Off the shelf: Seattle Symphony, Ehnes, and the Prism Quartet

A number of notable albums have landed on shelves over the past few months. A number of them with local connections. Leading the bunch are two William Schuman releases from Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. Schwarz and the local orchestra have been slowly recording all of William Schuman’s published symphonies and assorted orchestral pieces for Naxos. The final two releases in the series, disks featuring the Eighth Symphony and the Sixth Symphony , come coupled with shorter orchestral pieces also played by the SSO. The former includes the ballet score Night Journey and Variations on America; the later, Prayer in a Time of War and the New England Triptych — two patriotic pieces. On both releases, Schuman’s pieces are given heartfelt readings and the recordings are natural, faithful representations of the orchestra and the Benaroya Hall acoustic.

Bion Tsang and Anton Nel, two of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s regular festival musicians, are out with a recording of Johannes Brahms’ two cello sonatas . The performances are idiomatic and warm. The recording, taken from live performances in Jorban Hall at the New England Conservatory, is a touch distant, especially Nel’s piano. The highlight of Nel and Tsang’s release aren’t the two cello sonatas, but Tsang’s arrangement of four Hungarian Dances for cello and piano.  Tsang worked from Joseph Joachim’s arrangement of dances one, two, four, and five for violin and piano for his own arrangement for cello and piano. Played on cello, the dances sound earthy, robust and are a welcome new look at this familiar repertory.

The other release with local-ish connections is a two disk set of music for violin and piano played by James Ehnes . Ehnes makes fairly regular stops at Benaroya Hall and is an Assistant Artistic Director for the Seattle Chamber Music Society. For the release, Ehnes is joined by Wendy Chen (disk one) and Eduard Laurel (disk two). Disk one is packed with Ehnes’ inspired accounts of Ravel’s Tzigane and Sonata for Violin and Piano, Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, and Saint-Saens’ First Sonata for Violin and Piano. The second disk is made up of spirited run-throughs of lighter music for violin by Pablo de Sarasate and Henryk Wieniawski.

Unlike La Traviata, which Leonard Slatkin admitted he didn’t know when he conducted the opera (once) with the Metropolitan Opera, Rachmaninov’s orchestral music is familiar territory for the conductor. Slatkin’s earlier St. Louis Symphony cycle of the three symphonies was often overlooked in favor of more famous accounts by Ashkenazy and Previn. However, Slatkin’s accounts brimmed with likable energy. Slatkin’s account of the First Symphony was a favorite of mine, and is still my preferred recording of the piece. His new recording of the Second Symphony, coupled with the Vocalise has the benefit of vastly improved sound which showcases Slatkin’s flair for Rachmaninov’s lyricism better than the often murky, earlier Vox release. Slatkin seems to approach the symphony with more restraint than the previous release. Maybe Slatkin is mellowing with age. Nonetheless, you will be hard pressed to find a more loving rendition of this symphony.

Finally, two new releases by quartets – one by the saxophone only Prism Quartet; the other by the pioneering Kronos Quartet – add to the growing discography of classical music from Asia. The latest release from the Kronos Quartet, . On this particular release, the Kronos players, along with virtuosi of Central Asian instruments and performing styles, present pieces and arrangements of music inspired by Central Asia (think Afghanistan). Of all the pieces on the album, Rangin Kaman is the most classical. The result of a commission by the Kronos Quartet, the piece weaves traditional Afghani instruments with the quartet’s stringed instruments into distinct sections that blur notions of Western and Eastern music. The remaining tracks on the album are arrangements of five Azerbajani songs.

The Prism Quartet’s new release, Antiphony , is a release of music for saxophone and traditional Chinese instruments (described in the notes as an instrumental odd couple), written for the group by some of classical music’s leading Chinese composers. Half of the names are familiar – Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Tan Dun – but the music on this album is a surprise. If you thought a saxophone quartet would never be able to sound at home with the twangy rusticity of the Huqin, vocal qualities of the Ehru, or the brilliant sound of the Yangqin, think again. This is an album you’ll want to hear more than once — I did.

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2 thoughts on “Off the shelf: Seattle Symphony, Ehnes, and the Prism Quartet

  1. Wouldn’t it be nice if we’d been able to hear performances of those Schuman symphonies, rather than just recordings? It’s nice to be able to hear them at all, but before we moved to Seattle the SSO’s discography made me hope for more interesting programming. (I am looking forward to hearing the Schuman Symphony no.3 with the Bernstein pieces in June, though!)

  2. They play them in Russia apparently. But yes, I agree. I just watched MTT’s Knowing the Score of the Holidays Symphony. What about that piece? I’d love to hear that in concert sometime too.

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