June 2021 Classical Record Reviews

Danish String Quartet: Prism III
ECM New Series 2563 (24/96 WAV). 2021. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Markus Heiland, tonmeister
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

What on Prism III is more exquisite, the music or the musicianship? The question is beside the point when you're dealing with the exalted level of refinement, restraint, and elegance that the Danish String Quartet brings to the great music of Beethoven, Bartók, and Bach.

The deaf Beethoven, in his late String Quartet No.14 in C sharp minor, Op.131, journeys through deep, pervasive sadness and isolation into joy, song, and the mystery that lies beyond, while the younger Bartók, in String Quartet No.1 in A minor, Op.7, falls out of love.

The Danes' musicianship feels so absolutely right that it doesn't matter if other string quartets take radically different approaches. Every note and phrase is treated with the utmost attention and respect. Rarely do these all-grown-up, self-identified "boys" need to play loudly to speak profoundly. Rather, they uncover meaning by probing the remarkable interplay of line that brings to the fore the feelings behind the notes. Perhaps first violinist Frederik Øland's tone could be a bit rounder. But, as is the case with many a dramatic soprano or tenor, what sounds a mite bright on recording carries wonderfully in the hall.

The real kicker on Prism III, beyond the music itself, is how both composers received inspiration from J.S. Bach's Prelude & Fugue, BWV 849: Fugue in C sharp minor (arranged by Emanuel Aloys Förster). Putting it last on the program is a brilliant stroke because it unfolds as one grand déjà vu. It's as if your dearly departed grandfather were to suddenly appear before you and declare, "I've never left you. I've been guiding you all along."—Jason Victor Serinus


Rachmaninoff: Symphony No.2
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO0851. Andrew Cornall, prod.; Neil Hutchinson, rec. eng.
Performance ***½
Sonics ****

Many aspects of this score play to Sir Simon's strengths. His preferred warm, dark sonority suits the music, as does his attention to projecting the expansive lyrical lines. The first movement's second subject is surprisingly flexible and undulating—a touch absent from his earlier EMI recording—and the exposition's long "codetta," for once, correctly favors the midrange strings over the violins. The great Adagio begins magically, as if in midthought, and it sings expressively.

On the down side, Rattle's focus on the ebb and flow of the long line comes at the expense of textural contrast: even the pianos and the more lightly scored bits don't sound that different from everything around them. And while he shapes the big surges well, his actual control is casual: Coordination becomes slurry, and the sonorities thicken, notably in the Adagio's modulatory sequence. As the performance proceeds, player fatigue audibly sets in, to the point that, in the exuberant finale, the final ascending buildup doesn't land quite together.

The LSO is in good shape otherwise, taking Rattle's quick pace for the scherzo in stride; some mild rushing elsewhere may have been intentional. But the deadpan principal clarinet is a disappointment; in the Adagio, it's the hushed piano that touches the emotions rather than any inflections.

The recording is mostly fine. Reed solos have presence. The bronzen brasses register with depth even at medium volume. Small accents—pizzicatos and the scherzo's glockenspiel—are crisply defined. The thud midscherzo is vivid. Tuttis can be opaque, but engineers can't supply a clarity that isn't there to begin with.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Schubert: Winterreise
Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, piano
Erato 528414 (24/96 WAV). 2021. Leszek Maria Wojcik, prod.; Noriko Okabe, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

It took until age 50 for mezzo Joyce DiDonato to bring what she calls "this singular, crowning achievement in song"—Schubert's 24-song cycle Winterreise—to Carnegie Hall. She and her accompanist, Metropolitan Opera conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, found their way in by approaching the cycle from the vantage point of the woman who is abandoned by the male protagonist of Wilhelm Müller's poems. With a table and chair as props, DiDonato sings the last journal entries of this despairing and broken man shortly before he commits suicide.

Having the previously invisible woman express the suffering in these songs makes for a very different interpretation than those in a short line of recordings by women that began with soprano Lotte Lehmann. At times, DiDonato's expression harks back not to the early 19th century German tradition but to the wronged, suffering heroines of Italian bel canto. It sometimes feels like an act of cultural displacement, but it presents Schubert's great cycle in a unique, personal voice.

That voice, recorded on December 15, 2019, without editing, is in prime form. DiDonato has come into her own as an art song interpreter, and with Nézet-Séguin's support, she takes tasteful and meaningful liberties with tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and vibrato. Every word is voiced with honesty and integrity. When she brings out the deep undertones in her voice, the emotional impact is as profound as when she sings softly and sweetly. The piano sounds unnaturally damped, but DiDonato's instrument flows magnificently. A must-hear.—Jason Victor Serinus


Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 9 & 10
London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
LSO Live LSO0828 (CD). 2021. Nicholas Parker, prod.; Jonathan Stokes and Neil Hutchinson, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

This generous coupling underlines an unsuspected kinship between two very different scores.

The Ninth is frequently treated as a jocular throwaway—it certainly has its comical moments—but Noseda finds more in it. He precisely captures its mercurial mood changes and doesn't shrink from the outer movements' stark contrasts. After the first movement's crisp, perky exposition, I was unprepared for the development's grim onslaught. The finale's strutting tutti recap suggests an inexorable juggernaut. As the rollicking scherzo turns aggressive with the brasses' entry, Noseda maintains its rhythmic buoyancy.

Noseda excels at the brooding, expansive writing that dominates the Tenth's opening movement: Its sections flow seamlessly, blossoming naturally. The Allegro, after incisive string chords, bounds into a racing, whirling scherzo. The ruminative third movement turns ominous with grim waltz afterbeats. After a brooding start, the finale turns circusy and starkly severe.

The LSO woodwinds revel in their virtuosity in the Ninth's scherzo. High bassoon solos have a sax-ish vibrancy. In the Tenth, the strings swell into a sonorous depth. The finale's desolate oboe solo is full-toned.

In many ways, the sound is excellent. Strings have a buzzy, resinous transparency. Brasses, in solo and as a choir, have impact and depth. The open textures are clean. The Tenth's soft gong stroke is clear. But, at a volume ideal for those details, the tutti outbursts—and there are several protracted ones—are harsh and unpleasant. Still, the performances are first-class.—Stephen Francis Vasta

johnnythunder1's picture

JVS' review of the DSQ's Beethoven/Bartok/Bach is spot on. I think this is the best of the Prisms so far. The DSQ approaches these visionary works intellectually but never cold. They illuminate details here and there - little bits of rhythms, tonal shadings, dynamics and brilliant Beethoven touches - that make these sound fresh. Their sound is perfect for late Beethoven: rhythmically alert, each part standing out, not overly smoothed or bottom heavy, not vibrato laden. Hearing the DSQ's late Beethoven is never boring or routine. The couplings are essential too. Their Bartok while not at the level of the classic Hungarian SQ or Vegh's is still smart and full of individual touches that make this an essential purchase for string quartet aficionados.