The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW’s Pro Arte Quartet and new UW clarinet professor Alicia Lee perform a sublime all-Mozart program

September 30, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORTFM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet has begun its 2017-18 season amid uncertainties.

The most notable one is the current indisposition of cellist Parry Karp, whose injury to two fingers of his left hand has prevented him from playing for the immediate future.

Quartet members (below in a photo by Rick Langer) are, from left, David Perry and Suzanne Beia, first and second violins; Sally Chisholm, viola: and Parry Karp, cello.

But the group has pressed on bravely, offering an all-Mozart concert last Sunday night in Mills Hall.

The first of two works was the buoyant but challenging String Quartet in G Major, K. 387. Replacing Karp was a guest cellist, Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below right and bottom), who is familiar to Madison audiences from his many appearances with the San Francisco Trio for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s summer concerts.

Fonteneau played elegantly and fitted into the ensemble quite smoothly. And the other three players performed with their accustomed precision and style.

But just one personnel change makes a difference. Clearly missing was the robust tone and firm foundation that Karp has imparted to the ensemble’s playing for so long.

If the G major Quartet is a Mozartean model of its kind, we move to Olympian heights with the Quintet in A for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581 — a chamber work (below) with only the tiniest number of peers in this scoring.

Joining the quartet this time was a new UW-Madison faculty member, clarinetist Alicia Lee (below).

Petite but totally confident, Lee brought to the string ensemble not the edgy aggressiveness so often heard from clarinetists but rather a glowing mellowness that balanced neatly with the string sounds.

The loveliest moments seemed to me to be the slower passages, and the exquisite slow movement was truly ethereal. (You can hear the Larghetto slow movement, played by clarinetist Anthony McGill and the Pacifica Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Preceding the concert was an announcement by Linda Graebner of the consolidation of the Pro Arte Quartet Forward Fund, which is seeking to raise an major endowment for the quartet.

Bolstered by that effort, then, the PAQ is some five years into its second century, determined from many sides to cope with its uncertainties.

NOTE: The Pro Arte Quartet’s next performance is this coming Thursday: a FREE performance at NOON in Mills Hall of the String Quintet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms. Jean-Michel Fonteneau will again be the cellist and the guest artist is the internationally renowned violist Nobuko Imai (below). Imai will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class in strings and chamber music on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.

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Classical music: The Pacifica Quartet’s third volume of “The Soviet Experience” and Dmitri Shostakovich string quartets is yet another MUST-HEAR and MUST-BUY recording from this top-notch Midwestern chamber music group.

August 1, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

There are so many reasons to like the third 2-CD installment of a projected four volumes of “The Soviet Experience,” (below) performed by the Pacifica String Quartet and recorded by the non-profit Cedille Records that is based in Chicago and specializes in regional artists.

Pacifica Quartet Soviet Vol 3

I suppose one has to start with the music and the performances.

Suffice it to say that I have never heard the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich (below) performed with such appeal and subtlety as by this group. These performances grab and hold your attention as much as the music does. (See the YouTube video at bottom with a member of the Pacifica explaining the appeal of Shostakovich.)

dmitri shostakovich

Yes, I much admire and often listen to the Grammy-winning set by the Emerson String Quartet. And I also like the softer readings by the St. Petersburg Quartet. But there is something special about these performances from the Pacifica Quartet (below).

pacifica quartet

For one, I find the Pacifica projects a lot of subtlety, flexibility and nuances, and also emphasizes a certain a traditional Russian sound or musicality that extended right into Soviet music.

That is, the Pacifica Quartet – the members are now artists-in-residence at the famed Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University — has been acclaimed for its compete Mendelssohn quartet cycle and for a terrific turn-of-the century recital (“Declarations,” below) of music by Leos Janacek, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Paul Hindemith.

pacifica quartet %22declarations%22 CD

Most of that music is much less dark than Shostakovich’s. But the members of the Pacifica Quartet can be as modern, spiky and aggressive as Shostakovich’s music demands; yet the quartet also knows when to interject a contrasting lyricism that can be traced back to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

I am especially partial to this latest release. The third volume has my favorite Shostakovich quartet – No. 14 in F-sharp-minor – that is short and with seven uninterrupted movements and a cyclic structure you can easily discern.

Some listeners might prefer the first volume (below) because it has the most famous of the 16 Shostakovich quartets — No. 8 in C minor dedicated to victims of fascism, by which the composer meant both Nazi and Soviet cruelty and terror.

Pacifica Quartet Soviet Experience Vol. 1

Others might prefer volume No. 2 (below) that includes some of the first big and mature quartets.

Pacifica Quartet Soviet Experience 2 CD

I say get all three and also the fourth, which is supposed to be released this October and will complete the Shostakovich cycle with Quartets 13, 14 and 15 plus Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3.

But here are other reasons to like this 2-CD recording.

The packaging, art and liner notes by David Fanning are all first-rate. The timings are generally very generous.

The engineering is superb, with a sonic presence that makes it sound like the quartet is playing right in front of you. There is no reverb or resonance allowed for since your own livingroom or car interior IS the playback venue.

In fact, I am particularly fond of the engineering because the freelancer producer and engineer is Judith Sherman. She is a legend in the business for winning several Grammy awards.

Plus, Sherman (below) is the engineer for the four commissions by the University of Wiscosin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet for its centennial two seasons. They includes quartets by Walter Mays and John Harbison, and piano quintets by Paul Schoenfield and William Bolcom.

Judith Sherman Grammy 2012

The Pro Arte Quartet’s 2-CD centennial commission set will be released on Albany Records this fall. And Sherman has told The Ear that the Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a recording session for Sherman,  who si adjusting microphones in Mills Hall) at the UW-Madison is the equal of any she has recorded and could well be nominated for a Grammy since the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences favors new contemporary works, small labels and unknown performers – all of which apply to the Pro Arte commissions.

Judith Sherman with Pro Arte

But back to the Pacifica’s Soviet CD.

It is worth recalling that Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets served roughly the same purpose at Beethoven’s cycle of 16: a workshop or laboratory to work out ideas and confide private thoughts and techniques that might be too revolutionary or unsuitable for other genres and bigger public consumption.

But I like that more than being a survey of just the Shostakovich quartets, each volume includes a quartet by as contemporary composer of Shostakovich –- Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Myaskovsky and Mieczslaw Weinberg. That program format helps to put a frame around the picture and show what makes Shostakovich so distinctive and original in his time and also gives a sense of that terrible time so that you can also hear what similarities he shares with his contemporaries. 

To be fair, The Ear is not alone in his praise for this recording.

The BBC Music Magazine singled out the CD for a Recording of the Month award.

Here is a link:

http://www.classical-music.com/monthly-choice/shostakovich-string-quartets

And the Telegraph newspaper of London also raved about it. Here is a link to that review, reproduced in a newsletter from Indiana University:

http://blogs.music.indiana.edu/strings/2013/06/13/pacifica-quartet-receives-rave-review-in-londons-telegraph-for-the-soviet-experience-vol-3-cd/

When that many discerning a critics agree, you can be pretty sure that this is a recording that is a must-have and must-hear.


Classical music: What recordings would you add to NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog list of its “Top Classical Recordings of 2012 So Far”?

July 26, 2012
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Many classical music writers — in newspapers, magazine and blogs — wait until the end-of-the-year gift-giving season to list their top picks of new recordings. And generally that works fine – which is why I also do that.

But it can be hard to keep track of a full year’s worth of new recordings.

Plus, that means a lot of catching up to do, a lot of listening in a short time if you want to hear them and judge them for yourself.

So I really like that NPR (to me, it was and remains National Public Radio) and its outstanding “Delayed Cadence” blog lists the best picks for the first half of the year. It’s kind of like celebrating your half-birthday.

They did it last year and they have done it again this year.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/06/13/154911734/npr-classicals-favorite-albums-of-2012-so-far

You’ll notice that it is an eclectic list compiled by the ever-sharp Tom Huizenga (below), with a lot of different kinds of instruments, music and performers.

I am very pleased that it includes pianist Jeremy Denk’s debut solo album (below) for Nonesuch, which includes excerpts from Ligeti’s two books of etudes and Beethoven’s iconic last piano sonata Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor.

You may remember that the talented Denk – whose blog “Think Denk” is a favorite of mine and of acclaimed critic Alex Ross of The New Yorker. So it is small wonder that he writes his ow insightful liner notes for the CD. You may also remember that Denk spent a week in residence at NPR playing J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, which he performed here in Madison two seasons ago and also in Carnegie Hall to great acclaim. NPR also has included Denk (below) is its series of musicians that allowed NPR to peek in on their practicing.

Finally you might recall that Denk is booked on the upcoming season of the Wisconsin Union Theater to perform next spring, and in an interview with The Ear said he might perform Brahms (“Paganini” Variations) and Liszt.

Here is a link to the Q&A Denk did with The Ear, who got to sit on a blogging panel with Denk two years ago:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/classical-music-news-pianist-jeremy-denk-de-normalizes-classical-music-with-his-new-cd-of-beethoven-and-ligeti-and-points-the-way-to-the-future-of-recordings-with-one-that-deserves/

Anyway, I like the NPR list. But to mind, it is hardly exhaustive. I would also add the Pacifica Quartet’s second volume of “Music of the Soviet Union” (for the Chicago-based label Cedille), which couples a Shostakovich cycle with other Soviet-era composers such a Miaskovsky and Prokofiev.

Readers know s me a piano fan So I think I might also add new piano albums by Benjamin Grosvenor, the British pianist who is the youngest pianist ever signed by the major label Decca and who performs Chopin Liszt and Ravel for his debut; and by Inon Barnatan, the acclaimed young Israeli pianist whose playing shines rhythmically and propulsively in his debut album for Avie called  “Darkness Visible,” with music by Debussy, Ravel, Ades and Britten.

What new recordings would you add to the “Best Recordings of 2012 So Far” list?

Leave your nomination in the COMMENT section. I will thank you and so will other readers.


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