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American Chamber Music
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Violin Sonata (1942-3) [18:07]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Largo for violin, clarinet and piano [5:20]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Piano Trio (1937) [15:30]
Elliott CARTER (1908-2012)
Elegy for viola and piano [4:27]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
String Quartet in B minor Op.11 [17:53]
Musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society: James Ehnes (violin), Orion Weiss (piano) (Copland); Amy Schwartz Moretti (violin), Ricardo Morales (clarinet) Anna Polansky (piano) (Ives); Erin Keefe (violin), Amit Peled (cello), Adam Neiman (piano) (Bernstein); Richard O’Neill (viola), Anna Polansky (piano) (Carter); Ehnes Quartet (James Ehnes, Amy Schwartz Moretti (violins), Richard O’Neill (viola), Robert deMaine (cello)) (Barber)
rec. Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, USA, July 2013.
ONYX 4129 [61:53]

An excursion through American chamber music of the twentieth century reveals a sense of innovation and clear-headed, unfussy, straightforward, honest and exciting works. Much the same applies to any examination of American symphonic music. There is something hugely appealing about the music of America; it’s like the music of Europe with knobs on. Most of it puts me in a good frame of mind and acts as a kind of musical balm that helps combat the vicissitudes of modern life, taking me out of a world of stresses and strains to a pleasant and calming oasis.
Aaron Copland has often been referred to as the ‘Dean of American Music’ since from early in his career he was determined to help create an ‘American sound’ that could be distinguished from music that stemmed from the European tradition. This he managed very successfully and today it is easy to identify American music with its expansive sound that is identified with the vast expanses of the American landscape. These features seem apparent even in small-scale works as it does in his Sonata for Violin and Piano that he wrote in 1942-3. The very opening on the piano describes wide vistas to me with just two alternating notes. The whole work is full of lyricism made all the more appealing through its simplicity; something especially telling in the gentle and meditative largo. The closing allegretto is full of spiky rhythms delivered with energetic brio.
Charles Ives was of the opinion that if he maintained his job in insurance he could be free of any constraints when he composed, having to answer to no one. It must take a special person who could write such glorious music yet carry on doing such a very ‘dry’ job; usually composers are driven people who have to compose come what may. His Largo for violin, clarinet and piano is an extremely beautiful piece that started life as one for violin and organ solo. It begins with the piano soon joined by the violin, both in solemn mood, until almost two minutes in the clarinet enters and softens things somewhat by injecting an element of wistful nostalgia. This is only an interlude, however, and piano and violin retake the initiative to close on an arcane note.
Leonard Bernstein, is among the best known of all American composers despite his long career as conductor, with his West Side Story being a seminal moment in American musical history. His 15 minute long trio, composed when he was still a 19 year old student is an amazingly mature work for a young man. Opening on a sad and reflective note the mood soon changes with a quickening pace, becoming cheekily quirky with rapid runs up and down the keyboard accompanied by violin and cello before calming down for the first movement’s close. Tempo di marcia is a delightful little movement brimming with impudence. The final movement opens with a Largo which is initially sad. Soon this gives way to an exciting section marked Allegro vivo e molto ritmico which it certainly is with glorious passages full of sparkling élan before the work closes with a flourish.
Elliott Carter is most well known for works often characterised by dissonance. Indeed his tonally lyrical works in the ‘American populist’ style of colleagues like Copland from the 1930s and 1940s he later disowned. His Elegy from 1943 is one of the few such works he continued to acknowledge. It is a beautifully lyrical piece, charming and thoroughly tuneful. On this basis I hope his other such works still exist to be recorded.
Samuel Barber’s String Quartet is less well known in its entirety than is the second movement which has become one of the world’s favourite pieces known simply as Adagio for strings. While it may have earned plenty for his estate it has sadly not encouraged corresponding sales for the entire work. The public at large is still unaware of the work from which it comes. This is such a shame for, heard in context, the Adagio makes an even greater impact. The opening movement is quite fabulous and the logic of the ensuing movement is much clearer when heard afterwards. Taking its rightful place this movement then is shorn of its hackneyed status to become an integral episode within an absolutely gorgeous quartet all of which makes perfect sense as the sum of its three parts.
On this showing it comes as no surprise that James Ehnes’ star is in the ascendant; his colleagues are equally impressive. This is a disc of great music and is extremely well recorded and played by all concerned.
Steve Arloff