CD reviews


September 26, 2002|By Tim Smith

Beethoven and Borromeo

Beethoven: Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, and C major, Op. 59, No. 3. Borromeo String Quartet. (Image Recordings IRC 0202)

Chamber-music fans may have never had it so good - first-rate ensembles can be heard just about everywhere these days. The latest release by one of these, the Borromeo String Quartet, reaffirms the qualities that started earning the group awards and other plaudits shortly after it was formed in 1989.

This foursome boasts a seamless tone, sterling technique and, above all, a consistent depth of expression. Two of Beethoven's most inspired quartets - the C major, Op. 59, No. 3, and the F minor, Op. 95 - provide the Borromeo players ideal outlets. The F minor, which lives up fully to its nickname "Serioso" ("Serious"), receives a performance that has a gripping edge, nowhere more so than in the crisp, angry opening phrases of the Scherzo. The second movement is molded with unforced lyricism, the finale's unexpected burst of high spirits with an effective abandon.

That finale shares the spirit of the C major Quartet's whirlwind last movement, which again unleashes considerable propulsion and virtuosity, along with contagious good humor, from the musicians. There aren't six more breathless minutes in all of classical music; they fly by here in terrific style. The rest of this work receives equally insightful attention.

The Borromeo String Quartet will open the 2002-2003 Shriver Hall Concert Series with quartets by Beethoven (Op. 127), Debussy and Kurtag at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St. Tickets are $33, $17 for students. Call 410-516-7164.

* * * *

Veteran violinists

Aaron Rosand: My Legacy. Aaron Rosand, violinist; Hugh Sung, pianist. (Artek AR-0011-2)

Berl Senofsky: In Concert at the Library of Congress. Berl Senofsky, violinist; Gary Graffman, pianist. (Bridge 9118)

The title of Aaron Rosand's CD may strike some as a little pretentious. But the soon-to-be 75-year-old violinist does have a legacy to impart, and it's a great one. He's one of the last of a vanishing breed of aristocratic fiddlers with a direct link to the glorious past; his teachers were students of violin giants Ysaye and Auer. But there's much more to Rosand than his past. He's playing better than ever these days, reinforcing his own high standards and providing a model for young violinists who care as much about style as technique, heart as much as hands.

On this new release (from the label founded by top-notch violinist Elmar Oliveira) Rosand offers exceptionally prismatic performances of highly atmospheric musical poems by Szymanowski and showpieces by Wieniawski. In between are transcriptions of four Nocturnes by Chopin that inspire exquisite lyricism and tonal sweetness from Rosand. Hugh Sung is the sensitive accompanist throughout this remarkable disc.

Berl Senofsky, who died in June and taught for three decades at the Peabody Institute, shares some of the same links to the past that Rosand enjoys, including studies with Efram Zimbalist.

Senofsky's considerable talents can be sampled in a recital recorded in 1975 at the Library of Congress with brilliant pianist Gary Graffman (just a few years before the right-hand injury that altered Graffman's career).

In the A major Sonata by Brahms, Senofsky demonstrates a dark tone, mostly rock-solid technique and considerable intensity. He brings the same gifts to the spiky, moody F minor Sonata by Prokofiev. Both performances exude quiet authority, if not always an indelible personality. Graffman's participation, needless to say, adds an extra recommendation by itself.

* * * * (Rosand)

* * * 1/2 (Senofsky)


Symphony No. 6 ("Tragic"). Philharmonia Orchestra; Benjamin Zander, conductor. (Telarc 80586, three discs).

The Sixth is one of the thorniest of Mahler's symphonies and one of the most overwhelming. Benjamin Zander, who has become almost a cult figure for his championing of this composer, reveals a keen interest in the myriad emotions, colors and question marks of the score. It's an involved and involving interpretation that inspires an exceptional performance from the Philharmonia Orchestra.

For the opening funeral march, Zander strikes a middle ground between the nervous drive of, say Georg Solti and the individualistic slowness of John Barbirolli. The tempo allows the weight of the music to sink in powerfully and makes the subsequent outbreak of sunshine seem all the more natural an extension of the initial thought. The Scherzo is given terrific bite; the exquisite, pastoral Andante gets lovingly molded.

Adding even more merit to the disc is the inclusion of both finales - the first one Mahler wrote, with its three massive hammer-blows; and the second, somewhat more lightly orchestrated revision, with only two hammer-blows. Listeners can decide for themselves which one is more persuasive. Zander prefers the first and, after hearing his vividly committed approach, I'm inclined to prefer it, too.

The inclusion of the two finales is not the only bonus. An extra disc is included, containing nearly 80 minutes' worth of the conductor discussing the symphony and his interpretation, with musical illustrations. All in all, a remarkable package.

* * * *

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