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October 27, 2011
Fall into chamber music
By Robert R. Reilly *

By Robert R. Reilly *

A chill in the air, crackling leaves, and a roaring fireplace put me in mind of chamber music for some reason — perhaps because it is an interior art. Is it the cold that prepares one for a period of introspection? Chamber music is the art of introspection in sound. In any case, it is what I have been listening to a great deal this fall. Chamber music requires silence and time. It is also sort of familial, just you and several others.

I have spent most of my recent time listening to recordings of a new traversal of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets by the Mandelring Quartet, on the Audite label (21.411). By any measure, this is some of the most extraordinary music written during the 20th century. Of course, it reflects the terrible disorientation of the totalitarian regime in which Shostakovich lived, but it never loses its roots in song and dance. That is why it is so effective. Disorientation does not have any meaning, unless there is the anchor of orientation preceding it. Shostakovich’s anchor is in Haydn and Beethoven. Using them as touchstones, he shows us how disoriented things were in the Soviet Union. While there is exquisite beauty here, much of the music is hair-raising, even frightening. After some string lashings, a wistful melody will float by like a life preserver after a shipwreck. A part of Quartet No. 13 sounds like waves of pain through the brain, a musical migraine. Do not let this description put you off; this is very human music. Shostakovich never hides in abstraction, like so many 20th-century composers.

The Mandelring Quartet provides an extraordinary experience in its traversal. Of these quartets, writer Wendy Lesser said, “The four familial instruments seem to whisper directly into our ears, communing with us about our own personal sadness and anxieties.” This is the sense conveyed by the young Mandelring players. Three of the four quartet members are siblings, and the fourth plays as if he were a family member. The sense they give is as if these quartets were taking place inside a single soul. They play within themselves, achieving an extraordinary quality of interiority and unanimity. I have written before that we are blessed to be living in a time of superb musicianship; count these Audite recordings as exhibit A. I will still return often to the red-blooded performances of the Borodin Quartet, but the Mandelring will retain a very special place.

Shostakovich had a soul mate of whom few people know: Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996). Weinberg was a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis and ended up in Moscow under Shostakovich’s tutelage. He adopted Shostakovich’s musical language wholesale, but nonetheless remained his own man. Song and dance, especially with a Jewish air, are even more prevalent in his music. He and Shostakovich had a game to see who could write the most quartets; Weinberg won with 17. On the CPO label, the Danel Quartet has reached volume 5 in its traversal of Weinberg’s complete string quartets. Vol. 5 contains Quartets Nos. 1, 3, 10, and the short Capriccio Opus 11, as well as Aria Opus 9 (CPO 777 566-2). This leaves only Quartets Nos. 2, 12, and 17 to go. Presumably, these will be in the sixth and final volume.

There are very few things that can compare with Shostakovich’s achievements in this genre. The only ones that come to mind are the quartets of Villa-Lobos (17 quartets), Vagn Holmboe (20 quartets), Bartok (6 quartets), and perhaps Bartok’s fellow Hungarian, Laszlo Lajtha (10 quartets). (In fact, Lajtha may stand to Bartok in much the same way as Weinberg does to Shostakovich and, like Weinberg, his works have been grotesquely neglected until recently.) On the evidence of the first five volumes of this CPO traversal, I think it is only fair to add Weinberg to this pantheon. His music is every bit as indispensable. The Danel Quartet continues its high standards in these precise yet expressive performances.

I should also point out that the budget Naxos label has issued the second volume in its Complete Music for Solo Cello by Weinberg, played by Joseph Feigelson (Naxos 8.572281). These are the world premiere recordings, originally issued on the Olympia label, of Sonatas Nos. 2, 3, and 4. The touchstone for sonatas for solo cello is obviously Bach’s work in the genre. Weinberg calls upon that tradition and enriches it. It would be safe to consider Feigelson’s performances as definitive.

Another surprise from Russia comes in the form of the complete string quartets of Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996, no relation to Piotr), issued by the Northern Flowers label (9964-9965). Last December, I declared that my CD find of the year was his Symphony No. 2, released on the Profil label (PH 10038). This work so impressed me that I was determined to explore further, leading to the discovery of this two-CD set. These six quartets, written over a span of 22 years (1954-1976), are different in character from those of Shostakovich, with whom Tchaikovsky studied, or Weinberg. Tchaikovsky is more likely to get your attention with a whisper than a shout. This music is not without its drama, but it is primarily contemplative. Listen, for instance, to the exquisitely gentle Largo movement of the First String Quartet, here receiving its first recorded performance. There is a very appealing gentleness in these works, which are suffused with melody. With these CDs, the Northern Flowers label has made a major contribution, as have violinist Ilya Ioff, violinist Elena Raskova, violist Lydia Kovalenko, and cellist Alexey Massarsky.

Since I mentioned Vagn Holmboe as a member of the pantheon of great 20th-century chamber music composers, I need to tell you about a brand new Dacapo CD (8.226073) that contains five short chamber works that have heretofore been unrecorded: “Primavera” for flute, violin, cello, and piano; “Gioco,” for violin, viola, and cello; Sonata for flute solo; “Ballata” for violin, viola, cello, and piano; and Quartet for flute and violin, viola, and cello, all played by the Ensemble MidtVest. While I might advise beginning with Homlboe’s string quartets, this CD is a revelatory introduction to the broad range of his music. The playfulness of “Primavera” is a nice contrast to the seriousness of “Ballata.” These are not simply shavings from the master’s bench; each work stands as an integral jewel. This will be a mandatory purchase for Homlboe fans.

Naxos has released two CDs with the chamber music of Howard Blake (b. 1938), a well-known pianist, conductor, and film composer in Great Britain. Some of the agreeable melodies show their pedigree from the world of popular music, in which Blake writes film scores and jazz, but the classical treatment of them is accomplished and very appealing. This is particularly so in the case of his string quartet fantasy, “Spieltrieb.” It is accompanied on a new Naxos CD (8.57688) by a string quartet version of the film score to “A Month in the Country,” the ballet music from “Leda and the Swan,” String Trio, Op. 199, and a string quartet version of “Walking in the Air.” This is all immediately likable music.

The older of the two CDs (Naxos 8.572083) contains the Violin Sonata “Penillion” for violin and piano, Piano Quartet, and Jazz Dances for violin and piano. Blake’s engaging melodiousness lies somewhere between Dvorak and salon music. Certainly, “Penillion” has the warmth of Dvorak. I suppose that one reaction to these works might be slight condescension due to the popular aspect of their melodies; the other reaction, which is mine, is simply to appreciate this very easy-to-enjoy music. Quite surprisingly, considering that some of them go back to 1974, all of these works are receiving their world premiere recordings. The string quartet music is played most engagingly by the Edinburgh Quartet, and the various soloists on the second CD are equally fine.

I close with a very pleasant surprise in the String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 by Ronald Corp, a British composer born in 1951. The First Quartet is named The Bustard, after the largest flying bird in the world. It might be too cute to say that this music takes flight, but it does. You do not need to think of a bird to go soaring with it. Corp has written some gorgeous melodies that cannot fail to uplift you. The second movement is a lovely evocation of Salisbury Plain and contains some absolutely enchanting night music. The Second Quartet is a sister to the first and is charged with joy and exuberance from the birth of a baby boy. The Maggini Quartet plays with its usual assurance and expressivity. I defy anyone not to be inspirited by these totally traditional, tonally oriented quartets. They are on a budget Naxos CD (8.57578).

And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go throw another log on the fire.

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