• 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!

  • Dancing With the Park Avenue Symphony


    Symphonic Dances: Copland, Ravel, Stravinsky
    Park Avenue Chamber Symphony/David Bernard
    Recursive Classics 2061415
    Total Time:  64:28
    Recording:   (*)**/****
    Performance: ****/****

    If you are in New York City and have had the opportunity to hear the Park Avenue Symphony, you already know that this particular release is going to be an exciting exploration of three very popular 20th-Century works.  Conductor David Bernard has received many accolades for his recordings with the ensemble willing to tackle mainstream repertoire that has been the recorded realm of far more well-known orchestras.  For this recording, the orchestra is using a newly-edited version of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919) that Bernard had a hand in editing.  The orchestra and label released an earlier album that had the extended Copland ballet and a different version of the Firebird Suite back in 2016.  Of course, audiophiles will have their favorite performances of all these pieces so this album becomes an important way more for the orchestra to have product for sale at their concerts, but it really also allows for a wider appreciation of their performances.  To that end, this recording will certainly be treasured by those who support the rise of such orchestras in America.

    Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite opens up the album.  Bernard’s performance manages to keep the music flowing well here.  The recording sometimes creates a more ambience than one might want though.  This works against some of the crystal clear delineations of Copland’s lines.  The orchestra though moves through this work with some excellent solo playing, especially in the winds and brass.  Strings cut through this texture warming it as needed in Copland’s orchestration though one wishes it was a bit larger.  That said, with just a few places where the attacks might be more precise, one gets a sense more of what a live performance might entail.  It may not be the “best” of the versions of this available, but it has a tremendous amount of joy and energy that captures the spirit of the work.

    The second suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe is among one of his more popular concert pieces.  One wants a bit more string sound in the opening “Lever du jour” to help create the sheen of sound here, but Bernard still manages to pull from the ensemble a sense of the blurred edges while primary thematic statements waft out of the texture.  All the beauty one comes to expect from the piece is certainly there.  The flute solos are certainly among the best captured for this work.  Perhaps on another level, we have here a closer sense of the chamber ballet orchestra that creates a different intimacy within Ravel’s textures that can get lost when it is performed as a big orchestral showpiece.  That makes this a more attractive performance which is capped by a thrilling “Danse generale”.

    Another attractive addition will be the new edition of the Firebird Suite (1919).  Here the delicate colors and rhythmic precision are equally important and handled well by the orchestra.  One wonders if the decision to record this was intended to improve upon their earlier exploration of the piece as well as wanting to explore the smaller details of the new edition.  Regardless, the ensemble seems to really own this work much more than the other two no doubt aided by Bernard’s quite intimate knowledge of the score.  This makes for a thrilling conclusion to this release.

    While one can find a few minor things along the way in the performances, the real issue for some will be the sound quality which can sometimes seem “thuddy” and other times has an odder balance that pops out.  The Stravinsky seems to be somewhat better served here sonically though sometimes the levels seem to fluctuate at times.  That said, it is perhaps closer to what one might experience in the concert hall and from a live performance.  Here, the Park Avenue Orchestra is on some of its finest ground yet and this release will likely be a treasure for its fans.