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Tag: beethoven

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.

Angela Hewitt Playfully and Insightfully Resurrects Beethoven Piano Obscurities

“The fourth pedal on my Fazioli, which raises the action and cuts the hammer strike by half, helped enormously here,” pianist Angela Hewitt explains in the liner notes to her new Beethoven Variations album, which hasn’t the web yet. She’s discussing her approach to the faster, more staccato passages in a relatively early work, the 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor.

And yet, she brings a heartfelt neoromantic tinge to the quieter passages. As she explains in the album’s very detailed booklet, Beethoven basically wrote this and abandoned it. Still, it’s a colorful and not always predictable piece of music, and it gives Hewitt, who’s revered for playing Bach on the piano, a chance to explore dynamics that are less present in baroque music. As usual, she takes a painterly approach to this along with some other lesser-known Beethoven works.

The 6 Variations on an Original Theme in F Major are more relaxed and playful, the subtle humor echoing Haydn, whose shadow the composer had not yet escaped. Hewitt has a particularly good, emphatic time with the stern proto-Chopin march midway through, a far cry from the casual feel of most of what surrounds it.

Hewitt takes a very straightforward, calmly dancing, occasionally puckish approach early in the 15 Variations and a Fugue, best known as Beethoven’s early study for the Finale of his Eroica Symphony. That hardly signals how regal this music will eventually grow and how much more joyously pouncing her attack becomes.

The rest of the material here is much more obscure, and understandably so. There are two series of variations on themes by Guiseppe Paisiello, a popular late 18th century opera composer. The first is a lightweight love song, the second a folksy little tune. Neither sounds anything like Beethoven.

The final two cuts remind how little life has changed for musicians over the past couple of centuries: sometimes you have to take whatever work is available. In this case, Beethoven sat down at the piano in 1803 and fulfilled the terms of a commission from a fan in Scotland who’d asked him to come up with variations on God Save the King and Rule Brittania. Spin this at your New Years Eve party and see if anybody in the crowd gets the joke.

Intimate Electricity From Joshua Bell

Isn’t it funny how some of the world’s most exciting sounds get lumped into a category with the most boring name? And who would have thought there would be such a mighty upsurge in chamber music in 2020? With established concert venues padlocked and imperiled – outside of Sweden, Moscow and Nicaragua, anyway – intimate performances largely by and for family and friends have become the new paradigm in classical music, at least until the lockdown is over.

And in keeping with the zeitgeist, some of the biggest names in the field are making intimate recordings. None other than Joshua Bell has made a diverse and often electrifying new live album, At Home with Music, streaming at Spotify. Although virtually all of it is arrangements of standard repertoire, the violinist seems especially amped to play it.

He opens with the famous first movement from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, jauntily trading riffs with pianist Jeremy Denk. The two play it fast: in their most animated moments, the lack of digital separation between the instruments enhances the carefree energy.

Peter Dugan takes over the piano, joining Bell for a much more rubato, Romantic take of Dvořák’s Slavonic Fantasy in B minor. Bell’s rise from silken vibrato to raw, Romany intensity is unselfconsciously electrifying, a real crowd-pleaser.

Next, he teams up with soprano Larisa Martínez and pianist Kamal Khan for a somewhat understatedly lyrical take of Mendelssohn’s “Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro” from the opera Infelice. They return to tackle a Puccini aria later on.

The rare treat here is Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert in D Major, Op. 4, with Dugan back on piano, both musicians digging in hard for its anthemic leaps, slashes and devious dips. Their remarkably steady, unvarnished take of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 makes a good segue, quiet as it generally is. And hearing Bell revel in the virtuoso ornamentation of the Jascha Heifetz arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime is an expected thrill.

Martínez and Khan return for the closer, an alternately bracing and warmly familiar medley from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. with a triumphant coda.

Brooklyn Rider Pair First-Class 21st Century Works with an Iconic String Quartet

Brooklyn Rider are the rare string quartet who seem to have as much fun with the classical canon as they do with the new composers they champion. To violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas, it’s all just good music. Their latest, lavish double-disc set, Healing Modes – streaming at Bandcamp – interpolates some fascinating new compositions among succesive movements of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, a mainstay of their performances (before the lockdown, at least). The new repertoire here challenges the group’s extended technique arguably more than any other recording they’ve done, but they rise to its demands. As usual, among the new works, there are connecting threads, notably a constant tension between atmospherics and bustle. And the Beethoven bristles with surprises and erudition, even if you’ve heard it a million times.

The opening piece, Matana Roberts‘ Borderland is a contrast in ghostly and poltergeist sonics. Microtonal haze gives way to insistent, rhythmic phrases, hectic pizzicato, coy glissandos, and then back. There’s also a loaded, allusive spoken word element that packs a wallop at a time when our constitutional rights have been stolen from us by the lockdowners.

Reena Ismail‘s Zeher (Poison) has a similar resonant/rhythmic dichotomy spiced with doublestops and quavery, Indian-influenced ornamentation, shifting to an unexpectedly anthemic conclusion that brings to mind the quartet’s recordings of Philip Glass.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s Kanto Kechua #2 has acerbically harmonized, tightly leaping phrases, a round of biting chromatics at the center. The quartet revel in these flurries, which obliquely echo Bernard Herrmann film scores, Peruvian folk music and also the Beethoven here.

The second disc begins with Du Yun‘s I Am My Own Achilles Heel, its shivers, squeals, approximations of arioso vocalese and sharply strutting figures receding down to sepulchral ambience and back again. There may be an improvisational element at work here: beyond an animated, allusively Appalachian circle dance at around the halfway mark or so, and pastoral Asian tinges later, it’s hard to tell.

The take of Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma seems even more amiably plucky and subtly anthemic than the version they played as a New York premiere on the Upper West Side in the spring of 2019.

There seems to be new gravitas but also new vigor in the first movement of the Beethoven, compared to the group’s previous interpretations, although their stunningly legato approach throughout hasn’t wavered over the years. It’s less a nocturne than an anthem. There’s lilting grace and delicacy in unexpected moments of movement two, but with plenty of muscle.

The devious Bach quotes amid the hymnal lustre of the third movement are right up front, and irresistible, as is the lushness of its conclusion. The ensemble play up the drollery in the fleeting bit of a fourth movement as much as the bittersweet, Vivaldiesque grace of the final one. These guys know better than most anyone else that this particular quartet is more symphonic than it is chamber music, a celebration of being snatched from the jaws of death. What does it sound like mixed up amid the new compositions? Full disclosure: this blog tweaked the tracklist to play it contiguously. It’s that addictive.

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Give a Jolt of Energy to a Couple of Old Standards

Violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz have a delightful, insightful new album, Key of A – streaming at Spotify – which offers a fresh, energetic approach to a couple of iconic A major pieces from the 19th century repertoire as well as Fritz Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin. The two’s reckless abandon is refreshing: this isn’t sedate wine-hour music for the idle classes of Napoleonic Vienna.

The duo approach the first movement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with a sparse, spacious suspense before following an icepick velocity through the volleys that follow, lyricism balanced by lively displays of chops. St. John can be raw and searing one moment, gentle and balletesque another, depending on the passage, and the composition gives her a wide canvas to paint.

Likewise, Herskowitz’s methodical steadiness and almost gleeful baroque ornamentation in the much moodier second movement. The third has the feel of a boisterous country dance, but also a penetrating, Bach-like gothic edge.

Franck’s Sonata in A major turns out to be just as dynamic, and if anything, more lyrical, through the moodily dancing key changes of the first movement through the prowling, often windswept rumble and ripple of the second. They parse the third judiciously, sometimes emphatically, sometimes with remarkable restraint, then cut loose with an unrestrained triumph in the fourth. It’s a considerably more vigorous counterpart to Alina Ibragimova and Cedric Tiberghien‘s more delicately detailed, recently released take.

St. John and Herskowitz bounce their way through Kreisler’s cheery waltz to close the album. If music that wears its heart on its sleeve is your thing, don’t miss this.

Rewardingly Dark, Insightful New Interpretations of Beethoven and Ligeti String Quartets

There’s a point toward the end of the Jupiter String Quartet’s new performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s iconic String Quartet No. 14, Op 131 where suddenly a series of echo effects kick in. One is strikingly quieter than the other. What a stunning contrast, and a stunning insight. It’s hard to think of another quartet who have seized on that particular phrase so dynamically – and they reprise that toward the end of the piece.

Obviously, the group went deep under the hood and came away with an interpretation that even in the rarified world of virtuoso classical music is especially meticulous. It’s the first piece on their new album Metamorphosis, streaming at youtube. Even if you’ve heard other quartets do it a million times, this one is worth discovering.

They approach that first movement with wistfulness but restlessness: overall, this recording in general tends to be faster and more vigorous than is commonplace, underscoring the piece’s persistent unease and, in places, unselfconscious angst. The group – violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel and cellist Daniel McDonough – also employ a more old-word, vibrato-laden touch, especially early on.

The subtle differences in the levels of the individual voicings in the second movement are equally revealing; unlike how some other quartets play it, this is more of a sway than a march. The momentary third movement is an emphatic launching pad for the next one’s expressive resilience, particularly in its evocation of Bach, persistently jabbing, insistent pizzicato and staccato, and a whispery setup to the song without words afterward.

Movement five is quite the romp, at least when the composer’s not threatening to send everybody home from the party, a breathtaking contrast with the sudden sorrow of the sixth. Reckless abandon is not what most people would expect, but there’s some of that in the wary, marching phrases of the conclusion.

György Ligeti’s Holocaust-themed String Quartet No. 1 seems like an unlikely companion piece, although it follows a similar trajectory. And this version is equally picturesque, if in a more overtly grim sense,  A violin wanders woundedly through nebulously rising wafts of battlefield smoke. Groupthink seems to plague the menacing authority figures here; aghast chromatic runs give way to muted shock and hope against hope. The demands of the piece on the quartet’s extended technique are daunting, and they negotiate those microtones, and shrieks, and incessant pivots, with the agility of a fugitive from fascists on the prowl. We may have to do the same, if we fail to stop ‘trace and track,” in moments where the only music is sirens or the screams of children torn from their parents.