October 2023 Classical Record Reviews

Dvořák: Takács Quartet

Quartet 13; Andante appassionato / Fantasiestücke, Takács Quartet

Hyperion CDA68413 (CD). 2023. David Hinitt, eng.; Andrew Keener, prod.

Performance ****

Sonics ****½

Dvořák’s Quartet 13 in G major is only a third longer than the popular American, but its broader scale feels unwieldy. The first movement’s hearty, open main theme and lighter second are both appealing once you get past a schizophrenic, Punch-and-Judy introduction. In the Adagio, sustained straight tones lead to a warmly harmonized chorale; later, a warmer, cautiously affirmative passage brings uplift. Just when you think both these movements are over, they go off in different directions, evoking Dvořák’s penchant for stacking up endings, like jetliners over JFK. Takács devotees will expect and appreciate the first violin’s vibrant purity in alt—though his slightly grainy pianos disappoint—and the cello’s warm, burnished melodic lines. The lyrical passages balance Bohemian affection with melancholy, and the players clearly relish the finale’s infectious rhythms. At times, however, they seem to be “getting by” rather than commanding the music, though everything is competently in place; neither can they supply a through-line where the composer didn’t. “Expressive,” sentimental ritards lose tensile strength.

Coleridge-Taylor’s five brief Fantasiestücke give us almost as much Dvořák as the composer himself. You hear the echoes in the metrically ambiguous Humoresque; the reflective reprise of the Menuet; and the cheerful bustle (and late wandering!) of the closing Dance. The opening Prelude, almost Expressionist at the start, resolves tonally, not emotionally; the fluent, fluid Serenade suggests Schumann. Here, the playing, flecked and enlivened with small-scale rubatos, is wonderful.

First-class engineering results in clean instrumental images—Dvořák’s seamless viola-to-cello handoffs are perfectly clear—within a pleasing, unobtrusive ambience.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Johan Dalene/Christian Ihle Hadland: Stained Glass

Johan Dalene, violin; Christian Ihle Hadland, piano

BIS-2370 (Reviewed as 24/96 FLAC, available as SACD). 2023. Jens Braun (Take5 Music Production), prod. and eng.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****½

You may not have heard (yet) of Johan Dalene, but the young, Stradivarius-equipped violinist was named Gramophone‘s Young Artist of the Year in 2022 and has performed with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, and San Francisco Symphony. He’s also made his mark in Halls Wigmore and Carnegie, and on this brilliantly assembled collection of works by Arvo Pärt (Fratres), Maurice Ravel (Sonata in G major for violin and piano), Lili Boulanger (Nocturne), Sergei Prokofiev (Sonata No.2 in D major for violin and piano), and four short works by Grazyna Bacewicz.

The collection’s common thread is a penchant for piquant harmonies, atmosphere, and mysticism. Bacewicz’s early “Witraz” (Stained-Glass Window), which she composed in 1932 at the age of 23, is unforgettable. If you can begin to imagine magical flashes of light and color diffused through a stained-glass window, dancing across the room as they metamorphosize into sound, you’ll get a sense of how special this miniature sounds. Dalene’s Strad whispers, flashes, darts, and whirls as Hadland shines beside him through light and shadow.

Thanks to the iconic ECM New Series recording by Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett, Pärt’s early mystical masterpiece achieved fame just a few years after it was completed. Where Kremer begins with a whisper, Dalene is far more forthright, his tone irresistibly fresh and gleaming, and the recording benefits from superior engineering. The touching poetry of Boulanger’s subtle miniature stands in sharp contrast to Prokofiev’s fabulous scherzo and circuslike finale. Ravel, too, revels in character, humor, amiability, and spice. The finale brings to mind someone chasing a mosquito around the room with a rolled-up copy of Stereophile in hand.—Jason Victor Serinus

Herrmann: Wuthering Heights Suite; Echoes for Strings

Keri Fuge, soprano; Roderick Williams, baritone; Singapore Symphony/Mario Venzago, Joshua Tan

Chandos CHSA 5337 (CD, available as SACD). Dominick Streicher, prod.; Ephraim Hahn, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****½

Bernard Herrmann, best known for scoring Hitchcock films, also composed serious concert music. His opera Wuthering Heights is large-scaled and romantic. Its first recording sprawled across four LPs, and there’s a lot of it to stage.

Hans Sørensen’s suite is neither the purely orchestral selection I’d expected nor a potted version of the opera. It’s a cut-down depiction of Heathcliff and Cathy’s doomed romance, omitting large chunks. After a good half-hour of Act I, we skip to Cathy’s Act II monologue I have dreamt, from there to the Meditation and much of Act IV. I hadn’t a clue why Cathy claimed that Heathcliff killed her. Still, this arrangement allows access to lovely music that might otherwise go unheard.

The portentous, angular Prologue is unpromising, and Heathcliff ‘s monologue repeats “Cathy! Cathy!” a few too many times. The calm, open textures that follow, however, are fetching. The lyrical passages are not entirely undisturbed—only occasionally echoing the Vaughan Williams pastoral mode—and the turbulent climaxes build from them naturally.

Under Mario Venzago’s stylish, authoritative leadership, the polished orchestra is tender in the lighter passages and surging at the peaks. Keri Fuge’s soprano is round-toned and vibrant. Roderick Williams is suitably intense, but his vowels are self-consciously “formed”; I wanted him just to open up and sing.

Echoes for Strings, originally for quartet, works effectively in this trim, expressive chamber-orchestra expansion. The most substantial of its 10 brief sections are a light, agitated Allegro and a graceful, tetchy waltz; other passages hark back to the ominous Hitchcock mode. The sound is beautiful, the string ensemble enhanced by a gentle ambience.—Stephen Francis Vasta

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