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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg, and Janacek

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new CDs from the Emerson String Quartet and the Glagolitic Mass by Janacek.


TCHAIKOVSKY: String Sextet in D, Souvenir de Florence, op. 70.  SCHOENBERG: Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), op. 4  (after the poem by Richard Dehmel; original version).  Emerson String Quartet; with Paul Neubauer, viola and Colin Carr, cello. Sony Classical 8725-47060-2.

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This is certainly as cleanly executed a Souvenir de Florence as anyone could want, with an emphasis on inner voices here and there.  One misses the passion of the Guarneri Quartet’s 1965 recording, with half of the old Budapest Quartet (‘cellist Mischa Schneider and violist Boris Kroyt) joining them—which was issued twice on LP, and has been reincarnated on compact disc to coincide with the Guarneri’s dissolution.  The Emerson’s take on Tchaikovsky’s late masterpiece—-arguably one of his finest works in any medium—-does not lack in emotional content.  The most telling moment of the performance, at least for this reviewer, is the Adagio cantabile, exquisitely sung and marvelously balanced.  This is chamber music at its very best, with any one member of the ensemble suddenly stepping out and taking a solo turn and then blending back into the whole.  The Emerson’s precision and dynamism are the wonders of today’s chamber music realm, and that goes as well for Messrs. Neubauer and Carr.   This is evident , too, in the middle section of the third movement (a kind of scherzo cum intermezzo that sounds more Slavonic than Italian)—-and, here, the ensemble’s keen collective ear for variety of tone and approaches to bowing is shown to great effect. 


Verklärte Nacht, from 1899 and (perhaps even more so than the Gargantuan-scale Gurrelieder) the defining work of Schoenberg’s pre-atonal phase of composition, is given a thrilling, almost “orchestral” treatment — full of sustained tension and subtlety of shading, maximum expressivity and a feeling that the music is being re-created.  All the qualities that make for really good chamber music are here in staggering abundance.  It is a listening experience to savor, and a fine achievement by all concerned.


JANACEK: Msa Glagolskaja (Glagolitic Mass; original version of 1926-1927). Aga Mikolaj, soprano; Iris Vermillion, contralto; Stuart Neill, tenor and Artujun Kotchinian, bass with Iveta Apkalna, organ; Berlin Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Janowski. Taras Bulba: Rhapsody for OrchestraJanowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony. PentaTone 5186388.

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Janowski keeps faith with Janacek and does not adopt the simplifications and excisions of his revisions to this score after its first performance.  He uses an edition, made by Paul Wingfield in 1994, which reconstructs the original version.  The organ solo in the Crucifixus of the Credo (Raspet) is interrupted by three pairs of timanpi; the Intrada at the beginning is repeated after the concluding organ solo.  This  solo, as presented here, follows Janacek’s manuscript — which differs slightly from the published version.  The offstage clarinets in Veruju (the Credo) are back, as are the complex rhythms of the Kyrie (Gospodi Pomiluj).  The Sanctus (Svet) had been shortened by Janacek as well.  All of these seem to be concessions to what was possible then, and further proof that — very often — a composer’s last thoughts on a piece are not his best. 


As one would expect from a conductor of Janowski’s proven reputation, the performance is always on a high and intensely dramatic level as befits the character of the music, but whatever organ is at hand in the Haus des Rundfunks in Berlin seems grievously inadequate for the strategic climaxes in the tuttis. (The organ, whatever it is, is adenoidal and ugly at the climaxes in Taras Bulba, particularly in the last section of that symphonic poem, about which more later; in The Death of Andrei, the first part of the three-movement orchestral piece, there is a marvelous, classically-voiced stopped flute sound which evokes tenderness—but, other than that, the Berlin Radio organ is an abysmal failure, marring an otherwise stellar performance.  It seems to go back to the days when Sir Georg Solti was apparently content to record Zarathustra with a very canned-sounding electronic instrument, which some years later was auctioned off at a price far in excess of its actual worth because of its connection with that particular session.) The organ solo at the end of the Mass was recorded at the Philharmonie.   The soloists are all first-rate; the American tenor Stuart Neill has a fine heldentenor quality about him. 


Taras Bulba,  a symphonic rhapsody based on Nikolai Gogol’s novel of the same name, was first heard at Brno in 1921, some three years after its completion. The story takes place in the early seventeenth century, during the conflict between the Poles and the Cossacks under Taras Bulba.  The first movement deals with Taras’ youngest son Andrei, who is in love with the daughter of a Polish general.  The girl persuades him to join the Polish army.  Andrei is captured and executed by his own father in the end.  Taras’ eldest son Ostap, the subject of the second movement, is captured by the Poles and taken to Warsaw to be tortured.  This is all too much for the father, who up to that time has been incognito.  In the moving and thrilling last movement, Taras Bulba is put to death by the Poles; before he is, however, he prophesies that one day the Russian people will have a ruler so powerful that the whole world will bow down to him.  This is Janacek’s cue to build a stupendous orchestral climax, which Janowski handles with knowing assurance.  One can possibly enjoy the music without knowing the story, but Taras grew out of Janacek’s affinity for the Russian people and culture and his acquired fluency in the Russian language.


Janowski deftly evokes the strikingly original musical language of Janacek, and the Berlin musicians respond in kind.  The performances are very well-recorded.  Especially in the case of the Mass, it is gratifying to hear the music as the composer conceived it in the first place.