A Crop of Recordings XIX: Dvořák, Strauss, Brahms, Holst, Schmidt and Elgar

Here is really lovely Dvořák: fresh and natural, gorgeously recorded—and with something new to say. That’s rare for the symphony, which has been captured for presumed immortality by every orchestra on earth—and dutifully miked from nearly every row in every concert house. There’s a New World for every taste in approach and sonic perspective.

This is a gleaming, sleek, satiny reading of the symphony, sensitive and appealingly refined, set midway back with none of the “E-Minor rasp” that can make brass chords overbearing and the music blatty. It also features light-as-a-feather winds and some of the most breath-stopping quiet string playing you will ever encounter. Krzysztof Urbański achieves a haunting effect at the end of the slow movement, where the music barely breathes. He has the strings move away from each other as they play, until they are at opposite ends of the stage, evanescing into the distance along with the notes they play.

David Finckel and Wu Han. Photo 2013 Lisa Mazzucco.

An Interview with Wu Han and David Finckel: Life after the Emerson Quartet and an Upcoming Concert at South Mountain Concerts

Along with the retirement of the Tokyo String Quartet, the departure of David Finckel from the Emerson Quartet has been one of the most discussed events in the world of chamber music over the past eighteen months or so. As people who have heard their concerts know, both David Finckel and the Emerson Quartet, now with the British cellist, Paul Watkins, in place, are as rich as ever in their contributions to our well-being as humans. Wu Han and David Finckel spoke with me just today about their new post-Emerson life, which allows David to travel and play more regularly with Wu Han as a duo and as a trio with Emerson violinist Philip Setzer, who will join them at the venerable South Mountain Concerts on Sunday, September 29, 2013. They will play Beethoven Op. 1, No. 2, Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67, and Dvořák’s Trio in E Minor, Op. 90, the “Dumky.”

I hope you enjoy our conversation about their past, present, and future as much as I did.

Daniil Trifonov

The Amazing Daniil Trifonov with The Russian National Orchestra

One of the joys with a visiting orchestra is to experience new sonorities—to be swept richly downward, perhaps, to unanticipated string depths—to hear brass playing grainier or more golden than you thought possible in the hall—or wind passages lighter and more personal than you might have dreamed. More importantly, you come to sense the ensemble’s psychology, as individual in its way as the conductor’s. Listen to an orchestra like the Mariinsky, and you experience shivers of delight. How Russian it seems!

Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts. Photo from sydneysymphony.com.

Dvořák and Shostakovich with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony, Jian Wang, Cello, Plus Some Extra Cellomania

Is Dvořak, to paraphrase Dr. Leonard McCoy, really that beautiful? Really so much more beautiful than other music you’ve heard? Or is it just that it acts beautiful? If it comes down to the performance to go more than skin deep, the musicians must play very convincingly indeed. Beauty in music has proven to be diverse. For a sound to be music rather than mere sounds, however pleasing, the it needs the broadest possible aesthetic idea of beauty. An ugly sound, it has been pointed out, can be “beautiful” if used so fittingly by a composer that nothing but that sound could be desired at that point in the music. For human beings, this has included the rasping shawms and the regals, and the augmented fourth of the middle ages and renaissance, the harsh use of the usual orchestral brass by Mahler, and all the freely used ugly sounds and outbursts in 20th century music and its terrible dissonances. I would draw the line at physically painful sounds, either through loudness or shrillness or both, as ugly in a destructive way, and so incapable of beauty, even betraying the faith of the listener who trustingly opens their ears to the music, though some do seem to find pleasure in the ginormous 19th century organs played at full volume with all the stops out. Free expression in a musician or a composer can be beautiful in itself, of course, though when that expression becomes gratuitous or self-indulgent, or sentimental (which can betray a certain narrow emotional rigidity) or arbitrary (which can betray a self-imposed or self-persuaded intellectual rigidity) it can become ugly. Music in a straight jacket can be ugly too. A masterful fugue in transcending any thought of a dichotomy between these two extremes can be most beautiful of all.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

An Orchestra for All Seasons: Dvorak’s Faith, Schuller’s Dream, Prokofiev’s Shakespeare

It takes some imagination to knit together the diverse strands of a program in which four conductors lead four works that have no obvious connections to each other. The obvious point is to show the playing abilities of extraordinary young musicians who have had only a few weeks to form themselves into an orchestra. The programmers apparently selected pieces that would challenge even the most seasoned group. It is no surprise, then, that the character of the playing altered radically from one work and conductor to the next.

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. Photo Chris Lee.

The New York Philharmonic; Alan Gilbert, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano; at Davies Hall, San Francisco, play Dvořák, Lindberg, and Tchaikovsky

I caught recently one of the concerts given in Davies Hall by the New York Philharmonic, my old hometown band, as part of our 100th Anniversary Season. It was enough to set me thinking again about the role a good hall plays in shaping the fame of an ensemble.

Fifty years of struggle with the Lincoln Center acoustic has clearly left its mark on the New York orchestra’s reputation — though I must say not on the quality of its playing — which remains stunningly world class. But one is surprised to find in the sonority a burnished warmth and tonal delicacy similar to that of the Cleveland Orchestra. Understated tonal virtues have seldom been possible at Broadway and 65th Street. At least in the way we think of the orchestra. But they were notable here and speak well of Alan Gilbert’s Music Directorship.

Tonu Kalam

Two Orchestral Concerts at Chapel Hill: Tonu Kalam conducts the UNC Symphony Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the European Union Youth Orchestra

Tonu Kalam supervises an orchestra which has the advantage of being immense, but whose refinements over the many years invariably disappear with the awarding of a diploma. At least 65 of its members are not even music majors. And yet the quality of execution is astonishingly high. (Indeed, there were moments during his concert when one might have been forgiven for thinking oneself in the presence of Ashkenazy’s fully professional-sounding European Union Youth Orchestra.) Indeed, several members of Kalam’s orchestra were invited to play sitting in with the EUYO for its concert.

Mark Wigglesworth, Stephen Hough and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play Lutosławski, Mozart and Dvořák, and a Note on the Separateness of Math and Music

Witold Lutosławski when he conducted himself preferred programs consisting solely of his own music to avoid entrapping the audience members who just wanted to hear again a classic (invariably put at the very end) and to encourage listeners who wanted to hear his music. However cynical you want to be about making the audience sit through avant-garde music to get to the ultra-popular Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, this was actually an adventurous program in being such a mixture. Risking the melomanic equivalent of the bends, somehow just avoided by virtue of the performance, specifically the Sydney Symphony’s style and close cooperation with visiting Britons Mark Wigglesworth and the very intelligent and feeling pianist Stephen Hough, the musicians made it all seem to hang together naturally, if loosely.

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