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Reinhold GLIÈRE (1874-1956)
String Octet in D major, Op.5 [25:11]
Reynaldo HAHN (1874-1947)
Piano Quintet in F sharp minor [27:46]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Two Pieces for String Octet, Op.11 [10:34]
rec. live, 19 & 24 June 2018, Spannungen Chamber Music Festival, Heimbach
C-AVI MUSIC 8553102 [63:36]

Here we have a rather interesting selection of neglected chamber music by two rather neglected composers and one much less neglected one. This recording stems from the yearly “Spannungen” Chamber music festival which is held in a hydroelectric plant in Heimbach in Germany and includes a variety of artists and differing ensembles, all under the artistic direction of the pianist Lars Vogt.

I’ve long been a fan of the music of Glière, it stems from my playing one of his ‘Esquisse’ when I sat my Grade 7 ABRSM piano many years ago. The Octet is an early work, dating from 1903 when Glière was still a student (rather like the later Octet by Shostakovich recorded elsewhere on the disc). Anyway, the opening is rather quiet and restrained before building to some rather amiable music for the whole group. There is an attractive yearning theme for violins about a minute in which is superbly played and well integrated with the rest of the octet. Following that passage, there is a very cleverly written Russian sounding theme which interleaves between the instruments – it sounds like something Borodin would have composed. Overall, this opening movement is mostly amiable in character with some shorter more agitated passages (e.g. about 3’30’’) which make frequent use of the Russian theme I mentioned earlier in various different registers. It is very tuneful and contains plenty of interesting music with lots of contrast, ending with a lovely, peaceful resolution. The following ‘Allegro’ starts out quietly and almost Scottish in tone then growing agitated quite quickly before settling down. The main theme mostly bounces from the violins to the ‘cellos with the remainder of the players providing some complex scurrying pizzicato accompaniment. This movement is not very long and contains much of interest, there is some more Borodin-like music towards the conclusion and some superb control by the entire ensemble, it’s wonderfully played. The third movement is a lyrical ‘Andante’ which commences with a hint of sadness and again more suggestions of Borodin. This atmosphere doesn’t last long and things grow increasingly passionate and ardent from about 2 minutes in, there is an insistent little motif on the violas which underlies much of the music here before the main theme returns to the fore. When this does return, in a lovely passage at 3’42’,’ it stays mostly on the violins but thereafter things gradually wind down as the movement calms down to end sadly and actually quite unexpectedly. The finale is an ‘Allegro assai’ and starts confidently and positively. Here there are some very memorable themes which will stick in your head! The main theme on the ‘cello at 48 seconds in is perfectly judged and very beautiful. Following this, the remainder of the instruments gain in strength and everyone plays together with some rather virtuosic and powerful music played wonderfully well. There is a real sense of driving forward here as the movement progresses but this is suddenly stopped with a series of quiet statements on the ‘cellos which apply the brakes to the music. Things restart with various themes emerging with the underlying figures in the middle strings providing a nervy accompaniment before this builds again to more dominant dance like music. The middle part of this movement is made up mostly of this dance like music and then suddenly, at 4’30’’ this dissipates to be replaced with some cheerful happy material. This bounces along pleasantly for a minute or two before being disturbed by the return of the agitated music which here becomes more passionate and almost angry. This leads to a very curious last minute or so which to me sounds like it contains several false endings where you think it’s going to conclude and then doesn’t. Many of the key changes are unexpected and the final positive major key flourish is equally surprising. I wasn’t terribly familiar with this string octet before I’d heard this recording perhaps as it appears to have not been recorded terribly often. This is a shame as it is a marvellous, very Russian sounding work full of lovely tunes and brilliant writing for the assorted instruments and would make an excellent companion on CD with the fantastic Mendelssohn E flat major Octet, Op.20.

Hahn’s Piano quintet has had an unfortunate history, the work languished unperformed for decades and has only really been recorded a handful of times over the last 20 years – despite being written in 1922. This is a shame as it is a super example of late romantic writing for chamber ensemble. The opening launches straight into some wonderful tuneful music with the piano and strings well integrated and bouncing nicely off one another. The theme which occurs at about 1’08’’ is beautiful and makes for a nice contrast to the more tense music from the opening which reoccurs frequently throughout the opening movement. The dialogue between the strings and piano is excellent and the virtuosity of all concerned is marvellous. There some plenty of memorable themes here, and several which have become earworms. Around 5 minutes in, the faster ‘agitato’ music relaxes into a rather magnificent quieter, more reflective section with the cello leading and the other instruments joining in with a sort of “song without words”. Here, despite the quietness of the music, there is no sound from the audience and some extremely delicate playing from the violins. This short section is utterly beautiful. Things pick up again after this and become more rhapsodic in nature before settling down again with some virtuosic playing by the strings, nicely underpinned by the piano. The closing moments of the piece are heralded by the return of the opening theme which acts as a bridge to the positive, slightly surprising ending of this movement. The minor key second movement ‘Andante’ is overall a restrained and mournful piece with plenty for the excellent cellist to do as he leads the ensemble. Despite the overall sad character of this movement, there are flashes of light here and there and these make a nice contrast to the sadder parts. About 3 minutes in, there is a particularly dark passage but this dissolves away to a rather charming, slightly faster part for the whole ensemble which is just marvellous. This dissipates again to some plodding piano work with the violins providing a sad tune. The music doesn’t really develop much here, it just sort of unfolds as it proceeds. Each new tune that emerges seems to grow organically from the proceeding one, making for a continuous stream of really rather splendid music. The ending of the ‘Andante’ in contrast to much of this movement, is uplifting and heartfelt. The finale, marked ‘Allegretto grazioso’, sets off happily on the piano before the remainder of the instruments join in. Again there are some wonderful tunes here and some very Saint-Saëns like writing in the piano part. I really like the way the strings play a tune and are then answered by the piano before they all join in cheerfully together. The piano provides the backbone for most of this movement and underpins the strings perfectly without overwhelming them. There is some very passionate and committed playing by the whole ensemble who seem to relish this wonderful piece and play together superbly! This is a happy, bright and powerful conclusion to this work and ends suitably virtuosically for all concerned. The work is absolutely stuffed with good tunes and is splendid, I shall be returning to it often and I shall also have to investigate Hahn’s other output as the only other work I have by him in my CD collection is his also rather impressive piano concerto.

The final work on this disc is the “Two pieces for string octet” by Shostakovich which are early works written when he was still a student (like the Glière) and dating from only a couple of years after the preceding Hahn Quintet - although they are totally different in character to that piece. The first is an astringent sounding prelude, which is suffused with sadness and was dedicated to a friend of the composers who died early of Typhoid. There is some beautiful elegiac playing here, interspersed with more angry and distinctive scurrying music which is edgy and fugal in nature. The whole ensemble play magnificently throughout this weird short work which contains a lot of material for its short length. The last minute or so is particularly cleverly written for this ensemble and contains interesting effects for the performers. The following scherzo is different in outlook and much more Russian sounding, at least to begin with. Overall, it’s very aggressive, dark, scary and brutal as well and contains some extremely virtuosic playing for the ensemble. This is not an easy work to listen to but, as the notes say, it is surprisingly similar in nature to many of this composer’s later works as many of the traits shown (especially in the symphonies) are present here. It is also a work which will grow on you with repeated listening, especially in a performance that is as committed as this.

The cover notes are a little brief but contain valuable information about the works on the disc. Regarding the recording, the audience is surprisingly quiet throughout such that, if it didn’t say in the notes that this was live, you perhaps wouldn’t notice. The recorded sound is clear and bright and very detailed. In summary, this is a fascinating disc with some very fine playing by all concerned; a quick trawl on the internet shows there are several other discs from the same festival available which I shall certainly be investigating.

Jonathan Welsh

Performers
Glière - Byol Kang, Yura Lee, Gergana Gergova & Florian Donderer (violins); Hanna Weinmeister & Timothy Ridout (violas); Tanja Tetzlaff & Alban Gerhardt (cellos).
Hahn - Arturo Pizarro (piano), Anna Reszniak & Elizabeth Kufferath (violins), Yura Lee (viola) and Gustav Rivinius (cello).
Shostakovich - Byol Kang, Yura Lee, Gergana Gergova & Florian Donderer (violins); Hanna Weinmeister & Tatjana Masurenko (violas); Tanja Tetzlaff & Alban Gerhardt (cellos).



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