Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Road Trip Music from The Alexander String Quartet

The road between my current home and my home town is not the most exciting in the world. Vast stretches of fertile farmland are punctuated by a few trees here and there that usually indicate the location of a small stream or a town. The winter bleakness can be starkly picturesque, the summer corn an endless wave of green, but after traversing it for as long as I have, the bloom is off the rose.

Thus faced with a trip home that would involve some late night driving, I grabbed some CDs to keep my mind alert and my bleary eyes open. One of my selections this time was a new disc sent for my perusal by the Alexander String Quartet. Readers will know I have been exploring some of their recent releases on their Foghorn Classics label and have been highly impressed by their musicality and repertoire selections. This is a bit of a different animal from the Brahms and Bartók cycles of late, a single disc released late summer 2013 of arrangements for string quartet of songs by Jerome Kern and George Gershwin. Clarinet Joan Enric Lluna joins the quartet in the Gershwin "Porgy and Bess" selections.

Usually this is not my type of thing. I prefer to hear Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, et. al., as originally written, voice and piano preferably. I half expected the usual schmaltzy, overblown and stiff results that all to often characterize classical music's forays into "pop" idioms. But leave it to the Alexanders to find and so superbly record picture perfect arrangements of these miniature masterpieces.

Carl Davis’ (noted composer and arranger, working frequently in TV and film) arrangement of Porgy and Bess selections for clarinet and string quartet is nothing less than suave, sophisticated and totally enjoyable. Davis started with Heifetz’s arrangement of these selections for violin and piano with the clarinet taking the solo violin parts and then linking the song via brief cadenzas. Lluna is fully in tune with the sound and rhythms of Gershwin, classically elegant in "Bess You is my Woman Now", just a touch bluesy and sentimental in "Summertime" and brash and sassy in "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" and "It ain't Necessarily So". The quartet does not take a back seat to the clarinet solo but is an equal partner in stating the lush melodies and setting the moods. They also swing and sass while at the same time exhibiting their usual tight and taught ensemble.

The Kern selections have a similar pedigree. Kern's assistant Charles Miller transcribed the six songs selected and arranged by Kern for string quartet in 1942. They were first recorded on 78's in 1948 and likely are making their CD debut on this recording.

The songs ("All the Things You Are", "The Way You Look Tonight", "Bill", "The Song Is You", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Once in a Blue Moon") are well known to anyone familiar with American song. As with the Gershwin, these are sophisticated, classical inspired arrangements, suggesting comparisons to Schubert and Schumann rather than to the "easy listening" channel or Muzak. The Alexanders capture the pathos, longing, and sadness in "Smoke.." and "Bill", the tenderness in "The Way.." and the elegance and economy of scale in each of these classic works.  The lyrics are rarely missed or, for that matter, needed.

The disc ends with the only work originally written for quartet, the charming and familiar "Lullaby" by Gershwin. Frequently heard in a full string orchestra arrangement, the original presented here is just fine, thank you, basking in lazy and languid light.

This disc, (an all too short 48 minutes, but each one a jewel) was not the sleepy elevator music so often made from these fine examples of the song writers art, but engaging enough to entertain and delight while negotiating the mind numbing Interstate Highway. Fine production and the usual complete notes too.

Gershwin and Kern
Alexander String Quartet
Joan Enric Lluna Clarinet
Foghorn Classics  CD 2008

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

First Listen: Petrenko's Shostakovich Symphony # 14

I have loved the enigmatic and moving Shostakovich 14th Symphony since I first heard the RCA Ormandy, Curtin/Estes, Philadelphia recording on vinyl back in the 70's as a classical music crazed teenager. I frankly have heard it so many times, words and musical passages are imprinted on my mind. Whether you wish to think of it as a symphony or a song cycle a la “Das Lied von der Erde” matters little. It is really, if you look at it all closely, Shostakovich's most intimate and emotional masterpiece.

Vasily Petrenko began his Royal Liverpool cycle on Naxos in 2009 with an excellent 11th Symphony. It seems only the incredible and under-performed “Babi Yar” 13th is left after the release of the 14th this month (April 2014). Most have been quite good, challenging the highly regarded Kondrashin and Barshai recordings. Naxos' bargain price is a plus, since the Kondrashin is hard to find (and the complete cycle is now priced in the stratosphere) and Barshai is most easily available in a complete cycle not individually.

So what is my first impression of the sometimes chilling, sometimes nostalgic and often neurotic 14th? First and foremost, the all-important vocal soloists, Gal James, Soprano and Alexander Vinogradov, bass, are usually in good form. Only hiccup (pun intended) is James' unconvincing “Kha, kha, kha, kha, kha. I ya khokhochu” sobs in “Madam, posmotrite!” Vinogradov gives us an overall powerful performance, with a most expressively eloquent “O Delvig, Delvig”. The important and colorful percussion is uniformly excellent throughout.

The weak points are the sometimes tentative, weak Liverpool strings, especially noted at the very beginning of the symphony and in the last climactic death rattle at the end. They redeem themselves with a gut wrenching col legno episode in “At the Santé Prison” movement, the abandoned prisoner pacing in his gloomy has rarely been so realistically portrayed. The "Lorelei" episode is exciting, but a touch frenetic. 

Petrenko gives us a well paced performance, around 50 minutes, leading to a rather skimpy disc. But really, what else could accompany a work like this? Sound, played through my computer speakers via the Naxos Music Library, seems to be good. Finally, it appears the usual fine, informative performance notes are included with this recording, another plus of the Petrenko cycle.

Overall, an excellent performance but I still can not live without the Barshai led performances with Vishnevskaya/Reshetin or with Simoni/Vaneev in the Cologne recording. Barshai was there at the beginning and has the music in his veins. The Curtin/Estes Ormandy is a sentimental favorite, with some of the most impressively ghoulish cover art ever devised. Avoid Bernstein's and the Haitink sung (in a version sanctioned by the composer) in the original languages... it just doesn't sound right.

Shostakovich Symphony # 14 (1969)

Gal James, Soprano, Alexander Vinogradov Bass
Vasily Petrenko Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

Naxos 8.573132

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Kodály and Bartók Quartets from The Alexander String Quartet

In this generous and lavishly presented three disc album, the Alexander String Quartet programs eight of the 20th century's most fascinating string quartets from two composers linked as contemporaries and countrymen, Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály. Bartók's canon of six quartets have long been a part of the standard repertoire for all the great string quartet ensembles of the past 50 years. Kodály's have been less fortunate, with just a few recordings of his two quartet essays. Combining the two composers' quartet oeuvre is a brilliant stroke, making this recording more than just another Bartók cycle.

Kodály's two string quartets were almost exact contemporaries to Bartók's First and Second Quartets. Paring them allows for some illuminating comparisons. Even Bartók's earliest quartets tend to be highly contrapuntal and more harmonically and structurally complex. Kodály who played violin, viola and cello, produced quartets that were idiomatic and well grounded in form and style. Yet unlike Bartók, his works did not break new ground. Both of Kodály's works, the First Quartet, in particular, sound more like the quartets of Debussy and Ravel and have been combined with them on recordings. French in spirit they may be, but thoroughly tinged with the rhythms, sounds and pungent harmonies of Hungarian folk music, they are unique and totally satisfying works. The third movement of the 1st quartet lets loose with some distinctly Hungarian-like music, very reminiscent of Kodály's masterpiece, the Sonata for Solo Cello.

The Alexanders dig into this music with technically secure, well paced performances; especially important in the Kodály 1st, which at approx 38 minutes can descend into longeurs if not careful. Given their French inclinations, Kodály's quartets come across a tad more relaxed and melodic than Bartók's. The Alexanders realize this, bringing out the innate lyricism and tenderness of the music especially in the second quartet's somewhat threadbare “andante quasi-recitativo” section.

Thoroughly enjoyable, interesting and colorful works that are shamefully neglected. Perhaps this new recording (and one by the Dante Quartet on Hyperion, that I have not heard) will open some eyes and ears to the satisfying charms of these two works.

My (and I am not alone) benchmark for the Bartók quartets is the classic 1963 Julliard set on Sony (Columbia). The Takács and Emerson cycles give them a run for their money in more modern sound and similar performances. Thus the Alexander's cycle on their own Foghorn Classics label enters into some good company and faces some strong competition.

Bartók's quartets are often described as tough, dense and gritty and that would generally be true. The Alexanders' performances are dramatic, lean and intense, but never unpleasant or forced. Clean, clear and on pitch pizzicati are noteworthy throughout the three discs, especially important in the 4th quartet's all pizzicato movement, which comes off swimmingly. The quartet has a fine feel for the folk music elements and relish them at every turn without exaggerating or even detaching them from the overall texture.

Highlights: the mysterious, skittering, hair raising “Prima Parte: Moderato” of the 3rd Quartet. The deeply expressive “Lento” opening movement of the 1st Quartet, with dark, resonant cello and redwood-like viola passages. The aforementioned 4th Quartet scherzo (along with the controlled mayhem of its “Prestissimo con sordino” movement, and the whole dramatic and even demonic 4th quartet for that matter) and the slightly jazz tinged 5th Quartet's scherzo.

As with every Foghorn Classics release I have encountered, complete, legible and intelligent notes are part of the package. Add these always intelligent, intense, musical, satisfying and well recorded performances to the list of recordings that challenge and may surpass the classic Julliard recording. Combine the fine and rare Kodály quartets and you have a special release indeed.

Bartók And Kodály String Quartets Foghorn Classics #2009 3 discs

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Brahms and Schumann Revelation from The Alexander Qt and Joyce Yang

Brahms Schumann Piano Quintets
Joyce Yang, Piano/Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Classics FCL2014

First off, I was most impressed with this recording of two towering masterpieces of the Quintet form, the Schumann Quintet for piano & Strings in E-Flat Major, Op. 44 and the Brahms Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op. 34 performed by the terrific Alexander Quartet with Joyce Yang piano. In a nutshell, these are gutsy, lively, exciting and maybe even a bit edgy performances. That statement merits a bit of full disclosure on my part. I generally am not a huge fan of the music of Brahms or Schumann yet I fully realize their genius and popularity. My “thing” is 20th and 21st century music, so I (and maybe others so inclined) relate to and enjoy these very visceral, very “modern” performances.

However... these are not dry, hard or cold readings; on the contrary, there is plenty of Romantic warmth and passion. Both quintets are products of young composers and were seen as adventurous, exuberant works at their debuts. The Alexander Quartet and Yang simply allow the composers' youthful energy to shine through.

As the notes to the recording state “The piano quintet is an unusual form. It combines two completely different sonorities: the percussive sound of the piano and the sustained, resonant sound of the string quartet.” Thus, a recording of a piano quintet requires first rate sonics, detailed, out front and bright yet balanced. This Judy Sherman produced disc more than meets that requirement. Although bright and close, the piano rarely comes across too forward or overwhelming. The strings are solid and never mushy and the viola's darker color is always distinct from the other strings.

Brahms composed his only Piano Quintet between 1862 and 1864 when he was around 30 years old. As did several of his works, it had a protracted birth, starting as a sting quintet, then arranged for two pianos and finally recast in its definitive form in 1864.

The first movement of this massive work is a musical adventure unto itself. From the dramatic, arresting opening measures, musical ideas, melodic lines, intriguing harmonic progressions and pulsing cross rhythms flow forth. The forces here bring out all of the music's complexity but always drives the movement forward, never letting the details bog everything down.

The tender “Andante, poco Adagio” leans more to the andante side than the adagio yet still maintains an almost Schubertian lilt. Listen to the gently rocking flow of the very beginning, the recording captures the gentle interplay of the piano and strings. Worth the price of the disc itself.

The C minor scherzo is a revelatory study in musical drama. Moving forward like an elemental force of nature, Yang and the Alexanders pounce into this darkly brooding movement. The devilish syncopated march is muscular and tight, emerging from the murky, funereal opening. The lyrical trio is but a quick respite from the drama before all plunges back into the fray. Totally mesmerizing playing.

The ensemble deftly negotiates its way through the episodic rondo finale. Tender at times, powerful when needed ending with a satisfyingly rushing coda. A fitting a powerful end to a most recommended performance.

Unlike Brahms, the 32 year old Schumann took only a few weeks to complete his Piano Quintet in the fall of 1842, the crowning achievement of his celebrated “Chamber Music Year”.

The energetic and virtuosic “Allegro brillante” opening movement is certainly “brillante” in the hands of Yang and the Alexanders; intelligently paced, sparkling and technically perfect. The deftly contrasted second theme is dolce but never cloying.

The second movement is often referred to as a “funeral march” but Schumann only alludes to a funereal mode, calling the movement “In modo d'una Marcia”. If it is a funeral march, the Yang/Alexander quintet make it a most stumblingly macabre one, likely as Schumann intended.

If one can not imagine a missile streaking towards the heavens while listening to the opening moments of the scherzo, then there is something wrong with you. The ensemble launches the ascending theme with power, grace and firecracker intensity, yet brings welcome contrast to the lyrical trios. Just simply some of the most exciting chamber playing on record.

Whereas the Brahms ends in a bit of a disappointing finale, the Schumann concludes with a dramatic double fugue including the main theme of the first movement. Every entrance and melodic line is precise and clear never bogging down in an unintelligible mess.

San Francisco based Foghorn Classics provides concise but intelligent notes including bios on the artists and a listing of their instrument makers to complete this attractive package. Yang and the Alexander Quartet rouse these grand old gentlemen from their “La-Z-Boys” and make them feel young again to everyone's great benefit. Most recommended.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Miraculous Metamorphoses: KC Symphony Hindemith, Bartók, Prokofiev

Gone forever, it seems, are the days when the major orchestras of the US and Europe churned out new recordings by the dozens every month for the great labels of the era…Columbia, Deutsche Grammophon, Decca… conducted by the giants of the time. Filling that gap are smaller labels like Reference Recordings who produce a few expertly prepared recordings each year. Lucky for all us recorded music fans, Reference has forged a bond with the Kansas City Symphony culminating in a series of well received recordings. Their newly released 4th (a 5th is “in the can”) collaboration was recorded in February 2012 at the then brand new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City.

I also have to give the Kansas City Symphony, Reference Recordings and all involved great credit for daring to record major standard repertoire pieces that often have some very heady competition. No unknown composers or works on this latest disc containing three 20th century orchestral showpieces, Prokofiev’s “Love for Three Oranges” Suite, Bartók’s “Miraculous Mandarin” Suite and Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.” The program, titled “Miraculous Metamorphoses”, captures some of the best playing yet heard from the Symphony. The ensemble is crisp and visceral, lyrical when called upon combined with Stern's trademark brisk yet not excessive tempi.

Michael Stern’s very first concert as Music Director included a performance of the Hindemith “Metamorphosis” that wowed the audience. This one is even better with the orchestra's now trademark sparkling winds, burnished brass and ringing, clean percussion. One of Hindemith's more colorful and splashy scores, “Metamorphosis” can easily become mere fluff in the wrong hands. Stern relishes the driving, dancing rhythms of the opening movement (reminding us of its origins as a ballet score) followed soon thereafter by a tender and elegant Andantino 3rd movement. The liner notes describe the “Turandot Scherzo” second movement as “giving the percussion a stunning workout”. The percussion of the Kansas City Symphony are more than up to the task at hand and the sonics let the pitched percussion glow while capturing the deep resonance of the drums.

The clarion horn calls over the chattering winds in the march finale are just breathtaking simply one of those recording moments you just have to put on repeat and relish as long as you can. But do not linger too long, the mad rush to the climax is thrilling and powerful.

The Prokofiev “Love for Three Oranges Suite” verily crackled with wit and snap. The whole set is brisk and fresh and the usual clear Reference Recordings sound highlighted the often clever wind and string detail to advantage. The tender elegance of “The Prince and the Princess” movement was nicely contrasted with its more sardonic suite mates, for example the almost too familiar “March” with its absurd wit. Stern fully realizes “Love for Three Oranges” is a charming and farcical romp full of jesters, witches, royalty and magic but never degenerates into mere silliness. Far from dry and foursquare, this is a fine performance that would stand with my favorite Dorati/London or Marriner/London performances.

The violent and complex score of the Bartók “Miraculous Mandarin Suite” was breathtakingly realized by Stern and his forces aided by the stellar recording. Note, for example, the clear ting of the tambourine and the rumbling organ pedals making themselves heard through the din of the street in the opening prelude. The seduction games sections are wonderfully sleazy and decadent. The details that Stern and the recording bring into focus are instrumental in setting this mood, not just an end into themselves. The concluding “chase” fugue is bracing and quick, but not too wild, controlled brutality would be a good description. The important, driving percussion is clearly heard along with the gutsy, frantic strings bringing the suite and the program to an exciting close.

Readable, enlightening CD booklets are almost a surprise in this day of skimpy multi-lingual booklets or no information at all when listening to a download or music service. “Miraculous Metamorphoses'” notes by Richard Freed are intelligent and informative and also include bios of Stern, the recording crew, a brief history of the orchestra and a roster of the musicians.

Produced and engineered by two of the recording world's geniuses, David Frost and Keith O. Johnson, “Miraculous Metamorphoses” has an envious pedigree. I noted that the sound on this release, the first from Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center, is a bit dryer, cooler and less reverberant than the previous recordings in the cavernous Community of Christ Auditorium. Details abound however, most welcome in the thickly scored Bartók, and you still want to reach out and touch the instruments that seem to be right with you.

Performances that can stand with the best of them and sonics that sound fabulous even on my built-in computer speakers combine for another Reference Recordings/Kansas City Symphony “hit”.

“Miraculous Metamorphoses”
Hindemith, Prokofiev, Bartók
Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern Music Director and Conductor

Reference Recordings RR-132

Sunday, February 23, 2014

newEar Does L'histore du soldat and Some Bach Thrown in Too...

On February 22, newEar, Kansas City's foremost (and only) contemporary music ensemble, presented a most interesting, slightly strange and ultimately partly satisfying concert at the Community Christian Church, a venue that can frankly be described in the same manner, A collaboration between newEar and the Bach Aria Soloists ensemble, the highly anticipated concert (a local reviewer called it the best thing since Mr Reese and Mr Hershey combined their wares) was billed from "Bach to Stravinsky" an exploration of the baroque influence on contemporary music. The forces combined to perform the rarely heard complete narrated Stravinsky L'histore du Soldat. The first half was billed, since the beginning of the season, as selected baroque works influencing contemporary music.

For some reason I think something went astray in the execution.

The first half was solely a single work by Bach, the Sonata for Violin and Basso Continuo in E-minor, BWV 1023. Elizabeth Suh Lane (violin), Jeff Harshbarger (bass) and Elisa Williams Bickers (harpsichord) all members of the Bach Aria Soloists gave a fine, committed performance of the work. Sprightly and precise as it should be and slightly on the gritty side as I kind of like my Bach. The harpsichord was all but inaudible, possibly thanks to the acoustics in the hall, yet the bass was nicely integrated with the busy violin.

No one could argue that both Bach and Stravinsky were influential composers, Bach more so after his death. Stravinsky was more influential during his life time. That was part of the connection for sure as was the Stravinsky's very linear writing in his Neoclassical works in general and in L'histore in particular. It would have been more interesting to hear some contemporary composers' transcriptions, orchestrations and arrangements of Bach and other baroque forms, but likely limitations of the ensemble size prevented that.

Whatever the case, we were treated to a fine Bach performance and a thought provoking program.

The evening was all about the Stravinsky really. Performances of the complete L'histore du soldat are likely much more rare than the instrumental suite. In its full form (as Stravinsky noted it is a work "to be read, played, and danced") L' histoire is an engaging, timeless and cynical look at material wealth and selling one's soul to attain it. In this case the work was played and read but with no dancing or acting, just the musical ensemble and the narrator taking both the parts of the Devil and the Soldier. The ensemble was made up of members of the newEar core group, the Bach Aria Soloists members and brass from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Mark Robbins narrated with William Schrickel conducting the forces.

The ensemble was impeccable, fully capturing Stravinsky's sec, linear and quirkily metered music. Balance (with an ensemble of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone and percussion not always easy) was excellent, only occasionally swallowing the narrator in the more thickly scored sections. Shrickel kept things moving along in brisk but breathing tempo. Elizabeth Suh Lane, the all important violin, never let her tone get unpleasant but kept the gritty, dry quality Stravinsky wanted. The exposed brass duo were outstanding as were all the members of the septet. The final "Triumphal March of the Devil" was most effectively snarling, arrogant and cynical.

Robbins was a fine narrator and deftly differentiated the soldier's lines from the devil's (often divided between two performers) with inflection of voice, posture and volume. As with the music, he kept things going even when the words were spinning ferociously. The un-credited English translation from the original French was generally faithful to the story. However to me the attempt to modernize C. F. Ramuz's original libretto with references to every current fashion designer known to man (in the scene where Joseph the Soldier starts his meteoric rise to super-salesman on the Home Shopping Network) and current investment and banking language smacked of being more a cheap laugh than anything genuinely funny. Yet these contemporary references served to ground the moralistic tale in our time, making its bitter message more relevant than if it was a distant fairy tale.

I should just quit being analytical (a friend who used to accompany me to concerts before she moved away told me she could see me writing a review in my mind as the concert progressed) and sit back and enjoy the fact that I was able to hear an excellent Bach Sonata and finally experience a live performance of a work I have known and loved since Christ and I were both teenagers.