“Rare Chamber Music Vol. III” = works of PAGANINI, HOFFMANN, HERMANN – Jansa Duo – ARS

by | Nov 8, 2011 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

“Rare Chamber Music Vol. III” = PAGANINI: Tre Duetti Concertanti per violino e violoncello; HEINRICH ANTON HOFFMANN: Duo for Violin and Cello in E Major, Op. 10; FRIEDRICH HERMANN: Grand Duo brilliant for Violin and Cello in G Minor, Op. 12 – Jansa Duo – ARS Produktion, multichannel SACD ARS 38 096, 73:00 [Distr. by Qualiton] *****:
The first disc in this series—featuring works by middle-European composers of the first-half of the twentieth century, two of whom died in the Holocaust—looks, on paper at least, to have variety a-plenty. Volume No. 2, which I reviewed earlier on Audiophile Audition, was very well done but of more limited interest since it concentrated on the works of just one violinist-composer, Heinrich A. Hoffmann, whose idiom is a sedate late-Classicism with Romantic accents reminiscent of Louis Spohr. Volume No. 3 ranges a bit more, from the early nineteenth century to just after mid-century, so we get to hear how the changes in musical taste over those forty-plus years colored the music written for string duo.
First up is Niccolò Paganini, the known quantity on the program—except the works included here are pretty much the unknown Paganini. Paganini’s chamber works with guitar are familiar items both in recital and on disc, but these duos, written early in the Italian’s career, will be terra incognita for most listeners. Paganini carries the aura of a Romantic over him because he pioneered the role of the nineteenth-century composer-performer with near superhuman (and some thought demonic) executant powers. Also, he quickly became the idol of true Romantics such as Berlioz and Schumann. In reality, though, most of Paganini’s work bears a decidedly classical stamp, and that’s certainly true of the Tre Duetti, probably composed in the early years of the nineteenth century. They were written for performers with a less superhuman technique than Paganini owned, so their challenges are of a different order. As Egmont Michels writes in his notes to the recording, “both instruments change back and forth between thematic material and brilliant solo passagework, and the equality of the voices thus turns into a contest”: a clever solution to the problem of keeping both performers and listeners challenged. Paganini’s first movements are attractively conceived sonata-allegros in the best Viennese tradition, but the composer seems to take special pleasure in the rondo movement of each duo. The first is a happy-go-lucky gigue, the second a lively musette in which the two instruments take turns supplying the drone and the melody, and the third a stately Polonaise. So Paganini takes us on a musical tour of Europe in the course of an enjoyable twenty minutes.
When we come to Heinrich A. Hoffmann, we catch some hints of musical Romanticism, as I said before, and it’s probably no accident that Hoffmann’s Duo, in the form of a slow introduction and outsized sonata-allegro plus cadenza, sounds a bit like Spohr. Hoffmann spent evenings in the eighteen-teens playing quartets with Spohr while the latter was director of the Frankfurt Opera, a position that Hoffmann briefly took over when Spohr stepped down. In contradistinction to the Paganini duos, Hoffmann’s music has a more mercurial nature, bounding from languor to grand expostulation within a few measures or so, rubato freely applied in the more languid moments. A constant diet of Hoffmann would probably prove cloying, but this piece certainly has its attractions, including the beautiful writing for and integration of the two string instruments.
Friedrich Hermann (1828–1907) takes us even deeper into the Romantic era. His musical roots lay in the conservative atmosphere of Leipzig, where he studied composition with Mendelssohn and Niels Gade and violin with Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. There is a Spohr connection here, too: Hermann’s Grand Duo, published in 1858, is dedicated to Louis Spohr. As note-writer Michels explains, while the piece is brilliantly virtuosic, the virtuoso effects are of a tasteful traditionalist nature as befits the dedicatee. However, I’d say the stormy atmosphere of the Allegro con fuoco first movement takes us to a place that the more lyrically minded Spohr rarely visited. The brief Adagio, with its insistent tremolos, has an air of Schubertian sadness about it, while the Allegro moderato finale, played attacca, is in a Polonaise rhythm but with some fairly exotic harmonic coloration that immediately fastens it on the memory. Somehow, I’m reminded more of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade than of a Chopin Polonaise. This is certainly the most individualistic piece on the disc, and Duo Jansa should be commended for bringing it to light, as they should for their impeccable ensemble playing and passionate commitment to all of this music.
When I reviewed Volume 2 in the series, I noted that one disappointment for me lay in the very resonant recording, which left an acoustic cloud hanging over the proceedings. So I’m very glad to report that for this recording the production team changed recording venues with results that I think are breathtaking. Close your eyes, and your speakers seem to impose no boundary at all on the soundscape. The performers “appear” in a space beyond the speakers, yet the sound doesn’t strike me as forward or aggressive in any way—just uncannily natural. This is one of the best arguments I’ve found lately for SACD recording, and I hope Ars Produktion can repeat the formula.
—Lee Passarella

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