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Library of Congress Begins Carter Tribute

Pacifica Quartet:
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Elliott Carter


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Felix Mendelssohn
On Thursday evening pianist Christopher Taylor joined the Pacifica Quartet for Elliott Carter’s Quintet for Piano and String Quartet, beginning the Library of Congress’s year-long salute to Carter’s centenary. As this piece was programmed in the region earlier this month by the Brentano Quartet, the LoC should be proud of the longevity of the compelling work they commissioned a decade ago for Carter’s 90th birthday.

Carter divides the work’s single movement between percussive clusters for piano and angular textures for string quartet. Taylor, an incredible pianist with a seemingly endless appetite for contemporary music, was awarded first prize at the 1990 Kapell Competition at the University of Maryland. (An acquaintance at the concert recollected experiencing Taylor’s brilliant performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, played without a score.) Back to Carter’s Quintet, the work begins and ends with a single note from the piano. The amount of meaning Taylor placed in these notes was immense, and the cacophony between them always clear and of brilliant tone. Unfortunately, the Pacifica’s rather vague approach to this challenging work allowed Taylor to easily dominate. Taylor’s mathematics degree from Harvard possibly allows him to analyze the construction of Carter's music at a level beyond most musicians.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Pacifica Quartet (Washington Post, May 31)
The sense of the Pacifica possibly being under-rehearsed was further experienced in Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A Minor (the same one the group played in the area in 2005), where their impressive, uninhibited playing and striking volume were undermined by inconsistent attacks and releases (from the second violinist, particularly). First violinist Simin Ganatra conveyed the appealing tune of the third-movement Intermezzo very sweetly.

The Pacifica ended the program with their strongest work, Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major (op. 59, no. 1). With spring-like optimism, the rising themes burst forth with clarity and uniform gestures that were lacking in the Mendelssohn and Carter. Joy was felt when the quartet surged beyond the fifteen repeated unison notes of the second movement’s theme, while the third-movement Adagio was beautifully phrased. Programming Carter’s Quintet between such contented works was appealing. The encore, a Tango by Piazzola, had a nice groove with periodic slides up the fingerboards.

The Library of Congress's concert season ends tonight, with an all-Schubert program from pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Liza Ferschtman, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein (May 31, 8 pm). The [New York] premiere of Carter’s Interventions, for piano and orchestra, is scheduled for Carter's birthday, with Daniel Barenboim, James Levine, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (December 11 at Carnegie Hall).


Sibelius, Sibelius, Sibelius

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NSO & Vladimir Ashkenazy, Staying True to Sibelius
Washington Post, May 30, 2008

National Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy, guest conductor
Sibelius, Symphonies 1 and 7, and The Oceanides
Kennedy Center Concert Hall


Shostakovich with the Mandelring Quartett

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DSCH, String Quartets Nos. 1, 2, 4,
Mandelring Quartett

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DSCH, String Quartets Nos. 3, 6, 8,
Mandelring Quartett

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DSCH, String Quartets Nos.5, 7, 9,
Mandelring Quartett

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DSCH, String Quartets Nos. 10, 12, 14,
Mandelring Quartett

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DSCH, String Quartets Nos. 11, 13, 15,
Mandelring Quartett

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DSCH, String Quartets Nos. 1-15,
Mandelring Quartett

Shostakovich’s String Quartets are, alongside those of Bartók, Villa-Lobos, and possibly Bloch, the towering [20th century] achievements in that art-form. They confidently burden the weight of examples Haydn and Beethoven had set. And if Shostakovich’s symphonies can be regarded as exemplifying his public face, the quartets are a window into his more private side. Even if you don’t buy into the largely Western reception of Shostakovich as the freedom-fighter in musical code, with every symphony somehow having anti-communist messages woven into every other movement, the quartets will reveal a much more troubled and torn man than the symphonies would on their own.

Just as it has become the norm for every better orchestra to record a Mahler symphony cycle in the last ten years, it’s part of the good tone for aspiring and established string quartets to delve into Shostakovich cycles. After the pioneering Beethoven (Legendary Treasure), Shostakovich (Regis), Fitzwilliam (Decca), and Borodin String Quartets (an early cycle on Chandos Historical and a complete one on Melodiya) had completed their cycles, there was little to challenge the primacy especially of the latter two until the Emerson String Quartet darted into the relative void with their squeaky clean, live cycle from Aspen on DG. Since then complete cycles have been added by the Brodsky (Warner), Sorrel (Chandos), St. Petersburg (Hyperion), Éder (Naxos), Rubio (Brilliant), Manhattan (Ess.a.y), Danel (Fuga Libera), and Rasumovsky (Oehms)Quartets.

One of the most exciting prospects for a cycle of Shostakovich quartets these days is the Israeli-Russian Jerusalem Quartet. They have two recordings of DSCH out, so far, and the leisurely pace seems to be beneficial to the project, assuming a whole cycle is planned. Definitively planning a complete cycle is the Mandelring Quartett from Germany who have arrived on volume three of five of their multi-channel SACD project. I have enjoyed them live and on disc – and in particular their innovative Brahms cycle - coupled with neglected contemporaries like Dessoff - has piqued my interest.

The first two instalments of this group, consisting of the siblings Sebastian, Nanette, and Bernhard Schmidt (violins and cello, respectively) as well as violist Roland Glassl, have already picked up several recommendations – promises of excellence that the third, which includes String Quartets nos. 5, 7, and 9, seems to hold.

Serving as my primary comparison for these recordings is the second Borodin cycle – newly re-mastered and released on Melodiya and more than ever my favorite for the emotional grit and grip that they exude. The sound, formerly “good enough”, is now very fine indeed; the background hiss audible, but even on headphones never intrusive – a definite improvement on the old BMG-distributed cycle.

String Quartet no.7, a sorrowful little number dedicated to the memory of his first wife Nina Vassilyevna Shostakovich who had died of cancer in 1954, is – in the inimitably translated liner notes of the Melodiya release – “a more little of all Shostakovich’s quartets. But there’s said a lot – and said newly.”. Indeed. The opening movement (Allegretto) has a light flexibility, deliberate elasticity with the Mandelring Quartett (3:34); the Borodin is notably faster (3:19) with more anguished peaks. The Hagen Quartett, whose latest disc includes this quartet (as well as nos.3 and 8), is more like spun silver threads; a perfection of individual voices.

The slow Lento movement highlights the Hagen’s individual excellence and separation again – whereas the Mandelrings sound a little hazier. But whereas the Hagens are utterly gloomy here, catching a grove only very late in the shortest of movements (2:46 with the Hagen, 2:52 with the Mandelring, and 3:34 with the Borodin), the Mandelring is comparatively bright. The Hagen Quartet seems to celebrate slacking dystopia and shapelessness, the Mandelring finds more purpose. Neither could possibly sustain the movement over three and a half minutes in the way that the Borodin does, without ever dropping the musical thread. Their take is not gloomy but steady – offering a constantly moving pulse throughout, lyrical toward the end, and almost unnoticeably slow.

Even the speedy and wild(er) third movement – Allegro – has a dark, melancholic, even lethargic undertone, a trace that all the busyness on the surface cannot dispel. It’s not unlike the 8th Symphony, in a way, but a merciful 50 minutes shorter. The Mandelring (5:11) buzz along with abandon and the superb sound on this Audite disc comes to the fore, especially where Bernhard Schmidt’s cello gets all the room to bloom that it needs. Just one detail, a possible caveat: alone, they sound pretty nice, even at the densest and wildest moments. Cut to the Borodin (at 5:35 again the slowest of the three) – and you notice the difference. The latter rip into the music with more pointed accentuation and a gusto that seems to put their poor instruments in immediate danger.

At high volumes the Mandelring quartet sounds weighty and beautiful, the Borodin shrill to the point of unbearable. Which of these two you find a recommendation or warning in a Shostakovich quartet will depend entirely on what it is that you want to get out of these works. If you have made proper acquaintance with them, you will undoubtedly have a preference already. The Hagen (5:16), not unlike the Borodin, but with frightening assuredness and accuracy, instead of frighteningly free-wheeling, rip through the first three minutes like the half-demented.

Judging by the Seventh Quartet, one might expect the Fifth Quartet to be something slightly mellower in the hands of the Mandelring Quartett by comparison with the Borodin’s version. Instead, they bulldoze through the opening Allegro non troppo with an intensity that rivals the Borodin every step of the way. Only at their wildest moments – this time due to the better, fuller sound, not because of lacking aggressiveness – are they less shrill than the Borodin’s who have the more delicate, even sweet, moments in the gentle, pizzicato-dominated closing pages.

In String Quartet no.9, the Borodin are at their most bracing. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that - like Quartet no.6 and the Piano Quintet with Sviatoslav Richter - it was recorded live. Some additional background noise, more reverberation and curious balances make the difference between Audite’s impeccable and Melodiya’s raw sound far more notable.

Listen to the third movement (Allegretto furioso), where the Mandelring Quartett doesn’t gallop into this movement like mad, as does the Borodin Quartet. Rather it starts as a graceful, agile dance, replaced by sudden vigour and anxious terror. The Borodin move from madly riveting to a brutal, metallic harshness that disabuses the listener of the idea that this might be the “Quartet for Children” that Shostakovich had promised the Beethoven Quartet for their 40th anniversary. Unless the same misunderstanding regarding “Toys and spending time in the open air” occurred here as it did in his 15th Symphony – distinctly not a toy-shop symphony, despite Shostakovich’s claims to that effect – the 1964 9th String Quartet is in fact a different, new work than the one he promised to produce with those words in 1952. You could also consider a link between the reoccurring galloping spiccato beat of the Allegretto to the “William Tell” quotes in the 15th Symphony, but if the similarity is anything but coincidental would be difficult to prove. When it finally saw the light, Shostakovich dedicated the quartet to his new, third, wife, Irina Supinskaya.

When anxiety and strife give way to the agonizing Adagio, the calm deliberation and the atmospheric sound of the Mandelring Quartet (3:03) are every bit as raw and tender as the much slower Borodin (4:04). Their concluding Allegretto is a strident highpoint of this release.

The peaks and extremes of the Borodin, not to mention the frequently abrasive sound - which I find quite appropriate most of the time - make that cycle stand out more and may be more immediately captivating or exciting. But especially on repeat- and closer listening, the Mandelring’s carefully considered, always unpredictable ways are a treasure, not only for audiophiles but for all who want more than the “authentic Russian” version of the Borodin, Beethoven, or Shostakovich Quartets.

Sibelius Sets Nordic History

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Sibelius, Scènes historiques / King Christian Suite, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, P. Inkinen

(released January 29, 2008)
Naxos 8.570068
It has been a Sibelius week around here, for reasons that will become obvious soon enough. One of the discs that made it back into my player was this recent release of some of the Finnish composer's incidental music. It is my first encounter with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, which has just appointed a young Finnish conductor, Pietari Inkinen, to succeed James Judd as its Music Director. This recording was made a few months after Inkinen's first guest appearance with the NZSO, in 2006, about one year after he received his conducting degree. Inkinen's youth is being handled as a selling point by the organization, which cites his "past history of playing in rock groups (and soccer teams)" in its promotional materials. Whatever. The only thing that really matters is how the orchestra sounds with him on the podium, and they sound pretty good.

The first suite known as Scènes historiques (op. 25, 1899) originated in music composed for a pageant in celebration of the Press Pension Fund, charged with Finnish nationalist overtones during a time of Russian imperial domination curtailing, among other things, freedom of the press. (The famous Finlandia also was composed for that event, but it was published separately.) The All'Overtura opening movement is echt-Sibelius, with slow-blooming brass swells, skirling winds, and the dull, volcanic rumble of percussion evoking scenes of pagan Finland. Other colors follow in the second and third movements, the depressing bassoon duet in the second movement, set during the Thirty Years War, and the almost singular castanets (!) of the Bolero third movement (depicting festivities at the court of the Swedish governor).

Around the same time as the first of these suites, Sibelius composed incidental music for the play Kuningas Kristian II, by his friend Adolf Paul, about the Renaissance king of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The wind soloists, who so often have to play in pairs in Sibelius, all sound strong, as does the harpist, who gets more than one coloristic outing in this program. So much of what is remembered about Sibelius's music is the grand symphonic gestures, but there is also extravagantly tender music, like the Love Song in the middle of the follow-up suite of Scènes historiques (op. 66, 1912) and the hushed Elégie for the murdered girl loved by King Christian. None of these works are exactly rare on disc already, but this recording is the latest featured in a growing and generally good Sibelius discography from Naxos, at their usual reduced prices, with various Finnish musicians.


McCreesh Surveys the Vastness of Creation

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Haydn, The Creation, S. Piau, M. Padmore, Gabrieli Consort, P. McCreesh

(released February 5, 2008)
Archiv 477 7361
One of the best things about Handel's Messiah (and his other oratorios) was that performances of English oratorios inspired Haydn to compose The Creation. The origins of the libretto are a little murky, beginning supposedly with an English text, now lost, that was translated into German by Baron Gottfried van Swieten (for the latest research, see the article by Neil Jenkins in the Journal of the Haydn Society of Great Britain from 2005). The sources of the text (.PDF file by Neil Jenkins) include Genesis, the Psalms, Milton, and John Thomson. In any case, the language that Haydn worked with was the German, and its "re-translation" back into English is problematic enough that many performances in English-speaking countries use the German version. For this excellent recording, Paul McCreesh has attempted a rescue of the English (see the version by Jenkins -- .PDF file), with harmonious results. There should be a slot for it on your shelf, right next to William Christie's recent recording of the German version with Les Arts Florissants.

McCreesh, ever careful about his performance practice choices, has opted to try to recreate what it is likely that Haydn had in mind. Namely, the overblown style of oratorio he had heard in London, with large orchestras and choruses, which was recreated in the earliest performances of the work in Vienna. That may not sound all that inviting, but he augments his Gabrieli Consort and Players by partnering with young musicians from Chetham's School of Music in Manchester. The sound is large but still refined and musically sensitive, of a sort that tempts one to forget about the label of historically informed performance (HIP) altogether.

Paul McCreesh, conductor
Paul McCreesh, conductor

Other Reviews:
Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers | Handel, Saul | Gluck, Paride ed Elena
Just like Christie, McCreesh has called on five soloists, single-casting the often doubled roles (Gabriel/Eve and Raphael/Adam). Singing Uriel, who is more or less the oratorio's main narrative voice, is the exquisite Mark Padmore, a British tenor in the Ian Bostridge vein. This is a thoroughly English Uriel, contrasted by the ever so slightly French-tinged English of Sandrine Piau's Gabriel. Neither is the sort of singer to impress solely by force, although Piau shines over the chorus radiantly. The other soloists -- Neal Davies as a growling Raphael, Peter Harvey and Miah Persson as a warm, well-matched Adam and Eve -- round out an ideal cast, who sound equally well alone and in their various ensemble combinations.

McCreesh has Timothy Roberts accompany the recitatives, crucial hinge pieces that can often be neglected, on a fortepiano based on an early 19th-century Viennese instrument by Josef Brodmann. For me the test always comes at the end of the second part, where the creation of mankind is a source of wonderment. Here is where Haydn composed some of his most delectable music, especially the concluding angelic trio ("On thee each living soul awaits") with its wandering clarinet lines. It is likely the most perfect musical statement of the Enlightenment's humanist message, found in Uriel's gorgeous aria In native worth and honour clad. The lines "and in his eye with brightness shines the soul, / the breath and image of his God," on which Haydn dwells, are the later counterpart to the image of Adam's creation on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.