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Chamber Music, Music Media Review Print

Two New Noteworthy CDs by All-Female Ensembles

April 6, 2022 - Easthampton, MA:

Queen of Hearts: Kati Agócs, Queen of Hearts; Gabriela Lena Frank, Four Folk Songs; Judd Greenstein, A Serious Man; Helen Grime, Three Whistler Miniatures; Nico Muhly, Common Ground; Sean Shepherd, Trio; Claremont Trio: Emily Bruskin, violin (Lupot, 1795), Julia Bruskin, 'cello (J.B. Vuillaume, 1849), Andrea Lam, piano (Steinway, ?); Tria Records 95269 13888, © 2021, TT 77:59 ; $13.98 from Amazon.

Chamber Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, EWK (1897-1957), Piano Quintet in E major, Op. 15 (1921), String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26 (1933), Viel Lärmen um Nichts (Much Ado About Nothing), Op. 11 (1918); Alasdair Beatson, piano (Menuhin Hall, Stoke d'Abernon, Surrey, UK, Steinway D, Hamburg, 2020, serial # 610 953), Eusebius Quartet: Beatrice Philips and Venetia Jollands, violins (Stradivari, c. 1722 and Francesco Gobetti, c. 1710, respectively), Hannah Shaw, viola (Stefan-Peter Greiner, 2005), Hannah Sloane, 'cello (Luigi Piattellini, c. 1780); Somm SOMMCD 0642, © 2021, TT 68:30, $13.25 via Presto.

Listings in alphabetical/bibliographical, not chronological or performance orders.

The Claremont, based in NYC, near Claremont Ave., is releasing this CD of six commissioned works, four via a five-member Commissioning Consortium and two by presenting organizations: the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, and Chamber Music Northwest. The CD commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Claremont's founding at Juilliard, when and where they were students, in 1999 – the pandemic interfered with the actual release and celebration. For those who don't know, the string players are twin sisters, but they all play as if they were blood-related, instinctively and intuitively connected; the twins grew up in Cambridge, MA; the pianist grew up in Sydney, Australia. The composers were all born within nine years from 1972 to 1981, with two in 1979 and 1981; it should be no surprise that they fit together/harmonize so well.

The works, three in the traditional three or four movements, three in single ones, are all melodic, modern, tonal, and varied amongst themselves, with none adhering to a preconceived format or style. They were composed between 2008 and 2017, with two in 2011. They also vary in the dominance and prominence of the instruments within themselves and amongst the works. The composers have varied backgrounds in ethnicity, nationality, and training, a traditionally American amalgam, and the musicians play the same way: standing out when appropriate without ever drowning out their colleagues, working on and off with one partner or another or with both, always blending.

The promotional sheet by Christina Jensen, of Jensen Artists, quotes Julia Bruskin: "For this album, we bring together works written for us since 2008 by composers of our generation [three of them female, three male]. It almost feels as if we've grown up with these incredible artists, musically speaking, over these nearly fifteen years. It's especially poignant to be able to share this music more widely through this recording, of work made by and with friends, during this time of ongoing uncertainty. We are hopeful that the spirit of collaboration and togetherness that made these works possible comes through to listeners." I can attest that it does!

The first on the program is Frank, whose music always incorporates melodies from her ancestral country and culture. It is followed by the most striking piece, Shepherd's Trio, inspired by and composed for a new building: Calderwood Hall, the "sonic cube" designed by Renzo Piano for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, whose name is the title of the work's central movement, and premiered there by the Claremont during its inauguration on 22 January 2012. The other two movements were composed to surround it. This has to be a historically unique recording, even though it's not the event itself!

Judd Greenstein's A Serious Man is equally unique; it's dedicated to the composer's uncle, Bill Carroll, who inspired it, its title being "a bit of a joke […, because h]e brought a seriousness to life that didn't include taking himself too seriously […]; there's also a "bit of a poke at the Coen Brothers whose film by the same name depicted a different kind of midwestern Jewish experience than the one my family represents." It was composed for a family place close to where the premiere occurred (p. 4). The fourth, a three-movement set by British composer Helen Grime whose titles include the names of colors, is inspired by three works that caught her eyes in the Gardner Museum, but the music also evokes other instruments, like chimes, gongs, marimbas, xylophones, and triangles, in addition to the synesthesia.

The fifth and sixth are single-movement works, both somewhat more abstract and modern, bringing the whole into the contemporary world to conclude the journey. Muhly's uses two repetitive techniques involving chords, leading to a 9-minute long "hyperactive recapitulation." [p. 10] The closing Agócs piece takes its inspiration from the concept of "resilience" so necessary for all of us in the past two-plus years, and from "the 'mother of higher love' card in a deck of playing cards [… that] symbolizes resilience, magnetism, empathy, decorum, a flair for the dramatic, and a distinctly feminine power." [p. 11]; its title became the CD's.

The unnumbered eight-page accompanying booklet has, for each work, a word from its composer about its inspiration and origin and a capsule bio of her/him. The documentation of everything in it is excellent and thorough. The engineer and producer, Adam Abeshouse, is the top of the game; the label is Claremont's own, a clever feminine version of the trio that they are! The format of tri-fold cardboard sleeve with glued-in plastic disk holder beats a 'jewel case' hands-down. My only quibble: the TT is nowhere in print; back panel of the sleeve or page of the booklet where the track list is found would have been easy; a prospective customer has the right to know how much music s/he's buying and how much time listening to it will take.

Full disclosure: the piano trio is my favorite chamber-music formation, because of its inclusion of strings balanced between high and low registers/voices with the keyboard/piano that has both; it's also why I like very much piano quartets and quintets and baroque trios: blending and contrast all balanced harmoniously in one work. I also prefer chamber music to orchestral because of its quieter blending and greater intimacy. I can't imagine my life without music, although I didn't discover it until I was 16 and a freshman in college, when a recital by Rise Stevens hooked me for good, making the intimate vocal recital of the art song/lieder/mélodie my other favorite genre.

This CD is a real gem for anyone's – everyone's – collection!

The UK-based Eusebius Quartet is c. five years old, formed in 2016; its members met as teenagers and then met again at IMS Prussia Cove, reuniting after finishing their studies in different renowned institutions all over the Western world. The quartet's name is taken from one of Robert Schumann's two fictional characters for his musical journal writings (the other is Florestan); they represent his moods: dreamy, and fiery/impassioned, respectively; some say they are also the essence of his somewhat bi-polar personality that led to his breakdown. This is its début recording; the recording info is on the bottom of the back cover of the accompanying booklet, which also has the track list (rather than on the usual pp. 2 -3).

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (EWK) fled Austria in 1934 when Adolf Hitler was threatening to annex it (the Anschluss occurred on 11-13 March 1938), coming to the USA and going directly to Hollywood, where he wrote music and soundtracks for 16 films, the first being Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream, winning Oscars, in 1936 and 1938. His four-movement Op. 11 was composed for a Viennese theatre performance of the Shakespeare play, his first attempt at music accompanying a dramatic text; the composer conducted the chamber orchestra, whose string section was a quartet (p. 6), for it. It was written for and performed in the 18th-century Schlosstheater (= castle theater) at Schönbrunn Palace, premiered on 6 May 1920 to a sold-out house; it was so successful that the run was extended, for which the composer provided a reduced version for two violins and piano, which he, a virtuoso pianist, performed with Rudolf Kolisch and Paul Breisach, who later became a conductor; from that he wrote a four-movement suite for violin and piano that became very popular. This is also documented in Luzi's book, p. 30 (see below). A previously unknown and incomplete autograph version of three movements for string quartet turned up at an auction and was acquired by Vienna's Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. The missing Intermezzo (movement three) was made by British pianist Tom Poster at the request of Eusebius' first violinist.

The 24-min. three-movement Piano Quintet opens the CD. It's dedicated to the deaf-mute sculptor Gustinus Ambrosi (1893-1975), who made a bust of EWK in 1912 that was smashed to pieces after the Anschluss. The definitive, thorough, and well-documented-with-b&w-photos biography of EWK by Brendan G. Carroll, The Last Prodigy, Amadeus, 1997, Pp. 464, includes two photos of the bust on pages 83 & 119; the latter is also on p. 4 of the accompanying booklet, authored by him, "musicologist and freelance journalist specializing in music of the early 20th century." (p. 10) The pages of Smith College's copy, accessioned 2 January 2002, that I checked out had never been turned. It is a very late-romantic piece, as is most of his chamber music and operas, and Korngold played the piano in the premiere in Hamburg on 16 February 1923. For some of the music, he drew from his 13.25-min. Lieder des Abschieds (= Songs of Partings), Op. 14 (1920) that Carroll describes as "perhaps his finest essays in the genre" (p.140), in particular from the third song "Mond, so gehst du wieder auf" (Moon, you rise again), that he describes as "a tone poem in miniature" (p. 153), but with material from others in the set.

Carroll, quoting Luzi from her book, writes:

At the end of one of the songs, there was a phrase which only he and I understood. Erich simulated my voice when I used to say "Wenn ich's / erlaub (If I consent). From that moment on, he used to work this little motiv into his concerts somehow, when he was improvising, as a signal or greeting to me: a little message that found its way to me when no one suspected anything. (pp. 141-2)

There is no such phrase in any of the Op. 14 lieder (The closest is the second couplet of the second stanza of the first poem: "Und wenn du willst, gedenke mein, und wenn du willst, vergiß" [When you want, think of me, and when you want, forget], or in any others whose texts I have seen, so this must have been a wishful memory; but there also must have been such "a secret code – a loving message to his fiancée, Luzi [Luise] Sonnenthal [1900-1962] originally incorporated in the song and subsequently transferred to the [central] Adagio of the Quintet." (p. 7). His Op. 18, Drei Gesänge, was written in 1924, the year of their marriage, and has some similarities with the Op. 14 lieder, but there is no such phrase in its poems either.

The motif was also used in numerous other works, and on several occasions, such as in improvisations, including his one-act opera Violanta Op. 8 (1914-15) Fantasy as a greeting to me (my translation): EWK; Ein Lebensbild von Luzi Korngold [= A Picture of EWK's Life by LK], Vienna Verlag Elisabeth Lafite und Österreicher Bundesverlag, of which it is Vol. 10 in its Österreichische Komponisten des XX Jahrunderts [= Austrian Composers of the 20th Century] series, 1967, Pp. 112 [obviously pub. by someone else (Lafite); location of the MS unknown: perhaps the publisher's archives or the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde?], (p. 30). The rare book has not been translated into English; Smith College has a copy, accessioned 10 April 1968, that appears also to be virgin, and I have perused it. (All of this shows EWK's totally unwarranted disappearance from the classical-music pantheon, in the USA, anyway.) The challenge now is to identify the motif and its text, 100+ years after the facts, with none of the principals living; not one I can solve, but perhaps someone with the Korngold Society can?

Both parents tried to break them up (Carroll, pp. 141-2), similar to what Clara Wieck's father did with her and Robert Schumann. "While Erich traveled with his father to performances of his works, Luzi had to make do with written reports, and for those, Korngold devised a code based on musical notation. Each note of the scale stood for a letter, and to further complicate matters, different clefs placed before the notes ensured greater secrecy." (p. 160) Luzi was an attractive actress, singer, pianist, and writer; they married on 30 April 1924, and had a happy and long life together with two sons, whom Carroll consulted. He also wrote the notes for the booklets accompanying the two CDs of EWK's lieder in my collection: a two-CD set by mezzo Anne Sophie von Otter (1994), and a single by baritone Dietrich Henschel (2002; perhaps the better of the two). With his colleague Konrad Hopkins, he founded the Korngold Society in 1982.

It was instantly striking to me in the Quintet that the music has the inherent/natural potential to accompany a narrative, more than a decade before he went to Hollywood, and just five years after the four-movement incidental music (which fills spaces between acts) for the Shakespeare play that follows it in the recording. Luzi gives many details about its premiere (p. 31). The closing four-movement String Quartet No. 2, premiered in Vienna by the renowned Rosé Quartet on 16 March 1934 (Carroll, p. 10), repeated in a later performance by the Sedlak-Winter Quartet on 6 November 1937, with EWK present, the last performance (that Luzi does not mention; she was likely at home in Hollywood with their sons) of his music just before the outbreak of WW II (p. 267) continues in the same vein, albeit it in a more controlled, quieter, and more unified manner. It ends, following a gorgeous 8.5-min. Larghetto, with a "Waltz (Finale) – Tempo di valse," the iconic Viennese danse, that is also felt, or hinted at, in other earlier movements (trs 1, 4, 6, & 9). The program's order is well-planned.

Prior to leaving Vienna, EWK was primarily a classical composer; those works, other than his operas, were subsequently essentially ignored until a recent revival, and therefore mostly unknown today, especially in the USA, but they are very worthy of being heard. He gave up writing soundtracks for movies and returned to "Absolute Music" in 1944 (p. 315) until his death after a heart attack. This brilliantly, not to say stunningly, delivered program makes this CD a terrific place to begin familiarizing yourself with it. Perhaps its existence and quality will inspire other musicians to give live performances of his beautiful, bold, confident, energetic, exciting, lovely, sensitive music? Puccini once said: "He is the greatest hope of German Music." (p. 143; see also pp. 148-9)