Arc - Intercontinental Ensemble
Classical - Chamber
Bongers: Collage van een Achtvlak
C. Schumann: 3 Romances, Op. 21
Martirosyan: Emotional Diversity
Neutkens: September I
Those of you who are familiar with our previous CDs know that we put a lot of thought into our album titles. This once again turned out to be a big challenge.
Whilst Traveling Light alluded to the symphonic arrangements and our ensemble’s international backgrounds and In Motu described both our personal motivation as well as the common motor behind the three pieces on the CD, we knew from day one that this third CD was much more rebellious and difficult to place. It truly is a nightmare for our (as of yet nonexistent) marketing department.
The first thing that sprung to mind was the female aspect: this CD focuses on work by exclusively female composers, but to give the CD a name based on that simply felt too easy and raised more questions than it answered.
The biggest question was: Is there something deeper that connects these artists?
Each composer has mastered a different style, which means that creating a description of one work ended up being detrimental to another. Whereas one composer challenges the listener with new combinations, another gives familiar sounds new perspective. One piece gives the impressions of stylistic refinement, wherein another puts emotion front and centre. What makes it even more complicated is that many of these contradictions can even be found during the same piece.
It became more and more clear that this CD wasn’t about one specific feeling, style or thought. It was about the connection between the pieces various personalities which makes the individual pieces part of something bigger.
That’s how we came up with the title Arc, the shape in which bridges have been built for centuries and also the way in which character development is described in a story.
In terms of architecture, an arc is the shape which encompasses all of the same exciting contradictions as the pieces on this CD. It combines the playful, serious, fragile, strong, the unpredictable and the refined and combines these into a detailed character description of each composer.
What’s more, every piece tells a personal story that takes the listener along, and as every good story does, provides the listener with new insights that they didn’t have beforehand.
In retrospect, Arc is a great counterpart to our previous CD In Motu. A set of twins, of which one child, In Motu, plays outdoors all day, doing everything in his power to put anything he can get his hands on into his mouth whilst managing to get scrapes all over his body. The other child, Arc, is a dreamer whose powerful fantasy can create entire worlds and bring anyone willing along for the journey.
We hope that you’ll notice more and more connections between the pieces every time you listen to this CD, and that you can experience it as a kind of sonic kaleidoscope, which tells you new stories every time you listen.
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Review by Mark Werlin - May 23, 2022
In recognition of the contributions to the repertoire by 19th-century women composers and contemporary women composers, Intercontinental Ensemble has prepared a thought-provoking and illuminating program of chamber music by Clara Schumann and Louise Farrenc, together with new pieces from Bianca Bongers, Aregnaz Martirosyan and Sarah Neutkens.
Clara Schumann was justly celebrated as a prodigy and virtuoso pianist, but her reputation as a composer was overshadowed by her husband Robert Schumann and her devoted friend Johannes Brahms. A new arrangement by Intercontinental Ensemble’s violinist Ernst Spyckerelle of Clara Schumann’s “Drei Romanzen Op. 21” skillfully weaves the intricate piano parts into elegant lines for strings and winds, and shines new light on the quality of her writing.
The first of the Op. 21 romances was composed on a day when Brahms visited Robert Schumann in the asylum where Schumann was confined until his untimely death. That such a tragic circumstance should provide inspiration for Clara’s pen reveals the strength of purpose that underlay her musical genius. It is possible to listen to that movement as if it were the opening of a symphony; recent musicology has traced the influence of Clara’s writing to the early symphonies of Brahms.
If the financial and familial demands that dictated her schedule of concertizing, teaching, child-rearing, and editing her husband’s works had been otherwise, her compositional gifts might have had greater room for development and production. The melancholy, wistful interpretation of the Drei Romanzen by the Ensemble conveys the inventiveness and emotional depth of Schumann’s writing.
Clara Schumann’s appointment as a principal instructor at Frankfurt’s Hoch Conservatory had only one precedent, that of pianist-composer Louise Farrenc by the Paris Conservatoire.
Louise Farrenc was a woman of indomitable character whose musical accomplishments were equal to her male contemporaries. The present generation of music lovers is fortunate that Farrenc’s works are now receiving the attention they merit; new recordings of her first and third symphonies, piano trio, violin sonatas and piano works.
Several recordings of the Nonet Op. 38 are in catalogue. Consortium Classicum’s CD on the Divox label has long been a reference chamber music album in my collection. Intercontinental Ensemble’s performance brings out the strengths of Farrenc’s writing with a lightness of touch and exuberance that contrasts with the weightier, more stolid Consortium Classicum interpretation.
Farrenc was a composition student of the Romantics Moscheles, Hummel and Reicha, but her eyes were facing forward and the 1849 Nonet points to the musical territory that lay ahead. Indeed, this piece convinced her employers at the Paris Conservatoire that her continued presence on the piano faculty warranted a raise in salary. In its length, running more than 30 minutes, the four movements operate at the level of a reduced-forces symphony; this is no mere salon entertainment. From the organ-like unison declaration at the opening of the first movement, as it proceeds through an adagio introduction into the development and variations, there is a wealth of counterpoint, major-minor modulations and melodic invention.
Farrenc positions the violin in a lead position as she guides the work through smaller and larger instrumental groupings; Spyckerelle’s solo cadenza distills the flavor of the movement as a whole. If the second movement with its dance figures and close observance of established conventions perhaps binds Farrenc to Conservatory conservatism, the dramatic third movement boldly forges along a path that succeeding generations of composers would follow. The Ensemble effortlessly traverses the galloping rhythms and tempestuous moods.
The three new pieces by women composers are sequenced on the album such that they clearly stand in the stream of the present day, while reflecting traditions of the past. In “Collage van den Achtvlak”, Bianca Bongers proposes a visual and geometric analogy: splashes of moving dots against a static octahedron of sustained tones. The gradual buildup into longer phrases of variegated swelling chords and abrupt rests juxtaposes familiar, if fragmentary, musical material in a thoroughly new framework. As the final measures fade to silence, a lingering impression of melancholy flows seamlessly into the opening of Schumann’s Op. 21 No. 1 Romance; a transition that binds the two works across time.
In “Emotional Diversity”, Aregnaz Martirosyan evokes the storming chaos of the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan which swept across her homeland. Martirosyan’s use of folk music motifs, punctuated with insistent provocations and abrupt silences, conveys poignancy and regret. At the conclusion, the instruments suggest exhausted voices emerging tentatively out of a silent, post-battle desolation.
Following is the third new piece. Sarah Neutkin’s “September 1” sustains a calm, pastoral tone through legato passages of songlike melodies. In context of the thematic flow of the album, it provides safe passage out of the dissonance and strife of the preceding work.
Positioning the new in relation the old, “Arc” leaves the listener with renewed respect for the courageous 19th-century women composers who overcame the restrictions of their times, and for contemporary women composers who respond creatively to the troubled conditions of our present age.
My two-channel audio system limits reviewing SACDs to their stereo mixes, which prevents me from describing the vividly immersive experience that TRPTK's Brendon Heinst creates in his multichannel mixes. For this review I’m including notes from HRAudio member Marcus DiBenedetto. Marcus is an enthusiastic music listener who has a dedicated 5.0 channel installation of high-quality audio components.
Notes on the MCH mix:
The mix creates an audience perspective. The rear surrounds are well integrated, without any instruments sounding separate from the front three speakers. The soundstage depth is like an oval shape around the front speakers, some instruments are closer and some farther back. Instrument clarity and placement is superb. The wind instruments really get a workout but do not overwhelm the strings.
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