CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
6 FEBRUARY 2014
The albums below are "Classical Releases Of Current Key Significance," or "CROCKS", if you will. To purchase an album, simply click on one of the Web site retail outlets given in the "AVAILABILITY" table under the write-up.
Casella, Alf.: Conc for Stgs (stg qt), 5 Pcs (stg qt); Turchi: Conc breve (stg qt); Venice Qt [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
During the nineteenth and early twentieth century Italian audiences and patrons were preoccupied with vocal music, which led to a dearth of new native instrumental works. This was particularly true of the string quartet, which many in sunny Italy dismissed as an overly complex, dry intellectual exercise of Teutonic origin from the likes of Haydn (1732-1809), Mozart (1756-1791) and Beethoven (1770-1827).
However, the 1920s began to see a reappearance of instrumental music such as these two opuses by Alfredo Casella (1883-1947, see 13 July 2012) on this new Naxos release. There's also a more contemporary Italian work by the occasionally twelve-tone-disposed Guido Turchi (1916-2010). As performed here in their original versions for string quartet, these are the only recordings of them currently available on disc. All three will grow on you with repeated listening.
The program opens with Alfredo's Concerto per archi (Concerto for Strings) of 1923. His choice of title seems an attempt to avoid any association with the spurned quartet genre. What's more he cast its four movements in Italian forms hoping to put an appealing local spin on things. There's a virtuosic vigor about the initial "Sinfonia" [T-1] that harkens back to Vivaldi (1678-1741), whose music Casella and his colleague Gian-Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973, see 17 November 2007) were then trying to revive. You'll also hear echoes of Italian concerti grossi by such composers as Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713).
Based on two classic dance forms, the lilting "Siciliana" [T-2] and strutting "Minuetto" [T-3] are neoclassical recreations where Cassella employs the solo versus tutti concept of Italian baroque concertos. Then the work ends with a frenetic "Canzone" [T-4] that brings this mini-masterpiece to a thrilling conclusion. There's an expansiveness about the work that cries out for larger forces, and accordingly Erwin Stein (1885-1958) arranged it for string orchestra in 1929.
The Cinque pezzi (Five Pieces) that are next date from three years earlier (1920). They show the composer at his most avant-garde, but remain tonal despite his earlier study of Schoenberg's (1874-1951) music. The opening "Preludio" [T-5] features a disembodied solo melodic line set against a buzzing tutti. While the following "Ninna Nanna" ("Lullaby") [T-6] is a queasy berceuse with ghostly overtones, and "Valse ridicule" ("Silly Waltz") [T-7] an impudent box step with the irreverence of Jean Françaix (1912-1997, see 21 October 2013).
A brooding "Nocturne" [T-8] where it's easy to imagine drifting miasmal vapors is next. Then the work ends with a capricious "Fox-Trot" [T-10] that has an occasional "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" ring to it [01:16, 04:03].
This release concludes with Turchi's Concerto breve (Short Concero) of 1947. Dedicated to the memory of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), it opens with a mysterious elegia [T-10] that's a contemplation of an unearthly atonal motif (UA) [01:12] with notes referencing his name. UA also dominates the remaining two movements, the first of which is a stringent adagio [T-11] having a subject that's a more animated version of UA [00:00].
This undergoes a development at times reminiscent of Schoenberg (1874-1951) [00:25, 02:32], and full of imitative twists and turns including a couple of tiny fugatos [00:46, 03:31]. It bridges peacefully into the closing rondo [T-12], which opens with a rhythmically jagged idea also derived from UA [00:02]. This is the recurrent subject of some demanding animated passagework sounding at times like Stravinsky's (1882-1971) L'histoire du soldat (1918). It then subsides into a quiet remembrance of UA [02:09], ending the concerto even more mysteriously than it began.
A delicate balance of technical perfection and sensitive artistry characterize these remarkable performances by the Venice Quartet (Quartetto di Venezia). This is probably due in no small part to their past association with the Hungarian and Végh Quartets, as well as the Quartetto Italiano. With performing artists who are not only virtuosos in their own right but also produce a superb ensemble sound, they're perfectly suited to this challenging music.
These studio recordings were made in Preganziol, Italy just northwest of Venice. They project a wide, up-front soundstage in a dry acoustic with the instruments well delineated and balanced. This setting in combination with the wiry nature of the selections presented gives rise to a lean string tone that would have benefitted from more reverberant surroundings.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P140206)
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Catalani: Ero e…, Scherzo, Andantino, Contemplazione, Il Mattino "Sinfonia…"; Vecchia/Rome SO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
The late 1800s and early 1900s saw the appearance of several Italian composers each of whom is best remembered for a single opera. They include Ponchielli (1834-1886; La Gioconda, 1876), Leoncavallo (1857-1919; Pagliacci, 1892), Giordano (1867-1948: Andrea Chénier, 1896), Mascagni (1863-1945; Cavalleria rusticana, 1900), Cilèa (1866-1950; Adriana Lecouvreur, 1902) , and Zandonai (1883-1944; Francesca da Rimini, 1914).
There was also Alfredo Catalani (1854-1893), whose main claim to fame was the opera La Wally of 1892, but like Mascagni (see 15 November 2013) and Zandonai (see 21 October, 2013) he too wrote some instrumental works of consequence. They're sampled on this enterprising release from Naxos, three of which are the only currently available recordings on disc, and so indicated by “OCAR” after their titles.
The first selection entitled Ero e Leandro (Hero and Leander, 1884, OCAR) [T-1] is a tone poem based on a Greek myth. It tells the story of two star-crossed lovers separated by the Hellespont strait (Dardanelles), which Leander has to swim each night to reach his inamorata, the beautiful Hero.
Ominous opening chords hinting at the tragedy to come are followed by murmuring strings [00:28], a liquid clarinet [00:40] and hunting horn calls [00:47]. They introduce a yearning episode with overtones of Wagner (1813-1883) [03:18] that would seem to depict Hero in her seaside castle tower anxiously awaiting Leander.
The clarinet reappears [03:43] and her anticipation turns to passionate thoughts represented by a gorgeous amorous theme (GA) [05:32] where the world of Massenet (1842-1912) is not far away. Then the music becomes more agitated as a storm breaks [07:10] over those intrusive waters with fateful horn calls (FH) [07:36] auguring imminent strife. But Leander manages to cross the strait, and the two spend a Liebesnacht presumably locked in each others arms [09:14].
Day breaks [14:25] with the storm still raging, and lest they be discovered, it's time for Leander to swim back. Then in passages worthy of Liszt (1811-1886), he dives into the troubled waters [16:28] and drowns, after which Hero jumps from her tower joining him in a watery grave. The work ends in a dramatic coda with hints of GA and FH [17:26], leaving one wondering what other symphonic gems Catalani might have come up with had he not died prematurely of tuberculosis at thirty-nine.
A couple of occasional pieces titled Scherzo (1878) and Andantino (c. 1871, OCAR) follow. The former [T-2] is in A-B-A form with outer sections featuring a catchy angular tune (CA) [00:00] Schumann (1810-1856) would have liked, surrounding a hurdy-gurdy inner one [02:05-04:17].
The other selection [T-3] is a rondo at heart with a recurring melancholy melody (RM) [00:00] that bears a resemblance to CA. RM appears in several orchestral guises, one of which is highly dramatic [03:00], and then the work ends with great restraint.
Next up, Contemplazione (1878) [T-4], which reflects the composer's years of study in Paris (c. 1870-3), and foreshadows the intermezzi from Pagliacci and Cavalleria rusticana (see above). The French connection is immediately obvious in the relaxed opening, which introduces a winsome wistful theme (WW) [00:01] mirroring meditative moments in Massenet.
The development that follows works WW into a crescendo of concern. This subsides with WW reminders, and the music gradually becomes more hopeful [07:24], building to another climax. However, all this optimism fades, and the piece comes to a dramatic halt. A brief epilogue recalling the opening measures then follows [09:03], ending this introspective symphonic treatise like it began.
The disc is filled out with Il Mattino "Sinfonia romantica" (Morning - A Romantic Symphony, 1874, OCAR) [T-5]. This is the first of three sinfonias as the composer called them, written during the 1870s (others currently unavailable on disc).
In a single span lasting about fifteen minutes, the work starts with a slow introduction suggesting a flowering, sunrise-like theme (FS) soon played by the clarinet and oboe [00:29]. A faster folkish episode follows [02:47], and we get a rustic dance number (RD) [03:55], which is transformed into an FS-related big tune (FB) [07:04].
An alternately cloud-covered, sunny development follows ending with hints of RD [11:33] that set the radiant finale in motion. Here FB is reprised [12:31], and the sinfonia concludes in a coda of gentle breezes with wafts of FS. It's the perfect ending to another significant disc of discovery from those classical cognoscenti at Naxos.
Continuing their invaluable survey of little known nineteenth-twentieth century Italian orchestral works, conductor Francesco La Vecchia and the Rome Symphony Orchestra (OSR) give us superb accounts of all five selections. Their technically accomplished, sensitive playing makes a strong case for music which in lesser hands might have come off as more ordinary fare. Although there are other versions of Scherzo and Contemplazione, these performances raise the bar.
As on one of Maestro La Vecchia's previous Naxos CDs (see 31 July 2013), the locations for these recordings were the OSR studios and Via Conciliazione Auditorium in Rome, with Scherzo done at the latter. Unfortunately this time around there are mixed results with the auditorium recording faring better. To wit, the soundstage there is generous and in a warm reverberant venue, while that projected by the studio recordings is more compressed and drier sounding. As for the instrumental timbre, there is some upper digital glare but less so in Scherzo.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P140205)
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Chihara: Yulan (cpte multi-media bal); Kryka/Chihara/BeijIntChief PO [Albany]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
American-born Paul Chihara (b. 1938) got his doctorate in music from Cornell University in 1965, and also studied with Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979, see 22 November 2010) in Paris, Ernst Pepping (1901-1981, see 16 June 2006) in Berlin, and Gunther Schuller (1925-2015, see 20 June 2013) at Tanglewood. Having received numerous prestigious commissions and awards, he's also served as composer-in-residence at a number of distinguished institutions. He's currently a Professor of Music at UCLA.
Highly prolific, Chihara's written for stage, screen (over ninety film scores), television and the concert hall. Music in the first category appears on this recent Albany premiere recording of Yulan (2012). Named after the Chinese early blooming white magnolia flower, he composed this for the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe of China. Described as a dance and visual extravaganza, it's a multi-media ballet that's highly cinematic in the best sense of the term. One of Chihara's students, Jeff Kryka (birthday unknown), also gets credit for providing additional synthesizer music and doing some of the orchestration.
In two acts each having six scenes (see the album notes for photos), the opening "Filaments of Galaxies -- Before Time" [T-1] is a quantum soup of possible events. It begins with twinkling woodwinds, and has haunting synthesizer passages as well as insistent percussion and echoing brass. A lovely Eastern melody (LE) [01:38], which could almost be out of Gliere's (1975-1956) The Red Poppy (1926-7), follows. The opening cosmic chaos then resumes giving rise to a trumpet motif (RT) [02:17] that starts off somewhat like "Goin' to run all night" in Stephen Foster's (1826-1864) Camptown Races (c. 1850, see 20 June 2013).
More Eastern-sounding passages along with references to RT and additional arresting percussive effects follow, and gradually subside into the next "Winds of Fire" [T-2] scene. At first spooky with drumming percussion accompanied by queasy brass and strings with allusions to RT, this ends in a "Big Bang" [06:24] and the formation of a flaming earth.
During scene three entitled The Flood [T-3] torrential rains cool the planet, creating an ocean represented by a mesmerizing pelagic waltz [01:03]. Its waves become storm-tossed, and then solidify into the next icy landscape scene known as "The Freeze" [T-4]. This has some sub-zero passages bringing Vaughan Williams' (1872-1958) Sinfonia antartica (No. 7, 1949-52) to mind.
However, the sun rises to a catchy percussive accompaniment [01:24] and melts the ice, leading to the emergence of life in "Photosynthesis" [T-5]. With arresting rhythmically syncopated passages over what sound like animal calls, this fades directly into "Mating" [T-6], which is a flirtatious dance of courtship. The brilliant scoring suggests anything that walks, crawls, flies or swims, and there are unifying hints of RT [02:57] as well as LE [03:48]. The music then becomes more agitated, bringing the act to a thrilling conclusion.
Act II, Scene 1 known as "Metamorphosis" [T-7] gets off to a wild Eastern-tinted start with plenty of drum and symbol expletives. Brass flourishes seem to announce the appearance of colorful flora and fauna followed by a winsome Chinese melody [04:12] as the earth teems with life. A reference to RT [04:50] briefly recalls the ballet's opening, after which there's another lovely tune [05:25] limning a garden paradise.
However, underlying drum disturbances foreshadow trouble ahead in "Wild Destruction" [T-8], where some unidentified catastrophe desolates the earth. But not for long as irrepressible Nature restores life in "New Green" [T-9], which is a lovely lyrical scene featuring what sounds like an erhu (see 20 June 2013).
New beings develop in "Natural Shades of Complexion" [T-10], which has a graceful beginning dominated by winds, strings, harp, woodblock and celesta. Underlying Latin American dance rhythms à la Piazzolla (1921-1992) add another ethnic dimension to Chihara's eclectic score. The music then becomes frenetic [04:16], and after a brief return [05:29] to the scene’s opening mood, segues into the next one.
Entitled "Flowering" [T-11] with references to LE [01:45], one pictures blossoms of every kind and color springing up. It's Chihara's lilting answer to Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) "Waltz of the Flowers" in The Nutcracker (1891-2), and sets the stage for the final scene, "Flower of Love" [T-12].
With an impressionistic beginning along the lines of Debussy (1862-1918, see 7 April 2007), we soon get an extended Eastern theme (EE) [00:19]. Then with a gigantic Yulan blossom filling the stage (see the album pictures), EE grows into an overpowering romantic melody signifying the flower's association with love, peace and harmony. It ends this cinematic score effectively, but a bit on the nationalistic side, recalling those massive Chinese folk spectacles staged during Chairman Mao's days (1945-1976).
The Beijing International Chief Philharmonic Orchestra (BICPO) augmented with a synthesizer as well as some Asian string and percussion instruments is featured here under the composer. Together they deliver a technically accomplished, definitive sweeping performance of this resultant, East-meets-West musical happening.
Made at The Film Studio of China presumably in Beijing, composer-conductor Chihara was also one of the producers, and the recording projects an extensive soundstage in an enriching reverberant acoustic. Modern music enthusiasts with a romantic streak should find this score most appealing, while audiophiles will love the instrumentally enhanced BICPO’s sonic image. Check out the hip drums in "Filaments..." [T-1, 05:19], infectious synthesizer pizzicato dominating "Photosynthesis" [T-5], and taiko-like percussion hammering away in "Mating" [T-6, 03:26] and "Metamorphosis" [T-7, 00:00].
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y140204)
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Sierra, R.: Sinfa 4, Carnaval, Fandangos; Guerrero/Nashv SO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Born in Puerto Rico and having studied music there as well as in Europe, where one of his teachers was György Ligeti (1923-2006), Roberto Sierra (b. 1953) makes his CLOFO debut with this recent Naxos release. The recipient of numerous awards and commissions, he's served as Composer-in-Residence with several prestigious orchestras, and now teaches composition at Cornell University.
While the three symphonic works on this disc take their cue from popular works by past composers, Sierra gives us some new wine in old bottles. Sinfonia No. 4 and Carnaval appear here for the first time on disc.
The concert opens with one of his most animated creations entitled Fandangos (Fandango, 2000) [T-1]. Inspired by similar pieces from such composers as Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757; Sonata K 492/L 14, 1756), Antonio Soler (1729-1883) and Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), this is a Spanish-rooted passacaglia, where a proud persistent motif (PP) walks on top of a recurrent ostinato accompaniment (RO). Sierra's is of modern design with intervening spacey moments (SMs) that provide welcome variety.
It begins with an echoing trumpet flourish [00:01] followed by a shimmering episode that introduces PP and RO [00:25]. These set in motion the main body of the work, which is festively decorated with clacking castanets. Then there are those SMs [02:29, 04:56, 07:40] which allay the piece's regimentation, ultimately making its emphatic ending all the more effective.
Sierra's Sinfonia No. 4 (2008-9) is a colorful eclectic, modern day version of the classic four-movement symphony. The initial "Moderadamente rápido" [T-2] commences somewhat like Brahms' (1833-1897) first (1855-76) with an insistent throbbing bass over which a romantic thematic nexus (RT) appears [00:03].
There's a brief motif near the beginning recalling the opening of the familiar Old Hundredth ("All people that on earth do dwell") hymn tune [00:58]. Then the rest of the movement is given over entirely to a development of RT. This makes it more of a tone poem along the lines of Liszt (1811-1886) where there are periodic commanding outbursts before the peaceable ending.
There are overtones of Prokofiev's (1891-1953) Scythian Suite (1914) in the effervescent starting measures (ES) of the next "Rápido" [T-3]. A subdued celesta-decorated reference to RT follows [00:21] and competes with hints of ES, making this a scherzo in all but name. However, ES wins in the end becoming the main ingredient for a terse concluding coda [05:23].
The dreamy, impressionistic, piano-embellished "Tiempo de bolero" [T-4] has an Eastern exoticism like that found in Ravel (1875-1937). Then the final "Muy rápido y ritmico" with its Latin percussion-laced rhythms ends the symphony somewhere in South America.
Filling out the disc we get Sierra's Carnaval of 2007 inspired by Robert Schumann's (1810-1856) eponymous collection of solo piano pieces (1833-5). This is an orchestral suite whose five movements are musical pictures of mythical beasts.
The first entitled "Gargoyles" [T-6] characterizes those fanciful grotesques that act as drainspouts carrying rainwater away from the sides of cathedrals and other imposing structures. A summer shower is easy to imagine in the opening measures with resultant streams of water spewing from the mouths of these formidable stone demons.
In Schumann’s Carnaval just before the familiar "Papillons" ("Butterflies") piece (not related to his earlier work by that name), there's a strange unmarked three-bar musical riddle named "Sphinxes" that's not to be played. Consisting of eleven notes (A-Eb-C-B | Ab-C-B | Eb-C-B-A), Sierra fashions them into a mysterious ostinato, which dominates his next section of the same name [T-7]. Just before the end he quotes "Papillons" [03:15] as a tongue in cheek answer to Schumann's conundrum.
Then we get "Unicorn" [T-8] inspired by six medieval tapestries known collectively as The Lady and the Unicorn. A sublime celestial selection, it describes the purity and grace usually associated with this legendary creature. And as might be expected with a suite such as this, here there be "Dragons" [T-9]! They’re represented here by fire-breathing forte passages as they fly overhead incinerating everything in sight.
Then "The Phoenix" [T-10] -- that mythical bird associated with the sun and rebirth -- rises out of the ashes to an infectious Latin beat. There are glimmers of Stravinsky's (1882-1971) Rite of Spring (1911-3) as the music turns wildly exuberant, builds to a couple of momentous climaxes, and concludes the suite in a coda of delight.
With this disc the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (NSO) under their Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero once again lives up to its reputation for highly innovative programming. One of the most frequently recorded and acclaimed orchestras in the United States, the NSO certainly makes a strong case for these Sierra selections. Those liking their GRAMMY® award-winning recordings of Joan Tower's (b. 1938) Made in America (c. 2005, see 20 June 2007) and Michael Daugherty's (b. 1954) Metropolis Symphony (1988-93) won't be disappointed.
The recordings were done live in the inviting venue of Laura Turner Hall, which is part of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee. With what must have been skillful postproduction touch-ups and editing there's no extraneous audience noise or applause.
However, the circumstances probably dictated a less than ideal microphone set-up, which would seem to explain the narrow, distant soundstage projected here. This along with the disc’s seemingly being cut at a relatively reduced level result in an instrumental timbre favoring the midrange and highs over the low end. The sound is accordingly not demonstration quality, but certainly serviceable.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P140203)
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Stenhammar: Cpt Stg Qt Wks V2 (2½, 5 "Serenade" & 6);
Stenhammar Qt [BIS (Hybrid)]
AUDIOPHILE (1 SACD)
Stenhammar: Cpt Stg Qt Wks V1 (3, 4, Lodolezzi…: Elegy & Intrmzo);
Stenhammar Qt [BIS (Hybrid)]
AUDIOPHILE (1 SACD)
The classical music world's voracious appetite for CDs following their introduction in the early 1980s led record company producers to seek out new and interesting repertoire by many forgotten composers. One of these was Swedish-born, late-romantic-early-modern Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927), who makes his CLOFO debut with this newsletter.
He produced a significant body of distinguished works, seven of which are string quartets. Although the six numbered ones have appeared on disc a couple of times, the adventurous BIS label now revisits them, starting with these two recent hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0), releases. You'll also find the world premiere recording of a quartet that came between his second and third numbered ones, which we’ve taken the liberty of designating as “2½”. All of them are in four movements.
The disc pictured to the left begins with Stenhammar's fifth quartet, which he marked "Serenade" in his autograph score. Written around 1910, the initial allegro [T-1] is a chromatic whimsy with brief motifs that flit about like dragonflies on a warm summer day. It serves to introduce "Ballata" [T-2], which is basically a theme with variations, and arguably the work's focal point.
The subject tune is from an old Swedish folk song (SF) [00:01] the composer learned as a child (see the album notes for details). It takes on a variety of moods ranging from melancholy to petulant, and finally sad.
Then the musical mischief characterizing the first movement returns in the tiny scherzo [T-3], which is a delightful mercurial offering out of Mendelssohn (1809-1847). This sets the stage for the fireworks finale [T-4], which is a counterpoint-laced rondo with a bouncy recurring idea [00:00] that smacks of SF. Streaked with flashes of Franz Joseph Haydn's (1732-1809) Op. 20 (6, 1772) and Ludwig van Beethoven's (1770-1827) Razumovsky Quartets (3, 1805-6), it ends the work in a whirlwind of notes.
Next we get that "2½" mentioned above. Completed in 1897 and premiered the following year, Stenhammar being his own worst critic withdrew it because he wasn't happy with the finale. Plans for a revised version, which as it turns out never materialized, apparently prevented his discarding it. This is fortunate considering there's some outstanding music in the first three movements.
The opening one is a case in point being an inventive Stenhammar-modified sonata form allegro [T-5] with a troubled first idea (TF) [00:02] and lyrical swaying second (LS) [00:56]. These undergo a discussional development [02:07] followed by a wayward recapitulation [03:38] where they return in reverse order. TF then becomes the subject of an impassioned, final coda-like afterthought.
Apparently the composer was particularly fond of the next two movements, and understandably so. The first is a fetching adagio [T-6] in which nostalgic songlike passages [00:01] are juxtaposed with more animated folksy ones [00:52]. While the next allegro [T-7] is a dynamic scherzo with catchy sinuous outer sections reminiscent of Brahms (1833-1897) that surround a frivolous inner trio [02:31-03:12].
As far as the final allegretto [T-8] is concerned, most will find the composer was a little hard on himself. It opens with an innocent folkish idea [00:02] that's subjected to some recitative-like elaboration followed by a relaxed flowing theme [01:32]. These then play a game of sonata-rondo leapfrog with occasional distant remembrances of TF and LS. While this movement may not be one of Stenhammar's most profound, it ends the quartet in charming fashion.
The disc concludes with his sixth and last one of 1916, which followed an intensive study of counterpoint he began not long after completing its predecessor. Accordingly like the late quartets of Russia's leading contrapuntist Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915, see 31 July 2013), there's a pragmatism and structural rigor that make it significantly more stylistically advanced than the earlier ones.
The opening moderato [T-9] begins with a soulful searching thematic nexus (ST) [00:02] that undergoes an austere development. Here ST is cut into motivic fragments that are contrapuntally and chromatically tweaked with the movement ending in deep introspection. Then we get a brief respite with the scherzo-like allegro [T-10] where the instruments engage in a tuneful exchange that's both harmonically antsy and rhythmically quirky.
A rapturous adagio [T-11] with a resigned main idea [00:06] and supportive countersubject [03:16] follows, after which the quartet ends in a skittering presto [T-12]. This is a four-way argument with more of those motivic tidbits consummately bandied about in a series of harmonic sequences and contrapuntally spiced passages. It brings one of Stenhammar's most sophisticated works to a simple unison close, but leaves the listener realizing it will take repeated listening to savor all its nuances.
Both of these releases feature the Stenhammar Quartet. Recorded between April 2011 and December 2012 at Petrus Kyrka (Peter's Basilica) just north of Stockholm, they involved the same production staff and audio equipment. Consequently comments regarding the performances and sound will be reserved for the end of this article.
The other disc pictured to the right begins with the fourth quartet (1904-9), which the composer highly regarded and dedicated to his good friend Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). In that respect many Stenhammar aficionados consider it his finest achievement right from its opening modified sonata form allegro [T-1].
It starts with a scampering ascendant riff (SA) [00:02] just like one in the first measures of Beethoven's fifteenth quartet (Op. 132, 1825). SA will become a unifying factor in this elegantly crafted work, and is quickly followed by a related somber nine-note motif (SN) [00:09].
SN is soon expanded into a reverent chorale-like idea (RC) [01:30], and subjected along with SA to a consummate development [02:51] with an engaging harmonic structure and contrapuntal elements that include a fugato [03:52]. All this is smoothly blended into the final recapitulation [06:42], which leads to a dramatic concluding coda.
The winsome adagio [T-2] starts out with a severe RC-related theme [00:02] counterbalanced by a more friendly folkish melody [01:07]. The two undergo some transformations, one of which is soulful [02:28] with a cheeky pizzicato incursion [03:26], and another that's waltzlike [03:56]. The opening melancholy then returns in the final measures [05:06] with a dash of that pizzicato.
Nervous energy abounds in the scherzo [T-3], which alternates cantering episodes with fugato ones [02:08, 04:27], all of which harken back to SA and SN. The pace abates towards the end, and the movement concludes peacefully anticipating the opening mood of what Stenhammar calls an "Aria variata" [T-4].
This is a theme and variations that begins with a threnodic subject tune (TS) borrowed from the Swedish folk song "Och riddaren han talte till unga Hillevi" ("And the Knight Spoke to Young Hillevi") [00:02]. Eleven transformations follow, the first two being respectively carefree [00:52] and plaintive [01:35]. A bouncy third [02:23] and pizzicato fourth [02:57] then lead to weeping [03:05] and rapturous [03:32] ones.
However, the demeanor becomes more rigorous with a fugato variant [04:08] that introduces the last four. These are sequentially pensive [04:40], nonchalant [06:04], hymnlike [07:45], and nostalgic [08:48]. The movement then closes with a final reminder of SA [10:32], bringing the quartet full circle.
An interim diversion follows with two selections for string quartet from the composer's 1919 incidental music for Hjalmar Bergman's (1883-1931) play Lodolezzi sjunger (Lodolezzi Sings, 1918). The pathos-filled "Elegy" [T-5], which is rooted in Wagner's (1813-1883) Tristan... (1857-9), is a "psychomusical" profile of the aging soprano named in the title, who’s trying to stage a come back. The succeeding emotionally torn "Intermezzo" [T-6] represents the demanding world of opera she's attempting to reenter.
The disc closes with the third quartet (1897-1900), which was clearly inspired by Beethoven. In that regard the initial andante [T-7] is a refined study arguably related to the opening movement of his First Razumovsky Quartet (No. 7, 1805-6). Whereas the following frenetic presto [T-8] resembles more tempestuous moments in his later ones.
Feelings of despair pervade the lento [T-9], which is an anguished theme [00:02] with four seamless variations [01:19, 02:48, 04:14 and 05:25]. Ludwig's presence is felt in the last [05:25], which contemplates the slow beginning of the coda ending the first movement of his Choral Symphony (No. 9, 1822-4).
Motivic elements from the preceding presto are tossed about in the opening measures of the rousing finale [T-10]. These are followed by a pensive imitative episode [03:09] hinting at the slow reserved subject of the rigorous fugue (RF) that's next [05:24]. Beethoven's guiding spirit is again felt as RF alludes to the beginning of his fourteenth quartet (Op. 131; 1826). Then the music becomes increasingly agitated, ending the work in a thrilling jubilant coda that leaves the listener smiling.
The Stenhammar Quartet's performances on both discs are superb. And while there's no current competition for "2½" or the Lodolezzi... selections, many will find these renditions of the numbered quartets are now the finest available. That's due in no small part to the Stenhammar's perceptive melodic phrasing, attention to dynamics, and well-chosen tempos -- click here to see some insightful comments regarding the latter by Jerry Dubins of Fanfare Magazine. Let's hope their concluding efforts in this series are just as successful.
As mentioned above, all the recordings were made at one location with the same production staff and audio equipment. Accordingly the stereo tracks on these hybrid discs consistently project a generous soundstage with the instruments ideally placed and captured in suitably reverberant surroundings.
The instrumental tone is convincing in all three play modes, but be forewarned Stenhammar's lean approach to quartet writing gives rise to an overall steeliness. That said, as is usually the case with high strings and voices, the SACD tracks produce a somewhat softer sounding sonic image.
Lastly, in the mutichannel mode the listener will find himself about a third of the way back in the orchestra. There's also an increased sense of ambient space around each of the instruments, making it easier to distinguish their individual roles in Stenhammar's more structurally convoluted moments.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y140202, Y140201)
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