Classical CD Reviews: Isabelle Faust plays Schumann and the Dmitri Ensemble plays Shostakovich Chamber Symphonies
There are times when listening to Isabelle Faust’s performance of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto that I couldn’t help but wonder why the piece has remained on the fringes of the repertoire for so long.
Schumann: Violin Concerto in D minor, Piano Trio No. 3 in G minor Op. 110. Isabelle Faust, violin. Jean-Guihen-Queyras, cello, Alexander Melnikov, piano. Freiburger Barockorchester/Pablo Heras-Casado. Harmonia Mundi
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Years ago, in a performance of a solo clarinet piece of mine, I learned how a great musician can redeem a multitude of compositional sins. On her new, all-Schumann album, Isabelle Faust demonstrates this very point for Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto. It’s a testament to her chops as a performer and her insights as an interpreter that, by and large, the piece’s many problems aren’t glaring; in fact, there were times listening to her performance that I couldn’t help but wonder why it’s remained on the fringes of the repertoire for so long.
Schumann wrote the Concerto for Joseph Joachim in 1853. A few months later, he attempted suicide and was institutionalized for madness; he died three years later. Joachim, feeling that the Concerto was a product of Schumann’s unbalanced mind, suppressed the piece until his death in 1907. It wasn’t performed until 1937 in Berlin and has been slow to find acceptance.
The reasons for this are many. For one, it’s not showy: there are no cadenzas and much of the solo writing falls in the violin’s low- to mid-range. Schumann’s orchestrations, which are not particularly brilliant-sounding, often swallow the soloist. Tempos are generally on the slow side. In the wrong hands, the final polonaise, for one, can seem an interminable eleven or twelve minutes. Above all, Joachim’s initial verdict on the piece still seems to carry remarkable weight, 160+ years on.
I certainly have my reservations about late Schumann: some of it is stodgy and more often than not lacks the brilliance of his earlier works. But his Violin Concerto, even if doesn’t sparkle like Mendelssohn’s or plumb the depths of Beethoven’s, is a fascinating, often beautiful, document on its own merits. And, in Faust’s hands, played on gut strings (more on that below), I found it, on the whole, engrossing.
Schumann’s approach to rhythm phrasing in the Concerto is, as usual, wonderfully fresh: in the first movement, the solo violin emerges almost unprepared out of a big orchestral texture. It’s a purely magical moment. Throughout he clearly reveled in toying with rhythmic expectations. There’s often an off-balance quality to Schumann’s music that only seemed to become more distilled as his career progressed and it perhaps reached its peak in this Concerto. The music is also highly lyrical but, when combined with these other characteristics, its songful quality takes on a more ambiguous, questing guise.
And Faust is precisely the kind of inquisitive musical mind you want to take you on a journey through the piece. Lots of the Concerto, especially in her reading, feels inward. The slow movement comes across as the most private of meditations, as does the middle part of the first movement. The exchange of melodic lines between soloist and orchestra is regularly seamless, giving Faust’s interpretation a dreamy, haunting quality. Her playing in the finale emphasizes the music’s off-kilter aura. It lurches and stumbles rather humorously but still manages to sing, which connects it nicely to the more poetic first movement.
The Freiburger Barockorchester and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado are with Faust every step of the way. It’s a bit unsettling to hear a big-boned, Romantic score played by a period ensemble – the music loses some of its sonic weight and tonal depth – but the Freiburgers and Faust prove a pleasingly agile and colorful combination and take advantage of the leaner sonorities of their instruments. The result is a performance that is rhythmically light on its feet, texturally clear, and bursting with energy.
There isn’t exactly a shortage of recordings of this Violin Concerto (Gidon Kremer, Joshua Bell, Christian Tetzlaff, and Baiba Skride, to name a few, have all committed it to disc), but the present account surely ranks with the best that’s already out there. And hearing the solo part played on gut-strings gives it a special spark. HM’s recorded sound is clear and well balanced, placing the soloist (mostly) front and center.
Pianist Alexander Melnikov and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras join Faust to fill out the album with an excellent performance of Schumann’s Piano Trio no. 3 in G minor. This is another late Schumann score that, with it’s pollacca-like rhythms in the finale, makes a particularly good companion to the Violin Concerto. It’s a piece that also shares Schumann’s penchant for odd phrases, displaced accents, and a kind of radical fragmentation of melodic ideas that recalls some late Schubert (particularly here the Death and the Maiden Quartet).
The Faust-Queyras-Melnikov trio embraces all of these qualities and marries them to the music’s innate, flowing lyricism. The first movement, with its slashing accents and beautifully voiced exchange of melodic ideas is, perhaps, the most impressive of the four, compositionally; it certainly comes across with lots of character here, not to mention an extremely sensitive balance between each of the voices.
So, too, does the second movement, with its turbulent middle section. The contrast of extremes — the outer sections are sumptuously lyrical — comes off with a particular potency in part because the ensemble is (again) playing on period instruments that resonate greater bite than their modern counterparts. The group brings a tight rhythmic precision to their account of the brisk third movement and, if the finale seems to overstay its welcome by a few minutes, it at least doesn’t lack for breezy confidence. Taken together, the whole Trio is a triumph: tortured and often unsettled, to be sure, but singing its way through adversity.
According to the liner notes, this is the first of three recordings that will pair each of the Schumann piano trios (played by the members of this ensemble) with each of the instrumental concerti (violin, piano, and cello). On the merits of this first installment, I can’t wait for the next two.
Shostakovich: Chamber Symphonies (arranged by Barshai). The Dmitri Ensemble and Graham Ross. Harmonia Mundi
The temptation to adapt chamber music for larger ensembles has affected many composers and instrumentalists, great and small. Sometimes the results are magnificent, as Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet or Dmitri Mitropolous’ arrangement of Beethoven’s C-sharp minor String Quartet attest. Other times, the results are less than ideal. Shostakovich was evidently much taken by Rudolf Barshai’s resetting of his Eighth String Quartet as a “chamber symphony” for string orchestra, so much so that he sanctioned further adaptations of his Quartets nos. 1, 3, 4, and 10. I have mixed feelings about how well all of them work and the Dmitri Ensemble and conductor Graham Ross’s new recording of three — arrangements of nos. 1, 8, and 10 — doesn’t do much to further convince of their merit.
On paper, at least, Barshai’s arrangement of the Eighth Quartet (op. 110a) looks good. The richer string textures in the slow movements (especially the last two) provide a welcome sonic depth that heightens the tragic character of the music, here movingly highlighting Nathaniel Boyd’s melting account of the heartbreaking cello solo. But when the music turns fast, angry, edgy, or violent, the bigger ensemble can sound cumbersome. And those stark, sudden contrasts of temperament, energy, and expression are what give this piece its vitality. Rather than adding intensity to the Quartet’s terrifying moments, what often results is a performance that robs them of bite and ferocity. And that’s exactly what we’ve got here.
Much the same can also be said of Barshai’s arrangement of the First Quartet (op. 49a, cheekily subtitled Eine kleine Symphonie). Its gentle opening calls to mind passages from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Souvenir de Florence and the second movement, introduced here by Nicholas Bootiman’s characterful account of the viola solo, is almost Mozartian in its clarity of texture. But when the music turns fast, it loses its lightness of touch and, often, its full measure of energy: the third movement lacks its necessary elfin spirit and the finale simply sounds leaden.
How much these problems are the fault of the performance versus the arrangement is difficult to say. The Dmitri Ensemble is technically solid — the group’s intonation is accurate, their attention to dynamics sensitive, and their tone polished. Yet, expressively, intensity and focus seem to be inconsistently present. Ross’s tempos don’t always help: they tend to be too cautious and reined in. In general, each of these pieces demands more of a sense of abandon and wildness than they’re given.
At the same time, arrangements like these tend to get bogged down in the places they do for just these reasons: scoring that is ideally suited to a group of four musicians doesn’t usually translate well to an ensemble of thirty — it loses transparency, agility, and character. Barshai, for all his considerable talent and imagination in reworking these quartets, didn’t consistently succeed in transferring them to the bigger ensemble.
To my ears, the most successful arrangement and reading on this album is that of the Tenth Quartet (op. 118a). More than even the Eighth Quartet, the Tenth is weighty, grim, and dark. The lyrical reminiscences of its predecessor rarely lighten its pages. And, for some combination of these reasons, it fits a bigger ensemble nicely. The Dmitri Ensemble certainly turns in their best performance for this Symphony for Strings: only the long finale lags a bit from time to time, while the brisk second movement sounds, well, appropriately vigorous and the odd-numbered movements assuredly display a sense of isolation and despair. Despite this, it’s hard to feel that Ross and the Dmitri Ensemble have added much to the catalogue with this mixed bag of an album.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.