American Chamber Music
Aaron Copland: Violin Sonata
Charles Ives: Largo
Leonard Bernstein: Piano Trio
Elliott Carter: Elegy
Samuel Barber: String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11
James Ehnes (violin), Orion Weiss (piano), Amy Schwartz Moretti (violin), Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Anna Polonsky (piano), Erin Keefe (violin), Amit Peled (cello), Adam Neiman (piano), Reichard O’Neill (viola), Anna Polonsky (piano), Ehnes Quartet
Recording: Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA (July 2013) – 61’53
Onyx 4129 – Booklet in English, German and French
Intimacy is not the first word that springs to mind when thinking of American music. The birthplace of jazz, homeland of rock and roll and voracious nation of candy-coated sugar pop, this country’s classical music also seems to be seduced by the theatrical and public. The composers on the present disc are no exception. Copland and Bernstein are widely acclaimed as top-notch ballet and musical theater composers, respectively, while Barber had unrequited ambitions to be America’s great opera composer. Ives, too, aimed for the universal, and while Carter produced a number of important chamber works, they largely consist of flamboyant exercises in virtuosity from the composer and performers. This album, then, is a secret garden of sorts. The Barber Quartet is the only true “repertoire” item, and it and the less familiar items receive passionate advocacy from all involved in this project making it a must-have compilation.
The Ives and Carter miniatures, neatly dividing up the more substantial works by Copland, Bernstein and Barber, are five-minute encapsulations of their composers’ rhetorics. The deceptively simple structure of the Ives has an imposing clarinet and piano duo at its heart, one that has the potential to become violent and flamboyant but never quite reaches that level. The Carter approaches the diverse instrumental characterization of this composer’s mature works, but never loses its grasp on the long, lyrical melody and has an enchantingly beautiful final minute. Both works are performed expertly.
Bernstein’s 1937 Piano Trio, at the center of the program, comes from the composer perhaps furthest outside his comfort zone. Indeed, the episodic piece works best when the composer allows theatrical gestures to poke through, such as the musical “winks” at the ends of each of the three movements. There is a rambling sense to the music, one that seems to be missing lyrics, choreography and a healthy dose of brass and percussion to keep us constantly engaged, despite the excellence of the performances.
Those who adore Copland’s “Americana” ballets will find much to love in his Violin Sonata, a work that begins with the type of tender, nostalgic passage that only this composer could pen and leaps through balletic passages without losing sight of structure or genre. Comparing the commanding inevitability of the Copland to the somewhat clumsy but always endearing structure of the Bernstein is particularly interesting.
Barber’s Quartet is a gruff, terse work. The raw four-part version of the famous Adagio for Strings is cast between the two unrelenting outer movements, and emerges even more searing and effective. Its sustained intensity is a simultaneous aftershock of and prelude to the surrounding arguments, which themselves are crafted from such economically restrained motivic material they feel consciously repressed. Perhaps this isn’t the happiest ending to the program, but it packs quite a memorable punch.
The fantastic Canadian violinist James Ehnes is the headliner here, and his playing in the Copland is magnificent. Beautiful tone, arching lines and nuanced vibrato are complemented by Orion Weiss’ pianism. Ehnes also leads the Barber, the performance of which is as strong as the many currently in the catalog. In the other works, members of the Seattle Chamber Music Society shine. Worth noting are the rich, mahogany tone of Ricardo Morales’ clarinet in the Ives and Richard O’Neill’s similarly gorgeous viola playing in the Carter. The performances throughout are excellent, and the close but flattering recorded sound allows us to hear every detail. The only letdown—and it is slight—is the antiseptic narrative of the program booklet, which doesn’t offer any true insight to the composers, music or performers. This disc will be on repeat in my player for a long while. Highly recommended!
Marcus Karl Maroney