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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 20, No. 1


September 1, 2014

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Khachaturian: Violin Concerto*
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor Op. 108/String Quartet No. 8 in C minor Op. 110**
James Ehnes, violin*
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Mark Wigglesworth*
Ehnes Quartet**
Onyx ONYX 4121 (69:36)
***** (5/5)
This is a highly unusual CD coupling – a violin concerto and two string quartets. But the common factor is Canadian violinist James Ehnes, and that makes it all worthwhile and perfectly reasonable. This is glorious music making, and Ehnes is superb as both virtuoso soloist and quartet leader.
The Khachaturian concerto was written for David Oistrakh and had a period of popularity but is now rarely performed. Perhaps this new recording will bring it back to the repertoire. It is exciting, a real showpiece for the soloist and it has memorable folkloric melodies. Ehnes plays the long cadenza the composer wrote for the first movement instead of the shorter cadenza written by Oistrakh.
The Ehnes Quartet is not a permanent ensemble but it is excellent. The performances of the Shostakovich quartets show meticulous preparation and complete understanding of the music. The Eighth Quartet is Shostakovich’s masterpiece in this genre and the Ehnes Quartet gives it an outstanding performance. The shorter Seventh Quartet, written in memory of the composer’s wife, covers an enormous emotional range in its twelve minutes. There are other fine recordings of these quartets available but these new versions are among the best.
Paul E. Robinson

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23/GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16
Stewart Goodyear, piano
Czech National Symphony/Stanislav Bogunia
Steinway & Sons 30035 (62:04)
*** (3/5)
Stewart Goodyear burst on the Canadian music scene as a child prodigy. Clearly a gifted young musician, he impressed many music lovers with his slight stature and sunny virtuosity. Now he is 36 years old, and, like so many former prodigies, it has not been easy for him to make the leap to a major career. This new recording is a case in point.
Goodyear studied at Curtis and Juilliard, and more recently captured a lot of attention when he played all 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day. By all accounts he played well, but it appears to have been more of a stunt than a musical achievement. Goodyear has recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas for Marquis (MAR513).
On this CD of familiar concertos by Tchaikovsky and Grieg, Goodyear demonstrates remarkable technical dexterity but little insight. Like the Beethoven sonata stunt, this album seems designed to impress listeners with the sheer volume of notes played in the shortest possible time. Unfortunately, this goal has very little to do with musical artistry.
The CD is also disappointing for other reasons. The orchestra is mediocre at best and the recording quality is raw and constricted. And for an album issued on a label called “Steinway & Sons” the sound of the (Hamburg Steinway) piano is surprisingly thin and colourless.
Paul E. Robinson

Fibich: Symphonic Poems: Othello/Záboj, Slavoj and Ludĕk/Toman and the Wood Nymph/The Tempest/Spring
Czech National Symphony Orchestra/Marek Štilec
Naxos 8.573197 (72.27)
** (2/5)
For music lovers who can’t get enough of Dvořák, Zdenĕk Fibich (1850-1900) may be the answer to their prayers. Fibich was one of Dvořák’s most important Czech contemporaries and composed a substantial amount of music in much the same style. His śuvre includes three symphonies, seven operas and nearly 600 piano pieces. Unfortunately, much of it is tiresome and almost totally lacking in originality.
The present recording is based on the most authentic original sources available and the young Czech conductor Marek Štilec has made a special study of Fibich. For more on Fibich, visit www.fibich.cz.
Under Štilec the Czech National Symphony Orchestra plays with enthusiasm but the playing is mediocre in terms of tone quality and intonation. This is not a first-class orchestra and should not be confused with the distinguished Czech Philharmonic.
The tone poems assembled here strike me as formulaic mood pictures. This is background music that might work well as accompaniment for silent films. In that context it becomes a virtue to have uncomplicated structures, little counterpoint and no harmonic or melodic originality. But Naxos seems determined to give us masses of Fibich. This is their third Fibich release and there are probably more on the way.
Paul E. Robinson

Berlioz: Harold in Italy/Ręverie et Caprice/Roman Carnival Overture/Benvenuto Cellini Overture
Lise Berthaud, viola/Giovanni Radivo, violin
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
Naxos 8.573297 (70:31)
*** (3/5)
American conductor Leonard Slatkin celebrated his 70th birthday earlier this year, and in spite of major heart surgery a few years ago appears to be more active than ever. He is music director of both the Detroit Symphony and the Orchestre National de Lyon. With both orchestras he is recording prolifically for Naxos. Slatkin has put together some of the most interesting concert programs – especially in Detroit – to be found anywhere.
This is the second volume in what appears to be an ongoing Berlioz cycle. Berlioz’s Harold in Italy has always puzzled me; is it a concerto or a symphony? For a composer with such a gift for orchestration I can’t understand how he could have pitted a solo viola against a large orchestra, as the viola is an instrument with a dark middle-register sound and is all too easily overwhelmed by even a small ensemble. However, on a recording, there is no problem at all.
On the whole, the performances are good without being revelatory, as more gripping and characterful performances are found on recordings conducted by Munch or Colin Davis.
The Ręverie et Caprice is a very slight work in Berlioz’s output and the present performance is no more than pleasant. The two overtures are far better played on other recordings.
The two soloists are principals in the Orchestre National de Lyon and both are excellent.
Incidentally, Slatkin has his own blog (www.leonardslatkin.com) and he makes monthly contributions in the form of a diary of what he is up to. Slatkin writes well and offers a unique insight into the life of a major conductor.
Paul E. Robinson

Russian Songs
Yuri Gorodetski, tenor
Tatiana Loisha, piano
ATMA Classique ACD2 2690
**** (4/5)
I first heard Belarusian tenor Yuri Gorodetski at the Queen Elisabeth Competition (Belgium) in 2008, where he won Fifth Prize. He sang a most poetic ‘Kuda, kuda’ from Eugene Onegin. Four years later, he reprised this aria at Chant 2012. While he didn’t win the grand prize – Canadian baritone Philippe Sly did – Gorodetski received the ATMA Classique Prize. This disc, recorded in Salle Françoys-Bernier, Domaine Forget, in April 2013, is the result. The program of Russian songs by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov was a natural choice. These mostly familiar pieces are strong on melancholia – even the happy ones seem to be tinged with traces of sadness. Gorodetski, with his plaintive tone and well-developed mezza voce in the middle register, is an ideal exponent. However, a fly in the ointment is his tendency to sing the extreme top notes too “open,” as in the high B in the famous ‘Spring Waters’ by Rachmaninov (Track 12) leading to a certain strident quality. When he attacks a top note with too much force, as in the high C at the end of “Davni l’ moj drug” (Track 20), the line is distorted. These quibbles aside, there is much to enjoy on this debut album. The well-produced booklet has an essay by Irene Brisson on Russian songs, artist bios, and trilingual song texts, in Russian, French and English. The recorded sound is clean and warm. Special kudos to Belarusian pianist Tatiana Loisha, who is supportive of the singer and technically up to the demands of the bravura piano accompaniment, especially in the Rachmaninov.
Joseph So

(c) La Scena Musicale