March 2023 Classical Record Reviews

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Curtis Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Curtis Studio (24/96 WAV download). Drew Schlegel, prod. and eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The best American conservatory players can match fully fledged professionals in musicality and polish, so it's no surprise that the Curtis Institute has launched its own label. Kicking off with a showpiece like Scheherazade might have been a gamble, but not with Osmo Vänskä, recently of the Minnesota Orchestra, at the helm.

Once past the self-conscious opening gestures, the conductor limns an unusually pictorial first movement: The easy, rocking rhythm evokes the sea; the horn evokes a call from afar. Despite a slightly opaque climax—tuttis overall are less distinctive than everything else—I was startled to find my longstanding allegiance to Ansermet (Decca) challenged. Vänskä, logically, moves attacca into the next movement; I'm surprised no one's tried that before. I particularly liked the lilt of the second, dancing theme. The final tutti brings emphatic, marked accents.

The slow movement starts daringly slowly. Vänskä shapes the long theme surely, bringing greater impulse to the peak. The movement flows; the little dance section here begins quietly. The finale's tarantella—not Rimsky's term—has a propulsive lift, moving even more quickly with the brass fanfares. The crashing shipwreck is pretty standard. The final fade is peaceful.

The conductor is more interested in vitality than precision: The first movement's wind-down briefly come unstuck; the finale's first tutti triplets are slapdash and smudgy. But these passing flaws, which can happen even in the big leagues, are balanced by wonderful playing elsewhere: the liquid clarinet, with just the right rubato in the flourishes; the delicate oboe; the clear, plaintive horn; the tight, precise string tremolos. The lighter passages are wonderfully textured and spacious; tuttis are less special. I'm looking forward to more from this new label.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Schubert: Piano Trios • Notturno • Rondo • Arpeggione Sonata
Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Tanja Tetzlaff, cello; Lars Vogt, piano
Ondine 1394 (reviewed as 24/96 WAV). 2023. Christoph Franke, prod. and ed.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

No recording of Franz Schubert's chamber music has moved me as much as this one. First, there's the consummate artistry of three superb musicians who bend tempos and plumb dynamic extremes with uncommon freedom in service of great music written in the last five of Schubert's 31 years. Listen, for example, to the tender and heartbreaking second movement of Piano Trio No.1 as it weeps sweetly and to the delights of its final movement.

This is the last chamber music recording that pianist Lars Vogt made with his frequent trio partners before succumbing to cancer of the throat and liver. Vogt was already experiencing terrible abdominal pain during the first recording session, which took place February 21–25, 2021. By the time the trio recorded the Piano Trio No.1, on June 10–11, 2021, he had received his diagnosis and begun chemotherapy. Death came only 15 months later, three days short of his 52nd birthday.

As much as every great artist performs as if their life depends on it, everyone played with full awareness that these might be their last recording sessions together. Who can fail to be moved by the extreme sensitivity of three artists feeling and breathing as one? Who can listen without recalling that Schubert himself, aware that he would die of syphilis much too soon, poured his heart and soul into every one of these works?

Schubert's extraordinary ability to create beauty and joy amidst suffering—to transcend impending tragedy by tapping into a seemingly inexhaustible fount of melody—is mirrored here by the superb, committed playing of Vogt and the Tetzlaff siblings. I urge you to partake of the innumerable riches on this indispensable recording.—Jason Victor Serinus

Elgar: Viola Concerto
Bloch: Suite for Viola & Orchestra
Timothy Ridout, viola; BBC Symphony, Martyn Brabbins
Harmonia Mundi HMM902618 (CD). 2023. Andrew Keener, prod.; Dave Rowell, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

Elgar never wrote a Viola Concerto. Violist Lionel Tertis arranged this version for his own use from the Cello Concerto, with the composer's approval. The risk, of course, is that the move to the higher-pitched instrument will sacrifice the music's color and power.

No fear: Timothy Ridout attacks the opening call to attention with an incisive authority that compensates for any reduced resonance. He's a perceptive interpreter, finding the right searching or fervent affect as needed in the lyric phrases and minimizing vibrato in high, soft phrases. He realizes the Adagio's cautious affirmation and the finale's occasional plaintive inflections, sustaining tension and interest in that discursive movement.

The unstable harmonies and sparer textures of Bloch's Sonata jerk us abruptly into comparative modernity. Disturbing "sci-fi" orchestral gestures—think Twilight Zone, not Star Wars—alternate with the viola's attempts at lyricism. The music then segues into a folkloric sort of passage. Such themes, alone and in canon, dominate the next two movements, one angular and scherzo-ish, the other mysterious and searching.

All this falls on the ear neatly enough, but only in the bright-eyed, propulsive finale does everything fully come to life. Throughout this score, Ridout's low tones manage to sound both dusky and edgy, which is entirely appropriate.

Brabbins conducts sensibly, with soft landings, reserving power for the biggest climaxes. Quiet strings can be grainy, but the reeds—especially the clarinet, which is prominent in the Bloch—sound handsome. The sonic frame recesses the orchestra slightly, but the interplay with the soloist still registers. At what seemed a good playback level, the tuttis in the Elgar were fierce.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Well-Tempered Consort—III
Linn CDK708. CD (reviewed as 24/96 WAV). 2022. Philip Hobbs, prod. & eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

For the third and final release in its marvelous series The Well-Tempered Consort, England's Phantasm, a consort of five viols led by treble viol player Laurence Dreyfus, presents 27 chamber arrangements of Bach works originally intended for keyboard and organ.

By conveying polyphonic complexity through five clearly delineated string lines, Phantasm enhances the emotional impact of Bach's harmonic relationships. If your system can present five differently pitched viol lines with clarity and warmth, you will find yourself relishing the wealth of beauty and invention that Bach compacted into short works, many of which last less than two minutes.

Phantasm skillfully weaves excerpts from Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias, Organ Book III, and The Well-Tempered Clavier Books 1 and 2 into a coherent whole. The short introduction to the 65-minute set, the Sinfonia No.1 in C Major BWV 787, is pure delight. The timbres are a joy, and the miking clear enough to reveal the sound of hairs brushing across gut strings.

It's difficult to read Dreyfus's liner notes with a straight face. Writing in a style designed to elicit insider smiles from academics and the early-music fraternity, he intersperses such gems as "Consider the subject ... with its rhetorical contrast between the cryptic decree trailed by a scornful staccato and answered by flourishes of aristocratic frippery" among invaluable insights into Bach's genius.

Best to focus instead on the inventive profundity of the "Prelude No.18 in G-sharp minor BWV 863," the surprising succession of sorrowful dissonances in "Fuga super: Jesus Christus unser Heiland BWV 689," the joys of "Fughetta super: 'Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr BWV 677," and the transcendent harmony of the final "Fantasia in G Major BWV 572."—Jason Victor Serinus