American Chamber Music – COPLAND: Sonata for violin and piano; IVES: Largo; BERNSTEIN: Trio for violin, cello and piano; CARTER: Elegy; BARBER: String Quartet in B minor op.11 – James Ehnes and the Seattle Chamber Music Society – Onyx Classics ONYX4129 61:53 (9/9/14) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Chamber music has been called “the music of friends”, and all the players on this album seem to be friends of James Ehnes, one of the best fiddle players in the world. Besides a solo touring schedule, Ehnes heads the Seattle Chamber Music Society and the Ehnes Quartet, both featured here. The selected compositions skim the top of the 20th century chamber music heap in the U.S.

The Violin Sonata by Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990) opens the concert. Ehnes performs with young American Orion Weiss, a student of Emmanuel Ax at Julliard. Copland wrote this sonata in the early 1940s, following successes with both ballets and film scores. Nevertheless it reflects his anxiety over the war more than satisfaction at his achievements. The first movement is marked semplice (simple) and begins with minor piano chords in dialogue with the violin. Both instruments seem to be searching for something, and find it before the end. A lento middle movement is followed by the edgy allegretto giusto (appropriately brisk).

I’m in awe of anyone who composes immortal classical music part-time and simultaneously carries on a demanding career in another field. Charles Ives (1874 – 1954) was such a person. (Borodin was another.) Born in Danbury, Conn. and son of a U.S. Army bandleader, Ives absorbed everything musical from his father, including an interest in innovation. He was a professional organist at 14, and attended a top prep school and Yale, participating in varsity baseball and football. He entered the insurance industry upon graduation, and began his own agency at 33. He was remarkably successful, and pioneered some concepts of estate planning that are still in use today. It was during his early insurance years, writing only on the week-ends, that he wrote this Largo, originally for violin and organ, and soon after re-wrote it for the combination here – violin, clarinet and piano. It is full of syncopations, dissonances, and other idiosyncratic devices. Ives believed that a steady paying job allowed him to write music according to his own inner voice, and indeed most of his music was ignored in his lifetime.

Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) was also multi-faceted, but all his facets were on the musical diamond – composing, conducting, educating. He was only 19 and attending Harvard when he wrote the Trio for violin, cello and piano. Broadly the three movements are in an unusual slow-fast-slow pattern, but within each there are several tempo changes. In the middle movement, Tempo di Marcia, no one could march or even walk to the rhythms played here. The final movement, Largo – allegro vivo et molto ritmico – also shows off Lenny’s youthful imagination and exuberance.

Elliott Carter (1908 – 2012) and Charles Ives were friends, and they’re each represented on this disc with short one-movement works. Apparently Ives sold an insurance policy to Carter’s father, a wealthy businessman. And Ives later steered young Elliott to Harvard where he studied composition under Walter Piston and Gustav Holst. Carter’s life, and his compositional output, were remarkable for their length. He was writing neoclassical and melodic music during the 1930s and 1940s. His music after 1950 was more atonal and rhythmically complex, and remained so until his death at almost 104. He published more than 40 works in his 90s and at least 20 more after his 1ooth birthday. The piece on this album, Elegy, was written in 1943, and is more accessible than almost all his later work. It is scored for viola (Richard O’Neill), and piano (Anna Polonsky), the only piece here not involving James Ehnes, and consist of a true chamber-music interplay between the performers.

One highlight of this recording for me is being reminded of the context within which Samuel Barber’s (1910 – 1981) universally famous Adagio for Strings began life – as the middle movement of his String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11. Barber was a prodigy from a musical family, and knew at age 9 that he would be a composer. He attended the Curtis Institute and Columbia University, winning prizes and meeting fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who became his life partner. He composed this quartet at age 26, and two years later, the orchestrated Adagio was performed by the NBC Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini who praised it as “semplice e bella” (simple and beautiful). The Quartet has the traditional slow-fast-slow marking, with the outside movements being almost identically molto allegro. A forceful main theme opens the first movement and is played against two other themes before resolution. The popularity of the middle movement Adagio cannot be overstated. It has been heard in dozens of films and video games: it was JFK’s favorite classical piece: it shows off Barber’s effortless melodic gift. The brief final movement reprises a theme from the first, goes through a quiet episode, then moves to a conclusion that sounds like the opening. The Ehnes Quartet performs here – Ehnes, O’Neill, Amy Schwartz Moretti – violin, and Robert deMaine, cello – and is wonderful.

Recording took place during July 2014 in Risley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall within Benaroya Hall in Seattle, the home of the Seattle Chamber Music Society. A team from Abbey Road, London produced and edited the recording for Onyx.

If you have no American chamber music in your collection, this album gives you some of the most important compositions in that category, all in one place. Even if you do own recordings of all these pieces, I’d recommend this disc to hear them superbly played.

—Paul Kennedy