Too Much Tchaikovsky

Stay Warm

It’s cold, it’s gray, it’s wet. Time for comfort food: Dvořák and German lieder and tuneful chamber music. No atonal scratching and heaving for a while! No earnest searches after our deepest, darkest emotions. What we need—musically, mind you—is something akin to a Canadian sitcom. (Why not give Corner Gas a try?)

I’m determined to ring in 2019 with music that’s intimate and friendly. You’ll recognize some of the usual suspects but also a couple of new faces.

Antonín Dvořák: Piano Trios Nos. 3 & 4, “Dumky.” Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Tanja Tetzlaff, cello; Lars Vogt, piano (Ondine). Here we have a sister and brother who complete each other’s sentences as a matter of course. It helps that they’re also superb musicians, so when they toss phrases back and forth, the results seem utterly inspired. Small changes of tempo or dynamics inevitably produce just the right onward rush or tender aside. The equally sensitive Vogt might as well be their sibling, having collaborated with them on so many projects (try their Brahms album). Recording quality is excellent.

Repertoire-wise, these two trios are both engaging but quite unlike one another. No. 3 (F minor, op. 65) gives us Dvořák’s Brahmsian turn. The urgent, epic first movement builds dramatically from its opening motives to create a sense of large-scale drama, possibly connected to events in the composer’s life.

 

The “Dumky” Trio (E minor, op. 90) began as “something small, indeed very small . . . little pieces [that] will be both happy and sad!” as Dvořák told his publisher. A dumka (pl. dumky) was a Slavic ballad, usually melancholy or dreamy; when set by classical composers, balladic sections were offset by livelier music. We get six fairly short movements, all of which emphasize melody over “development.” Try a little of the evocative Andante – Vivace:

A couple of years ago I would have recommended the Busch Trio’s recording of these two works without hesitation; in fact I still think highly of it, along with their other Dvořák albums. If you’ve been collecting them, you may appreciate their sturdier, less “poetic” approach.

Hugo Wolf: Italienisches Liederbuch. Diana Damrau, soprano; Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano (Erato). Two of opera’s reigning superstars collaborated with an old art-song hand (one of Kaufmann’s teachers) to create this complete set from a uniquely gifted late-Romantic composer. Wolf (1860–1903) concentrated on song; his high literary standards helped him mold a series of lieder collections unmatched in their consistent quality. Although he was an ardent Wagnerite, Wolf never allowed his allegiances to dictate the style of his own music. Instead he became a sort of poet whisperer, intuiting the needs of each poem he encountered and responding appropriately.

In the Italienisches Liederbuch, that poet was Paul Heyse, who channeled anonymous love poems from Tuscany and Venice, usually single stanzas of six or eight lines. Their brevity encouraged Wolf toward simplicity and concentrated expression. Of course, he couldn’t help adding shades of meaning that go well beyond the verse; aficionados of this repertoire treasure those inflections. Here are two excerpts. First, Damrau offers “Auch kleine Dinge,” the words of which telegraph Wolf’s intentions for the whole cycle:

Even small things can delight us,
Even small things can be precious.
Consider how we love to adorn ourselves with pearls;
They fetch a high price, and are only small. . . .
Just think of the rose, how small it is,
Yet it smells so sweet, as you know.

And here is Kaufmann with “Wie viele Zeit vorlor’ ich”:

How much time I have lost in loving you!
If only I had loved God in all that time
I would be sure of a place in paradise,
With a saint sitting at my side. . . .
And because I have loved you, my lovely violet,
I shall never now enter paradise.

Embracing the Wind. Auréole: Laura Gilbert, flute; Mary Hamman, viola; Stacey Shames, harp. Music by Paul Ben-Haim, Robert Paterson, Lior Navok, and Ian Krouse (AMR). Looking at Paul’s playlist for Music Room One recently, I was struck by the preponderance of tracks featuring female voices, especially mezzos and altos, and relatively intimate, often acoustic accompaniments. Simple textures, complex timbres: a great formula for determining just how accurately—and how musically—your system reproduces sounds. That’s part of the appeal of Embracing the Wind, new from trio Auréole.

Blame Debussy! He wrote the urtext for all those flute-viola-harp works that have proliferated since his 1916 Sonate. And he was definitely onto something: a harp produces wide-ranging, pearly transients; a viola, deep midrange sounds; a flute, breathy bird-like phrases. All three instruments can generate intense activity or slower, more sustained melodies. Music on this album ranges from an exquisite late work by Israeli composer Ben-Haim to Thamar y Amnon, Krouse’s instrumental interpretation of Old Testament sexual violence and shame—via verses from Garcia Lorca. (Though not a word is sung, Krouse supplies Lorca’s complete text and translation plus a lengthy description of the “action” in his program note. Overkill, I think.) Here’s the Pastorale from Ben-Haim:

and a bit of the Krouse:

Alexander Kastalsky: Memory Eternal. Clarion Choir, Steven Fox dir. (Naxos). Simply gorgeous. Most of this album is taken up with Kastalsky’s 1917 Vechnaya Pamiat Geroyam (“Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes”), his a cappella reworking of a symphonic Requiem composed to honor the fallen of World War I. Using elements of Znamenny (ancient Slavic liturgical chant), choral folk song, and the music of his teachers and contemporaries (Tchaikovsky, Taneyev, Chesnokov, Grechaninov, Rachmaninov et al.), he helped create an instantly recognizable Russian choir style. In other words, this music will seem familiar to you even if you’ve never heard it. Fox and his choristers, including bass soloist and Protodeacon Leonid Roschko, do it full justice. Wonderfully ambient but not swampy acoustics courtesy of St. Jean Baptiste Church, NYC.

 

By the way, I haven’t forgotten about Berlioz, nor other less-peaceful sounds! Maybe next time—let’s get warmer first.