Notes of an Amateur: Music@Menlo 2016; Bartok's Music for Solo Piano; Scottish Piano Trios.

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If you share Music@Menlo's enthusiasm for nineteenth century music, this latest edition of their annual set of (summer 2016) festival recordings will please you. It features a large group of minor and minor major Russian composers (plus Tchaikovsky and a handful of Shostakovich's and Prokofiev's less progressive works) surrounded by a large group of major European composers presumably to reinforce the cultural point that Russia was highly influenced by Western Europe in the nineteenth century and vice versa. We remember that the language of choice among well-to-do and educated Russians in the nineteenth century was French. The program's point is successfully made, the music is beautifully played by some well known and some less familiar but no less impressive musicians, and the recordings, as always under the hands of engineer Da Hong Seetoo, are the best around. Musically speaking, of course, Western Europe pretty much blows Russian away here. The Arenskys, Glinkas, Mussorgskys, and Tanyevs of the world can only take us so far; and speaking personally, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff can't take us too much further, though there are contributions by each of them here that are really fine.

Those who might prefer to hear the Russian (and Polish and Baltic) music that marks its emergence, rise, and near predominance in the world of international modernism and beyond—Stravinsky, Shostakovich's and Prokofiev's more radical music, and on to Schnittke, Penderecki, Gubaidulina, Ustvolskya, Silvestrov, Kanchelli, Vasks, and Auerbach—must look for another album with a different cultural and musical point to make. Raising this issue here is, of course, hardly fair. A critic is obliged to evaluate what's set before him, not wish for something else. The sound of the nineteenth century has been hugely influential in music history and there is still much to learn about it. Music@Menlo's 'Russian Reflections' has a great deal to teach; and there is plenty of music here to please, along with some nice surprises.

Volume 3: Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 (1871) is an appealing piece of music which could stand by itself even had its composer not written well known symphonies and ballets. It is hardly an unknown work in need of rediscovery, as many of the smaller works in this series are. But this performance by the Calidore Quartet is distinctive and for me is one of the high points in the entire series.
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