to hearing, even in the first movement (not marked in the score, but implied by the way the phrasing is constructed). In the fourth, Milton downplays the little brass fanfares in the first movement, perhaps undeservedly so, yet it all seems to fit.

All Brahms fanciers know that the composer’s favorite conductor of his works was Fritz Steinbach, who died in 1916 without having made a single recording, which is a pity. But they also know that the two most famous Steinbach pupils who did make records had completely opposite conducting styles: Fritz Busch and Hans Knappertsbuch. (Karl Elmendorff, another Steinbach pupil who recorded, left us no Brahms performances; his conducting of other composers lay somewhere between Busch and Knappertsbusch in tempo and phrasing, but except for his 1930 Tannhäuser, his performances are rather dull.) Thus the jury is still out on exactly how Steinbach conducted Brahms, although both Weingartner and Toscanini heard him do so and, as noted, their performances were generally quite swift, especially the former. The Academic Festival Overture is also quite good.

My final thoughts: although in terms of setting slower basic tempi and in his use of some fluctuations Milton’s performances are a bit eccentric, he follows the scores very closely, one might say almost fanatically so, without italicizing anything. A very interesting take on Brahms, then, and for the most part valid.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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More of Paganini’s Guitar Quartets

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PAGANINI: Guitar Quartets Nos. 7, 14, 15 / Paganini Ensemble Vienna: Mario Hossen, vln; Marta Potulska, vla; Liliana Kehayova, cel; Alexander Swete, gtr / Dynamic CDS7938

As I noted in reviewing the first release in this series, it is evidently meant to replace Dynamic’s previous release of all 15 of them by a different group (Quartetto Paganini) which played them in an over-polite, reticent fashion. The Paganini Ensemble Vienna gave them more energy except in the case of the guitarist, who plays more like Segovia and less like the gypsy violinist who traveled with Paganini and inspired these works.

On this new release, the guitarist is just a shade better than on the first, and the music is well written and interesting. For all his bravura tendencies, Paganini was a complete musician, which meant that, in addition to his own playing, he knew how to write music pretty well. He just preferred the style of Mozart to that of Beethoven or Berlioz in his own works, though he clearly appreciated the music of those two later composers (and in fact knew Berlioz personally).

In the first movement of Quartet No. 15, which opens this CD, the guitar is called upon to play what has become known in the jazz world as “stop-time” chords. Personally, I felt that playing the repeats was unnecessary, particularly since Paganini’s themes were fairly repetitive to begin with, but what the heck. It’s fun listening for a yucky overcast day when you just want something cheerful yet interesting to listen to. Although he stays in the background in the first movement, the guitarist gets a solo in the second, and this is a really interesting passage as it includes strange, descending chromatics, possibly something Paganini picked up from his guitar buddy. The third movement opens with tremolo chords on the guitar behind the violinist, who plays solo for some time—again, possibly replicating some of the things he played while on the road with the gypsy guitarist. The fourth is an almost Russian-sounding theme in the minor, later briefly switching to major, which is worked out well in the development section. Quartet No. 14, heard next, bears a strong resemblance to No. 15.

It should also be mentioned that, except for those moments when the guitar solos, these quartets generally favor the violinist (big surprise there, huh?). the viola and cello being basically there to provide some chord support and not much else.

As I say, then, a fun CD, nothing too heavy for the mind, but clearly well played and very well recorded.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Holmboe’s String Quartets, Vol. 2

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HOLMBOE: String Quartets Nos. 2 & 14. Quartetto sereno (No. 21, ed. Per Norgård) / Nightingale String Qrt / Dacapo 6220717

This is the second volume in what is evidently a projected series of Vagn Holmboe’s complete string quartets. As I noted in my review of Vol. 1, Holmboe was a composer who loved to play with juxtaposed figures and leaping, bouncing rhythms. Although his first quartet was dedicated to Bartók, the second also contains many references to the famed Hungarian composer. Even so, Holmboe had his own way of writing, and the first movement most definitely has a jazz feel to the rhythm, with the kind of loose swing one associates with that music. Except for the edgier use of harmony, this might almost be a piece by Nikolai Kapustin—at least until two minutes in, when the tempo increases and a more rigid rhythm takes over. Following his usual method, Holmboe has each of the four instruments play themes and figures that work against one another, although there are indeed full choruses where they do play together. But rhythm and harmony were clearly the two devices he played with in his music over his long career.

The second movement opens with a bitonal figure played by the viola and cello (the former in its lowest range), followed by somewhat “fluttering” figures in the violins. There is a certain amount of this back-and-forth pattern until we settle into a more continuous theme, played by the viola. This slowly climbs its way up in pitch as it develops, with the two violins joining in. In the third movement, Holmboe pulls out all the stops, producing a wild scherzo in which flying figures constantly cross one another, sometimes in a fast 4, at other times in a medium 3—and with some odd pauses along the way. Being a five-movement quartet, the fourth is an elegy, less than half as long as the second movement and even shorter than the scherzo, while the last, based on Balkan tunes, is in 5/8. The liner notes refer to its “dissonant but elegant jam session” quality. About two-thirds of the way through it, the suggestion of jazz “swing” returns.

Quartet No. 14 was the first of three in which Holboe had a tune in his head, picked up from sea gulls, which he could not get out of his head. This one is quite dense in structure, however, its six movements running a total duration of 21 minutes with the first three linked to produce a single movement in three sections. There is less recklessness and more order in this music, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing although I do miss the wild abandon of Quartet No. 2. I found the fifth-movement “Allegro” particularly imaginative, using fast, rhythmic but somewhat disjointed figures to play against one another. The last movement, an “Allegro vivace,” also has an American music feel to it, but in this case more like hoedown music than jazz.

The posthumous Quartetto sereno, left unfinished at his death, was later completed by his pupil and friend Per Norgård. It’s a nice piece, but not, in my view, on as high a level as the other quartets I’ve heard.

An excellent disc, then, as well as a valuable addition to the Holmboe discography. The Nightingale Quartet plays with fervor and commitment as well as an astounding technique.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Music

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F. MENDELSSOHN: Das Jahr, H.385. Nocturne in G min., H.337. Nocturne Napolitano. Introduction and Capriccio in B min., H.349 / Martina Frezzotti, pno / Piano Classics PCL 10238

My regular readers know that I have been saying, repeatedly over the past two or three years, that Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was a much greater composer than Clara Schumann, who somehow keeps acing Fanny out in terms of CD space. Here, Italian pianist Martina Frezzotti (b. 1986), a pupil of Lazar Berman, gives us more of her piano music than just the sonatas and Piano Trio which are much more common.

Indeed, I learned by poking around online that Das Jahr was written in 1841 and presented by Fanny to her husband Wilhelm as a most remarkable Christmas present. Earlier in the year, when still working on them, she had written to an artist friend:

I’m engaged on another small work that’s giving me much fun, namely a series of 12 piano pieces meant to depict the months; I’ve already progressed more than half way. When I finish, I’ll make clean copies of the pieces, and they will be provided with vignettes. And so we try to ornament and prettify our lives–that is the advantage of artists, that they can strew such beautifications about, for those nearby to take an interest in.[1]

Fanny Mendelssohn

The composer

Most of the pieces have subtitles, but some don’t. January, subtitled “A Dream,” opens as a slow, moody piece, but has some surprising and daring fast passages that seem to be juxtaposed with the theme rather than a development of it. It’s a highly imaginative piece, for once sounding very different from that of her brother. February (“Scherzo”) uses a fast 6/8 theme that sounds a bit like Felix’s “Scherzo” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, except with changes into the minor where her scampering elves seem rather more sinister. March has no subtitle, but is a minor-key piece in a straight 4, here with occasional dips into the major. Halfway through, the music slows down in tempo as the music becomes almost an elegy. April (“Capriccioso”) is another excellent piece with surprising rising chromatics as the music goes up the scale, plus dips into neighboring keys, and at the end of this piece the music moves into May (“Spring Song”) without a break.

June’s “Serenade” is, surprisingly, in D minor, thought it, too morphs into the major now and then. Halfway through, in fact, Fanny indulges in some very surprising harmonic shifts that would have made Robert Schumann proud, and the piece stops abruptly before we get to languish in the steamy “Serenade” for July, with its surprising, rumbling bass line in the middle. A bit later on, the right hand plays a single-note “walking” theme while the left, in the middle of the keyboard, explores a contrasting theme in chords. August (no subtitle) is surprisingly chipper, almost sounding like a springtime Maypole dance. (And mind you, Fanny wrote these pieces in between cleaning house, cooking and caring for her baby, all things that Felix didn’t have to deal with!)

September’s “Am flusse” is a mezzo-forte minor-key piece in 6/8 rhythm, while October is a peppy major-key march (apparently, she had some happy Octobers!). November is sad and melancholy, with interrupted rhythms and a pensive, three-note motif played (on different notes, but in the same basic sequence) in the upper right hand  while the rest of the music hangs around the middle of the keyboard—until about a third of the way through, when the music suddenly picks up in tempo, built around a theme made up of short tremolos that morphs and changes as it wends its way along. December’s music resembles falling snowflakes with the hint of winter winds in its fast-paced, swirling themes. But halfway through, the music changes into a sort of march, then stops dead before resuming as a sort of sad little chorale. Oddly, this theme is carried over to the “Postlude,” where she worked it out in a different manner.

The two nocturnes are a clear indication of how much more interesting of a composer Fanny Mendelssohn was than Chopin; her music surprises with its unusual twists and turns, whereas his nocturnes were pleasant but unsurprising. We then end with the Introduction and Capriccio in B minor, another excellent work.

Frizzotti plays all of these with a wonderful sense of involvement and energy, almost as if she had written them herself. Highly recommended!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] Quoted and translated in R. Larry Todd, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 275.

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The ARUNDOSquintett Plays Modern Music

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BLOMENKAMP: 7 Desserts Rhythmiques. TROJAHN: Sonata No. 3. GUTH: NGOMA. LIGETI: 6 Bagatelles / ARUNDOSquintett: Anna Saha, fl; Yoshihiko Shimo, oboe; three others / Audite 97.798

This is the kind of nonsense I have to go through nowadays in order to review CDs I like. Origin, the debut CD of the young, up-and-coming ARUNDOS wind quintet, was not available for me to download. I had to wait until it popped up on the Naxos Music Library, and all I could get was the CD cover image and the music…no booklet, absolutely no info on the composers or performers. I located their Facebook page were, to my frustration, only two of the five musicians were named. Sometimes I feel more like Sherlock Holmes than a music reviewer.

I even had to look up three of the composers performed here because I had no clue who they were. Thomas Blomenkamp is a German composer, no date of birth available online. Manfred Trojahn (b. 1949) is a German composer, flautist, conductor and writer. Maximilian Guth is a much younger-looking German composer, no birth date found online. Well, at least we all know who György Ligeti was!

Blomenkamp’s 7 Desserts Rhythmiques opens up with a cheerful little ditty, “Sempre piano e leggiero,” in a medium-tempo 6/8 time. It is very accessible music, sounding much like the wind quintets of Françaix or Poulenc, only with a German accent. But remember, these are titled “Desserts,” meaning that they are clearly intended to be after-dinner treats, not a main course, and the music is palatable indeed. The ARUNDOSquintett plays with a light, airy quality, and at least in these works do not project much in the way of emotion, but this music probably isn’t supposed to be played emotionally anyway.

Trojahn’s Sonata No. 3 is meatier but still approachable music using dissonant chording for the instruments within a lyrical framework. Once again, however, I felt a reticence on the part of the ARUNDOSquintett to give their all to this music from an emotional standpoint, although there is more energy here than in their performance of the Blomenkamp suite. There were moments when I felt that the music was more interesting than their performance of it, particularly when the tempo picks up in the first movement and the individual lines for the five instruments intersect in a wild, zig-zag fashion. The “Scherzo” is particularly whimsical, even a bit ironic, and this the quintet played very well indeed. The last movement, “Molto adagio,” is quite a bit faster than an adagio, and may be the most interesting and complex movement of the three, and here the ARUNDOSquintett really does get into the spirit of the music quite well.

Guth’s NGOMA is another modern-but-accessible piece, here a work that opens in a slow tempo with some interesting non-musical effects added by the musicians. At the 3:10 mark, it suddenly becomes much livelier, using crisp but irregular rhythms to make its point in a sequence of sharp chords before moving on to the development section. A nice piece, but after a while it just got stuck in one chord and didn’t say a whole lot to me.

In terms of both music and performance, however, the real gems on this set are Ligeti’s 6 Bagatelles, played with zest and drive by the quintet. In fact, this may be the best performance I’ve yet heard of them: beautiful tones, perfect blends, and just the right amount of drive and “bite” in the playing.

In toto, then, an interesting recording in terms of repertoire—which I clearly enjoyed—but just a bit of reticence in some of the playing. If the ARUNDOSquintett were to loosen up a little more in all of their performances as they did in the Trojahn and Ligeti pieces, they would clearly be a first-rate ensemble.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Rihm’s Music for Cello

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RIHM: String Trios Nos. 2 & 9. Grat for Solo Cello. Von Weit for Cello & Piano. Duomonolog for Violin and Cello / Friedrich Gauwerky, cel; Alexandra Greffin-Klein, vln; Axel Porath, vla; Florian Uhlig, pno / Wergo WER 7402-2

Wolfgang Rihm is one of those modern German composers who still uses the 12-tone style of Schoenberg but not always the 12-tone row. This new Wergo release presents several works involving the cello, including two of his string trios, the earlier one presented here (No. 2) written when he was only 17 years old.

It is clearly a well-crafted piece, lasting all of four minutes, but so derivative of Schoenberg that it really doesn’t have any individuality. Far more interesting is the solo cello piece Grat (Edge), written three years later. Here, Rihm abandoned the strict dodecaphonic style of his predecessors; though the music is still atonal, it is much more fluid in structure and has much more feeling in it, although there are indeed passages that will severely challenge the casual listener. As stated in the notes, “The solo part moves permanently from one extreme to another: from the softest to the loudest dynamic levels, from static sounds to sudden convulsions, from the lowest to the highest registers. Gentle pizzicati are followed by explosive Bartók pizzicati (sffffz).” Parts of it I liked very much—there’s even a certain playfulness in some passages; parts of it I didn’t, but it was clearly an advance on his earlier work.

Better yet is Von Weit for Cello & Piano from 1993. Here, although the music is neither melodic nor lovely, Rihm was working within a primarily tonal base. Its most fascinating aspect is its constantly soft profile; the cello always has the mute on its strings and the pianist always has the soft pedal down, creating a strange, other-worldly sound. This piece I liked tremendously; it created a feeling of something mysterious in the distance despite a few notes struck and played louder than the others. Here, too, Rihm created a more legato feeling, which enhances its mystery.

Rihm also hit upon some excellent musical ideas in his Duomonolog for violin and cello (1986-88). Here, there is even a legato flow to the music missing in the previous pieces, and he used the old Baroque practice of creating the illusion of a duet by using quick register changes, but in a modern manner. The music here has no firm tonal base but is not altogether atonal, just, you might say, “non-tonal.” I give Rihm a great deal of credit for having more than one “voice” as a composer; despite some similarities, none of these first four pieces really sound like any of the other ones. Indeed, the one thing that links Grat, Von Weit and Duomonolog is his penchant for creating music with an interesting ambience while still retaining a core substance of cohesive musical materials.

Although the String Trio No. 9 dates from 1971, only two years after No. 2, it is quite different, already moving away from a strict application of the 12-tone row. As the notes tell us, it is comprised of Classical, Romantic, Expressionistic and Avant-Garde elements, sounding like “the protocol of a multi-polar personality disorder.” There are also, to my ears, a few touches of humor in this piece, as if Rihm was trying to let the listener know that it wasn’t all serious.

In all of these works, the elderly cellist Friedrich Gauwerky plays with the energy of a 30-year-old, attacking this music with both intelligence and energy. It’s clearly not music for all tastes, but I definitely feel it’s worth a listen.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Carl Vine’s Piano Sonatas

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VINE: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-4 / Xiaoya Liu, pno / Dynamic DYN-CDS7931-1

The Italian CD label Dynamic is one of my favorite indies (along with Brilliant Classics, IBS Classical, TYXart and one or two others) because their recordings of older, more traditional music, particularly opera, are usually fresh and interesting, often with excellent casts, and their occasional ventures into instrumental music—like this one—are very intriguing.

Carl Vine (b. 1954) is an Australian composer, very well known in his native country but not so much here in America (and I’m not sure about the European continent). Xiaoya Liu, who I’ve not heard of before, appears to be a fine pianist, although, since I am not familiar with these works and these are their first recordings, I cannot assess how close they are to the scores.

The opening of the first sonata is quite different from what one might expect, being slow, moody music set to bitonal harmonies. This in itself sets Vine apart from many other contemporary composers who, if they do write slow, moody music, tend to swath it in Romantic harmony, much to my dismay. A minute and a half into this movement, however, Vine ups both the volume and tempo as he gets involved in some truly spectacular polyphonic writing…it almost sounds like two pianists playing together! Vine then slows back down for a variation on the original theme, which he develops well. The second movement is a fast-paced “Leggiero e legato” which sounds like a variant on the fast middle section of the first, except that here the middle section is the slow one, using similar rhythms with some fragmentation in them.

The second sonata, written seven years later, is also in only two movements, but here it is the first that is fast and powerful. Vine is clearly an emotional composer; there is a great deal of feeling in his music, and in his fast passages he apparently likes a headlong rush of notes to convey tension. In this first movement, too, Vine uses a surprisingly lyrical (albeit tonally ambiguous) melody in the right hand played against fast-paced rising and falling scalar figures in the left, which creates tremendous sweep. The second movement, which opens in a medium tempo, uses contrapuntal figures between the two hands which invariably increase in speed and volume as the music becomes busier, almost frantic in places. There’s also a slight allusion to a boogie-woogie beat in some of the left-hand figures, which I liked very much. Vine is nothing if not a mercurial composer whose restless mind is continually inventing complex figures that have shape and form, and thus give the listener much pleasure  on both a visceral and intellectual level.

The third sonata, though divided into four movements, has a playing time that is actually shorter than the second. By this time, Vine seems to have consolidated some of his previous musical ideas into shorter, terser statements, at times eschewing bravura playing in lieu of somewhat simpler, more direct themes and development sections. This first-movement “Fantasia” could, in fact, almost be a stand-alone piece; it is a fascinating, self-contained unit. The “Rondo” movement consists, as the notes indicate, of “Three statements of a rhythmically infused stamping theme,” while the third is a medium-slow set of variations and the fourth a wild moto perpetuo in a mixed-harmony (major mixed with minor) mode, although the slow middle section is more harmonically consonant and calls for frequent use of the sustain pedal.

The three movements of the fourth sonata have descriptive titles, “Aphorisms,” “Reflection” and “Fury,” but much of the style used here is reflective of devices used in his previous sonatas, i.e. the rolling, sweeping left-hand figures against an almost Romantic-sounding right hand, counterpoint, etc. In a way, I found this to be the least original of the four sonatas, but that’s only because I heard the first three prior to hearing it.

Xiaoya Liu is a superb pianist who really gets into the heart of this music, not just by making those extremely difficult passages sound easy but also by her musical treatment of each bar and note. This is, then, not only an important release due to its being the first made of Vine’s sonatas but also a superb rendition of them.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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