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Tag: beethoven

A Far Cry Bring Their String-Driven Elegance Back to Central Park Under Friendlier Skies

A little over a year ago, A Far Cry played the first Naumburg Concert since 2019, to relaunch the annual series of Central Park performances which had run uninterrupted for 114 years until the 2020 lockdown. This blog joked at the time that the chamber orchestra stormed back into action – something of an understatement. In a decade of covering concerts in all sorts of thunderous and near-thunderous conditions, that was, shall we say, the most immersive of them all. After awhile, the hundred or so of us who stuck around for the whole thing would break out laughing when yet another thunderclap exploded overhead, and what felt like a bucket of summer rain would be dumped on us.

Tuesday night, the group picked up where they left off under similarly ominous skies with an alternately lilting and lulling series of imaginatively voiced string orchestra arrangements of Bartok’s Lullabies For Children. The ensemble had the most fun with the bouncy, minor-key Hungarian folk-flavored numbers, ornamenting them with plucky pizzicato and acerbic accidentals. Interspersed among them were traditional tunes from the Canary Islands and Japan arranged by A Far Cry violinist Alex Fortes, along with a cantabile miniature by Emily Irons

Next up was Franghiz Ali-Zadeh‘s Shyshtar: Metamorphoses for String Orchestra, in an arrangement expanded beyond the original version for twelve cellos. Tectonically shifting, persistent unease drifted through an allusive chromaticism reflective of the composer’s Azeri heritage. A strutting Bartokian edge gave way to hazy suspense that grew more surrealistically foreboding with a series of gentle downward glissandos. They took it out by digging in for a buoyantly wary march. Maybe it wasn’t the optimal segue, but what a gorgeously bracing piece of music!

Fortes also contributed a new arrangement of the famously mystical, hymnal third movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135, which the group approached steadily, soberly, and a little on the fast side. With its lushness and sweep, it left the crowd breathless. Fortes has arranged the whole quartet; hopefully we’ll get to hear all of it someday.

By the time the intermission was over, the skies had cleared for a similarly sweeping take of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings. There seemed to be extra deliciousness from the low strings in the cheerful sway of the first movement; likewise, the waltzing second movement was steely and robust, the third especially vivace, yet with an uneasy undercurrent. The group resisted any temptation to simply roll with the lullaby quality of the fourth movement, opting for symphonic grandeur, then dancing through the conclusion. The final piece on the bill was Castles, a baroque-tinged piece with a carefree chorale by one of the ensemble’s own, bassist Karl Doty.

This year’s series of Naumburg Bandshell concerts continues on July 26 at 7:30 PM with perennial favorites the Knights and colorful violinist Lara St. John playing Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony plus works by Avner Dorman. Enter at 72nd St.; get there early (like, an hour, at least) if you want a seat.

The Knights Make History With Beethoven and Janacek at the Naumburg Bandshell

Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park was a welcome return for one of New York’s most enduring cosmopolitan traditions. This was a particularly clever installment. It’s been done before: pairing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata.” A Naumburg Concert favorite, chamber orchestra the Knights worked several levels of meta with new symphonic arrangements of both: the former a chart by violinist Colin Jacobsen, the latter a collaboration between his brother Eric and Knights horn player Mike Atkinson.

Orchestral scores for both works go back as far as Tschaikovsky, who did it with Beethoven. Likewise, there have been plenty of programs pairing both of the original pieces. But yesterday evening’s concert might have been the first time two orchestral versions of both have been played on the same bill. It turned out to be as colorful as expected, considering the ensemble’s penchant for surprise.

They opened with a Colin Jacobsen piece, playfully titled Kreutzings, rising from dizzyingly dissociative layers through jaunty microtonal glissandos from around the ensemble, to a coyly contrapuntal waltz. Flickers of each of the night’s main composers bubbled to the surface occasionally as the strings joined in precise, steady eighth notes while winding their way out.

Jacobsen, celebrating his birthday, served as soloist in the Beethoven. Crisp, elegant cheer interchanged with a little suspense and a bustling freshness that veered toward the raw side in the opening movement, confirming how well this material lends itself to orchestral sweep and majesty. Jacobsen quickly went for silkiness and ran with it amid anxious Vivaldiesque counterpoint. The restless thicket of low strings toward the end was a particularly juicy moment for the orchestra to sink their teeth into.

As if by design, a passing airplane introduced the andante second movement, bubbly woodwinds picking up the pace considerably before Jacobsen took over with a fine-toothed staccato. The bristling energy never dissipated, through lushness and a coyly pulsing bounce beneath the violinist’s spirals, flurries and animated pizzicato. Interestingly, the finale was on the spare and restrained side, despite the velocity: an urbane party that earned a contrastingly raucous standing ovation.

After the intermission, the ensemble tackled Anna Clyne’s Stride. Echoing the concert’s opening number, fleeting hints of Beethoven percolated amid tense close harmonies and microtones over a striding tempo flecked with rather suspenseful lulls and a long trajectory up to an anthemic, Dvorakian coda. Clyne doesn’t usually go for fullscale High Romantic: turns out she excels at it. This was a revelation.

Janacek’s first quartet follows the drama and familial mischegas of the Tolstoy tale, giving us an extra level of meta. Furtive Balkan chromatics quickly receded for an aching lushness and unexpected pageantry in the opening movement, only to reappear in a tensely gripping, Bernard Herrmann vein. Giving the anxious conversation in the third movement to the woodwinds paid magnificently poignant dividends on the way to an equally memorable stampede out. The ensemble encored with flutist Alex Sopp leading the group through a lickety-split, buoyant arrangement of a Taraf de Haidoucks Romany dance tune.

For those who missed the concert, the Knights managed to record the Beethoven and Janacek in February 2020, just under the wire before the fateful events that would crush the world a few weeks later. The next Naumburg Bandshell concert is on June 28 at 7:30 PM with the Handel and Haydn Society, led by violinist Aisslinn Nosky, playing works by Corelli, Vivaldi, Geminiani, Handel and Charles Avison.

Saluting a Great Orchestra From a Country Under Siege

The Vienna Philharmonic have been revered as one of the world’s finest orchestras for over a century. One of their more recent traditions has been an outdoor Summer Night Concert. They’ve released their 2021 performance, with Daniel Harding on the podium and pianist Igor Levit, streaming at Spotify. The ensemble are obviously jumping out of their shoes with the joy of being allowed to play again. At this point in history, there’s no doubt that this magnificent concert represents the people of Austria far more than the sinister apartheid state being erected with echoes of another historical development just over the German border a little more than ninety years ago.

They open with a spacious, unhurried, utterly suspenseful performance of the Overture from Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes. The brass/string harmonies are lusciously lustrous; the sudden leap into a gallop as the music picks up with a start is unselfconsciously breathtaking.

The piece de resistance should be Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and the balance of energy and pillowy Romanticism that Harding draws out of it is visceral. It’s on the fast side, especially in the beginning, but who can argue with the shivers of the fleeting eighth movement, or the furtive bustle of the ninth, especially in context? And Levit builds expectant triumph into the famous andante cantabile love theme. What’s annoying is that like many other recent recordings of the suite, these intervals – many of them under a minute long – are broken up into individual tracks. You have to build your own playlist to fully enjoy this without having to constantly click on the next one.

Levit gets the stage to himself for a spare, somber take of Beethoven’s Fur Elise: as he sees it, what a sad, serious girl she must have been! Next on the bill are four of Leonard Bernstein’s Dances from West Side Story. The group launch into a dynamically swinging Prologue, complete with fingersnaps, then an aptly starry, summery Somewhere, a lilting Scherzo and a positively feral Mambo.

There’s not a lot an orchestra can do with Elgar’s schmaltzy Salut D’amour, but the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite gives Harding and the ensemble a chance to bring up the lights slowly and memorably, with meticulously swirling strings and understated brass: this is a peace march, not a warlord’s pageant.

Plaintive woodwinds and a hypnotic lushness permeate Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, arguably the most vivid piece on the bill. The orchestra wind up the concert on a jaunty, bubbly note with Jupiter, from Holst’s The Planets. Who knew how fast all this optimism and good cheer would evaporate in the months after this concert. The challenge will be to get it back: it only takes one generation for a totalitarian regime to annihilate the memory of any beautiful past.

Liya Petrova Brings Familiar Beethoven and Mozart Favorites Into the Here and Now

“Beethoven…had integrated the ideals of liberty and emancipation born of the French Revolution. ‘There are and always will be thousands of princes; but there is only one Beethoven,’ he is supposed to have said. What an irony to celebrate his 250th birthday in a year when Europe has had to renounce its freedom to move around, to meet other people, to play together when you’re a musician!”

Insightful words from an insightful violinist. Liya Petrova recorded Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, op. 61 with the Sinfonia Varsovia, under Jean-Jacques Kantorow – streaming at Spotify – in the fall of last year. Interestingly, both she and the orchestra seem to dig in a little harder than most ensembles do in the lushly nocturnal first movement. Sign of the times, maybe? And yet, the marching, distantly bellicose steadiness seems somewhat muted in the face of Petrova’s recurrently wistful, silken approach, at least outside of the most intricate, balletesque passages. It’s an effective game plan.

Movement two is languid and feels a little slow, which dovetails with the mood, Petrova a graceful comet making her way across a sky dotted with clouds in places. The sheer liveliness of the conclusion and occasional folksy phrasing validates her vision of this piece as a celebration of hope (or maybe Viennese beer gardens brimming with patrons on a weekend night).

In her liner notes, Petrova mentions the question of provenance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D major, K271a/K271i. From this perspective, the quirky cheer, matter-of-fact counterpoint and sudden major-to-minor changes sure sound like the genuine item. What’s ingenious about this recording is that Petrova engaged composer Jean-Frédéric Neuburger to write cadenzas since Mozart (or his nameless, imaginative protege) didn’t include them in the original score. Whether stately or impetuous, they’re idiomatically spot-on: Mozart would no doubt approve.

Movement one has violinist and conductor playing up a jaunty internal swing, an unexpected and welcome touch. The pulse continues almost suspensefully behind Petrova’s sinuous legato and puckish pizzicato in the second movement. The pouncing flurries and playful interweave between soloist and orchestra in the third provide a pleasant payoff. Much as the Beethoven here is every-hour-on-the-hour on what’s left of classical radio these days, the Mozart isn’t, and pairing the two was a rewarding choice.

The 50 Best Albums of 2021

The 50 Best Albums of 2021

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 was his prophetic cautionary tale. He wrote it in 1934. By then, Stalin’s genocidal regime had already reached holocaust proportions. Hitler’s was in its early stages.

In 1946, Vaughan Williams took several themes from that symphony and built his Symphony No. 6 around them. It was his big “I told you so” moment. Together, the violence and gloom never lift throughout the London Symphony Orchestra‘s recording of those two symphonies. It was the one album that was on loop here more than any other one this year.

Antonio Pappano led this resolute ensemble in a fierce, cataclysmic performance of No. 6 on March 12, 2020. As of today, this remains the final orchestral concert recording made in the UK when it was a free country. In a stroke of serendipity, the album opens with Pappano and the orchestra playing Symphony No. 4, recorded in concert on another pivotal date in British history, Election Day, 2019. None of this is easy listening, but if you can handle it, it’s impossible to turn away from. And as a parable of what happens when we fail to recognize evil for what it is, it’s never been more relevant. That’s why it’s New York Music Daily’s pick for best album of 2021.

Otherwise, 2021 might be the weirdest year in history for recorded music. What you see here underscores artists’ resourcefulness and resilience in the face of the most crushing odds. What you don’t see here speaks to how so many styles of music have been completely decimated over the past twenty-one months.

Those who’ve followed the annual best-of-the-year lists here will notice that for the first time, an unusual number of the streaming links here – click on each album title below for full-length audio – are not at Bandcamp or Soundcloud, but at Spotify. That’s because there’s less rock music on this list than at any other time in this blog’s ten-year history. Without tour money to finance recordings, most rock artists haven’t been able to make them. What’s left is a crazy mix of jazz records whose release dates were put on ice by totalitarian lockdowns, some classical albums financed largely by government and nonprofit money, along with the usual sounds from around the world.

The best rock record of the year – which could just as easily be categorized as soul or blues – was Van Morrison‘s cynically titled Latest Record Project No. 1. This mammoth double album is somewhat subtler than the series of protest songs he released at the end of 2020, but it’s just as fearless. A rotating cast of musicians provide a purist, inspired backdrop and Morrison, who never loses his sense of humor, is at the top of his game as lyricist and charismatic frontman. That it took a 75-year-old icon from the 60s to release the most rousing call for freedom released in 2021 does not speak well for younger generations.

Beyond the next ten or so records on this list – the rest of the creme de la creme of 2021 – everything here is in completely random order, irrespective of when it was officially released, or when it was reviewed here. Click on the album title for streaming audio; click on artist names for their webpages. There are hours and hours of pleasure and solace here; you might want to bookmark this page.

Jordi Savall/Le Concert Des Nations – Beethoven Revolution: Symphonies 1 a 5
Beethoven’s first five symphonies recorded with stunning intimacy and detail, closer to how they would have been performed in the composer’s time. Comparing any of the other albums on this list to this magnum opus is a bit of a stretch.

The Boston Symphony OrchestraShostakovich: Symphnies No 1, 11 and 15
A mammoth, impassioned new live recording that also includes Rudolf Barshai’s string orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing, antifascist String Quartet No. 8.

Rafael Gintoli and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Argentine composer Alicia Terzian’s Violin Concerto and Three Pieces for Strings
Two of the most foundational and most otherworldly microtonal classical works

The London Symphony OrchestraShostakovich Symphonies, No. 9 and No. 10 
Withering sarcasm, vast expanses and furtive chases brought to life in two hauntingly electric concerts from 2018 and 2020 right before the lockdown

The Minguet Quartett and the Lucerne Academy OrchestraKonstantia Gourzi: Anájikon
Gorgeous, poignant Greek and Middle Eastern classical themes which also feature violist Nils Mönkemeyer and pianist William Youn

Ward White – The Tender Age
Parlor pop, psychedelia, janglerock and more on the most menacing album of the year, from the polymath LA tunesmith and multi-instrumentalist

Mostly AutumnGraveyard Star
The most epic, relevant rock album written during the lockdown, an anguished but guardedly hopeful mix of towering, resolute, epic anthems and more delicate Britfolk-inspired themes

Derrick Gardner & the Big Dig! BandStill I Rise
Pummeling, hard-swinging big band jazz from this mighty trombone-led ensemble

Bence Vas’ Big Band –  Overture et. al
Organ-driven big band jazz has seldom been this orchestral or toweringly haunting

Sana NaganoSmashing Humans
A dystopic sci-fi-themed suite set to a blend of savage guitar, violin and a taut rhythm section, with a surprise ending

Tiffany NgDark Matters: Carillon Music of Stephen Rush
The most unselfconsciously beautiful album on this list is built around a paradigm-shifting suite from the late 80s, rich with overtones and otherworldly ringing textures

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard L.W.
The astonishingly prolific Australian psychedelic band’s most deeply Middle Eastern-inspired album

The Catalyst QuartetUncovered Vol. 1 – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
An inspired classical ensemble revisit the ruggedly individualistic, Balkan and Dvorak-inspired black classical composer from the late 19th century

The London Philharmonic OrchestraDmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11
A vividly desolate, elegaic requiem for the millions murdered by the genocidal Stalin regime

The Malta Philharmonic OrchestraContemporary Colours
Colorful, often Middle Eastern-tinged works by contemporary Maltese composers including Albert Garzia, Alexander Vella Gregory, Veronique Vella, Christopher Muscat and Mariella Cassar-Cordina

The Armoires – Incognito
An audacious stunt – releasing a wildly eclectic series of singles under tongue-in-cheek, fictitious bandnames like October Surprise – resulted in the band’s most diverse and lyrically rich record

Erkin Cavus and Reentko Dirks –  Istanbul 1900 
Plaintive, broodingly evocative microtonal acoustic guitar instrumentals inspired by urban neighborhoods now gone forever

Bare Wire SonOff Black 
Multi-instrumentalist Olin Janusz’s bleak dirges built around journal entries by mothers who lost their sons in World War I

Katla – Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness) 
Austere Icelandic folk and grimly ornate metal epics

VolurDeath Cult 
A searing blend of black metal, Nordic folk and psychedelic 70s art-rock from the violin-and-bass-driven trio.

Michael SmallParallax View Original Soundtrack
The creepy, ultra-noir, furtively orchestrated score to Alan Pakula’s 1974 political assassination thriller hasn’t been available as a stand-alone recording til now. Not online, although the film is available on VOD

FortidWorld Serpent
Forlorn cinematics, Viking stampedes and rapidfire chromatics throughout this dystopic metal masterwork

The Pocket Gods – Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall
The most surreal lockdown-themed album released to date, a witheringly cynical, satirical, sometimes unexpectedly poignant mix of styles from these snarky British pop polymaths

Patricia KopatchinskajaSchoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire
Pianist Joonas Ahonen and an inspired ensemble join the colorful violinist in a wild version of the iconic loony puppet’s tale, along with a collection of biting miniatures

Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond Ride the Cyclone original soundtrack
No style of music is off limits to this duo’s merciless satire: American and foreign hip-hop, circus rock, corny G-rated Lawrence Welk church-parlor pop and much more

Fanfare CiocarliaIt Wasn’t Hard to Love You 
Explosive, rat-a-tat minor-key dancefloor jams from one of the world’s most electrifying Balkan brass bands

James McMurtryThe Horses and the Hounds
Doomed American troops in Afghanistan, aging drunks and lovers defying the odds, and cautionary tales of all kinds from one of the alltime great Americana storytellers

Katayoun GoudarziThis Pale
Poignant, often plaintive ghazal settings of classic Rumi poems from this nuanced, crystalline-voiced Iranian singer and bandleader

BesarabiaAnimal Republic
Fiery, serpentine flamenco, Middle Eastern, Balkan and Romany dance tunes

The ReducersLive: New York City 2005
An incendiary, whirlwind 40-minute set of cynical, catchy punk and pub rock from late in the legendary New England band’s career

The Academy Blues Project The Neon Grotto
Slyly lyrical, shapeshifting jamband rock with influences as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Steely Dan, Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

Changing ModesWax World
Brooding, desolate lockdown reflections, shapeshifting art-rock and slashingly cynical, psychedelic harmony-pop from one of New York’s best bands from the past decade or so

Carola Ortiz – Pecata Beata
Whirlwind, shapeshifting, flamenco-inspired songs from the Catalan singer and clarinetist

Lia Sampai – Amagatalls de Llum
Disarmingly intimate, strikingly imagistic, fearlessly political songs from this individualistic Catalan songwriter

Gabriel AlegriaSocial Distancing
A chillingly allusive, insightful Afro-Peruvian jazz album exploring the fateful first year of the lockdown

Sam Llanas  – Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels
Haunting Nashville gothic, countrypolitan and Americana tunesmithing by the agelessly soulful former frontman of heartland rock legends the BoDeans. Not available online, but there are several tracks on Llanas’ more recent concert video 

Şahan ArzruniAlan Hovhaness: Select Piano Compositions
A fascinatingly diverse, sometimes minimalistic, sometimes rapturous world premiere recording of rare works by the arguably greatest American classical composer of alltime

Satoko Fujii – Piano Music
Extended-technique inside-the-piano sonics spun through a bunch of effects for one of the year’s trippiest, most hauntingly enveloping albums

DictaphoneGoats & Distortions 5
Darkly cinematic, dub-inspired, bass clarinet-driven sounds that expands on the group’s exploration of what they call “morbid instruments.”

Matthew Shipp – Codebreaker
Eerie close harmonies percolate through the legendary jazz pianist’s diverse, highly improvisational latest album

Frank KimbroughAncestors 
The late, great jazz pianist’s saturnine swan song, with an inspired, unorthodox trio

Opium MoonNight + Day
Rapturous, hypnotic Indian and Middle Eastern-tinged themes and variations on this vast double album

Menahan Street BandThe Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band
Oldschool soul instrumentals with a dark psychedelic streak

Jovica Ivanović and the Ukrainian Chamber OrchestraPiazzolla and Galliano
Majestic accordion concertos by the iconic Argentine bandoneonist and also by the great Richard Galliano

Greg Loughman – RE: Connection 
A vivid, cinematic jazz suite reflecting on the disastrous effects of the lockdown, but ultimately offering a message of hope

CanLive in Brighton 1975
Sprawling, smoky sometimes twenty-minute instrumental jams from the legendary German band at their psychedelic peak

The Shining TonguesMilk of God
Moody, gothic-tinged folk-rock and art-rock from the surviving members of the Infinite Three

The Colorist Orchestra and Howe GelbNot on the Map 
A lavish mix of dusky, sweepingly orchestrated art-rock and southwestern gothic from one of the guys who invented the style

Langan Frost & Wane – their first album
Trippy, Mediterranean-tinged retro 60s sunshine pop and psychedelic folk

Willie NileThe Day The Earth Stood Still
Stomping, surreal, allusively lyrical lockdown-era powerpop anthems and some surprising detours into slinky, funky, psychedelic sounds

Becca Stevens and the Secret Triotheir debut collaboration
Art-rock songwriter and Balkan/Armenian traditional band team up for spare, crepuscular magic

Metal! Live in Bahrain Vol. 2
Thrash, death metal and post-Metallica sounds from Persian Gulf bands Hellionight, Ryth, Necrosin and Lunacyst

Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax’s New Beethoven Album: A Party in a Box

If classical music is party music for you, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax‘s new all-Beethoven album Hope Amid Tears – streaming at Spotify – is a party in a box. It’s two old friends playing familiar material in a very defamiliarized way. You think you know Beethoven’s music for cello and piano? If you’ve listened to Beethoven for any length of time, you probably know at least the first couple of sonatas; the three sets of variations for cello and piano have not withstood the test of time so well. Throughout this collection, the fun these guys are having is irresistible, finding all sorts of hidden gems, and jokes, and poignancy. What’s more, they play the sonatas chronologically, so you can follow Beethoven’s development as a composer, cautiously emerging from Haydn’s shadow to become the crazed genius he was by the end.

This is a long record, a real feast: to fully appreciate it, you probably will not want to try to digest it all in a single setting. The highlights are too numerous to chronicle. The recording levels vary somewhat in places: Ma is serendipitously high in the mix, especially in Sonata No. 1 where he doesn’t get a lot of time in the spotlight, so that’s a big plus.

There’s a lot of space in this disarmingly intimate music. Moments that others might play as straight-faced pageantry are sly or just plain goofy here. Likewise, Ma and Ax linger here in calmer interludes that less seasoned musicians might gloss over, emotional context is everything. If you thought this was comfortable, routine wine-hour music for the World Economic Forum types of the early 19th century (not that such a thing existed – oligarchs back then hadn’t figured out how to conspire), these two prove definitively otherwise.

If you’re not a classical music fan but might be curious enough to check this out, start with Sonata No. 3. By that point in his career, Beethoven had moved on from endless sequences of clever chord changes to writing with more reckless abandon. And at this point, the cello has become much more than a mere support instrument for flash from the piano. That hymnal theme in the first movement is far more restrained and rustic than is the custom, and that absolutely gorgeous initial tradeoff between cello and piano really sings. The pogo-sticking introduction to movement two – essentially a country dance – is just plain ridiculous. And the third movement, where Ma soars free of the cello’s midrange for the first time, is packed with dynamic subtleties.

By the time we get to Sonata No. 4, Beethoven has grown into himself (and his obsession with false endings, some more devious than others). Nocturnal lustre interchanges with dark heroics, and Ma gets to sink his fingers and bow into more regal, symphonic parts. You could make a strong case that No. 5, saturnine triumph bookending an elegy, is the album’s title track.

The first two sonatas are more predictable but hardly without moments of joy or solemn discovery. The sheer matter-of-factness of No. 1, the crescendos far from florid, the dips far from languid, makes for steady fun. Ax’s decision to let the upper-register ornaments in No. 2 flit away, while using their counterparts in the lows as integral to upward cascades or arpeggios pays off strongly. Ma opting to hang just a bit behind the beat in the beginning of No. 2, before the two join in a memorably commingled rumble, is another insightful touch.

The three sets of variations are the closest thing to wine-hour sonic wallpaper for oligarchs here, although the sudden change to minor-key plaintiveness in the first is unselfconsciously striking, as is the subtler shift toward a similar atmosphere in the variations on a rather prayerful Handel theme in the second.

A Fascinating Collection of New Piano Music and the Beethoven and Ravel That Inspired It

Pianist Inna Faliks excels particularly at innovative and interesting programming, whether live or on album. On her latest release, Reimagine – streaming at youtube – she’s commissioned a fascinating mix of contemporary composers to write their own relatively short pieces inspired by, and interspersed among, Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126. She also includes a handful of new works drawing on Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. It’s a big success on both a curatorial and interpretive level.

With the Beethoven, Faliks is typically understated, yet finds interesting places for flash. In the first Bagatelle, she employs very subtle rubato and a jaunty outro. She gives the etude-like No. 2 a light-fingered staccato, then brings the brings ornamentation front and center in No. 3, a counterintuitive move. In No. 4, she shows off a calm precision and nimble command of how artfully phrases are handed off – along with the jokes in the lefthand.

No. 5 is very cantabile, yet almost furtive in places. And Faliks approaches No. 6 with coy staccato but a remarkably steadfast, refusenik sensibility against any kind of beery exuberance.

In the first of the new pieces, Peter Golub‘s response to Bagatelle No. 1, ragtime tinges give way to acidic, atonal cascades and a bit of a coy tiptoeing theme. Tamir Hendelman‘s variation on No. 2 has Faliks scampering slowly, coalescing out of a rather enigmatic melody through a bit of darkness to a triumphant coda.

Richard Danielpour‘s Childhood Nightmare, after No. 3 is the album’s piece de resistance and the closest thing here to the original, steadily and carefully shifting into more menacing tonalties. Ian Krouse’s Etude 2A, inspired by No. 4 is also a standout, with spare, moody modal resonance and a racewalking staccato alternating with scurrying passages.

Arguably the most lyrical of the new pieces here, Mark Carlson‘s Sweet Nothings is a slowly crescendoing, fond but ultimately bittersweet nocturne built around steady lefthand arpeggios. In David Lefkowitz‘s take on No. 6, after an intro that seems practically a parody, Faliks works a subdued, swaying 12/8 rhythm amid murky resonances.

Next up are the Ravel-inspired works. Paola Prestini’s neoromantically-tinged triptych Ondine: Variations on a Spell begins with the broodingly impressionistic low-midrange Water Sprite, followed by the Bell Tolls, with a long upward drive from nebulosity to an anthemic, glistening payoff. The finale, Golden Bees follows a series of anthemic, flickering cascades

The album’s longest work is Timo Andres‘ Old Ground, an attempt to give subjectivity to the unfortunate victim of the hanging in the gibbet scene via distantly ominous, Philip Glass-ine clustering phrases and eventually a fugal interlude with echoes of both gospel and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Faliks winds up the record with Billy Childs‘ Pursuit, using the Scarbo interlude as a stepping-off point for an allusively grim narrative where a black man is being chased: possibly by the Klan, or a slaver, or the cops. A steady, lickety-split theme contrasts with still, spare wariness and a stern chordal sequence straight out of late Rachmaninoff.

How Does the Danish String Quartet’s New Album Compare with Their Transcendent Beethoven Cycle?

The Danish String Quartet‘s marathon performance of the Beethoven cycle at Lincoln Center over the course of barely two weeks last year was arguably one of the most breathtaking and rewardingly ambitious feats any ensemble has ever tackled, let alone pulled off in this city. They may be known for their dazzling technique, but it was their dynamic range, and attention to the most minute details, and ultimately their passion for the music that made that series of concerts so unforgettable. How does their new album Prism III – Beethoven, Bartók, Bach, streaming at Spotify, match up against that wild artistry and erudition?

The point of their ongoing Prism series is to trace the influence of Bach on an ensemble style which didn’t even formally exist in his lifetime. The group put their somber, lusciously cantabile performance of Emanuel Aloys Forster’s arrangement of the Bach Fugue in C-sharp minor, from book one of the Well-Tempered Clavier, at the end of the album. In their hands, it’s practically a chorale. Presumably, by this point you haven’t cheated and are looking for foreshadowing of what’s already appeared in Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 and Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1.

And there’s plenty of that. The Bach influence in the late Beethoven quartets is vast, as is the late Beethoven influence on Bartok, so it’s not hard to watch the bouncing ball here. What makes this album stand out is the players’ intuitive sense of the works’ emotional architecture, even more than their grasp of their technical challenges.

They open with Beethoven. The sense of foreboding in the first movement is visceral, which may explain why it seems rather muted in the beginning and the end, and on the slow, stately side. Violinists Frederik Øklund and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin give the second movement a playful swing, even in the midst of so many flickeringly ominous portents.

The fleeting ghosts of the third “movement” give way to a guarded lustre fueled by Sjölin’s incisive bassline. Hushed echoes get switched out for sotto-voce humor, tentative jauntiness and a remarkable expanse of dynamics, more so than most quartets give this. Call it a cliche that a tortured artist watches a turbulent life flash back through a wine haze, but that’s a lot of this picture. The presto movement is aptly bittersweet and hallucinogenic, right down to different dynamic levels from individual voices; the stoic calm and delicate vibrato of the adagio leave a mighty impact. As does the coda, the group leaving a chill as they leap and reap everything left in their path.

After that, where can you go? They play the first Bartok with similar insight; you might want to make your own playlist and hear this album in reverse order. There’s definitely a fugue, and a firm embrace of the third movement of the Beethoven, but also Debussy in the group’s steady quasi-stroll through the enigmatic first movement. Bartok may not have grown into who he became yet, but the quartet focus on all the omens: the close harmonies, the refusenik defiance of any sense of resolution.

The sullen ballet of a second movement is rich with lingering sustain but also flickers and flares. The miniature of a third is devilishly portentous; the fourth is where the quartet dig in the hardest on this album, for tense bustle, and echo variations, and pure grim noir. It will give you goosebumps.

Revisiting a Couple of Familiar Beethoven Favorites

How tragic that more than 75% of last year’s planned Beethoven 250 celebrations were all cancelled by the lockdowners. In anticipation of the festivities, innumerable artists and orchestras had recorded an immense amount of Beethoven. One predictably confident, majestic concert recording that inadvertently foreshadowed the glut of live albums that would be dumped on the web less than a year after it was released is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s versions of two of the composer’s greatest hits, the Eroica Symphony and Symphony No. 5, streaming at Spotify. Kurt Masur leads the ensemble in these lustrous performances. This is a view from the back of the hall, individual voices distinct over a backdrop that’s often rather muted and wafts in, with production values approximating the comfortable integral quality of a vinyl record.

Even if you know these works by heart, it’s always fun to revisit them to see what surprises a particular conductor or orchestra can throw at you. This recording is particularly romantic, and Romantic as well. The first movement of the Eroica is as sleek as it is gusty, with pillowy exchanges between woodwinds over hushed ambience, but also precise, almost pointillistically leaping strings.

Eager, budding suspense and a graceful courtship ensue in movement two: this is a particularly suave interpretation. Movement three seems a little fast, yet it’s also remarkably plush. And those horns are announcing a fox hunt, aren’t they!

Masur brings the lush/stormy dichotomy into even clearer focus in the concluding movement, although he doesn’t let the conversations between winds and strings go to waste. As far as gearshifting for The Fifth Symphony, there isn’t much, even though emotionally it’s often 180 degrees the opposite. Masur obviously decided to opt for elegance this time out as well, in lieu of rampaging intensity or fullscale goth gloom in the opening movement.

This blog’s favorite version is a field recording made at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park in June of 2011, where the Knights played the symphony with uninhibited passion against a background of tree frogs and passing airplanes while bats divebombed the crowd. Still, Masur’s attention to detail in this one is welcome – the presence of the bass section in the first movement is especially rewarding.

Masur works top-to-bottom dynamics here even more than in the Eroica, particularly in the starry moments of the second movement and ominous portents of the third. The matter-of-fact bittersweetness in both really shines through as well. The finale brings the whole album full circle, the brightness and delicacy of the high strings just enough to bob up over the waves before a remarkably methodical, even restrained coda.

Jordi Savall Unearths a Vault of Secret Beethoven

As both a musician and conductor, Jordi Savall has made a career of rediscovering lost treasures from the Americas to the Middle East. When he finally turned his attention to recording works by the best-known composer in the history of the western world, the treasures he found were hidden in plain sight. If you think you know Beethoven, the level of detail in Savall’s latest recording with the orchestra Le Concert Des Nations will take your breath away. It’ll make you laugh, and give you chills.

Savall’s modus operandi for the massive six-disc set Beethoven Revolution: Symphonies 1 a 5 – streaming at Spotify – was to play the composer’s first five symphonies as they would have been performed contemporaneously, with period instruments and a considerably smaller ensemble compared to today’s orchestras, just sixty players. Yet the music is no less vigorous, and there are elements that will jump out at you for the first time because unless you’ve played this music with a chamber orchestra this closely attuned to the score, you simply haven’t heard them before. Even in concert, more often than not they get subsumed in the bluster. This is not Beethoven as relaxing wine-hour music, or innocuous background for multitasking. This is headphone music.

A lot of the hidden details that Savall brings to the foreground are jokes. Other than the violinists who play it, who noticed how frequently Beethoven uses glissandos as a punchline, especially in Symphonies 4 and 5? Or, for that matter, in Symphony No. 1? All that leaps out, not to mention the jagged flurries in the fourth movement of No. 1 – or, for that matter, how that movement foreshadows the introduction to No. 2? We now know that Beethoven wrote No. 2 before he wrote No. 1 – and obviously liked that gusty riffage to the point where he thought it was worth recycling. After all, only those who’d seen the scores at the time, or played them, could have picked up on that.

Call-and-response is another device that Beethoven loved to have fun with, and nobody has fun with it like this crew. The fugal moments between strings and winds, or strings and brass, are in particularly high definition throughout the entire set of symphonies, notably in the opening movement of No. 2 and the third movement of No. 4. And when’s the last time you heard an orchestra working contrasting loud/soft conversational dynamics in No. 4? Beethoven was writing  the so-called Razumovsky string quartets around the same time and was obviously having a jolly good time with that trope.

In lieu of timpani, there’s a single bass drum played with sticks rather than mallets. Who knew how prominent, or how deviously funny, the percussion in No. 5 actually is? This crew does.

And the details bristle as much as they tickle. Fleeting words of warning that go rubato and then hint at a complete stop in the first movement of No. 3; the starkness of the cellos introducing that iconic descending progression in the second movement of No. 4; and the sheer beefiness of the second movement of No. 5, which most orchestras play as a straightforwardly courtly dance. All this is just the tip of the iceberg. Listening to all of this in a single setting is overwhelming: stream these one a night for a week and your perspective on other recordings will be changed for life.