FERDINAND RIES (1784 – 1838): Sonata in F Major, Op. 8, No. 1; Sonata in C minor, Op. 8, No. 2; and Grande Sonata in F minor, Op. 19—Eric Grossman, violin; Susan Kagan, piano [Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, New York, USA, 2 – 3 April 2013; NAXOS 8.573193; 1 CD, 77:44; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDINGS]
 SIR CHARLES VILLIERS STANFORD (1852 – 1924): Piano Trio No. 2 in G minor, Op. 73 and Piano Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 15—Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin; Alice Neary, cello; Benjamin Firth, piano); David Adams, viola [Recorded at Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK, 24 – 26 March 2014; NAXOS 8.573388; 1 CD, 61:23; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
 DOUGLAS LILBURN (1915 – 2001): String Quartet in E minor (1946), Duos for Two Violins (1954), String Trio (1945), Canzonettas for Violin and Viola (1942, 1943, 1958), and Phantasy for String Quartet* (1939)—New Zealand String Quartet [Recorded at St Anne’s Church, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 26 – 28 July 2012; NAXOS 8.573079; 1 CD, 72:49; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; *WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING]
Particularly since 1800, composers of Classical Music have often found their most meaningful and personal modes of expression in chamber music. This is certainly true of Beethoven, whose string quartets are unquestioned masterpieces of their genre as well as works of art in a broader sense that define both the composer’s legacy and the capacity of chamber music to initiate spiritual communication in ways that elude larger musical forms. It is also true of Schumann and Brahms, whose chamber works conjure specters too frail for concerti and symphonies, and the intimately-scaled sonatas and string quartets of Elgar and Delius confront emotions of extraordinary dimensions that must only be whispered, not shouted. Perhaps there is an element of shared peril in chamber music, the small ensembles giving composers, musicians, and audiences few places in which to hide: the prospect of failure is more spectacular when there are no orchestral safety nets. With the pomposity and grandeur of large-scale compositions stripped away, it often seems possible in the context of a chamber work to discern composers’ most profound sensibilities and insecurities. With three superb discs featuring chamber music by Ferdinand Ries, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and Douglas Lilburn, the indefatigably insightful NAXOS label directs listeners’ attention into unfamiliar but richly rewarding niches of chamber music repertory. Spanning nearly a century and a half of musical evolution, these discs explore both the ways in which the sentimental immediacy of chamber music has consistently inspired composers and the infinitely diverse textures they have coaxed from combinations of finite groups of instruments. As so often in recent years, NAXOS recordings here fill a void likely to have remained unoccupied otherwise. Rather than wasting money and artists’—and listeners’—time on new recordings of already over-familiar repertory, why do other labels not follow NAXOS’s lead?
Born in Bonn in 1784, Ferdinand Ries was, like his eventual teacher and fellow Bonn native Beethoven, the product of a musical family. His artistic pedigree was more exalted than Beethoven’s, in fact, but his craftsmanship as a composer was consistently outshone by the glimmer of Beethoven’s genius. As the music on this disc validates, however, Ries was an intelligent, imaginative composer in his own right, and his chamber music deserves attention equal to that granted in the past decade to his oratorios Der Sieg des Glaubens and Die Könige in Israel. Played on this disc by violinist Eric Grossman and pianist Susan Kagan, Ries’s music for their instruments impresses both with its command of early Romantic gestures and the formal elegance of form. The opening Allegro ma non troppo movement of the Sonata in F Major (Op. 8, No. 1) was clearly influenced by Beethoven’s Frühlingssonate, but the younger composer’s originality rapidly emerges. Both in the first movement and in the subsequent Allegretto vivace, Mr. Grossman and Ms. Kagan trade Ries’s melodic lines with consummate virtuosity. The violinist’s beautiful tone and spot-on intonation is heard to advantage in the lovely Larghetto, and both musicians sustain momentum in the contrapuntal writing—more reminiscent of Mozart than of Beethoven—in the concluding Allegretto quasi allegro movement. The Allegro con spirito introduction of the C-minor Sonata (Op. 8, No. 2) is energetically shaped by Mr. Grossman and Ms. Kagan, and the closeness of their collaboration yields magical phrasing in the tranquil Adagio cantabile, the echoes of Beethoven contrasting with a melodic fecundity that brings the chamber music and Lieder of Schubert to mind. Guided by Ms. Kagan’s rock-solid rhythmic accuracy, Mr. Grossman devotes controlled exuberance to the frenzied Allegro scherzando. The majestic Grande Sonata in F minor (Op. 19) traverses musical terrain similar to that roamed in Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata and Carl Maria von Weber’s Opus 63 Trio in G minor. The concentrated melancholy of the Sonata’s Largo espressivo preamble, its starkness almost like the ritornello of a Baroque aria, is touchingly manifested in Mr. Grossman’s and Ms. Kagan’s performance. The Allegro agitato that follows is executed with brilliance by both players, but the pinnacle of their performances on this disc is their expansively-phrased account of the eloquent Andante, a movement in which Ries the pupil attained the distinction of Beethoven the master. The broadly ambivalent Allegro, its development alternating cheerful passages with bars in which the music’s sunny panoramas are obscured by storm clouds, benefits from the musical and dramatic sagacity of Mr. Grossman’s and Ms. Kagan’s partnership. Indeed, this is true of all of the works on this disc: interacting with one another with unaffected coordination and resourcefulness, they provide Ries’s music with performances of the quality necessary to unveil its excellent but long-hidden caliber.
Like Ries before him, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford enjoyed the considerable advantage of being born into a musical family, but whereas Ries lived in the shadow of his great teacher Stanfod was relegated to relative neglect by the success of his pupils. Among composers who studied with Stanford were Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, the prominence in British musical life of both having undermined Stanford’s reputation as a composer by the first decade of the Twentieth Century, but the Dublin-born Stanford was recognized by many of his contemporaries as a significant artist. Owing both to his formative musical and to natural inclinations, his inherent tastes were for the works of Schumann and Brahms, and his chamber music, though disclosing attractive individuality, largely adheres to the models of his German idols. Still, Stanford’s Piano Trio No. 2 in G minor (Op. 73) is an unique, cleverly-conceived piece. The musicians of the Gould Piano Trio—violinist Lucy Gould, cellist Alice Neary, and pianist Benjamin Frith—revel in the unabashed tonal conservatism of the music, bolstering Stanford’s foursquare melodic structures with sharply-defined realizations of his Romantic but restrained harmonic progressions. The composer clearly learned from Brahms’s example that adherence to basic forms can be liberating, and the tight structure of the trio’s Allegro moderato movement does not inhibit a sweeping largesse of expression. The musicians maintain accuracy of ensemble throughout the performance without sacrificing fluidity, and their playing of the slightly saccharine Andante maximizes the music’s effectiveness by avoiding over-accentuation of the academic nature of the thematic development. The tempestuous Presto is robustly delivered, and the playing of the final Larghetto – Allegro con fuoco is marked by sensitivity to the ambiguity of both the tempi and the harmonic patterns. The Gould Piano Trio’s players are joined by violist David Adams in their performance of the Piano Quartet No. 1 in F (Op. 15), the Allegro con brio drawing from all four players exhibitions of technical wizardry and first-rate musical teamwork. In the Scherzo, allegro vivace movement, their dedication to scrupulous observation of the composer’s markings does not preclude uncomplicated enjoyment of the music. The lyricism of the Poco adagio is highlighted by the musicians’ attention to blending their instrumental timbres, and they are unafraid of caressing phrases in an effort to expose the full spectrum of Stanford’s subtle ingenuity. The Quartet ends with an Allegro con brio movement of an almost rigidly celebratory nature, the work’s conclusion only begrudgingly granted a smile. Guided by Ms. Gould’s sure-toned playing, which is never marred by the excessive vibrato often heard in music of this vintage, the musicians fashion an unpretentious but revelatory performance. Fortunately and, considering the composer’s reputation as a better pedagogue than practitioner, rather unexpectedly, Stanford’s music exudes those same qualities. Even great celestial bodies are apt to be eclipsed, after all.
Douglas Lilburn was one of New Zealand’s greatest artists of the Twentieth Century and a composer whose ambitious but approachable music still awaits the recognition it deserves beyond Oceania. It seems counterintuitive that isolationism in the Arts could persist in a civilization defined by globalization and widespread cultural assimilation, but how else can the unfamiliarity in North America with a composer of Lilburn’s talents be explained? The performances on this disc by the New Zealand String Quartet—Helene Pohl (first violin), Douglas Beilman (second violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), and Rolf Gjelsten (cello)—should leave no doubts in the minds of listeners about the enduring value of Lilburn’s music and the heartfelt earnestness of musicians’ response to it. The String Quartet in E minor (1946) is a fine work, its language that of a decidedly Twentieth-Century but singularly prepossessing voice. The New Zealand String Quartet’s playing of the Andante first movement immediately initiates a glowingly lyrical ambiance, sustained by the musicians’ compact ensemble. The pithy imagery of the Allegretto and Allegro movements tests the limits of conventional string timbres, but the players answer the composer’s challenges with unflappable mastery. In his Duos for Two Violins (1954), Lilburn transports the listener to the peerless landscapes of New Zealand, evoking scenes familiar from his own youth. The Andante con moto receives from Ms. Pohl and Mr. Beilman a strong but shrewd performance, and the sequence of Allegro, Andante, Allegro, Lento, and Allegramente episodes flows like a mountain stream, shaped with crystalline grace by Ms. Pohl and Mr. Beilman. The String Trio (1945) was the first chamber work by a New Zealand-born composer published beyond that country’s borders, and the rapt sophistication of the performance on this disc verifies the music’s worthiness of that distinction. Ms. Pohl, Ms. Ansell, and Mr. Gjelsten insightfully differentiate the Allegro non troppo, Allegretto, and Allegro movements, inviting recognition of Lilburn’s unorthodox but reverent obeisance to Schubert. Composed in 1942, 1943, and 1958, the Canzonettas for Violin and Viola—Semplice, Andante semplice, and, simply, III—are endearing pseudo-Elizabethan miniatures, here played with the piquant sensibilities that might be devoted to performances of music for viol consort by Byrd or Lawes. An early work, the 1939 Phantasy for String Quartet is a predictably rhapsodic piece, patterned after Jacobean music. The New Zealand String Quartet players excavate the lodes of originality with which the composer anchored the work. Advocacy for Lilburn’s music is apparent in every track on this disc, but the performances are most admirable for the high artistic standards from which they never deviate.
Stylistically, the chamber works of Ferdinand Ries, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and Douglas Lilburn are worlds apart, but these three exemplary NAXOS recordings again remind listeners that music has the peculiar ability to unite composers, musicians, and audiences of all eras and generations. Ries could not surpass his teacher, Stanford was upstaged by his students, and Lilburn has not yet managed to completely overcome nationalistically-motivated skepticism, but the performances on these discs make no excuses for the trio of forsaken composers and their music: every artist involved, both musical and technical, approaches these works merely as well-crafted music that deserves to be heard. Indeed, these are discs that deserve to be heard often.