September 2022 Classical Record Reviews

Prism IV: Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn
Danish String Quartet
ECM 2564 (CD). 2022. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Markus Heiland, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

The Danish String Quartet's "Prism" series pairs a Beethoven quartet with a connected Bach fugue and another, related work: The Beethoven becomes a prism to diffract the others. I couldn't tell you I heard motivic relationships among these three scores, but they constitute a pleasing program.

The firm-bowed, full-bodied rendition of Bach's G minor Fugue sets the tone for the program, marked by the Danish's rhythmically astute, impeccably tuned playing. The sonorities are firmly grounded; the only shortcoming is a lack of really quiet playing. Interpretively, the players are attuned to the music's shifts of affect—brief, affirmative moments, say, occurring within a turbulent context. Precise transitions and closing ritards come off without a hitch.

The mystical, late Beethoven quartets are not easy to fathom. As the Danish players perform the five-movement A minor, the 18-minute slow movement with its broad, arching opening, lighter contrasting paragraph, and oddly inconclusive ending becomes the heart of the piece. It's flanked by two "non-scherzi": the first, formally correct, is moderate with gravitas; the second is actually in four, followed by a recitative. The outer Allegros are both vigorous, disturbed sonata movements; in the flowing finale, crisp chordal punctuations keep disturbing the serenity.

The Mendelssohn is even more impressive, projecting nuanced, sensitive expression while maintaining Classical rigor. In the taut Allegros, the players again pivot instantly from driving vigor to melting lyricism without ever breaking rhythmic stride. The various chorales are solemn, fervent, and tonally saturated. Next to the Danish, the estimable Juilliard Quartet sounds less committed, even a bit cluttered.

The long ambience may strike some as inappropriate to chamber music, but the ear adjusts quickly, and the individual lines always remain clear.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Mahler: Symphony No.4
Les Siècles, François-Xavier Roth, cond.; Sabine Devieilhe, soprano
Harmonia Mundi HMM 905347 (CD, auditioned as 24/96). 2022. Jiri Heger, prod. & ed.; Aurélien Bourgois, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

As on period-instrument orchestra Les Siècles' marvelous recording of Ravel's Piano Concertos, which was reviewed last month, the Fourth here is a symphony reborn. Played with gut-string and nonstring instruments in use in Germany and Austria at the time of the Fourth's premiere, the performance spins a lighter and more transparent soundworld than more conventional recordings, in which color and texture rule. Thanks to Roth's fleet interpretation—he seems intent on freeing Mahler from excess romantic baggage—we hear details usually buried under bulbous bellows and portamento-laden strings.

Roth's sonic equivalent of earwax removal is so unlike the recordings by Bernstein, Abbado, Nézet-Séguin, and Maazel (to name just a few) that you're likely to wonder if he used a different—perhaps earlier—edition of the symphony. He didn't: He plays the "Final Version 1911." The differences we hear are attributable solely to the conductor, his interpretation, and those period-instrument sonorities.

Some aspects of the recording will provoke controversy. In a first movement, which at first delights with its bubbly winds, some other passages are so demonic as to make you wonder if the devil is storming paradise. The second movement is gratifyingly heart-warming and lovely, but the timbre of pizzicato strings at its end is unlike any other on record. Even more shocking is a third movement conclusion, which, after the big bang, seems more syrupy than spiritually profound.

While Sabine Devieilhe does her lovely best, no soprano can top Kathleen Battle in the final, vocal movement: While other sopranos, including Devieilhe, feign innocence, Maazel's slow tempi coax Battle into revealing the tender vulnerability beneath the prima donna cloak.—Jason Victor Serinus


Žibuoklė Martinaitytė Ex Tenebris Lux
Pavel Giunter, percussion; Rokas Vaitkevičius, cello; Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, Karolis Variakojis, cond.
Ondine ODE1403 (CD, reviewed in 24/96 format), 2022. Reijo Kiilunen, Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, prods.; Evelina Staniulytė, Aleksandra Kerienė, Vilius Keras, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

I prefer to avoid repetition—to spotlight as many old and new composers and artists as possible. But when publicist Paula Mlyn insisted that Ex Tenebris Lux, the latest album to spotlight the work of Lithuanian composer Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, was "better than Saudade," the first compilation of this New York–based female composer's music I reviewed—she described some of the new album's music as "ravishing"—I was eager to revisit the composer. Her music is anything but ordinary.

"Mesmerizing" might be the best way to describe three recently composed sonic landscapes for string orchestra that, in the words of program annotator Frank J. Oteri, "seem to suspend temporal perception." As much as one can hear elements of New Age elongation and minimalist repetition in Martinaitytė's writing, its slow, subtle, detailed unfolding and frequent luminescence are unique. Nunc fluens. Nunc stans. derives its title from a 6th century treatise by Severinus Boethius that translates as "the now that passes creates time; the now that remains creates eternity." If that explanation, together with the subtle inclusion of vibraphone, crotales, gongs, bowed cymbal, and tubular bell, doesn't inspire you to check out this transcendent music inspired by the anything-but-secure pandemic times we live in, perhaps nothing will. The title work, Ex Tenebris Lux, uses 18 string instruments to explore, in a bit over 24 minutes, the journey from darkness into light. The closing and longest work, Sielunmaisema for cello and string orchestra (2019), conveys Martinaitytė's here-and-now response to the four seasons.

Audition this recording with lights off and phones silenced. You won't want to be disturbed.—Jason Victor Serinus


Consolations: Music by Bach, Chopin, Dushkin, Handel, Kreisler, Liszt, Massenet, and others
Maya Magub, violin; Hsin-I Huang, piano
CRD Records CRD 3540 (CD). 2022. Maya Magub, Alex Heffes, prods.; Zach Dellinger, Will Brown, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics *****

Violinist Maya Magub is the guiding spirit behind this album. Faced with canceled public concerts, including several with pianist Hsin-I Huang, this album was her pandemic project. The process, described in liner notes, had each player record separately, back and forth; this may sound like 2020's ubiquitous Zoom concerts, but here, more attention was paid to ironing out details and aligning interpretations.

And sonics: Miraculously, the mixing and mastering was successful in blending the separate, asynchronous acoustics to simulate a single, spacious room, without the "flat" perspective common to such mixdowns. Both instruments are vividly present; if anything, Mr. Huang's piano is subtly closer than it would have been in a real hall. And neither did I ever sense less than total interpretive unanimity.

For Liszt's six eponymous Consolations, which are serene and lyrical, not virtuosic, Ms. Magub fitted out Nathan Milstein's transcription of the Third with her own arrangements of the others. They come off beautifully. She fills out Schumann's Abschied with full-bodied expression; the central section of Massenet's Méditation is unexpectedly impassioned. Dushkin's Sicilienne and two Mendelssohn pieces are fresh and charming. At first prosaic, a Bach/Gounod Ave Maria shimmers on its repeat.

Elsewhere, that unanimity I mentioned can come at the cost of some spontaneity and impulse. Traumerei, Song of India, and the "Raindrop" prelude all sound careful, even uptight, as though the players were afraid to take chances. The piano introduction to Handel's Largo plods, although Magub realizes the piece's solemn dignity. Conversely, the ending of Rachmaninoff 's thoughtful Vocalise tries too hard.

The effort is admirable, the results often outstanding.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Long-time listener's picture

It just occurred to me: Each month we get new reviews of classical, jazz, and rock/pop recordings. All of which I appreciate -- it's always good to find out about new music. But aren't there other categories? Ambient/minimalist/electronic, for example? I recently discovered a 2020 Alva Noto recording, Xerrox Vol. 4, which has impressed me greatly over three successive listenings. But I never (sorry, rarely -- you did recommend the soundtrack to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) hear about these things from Stereophile. More new stuff, more new categories would be good. Otherwise, keep up the good work and the good fight.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

that will make you happy. Electronics plus double bass.

Thanks for the strokes.


AaronGarrett's picture

The new Paul Cannon record? BTW you should review some of the new wonderful recordings of Julius Eastman's music by Wild Up and others. Thanks for turning me on to so much excellent music.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Not sure how many Stereophile readers are ready for Evil N*****, Crazy N*****, Gay Guerrilla, and all the rest. I had intended to review one of the new Eastman recordings for the Bay Area Reporter, the main gay paper in San Francisco, but I never had the time.

I'm listening to the first track of Paul Cannon's "Unite the Tribe." I like the subject matter, message, and melodies, but I think other reviewers have a wider frame of reference for / are better suited to singer / songwriter fare. I'd also like to believe there are enough free-spirited music lovers in the Stereophile stable to not get trapped in categories when music speaks in themes as universal as Cannon's. Certainly editor Jim is open to quality music of all genres.

Please continue to feed us ideas. You can reach me via

Thank you again.


AaronGarrett's picture

Sorry I was unclear! I was wondering if this is the double bass and electronics recording you were reviewing? It's excellent.

Julius Eastman definitely had some very intentionally challenging titles, although I find all of his music accessible and I think he was a brilliant composer. I was thinking of this marvelous raucous performance of Stay on It:

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

All things come to they who wait ;-)

Off to NYC on vacation. Enjoy, everyone.


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Came out last December. Too old for review. But if you run into titles you think worthy of review, email me or Jim Austin.