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An Insightful, Powerful New Recording of Harrowingly Relevant Shostakovich String Quartets

While classical musicians are expected to be able to play anything put in front of them, there’s no denying that harrowing emotional content makes it more difficult. So when a string quartet decides to record Shostakovich’s haunting String Quartet No. 8 – arguably the greatest and most relevant string quartet ever written – it’s worth checking out. Classical fans know the backstory well: the composer, fearing for his life as he was being pressured to join the Soviet communist party, decided to go for broke and write his own obituary. As protest music, it is unsurpassed for sheer horror…and for sheer bravery.

How does the Novus Quartet’s new recording – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the other fearless ensembles who’ve tackled it? They play this one in very high definition. For example, right from the first of the innumerable instances where the composer writes his own initials into the piece, the hazy overtones are front and center, especially from Wonhae Lee’s cello. Violinists Jaeyoung Kim and Young-Uk Kim slowly work a somber interchange alongside violist Kyuhyun Kim over elegaic cello drones as the first movement journeys to the grave.

The chase scene in the second movement, the KGB in frantic pursuit, has as much jagged menace as anyone could want, through fleeting references to some of the composer’s other works. Likewise, the sudden crescendos in the gleefully tiptoeing danse macabre of movement three are sharply executed. Movement four is the creepy scene where the death squad comes knocking, in this case done with a bit of restraint that underscores the sense of terror. At a time when big pharma, their puppets in government and law enforcement are waging war against majority populations who won’t take the kill shot, there’s never been a better time to take inspiration from Shostakovich’s insight into how fascists work.

The movement’s conclusion sets up the relentlessly drifting, especially lustrous mournfulness of the quartet’s last movement. The Emerson and Jerusalem Quartets have put out more distantly ominous, and arguably more suspenseful recordings, but this one is strong and needs to be heard as widely as possible, given the state of the world right now.

The Novus Quartet open the album with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3, which he wrote in 1945, hot on the heels of his crushingly cynical Symphony No. 9. In view of that work’s less-than-triumphant response to Soviet victory in World War II, this comes across as more serious and straightforward – although Shostakovich’s unsurpassed sense of irony is everywhere.

The group tackle the first movement, a Bartokian, reharmonized folk dance, with a visceral starkness, the babushkas at the local market surveying the damage with an energy that’s more wary than weary. From there, the ensemble waste no time in developing a sense of foreboding in the briskly waltzing second movement. Is the tiptoeing, balletesque interlude that follows an evocation of hope and renewal, or a typical Shostakovich caricature of the face of evil? Considering the brisk, pouncing, driving rhythms, chase sequences and witchy coda of the third movement, it would seem the latter.

The quartet let the pall linger in the fourth movement: Kyuhyun Kim’s righteously indignant viola out in front of the solemnity packs a wallop. The group return to an emphatic rusticity in lieu of courtly grace in the final movement’s dance sequence. The war may be over, but the dynamics that fueled it are still there, the composer seems to remind us. These insightful performances deserve an encore from the rest of the Shostakovich catalog.

January 26, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Etsuko Hirose Plays Thoughtful, Impressionistic Pancho Vladigerov Suites

If Pancho Vladigerov’s music is becoming a meme, so much the better. And if the recent release of two versions of his Impressions suite is only a coincidence, it’s a case of great minds thinking alike. Nadejda Vlaeva’s recording, reviewed here last month, reveled in the composer’s protean individualism, morphing from the High Romantic to the Balkans and portents of where artists like Chano Dominguez would take flamenco jazz. Etsuko Hirose‘s recording – streaming at Spotify – has somewhat more restraint, the advantage being that she focuses on different subtleties in the composer’s portrait of a love affair.

The unhurried initial movement, if anything, is more circumspect than Vlaeva’s version. Likewise, Hirose’s take of the Embrace is a little more spacious but also reaches a triumphant plateau pretty early on and hangs there. The Waltz-Capriccio has more of a contrast between romping joy and reflective glitter, although Hirose also downplays the uneasy Saint-Saens-esque vampiness.

The Caress is very much that, while Elegance is matter-of-factly expressive High Romantic joy. Hirose holds back from dramatic overstatement in Confession, although she lets the jaunty ragtime loose in Laughter.

Ripe little crescendoing waves permeate Hirose’s interpretation of Passion: it’s a rewarding ride. The same for the pervasive darkness in Surprise, even when the rhythm picks up – Hirose draws a straight line back to nocturnal Janacek wanderings. The finale, Resignation has both muted distress and towering angst: what a story Hirose has to tell.

Vladigerov’s Suite Bulgare, Op.21 and the Prélude, Op.15. get a similarly insightful treatment here. The suite’s regally marching, colorfully ornamented, increasingly Middle Eastern-tinged first movement gives way to enticingly allusive, quintessentially Bulgarian tonalities in the misterioso second, Hirose opting to let it trail out with a ghostly menace.

The chromatically gleaming dance that follows seems on the muted side as well, until she launches into a stilleto attack to set up the cheerier if labyrinthine Ratschenitza coda. With the concluding prelude, Hirose reverts to a glistening, expressive Romanticism, arguably a more chromatic take on Rachmaninoff: her execution of those ratcheting climbs is breathtaking. This is a feast for fans of music from the Balkans as well as more harmonically predictable points further west.

January 24, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epic, Historically-Inspired Collection of Rarities For One of the World’s Most Soulful Instruments

What better to brighten a dreary January in apartheid-era New York than an epic album dedicated to little-known material for the vastly underrated bassoon? Laurence Perkins knows as well as anyone else who plays a low-register instrument that his axe of choice is just as well suited to somber depths as it is to buffoonery. There’s some of both and a lot in between on his fascinating latest album Voyage of a Sea-God, which isn’t online yet It’s a dynamically vast collaboration with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Carducci String Quartet, among others. Just as ambitiously, Perkins has assembled the program as a musical capsule history of the 20th century.

He takes the album title from a Mozart bio which likened the instrument to a mythical triton blowing a conch shell. He teams up with pianist Michael Hancock to open the record with the moodily expressive flamenco echoes of a real rarity, British Romantic composer Richard Henry Walthew’s Introduction and Allegro,

His fellow bassoonists Amy Thompson, Matthew Kitteringham and Catriona McDermid join him for another rarity, Prokofiev’s blithely strolling miniature Scherzo Humoristique: cartoonish as this is, the textures of the more resonant moments are luscious. A little later, they negotiate William Schumann’s colorful Quartettino for Four Bassoons, from an initial dervish dance, to nocturnal solemnity, a playfully fleeting waltz and a fugue.

One of the better-known pieces here is Saint-Saens’ Bassoon Sonata, with Hancock rising from a chiming triumph to more torrential heights as Perkins stays in wistful mode in the first movement. The second gives Perkins a challenging, slithery workout as well as moments of poignancy over a coy operatic bounce. Yet the baroque-flavored third movement is where Perkins squeezes out the most subtlety and pathos.

Thompson and McDermid return for two segments of Granville Bantock’s Incidental Music for Macbeth, the first a bagpipe-like Scottish air, the second a cheerily strutting “witches dance” for the full bassoon quartet. The string quartet, bolstered by bassist Michael Escreet, violist Susie Meszaros and harpist Eira Lynn Jones join Perkins for an expressively reflective, dynamic performance of Arnold Bax’s Threnody and Scherzo, shifting from a striking sense of longing to more puckish, Gershwinesque terrain, then bouncing and blipping between the baroque and, eventually, a more darkly acerbic chase scene.

This is a long album: there are many more treats here!

Hindemith’s Bassoon Sonata is more tuneful than most of his repertoire, veering in and out of rainy-day focus against Hancock’s steadily waltzing backdrop, then unexpected glitter, goofiness and pastoral touches. Henri Dutilleux’s Sarabande and Cortege for piano and bassoon have a bracing, chromatically-fueled bite matched by moments of creepy phantasmagoria with some devious quotes from more famous works.

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Concertino For Bassoon and String Orchestra, William Goodchild conducting the ensemble, begins with some jarring contrasts between vigorous lushness and Perkins’ introspectively wandering lines, then a more seamless counterpoint ensues. Serioso strings anchor Perkins’ moody march in the second movement; the similarly disquieted third features one of Perkins’ most incisive solos here.

Perkins premiered Alan Ridout’s two Shakespearean character studies for solo bassoon, Caliban and Ariel, in 1974. The former has a gnomic creepiness; the latter is spacious and airy yet far from carefree. The highlight of Andrzej Panufnik’s haunting Concerto for Bassoon and Small Orchestra – inspired by the murder of Polish dissident priest Jerzy Popieluszko – is a long, sparse, woundedly resonant Perkins solo in the second movement. From there, stabbing string motives alternate with methodical bassoon lines, then give way to vast Shostakovian desolation, distantly hopeful austerity, and Gorecki-esque prayerfulness. What a profound piece of music for an era where big pharma whistleblowers are being assassinated.

The last of the piano-and-bassoon pieces is Richard Rodney Bennett’s Bassoon Sonata, the most modernist but also strangely compelling piece on the program, with a persistently restless, sometimes furtive feel. The final track is David Bedford’s Dream of Stac Pollaidh, a Scottish mountainscape which Perkins plays solo with matter-of-factly cadenced, syncopated steps toward the summit.

Wait, there’s more: an enigmatically marching miniature by Herbert Howells. The amount of creativity and singleminded dedication that went into this record is awe-inspiring.

January 21, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

January 15, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vast, Magical, Mystical Russian Choral Works

What’s most striking about 56-man Russian choral ensemble PaTRAM‘s album More Honourable Than the Cherubim – streaming at Spotify – is the group’s vast range. The basses reach gravelly lows usually unheard of beyond the world of throat-singing, often balanced on the top end by harmonies that rise into soprano territory.

Many of the Russian Orthodox works which the group sing here are considerably more colorful than you might expect. It’s not all glacial tempos and minor keys – although those are abundant. Most of the music on the program dates from the pre-Revolution era, the early 20th century in particular.

Vocal acrobatics typically take a backseat to unwavering resonance. The longest and arguably most dynamic work is a remarkable student composition by Rachmaninoff. The ensemble follow a matter-of-fact trajectory from muted, stygian rapture, to a triumphant wavelike motion, and eventually a rustic cheer. Likewise, an expansive eighteenth-century composition by Stepan Degtiariov has a folksy charm and a surprisingly animated, proto-operatic coda.

The most recent works – a slowly drifting prayer and a warmly enveloping tableau – are by Sergiy Trubachov, born in 1919. The oldest piece here, dating from the late 1600s, is a brief, soberly minimalistic setting of the central Russian Orthodox Marian hymn. The group open the record with a considerably more bracingly harmonized version by 20th century composer Petar Dinev.

The album’s most memorable interlude is a set of four hymns by Pavel Chesnokov, which give the choir a chance to cut loose with the closest thing to reckless abandon they reach for here, through sudden crescendos and toweringly anthemic passages,

Perhaps serendipitously, the album recording session coincided with an exhibit of a well-traveled 725-year-old relic known as the Kursk Root Icon, to which miracles have been attributed. Did any miracles take place there? Maybe it’s a miracle that the group managed to finish the record before choral performance was criminalized throughout most of the world. Considering that this repertoire has survived Tsarist tyranny and soul-crushing Soviet censorship, it’s a good bet that it will survive this moment’s global totalitarianism. In the meantime, we have PaTRAM to thank for helping to keep such a rich, robust tradition alive for future generations.

January 14, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Camerata Zurich Reinvent a Haunting Czech Classical Suite

The piece de resistance on Camerata Zurich‘s latest album of string orchesta pieces – streaming at Spotify – is Daniel Rumler’s arrangement of Janacek’s troubled, death-obsessed suite On an Overgrown Path. It’s gorgeously lush yet uncluttered music. Rumler subsumes much of the turbulence of the original piano version, switching out embellishments for emphatic melody. Group leader Igor Karsko opts for elegance and dynamics throughout the suite’s many picturesque interludes, broken down into 25 short segments here.

There’s also a spoken-word component. In her original French, poet Maia Brami reads the broodingly evocative text the orchestra had commissioned in 2017, imagining the composer reflecting on his life in a rather haunted woodland setting. There’s an English translation (but surprisingly, no original) in the album liner notes.

Wistfully lilting strolls rise to a sudden anguish, moody resonance alternating with gently animated phrasing to set the stage. The composer was haunted by the death of his daughter, who succumbed to illness at twenty, and the sense of loss is palpable throughout many twists and turns. Fond memories flicker into and then fade out of the mist. The carefully modulated echo phrasing in the brief ninth segment is especially striking.

The opening work, Josef Suk’s Meditation on St. Wenceslas sounds absolutely nothing like the Christmas carol that’s been repurposed for a million playground rhymes over the years. This piece rises with a steady pulse to a troubled intensity: when Karsko gets the ensemble to dig in just thisclose to a shriek, a little after the midway point, the effect is viscerally breathtaking, especially considering the lushness on the way there. Suk wrote it as a thinly veiled freedom fighter anthem for Czech independence from the Habsburgs; its solemnity and defiance are just as relevant now, in a considerably more global context.

The group bring the album full circle with Dvorak’s Nocturne in B major, giving it a similarly insistent, even anxious pulse in places. Karsko raises the distinctness of the interweave of voices into strikingly sharp focus, a sonic layer cake.

January 11, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Catchy, Entertaining New Orchestral Music Playlist

For the last few years, Navona Records has been advocating for new and contemporary composers with their ongoing series of Prisma compilations. Volume Five – streaming at Spotify – is a characteristically colorful, diverse collection, played with as much of a sense of adventure as attention to detail by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Jiří Petrdlík. Every composer represented here is a first-class tunesmith: this is a very cinematic, translucent mix. Unexpected false endings figure heavily here.

The first work is the opening Adagio, “Of Times and Seasons” from Lawrence Mumford‘s Symphony No. 4, essentially variations on a song without words, with unhurried, warmly puffing phrases and contrasts between cheery high woodwinds and the density of the strings and brass below. There’s a Gershwinesque sense of contentment mixed with moments of bittersweetness and a counterpoint that goes back to Haydn in theory, if not idiomatically. As Petrdlík leads the ensemble upward, there’s a towering, Vaughan Williams-like pastoral solidity.

In Kevin McCarter’s All Along, the group shift between balletesque precision and a similarly verdant lushness. The palindromic architecture around the lull at the center is ingenious. They begin Samantha Sack‘s A Kiss in the Dark dreamily, then the high strings begin circling tightly as the low brass looms in and a hypnotically heroic theme ensues. The false ending is amusing: this, um, incident is just getting started!

Bustling drama mingled within passages of muted furtiveness introduce Bell and Drum Tower, by Alexis Alrich. It’s akin to a 21st century neoromantic take on the 1812 Overture as Angelo Badalamenti might have reimaged it, with an increasingly Asian sensibility fueled by precise piano cascades. The wistful bassoon solo midway through is one of the album’s highlights; from there, the composer’s edgy sense of humor starts to burst out.

There’s a similar, low-key furtiveness and even more of a sense of impending trouble in Nunatak, by Katherine Saxon, complete with an eerie twinkle from the bells amid pillowy strings. From there, Petrdlík shifts the group seamlessly toward more optimistic, envelopingly ambered terrain.

Is Anthony Wilson‘s 3 Flights of the Condor a reference to sinister deep-state meddling in Latin American affairs in the 1970s? Possibly. Sinister low rustles reach further into the lustre above as the tableau unveils. A dip to a moody exchange of low winds and horns rises to a Rimsky-Korsakovian nocturne

The album comes full circle with William Copper‘s This Full Bowl of Roses, Pt. 3, a second set of variations on a song without words, full of tension and release and baroque-tinged counterpoint. It’s a good vehicle for the orchestra to show off the dynamism of their brass section and aptitude for Beethovenesque exchanges.

January 9, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

January 7, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Mammoth, Deliriously Funny, Searingly Relevant New Recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide

Once one dismisses
The rest of all possible worlds
One finds that this is
The best of all possible worlds

So sings Sir Thomas Allen in his role as Dr. Pangloss, in the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’ epic new recording of Leonard Bernstein’s satirical opera Candide, streaming at Spotify.

When Lillian Hellman enlisted Bernstein and what would become a rapidly expanding cast of lyricists in this ridiculously funny parable of McCarthyite witch hunting, little did anyone involved with the project know how much greater relevance it would have in the months after March of 2020. Marin Alsop leads the orchestra and a boisterous allstar cast of opera talent in a massive double album culled from concert performances in the fall of 2018.

Tenor Leonardo Capalbo plays the title role. Soprano Jane Archibald is Cunegonde and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter plays the Old Lady, with a supporting cast of Thomas Adkins, Marcus Farnsworth, Katherine McIndoe, Carmen Artaza, Lucy McAuley, Liam Bonthrone, Frederick Jones and Jonathan Ayers in raucous multiple roles. Simon Halsey directs the choir.

Alsop and the orchestra have just as much fun as the singers. Bernstein’s score comes across as almost as satirical as the text. As a parody of centuries of European opera, it’s not quite Scaramouche doing the fandango, but it’s close. The coda of act one is priceless.

For the most part, the plot is consistent with Voltaire’s novel. As you would expect in an operatic context, the characters are infinitely more over-the-top. We learn early on what a horrible pair the credulous Candide and the bling-worshipping Cunegonde make. Innuendo flies fast and furious, and some of the jokes are pretty outrageous for a production first staged in the late 50s. The lyric book by itself is a riot – although it only has the songs, not the expository passages. Listen closely for maximum laughs.

Alsop perfectly nails Bernstein’s tongue-in-cheek seriousness and good-natured melodic appropriation, through one stoically marching, bombastic interlude after another. There’s phony pageantry to rival Shostakovich. Swoony string passages and hand-wrenching arias alternate with the occasional moment where Bernstein drops the humor and lets the sinister subtext waft in. The most amusingly grisly part of the story is set to a parody of the climactic scene in the Mozart Requiem. Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade are recurrent reference points.

The most spectacular display of solo vocal pyrotechnics belongs to Archibald – in response to a hanging, appropriately enough. For the choir, it’s the Handel spoof early in the second act. Music this comedic seldom inspires as much repeated listening. And the political content, in an age of divide-and-conquer, speaks truth to what at this moment seems to be rapidly unraveling power.

January 6, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brieuc Vourch and Guillaume Vincent Bring Renewed Energy to Old Favorites

In the insightful liner notes to their new album of Franck and Richard Strauss sonatas, violinist Brieuc Vourch and pianist Guillaume Vincent quote the great conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt: “Security and beauty are not compatible.” In late 2021, that’s not just a radical statement. It would put the conductor on a terrorist watch list.

The point of that citation is that musicians have to take chances; to steal a line from Leonard Cohen, that’s how the light gets in. The duo’s raison d’etre in making the record – streaming at Spotify – is not to make contemporary avant garde music out of this, but to go under the hood and evoke how cutting-edge it was for its time. Making an album of some of the classical world’s best-loved works, recorded innumerable times by iconic figures, is a daunting task…and a bold statement, if you can pull it off.

You could read this as a critical appreciation, in real time, by two guys who really understand this. Or just a couple of players having astute fun with a couple of pieces brimming with color and luxuriant melody. Either way, this is a very confident, masculine performance.

It’s clear from the opening movement of the Strauss sonata – a relatively early work – that this is a love song, a graceful pas de deux in the two’s elegant counterpoint. An expressive player with an understated old-world vibrato, Vourch is well suited to this repertoire, and Vincent’s glittering precision matches the mood. The duo follow an organic trajectory as the passion rises, wanes and rises again.

In this duo’s hands, movement two seems to be all about pulling apart and then reconnecting, particularly when the lower registers of both instruments converge. Vourch’s sepulchral resonance grounded by Vincent’s matter-of-factness about five minutes in is breathtaking.

The pianist revels in the suspense introducing the concluding movement, then cuts loose as Vourch lingers and flits overhead, setting up the triumphant gusts as the duo ride the waves on the way out to bring this dance full circle. There’s also a priceless, self-effacingly funny moment right before the end, but you have to listen closely to catch it.

As attractive as the Strauss piece is, the Franck sonata is the big hit, and for good reason. The duo’s decision to play the first movement as steadily and straightforwardly as they do, eschewing any High Romantic rubato, is brave. It also feels a little fast. The game plan here seems to be to sidestep any kind of cliche in favor of energy, downplaying the wistfulness which Vourch brings into full angst-fueled bloom in the second movement.

That’s where the duo really engage with gusty emotion, but just as much with 19th century gleam – to set up Vourch’s fanged attack, bristling with harmonics, as the movement winds up. The choice to back away and really let the third movement linger, even as the volume rises with a shivery intensity, validates how they launched the sonata.

The resoluteness of the final movement results in a big payoff from Vincent’s bright, dancing chords and Vourch’s decision to dig in hard for bittersweetness rather than sentimentality, enhanced by a clenched-teeth, brittle vibrato in contrast with a spun-steel calm in the quieter moments. Even if you’ve heard this hundreds of times, this version will wake you up.

December 30, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment