American Chamber Music

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Aaron Copland’s delightful and oft-recorded violin sonata opens this recording, whose program is one of the more intelligent, thoughtfully designed, and best played you’ll ever hear, in repertoire that may not rock the Billboard charts but that speaks importantly to listeners who enjoy tuning into music that displays aspects of “American” style around the mid-20th century. In fact, works such as the Copland sonata are usually found only on recordings with titles such as: “The American Album” (Ann Akiko Meyers/RCA), “All American Album” (Elmar Oliveira/Artek), “American Spirit” (Sean Osborn/Albany), “American Classics” (Peter Zazofsky/Naxos), “American Landscape” (Richard Sherman/Summit), and “American Scenes” (Gil Shaham). And this one, which comes right to the point: “American Chamber Music”.

James Ehnes is a violinist you can rely on to know his strengths and to fully and expertly exploit them in repertoire he loves, and here he maintains that promise while sharing the stage with a very fine group of like-minded and superbly talented  musicians. Ehnes and pianist Orion Weiss take on the Copland sonata–and their easy, fluid style–and above all, intimate, responsive communication (especially in the dialog/dance of the first movement) is not only reminiscent of the oft-cited Isaac Stern recording from 1968 with Copland at the piano, but stands as a top choice among modern renditions.

The Ives Largo begins with one of his dreamy, meandering, harmonically indeterminate, impressionistic, episodes (violin and piano), then takes on a suddenly wakeful excitement with the entrance of the clarinet. Amy Schwartz Moretti (violin), Ricardo Morales (clarinet), and Anna Polonsky (piano) show how to work their three remarkable, distinctly different parts into a whole that only Ives could have concocted.

Erin Keefe (violin), Amit Peled (cello), and Adam Neiman (piano) explore the jaunty, extroverted, often boisterous voices of Bernstein’s Trio, which in this recording–and with this bristling  performance–tends to sound much bigger than a trio; and indeed in the more assertive sections Keefe’s violin can temporarily disappear in the sonic vegetation. But you don’t mind–at 19 Bernstein could certainly write a catchy, clever, assured, plucky piece that never fails to entertain (just listen to that second movement–Tempo di marcia!).

Elliott Carter’s, dare I say, lyrical, tuneful, melody-centric Elegy for viola and piano, written in 1943, is a delight to hear, a highlight of the disc; Richard O’Neill’s viola sings with a warm, rich tone, smooth, lilting legato, expressively articulated through a gentle, floating vibrato, perfectly partnered musically and balanced sonically with Anna Polonsky’s piano.

Okay, I wasn’t completely accurate in my Billboard chart comment. There’s one definite best-seller here: the famous slow movement of the Barber String Quartet in B minor Op. 11, which comes with the Ehnes Quartet’s performance of the complete piece. It’s definitely worth getting better acquainted with those other two movements, and you won’t find better advocates than Ehnes & friends (he’s joined by violinist Moretti, violist O’Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine). It’s just that, because we’ve heard that Adagio so many times out of its original context, it’s hard not to still hear it that way in its quartet setting. It’s gorgeously played here, those long, long lines elegantly sustained with all the tension and intensity they requre–and all the while maintaining exceptional ensemble balance.

Ehnes and his partners have put together a program of varied works by different composers in which–happily–everything works together, which is not often the case with these kinds of projects. You can listen to this disc straight through and never feel the sonic and stylistic whiplash that ruins many similar attempts to fit music and composers into a programming theme. American Chamber Music is true to its title and is an artistic success in every respect, including the very fine sound, recorded at Seattle’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall. Highly recommended.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: American Chamber Music
Reference Recording: Copland: This one; Carter: This one; Barber: This one

AARON COPLAND: Violin Sonata (1942-43); CHARLES IVES: Largo for violin, clarinet, & piano; LEONARD BERNSTEIN: Piano Trio (1937); ELLIOTT CARTER: Elegy for viola & piano; SAMUEL BARBER: String Quartet in B minor Op. 11

  • James Ehnes (violin)
  • Members of the Seattle Chamber Music Society

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