Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Ensemble Epomeo Schnittke Weinberg Kurtág Penderecki

Ensemble Epomeo Schnittke Weinberg Kurtág Penderecki
Schnittke: String Trio
Weinberg: String Trio
Kurtág: String Trio
Penderecki: String Trio
Ensemble Epomeo
AVIE AV2315 [71:21]

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Four modern masterpieces are presented here in distinctive and engaging interpretations. The idea of “interpretation” may seem anathema to musical Modernism, as many 20th-century scores seem to require little more of their performers than faithful execution. But none of the works here is in that category, as is amply demonstrated by the differences of tone and approach between these recordings and most earlier versions. It’s a diverse collection, but Ensemble Epomeo applies similar criteria to each. The tone is elegant but focussed throughout. Tempos and articulations are quite strict, with few indulgences of rubato or portamento. Yet within these self-imposed interpretive limits a great deal of expression and variety is achieved. The title of Ken Woods’ excellent liner essay is “Reconciling the old and new”, and that dichotomy is apparent in the performances through continual balancing of Romantic expression and Modernist austerity. Every ensemble approaching these scores, especially the Schnittke and the Penderecki, has to work out that balance for themselves, but more often than not, this group seems to achieve the impossible by having it both ways.
Ensemble Epomeo was founded in 2008 to perform the Schnittke String Trio, and the players’ close affinity with the work today is clear from every note of this recording. It’s not an easy piece, and it is rare to find a version on disc with the sheer level of technical accuracy of this one. The interpretive questions come down to the relationship between the work’s tight, and fairly conventional, structure and its inclusion of various stylistic references, specifically Viennese waltzes and Russian Orthodox chant. In this recording, structure and progression take the upper hand. The various styles are acknowledged, but never to the point of leading the music off course. Again, discipline is the watchword. The opening statement is delivered with a blank, emotionless tone (I was reminded of the opening Aria of Glenn Gould’s first Goldberg recording). There’s no portamento here, no expressive swells, and no attempt to make the music sound sentimental or distant – all of which we might expect from earlier recordings. Instead, these players make the opening the starting point on a journey, with the music and its expression becoming ever-more complex as the movement goes on. For all its sophisticated structuring, the work is also quite sectional, with juxtapositions of mood and style between successive phrases. But continuity is achieved here by moving seamlessly from one into another. That is partly achieved by avoiding gaps between phrases, but also by keeping down the louder dynamics. Those vicious tuttis retain their bite though, through the acerbic timbres that the players apply. Although a little lacking in the sheer abandon that can make this music so compelling, another advantage is that the harmonic basis of these sections becomes clear. Schnittke usually superimposes diatonic triads to create his dissonances here, a principle demonstrated in this recording with unusual clarity.
The Schnittke is the main work on this programme, but the other three are more than just fillers. Weinberg’s String Trio dates from 1950, difficult times, not only was Weinberg’s music then suppressed due to the Zhdanov decree of 1948, but it was also the era of the most intense repression of Jews in Soviet cultural life, which would culminate for the composer a few years later in arrest in connection with the “doctor’s plot”. But the Trio is wholly unapologetic, especially in its use of Jewish folk styles and klezmer. Ensemble Epomeo finds an ideal balance between the works structure and its many stylistic divergences. And again, clarity of tone and of interpretive focus elucidates the work’s structure and logic. There is also a sense that the players have half an eye on the overall programme of the disc as they perform this piece. It is the most stylistically conservative of the four, but by giving it a more modern edge, they fit it more logically between the Schnittke and the Kurtág.
Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages, an ongoing project represented here as a series of seven short and aphoristic movements, perhaps comes closest to anything on the disc to the model of Modernist music that requires little interpretation. But even so, all those qualities of clarity of tone and intent are again brought to bear, and to impressive effect. Kurtág’s art relies heavily on expressive extremes, so Ensemble Epomeo expand their self-imposed dynamic constraints for him, especially for the louder outbursts, which have astonishing impact here. But there’s plenty of subtly too, for example in the ways that the sounds of open strings are contrasted to those of stopped strings, or in the curiously inverted or contrived balances he seeks in some of his harmonies. The work is given a clear-eyed interpretation, but that clarity never diminishes the sophistication of the music.
A big surprise at the start of the Penderecki. His String Trio opens with three huge, dissonant chords, wrenched from the instruments with painful deliberation. Or that’s what usually happens – here the opening is played fast and at a moderate dynamic. The chords are there all right, but are presented as a casual opening gesture. Like the Schnittke, this piece sits on a borderline between different styles in its composer’s output. It was written in 1990-91, by which time Penderecki had long turned his back on the sonorist Modernism of the 50s and 60s and had seemed to settle into a more consonant and tonal idiom. But in the String Trio many aspects of his earlier self return, not least his fluency in dissonant discourse and his taste for expressive extremes. In fact, these aspects are somewhat superficial to a more tonal language and classical form, and it is these more traditional aspects that the present recording emphasises. Again, the players are reconciling new and old, although in this case the two terms are reversed, at least in terms of the composer’s artistic trajectory. As in the Schnittke, the result is impressive for the clarity of textures achieved and for the discipline applied to music that can elsewhere tend towards anarchy. Perhaps the control goes a little too far though, and it is surprising that, on this disc, the Penderecki sounds closer to the Weinberg than it does to the Schnittke.
But again, the sheer individuality of this interpretation sets it apart. All four works are given compelling interpretations, often unusual but never to their detriment. The sound quality is very fine, finer than on any other recording of the Schnittke I know, the packaging is elegant, and the liner essay by Ken Woods is well worth a read. Recommended.

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