Having established himself as one of the foremost violinists of his generation, James Ehnes has dutifully (and very successfully) recorded the standard concerto repertory for his instrument: Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Brahms, etc. He now appears in a much more self-effacing role, sharing the stage with some very talented musicians from the Seattle Chamber Music Society, of which Ehnes is the artistic director. Together they have produced this ingenuous program of modern American chamber works, mostly hidden treasures that deserve to be far better known. Of course Copland, Ives, Bernstein, Carter and Barber are all major American composers—one can hardly imagine a more august gathering—but too often, though not surprisingly, their chamber music has been eclipsed by their large-scale orchestral works. If this release doesn't exactly right that balance, it does present a well-chosen and thoughtful program that alternates longer works (the Copland, Bernstein and Barber) with shorter ones (the Ives and Carter). The earliest of these works was written in 1937 (the Bernstein), the latest in 1942 at the height of the war. With the notable exception of the Carter, all these works are characteristic of their composers, providing a welcome sense of variety. More importantly, the music here is uniformly attractive and compelling.
Copland's Violin Sonata is more abstract and intimate than many of his popular (and populist) ballet scores; there are no overt references to folk tunes or cowpoke ballads. Still, it's hard to imagine anyone who loves Billy the Kid or Appalachian Spring not responding to this music, which is characterized by the same mix of spiky rhythms and open-hearted lyricism. The Largo for violin, clarinet, and piano was finally published in 1937; but as was his practice, Ives had been tinkering with it since1901. The end result is barely five minute long, but demonstrates the composer's genius for concise forms. Like the much better known Unanswered Question, the Largo presents a serene, nostalgic surface ruffled by troubling dissonances. As you would expect from this composer, the ambiguity between the solemn opening and the anxious middle section remains unresolved.
Amazingly, Bernstein's Trio for violin, cello, and piano was written when he was 19 and still a student at Harvard. One wonders what his composition and theory teacher, the austere and conservative Walter Piston, made of his student's work. Brash, bluesy and high-spirited, it already bears the stamp of the composer's personality. I found it totally irresistible. Though Elliot Carter would eventually reject most of the tonal music he produced before the war in favor of the multi-layered textures and rhythms he adopted after it, the Elegy for viola and piano has survived his second thoughts. It is more forthrightly emotional and dramatic music than Carter would ever write again. Barber's Adagio is hardly a "hidden treasure," but is probably his best known and most often played score, and with good reason; it is music that expresses sorrow and hope, solemnity and yearning, anguish and resignation with an eloquence and intensity that's both ennobling and heartbreaking. For those who know the Adagio only as a separate piece, usually for strings, I'd suggest that it is even more powerful when set in the context of the Quartet in B minor in which it originally appeared. The "Adagio" takes on a different (and, I'd argue, deeper) meaning when heard as a dramatic counterweight to the fierce music that precedes and follows it.
The performances throughout are expressive and idiomatic. Though I've listed all the responsible parties after the ratings, special thanks go to James Ehnes for using his clout and reputation to bring this project to fruition. It is a superb release in every respect: state-of-the-art sound, thrilling performances, and irresistible music. Is it too much to hope that this release is the first in a series that will eventually include chamber works by the likes of Roy Harris, William Schumann and Lou Harrison? We should be so lucky. In the meantime, this disc is highly and urgently recommended.
Aaron Copland: Sonata for
violin and piano (1942-3)
Charles Ives: Largo for violin, cello, and
Leonard Bernstein: Trio for violin, cello,
Elliot Carter: Elegy for viola and piano
Samuel Barber: String Quartet in B minor,