American Music

  • A Delightful Double Concerto with an Articulate Tchaikovsky Reading

    Tchaikovky: Symphony No. 4/Leshnoff: Double Concerto
    Michael Rusinek, clarinet.  Nancy Goeres, bassoon.
    Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
    Reference FR-738
    Total Time:  63:12
    Recording:   (*)***/****
    Performance: ****/****

     

    Manfred Honeck pairs a world premiere modern concerto with one of the great classical war horses on this new “Fresh!” live release from Reference Recordings.  As the orchestra’s music director over the past decade, Honeck has continued to raise the orchestra’s profile with often invigorating explorations of classic literature and expansions to the groups repertoire.  Their series of highly-acclaimed releases continues here in amazing Super 5.0 Stereo realization.  The Tchaikovsky was actually recorded in 2016 and is the last of the three later symphonies to appear in the orchestra’s recent releases.

    Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies are among his most-performed and popular works.  The fourth (composed over 1877-1878) in particular holds fascination for its motivic development and intensity that seem to expand upon Beethoven’s own exploration of fate and destiny.  This is the third of the symphonies to make it to disc with Honeck and the PSO.  A quick glance at the overall timings for each of the movements suggests a rather traditional performance with just a slight more time taken in parts of the second movement.  What is most striking about the performance, and which is apparent from the opening bars, is the extreme care that is being taken to the shaping of themes.  One can hear parallel articulations across the sections of the orchestra.  Honeck also makes a lot more out of the sudden shifts in dynamics which can make those moments doubly exciting.  The wind playing throughout the symphony is quite exquisite as a result and that sinuous oboe melody in the second movement moves forward without too much pathos.  This allows some of the yearning to grow more as the movement proceeds.  Brass also are on great display here, especially in the powerful opening and conclusion.  The strings do well, but seem a bit lower in the sound picture, sometimes being overwhelmed by other parts of the orchestra.  This is particularly the case in the opening movement.  The second movement also seems to have some sense of balance adjustment that is not distracting (and might be a result of the 5.0 imaging).  Throughout the bass end seems particularly boom-y at times.  The scherzo really lets the strings shine with the pizzicato playfulness casting itself nicely in the outer sections and a light, trio section.  The finale brings us back to those large monolithic brass blocks of sound and crisp, shots that balance against the lyrical contrasts.  There is solid, controlled energy to get us to the exciting conclusion and Honeck lets the music play for itself without adding any additional, artificial urgency.  This makes the final minutes quite satisfying.  (There is just a brief moment, where it feels like the orchestra was getting a bit over-excited and Honeck manage to pull them back).  That makes those final moments really exciting.  Personal favorites of this symphony include Montreux’s classic Boston set, and Gergiev’s Vienna series (also a live recording).  The latter has a bit more passion (though arguably the bassoon solo in Honeck’s recording in the second movement could not be more emotionally plaintive).  Honeck’s is not a “careful” rendition, but a rather deeply thought out interpretation that draws out Tchaikovsky’s emotional core and creates a consistent performance approach across the orchestra.  In that respect, it is certainly a wonderful performance that is worth exploration and the solo work throughout is really worth the price of admission here.

    The album is paired with a new work by Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973) commissioned by the orchestra and premiered in June 2019 (when the recording was made).  A collection of his orchestral music appeared last year on the Naxos label exploring his lyrical orchestral music with its always engaging thematic ideas.  Leshnoff’s music is a link to the great Neo-Romanticists of the 20th Century (Creston, Diamond, Harris).  In this new work, he pairs clarinet with bassoon for a rather fascinating exploration of the double concerto genre.  The work is cast in three movements.  The first movement begins with long, descending string lines that shift into the bassoon’s upper, songful register.  The clarinet then enters to twine itself around this idea with some stunningly beautiful, romantic harmonic backgrounds.  A brief off-kilter waltz follows with a delightful lower bassoon staccato line to open and a nice lyrical clarinet commentary to provide a contrast.  It features a delightful section for solo bassoon accompanied with the orchestra’s bassoons as well.  The final movement brings us a more energetic dash that brings the soloists into more dialogue with the larger orchestra in a more traditional fashion, kicked off with a brass chord before the perpetual motion lets the soloists display their technique.  Leshnoff’s music is always quite engaging and the interaction between the soloists here helps create a lot of delightful interplay.  The accessible harmonic style also invites the listener in with its almost cinematic qualities.  Bassoonist Nancy Goeres and clarinetist Michael Rusinek are quite superb interpreters of the work.  They seem more forward in the sound picture and imaged on either side to create a somewhat realistic spatial feel though sometimes they get shifted more to the center.

    This is an overall an excellent release.  Really, one should pick this up for Leshnoff’s delightful concerto.  The Tchaikovsky is obviously what will grab the attention of the casual listener at first, but what a great way to introduce a new work to a broader audience.  Of course, it is second on the album so it might not get that first listen it might otherwise have.  It is also rather odd that neither soloist is listed anywhere on the cover or really anywhere.  One sort of discovers by leafing through the booklet who they are and there is a little Q and A section there.  Notes for the Tchaikovsky are fine and a nice overview of this more familiar work.  Whether one is attracted to this release for either repertoire, there will be much to enjoy in both cases.

  • Violins of Hope

     

    Violins of Hope
    Niv Ashkenazi, violin. Matthew Graybill, piano.
    Sharon Farber, piano. Tony Campisi, narrator.
    Albany Records TROY 1810
    Total Time: 58:37
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    In the midst of a pandemic, an album with the title Violins of Hope is certainly a welcome experience.  This beautiful collection of 10 varied works for solo violin is a picture of musical approaches across the 20th Century gathered around the very instrument that is used to perform them.  Soloist Niv Ashkenazi perform here on a restored violin that comes from the Violins of Hope project.  The collection of instruments are restored violins that were owned by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.  These are then loaned out for use to give these instruments a voice that cannot be silenced by the horrors of this moment in history.  Ashkenazi’s connection to the project has allowed him to have one of these instruments on a more long-term loan which has allowed him to capture a sense of the instrument’s unique voice and qualities.  His choice of bow is also worth noting as it comes from the same workshop of Ammon and Avshalom Weinstein and was constructed by Daniel Schmidt at the Israeli luthier’s business in the 1990s.

    The music for this release encapsulates works written during the lifetime of this particular instrument which is believed to have been constructed in Eastern Europe, or Germany, between 1900-29.  The repertoire is carefully chosen to explore the richness of this particular instrument featuring some familiar works, but some wonderful discoveries as well.

    Robert Dauber’s Serenade (1942) is a wonderful opener for the album that demonstrates Ashkenazi’s impeccable range of interpretation and tone.  There are some simply stunning moments in the upper register of the instrument coupled with a moving, engaging performance.  In fact, as the album continues, there is a real emotional core that Ashkenazi finds for these pieces.  There is that somber quality which is explored in “Nigun” from Bloch’s Baal Shem suite (1923) followed by a beautiful performance of John William’s theme from Schindler’s List (1993).  Julius Chajes’ melancholy The Chassid (1939) is an interesting work as well exploring Jewish musical gestures.  Some other brief excerpts here include the delightful “Dance of the Rebbitzen” from George Perlman’s Suite hebraique (1929), Paul Ben-Haim’s beautiful “Berceuse sfaradite”, and a “Kaddish” from Ravel’s Deux melodies hebraiques (1914, arranged by Lucien Garban in 1924).  Each of these explores Jewish melodic ideas within their unique modernist/impressionist styles.  Sharon Farber’s Bestimming: Triumph (2014, arr. 2019) is taken from her cello concerto.  It is a truly moving work that utilizes a narrated text about a Holocaust survivor who managed to save more than 150 children as part of the Dutch Resistance.  It is a powerful work with a grand, triumphant conclusion.

    Two multi-movement works are provided as a mid-point and conclusion to the album.  First is Szymon Laks’ Troi pieces de concert (1935) includes a modernist set of variations, a romance, and virtuosic moto perpetual motion finale.  Laks managed to survive Auschwitz though much of his earlier work was destroyed or lost.  This particular work existed only in a cello version but was reconstructed for violin in 2010.  Finally, the album concludes with Ben-Haim’s Three Songs Without Words (1945).  Here is a bit of a nutshell summary of the exploration of most of these composers in period modernism and somewhat expanded harmony and open intervals that grace music from this period.

    The notes accompanying this album help navigate these unfamiliar works well.  But it is the playing itself which will invite further listening.  This is a very well-chosen program of accessible (mostly) early 20th Century music that is filled with references to Hebraic melodies, but also plumbs the depths of the soul as one reflects upon the century.  Ashkenazi’s performances invite the listener into these works and captures the lyrical beauty of these pieces.  He allows the instrument to sing with moments that can sense the deep sadness and those which lift the spirits and move from melancholy to hope and triumph.  The program itself helps the listener move through these emotions as well as we can both enjoy what each piece has done, followed often by a more reflective musical work that offers us to consider what was lost.  He is served very well by his accompanist Matthew Graybil who provides excellent support to these interpretations.  Albany’s sound, captured in the wonderful Great Hall at California State University, Northridge, also is an asset with excellent sound imaging.

    Violins of Hope is an important release for those exploring both the repertoire explored here as well as being introduced to a great, thoughtful performer with an instrument that will not be silenced.  Highly recommended!