Classical CD Reviews: Nancy Dalberg’s String Quartets, Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto, Osmo Vänskä conducts Mahler

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Nancy Dalberg’s string quartets are worth getting to know, Wynton Marsalis’s violin concerto receives an electrifying performance, and Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra continue to churn out a less than necessary Mahler cycle.

Never heard of Nancy Dalberg? You’re not alone. The Danish composer, who studied with Carl Nielsen (among others), is, these days, an obscure musical footnote. But, as a new recording of her chamber music by the Nordic String Quartet reminds, she needn’t be.

Granted, none of Dalberg’s three quartets – written between 1915 and ’27 – turn the world on its head. They don’t offer the invention or emotional devastation of Bartók’s contemporaneous works in the genre, nor the brilliance one finds in Ravel or Debussy from a few years beforehand.

But they’re largely engaging pieces, all the same.

The Quartet no. 1 recalls Mendelssohn in its easy lyricism and Beethoven (a bit) in some of its textures. Yet there’s never a sense of the music resting too comfortably under anybody’s shadow and its best moments – the first movement’s driving coda, the rollicking scherzo, and the floating dissonances and fragmented phrases that open the Adagio – are as striking as you’ll encounter anywhere.

In the Quartet no. 2, the mood’s generally a bit darker and there are some captivating textures (e.g. a unison viola/cello line weaving its way between the violins during the first movement). Generally, though, it’s a dryer piece, with Dalberg’s focus on developing motivic ideas robbing the proceedings of some naturalness and warmth (an off-beat scherzo notwithstanding).

Dalberg’s Quartet no. 3, meanwhile, does channel Bartók a bit in its rhythmic profile and freer use of dissonance. It’s expressive argument is also rather more urgent and lyrical than in the central quartet.

The performances of all three pieces by the Nordic String Quartet brim with passion and energy: the ensemble has the notes and character of the music completely in hand and play them with missionary zeal. Suffice it to say, they’re quartets worth getting to know – and, if you’re a chamber ensemble, to add to your repertoire.

Wynton Marsalis isn’t usually the most interesting of symphonic composers – his writing for his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is invariably fresher and more engaging than his orchestral works (even those that incorporate the LCJO). But his new Violin Concerto, written for the violinist Nicola Benedetti, is an exception: bracing, dramatic, wildly virtuosic, and, ultimately, uplifting.

Its four movements draw on a variety of musical traditions (including Celtic, Anglo, and African-American folk music) and follow a programmatic arc that leads from light to dark and back again.

The first, “Rhapsody,” involves lots of agile violin writing, high and exposed, plus a lively cadenza that culminates in some pungent fiddling. In the lush and lyrical second, “Rondo Burlesque,” some nice, bluesy episodes hint at the shadows of Ravel and Varese. The third, “Blues,” opens with sultry, brooding statements before building to a braying climax. More fiddling (plus clapping in the orchestra) mark the finale, “Hootenanny,” which ends with the soloist slowly walking off the stage while playing (Pied Piper Fantasy-esque).

The work’s debut recording is electrifying. Benedetti has perhaps flown a bit under the radar in this country – but expect that to change. Her chops are second-to-none and she tosses off Marsalis’ exuberant writing with aplomb. In a word, she’s dazzling, technically and expressively.

Cristian Măcelaru leads the Philadelphia Orchestra in an equally brilliant accompaniment, one that’s rhythmically tight and blazing with color (Marsalis seems to have taken a few pointers from Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Andre Previn in his orchestral writing at various points in the Concerto – notably the end of the second movement – as well as, maybe William Bolcom here and there, too).

Completing the album is Marsalis’ Fiddle Dance Suite, a five-movement set of reels, jigs, lullabies and the like, again perfectly tailored to Benedetti’s skill set. She plays the dance movements – “Sidestep Reel,” “Jones’ Jig,” “Nicola’s Strathspey,” and “Bye-bye Breakdown” – with ferocious drive and brio. “As the Wind goes” provides a cool, sweet respite.

Has there been a less-necessary Mahler cycle this decade than the one Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra are currently churning out for Bis? Perhaps – but I haven’t heard it. In case you missed it, their installment of the Sixth Symphony was one of last year’s big duds: flagging and aimless. Now comes a similarly dispiriting reading of the First.

Well, maybe “dispiriting” is the wrong word: what’s actually fascinating about this new album is how the Minnesotans’ reading of the First goes wrong in pretty much all the same ways that their Sixth did.

As on the previous release, the performance is, technically, excellent: the orchestra has the notes easily in hand and brings a beguiling sense of color to much of the piece (the woodwind solos in the first movement, for instance, are a conspicuous highlight). Also like with the Sixth, Bis’s engineering leaves nothing to be desired from a listening standpoint.

So, like the earlier entry, this Mahler One’s shortcomings are entirely interpretive, namely: Vänskä’s reading lacks any sense of mystery, intensity, momentum, and narrative.

Tempos aren’t exactly slow, but they’re usually sluggish enough to undercut any sense of direction the music might be trying to work up – during the first movement’s lengthy development, the trios in the Ländler and funeral march, and pretty much any point in the finale that isn’t loud, for three broad examples.

Consistently during those latter, grandiose moments (regardless of movement), though, Vänskä resorts to an approach to phrasing that is stolid and foursquare. This has the effect of giving this most cinematic of symphonies a frustratingly episodic cast: held back and choppy. It’s a recipe for Mahlerian letdown and, well, that’s pretty much what we’ve got.

As for measuring intensity, well, take the last page of the first movement, whose recurring measures of silence interrupted by frenzied orchestral spurts are supposed to be pregnant with expectation and excitement. Here, Vänskä and his band give us…a through-current of torpid silence. So goes the larger disc: what should be a sweeping, edge-of-the-seat, epic journey is, instead, precious, mannered, and uninspiring.

So, your recordings by Solti, Bernstein, Tennstedt, Kubelik, Abbado, and Gielen of this Mahler can rest easy: Vänskä’s First doesn’t hold a candle to any of ‘em.

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.

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