appreciation chamber music playlist recordings string quartet

a nobleviola playlist: part I

I had a couple of faithful readers reach out after my last post (wherein I decided it was time for a playing break) to ask if I might put together a playlist of some of my favorite music, both Classical and Modern. That seemed like a good way to burn through massive amounts of free time, and so I have done it!

Most of the playlist is made up of relatively recent recordings. I love a lot of older recordings, too, but I’m trying to keep up on what the youngsters are doing these days, so things tend to be more recent.

The embedded Apple Music playlist (I may add a Spotify playlist if I have time, but I’m not a subscriber to that service) will be at the end of the post, but I thought I’d spend time talking about my selections and why I like them so much. They’re not in any particular order, btw. Let’s go!

Simone Dinnerstein – J.S. Bach – Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

First on the list is this sprawling masterpiece that I’ve been into since my early days in college. I first became aware of the Goldberg Variations through a listening assignment for a music history class. The example in that instance was Glenn Gould’s pioneering 1955 recording. It was pretty much the only one I listened to for well over 25 years. Then Simone Dinnerstein’s eye-opening recording was released on Telarc in 2007. Whereas Gould’s recording is unflinchingly dry and unremitting in its tempi, Dinnerstein’s is lithe and sensuous. It’s not to say that her tempi can’t be quick – they often are – but there is a great deal of thoughtfulness in her traversal that made me think of the piece in new ways. One example: in Var. XIII. It’s marked in 3/4 (3 beats/bar) time, but has a 6/8 (2 beats/bar) feel. Gould goes a bit in this direction, but Dinnerstein goes wholly over to the 6/8, which just makes the entire variation feel unbalanced – especially if you’re following along with a score. There’s so much to find in this amazing score, and she finds many things, most all of them a delight.

Caroline Shaw – misc. chamber works

I’m not sure if a body of works by a living composer have affected me on such a basic level as those of Caroline Shaw. Part of it is personal. I first played her duet for viola and cello, Limestone & Felt, on a recital given by my Pyxis Quartet colleague and friend Marilyn DeOliveira several years ago, which was a wonderful experience. More recently, I played several of her works on an Oregon Symphony chamber music program (recorded for future broadcast) on the last concert I played before the COVID-19 lockdown went into affect last March. We played Punctum, and Cant voi l’aube with her singing the vocal part. Meeting her, and working with her was such an invigorating and generous experience. She was a delight to collaborate with, and the post-concert hang at a nearby bar was relaxed and fun, and poignantly, the last time I had an indoor gathering over food with friends to date. Anyway, to the music. Shaw has a voice. It is distinct and instantly recognizable. It is open, honest, and free of contrivance. It feels connected both to an ancient past and an aspirational future. It is both optimistic and deeply felt. I think that, in particular, the coda to Punctum is one of the most satisfyingly ‘right’ endings to a piece of chamber music that has been written in the 21st century. Listen to anything that she’s written and I think you’ll be a fan.

Gyorgy Kurtag – Signs, Games and Messages

This is both in honor of a composer whom I’ve come to admire over the past couple decades, and a violist who is at the top of her game – and has been at the top of her professions – for at least that long. Tabea Zimmerman is the violist, and Gyorgy Kurtag the composer. This set of 24 character pieces is seldom performed complete. Performers are encouraged to pick their own set of pieces to play, in whatever order they prefer. There is such expressive playing in the set of six that Zimmerman chooses in her recently released recording of Kurtag paired with J.S. Bach. And the writing is so idiomatic and suitable to the extremely pliable voice of the viola. Take a listen, you just might be a convert.

Emerson Quartet plays Shostakovich

The Emerson Quartet has long been in my pantheon of great quartets, and their fierce and probing encounter with the music of Dmitri Shostakovich may be one of their most lasting recorded legacies. For so long, many established ensembles looked down on the music of Shostakovich. They were either turned off by the extra-musical associations and subtext, or they found the music ‘simplistic’ and ‘unmusical’ compared to the great quartets of Beethoven and Bartók. For years the quartets were the domain of Soviet quartets and a lone Western ensemble, the Fitzwilliam Quartet of Great Britain. The Emerson Quartet came in like a hurricane, full of American brashness. The music was being taken seriously, and it showed that Shostakovich’s quartets needn’t only be the province of Soviet, or former Soviet era Russian quartets. I the playlist, I chose the viola-centric, and supremely dark Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor.

Daniel Bernard Roumain – Quartet No. 5 ‘Parks’

In recent years, attention is finally being paid (long, long overdue) to composers of color. One of the most arresting, both in terms of his compositions and his powerful advocacy, is Daniel Bernard Roumain. This past summer I was fortunate enough to play his Quartet No. 5 ‘Parks’ at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. Dedicated to Rosa Parks, it is a powerful work – propulsive, celebratory, and at times pensive and moody. It’s a quartet that belongs (and is quickly moving into) the standard repertory for string quartets, and rightly so.

Gabriela Lena Frank – Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

Another work that I have had experience with, and another composer who I adore. Gabriela Lena Frank‘s writing is also instantly recognizable, and deeply imbued with all aspects of her mixed heritage. I especially like her 2001 quartet Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, which also was performed at this summer’s WVCMF (and recorded last year with violist Bradley Ottesen) and is now on sale wherever you buy your sounds. Warmth and incisiveness are present in abundance in her music – there is nothing extraneous, everything is there for a purpose, and her instructions to the players belie her own extensive history as a performing pianist and chamber musician. I love Gabby!

Jessie Montgomery – Strum, and Break Away

Jessie Montgomery is another composer who writes music that won’t be confused with anyone else’s. She’s an accomplished violinist (a member of the acclaimed Catalyst Quartet) and brings a keen sense of how stringed instruments work to her vibrant and sophisticated works for string quartet. Strum, written in 2006, is one of her most beloved works. It’s both catchy and possessing a unique quality of managing to swing and also be completely serious. Break Away, written in 2013, goes in a different direction – starting with a movement written in homage to arch-serialist Anton Webern, and ends up with members of the quartet riffing off each other in improvised passages. It’s an exhilarating ride, and one that will never be the same twice!

Here endeth Part I. This one ended up being mostly newer music. I’ll spend the part II looking a bit further into the past. Please enjoy, and give me your suggestions in the comments area below!

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