GRAMOPHONE AWARDS SHORTLIST 2021
Beach . Elgar Beach Piano Quintet, Op 67 Elgar Piano Quintet, Op 84 Garrick Ohlsson pf Takács Quartet Hyperion F CDA68295 (64’ • DDD)
I have often wondered why the music of Amy Beach is not more loudly acclaimed.
As part of a late 19th-century movement of American composers who looked unapologetically for stimulus from Germany – and I am thinking primarily of George Whitefield Chadwick, Arthur Foote and Horatio Parker – Beach stands as probably the most accomplished of the group (a notable point since she did not study in Europe), or at least within the province of chamber music. Her Piano Quintet, the most widely performed of her chamber works, and in which she appeared as pianist on many occasions, is a highly developed work which should be considered part of that canon of quintets led by Schumann and Brahms, and accompanied by other major masterpieces including those by Franck, Dvo∑ák, Stanford, Fauré, Sinding, Reger, Elgar, Suk≈and Dohnányi.
By way of the imposing nature of the resources – string quartet and piano – the approach to the genre is inevitably one of an epic nature, almost orchestral in its bold sound and texture, fluctuating between the intellectual demands of the symphony and the ‘competition’ of the grand concerto. Beach’s magisterial work, with its hugely demanding piano part, its plethora of thematic material and its coherent handling of form, meets both these conceptual demands (and which Ohlsson and the Takács Quartet serve with vivid colours and a vital energy). Conceived as a work in three cyclic movements, the outer movements are especially muscular in their gestures and dynamics, while the central slow movement is elegiac and brings the quartet to the fore in the first subject in which the piano plays an inner contrapuntal role. Only with the second subject does the lower part of the keyboard play a more prominent role as the ‘bass’ of the harmony switches to the piano. This is highly accomplished writing and reveals Beach’s true imagination as a master of instrumental form.
Elgar’s Quintet of 1918, also in three movements, is of a different vintage of inspiration. Written after that miraculous decade before the First World War when the composer produced his orchestral masterpieces in the idiom of concerto, symphony and oratorio, the quintet bears witness to a more ascetic, wiry creative impulse which he adopted during the latter years of the war, when, perhaps, he was searching for a new direction for his musical voice. This is evident in the strange disjunction of the plainsong-like opening idea (akin to ‘Salve regina’), the first Brahms-like idea of the Allegro, the enigmatic ‘Spanish’ (or at least Phrygian) second subject (played with admiral character by the ensemble) and the searching third idea (more orchestral in character). In fact, this predominance of thematic material has much in common with the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet, where the notion of form seems to rely more on the fecundity of melodic ideas and their juxtaposition than on their development. The slow movement, one of Elgar’s greatest, is played with true profundity. Here Elgar seems to return to those distinctive characteristics of his earlier works, to themes full of sequence and modal inflection, though the central paragraph reminds us that this is Elgar of a later vintage. The finale makes much of the cyclic restatement of earlier themes, especially those of the first movement, a feature which lends the conclusion of this remarkable work a ghostliness and introspection that Elgar revisited in the last movement of his Nursery Suite of 1930. Ohlsson and the Takács are to be congratulated for the warmth of their interpretation and for their ability to encompass the challenging range of Elgar’s complex moods. Jeremy Dibble (July 2020)
Beethoven Violin Sonatas – No 7, Op 30 No 2; No 10, Op 96 James Ehnes vn Andrew Armstrong pf Onyx F ONYX4209 (52’ • DDD)
It’s been said before but it’s worth restating: Beethoven described both of the works on this album as sonatas for pianoforte and violin, in that order. So, given that the piano opens each movement of Op 30 No 2, it’s captivating to hear what Andrew Armstrong does with his spotlight. He has a wonderful ability to create an atmosphere in an instant, as if he’s pulling the music out of the air – a quality on display throughout his Beethoven cycle with James Ehnes, but particularly striking in this black diamond of a C minor masterpiece.
And it really does sparkle. It’s difficult to write about the focused intimacy with which Ehnes joins in the Adagio, or the way the players balance their musical lines against each other in near-ideal dialogue, without implying that these intelligent, refined performances are somehow precious or mannered. Nothing could be further from the truth. The conversation is spontaneous, the storytelling is packed with character, and both sonatas are played with an alertness that might feel impatient if it wasn’t so affectionate. Op 30 No 2 is contemporary with the Second Symphony: Armstrong and Ehnes never let you forget that this is young man’s music.
In the sublime opening movement of Op 96 (Ehnes starts things off this time) there’s an almost improvisational quality: tenderness leavened by a humour that turns deliciously deadpan in the Scherzo. The finale plays out with just as much of a sense of adventure: not a valediction to the violin sonata, but an open question. That Armstrong and Ehnes achieve this in the context of a performance that is so satisfying on its own terms is the measure of their achievement – and a wonderfully positive conclusion to a life-enhancing cycle. Richard Bratby
Mozart . M Simpson Mozart Serenade No 10, ‘Gran Partita’, K361 M Simpson Geysir Nicholas Daniel, Emma Fielding obs Mark Simpson, Fraser Langton cls Oliver Pashley, Ausiàs Garrigós Morant basset-hns Amy Harman,
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