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American Chamber Music
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Violin Sonata (1942/43) [18:07]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Largo for violin, clarinet and piano (1901) [5:20]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Piano Trio (1937) [15:30]
Elliott CARTER (1908-2012)
Elegy for viola and piano (1943) [4:27]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11 (1935/36) [17:53]
Musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society
rec. July 2013, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, USA
ONYX 4129 [61:53]

This road trip through twentieth-century American music makes for an attractive and accessible programme. This starts with Aaron Copland’s Violin Sonata a work dedicated to the memory of his friend Lieutenant Harry H. Dunham who died in the Second World War. Copland commenced the score in 1942 completing it the next year in Hollywood during work on the film score The North Star. We hear a compelling reading by Ehnes and Weiss of this fascinating work that deserves wider circulation. Maintaining an intensely buoyant mood in the opening Andante semplice I feel the influence of the ballets: the contemporaneous Rodeo and Appalachian Spring that was to come later. The central Lento feels sultry with an undertow of uneasy calm. Finally the Allegretto giusto starts in a vivacious mood which soon becomes serious whilst maintaining energy.

From 1901 Charles Ives’s attractive single movement Largo for violin, clarinet and piano is taken from his early violin sonata known as the Pre-First Sonata. This in turn originated as a work for violin and organ. Moretti, Morales and Polonsky gleam in this intensely contemplative score.

The Piano Trio from 1937 is one of Leonard Bernstein’s lesser known works and for good reason. It was written whilst the nineteen year old was still a student of Walter Piston at Harvard University. Evidently Bernstein later reused some of the music for his musical On the Town. Not surprisingly this youthful Piano Trio is uneven in quality showing little evidence of the magnificence that was to come. The first movement both opens and closes rather cheerlessly with a central section that feels like a vivacious romp. Striking are the animated syncopated rhythms that characterise the central Tempo di Marcia. The Finale opens with a Largo that is monotonous but which gives way to flippant and slightly jazzy exuberance. Keefe, Peled and Neiman supply an abundance of vitality yet remain in control.
The shortest piece here is Elliot Carter’s Elegy for viola and piano. Composed in 1943 it survived Carter’s rejection of works that he wrote prior to the Second World War. It’s an agreeable single movement strong on calm reflection with an emotional central section. O’Neill and Polonsky form a thoughtful partnership and play with sensitivity and taste.

Samuel Barber won the Prix de Rome in 1935 and not after embarked on his String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11 which he completed in 1936. Dissatisfied with the third and final movement Barber eventually replaced it with a Molto allegro (Come prima) of less than half the length of the original. Crucially Barber arranged the central Molto adagio for string orchestra known as the Adagio for Strings. Premièred by Toscanini in 1938 the piece has become one of the best known pieces of American music. As a stand-alone work the Adagio for Strings is especially associated with times of mourning. It was used to accompany the state funerals of Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy. It’s all very impressively done by the engaging Ehnes Quartet led by James Ehnes a sensitive player who performs immaculately. The opening Molto allegro e appassionato communicates a sense of isolation and the playing of the Molto adagio is solemn, imposing and haunting. To close, the short bleak, inhospitable Molto Allegro (come prima) is imbued with melancholy. Incidentally in 2012 the Ying Quartet recorded Barber’s String Quartet and included the original third movement marked Andante mosso, un poco agitato - allegro molto, alla breve - a longer movement that was played for a year or two before being discarded.

The sound is clear and natural balanced. The booklet notes titled Highways and byways are concise and serve up the essentials. Unfortunately the dates for Copland are twice given erroneously as 1900-1900.

This impressive collection is given the finest possible advocacy by the Seattle Chamber Music Society. What stands out is the elevated level of performance consistency across all five works; this and a noticeable and impressive beauty of tone coupled with unerring unity of playing.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Steve Arloff

Performer details
Copland: James Ehnes, violin and Orion Weiss, piano
Ives: Amy Schwartz Moretti (violin), Ricardo Morales (clarinet) Anna Polonsky (piano)
Bernstein: Erin Keefe (violin), Amit Peled (cello), Adam Neiman (piano)
Carter: Richard O’Neill (viola), Anna Polonsky (piano)
Barber: Ehnes Quartet (James Ehnes (violin), Amy Schwartz Moretti (violin), Richard O’Neill (viola), Robert deMaine (cello))