October 2022 Classical Record Reviews

Aloys Schmitt: Piano Concertos 1–2; Rondeau brillant
Ulster Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano and conductor)
Hyperion CDA 68389 (CD). Annabel Connellan, prod.; Ben Connellan, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

It's not immediately clear why these well-wrought concerti should be in Hyperion's "Romantic Piano Concerto" series. The First Concerto, a transitional score, is planted solidly in the Classical period.

The opening ritornello offers ruggedly Classical contours, while the predominantly linear piano writing could be amped-up Mozart; a turbulent tutti where we expect a full cadence foreshadows Beethoven. The second-theme recap is unexpectedly serene. The piano cadenza goes on too long, and even the movement's home stretch includes two derailings too many. The Adagio blossoms from a simple, intense chorale theme; the severely playful closing Rondo turns sunnier as it proceeds.

The Second Concerto's searching, unstable opening tutti feints toward Schumann. After the piano launches its exposition with big, ringing chords, the orchestral backing reverts to the Classical style. A gentle, wistful woodwind motif gets the Adagio started; the playful, crisp finale, while not labeled "rondo," suggests one of Beethoven's, plus a hint of Gypsy music, and turns increasingly exuberant. The flashy, Weberian Rondeau brillant provides a substantial and appealing makeweight.

Howard Shelley, dexterous and stylish, is particularly impressive in the figurations of the Second Concerto, articulated with weight and presence. The writing frequently leaves him too busy to tend to the orchestra, leaving the players more or less on their own, with varying results. In the First's opening movement, the first chord is mushy, but that announcing the cadenza is clean. The Ulster Orchestra does well, although the principal flute rides sharp and the solo cello is reedy.

The sound is fine, with occasional flashes of excellence: a brief horn unison in the Second, for example, cuts through with imposing depth.—Stephen Francis Vasta


India Gailey: to you through
India Gailey, cello and vocals
Redshift Records TK511 (CD, auditioned as 24/96 WAV). 2022. John D.S. Adams & India Gailey, prods.; Adams, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ***½

Everything about to you through, including its lowercase title, rambling and enchantingly personal liner notes, free-form genre merging, and spacey, New Age–ish ambience, proclaims "contemporary zeitgeist." Ditto the album credits, which honor the recording location—Mi'kma'ki, Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia—as the traditional territory of the Mi'kmaq people.

But the recording works. Perhaps in part because of the engineering and acoustic, it's hard to fully differentiate Fjola Evans's Augun (2013)—translated as "the eyes," and a work that contains seven cello parts layered together—from cellist Gailey's Ghost (2022), Yaz Lancaster's diepenveen (2020)—named for a village in the Netherlands—and Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti's ko'u inoa (2017)—translated as "my name." Harder to forget are Philip Glass's Orbit (2013), which sounds like minimalist Buddha meets Bach, and Michael Gordon's Light Is Calling (2004). The latter, which includes "reverse electronic pulse sounds," was written just a few weeks after 9/11 by the co-founder of Bang on a Can; it embodies Gordon's desire "to make something beautiful after witnessing something ugly and tragic," something that transpired close to his home.

Even the lovely innocence of Gailey's voice works. When you read the liner notes and discover that her parents met in a meditation center in rural Vermont and, shortly before she was born, moved to Nova Scotia on the recommendation of Tibetan lama (and notable lush) Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the flow of the album makes sense. A practicing Buddhist and meditation facilitator, Gailey has learned to roll with the punches while maintaining a sense of wide-eyed wonder at the joys and terrors of living simultaneously within and outside of time. It's all here to hear.—Jason Victor Serinus


Brahms: Symphonies 3, 4
Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
Pentatone Music PTC 5186852 (CD). Bernhard Gättler, prod.; René Möller, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

As I wrote this, Herbert Blomstedt had just turned 95. Performances of this stature would be creditable from any conductor; from a nonagenarian, they're remarkable.

Both these symphonies exemplify Central European traditions that have survived repeated social and political disruptions. Blomstedt sets consistently flowing tempi; he'd rather move than dawdle. Even an expressive movement like the Third Symphony's Poco allegretto—a famous Szell specialty long ago—is singing rather than pensive, though Blomstedt brings a nice hush to its final statement. The horn's initial call to attention in the Fourth's Andante is mournful rather than ominous; after that, the little march continues thoughtfully. Throughout both works, the phrases scan broadly over the bar lines; accompanying figures, while properly subordinate, are actively shaped.

The Gewandhaus sonority, handsomely balanced and firmly supported in the bass, supplies the needed tonal weight. The full, vibrant strings are perhaps a touch less polished than in Kurt Masur's day, though the phrasing and timbres are unanimous; reeds, including a slightly woolly oboe—another Gewandhaus "tradition"—are balanced forward for trenchant added color. The horn recap is a bit labored, however, in the Third's Poco allegretto.

Blomstedt occasionally betrays some difficulty in maintaining both impulse and lightness. Various passages—the Third's finale, the end of the Fourth's exposition, and parts of that symphony's forthright scherzo—grow thicker and heavier, stodgier. (The terraced decelerations in the Third's finale sound awkward as well.) To be sure, everything still moves with a clear sense of direction, just less well.

The sound is vivid. Bass pizzicati are slightly boomy but, in horn-and-string doublings, it's nice to hear both elements clearly.—Stephen Francis Vasta


György Kurtág: Kafka-Fragmente
Anna Prohaska, soprano; Isabelle Faust, violin
Harmonia Mundi 902359 (CD, reviewed as 24/96 WAV). 2022. Martin Sauer, prod.; Julian Schwenkner, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Here's a major switch: Two artists often associated with J.S. Bach pop up smack in the middle of late 20th century disruption—in a searing performance of György Kurtág's hour-long song cycle Kafka-Fragmente Op.24.

Attired in genre-bending drag on the album cover—soprano Anna Prohaska even sports a monocle—she and violinist Isabelle Faust perform as one in their startling realization of Kurtág's setting of 40 prose fragments by Franz Kafka.

One can only speculate whether Kafka's extreme pessimism is the reason music recorded during the height of the pandemic, in the famed Teldex Studio Berlin, has first seen release more than two years later. Musings (in translation) such as those in Kurtág's homage to Pierre Boulez, entitled "Der wahre Weg" ("The True Path"), thumb their nose at Buddha's teachings: "The true path goes by way of a rope that is suspended not high up, but rather just above the ground. Its purpose seems to be more to make one stumble than to be walked on." Political incorrectness abounds, not least in "Penetrant jädisch" (Offensively Jewish): "In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world." Such declarations, drawn from Kafka's private writings, may have originated in the early 20th century, but they uncompromisingly address today's angst in the face of ecological and political upheaval.

Kurtág's music is as concise and confounding as Kafka's oft-nihilistic text. Prohaska sings, whispers, gurgles, groans, screams, and makes other unpretty sounds as Faust thumbs her own nose at the tonal excellence she usually aims to draw from her 1704 "Sleeping Beauty" Stradivarius.

As we strive to find our way through this essential music, it's hard not to wonder which way is out.—Jason Victor Serinus

MFK's picture

JVS, what is your point in calling him a "notable lush"? Criticism? Observation? Yes, he was an alcoholic. Why call attention to it and in those terms? Not funny, not nice. Stick to the music, please.

Poor Audiophile's picture

Not my kind of music, but I'm just curious about the low sonics rating.

Jim Austin's picture

Now repaired. Thanks for the alert.

Jim Austin, Editor