The Magazine

Listener's Choice

One phonograph, eight records, and all the time in the world.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By JOHN SIMON
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It begins with the Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1961), in Guarnieri's "nationalistic style," like much but not all of his music. The opening "Festivo," in sonata form, treats the orchestra (as Marion Verhaalen observes in her book about Guarnieri) "as one huge strumming guitar." It gives way to a "Tristonho," a type of sad song, which soon evolves into a joyous scherzo that, in turn, reverts to melancholy. The tripartite final movement starts with a carnivalish "Frevo" (lively, sparkling), continues with a somber "Modinha," and concludes with an "Embolada," a patter or dialogue song in rapid tempo. Yet this dizzying variety artfully coheres.

There follows another fine work, Choros, which designates the kind of serenade performed by bands of strolling musicians. Particularly lovely is its middle movement, well described by the booklet as "an ardent, nostalgic, and serene love song." I also cherish the last movement's outbursts of humorous verve. The CD ends with brief piano pieces, preludes Guarnieri calls penteios, which dazzle with their terse penetration.

Jacques Ibert's daughter Jacqueline was a harpist, and prevailed on her father to write the wonderful Trio for Violin, Cello, and Harp (1944). Such a lovely, peaceful piece amid World War II is, in itself, remarkable. So, too, was Jacqueline's willingness to bribe her father by ceding her wartime cigarette ration to him, considering how passionately the French smoke. In my recent book John Simon on Music I called the result "one of the most beautiful chamber works ever written."

The first movement is all Gallic sophistication gracefully rendered; the third movement, cracklingly jovial energy. But the middle movement, andante sostenuto, is a marvel: the personification of longing for an absent lover or elusive happiness. In some five minutes the gamut of human yearning, from intensive to resigned, is perfectly captured down to the last dying fall.

Of the three versions I have, the one by the Ensemble Arpeggione on Adda records (it includes good stuff by Albert Roussel and Darius Milhaud) may be the best. But the one on REM, in Jacques Ibert: Musique concertante, is also very good. Only the version that is part of Olympia's two-disc Complete Chamber Music loses a bit by slightly minimizing the harp.

Next come the often recorded string quartets of Leos Janácek. According to Janácek's great compatriot, the novelist Milan Kundera, the composer's music is "harsh juxtapositions instead of transitions, repetition instead of variation, and always heads straight for the heart of things: only the note that says something essential has the right to exist." But which note is that? I would say the one that takes us by surprise, yet feels absolutely right.

The First Quartet, "Kreutzer Sonata," is based on Tolstoy's story about a woman unhappy in marriage and out: her lover, a foppish fiddler; her jealous husband a maltreater and eventual murderer. Elements of the story can be traced in the music, although it stands very well on its own.

Finer yet is the Second Quartet, "Intimate Letters," dedicated even more openly to Kamila Stosslova, the much younger married woman who was the unreciprocating great love of Janácek's life, his uncomprehending Muse, responsible for much of his latest and best music. This piece conveys sovereignly the trepidations and fluctuations of the composer's feelings as they hurtle between hopefulness and melancholy, fantasized fulfillment and sober awakening. It ends in triumph, anyway, and was in 1928 Janácek's last finished major work. As a British musicologist has noted, "The two quartets stand with those of Debussy, Bartók, and Ravel among the supreme masterpieces of the medium" in modern times.

Of the six versions I own, I recommend especially the Janácek Quartet on Supraphon Archiv, the Melos Quartet on Harmonia Mundi, and the Manfred Quartet on Pierre Verany discs, which incorporates the important textual emendations of Milos Skampa.

The great Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) is another who is far too little known in this country. His numerous works in every conceivable genre are winners all, yet the only piece that gets performed now and then is the Cancion de cuna para dormir a un negrito ("Cradle Song for a Little Black Boy"). I pick it over several other wonderful works by Montsalvatge in my possession.