May 2022 Classical Record Reviews

Eric Nathan: Missing Words
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, American Brass Quintet, International Contemporary Ensemble, Neave Trio, Hub New Music, cellist Parry Karp and pianist Christopher Karp
New Focus Recordings FCR314 (2 CDs, download). 2022. Shauna Barravecchio, Andrew Bove, et al., prods.; Mario Correa, Joel Gordon, et al., engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Ben Schott's 2013 book Schottenfreude is a glossary of German words invented by its author to describe contemporary life. Such notions as "tiny triumphs of nimble-fingered dexterity" and "the exhausting trudge up a stationary escalator" inspired chamber pieces by composer Eric Nathan, performed here by several ensembles.

Nathan's writing calls to mind Second Viennese School composers in merging beauty with subtle dissonance—a backhanded way of saying that it doesn't sound exactly new, nor does it need to. He cuts a line through the Brahms-Schoenberg continuum that is nostalgic, romantic, and post-Romantic. The recording adheres to tradition: bright and crisp, a full stereo picture with nothing pushed to the periphery.

Missing Words IV is the standout, thanks to the presence of International Contemporary Ensemble members Josh Modney (violin), Cory Smythe (piano), and Clara Warnaar (percussion). At 19 minutes, it's also the longest, and the titles of its three sections sample the lexicon roots Nathan is dealing with: "Erkenntnisspaziergang" (cognition-stroll), "Dreiecksungleichung" (triangle-reorganization), and "Tageslichtspielschock" (daylight-show-shock). The fictive vocabulary can be used for context, like Debussy's faun, or set aside in favor of simple listening.

Other pieces draw from the sounds of trains and accidental cell phone recordings, and there are allusions to Beethoven. The set is thought-provoking, ripe with cues to put the mind apace, as if these made-up words, full of meaning, were ripening fruit, with Nathan the baker collecting them all. When the pie was opened, the words began to sing.—Kurt Gottschalk


Carolyn Sampson: Trennung: Songs of Separation
Sampson, soprano; Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano
BIS-2623 (24/192 WAV). 2022. Andrew Mellor, prod. and eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Everything about this recording declares perfection. Recorded a year ago, when Carolyn Sampson was 46, it finds the soprano in ideal form for songs by Mozart, Haydn, and three of their rarely encountered contemporaries. These composers expected embellishment from their interpreters, and Sampson's decades of experience and total ease with vocal ornamentation provide one unexpected delight after the other. The same holds true for Kristian Bezuidenhout, who seems less accompanist than cocreator. Listen, for example, to his fantastic solo fortepiano excursion between the second and third verses of Friedrich Gottlob Fleischer's "An der Schlaf" (To Sleep).

Starting with her first recorded foray into art song, 2015's Fleurs, Sampson has proven herself the master of the themed recital. Trennung offers songs of parting and separation, written in the second half of the 18th century, that tell engaging stories, some more droll than tragic. Take, for example, the opener, August Bernhard Valentin Herbing's surprisingly engaging 12+ minute minidrama about two shipwrecked lovers, "Montan und Lalage." Herbing presents a classic case of karmic comeuppance, with enough vocal and dramatic turns to leave us amused and sated.

From Mozart, we have four frequently encountered delights. As partial as I may be to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's mono recording of "Abendempfindung" (Evening Thoughts) with Gerald Moore, Sampson and Bezuidenhout grace us with a more authentic version, in which ornamentation speaks as strongly as rallentando. It's marvelous, as is Sampson's delightful little fizz of vibrato at the end of appropriate phrases in other songs. Trennung's capper, Haydn's solo cantata "Arianna a Naxos," rivals the best. The 24/192 recording is superbly clear, natural, open, and relaxed.—Jason Victor Serinus


Brahms: Piano Trios Nos.2 & 3
David Haroutunian (violin), Sofya Melikyan (piano), Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello)
Rubicon RCD1079 (CD). Dirk Fischer, prod. and eng.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

The opening of Trio 2—a restrained, severe string unison answered meltingly by the piano—tells us everything we need to know about this program. The performances by this apparently ad hoc group of players—if they stay together, one hopes they choose a short name—reflect both Brahms's firm, austere Classical demeanor, with its granitic contours and structural rigor, and his fluent, Romantic lyricism.

The rest of Trio 2 fulfills the promise of the opening, with calm episodes relieving its surging forward impulse. The Andante, a theme and variations, is severe but not portentous; some of the variations are marked by smaller-scale but still-impassioned surges. The Presto scherzo is at once volatile and buoyant, while some anxiety colors the finale's no-nonsense, major-key stride.

Trio 3 opens firmly and powerfully, immediately growing turbulent, enhanced by pianist Sofya Melikyan's full-bodied chordal outbursts. The Presto assai, more intermezzo than scherzo, is quietly disturbed, exiting, after a pizzicato-dominated Trio, as quietly as it began.

The simple, singing opening of the Andante grazioso is a balm, but the music soon becomes more incisive; then the piano launches the recap as a dignified chorale. The finale's edgy, quietly bristling opening theme is rather scherzo-like—think Beethoven—though its expansive working-out, pure-Romantic Brahms, dominates the movement. In the home stretch, the players take the syncopations in stride.

The playing throughout is consistently accomplished and interpretively unified; the bold, assertive themes relax, seamlessly and logically, into yielding expression. Violinist David Haroutunian's clear tone is impeccably tuned, even when vaulting upward.

The sonics are first-class. Recommended.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Brahms: String Sextets
The Belcea Quartet with Tabea Zimmermann, viola, and Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello
Alpha 792 (24/192 WAV). 2021. Stephan Cahen, prod., eng., and editing.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

For we who love Brahms's two String Sextets, immersion in a fresh recording is like reuniting with old friends. It's more than tuneful melodies that draw us in; it's the unabashed yearning and celebration of a young heart that makes you want to put your arms around these marvelous sextets, embrace them with all the warmth you can muster, and make their romance and yearning your own.

Brahms began sketching Sextet No.1 in B flat major, Op.18, in his 26th year. After input from his trusted friend, renowned violinist Joseph Joachim, the work premiered in 1860, to widespread acclaim. The Belceas, with viola and cello doubled by Tabea Zimmermann and Jean-Guihen Queyras, indulge in the first movement's weeping strings and allow Brahms's yearning to emerge as strongly as his celebration of romance. The extra weight of viola and cello in the second movement goes to the heart, and the conclusion is wonderful. After the light diversion of the third movement, the conclusion's back and forth between the higher- and lower-pitched instrument showcases Brahms's early mastery of color and texture.

The Sextet No.2 in G major, Op.36, followed five years later. Surprisingly, it received its premiere not in Europe but in Boston. The divine intertwining of the two violins in the opening movement depicts the failure of one of Brahms's early relationships. The second movement begins tinged in sadness. Five minutes into the third movement, the playing grows sublime, with dynamic changes perfectly judged. The finale's heartfelt opening, followed by another wonderful trade-off between high- and lower-pitched strings, leads to a delicious scherzo and marvelous conclusion. An absolute joy.—Jason Victor Serinus


Mahler: Symphony No.4
Chen Reiss (soprano), Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov, cond.
Pentatone Music PTC 5186972 (CD). 2022. Holger Urbach, prod.; Stephan Reh and Jakub Hadraba, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Bychkov, a fine colorist, takes advantage of the Czech Philharmonic's naturally lean sound in this Fourth. He favors crisp, forward woodwind and horn lines à la Horenstein, creating plenty of variety. The tapered strings weave full sonorities without thickness, and Bychkov scrupulously observes all the little portamentos (slides) that give the music its character. Accents are stabbing and precise, to ominous effect—note the scherzo's opening horn phrase—though straight accents and forte-pianos come out much the same.

The performance is unusually fresh: Brisk tempi are not pushed but unfold naturally. The scherzo has a dancey lilt, its contrasting sections gracious rather than rustic.

The spacious, flowing slow movement is a true Poco adagio. The finale is forthright. All benefit from small, distinctive touches: the first movement's buzzing trills; the flute's tentative suggestion at 7:09 of the scherzo is appealing—though the solo violin's imitation is unhelpful—or the "milked" oboe tenutos in the slow movement. Chen Reiss, the finale's vibrant soloist, intones the closing paragraph in a lovely hush.

The first movement suffers small ensemble and balance flaws. There's the usual early train wreck—clarinets rushing ahead as everyone else slows down—and iffy coordination between horns and bassi later. In the development, the first trumpet fanfare is all but buried. And throughout, Bychkov's impulsiveness can get the better of him—an innocent Eilend or Fliessend marking and it's off to the races, undercutting the music's strength.

Timpani rolls render some tuttis opaque, and the scherzo's piccolo briefly hits the mikes hard. Otherwise, the sonics vividly convey the orchestra's interplay of colors, textures, and articulations.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Hans Abrahamsen: Schnee
The Lapland Chamber Orchestra, John Storgårds, cond.
Dacapo CD: 6.220585 (CD, download). 2022. Preben Iwan, prod. and eng.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

"Schnee" is a simple title for a very literal but far from simple piece of music. The title for the 2008 work, one of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen's most celebrated, means "snow," and within the eight minutes of the first section, one has the feeling of falling into its frozen bank, the vantage quickly moving from a plane of white with shifting gradients caused by a cold wind to the flurry of activity with meeting the drift face first, then an impossible macro of the complexity of millions of crystals. The following sections further explore the beguilingly serene scene, growing in layered complexity.

The infrastructure of the composition (13 sections in close to an hour), meanwhile, induces a slow, aural vertigo. As the intricacy increases, the sections grow shorter. The first pair of canons last approximately nine minutes each; subsequent pairs are reduced to seven, then five, then three, then one. Interspersed are brief and comparatively still intermezzos, also of decreasing duration, falling not quite neatly between the paired canons. Abrahamsen was inspired by Bach's canons, and as with Bach, the architecture absorbs the imagination.

The Lapland Chamber Orchestra executes Schnee with an astounding beauty, making the granular detail and fixed relationships among the nine instrumental voices seem a natural occurrence. The strings, reeds, and flutes breathe as one, punctuated by a pair of pianos and light percussion. The recording itself (made at the resonant Korundi House of Culture concert hall in Rovaniemi, Finland) is stark and intimate, with so much space that an earbud listen fooled me into thinking the external speakers were still connected. The recording can also be streamed in Apple Music's Dolby Atmos, giving a wider dimensional tableau to Abrahamsen's visions of snow.—Kurt Gottschalk


Ennio Morricone: Cinema Suites for Violin and Orchestra
Marco Serino, violin; Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento, Andrea Morricone, cond.
Arcana A495 (24/96 WAV). 2022. Matteo Costa, Patrizio Serino, prod.; Simon Lanz, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Prior to his death at the age of 91 in July of 2020, composer Ennio Morricone completed the scores for this recording, which features his longtime violinist, Marco Serino. This collection of suites is a product of Morricone's reworking of his own scores for film, intended for concert performances. I am not often a fan of rerecordings of film music: I prefer to hear the music tracks used, as typically found on albums designated "original motion picture soundtrack." This collection is of another kind altogether: well-thought-through compositional variations on the original music, beautifully performed by the Haydn Orchestra and conducted by the composer's son, Andrea Morricone. With a career output exceeding 400 film scores, Morricone gathered excerpts from 14 of them to create these suites, organized by films and their directors.

Included are a "Sergio Leone Suite," a "Giuseppe Tornatore Suite," and a "Brian De Palma Suite." Putting Morricone's best foot forward, the collection opens with three themes from Once Upon a Time in America, one of the greatest meldings of music and visual drama ever melded. The simplest musical materials get to the emotional heart of that great film about love and memory in such a powerful way that I tear up when I hear it. The solo violin part features Morricone's fine melodic gifts, thematic materials as used in the films but also newly created lines handed back and forth between violin and orchestra. In a fine interview, Marco Serino describes Morricone "reworking existing scores with me as soloist in mind ... talking in depth about the solo part and the scoring for orchestra." Playing gorgeously his Matteo Goffriller violin made in Venice in 1768, Serino gives voice to a great composer commenting on his own life's work.—Sasha Matson

AaronGarrett's picture

Schnee is a wonderful piece of music. Thanks for introducing me to it.