Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Trio in Bb,
Duo for Cello and Double Bass.
String Quartet No. 14,
D 810, “Death and the Maiden”
Martin Helmchen (pn); Veronika Eberle, Antje Weithaas, Christian Tetzlaff (vn); Rachel Roberts (va); Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, Tanja Tetzlaff (vc); Alois Posch (db)
AVI-MUSIC 8553259 (66:11) Live: Heimbach
The three concert performances on this disc derive from an annual chamber music festival entitled “Tensions [
]: Music in the Heimbach Hydropower Station,” which does in fact take place in a functioning hydroelectric installation, built in 1904 in Art Nouveau style and located in Germany’s Eifel region. Lars Vogt, the festival’s artistic director, writes in his introductory notes that the title is “not only an allusion to the electric current normally produced in this…installation but also to the underlying musical tensions and contrasts in the festival’s music program.” Electricity, in the figurative sense, is certainly a feature of the excellent performances on this disc.
The Haydn Trio offered here, No. 20 according to Hoboken but No. 34 in the Landon listing, is a relatively late work, one of a group of three trios written in 1794, during the composer’s second visit to London. Its three movements total just over 13 minutes in this performance by violinist Veronika Eberle, cellist Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, and pianist Martin Helmchen. Their rendition is excellent, predictably larger-scaled and more assertive than the fine period-instrument recordings by Trio 1790 (CPO) and by Patrick Cohen, Erich Höbarth, and Christophe Coin (Harmonia Mundi), achieving an ideal combination of energy, exuberance, precision, and elegance. The crystalline clarity of Helmchen’s pianism and the perfect intonation and burnished tone of the string players further contribute to the success of this performance.
Unlike his string sonatas, Rossini’s Duo for Cello and Double Bass is not an early work but rather dates from 1824, when the composer was already approaching the end of his operatic career. It was written for a well-known double bass virtuoso of the time, Domenico Dragonetti, who, according to the notes, lived from 1763 to 1841 but performed in the presence of Berlioz in 1845, making him one of several musicians who have been credited in print with performing after death. (Other sources indicate that his actual death date was 1846.) This instrumental combination might seem unpromising and be expected to yield a dull, boomy sound, but in Rossini’s hands it actually works quite well. Cellist Tanja Tetzlaff assumes the lead role that would go to a violin in a more conventional ensemble, but the playing of bassist Alois Posch is supple and euphonious. Together the instruments produce a warm, throbbing sonority, and this being Rossini, there is plenty of engaging melody in the three movements of the piece.
To conclude the program, violinists Antje Weithaas and Christian Tetzlaff, violist Rachel Roberts, and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff deliver a performance of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet that is of astonishing power and intensity, with urgent tempos, forceful attacks, strong dynamic contrasts, and explosive climaxes. In taking the lengthy exposition repeat, unlike most competitors, these players prolong the first movement to over 15 minutes, which may not sit well with those who feel Schubert goes on for too long, but that is not a viewpoint I share, and in any case the performance is so gripping that no one is likely to complain of monotony. Although their treatment of tempo is not rigid, the Heimbach musicians, unlike many ensembles, relax only slightly in the more lyrical portions of the movement. Their urgency and vehemence continue into the
Andante con moto
second movement, where most ensembles opt for a more relaxed, lyrical approach. An unusually forceful and angry Scherzo is followed by a headlong and vehement finale. Technically, the playing is of a high standard in terms of intonation, articulation, and tone quality, although it is not note perfect, as is understandable given the live concert setting and the extremely intense, highly charged nature of the interpretation. Also notable is the unusually open and detailed texture of this performance, in which the contribution of each instrument can be heard distinctly.
There are many fine recordings of “Death and the Maiden,” but I do not know of another that matches this one for intensity and dramatic power. In contrast, that of the Alban Berg Quartet (EMI) flows smoothly and mellifluously, with a blended sonority. The Budapest Quartet (in its 1953 Columbia recording, available from ArkivMusic) is also comparatively genial and lyrical. The Emerson Quartet (DG) and the Juilliard Quartet (in its 1959 RCA recording, reissued by Testament) get a bit closer to the Heimbach approach but still do not match its relentless drive, towering climaxes, and searing passion. The Heimbach performance is greeted with thunderous applause and foot-stamping at the end, as it should be.
In addition to the quality of its performances, this disc benefits from excellent, realistic sound that positions the musicians precisely in a spacious acoustic and is vivid, well balanced, and free from harshness. The concert audience is very quiet, except for its enthusiastic applause after the performances, although faint background noise may be heard during silences and in quiet portions of the Schubert. This is an outstanding release, and I strongly recommend it to all lovers of chamber music.
FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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