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Moor Doubles Brahms

Brahms / Moor / Li-wei / Lai
Release Date: 11/12/2013 
Label:  Cello Classics   Catalog #: 1031   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johannes BrahmsEmanuel Moor
Performer:  Li-Wei QinQian ZhouSebastian Comberti
Conductor:  Jason Lai
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 1 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Double Concerto for Violin and Cello. MOÓR Concerto in D for 2 Cellos, op. 69 Qian Zhou (vn); Qin Li-Wei (vc); Sebastian Comberti (vc); Jason Lai, cond; Yong Siew Toh Conservatory O CELLO 1031 (60:55)

This release falls into the category of “Who’d Have Thunk It.” Though I’d come across his name before, my first actual encounter with the music of Emanuel Moór was in 2008, when curiosity prodded Read more me to acquire a Cello Classics CD of his cello sonatas. I didn’t get to review that disc—Colin Anderson did in 31:2—but it so enthralled me that I Want Listed it as one of my 2008 choices. To recap briefly, the Hungarian-born Jewish Moór (1865–1931) was well- travelled, accepting an invitation by New York’s upscale Jewish community to serve as cantor at their synagogue. But he made his name mainly as a conductor, concert pianist, and accompanist to soprano Lilli Lehmann. His output of compositions is significant, numbering eight symphonies, four violin concertos, three piano concertos, two cello concertos, a triple concerto for violin, cello, and piano, a harp concerto, several operas, a number of cello sonatas, and a Requiem Mass. Based on the very few of Moór’s works I’ve heard previously, I’d have said that Schumann and Brahms figured heavily as influences, but not this time.

The “Who’d Have Thunk It” aspect to this disc is the discovery of a full-blown, Romantic double concerto featuring two cellos. While composing his own “double” concerto for violin and cello, Brahms described it in a letter to his publisher as “my latest folly.” If Brahms had lived to hear the first performance of Moór’s work in 1908, what would he have thought of a concerto for two cellos? Though the idea may have had some currency in the Baroque—Vivaldi wrote a concerto in G Minor for two cellos, RV 531—I was about to say that no 19th-century composer would have contemplated such a thing. But then I stumbled across another two-cello concerto, this one in E Minor, coincidentally from the same year as Moór’s, by famed cellist-composer Julius Klengel, and there is even a recording of it on CPO, performed by Xenia Jankovic.

Moór, it seems, had a thing for doubles. Maybe he figured that since humans come with two each of several major organs, including ears, hearing double ought to be no different than seeing double. Dissatisfied with the piano’s single keyboard, he invented, produced, and marketed the Double Keyboard, a piano with two keyboards, one above the other, like a two-manual harpsichord, but with an organ-like tracker device that linked them together, allowing one hand to play a spread of two octaves. Bruno Walter thought so highly of Moór’s invention that the conductor was quoted by Alfred Cortot as having said, “Within ten years’ time, the Moór Double-Keyboard Piano will have completely superseded the old.” Methinks Walter’s crystal ball needed a good Windexing.

Anyway, the Brahms “Double” comes first on the disc, but I was so curious about the Moór that I skipped directly to it. Set aside, for a moment, the work’s odd instrumentation as a concerto, and consider it strictly as orchestral music. It’s a magnificent, melodious, sweeping, powerful, breathtaking score that resembles nothing quite like I’ve ever heard before. Clearly, it’s a work in high Romantic tradition, but one that’s highly eclectic and which seems simultaneously to pre- and post-date its time. There’s nothing of either Schumann or Brahms in the piece. But a fleeting passage here and there sounds like a distant echo from Berlioz’s Harold in Italy , while other transient moments suggest Grieg, Dvo?ák, Elgar, and even Richard Strauss.

To some extent the music reminds me of the similar eclecticism evidenced in the works of Moór’s near chronological contemporary Julius Röntgen (1855–1932), though Moór ventured farther afield geographically than Röntgen, traveling and performing throughout Europe and the U.S., promoting his Double Keyboard wherever he went, and generally establishing himself as more of an international figure than did the somewhat more circumspect and retiring Röntgen. In my opinion, Moór was also the greater composer of the two, though, to be honest, I’ve heard a lot less of his music than I have of Röntgen’s. But that’s because at least one record label, CPO, has taken on Röntgen in a fairly big way, and is systematically recording his works. Thus far, Moór has not found similar sponsors. Are you paying attention, CPO? With all those symphonies and concertos just waiting to be recorded, here’s another project right up your alley.

What I wondered about before starting to listen to Moór’s concerto was how he would be able to differentiate between the parts for the two solo instruments in a way that the listener could easily distinguish between them. The answer came soon enough. While one of the solo cellos engages in rapid, virtuosic passagework—string-crossing arpeggios, driving rhythmic figurations, etc.—the other cello can be heard singing a long, lyrical, supporting melodic line. The instruments then exchange roles. Less often do their parts entwine or overlap in writing that is simultaneously similar, so that the effect is of one cello soloing while the other accompanies, and then the two partners switching positions.

This is rather a different approach than the one Brahms took in his “Double” Concerto, in which the violin and cello tend to converse with each other in a back-and-forth, give-and-take dialogue fashion, rather than one playing accompaniment while the other goes on a spree. Brahms’s approach would not have worked for Moór, because with the two solo instruments being the same, it would have sounded like one was just repeating what the other said.

Moór’s Two-Cello Concerto is definitely a novelty, but it works, and it’s gloriously beautiful to boot. In contrast, Brahms’s “Double” Concerto may be a masterpiece, but “beautiful,” in the sense of lyrical, mellifluous, and singable, it’s not. Clara Schumann thought it ungrateful to the instruments, and music journalist and musicologist Richard Specht was even more outspokenly critical, describing the work as “one of Brahms’s most inapproachable and joyless compositions.”

There’s no gainsaying that the work isn’t a particularly pretty one. The writing is brusque, even cruel at times. Melodies begin, only to be cut off mid-sentence, fragmentary phrases stop dead in their tracks, and the last movement in particular is bullet-riddled with lacerating dissonances. The “Double” Concerto is Brahms’s last orchestral work, and I’ve often wondered if it wasn’t meant to portray the hellish fate that awaited the victims after they plunged from the precipice at the end of the Fourth Symphony.

There’s no way to know, of course, what Brahms was thinking when he wrote the piece in the summer of 1887. It may be his final work for orchestra, but he still had another 10 years left to live and to compose, so it’s not like he was staring death in the face. In fact, the “Double” Concerto was a kind of double gesture, one of friendship to cellist Robert Hausmann, a frequent chamber music partner of Brahms, and one of reconciliation towards the composer’s estranged friend and confidant, violinist Joseph Joachim.

I wish I could recommend this CD for the Brahms as well as for the Moór, but unfortunately, there are issues with the Brahms that can’t be overlooked. I gave Qin Li-Wei’s Beethoven cello sonatas with pianist Albert Tiu a favorable review in 35:2 (his name there and in the Fanfare archive appears as Li-Wei Quin; here it’s given as Quin Li-Wei), but already on the third note of his solo entrance in the Brahms, he goes horribly off pitch.

On the whole, the reading by Quin, violinist Yong, conductor Lai, and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra is marred by rhythmic distortions, dynamic inflation and deflation, phrase deformation, and iffy intonation. And if all that weren’t bad enough, the recording made live in concert at the conservatory in Singapore is woolly and muddled sounding. The Moór, also recorded live in concert at the same location almost a year later, is quite good.

It would not redound to the benefit of the present players to compare their Brahms to the existing competition. I’ll just say that two of my personal favorites are the Francescatti/Fournier/Walter version, and the Stern/Rose/Ormandy version, both on Columbia (now Sony).

Still, it would be a shame to advise a pass on this release because of the inferior Brahms, when the Moór is such a wonderful work, and, as far as I can tell, magnificently performed. Nowhere does the album state that this is a world premiere recording of the work, but it does state that the first performance was given in Brussels on January 19, 1908, by Pablo Casals and Guilhermina Suggia, under the baton of Eugène Ysaÿe. I did come across a downloadable only recording of the piece with cellists Samuel Magill and Wendy Suter, but it’s given in a piano reduction played by Blair McMillen. Perhaps a reader knows of another recording of the full orchestral score.

Unless and until another recording of the Moór shows up, I’d urge you to acquire this release of it, and take the Brahms for the less than satisfactory account that it is.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102 "Double" by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Li-Wei Qin (Cello), Qian Zhou (Violin)
Conductor:  Jason Lai
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1887; Austria 
Date of Recording: 03/10/2012 
Venue:  Live  Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Singapore 
Length: 34 Minutes 9 Secs. 
Concerto for 2 cellos & orchestra in D major, Op. 69 by Emanuel Moor
Performer:  Li-Wei Qin (Cello), Sebastian Comberti (Cello)
Conductor:  Jason Lai
Period: Romantic 
Venue:  Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Singapore 
Length: 26 Minutes 5 Secs. 

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