piano

  • Exploring Rare Double Concertos and the Teenage Mendelssohn

     Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in d; Concerto for Violin and Piano
    Solomiya Ivakhiv, violin.  Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano.
    Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
    Brilliant Classics 95733
    Total Time:  66:13
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Haydn: Concerto for Violin and Piano in F, Hob. XVIII: 6;
    Hummel: Concerto for Violin and Piano in G Op. 17
    Solomiya Ivakhiv, violin.  Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano.
    Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
    Centaur 3742
    Total Time:  56:22
    Recording:   (*)***/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Over the course of four days in November, 2017, violinist Solomiya Ivakhiv recorded four rarer concerti with Theodore Kuchar and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra.  The results have turned up on two different labels with the Mendelssohn having been released in 2019 and the other more recently.  Ivakhiv teaches at the University of Connecticut and Longy School of Music at Bard College.  In her own personal studies she worked with Joseph Silverstein among others.  She has traveled widely as a soloist and chamber musician.  Over the past decade she has also served as the Artistic Director of the “Music at the Institute” at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City.

    Felix Mendelssohn’s work is featured on the 2019 release.  Here, Ivakhiv has chosen not the overly familiar last concerto (which has more than 200 current versions to choose from in the catalogue), but two early works composed by the 13-year-old composer—the period of the more familiar string symphonies.  First discovered and performed by Yehudi Menuhin in the 1950s, the work has not really gained a foothold in the repertory.  At best it becomes a work that reveals the amazing precociousness of the composer, something not really in doubt.  The 1822 concerto is cast in the traditional three movements with a written out cadenza in the last two movements.  It certainly helps see the way the Mozartean influences now filtered through a budding romantic sensibility.  Mendelssohn melds some of the new French performance techniques of his own teacher, Eduard Reitz, into the solo part.  And so, it is an interesting musicological curiosity.  Ivakhiv’s approach helps highlight the emotional lyricism of the work played with the sort of commitment that is often absent from other readings.  There is also some fine cello writing that adds some emotional breadth in the slow movement.  The same might also be said for the other work on the album, the Concerto for Violin and Piano in d (1823).   Here we see further development of Mendelssohn’s compositional skills even within the six months that separated the works here.  On another level, it is also another run of exploring the same key center.  The opening is a bit more tumultuous and quiet lengthy (running almost 20 minutes on its own).  A bit more Beethoven casts its shadow here coupled with Mozart, and even perhaps a nod to Bach.  It is certainly striking to hear the intriguing modulations and harmonic writing coupled with a growing command and understanding of orchestral writing.  This will certainly make the music intriguing to fans of early Romanticism and the opening solo passages are certainly more impassioned.  It certainly was an ambitious work for the young Mendelssohn and may very well be one of his longer large-scale orchestral works running to 40 minutes—a bit overlong in the long run.  There are also some moments where the orchestra seems to push the tempo and are pulled back slightly.

    The second release here on the Centaur label explores two works of Classical Era composers, though both are somewhat at the cusp of musical shifts.  First is a double concerto by Haydn.  Composed in 1766, the center of the composer’s Sturm and Drang period (though leaning toward a more Rococo sensibility), the work is likely for either harpsichord or organ as its keyboard source, though here a piano is chosen.  Certainly it allows for the two to balance well in the texture.  The work is cast in the traditional three-movement form.  The keyboard still has an almost continuo-like quality at times, integrated into the string texture before it surfaces as the solo instrument.  The central “Largo” is a rather serene moment of beauty which is then capped off by a thrilling “Presto” with a certain modicum of wit.  Echoes of the Baroque still abound in the work with sequences and immediate imitation between the soloists as well as between soloist and orchestra helping to move the music smoothly along.  The feel of the work is more like a church sonata/concerto hybrid.  Pompa-Baldi provides sublime, Mozartean qualities to his performance and certainly bodes well for him as a Mozartean.  Ivakhiv provides a committed performance here as well with some gorgeous playing in the slow movement.  It is here as well where articulation is so wonderfully matched between the soloists.

    Hummel’s double concerto was composed around 1805.  Its first movement features some intriguing dark harmonic shifts in the development section with some exciting cadenza moments.  The central movement is a set of theme and variations that are an excellent example of the composer’s orchestral style and features some wonderful touches throughout the movement.  The finale is a brilliant “Rondo” filled with storms and excitement.  Hummel’s work builds more on Mozart here though the wind writing is a bit more interesting with nice colorful thematic statements.  The solo theme is a lyrical idea that is quite beautiful on violin.  It is also interesting to hear some additional wind work under some of these moments with strings also working to help add a harmonic undercurrent.  This is where Beethoven’s approach is perhaps the louder echo, but it is also a real hallmark of the increased exploration of the orchestra which Hummel is equally adept at, even if the melodic ideas can seem less weighty at times.  Otherwise, there is more an air of Mozart in the elegant music that Hummel crafts here.

    The sound on the Brilliant Classics release is warm and inviting with well-imaged solo delineation.  The orchestra seems to respond a bit more to the Mendelssohn pieces, perhaps out of a sense of awe at the work of a teenager.  The performances are certainly fine enough and committed to presenting the music quite well.  The double concerto is interesting, but quite lengthy with material not quite sustaining itself through, this is offset by the brilliant solo writing though.  Both Ivakhiv and Pompa-Baldi find a great deal of joy to bring out, especially in the opening movement with its almost salon-like lightness.  But even here, it is hard to overcome all those sequences and repeated gestures that are peppered throughout the piece.  The Centaur recording is a tad dry (especially in the Haydn), though that tends to emphasize clarity.  The soloists are well-imaged in the sound picture though.  Rather oddly, there is no information about these pieces in the meager booklet insert which focuses on performer biographies.  The Haydn is a fine performance on modern instruments and will make a nice introduction to these pieces.  His concerti continue to be less prominent but are no less worthy of their time.  The Hummel is not anything that will stay in the ear long, but it is a well-crafted work of its time.

    For those looking for unique repertoire, these albums are certainly worth seeking out.  Both Ivakhiv and Pompa-Baldi provide committed performances throughout both releases.  It is more a matter of personal taste as to which one might prefer over the other in this overall rare traversal of less popular repertoire.

     

  • Nostalgic Brahms Inspirations

     

    Brahmsiana: Music by and Inspired By Brahms
    Steven Masi, piano
    Navona Records 6260
    Total Time:  78:26
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Steven Masi has toured extensively throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.  More recently he undertook a massive project of recording all of Beethoven’s sonatas which was well-received.  For this program, he has paired two modern works with their own roots connected to two of Brahms’ memorable piano collections (Op. 117, and 118).  The sense of looking back and reflecting on one’s place in history is something which thematically links all four works on this new release.

    Brahms’ Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 (1892) and the Six Klavierstucke, Op. 118 (1893) are among the composer’s more intimate pieces.  There is often a touch of sadness within their reflections.  In the case of the intermezzi, it feels more like a last love letter, and even resignation that his longtime love for Clara Schumann would not be reciprocated as he had hoped.  There is also a sense of Brahms beginning to consider that his rich harmonic language was beginning to evolve into something quite different in the new generation of composers.  In the intermezzi, the tone has a more tragic quality.  The Op. 118 pieces seem to have a more wistful quality that has some heartbreaking romanticism along the way.  The “Intermezzo in A” and final intermezzo are touchingly performed here.  The following “Ballade in g” has a somewhat careful approach as it moves through its moods.  That sense of longing can be heard in Masi’s intimate performance of the opening Intermezzo in Eb in a really beautiful performance that sets the tone for what is to come.

    Brahmsiana II takes the intermezzi as its inspirational departure point.  Robert Chumbley’s three movements might best be explained as new music that uses the compositional techniques of these pieces and then reinterprets them into more modern qualities.  His approach incorporates the stronger bass lines and larger harmonic structures as well as the multiple layers of voices that are hallmarks of the intermezzi.  The first intermezzo’s music opens with an extension of Brahms’ style and then begins to slowly morph into more modern qualities.  The central one becomes even more intricate as it moves to some more extended harmonic ideas and explores a wider piano range.  The final intermezzo takes the romantic gestures and adds a bit more dissonance but still manages to feel like a parallel thread to the works that inspired it.  Masi commissioned Echoes of Youth from composer Jonathan Cziner which concludes this album.  The four-movement work has a sense of nostalgic references with the Cziner wanting to find a way to merge some of the musical trends at the end of the 19th Century into his own style.  These are quite reflective in nature as a whole with a quality that parallels their musical inspirations.

    Masi’s performances equally focus on the reflective and nostalgic tone of many of these pieces in ways that help the listener begin to hear the connections between the modern retellings and reimagining of Brahms’ original works which are lovingly performed.