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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Beethoven, Schubert, Mussorgsky and Frank Martin

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews Joshua Bell's début as ASMF Director with Beethoven, an exciting "Pictures" and lyrical Schubert from Alice Sara Ott and the first recording of a 1940s masterpiece.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, op. 60; Symphony No. 7 in A, op. 92. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields with Joshua Bell, conductor and concertmaster. Sony Classical 88725 49176 2.

These almost — in places — verge on being “polite” performances of the type which have become de rigeur these days; miraculously, and thanks to more than a slight measure of musical intelligence,  they are not.  There are some places in the opening adagio of No. 4 where string vibrato, in keeping with the current vogue, is used sparingly; the Allegro vivace which follows is as virile as anyone can get.  Bell, who acts as concertmaster in both symphonies, pays scrupulous attention to dynamics and accents and plays up the gradual crescendo over a long timpani roll toward the end for all it is worth.  He also wrote the liner notes, in which he pays homage to John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norrington—the latter probably (at least for this reviewer’s tastes) goes too far in eschewing vibrato.  The smartly-articulated (and rhythmically difficult) second movement very nearly gets into the senza vibrato mode early on (at least as far as the first and second violins are concerned), but Bell deftly escapes assimilation into the ranks of those whom his predecessor, Sir Neville Marriner, dubbed “the brown bread and open sandals set”.  In the secondary theme (clarinets against plucked strings), there is real lyrical voluptuousness.  The scherzo is pure joy and an interpretation of which a modern old-school Kapellmeister like George Szell or Kurt Masur would heartily approve.  Nothing is left to chance and everything seems to have been carefully thought out, and the exquisite blending of horns and winds in the trio is an example of at least one of the things that really fine conducting is all about.  The finale is taken at a brisk clip, but probably not as fast as Beethoven’s metronome mark—despite the indication Allegro ma non troppo.  Kudos to principal bassoonist Gavin McNaughton for his cleanly articulated, lucid rendition of the theme when it comes around to him. 

The seventh boasts similar virtues of rhythmic solidity, the best in ensemble playing and a vivid realization of Beethoven’s meticulously noted dynamics.  Bell and the Academy give a stellar account of keeping the 6/8 Vivace of the first movement rock-steady (not an easy thing to do).  The Allegretto seems to suffer just a little, at the start, from an attack of the senza vibrato syndrome—which quickly abates.  One misses the comparatively big-orchestra sound of, say, Toscanini (his benchmark 1936 recording with the New York Philharmonic), Furtwängler, Jochum, Szell (who takes the Allegretto exactly as that, perhaps more so than anyone else), Walter, Bernstein, Masur—just to name a few; but Bell’s superb sense of dynamics and the justly-renowned playing of this big-sounding chamber orchestra more than make up for any longing for a sense of the epic.  It is a very good performance that gets better as it moves along.  The Scherzo is totally in the realm of absolute Beethoven; the string playing is rich and warm, even in the most furious tuttis.  However, in the transition from the Trio to the return of the Scherzo, a little more vibrato might have been advisable.  The Finale (Allegro con brio) is given everything it needs: like the first movement, slowing down or pushing the tempo is an easier trap into which to fall than is generally realized.

The Academy in this recording uses strings in 6-6-4-4-2 proportions and winds, horns and trumpets in pairs plus a pair of timpani with one player as prescribed by the composer.  The performances are more than satisfactory and very well recorded.  Everything is always in clear focus, regardless of texture or level of dynamics.


MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition. SCHUBERT: Sonata in D, op.53 (D. 850). Alice Sara Ott, piano (recorded in concert at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, July 2012).  Deutsche Grammophon 479 0088.

Pictures, featuring Alice Sara OttThe force, versatility and range of Alice Sara Ott’s superb realization of Mussorgsky’s engaging “primitivism” are clearly apparent as soon as she begins Gnomus, and her exquisite attention to details of shading (whether by means of judicious application of the pedal, touch or a combination of both and a marvelous sense of voicing).  The author of the liner notes says that “Mussorgsky uses harmonies which didn’t exist at the time”—they existed; they always had existed: Mussorgsky was just one of a number of creative musicians who brought them out and showed that the impermissible could be permissible.  Like Debussy, he judged his own work not by some “objective” theoretical yardstick but by what sounded best to him.  Ott’s handling of The Old Castle, the hypnotic ostinato from which it grows and to which it returns, with a more than assured negotiation of dynamics and textures, shows that Pictures is just as much “pianistic” as it is “orchestral”.  Bydlo (Oxcart) is appropriately inelegant.  Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, a really original tour de force of piano writing, is marvelously realized by Ott, as is the austerity of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle with its evocation of primitive chanting and the abrupt transition to a higher register  and repeated note figurations.  The coming together of both of these ideas is supercharged.  The transition from a rather dark-hued version of the Promenade to Limoges is a masterstroke, as is the very different break from Limoges to Catacombs.  Ott really understands Mussorgsky’s willingness, even eagerness, to delve into the realm of the grotesque in Cum mortis in lingua mortua and the penultimate Hut on Fowl’s Legs.  She almost makes it sound like an improvisation.  Her octave passages that usher in The Great Gate at Kiev are electrifying, and in the Kiev piece there is never gratuitous thunder or bombast but solidity. Solidity — and a fine sense of proportion, and a sure sense of how to make things “sound”.  There are more octaves, and octaves aplenty; and she knows how to apply the pedal judiciously and let the fingers handle the greater burden of the task, as does any good pianist.  This is vivid, colorful playing.

The big Schubert D major Sonata is about as unrelated to the Mussorgsky as anyone can imagine.  Alice Sara Ott may be an attractive young woman, but at the piano her style of playing is totally masculine.  Her capacity for great delicacy of touch and variety of tone even within p-pp is nothing short of miraculous. The Sonata is in many ways symphonically conceived.  It is not a virtuoso piece but it is no simple task for the player and requires good playing and, more than that, expressive playing.  It is a work built on a large scale, even though its appeal is essentially lyrical.  Ott delivers on all counts and makes it an experience.  What is remarkable about this disc—the Mussorgsky and the Shubert together—was that these two large works comprised an entire evening’s recital, and it was recorded last year at the Mariinsky Theatre at St. Petersburg, Russia.  It doesn’t sound like a live recording until the very end of each work, when the audience thunders its approval.  And thunder it should, for this is a major artist.


FRANK MARTIN: Das Märchen vom Aschenbrödel (The Tale of Cinderella): ballet with solo voices (1941; first performance, March 1942).  Clémence Tilquin, soprano (Cinderella); David Hernandez Anfruns, tenor (both the Prince and the Herald); Varduhi Khachatryan, contralto (both the Stephmother and the Fairy) and Alexandra Hewson, soprano (The younger sister); with l’Orchestre de la Haute école de musique de Genève conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy. Claves 50-1202.

Frank Martin, Le conte de CendrillonOne wonders why this gem of a theater piece was left dormant for a little over seventy years.  The Swiss composer Frank Martin, who died in 1974 in his early eighties, always had a sure and tasteful hand with any kind of music in any medium, writing both atonal (his Passacaille for organ, a semi-12-toner, written about the same time as this opera-ballet) and tonal music (of which CendrillonAschenbrödel—call it what you will—is an excellent example).  It was written at the request of Paul Sacher, who with his Basel Chamber Orchestra played midwife to a good many important compositions in the first half of the last century.  Claves’ attractive gatefold package offers at least two photos of the March 1942 première. 

Martin, who based his scenario on the Grimm brothers’ Aschenputtel, similar to a large extent to Charles Perrault’s earlier version of the Cinderella story, uses a  small orchestra which can make a big sound when called on to do so.  (The instrumentation: an oboe, a trumpet, a trombone, two saxophones, piano, percussion and strings.  Martin’s use of the saxophones is among the most effective of any composer, and the piano is used to provided textural “heft” and plays something of a pivotal role.) Like Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet symphony, it relies on instruments more  than voices to set forth the story—particularly in the second act.  The sung text is in German, despite the heralding of the work on the album cover as Le conte de Cendrillon.  The sung music that sets up the story, in the first act, is essentially “classical” in nature but not in any way similar to, or related to, the secco recitatives heard, for instance, in the operas of Mozart or the early operas of Rossini.  Martin writes expressively for the oboe and for solo stringed instruments within the section. 

The third and final act is a sort of return to the ideas of the first.  Ensemble singing (really, the four soloists doing double duty as a chorus) makes its first appearance here, ending with an apotheosis to rechte Freude (true joy).

The soloists are all first-rate, and the orchestra—that of the Geneva University of Music (Haute École de Musique)—is consummately professional, complemented by the excellent musical leadership of Budapest-born Gábor Takács-Nagy, a violinist who studied with Nathan Milstein and numbered among his chamber music mentors Ferenc Rados, who was also an important influence on the musical life of pianist Andras Schiff.  This is the very first recording of this work.