Volume 1 is a complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas, which do not traverse the same range of styles or psychological landscapes as the piano sonatas, string quartets, or symphonies. Still, Ibragimova and Tiberghien create their own universe here, such is their joint command of technique, insight and the sheer stylish charm of their playing. They deliver so many felicitous moments it’s hard to know where to start. I could begin with the wonderful way they capture the contrast in the third variation of the central movement of the Op 12. The first two variations are very much in Mozartian vein but suddenly, there is an abrupt, minor key departure, foreshadowing, even at the outset of his career, Beethoven’s capacity to shock. Similarly, in the adagio of the Op 30, No 2, Tiberghien interrupts the ecstatic musing with sudden, vehement flourishes and does it to perfection. I love the entire ambience of the Op 30, No 3, arguably the most captivating of the lot and its rag-tag allegro vivace finale (which, for unaccountable reasons always reminds me of Aaron Copland’s Hoe down). I’ll be surprised if I’m as taken with any other performances for a long time.
But its influences are wider than that, often bridging the areas between folk song and the more classical and romantic lied with which most are us are familiar. The composers on this recording are unlikely to be known to many music lovers. The earliest songs are by Johann Nauwach (1595-1630) and Heinrich Albert (1604-1651). Adam Krieger (1634-1666) is represented by four songs, one of which is Der Rheinsche Wein. It is a jolly affair, complete with chorus and very like a tavern song of the period. In contrast, De Liebe Macht herrscht Tag und Nacht (Love’s Might Reigns Day and Night) is sweetly sad. Another significant contributor to this selection is Johann Philipp Krieger. He was an opera composer, and arias from three of his operas are here. From the elegantly lovely An die Einsamkeit, (Procris) to the pleading Schmilz, hartes Herz (Melt, You Stony, Hard Heart) from Cecrops. Harpsichordist, Markus Märkel, makes a significant contribution and the instrumental accompaniment is as impeccable as Scholl’s elegant singing. A superb CD of delightful music that is refreshing to the ear.
The opening movement is an assault on the senses, especially at its climax, and makes me wonder whether it’s almost impossible to “interpret” it in the normal sense of the word. That said, Ashkenazy and his forces handle the climaxes and double fugue of the first section with a judicious blend of heaven storming, rhetorical grandeur and clarity of orchestral and choral textures (no mean feat!). Music of this heft really needs majestic phrasing and it certainly receives it here. The quiet, almost sinister, opening to the second part (Mahler’s rather, for once, understated depiction of Hell) is well paced and phrased, and the music achieves a transcendental ecstatic quality, reminiscent of the incandescence of the final act of Wagner’s Parsifal; it’s also beautifully played, as is the entire work, by the Sydney forces. The massed choirs and soloists are all fine, especially Marina Shaguch in her stratospheric tessitura as Gretchen the Penitent at the end. My favourite readings of the Eighth are by the late and genuinely lamented Klaus Tennstedt (EMI) and the equally lamented Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), but this is a fine effort.
They continue to make excellent audio equipment, but for many years they have also made outstanding classical CDs. This release is another, and what a beauty! Handel’s Opus 6 set of concerti grossi is a textbook of string writing, which students have been studying for centuries. They also contain some of Handel’s most engaging music in the genre: elegant, witty, ever-so-stylish exercises for a small string ensemble. We must remember that at the beginning of the 18th century, London was bursting with musical enterprise, and Handel was very much at the centre of it. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to think of Handel as the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day. His genius was almost as evident in promotion and what we would now call marketing as it was in his music itself. The great Italian Corelli was well known in cosmopolitan London, and Handel may well have modeled his Opus 6 set of concertos on his work. Handel also composed them in a feverish burst of creativity (in two months of 1739), much as he did with Messiah. This recording by the Avison Ensemble is very sympathetic, with gorgeous sound and very stylish playing. Highly recommended.
On top of that, he was an exceptional pianist. Otto Klemperer wrote of Bartók’s tone that it was “almost painfully beautiful”, often forgotten when pianists launch into Bartók’s triple fortes with a sledge- hammer. The first two concertos seem to invite a harsh response from performers. No 1 (1926) is full of sharp edges. The Second, from 1930, is equally vivid and exciting, making greater use of folk music in its rhythmic and thematic turns of phrase. The Third (1945) is quite another creature: written for the composer’s wife to play when he was ailing (in fact, he did not live to complete the orchestration of the final movement) – it is comparatively mellow and lyrical. The tender chorale of the slow movement is one of Bartók’s most intimate and personal statements. Any recording that fails to stress the contrasts between these pieces is missing something. I’m afraid that is the case here, even though Bavouzet’s playing is powerful and expressive; he can certainly take every technical challenge in his stride. Revered as a Debussy pianist, it may be that he is overcompensating in this starker repertoire. The recording is to blame too: piano and orchestra are closely miked within…
If ever you needed a musical snapshot of Vienna between the wars, this is it. (Even though the Third Quartet was composed after WWII). The benign shadow of the elderly Brahms occasionally hovers; likewise, the less benign shade of Schoenberg but – don’t worry, the music occasionally strains at tonality but never becomes atonal; and, most of all, there’s the hallmark warm, luscious, late Romantic lyricism of Korngold, Mahler’s true heir. The way he creates a sudden dissonance, a chromatic shadow and ensuing chill is very Viennese, as if reminding us not to just admire the flowers but to remember the dark sinister roots beneath. It’s the equivalent of the moment in Korngold’s film scores when Bette Davis accidentally discovers the love letters in a secret drawer – a sort of musical Freudian slip. The First Quartet is the most complex, yet beguiling, and the lyrical second subjects and main ideas radiate an almost operatic sensuality and at other times a hymn-like beauty. The Doric Quartet dispatch with insouciance what must be nightmarishly difficult filigree work in the perky intermezzo, while the finale uses Korngold’s musical motto Motiv des fröhlichen Herzens (Motif of the cheerful heart) which he liked…
Pianist Mitsuko Uchida and violinist Mark Steinberg have been playing these sonatas together for 12 years now. Their playing is as natural as breathing. Choosing just four must have been a difficult task. The result is remarkable, giving us a sweeping portrayal of the depths Mozart was able to find within this most honed-back of all chamber ensembles. The first two (K377 and K303) are relatively optimistic and playful pieces, although even these give glimpses of the depths Beethoven would later plumb in this genre. But Mozart finds his own emotional depths in the work in E Minor, K304, written just after his mother died. This is a surprisingly bleak and sorrowful composition, devoid of the sunlight which flows abundantly from most of his work. The final quartet, in A major K526, was written much later and is a far more complex work showing the composer’s full artistic maturity. It is as important a work as anything he composed, intense and dramatic, though with abundant joy and light. Our two performers grace these compositions with lucid, intelligent playing; and the warm, intimate recording serves them with distinction.