Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, one of the more radical composers of the 20th century and one of the more conservative of the 21st, has been commissioned by Naxos to compose a cycle of 10 string quartets.
This is unusual, to say the least.
RCA once commissioned Darius Milhaud to compose "A Frenchman in New York," a counterpart to Gershwin's "An American in Paris" long lost from sight amid Milhaud's 425 other works. But no record label had ever commissioned anything as hard to market as a string quartet, let alone 10 of them.
Six of these works are not yet ready, but the first four have been issued on two Naxos CDs, played by England's excellent Maggini Quartet.
The music is modern but relatively accessible, intricately structured and sometimes brusque. But it does communicate, and it will tell the listener more and more with repeated hearings.
Bela Bartok's later quartets were once highly controversial, more so than Maxwell Davies's Naxos Quartets are now. Today, this music is part of the chamber music mainstream, treasured for its structural solidity and melodic and harmonic inventiveness, as well as the way it traces Bartok's development over the years (1909-39) in which it was composed. It has been recorded by virtually every major string quartet of the last century, and the latest recording, by the Vermeer Quartet on a Naxos CD, is a worthy addition to its distinguished discography, played with passion, precision, virtuoso technique and a fine sense of ensemble.
Other recent notable recordings:
Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera (TDK DVD).
In this 1990 Salzburg performance, the historic origin of Verdi's opera is restored; Placido Domingo is cast as King Gustav III of Sweden, rather than the colonial governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to which the role was reduced by Italian censors. Domingo is in excellent voice and is supported by an outstanding cast: Josephine Barstow, Florence Quivar, Sumi Jo and Leo Nucci. Sir Georg Solti conducts one of the best recorded performances of his career, and director John Schlesinger makes the opera as exciting visually as it is musically.
Le Mozart Noir (Morningstar DVD).
Joseph Boulogne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), was the first musician of African ancestry to achieve distinction in European music. He was a violinist of uncommon skill and adventurousness, as well as an excellent composer in the manner of Mozart and Haydn. (He was also considered the best swordsman in Europe, a skill that came in handy when dealing with racists.) His life is told in this video documentary, along with fine, period-instrument performances of some of his works.
William Schuman: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 9; Orchestra Song; Circus Overture (Naxos).
William Schuman was not only a great composer but also a magnificent educator and arts administrator, at various times president of the Juilliard School (and founder of the Juilliard String Quartet) and president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Even without his abundant and brilliant compositions, he would have left a lasting mark on American musical life. But his music is his greatest legacy, as this exciting disc makes clear. It is the beginning of a complete survey of his symphonies, and it shows him as a master of orchestration, a constant generator of striking new musical ideas and, perhaps most important of all, an outgoing romantic whose music is readily enjoyable by all. Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony do full justice to all his virtues in a recording that earns the highest possible recommendation.
Elliott Carter: What Next? Asko Concerto (ECM New Series, with libretto).
Carter's one-act opera (with a surrealist libretto by music commentator Paul Griffiths) opens with the sounds of a car crash. Six "victims," apparently not injured physically but shaken up and disoriented, try to grasp what has happened and, more fundamentally, who they are and how they relate. Carter has always had a strong dramatic element in his instrumental music (you can hear it in the concerto that fills out this disc) and it modulates smoothly, if somewhat without focus, into this very short dramatic composition. Conductor Peter Eotvos, an excellent cast and the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra perform expertly.
Adkins String Ensemble: Douglas Briley: Quintet for a Healing Nation (2002); Frank Bridge: Phantasy Piano Quartet in F-sharp Minor (1915); Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60 (1875) (Jabezpress, two CDs).
National Symphony Orchestra associate concertmaster Elisabeth Adkins (who is also one of the city's finest chamber musicians) is a member of a family of outstanding string players, who originated in Denton, Tex., but now hold leading positions with orchestras throughout the United States. With violinists Clare, Alexandra and Madeline (who also plays viola), cellists Christopher and Anthony, and husband Edwin Newman, who is one of Washington's finest pianists, the family ensemble sometimes gives performances in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and has made its latest recording with a company from that area (more information at www.adkinsstringensemble.com and www.jabezpress.com). The music is all comfortably and warmly late romantic (including one piece composed in the 21st century) and it is superbly played. The same program is recorded on two discs, one a standard stereo CD, the other a DVD that wraps the listener in surround sound.