Monday, August 18, 2014

Gilbert Kalish Performs Old Favorites

Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert
Gilbert Kalish, piano
Bridge Records

In this recording, Gilbert Kalish presents an appealing program of works he knows well. The opening and closing works are the final piano sonatas of their respective composers -- Haydn and Schubert, with a selection of short works by Beethoven in the middle.

Haydn's Sonata No. 62 in E-flat (Hob.XVI:52)  was composed for a gifted performer, and is one of Haydn's more complex piano works. Nonetheless, Kalish keeps things light and elegant. His well-rounded phrasing and subtle emphasis captures Haydn's reserved elegance perfectly.

Kalish also plays Franz Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat, D. 960 in a slightly reserved fashion -- but it works. Rather than overwhelming the listener with emotion, Kalish's performance reveals the beautiful construction of the work. One hears the intricate patterns and lines of the sonata, rather than a furious rush of notes.

The Bagatelles, Op. 119 of Beethoven balance nicely with the two sonatas. These are short, relatively simple works (by Beethoven standards). Each bagatelle is lovingly performed by Kalish, turned into miniature gems by his musicianship.

Kalish plays with the fluid assurance that comes from a lifetime of music-making. He isn't trying to prove anything, or even assert his personality. He just plays, and it sounds like he's enjoying every moment. As did I.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Early Vaughan Williams Chamber Works

Vaughan Williams: Piano Quintet; Quintet in D major; Six Studies in English folk Song; Romance for Viola and Piano
London Soloists Ensemble
Naxos


Ralph Vaughan Williams withdrew many of the works he wrote before 1907. Based on this release, he was too modest. In this collection of early chamber music performed by the London Soloists Ensemble, one can tell RVW's compositional voice isn't fully formed, but there's a simple beauty in them, nevertheless.

The disc opens with the 1903 piano quintet in C minor. Although RVW would withdraw it a few years later, at the time he considered it one of his most important compositions.

There's a dramatic sweep and expansiveness that keeps things moving along. Sometimes it sounds as if Vaughan Williams is trying a little too hard to top Brahms (or perhaps Schubert -- the works shares the same instrumentation as the "Trout" quintet). On the whole, though, it's a solid work, looking forward to RVW's pre-war masterpieces.

The 1898 Quintet in D major for violin, cello clarinet, horn and piano is a thrilling, late romantic work. RVW employs a free-wheeling style, letting the evocative melodies unfold as they will. But while the work may follow Germanic romantic tradition, there's still a certain Englishness to the music. I heard it in the harmonic progressions that sometimes employ the false relationships of English renaissance music.

It was only after his death that RVW's "Romance for Viola and Piano was discovered. This short work features a sinuously weaving melody sounds like it could have been an early sketch for "The Lark Ascending" (although it wasn't). Violist Sarah-Jane Bradley gives an emotional reading to this welcome rediscovery.

"Six Studies in English Folk Song" (1926) has seen many incarnations. Originally written for cello and piano, Vaughan Williams arranged it for other instruments, including the clarinet version heard here. Anthony Pike players these small tunes in a quiet, straight-forward fashion in an utterly charming performance.

Of course this is a must-have for Vaughan Williams completists. But these (mostly) suppressed works are of sufficient quality that most anyone who enjoys chamber music would appreciate the music on this album.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Quiet contemplation on loss and war

Weinberg: Symphony No. 18; Trumpet Concerto
Andrew Balio, trumpet
St. Petersburg Chamber Choir
St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Lande, conductor
Naxos


Mieczyslaw Weinberg's 18th symphony is the final part of a symphonic trilogy, "On the Threshold of War." Symphony No. 18, subtitled "War -- there is no word more cruel" isn't so much an anti-war statement as it is an honest portrayal of the emotional depletion felt by the survivors of conflict -- even if their victors. Overall, the work is quiet, expressing deeply-felt sorrow and loss; elegiac rather than maudlin.

Mieczyslaw's symphony uses Russian poetry quite effectively. "He was buried in the Earth," the text of the third movement is set as a simple chorale, very Russian in character -- appropriate for this poem about the death of a common foot soldier. The third movement adapts a Russian folksong that carries an undertone of disquiet before splintering into  a kaleidoscopic fugue. In the final movement, the chorus sings the poem "War -- there is no word more cruel," and the work ends with not a bang, nor whimper, but rather a calm acceptance of war's cost.

The Trumpet Concerto provides welcome emotional balance to the album. To my ears, the work uses some of Prokofiev's "wrong-note" technique, with seemingly simple melodies and harmonies not going quite the direction one expects. Trumpet soloist Andrew Balio plays with clear, full sound. Attacks are consistently clean, and the phrasing smooth and expressive. This concerto imbues the trumpet with a little bit of attitude, and Balio delivers.