Albums from Takács Quartet, Sphere Ensemble and violinist Karen Bentley Pollick
By Peter Alexander
A number of CD albums of interest to Boulder audiences have come onto the scene in the past several months.
Broadly speaking, they would all fall into the “classical” category. That designation seems increasingly problematic, however, since it includes not only music that is what we generally mean by “classical,” but also contemporary music that isn’t anyone’s idea of classical, music by composers who are influenced by everything from world music to rock, and music for both traditional and a wide variety of non-traditional media.
I have seen several suggestions for a new term: concert music is one that has been floating around for a while without catching on, and Cuepoint blogger Craig Havinghurst recently offered the term “composed music.”
Whatever you want to call it, here are three recordings that I have recently heard with pleasure:
Takács Quartet with Marc-André Hamelin, piano. Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 2 in A major, op. 68; Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57. Hyperion CDA67987, 2014.
The oldest of the CDs on the list, the Takács Quartet’s disc of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 and, with Marc-André Hamelin, of the Piano Quintet in G minor, was recorded in 2014. It came to attention recently because it was nominated for the 2015 Grammy Award in chamber music. Although it did not win—the award went to the new-music sextet eighth blackbird—it is nonetheless a recording of great interest.
For one thing it is the quartet’s first recording of music by Shostakovich, one of two great composers of string quartets in the 20th century (along with Bartók, whose music the Takács is renowned for performing). And they are joined here by Marc-André Hamelin, one of the outstanding chamber pianists of our times.
Hamelin’s incisive pianism gives the Quintet muscularity and drive. The final two movements, veering from relentless brooding to a fragile and overwrought cheer, are particularly characteristic of the Stalin-era Shostakovich, and here they receive an exemplary performance. Hamelin and the quartet are beautifully balanced throughout their deeply expressive interpretation.
The Second String Quartet lacks the savagery some bring to its performance, but it has the clarity and refinement that mark the best Takács interpretations. The Recitative and Romance movement is especially eloquent, and the individual variations of the last movement are clearly profiled.
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Sphere Ensemble: Divergence. Various works. Performed and self-produced by the Sphere Ensemble. 2015.
Do you like variety in your musical collection? If so, “Sphere Ensemble: Divergence”—with repertoire ranging from the plush Victorian romanticism of Edward Elgar to a cheeky mashup of Mozart and Daft Punk—is for you!
Billing itself as “Colorado’s exciting new chamber ensemble,” Sphere comprises 11 classical trained string players who currently perform with the Boulder Philharmonic, Opera Colorado, Greeley Philharmonic, Colorado Symphony, Central City Opera, Colorado Springs Philharmonic, Fort Collins Symphony, Cheyenne Symphony and Ensemble Pearl. No strangers to Boulder, Sphere performs all along the front range. Coming events are in Estes Park, Brighton, Broomfield and Loveland. < >
Daft Punk and Elgar aside, it’s in the material between the extremes that Sphere most comes into its own, pieces that combine pop, bluegrass, jazz, elements from world music and classical bits in various proportions. After an ardent if undernourished movement from Elgar’s spacious Serenade for Strings, the CD proceeds with Regina Spektor’s “All the Rowboats,” spiced with classical quotations; the bluegrass/Irish “Butterfly Jig” of Sphere members Emily Rose Lewis and David Short; a string arrangement of Ravel’s Sonatine for piano that is easily the most ethereally detached music on the disc; and Colorado jazzman Wil Swindler’s gloomy “Divergence,” which gives the album its title.
That is only a small sample of the unexpected pleasures to be found on this disc. A series of largely pop-inflected tracks culminates with the Daft Punk-Mozart mashup, “Get Mozart,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” But just when you think Sphere has settled into a pop groove, along comes the haunting “Romance” of 20th-century English song composer Gerald Finzi. Every piece is played with expression, energy, and an audible enjoyment of the journey.
My favorites on the album are Spektor’s “All the Rowboats,” Swindler’s “Divergence,” the tango-ish “Nueve Puntos” by Francisco Canaro, Karin Young’s Cajun-inspired “Rooster’s Wife,” and Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” That you will find your own favorites is the whole point. If you like music, you will find something to love on this CD.
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Peace Piece: Karen Bentley Pollick plays music by Ole Saxe. Karen Bentley Pollick, violin and viola, with Justas Šervenikas and Ivan Solokov, piano, and Volkmar Zimmermann, guitar. Neptunus NEPCD012, 2015.
The extraordinary violinist/violist Karen Bentley Pollick has homes in Evergreen and in Vilnius, Lithuania. She performs widely in the U.S. and in Europe, and has performed in Boulder. (Disclosure: Pollick and I met when we were both graduate students at Indiana University and have remained friends since.)
Her recent disc “Peace Piece” is a good reflection of her interests: contemporary music, some written for her, music for both violin and viola, both accompanied and unaccompanied. In this case, the music is all by the Swedish composer Ole Saxe, and as the title suggests, most pieces are in some way related to the ideas of peace, justice, and human dignity.
The centerpiece of the recording is the title track, Saxe’s “Peace Piece,” originally written for Swedish clarinetist Kjell Fageus and here arranged for violin and viola (both played by Bentley) and piano. This is the most musically dense piece on the CD, and perhaps the least approachable on casual listening. From different realms, the violin and viola seem to reach a musical accord—the symbolism is clear—and end sharing an energetic closing gesture.
The CD opens with “Human Rights Suite,” six pieces for solo violin based on six of the 30 articles of the UN “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Titled “Born Free,” “Right to Life,” “No Slavery,” “No Torture,” “Recognition,” and “Asylum,” the individual movements are both musically engaging and clearly expressive of their subjects.
The “Užupis Constitution Song,” celebrates the constitution of a self-declared “Republic of Užupis”—the artists’ district of Vilnius. The constitution, which may or may not be partly tongue in cheek, declares among other principles that “Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance,” “Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday,” and “Everyone has the right to be happy”—or, alternately, unhappy. (Read it all here .) But you can easily appreciate the flowing music, depicting the river Vilnelé that flows through Vilnius and along the border of Užupis, without reading the Užupian constitution.
Other tracks on the CD are dances: Daladans based on the folk music of Dalarna, Sweden; a sultry Tango Orientale; and a cheerfully Latinesque Rhumba de la Luna, part of a suite of dances that Saxe wrote for Pollick. Between the more serious pieces is a funky version of “Happy Birthday”—celebrating the rights of Užupians who choose to celebrate that day, or not?—and a beautiful and comforting final track for viola and guitar, arranged from Saxe’s “Faith” for clarinet and cello.
Pollick is a virtuoso who makes the music sound comfortably under her fingers. It is all played with great commitment, both musically and philosophically, by Pollick and her colleagues. A CD of such ideals and musical interest should find an audience in Boulder.
(Edited 2/29/16 to correct typos.)