Beethoven: String Quartets, opp. 74 & 130

Chiaroscuro String Quartet
BIS BIS-2668

As late as 1801, Beethoven – already 30 years of age – felt the need to write to a friend that ‘only now do I know how to write string quartets properly’. They are words that might be said to provide a telling introduction to the publication of the six quartets of opus 18 the same year. Beethoven’s admission that he had found the medium a difficult one to master is pre-echoed by both Haydn and Mozart. Haydn, more aptly given the appendage ‘father of the string quartet’ than the more familiar ‘father of the symphony’, had a near-decade gap between producing his six opus 20 string quartets and his next set, opus 33 in 1781. It was a lengthy period for such a prolific composer and one in which he intimates that the cause may have been the need to reconsider the medium and compose the recent group ‘in an entirely new and special way’. And we know even Mozart, too, had to work on the string quartet to satisfy himself, writing in his dedication to Haydn of his first set of mature strong quartets that ‘they were the fruits of long and laborious toil’.

This struggle for mastery over the medium is mirrored in the demands made of performers of string quartets and none more so than the later quartets of Beethoven, among which we can include for the present purposes the E-flat Quartet, op. 74, ‘The Harp’ of 1809. It is probably at least in part for this reason that few period instrument quartets have to date tackled them, the wide range of tone and sonority, the extremes of expression making demands few feel confident of tackling. If there was one quartet one felt might be admirably suited to do so it is the Chiaroscuro Quartet, which has already demonstrated convincingly in Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ that it is quite capable of bringing off the big gestures of the early 19th-century repertoire, my review suggesting, ‘It is rare to hear period instrument playing of such technical accomplishment and perfect sense of balance’. Those qualities are again well to the fore in these superbly accomplished performances, embracing as they do an extensive range of sonority and colour achieved across a range of dynamics that extends from little more to a pianissimo whisper to, for example, the attack of the Presto (ii) of op. 130 in B flat, a headlong collision between music and performer. Just occasionally such extremes may be found by some a little too exaggerated, but throughout they fill the performances with vibrant immediacy.

At the other end of the scale, one need only listen to the manner in which the Chiaroscuros lure the listener into the opening Poco Adagio of op. 74, with playing owning to a rapt concentration that segues with the utmost naturalness into loving tenderness at the start of the Allegro. In the context of a performance that captures the general geniality of the quartet, the Presto scherzo brings the savagery of a galloping madman’s cavorting fury along with the grotesquery of the central trio vividly to life, providing a marvellously stark contrast.

For many op. 130 is the epitome of not just Beethoven’s string quartets but the medium itself. Yet associated with that perception are the myths that grew up surrounding the work, that this is music that gives up its secret only on a transcendental level. And then only to those granted some kind of spiritual insight into the work.  To remind those less familiar with it, the quartet is unusually cast in six movements, with four shorter inner movements framed by a large-scale opening movement that, like that of op. 74, opens with an intensely inward Adagio leading to a masculine, strongly muscled Allegro and a finale whose playfulness is affectionately toyed with in the present performance, especially in the feather-light spiccato playing. Equally at odds with the reputation of the forbidding aesthete Beethoven is the tiny Alla danza tedesca (iv), an enchanting German dance caught by the Chiaroscuros with beguiling charm and just a hint of rubato rather than the hefty nudge some quartets give it. And finally I hope it will be forgiven if a personal note creeps into a comment on the heart of the work, the Cavatina (v). But I cannot hear this movement without it recalling a dear friend, long dead. One of the most cultured people I have ever known, for her this was simply the most profound music ever written. She was no friend of period instruments, but I like to think even she would have been moved by the inner concentration and extraordinarily beautiful sonority of the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s playing here.

Brian Robins


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, op. 10

Daniel  Tong
Resonus RES 10307

Daniel Tong here plays a copy of an Anton Walter fortepiano of 1805 built by the prolific Paul McNulty. In his informative note, Tong makes a number of points regarding the advantages of playing Beethoven on a fortepiano, correctly observing that it brings both the ‘player and the listener closer to Beethoven’s sound world’. Strangely, among other well-made points, he doesn’t mention what to me is always one of the principal advantages of playing the music of this period on a fine fortepiano, which this example unarguably is. That is the deliberate contrasts of tonal colour in the various registers of the instrument, one of the key differences to the modern grand piano, which aims for homogeneity across the spectrum. This seems to me particularly on display in the opus 10 sonatas, where one senses time and again that Beethoven is deliberately exploiting the contrasting sonorities of the instrument. This exploitation is especially potent in such imitative passages between treble and bass (much exploited in these sonatas) as the coda in the Presto of the D-major Sonata.

The three sonatas that constitute opus 10 were published in 1798 with a dedication to Countess von Browne-Camus, the wife of one of Beethoven’s wealthy patrons, one of several dedications of his publications to both count and countess. As Tong notes, the sonatas follow a pattern that applies to almost all of Beethoven’s publications in threes, aiming at works of considerable diversity and one work in a minor key (No 1 in C minor). The one thing all three have in common is their evident intent to provide above all music for Beethoven the virtuoso pianist who wowed the aristocratic salons of Vienna during the 1790s. This is particularly the case with the D-major Sonata, the only one of the three with four rather than three movements and at once the most ambitious and the most technically demanding for the pianist. Tong meets these demands admirably, articulating the virtuoso passagework of the Rondo finale with nimble fingers and great clarity.  He is also capable of extracting poetry from the music where required, as for example in the final bars of the Largo e mesto of the same sonata, where the dynamics are exquisitely controlled to bring the movement to a close of perfectly attained peace. Neither is wit absent from Tong’s playing of a movement like the mostly playful Allegro of the F-major Sonata, where Beethoven uniquely in this set asks for the repeat of the development and recapitulation.

Overall these are admirable performances, enhanced by a recording that presents the instrument itself in the best light, its lovely bell-like treble admirably set off by a characterful middle register and richly resonant bass notes.        

Brian Robins 


Beethoven: Piano Trios, op. 1, nos. 1 & 2

Rautio Piano Trio
resonus RES10305

To my mind, one of the great pleasures of early Beethoven is encountering the future giant as he flexes his muscles, makes his first confident flights of fancy and exercises his ever-increasing power and strength. While admitting there is of course more than a fair share of wisdom after the event about making such an observation, it is nonetheless substantially true. It certainly is, I think, regarding the three Piano Trios of op 1. First given in 1793 at the Viennese home of Beethoven’s patron Prince Lichnowsky, to whom the trios were dedicated, they were revised before publication two years later. Advised by Haydn to make changes, Beethoven not only admitted to his youthful profligacy, observing he had introduced into one work ‘enough music for twenty’, but thanked Haydn for his advice. When the trios were published in 1795, very likely courtesy of a secret subvention by Lichnowsky, they were a great success among the Viennese. It is said they earned him nearly two years’ worth of the salary he had been paid in the post he occupied in Bonn before coming to Vienna.

One of the first things to be noted about the op 1 trios is their ambitious scale. Unlike the three-movement trios of Haydn and Mozart, they are cast in four movements and planned as expansive works, which, if no longer containing enough ideas for twenty, are arresting pieces overflowing with the young composer’s sheer joie de vivre and the unadulterated pleasure of composing. It is these qualities that are so convincingly and compellingly communicated by the period-instrument Rautio Piano Trio (Jane Gordon, violin; Victoria Simonson, cello and Jan Rautio, fortepiano). Both string players play original 17th-century instruments, by G B Rogeri and G Granico respectively, while Rautio’s is based by Paul McNulty on an 1805 Viennese fortepiano built by the Walters. It’s an exceptionally fine-sounding instrument, with an appealingly silvery top and a richly endowed bass capable of powerful chords when necessary. To hear how well and beguilingly the instruments can interact, try the lovely Adagio cantabile (ii) of the Trio in E flat (No 1), where the violin’s song-like melody is joined in dialogue by the cello and then delightful filigree work by the piano, all beautifully balanced. Throughout tempi are well judged, with the players not misled in the ‘slow’ movement of the G-major Trio by the Largo con expressione marking, achieving just the right flow for the movement. And for sheer exuberance go the Finale of the same Trio, with its headlong chasse-like impetus disrupted only by what sounds like a bucolic dance. Technically the playing is of a high order, with Rautio himself, as one might expect in these works, stealing the thunder, his splendid articulation and clean finger-work being a constant pleasure.  Just occasionally I thought the violinist’s tone a little thin, though this may be the recording, which in all other aspects is fine. Overall this is an outstanding addition to the catalogue and it is much to be hoped that the Rautios will complete the set with the C-minor Trio.

Brian Robins


The Poor Branch

Nineteenth-century guitar music by Ivan Klinger (1818-97)
James Akers guitar
resonus RES10302

Ivan Andreevich Klinger (1818-1897) was born in Kherson, Ukraine. His guitar music is little known today, although much of it is available online at IMSLP. Unlike so many of his contemporaries from his part of the world, Klinger wrote for the six-string classical guitar, or Spanish guitar, rather than the Russian seven-string guitar with its characteristic open G tuning of DGBdgbd’. Klinger’s music is very easy on the ears – charming melodies decorated with occasional chromatic inflections and virtuosic interjections – arpeggios, harmonics, changes of tempo, glissandos, but always lyrical, and exploiting the full range of the instrument. Klinger’s compositional skill and James Akers’ sensitive interpretation combine to produce a premiere recording which has been a pleasure to review. The CD is enhanced by excellent liner notes from Oleg Timofeyev, who puts the pieces in context, and provides a wealth of interesting information about them.

Fantasy no. 2, is an attractive piece with considerable variety. An Introduction opens with two phrases, each consisting of five plucked chords, a flourish of single notes, and harmonics; there follows a short passage of arpeggios marked diminuendo, followed by a tremolo marked accelerando. The mood is set for three folk song melodies: “In the garden”, “I love Peter”, and “A birch tree stood in the field”. Each melody is played with variations, including an extraordinary and very effective imitation of the balalaika: the note b is held at the 4th fret of the 3rd string acting as a drone, occasionally dipping down to a# for a first inversion of the dominant; the melody is sustained on the first string; and the second string fills out the harmony, often duplicating in unison the b of the third string; all chords are strummed, but only involving the first three strings of the guitar, creating second inversions of E minor. This is just like the balalaika, which has three strings, is strummed with the fingers, and typically involves unisons and unavoidable inversions of chords.

So much of Klinger’s music is cheerful, but a change of mood comes with “Elegie par Henri Vogel”, which begins with a sad melody sustained by gloomy repeated chords low down in the bass. In his liner notes Oleg Timofeyev explains that the music was originally a composition by Henri Vogel (1845-1900) for viola and piano, and he describes what Klinger has done to adapt it for solo guitar.

The title of the CD, “The Poor Branch”, comes from the title of a song composed by Nikolai Titov (1800-75), which Klinger arranged for solo guitar adding his own variations. It is heard as the penultimate track of the CD. One can easily imagine Klinger captivating 19th-century salon audiences in Ukraine and thereabouts with his playing, and hopefully James Akers will succeed in introducing Klinger’s music to a wider audience today.

Stewart McCoy


Paris 1847

La musique d’Eugène Jancourt
Mathieu Lussier bassoon, Camille Paquette-Roy cello, Sylvain Bergeron guitar, Valérie Milot harp
97:00 [NB this includes two sonatas that can be downloaded from ATMA’s website]
Atma Classique ACD2 2834

I have to say that if I were to choose an ensemble to perform representative music from 1847 Paris then a combination of bassoon, cello, guitar and harp would be some way down the list of possibilities. But one has to at least give a hearing to a player described as ‘a harpist with the soul of a rebel’.

And what a delight! Our rebellious harpist is not the star but she is a more or less constant presence in music composed and/or arranged by Eugène Jancourt, noted bassoonist and pedagogue, who published his comprehensive Méthode in 1847. Mathieu Lussier here takes responsibility for bringing his predecessor’s work to our notice in a quite brilliant recital of music which cannot be described as profound but which is certainly much more than merely instructional for aspiring players. There are affecting slow movements and jolly rondos as well as arrangements of Donizetti, Bellini and Schubert, all for bassoon with an accompaniment for either cello or a second bassoon (here always a cello). To these, the ensemble adds harp (or, for one piece, guitar) as a sort of mid-19th-century continuo. Questionable in HIP terms, but effective.

The booklet essay (in French and English) includes extensive quotes from Jancourt and the graphic designer has managed to combine the inevitably small font with legibility. But to end with the music. If outstanding – actually, remarkable – performances of charming if unknown repertoire appeal to you in any way, go for this. The music can all be found on IMSLP.

David Hansell


Asioli: Cello Sonata, Piano Sonatas

Francesco Galligioni cello, Jolanda Violante fortepiano
Brilliant Classics 95908

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The fortunes of Bonifazio Asiola very much mirror the rise and fall of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy – in 1807 at the age of 38 he is appointed director of the Milan Conservatory by the French Viceroy only to be forced into early retirement by the fall of Napoleon in 1814, although he continued to teach and compose until his death in 1832. Labelled a ‘Sonata per Clavicembalo e Violoncello Obbligato’, Asioli’s Cello Sonata is very much in the new idiom where the cello usually takes the melodic initiative while the piano tends to accompany, although the demanding keyboard part is also allowed to sparkle. This is a substantial work with wonderfully idiomatic writing for the cello – it was after all in Italy that the cello had originally emerged from its traditional continuo role to become a solo instrument. This work was composed in 1784 as a Divertimento for cello and piano, although by 1817 when it was published it had acquired a name more befitting its substantial nature.

We also hear two of Asioli’s three Piano Sonatas op 8, published around 1790, works of considerable musical variety and charm. They are given powerful and expressive renditions by Jolanda Violante on a copy of a bright and incisive Walter & Son fortepiano of 1805, while Francesco Galligioni plays wonderfully eloquently on a late 17th-century Cremonese cello. The excellent programme note by Licia Sirch mentions in passing a wealth of other work by Bonifazio Asioli, and on the basis of these three attractive sonatas, he is a name we should watch out for. But for the vagaries of history, he would probably be much more generally appreciated.

D. James Ross


Schubert: Complete Symphonies & Fragments

L’Orfeo Barockorchester, Michi Gaigg
277:25 (4 CDs in a double jewel box)
cpo 555 228-2

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Any project to record the complete Schubert symphonies is a challenge. He is famously the composer of an ‘unfinished’ symphony, but in fact Schubert was a serial ‘unfinisher’ of symphonic material, and even the total number and indeed the numbering of his complete symphonies are contested. In the early 1980s, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields recorded Schubert’s ‘10 Symphonies’, including impressive reconstructions by Brian Newbold using the surviving fragments. Subsequently, a number of period instrument ensembles have settled for the eight complete symphonies. The present recording takes an alternative approach, presenting the eight complete symphonies – renumbered so that the ‘Unfinished’ is now number 7 and the ‘Great’ is number 8 – as well as all the related surviving fragments and overtures. Some of these, such as D729 are substantial, in essence, a fair proportion of two movements, whereas others D74A are tiny, coming in in the middle of the action and then cut short. There is a definite academic interest in hearing any orchestral sketches Schubert left behind, and once you are prepared for the shock of a section cutting off in mid-flow, they do also make interesting listening. Besides, you can always select only the complete symphonies to listen to if that is what you want. These are live recordings, with some retakes added later, and have all the excitement of the concert performance about them. Just occasionally there are tuning issues, fluffs, and some extraneous noises, but nothing to interfere with the overall enjoyment. Michi Gaigg’s direction finds the magic in even the slightest of fragments, and she and her forces rise well to the challenge and scale of the later symphonies. She also has an unerring instinct for tempo, and has an excellent line-up of woodwind principals to take full advantage of Schubert’s famously rewarding woodwind solos. I am not sure how often I will be listening to the fragments, but these definitely do inform what I think are excellent accounts of the complete symphonies.

D. James Ross


The Proust Album

Shana Diluka piano, with Nathalie Dessay soprano, Pierre Fouchenneret violin, Guillaume Galliene speaker, Orchestre de chambre de Paris, Hervé Niquet
Warner Classics 0190296676253

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There is nothing either ‘Early Music’ or HIP here, but an important aspect of the EM movement has been the research and revival of repertoire that is forgotten/unknown yet worthwhile and it is in that spirit that we give this Proust-themed (ie music he liked) miscellany a brief notice. Reynaldo Hahn’s piano concerto was a welcome surprise, Wagner’s tiny Elegy (solo piano, as is most of the programme) intriguing, and the world premiere recording of Richard Strauss’s elaborately textured Nocturno should draw deserved attention to this relatively recent discovery.

The main essay (in French, English and German) stays on the right side of the informative/philosophical border though there is nothing about the artists. But if you feel like a wander away from your normal HIP path, there is much to enjoy here.

David Hansell


Field: Nocturnes

Florent Albrecht de Meglio piano (1826)
Editions Hortus 197

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Long-time BBC listeners may remember Anthony Hopkins Talking about Music. One of those programmes explored a Field piano concerto (he wrote seven) as well as including the usual ‘inventor of the nocturne’ credit. Well, here are those nocturnes, played on a piano that Field certainly had the opportunity to play, even if we are not absolutely confident that he did so. The instrument has had only deliberately ‘light touch’ restorative work but retains great tonal charm, including the ability to deliver more HIP sustaining pedal use than we often hear (broadly, leave it down for longer).

As well as being the performer, Florent Albrecht has also undertaken the complex task of establishing a credible version of the musical texts and his deep involvement with the overall project results not only in playing of great technical accomplishment and musical judgement, but also and above all, of love. The piano also sounds very happy: its fragile treble positively glitters through all the filigree writing and we hear this most emphatically as ornamentation rather than ornate melody.

The booklet (in French and English) gives a comprehensive account of the project, including comments on the piano and the composer. I wouldn’t class myself as a ‘romantic piano music’ fan, but I absolutely loved this!

David Hansell


Dussek: messe solemnelle

Stefanie True soprano, Helen Charlston mezzo-soprano, Gwilym Bowen tenor, Morgan Pearse baritone, Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of the AAM, Richard Egarr

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That Jan Ladislav Dussek composed a Mass will doubtless come as a surprise to those that think of him nearly exclusively as a composer of piano music, though he did also provide music for a couple of stage works during the period he was in London in the 1790s. And indeed anyone thinking that can be forgiven, for the present ‘Messe Solemnelle à quatre voix’ lay undisturbed in the Library of the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florence for some two hundred years after its first performance in 1810 or 1811. Bearing a dedication to Prince Nicolas Esterházy, it was composed for the nobleman’s name-day celebrations, thus falling into a distinguished series of works that includes the six great late Masses of Haydn and the C-major Mass of Beethoven. It owes its modern revival to the tenacity of the conductor of the present recording, Richard Egarr, who directed the first – and most likely only – public performance since the work’s premiere at Esterháza in London in 2019. The recording took place a few weeks later.

The work is planned on an extensive scale, although the proportions are unusual. The opening Kyrie, divided into the usual three parts, takes nearly 15 minutes in this performance, longer than the entire Credo, while the Agnus Dei is dominated by its final words, ‘Dona nobis pacem’, at first treated with prayerful invocation that turns to strident demands, rather in the manner of Haydn’s Missa in angustiis, the so-called ‘Nelson Mass’ of 1798. It is of course worth remembering that Europe was still in a ‘time of anxiety and affliction’ in 1810. The Mass is largely dominated by the chorus, with passages for the four soloists generally restricted to ensemble work. These often feature imitation, passages such as Benedictus, complimented by felicitous wind writing that betrays the composer’s Czech heritage. Only ‘Et in Spiritum’ is set as a true solo, an arietta for soprano in the shape of a flowing larghetto with warmly rich lower string textures that are something of a feature of the Mass. The opening Kyrie is melodically distinctive, the work as a whole having an engaging, sunny character far removed from the stern, rather old-fashioned Viennese tradition that continued to dominate the church music of Haydn, Mozart and even to some extent Beethoven.

The performance reflects strongly Richard Egarr’s declared devotion to Dussek in general and the Mass in particular, being imbued with a passionate drive in more dramatic passages, which frequently have a thrilling intensity, and real affection in Dussek’s lyrical, at times quasi-folk-like music. He draws splendid playing and commitment from the chorus and orchestra of the AAM, while his soloists blend well, although some will feel soprano Stefanie True displays too much vibrato for this repertoire.

In keeping with the other AAM issue to have come my way (Eccles’ Semele) the presentation is outstanding, with a lavishly illustrated 100-page booklet that includes no fewer than nine scholarly articles in addition to the usual artist biographies and text of the Mass. If I don’t feel able to go all the way with Egarr in his description of the Mass as great music, it is certainly both imposing and companionable. I am delighted to have made its acquaintance and hope others will too.

Brian Robins