CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Briefly Noted: The Dover Quartet Starts on Beethoven

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Complete String Quartets (Vol. 1), Dover Quartet

(released on July 18, 2020)
Cedille CDR90000-198 | 154'56"
It begins. The Dover Quartet's programs in Washington have not featured much Beethoven yet, including their last (canceled) appearance at the Kennedy Center in April. The single glimpse of their approach to this most revered string quartet composer was the third movement of Beethoven's final quartet, op. 135, played as an encore at their Washington debut. It was "a light-filled performance like a hymn of peace," according to my review: clearly, the experience whetted my appetite.

Finally adding to their excellent but limited discography, the Dovers have launched a complete traversal of the Beethoven quartets with this 2-disc set of the six quartets of op. 18. It is an exceptional beginning to what promises to be one of my favorite cycles. They would not supplant my two favorite approaches to the Beethoven quartets, the fiery Takács Quartet and the mellow, gut-strung Quatuor Mosaïques (incomplete), but they are in their company.

Overall, the Dover feels not as brash as the Takács, less impetuous because there is not that slight edge of rhythmic uncertainty, exciting but unsettling. The time and care are worth some slightly slower timings, as in the sweetly affecting slow movement of Op. 18, no. 1, but the group also avoids tempos as expansive as those sometimes chosen by Quatuor Mosaïques. The least pleasing to my ear is their no. 4, too anguished in the first movement and frantic Menuetto, but balanced by the sweetly dancing Scherzo in between them.

At the same time, there are few string quartets in which all four cylinders, as it were, fire with such uniformity, as in the relaxed finale of no. 4, capped by an exhilirating Prestissimo coda, striking just the right contrast between the two tempi. Grace and balance are the Dover's greatest strengths, as in the poised and sunny no. 5, with its melting slow movement of extended variations.

For a few years now the Dover Quartet has been one of the ensembles I never want to miss hearing live. Among other cultural devastations, the coronavirus seemed poised to wipe out the entire second half of the group's residency at the Kennedy Center, which began in 2018. Last week, the Kennedy Center announced that 50 listeners will be able to hear the Dover Quartet, joined by the Escher Quartet in an octet program, October 20 on the Opera House stage. Sadly, that concert will not be livestreamed to a broader audience.

For other music to hear this fall, see my pandemic round-up of live and streamed concerts at Washington Classical Review.


Briefly Noted: Christmas in the Pandemic Summer

available at Amazon
Christmas Carols, SWR Vokalensemble, M. Creed

(released on August 10, 2020)
SWR Classic SWR19094CD | 59'10"
How keenly music's absence is felt during the pandemic struck me recently listening to this little disc. It is nothing spectacular in terms of programming: an hour's worth of English Christmas carols. The singing is excellent, done in beautiful sound by the SWR Vokalensemble, about thirty voices in size, under the direction of Marcus Creed.

A German choir stealing the lunch of their British colleagues is fair payback for the perennial "Christmas Around the World" programs heard every year, and the English pronunciation here is impeccable. A tribute, this, to the teaching of their English-born director, an alumnus of both King's College, Cambridge, and Christ Church, Oxford, whose tenure with this distinguished radio choir ended this summer.

The group's women sound better on their own (in Emily Elizabeth Poston's rich Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, for example) than the men, who are featured less. The same applies in solo voices heard, although on this account the more demanding writing, as in The Fayrfax Carol of Thomas Adès, taxes both equally. The echo quartet in Britten's gorgeous A Hymn to the Virgin, happily, is top-notch. The effect of this simple but effective carol service is a sweet reminiscence of the days before coronavirus (the recording was captured in the fall of 2018). Sadly, it is also a bitter reminder that we may spend a bleak Christmas without "the playing of the merry organ" or "sweet singing in the choir," in the nostalgic words of the The Holly and the Ivy.


Dip Your Ears, No. 261 (Satie Vexation)

available at Amazon
Erik Satie, Vexations
Noriko Ogawa (piano)

Erik Satie’s Vexations is an aptly named work that you have to have heard in order to know that you’ll never need to have heard it. Simple, repetitive, and demanding endurance from the performer, not skill. 18 notes, harmonized, inverted. Just one page of brutalist-simplistic music, but rinsed and repeated – by disingenuous fiat of the composer’s pen – 840 times. The Vexations deserve to be recorded for the archive’s sake, because everyone ought to have the chance to reject this misinterpreted gag of a composition on their own; the only other reason to perform them is to achieve a cheap if exhausting publicity stunt.

It delivers all the stupefying effect without any of the ‘transportive’ qualities of a Philip Glass film score and is bound to inflict pain on anyone of musical sensibility. You’d be just as well off drinking a bottle of cheap booze for such a dulling of your senses. It is, in short, an exercise in masochism and no spin of its alleged “Zeb Buddhist” qualities (as the work’s first champion, John Cage, suggested) or of it being a “study in immobility” (so would be staring at paint dry) can salvage the thing. It’s ironic and telling that Satie, derided for his best music as a mere ‘salon composer’, should be celebrated by some for his worst. Sort of goes to show that if you pump up the crazy just enough, someone will be there to declare you a genius. The truth is that we don’t know what Satie’s intent was when he scribbled the page of music and the absurd instructions down; sarcasm is as good as any; a mocking musical jest of sorts. If you listen to the whole thing, though, the joke’s on you.

That said, what about the performance? For starters, Noriko Ogawa plays on a beautiful sounding Érard, beautifully recorded. For some 70 minutes she is merciless in her rigor and – though I dare not say “refreshingly” – brisk. At the tempo she takes for 142 variations, she’d be done with the whole thing in six (SA)CDs. A far cry from the alleged aimed-at goal of 24 hours, that Satie may have had in mind. (For that, you’d have to go to Jeroen van Veen’s download of the whole thing on Brilliant Classics.) In any case, carping about this would be akin to the joke of two ladies in a restaurant complaining: “The food’s terrible here.” “Yes, and the portions are so small!” But no have fears: Happily, the artist and record label have the good sense to consider this nod towards Satie’s Vexations exhaustive and final, which it more than is. Late in the game, Noriko Ogawa adds some more obvious dynamic variation and shifts in voicing and eventually also the tempo, speeding things up as if to come to a quicker end. If you’ve made it through those 75 minutes, the last five might induce chuckles of relief and acquiescent glee. But three quarters of an hour seem a high price for that.

At the heart of taking this seriously at all is the John Cage dictum that “if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Well, if something is boring after 80 minutes, you could double down until you lose your mind or have invested so much time that you cannot allow yourself to consider it having been time wasted. Eventually, I suppose, Cage will be right. But will it have been worth it? I suggest sticking to Virgil Thompson’s take on the matter, instead: “Try a thing you haven't done three times. Once, to get over the fear of doing it. Twice, to learn how to do it. And a third time to figure out whether you like it or not.”



On ClassicsToday: Another Vivaldi Edition Violin Concerto Must-Have

Another Vivaldi Edition Violin Concerto Must-Have

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

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Unless you are a cetologist, all whales of a species look alike to you. The seasoned eye, meanwhile, will take one glance at a disappearing dorsal fin and immediately conclude: “Oh, look, there’s Laura!” Same thing with Vivaldi violin concertos: The more we indulge, the greater the differentiation and joy. Having arrived at Vol. 63, Naïve’s Vivaldi Edition does just that with this exemplary disc: Six seldom recorded concertos, all of theatrical quality but for the calm and simpler RV 321, all late Vivaldi, written sometime after 1724... [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Best Recording of Hans Zender's Superb Winterreise

Best Remembrance Of Hans Zender

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

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Composer/conductor Hans Zender, who died last October (2019), is better known for his “composed re-composition” of Schubert’s Winterreise than for any of his other work. That’s not to sell those other “original” compositions short, or his work as a conductor (a fine Mahler Ninth and excellent Schubert First, among them). It’s simply a credit to how spectacularly well-made his orchestral reworking of the Schubert classic is. Sure, there always will be those who find the idea of futzing with an original masterpiece objectionable. And in many cases where a mediocrity latches onto a work of genius, the critics have a point. Not here... [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Haydn & The Harp: Light Delights

Haydn & The Harp: Light Delights

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

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“Haydn and the Harp” is a delightful disc of music written for the harp based on works and themes of Haydn by the composer’s contemporaries, as well as compositions of Haydn’s where the harp can (or was always meant to) be an alternative to the piano. All the music is tied in some way to Haydn, either biographically or musically. Exupère de La Maniere, for example, grabbed a theme from Haydn’s Symphony No. 63 (“La Roxelane”) and sent it through the variation-wringer for harp solo. Ditto Sophia Dussek with “God Save Emperor Francis”, the tune best known from the slow movement of the Op. 76/3 string quartet or the German national anthem. Nicolas-Charles Bochsa, meanwhile, created a virtuosic “Petite mosaique” of famous melodies from The Creation for harp solo... [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Mayseder, a Viennese Bridge Between Classical and Romantic

Mayseder: A Viennese Bridge Between Classical And Romantic

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

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The late classical/early romantic Viennese composer Joseph Mayseder is a wonderful discovery whose music is being methodically made available by the Gramola label. He was the concertmaster of the predecessor of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and of the Wiener Hofmusikkapelle–an ensemble that still exists (albeit as a loose ensemble of singers and instrumentalists from the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and the State Opera Chorus) and that performs the musical duties on this disc that couples his musical legacy, a Mass in E-flat major, with an early violin concerto. [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Margherita Torretta's Bang-On Scarlatti

Margherita Torretta: Bang-On Scarlatti From Out Of Nowhere

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

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Scarlatti recitals on the piano are no longer a rarity, but really great ones still are. Since Horowitz’s groundbreaking disc, outstanding recordings have been made by Mikhail Pletnev, bursting-with-wilful fantasy, Ivo Pogorelich absorbed in his dynamic wonder-world, and Sergei Babayan, with refined insight. More recent additions to the top of the heap, many reviewed on, have come from Alexandre Tharaud, Konstantin Scherbakov, Zhu Xiao-Mei, and Yevgeny Sudbin. A very recently received new recording of 20 Scarlatti sonatas did not look particularly promising, much less like it might break into the phalanx of a dozen superior discs–rather it seemed more likely to be just another vanity recording by yet another young artist. [continue reading]