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4 Classical Picks For February 2018
Unlike his Cello Concerto, Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto has not become a concert hall standard. The piece is long and technically challenging for both soloist and orchestra. Elgar packs in multiple themes and takes his time to fully develop the material, often resulting in emotional ambiguity. When a soloist, conductor and orchestra are able to navigate these complexities, however, the result can be deeply moving.
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine is a meticulous musician who does her homework prior to recording a piece. She had intended to make this record with the late Sir Neville Marriner, and the two had begun preparing the score together before he passed away in 2016. (Marriner had studied with Billy Reed, who served as Elgar’s violin consultant on the concerto, offering the composer advice on bowings and other aspects of the violin part.) Working with Marriner gave Pine an indirect link back to the composer. Pine is also a very expressive player who turns the technical challenges of a piece into intense emotional content. Her playing here thrills in the difficult passages, but the honesty of her interpretation is what propels this recording, especially in the slow second movement.
Equal credit is also due to conductor Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony. The concerto is symphonic in scope for the ensemble and Litton leads a vivid and passionate performance.
Pianist Seong-Jin Cho’s new recording of Debussy pieces is a beguiling mix of contrasts. Cho combines speed and precision with a gentle touch to paint with a wide palate of colors. He demonstrates the bold, muscular playing required on pieces like “L’isle Joyeuse.” But what sets him apart are moments of quiet subtlety that illuminate Debussy’s rich sonorities. The spontaneity of Cho’s playing strips away 100 plus years of rote performance to rediscover the poetic shock of these pieces. Even the most familiar of these compositions -- such “Clair de Lune” or “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” -- flow with fresh momentum. Too often we hear new recordings of standard repertoire that don’t seem necessary. Cho makes these recordings feel essential.
Critics sometimes dismiss Nicolo Paganini’s 24 Caprices as showy works suited to testing the virtuosity of a violinist. The famous final Caprice, a source for so many other composers’ Paganini variations, has also overshadowed the entire set of works. With so many demanding skills required to simply play the notes of these pieces, the ability to render them as meaningful music is sometimes lost in all the sweat and effort. Augustin Hadelich chooses evocative passion over machinelike perfection in the most difficult passages, and he delivers fully realized musical experiences with each of the Caprices. The humanity he demonstrates in attempting the superhuman is far more engaging than a sterile, exacting performance. This is a recording full of character and charm.
Many of the most famous composers of the 20th century broke with the traditions of the past. Serialist composers in the 1950s made music of such intense complexity that a listener may feel the need for a postgraduate education to make sense of the sounds. Morton Feldman made his music with very minimal material, repeating a few quiet slow notes to develop his pieces over long stretches of time. His atmospheric piece “For John Cage” -- which lasts more than an hour -- is a great introduction to this unique sound world. This new recording by Erik Carlson and Aleck Karis is a thoughtful and personal performance. The subtle moments gradually add up to a sonic adventure.