With the recent discussion of cd prices and cover art which found its way
into a Hyperion vs. Naxos issue, I came across at a store the new Naxos
cd of Berwald's Piano Quintets. Remembering that I had an Hyperion cd of
Berwald chamber works containing the Piano Quintet in C minor, I decided to
buy the Naxos and compare the two. I promise to make no mention of cover
art except for a short comment at the conclusion.
For those not familiar with Berwald, he was a Swedish composer who lived
from 1796 to 1868. Swedish audiences were not hospitable to orchestral
works, and Berwald found the environment quite restrictive and not
favorable for his musical pursuits. He twice left Sweden and found much
musical favor in Vienna. However, for much of his adult life, Berwald was
a professional man with occupations as wide ranging as factory owner and
surgeon. It wasn't until his final return to Sweden that Berwald composed
his piano quintets, so they are works of his maturity which fully display
his craft, inventiveness, and artistry.
Berwald was an early romantic composer moving toward the full bloom of
romanticism. He was somewhat eccentric in his compositions; he often is
flowing along with a particular theme and then, shazam, he's off on what
seems like a totally different planet. I consider this feature one of the
core ingredients of Berwald's music, and further listening does help to
"connect the dots". Berwald was not a great innovator, but he was highly
inventive as the Piano Quintet in C minor clearly reveals.
The two discs for comparison are:
Gaudier Ensemble w/Susan Tomes on piano - Hyperion 66835(1996) - coupled
with Berwald's Duo in D major for Piano and Violin and the Piano Trio in
Uppsala Chamber Soloists w/Bengt-Ake Lundin on piano - Naxos 8553970(1996)
- coupled with the Piano Quintet in A major and two movements from a Piano
Quintet in A major.
An important consideration to keep in mind is that Berwald was not much of
a "piano man". Consequently, the piano parts in the Quintet in C minor are
more supportive than central to the composition, although the significance
of the piano does grow in the third movement. So, the performances of
Tomes and Lundin take on a reduced importance.
The Quintet's first movement is Allegro molto with a charming and mostly
slow Scherzo in the middle which does return at the end of the movement.
The first theme is fast, powerful, and urgent; the Scherzo is very tender
and lovely with strong longing. The immediate difference one notices from
the two versions is that the Hyperion sound acoustic is quite rich, and
the Gaudier Ensemble play the movement in a similar fashion with rounded
contours. The Naxos acoustic is relatively stark, and the Uppsala Chamber
Soloists provide much more of an edge to the Allegro molto and a delicious
"Viennese" atmosphere to the Scherzo. It's no contest - Naxos by a wide
margin. Why? First, the music is rich enough without adding more of it
to the soundstage and/or performance. Second, the Naxos Allegro molto
is bracing in its impact and very sharp with great urgency; the Hyperion
Allegro molto sounds superficial, undernourished, far too smooth, and of
low urgency. I had to crank up the volume controls to get any internal
charge out of the music. Third, the Scherzo from the Gaudier Ensemble,
while lovely, has little depth; in the hands of the Uppsala Chamber
Soloists, I easily imagined I was comfortably reflecting at an outdoor cafe
in Vienna. This first movement is Berwald at his best, and it's masterful
music. In my humble opinion, the Gaudier Ensemble does not hit the mark
and plays the movement as if it was written by Dvorak. Many ensembles make
this mistake; they must think that Romantic-era music is home plate.
The second movement, Adagio quasi andante, has some beautiful melodies but
not the variety nor inventiveness of the first movement. It's primarily
tender and soft-spoken with some climaxes toward the middle. This movement
does not have the characteristic Berwald trait of venturing without a
moment's notice into another world.
If you listen to the second movement climaxes from the Gaudier Ensemble,
you will hear such romanticized and overbearing performances which strike
at the heart of this ensemble's problems with Berwald. Turn to the Uppsala
Chamber Soloists, and the climaxes are powerful with plently of depth
without going the romantic route. Again, no contest - the Naxos is
idiomatic, the Hyperion wrong-headed.
The third movement, Allegro assai e con spirito, brings us back to
Berwald's usual high level of invention. It has power, momentum, drama,
playfulness, tenderness, and a frisky quality; they all add up to a dynamic
musical experience with new themes consistently entering the mix. Although
I was expecting to find the same results as in the first two movements,
that didn't happen at all. The Gaudier Ensemble are now the group which
is urgent and strong with a deliciously frisky and playful element. Tomes
is superb with the playfulness of the music. The group is decidedly less
romantic in this movement than the first two. By contrast, the Uppsala
Chamber Soloists are somewhat spongy and weak in their attacks. Lundin
is playful but only in a distant sense.
Every review I have read of the Gaudier Ensemble's recording has been
highly complimentary. I have enjoyed it also over the past 2 years, but
comparing it with the Naxos version illuminates the issue of "how romantic"
do you want a work of an early-romantic composer to be played. I feel
that in the first two movements, the Gaudier Ensemble play in too romantic
a fashion; now and then, I heard an affinity with Faure. It makes
recommendations difficult after the excellence of the Gaudier's third
movement. Ultimately, I have to go with the Naxos version: the allegro
movements even out, leaving the superiority of the Naxos in the second
movement. That doesn't really please me since the deciding factor, the
second movement, is the least enjoyable of the three. Oh well, I have
both and I'll keep them.
Don's Conclusion: Assuming Berwald is up your alley, get both versions.
If you like Berwald played as a "full romantic", it's best to just buy
the Hyperion; I doubt the Naxos would be to your liking. My conclusion
on the cover art: neither one appeals to me. My conclusion on Hyperion
vs. Naxos: I'm going back to the Bach Partitas where it's warm, secure,
and there are no trick questions to answer.
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