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