Thursday, May 06, 2010

Review: Artists of the Royal Conservatory - Two Roads to Exile

Two Roads to ExileA double difficulty facing traditionally-minded post-Romantic German composers blacklisted by the Nazis in the 1930's was that even if they or their music survived Hitler's regime, they faced disdain and marginalization by a post-war European avant-garde intent on erasing the Romantic past and moving forward into the atonal age. Adolf Busch and Walter Braunfels were two composers who survived the Second World War with remarkable, although different stories.

Two Roads to Exile is the third release of Artists of the Royal Conservatory, the ensemble-in-residence at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto (ARC for short). Adolf Busch, one of the great German violinists of the early twentieth century, reacted to the outbreak of violence against German Jews in 1933 by moving to Switzerland and refusing to perform in Germany, severely jeopardizing his performing career in the process. He later moved to the US, where with Rudolf Serkin he co-founded the Marlboro Festival. Walter Braunfels (a descendant of Louis Spohr), was removed from his position as director of the Hochschule für Musik Köln for being half-Jewish. During the war he was sheltered by the Catholic community in Überlingen and miraculously returned to his duties in Cologne afterwards.

The Busch String Sextet in G major, Op. 40 and the Braunfels String Quintet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 63 are difficult, dense scores redolent of the Romantic era's last flowering. These works demand several hearings in order to get a handle on the twists and turns of musical logic, especially in the Braunfels quintet, which goes the farther of the two in terms of emotional scope, harmonic compass, and color choices. Fortunately, ARC's playing (sans clarinet and piano this time around) is of such a depth, artistry, and discernment that repeated listening is a continual pleasure, especially given the fine acoustics of the RCM's Koerner Hall, which provide both richness of overall sound and pinpoint detail (incidentally, this is the very first CD recorded in the hall).

Violinists Marie Bérard and Benjamin Bowman switch parts for each of the works, with Bérard playing first violin in the Busch and Bowman in first chair for the Braunfels. They both play with a virtuosity of sound that is always at the service of both ensemble and musical argument. Violists Steven Dann and Carolyn Blackwell fill out the middle of the texture with conviction and musicality, and I think their sound may project more live than in recording (if Dann's fine performance sitting on the outside of the group today was any indication). At the foundation of the ensemble are cellists Bryan Epperson and David Hetherington, whose impeccably shaped phrases lend both blending and individuation of sound.

Royal Conservatory President Peter Simon remarked at today's Toronto launch event that the Artists of the Royal Conservatory have never released a CD that hasn't been nominated for a Grammy award. Two Roads to Exile is of a quality that one could imagine the same thing being said on the release of their next recording. The level of musical complexity on these two works combined with the performance's deep commitment requires a concentration of listening above and beyond the call of duty required for most classical releases. My suggestion on the best way to listen to this recording: experience it late at night, free from distraction. Fine speakers or headphones are a must, as well as time for repeated listening.

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