Monday, 12 October 2015

CD Reviews - October 2015

Johannes Pramsohler and the Ensemble Diderot are back with a beautifully packaged disc of concertos by Antonio Maria Montanari (1676-1737).  Not heard of him?  Neither had I – perhaps because not much of his music has survived, and little was published in his lifetime. Yet as a successor in Rome to Corelli, he was a significant violinist composer, also giving lessons to Pisendel, the Dresden composer, who’s works Pramsohler has also been bringing to new audiences of late.  In fact, some of the concertos only exist in copies Pisendel had following his visit to Rome.  This disc brings us six of Montanari’s Violin Concertos, only one of which has ever been recorded previously.  The concertos are written in seven parts, for two solo violins and a solo cello, two further violin parts, a viola part and basso continuo. However, Montanari makes flexible use of these parts, not always simply contrasting the solo ‘concertino’ and the full ‘ripieno’ grouping, as in the classic concerto grosso, but sometimes mixing and matching and doubling parts.  The Ensemble Diderot also varies the basso continuo combining harpsichord (Philippe Grisvard) with violone (Youen Cadiou), theorbo or guitar (Jadran Duncumb).  Pramsohler takes the lead solo violin part and directs proceedings.  Concerto No. 6 has a wonderfully mysterious slow central movement, followed by a halting yet jauntily leisurely Allegro, the longest movement of any of the concerti. Concerto No. 5 opens with a bristling Allegro, with wonderful tit-for-tat solo violin and cello exchanges.  Concerto No. 7 has solo violin parts that sing, and the interchange between the two instruments is contrasted expertly with the full ensemble, and Concerto No. 8 has real fire in the virtuosic solo parts in its fast movements.  These concerti are real gems, and the performances here bristle with energy and spirit. The balance achieved between the solo and fuller passages is spot on – this is so clearly a small ensemble of dedicated musicians who are able to communicate their obvious enthusiasm for this wonderful music.  Another hit from Pramsohler and friends.

Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was a Viennese composer, who, like his friend and one-time pupil, Arnold Schoenberg, emigrated to the US in later life.  However, unlike Schoenberg, he was largely neglected in the US, and his music has never taken a foothold in the repertoire.  Supported by Brahms, he developed an individual voice perhaps more influenced by Wagner and Mahler – he never went down the atonal route that Schoenberg followed. Zemlinsky fell in love with Alma Schindler, who initially reciprocated his feelings, but dumped him for Mahler. In the intense and somewhat incestuous environment of turn of the century Vienna, Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde, who then had an affair with the artist Richard Gerstl. She returned to Schoenberg, and Gerstl subsequently committed suicide. The affair had a deep impact on Schoenberg and Zemlinsky’s friendship, with Schoenberg also contemplating suicide. So to the music – the Brodsky Quartet have recorded his four numbered String Quartets, as well as a premiere recording of an early String Quartet in E minor, which failed to pass muster with the all-powerful Tonkünstlerverein in Vienna, and was thus abandoned by the composer. Whilst he clearly hadn’t mastered writing for the string quartet here, and the influences of Brahms and also Dvorak are most evident, this is nevertheless a work that didn’t deserve such out and out rejection. The String Quartet No. 1 is in a happy A major, and is perhaps the least troubled of the four mature works. The slow movement begins in a rather stately fashion, but relaxes into a more lyrical mood, and the finale is uncomplicatedly positive. The String Quartet No. 2 is a long, single movement work, and the Brodsky Quartet take some of the tempi quite slow here, the whole quartet coming in at over 43 minutes. In contrast to the first quartet, this is a turbulent, almost tormented piece – hardly surprising given that it expressed the traumatic personal period of his life described above. There are lots of symbols here the ‘cross’ of the F sharp minor key signature, associated with pain, grief and guilt, and coded references to himself, Mathilde and Schoenberg. It is a complex piece, with real virtuosic writing, and the Brodskys maintain the intensity and coherence despite not rushing things.  The tormented yet Romantic language is somewhat reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Verklärte NachtString Quartet No. 3 moves into harsher, more neo-classical territory, and is perhaps initially the least accessible. Yet it rewards patient listening, and it actually contains surprisingly melodic writing, particularly for viola and cello, within its modernist construction. He opens String Quartet No. 4 with a Präludium that contains motifs from the second and third quartets, and another reference to Mathilde, creating a sense of mournful nostalgia perhaps. Zemlinsky combines the urgency and passion of the second quartet’s late Romanticism with the brittle virtuosity of the third quartet, and this is surely a masterpiece of string quartet writing. The Brodskys seem to shift across the varied styles of all of these quartets with ease, and make one wonder why these quartets are so seldom performed.  A great collection, well worth exploration.

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