TAVENER:  Song of the Angel.  RAN:  Yearning.  YI:  Romance of Hisiao and Ch'iu.  HENZE:  Adagio adagio.  LEEF: T' Filah.  RUDERS:  Credo.  SATOH:  Innocence.  RIHM:  Cantilena.  XENAKIS:  Hunem-Iduhey.  FOSS:  Romance.  HUSA:  StĖle.  OLIVERO:  Achot Ketana.  KURTĮG:  Ligatura.  GLASS:  Echorus.  REICH:  Duet
Edna Mitchell, Ulf Hoelscher, Shlomo Mintz, Nachem Erlich, Bohuslav Matoušek, violins; Michal Kanka, cello; Ludmila Peterkovą, clarinet; Igor Ardašev, piano; Patricia Rozario, Susan Narucki, sopranos; Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra/ Lukas Foss, cond; Karlsruhe Ensemble/ Andreas Weiss, cond.
Angel 57179 (F) (DDD) TT:  79:13


Edna Mitchell became the late Yehudi Menuhin's protČgČ and pupil when she was 12, and "remained close to him until his death in 1999" (at the age of 82, on a conducting tour of Germany) according to Shirley Fleming's background piece in a copiously annotated program book for this noble tribute to the late Lord. It was Mitchell's idea to request music from 15 composers who knew, admired, and variously benefitted from association with Menuhin in a multitude of generous projects he instituted and supported during his lifetime. Happily, he lived to hear all 15, and to perform in or conduct several.

Apart from Yannis Xenakis' Hunem-Iduhey "(Non-vibrato) for violin and cello," which sounds like mathematical diagrams on drafting paper -- not quite repellent, but singularly mechanistic, even robotic in this company; fortunately it lasts just three minutes - the remaining 14 pieces include several that are ecstatic. John Taverner's Song of the Angel (soprano Narucki, who co-stars with Hoelscher's violin and the Czech PCO) sets the tone, which Shulamit Ran's Yearning for violin, cello and the orchestra updates stylistically and intensifies -- one of the strongest, most mature, "approachable" pieces by this pupil of iconoclastic Ralph Shapey. Another distaff composer, Betty Olivero, has contributed an equally impassioned although quite different kind of piece - Achòt Ketana for three solo violins, soprano, clarinet and string orchestra, based on "a New Year song written in the 13th century by Avraham Gerondi of the Catalonian town of Herona."

Other than Xenakis, the most austere music is Karel Husa's StĖle for solo violin, dedicated to Ms. Mitchell, who plays it here. The most arcane, however, is Hungarian Gy–rgy Kurtág's Ligatura for two violins, who has made it his "artistic goal...to say as much as possible with as few notes as possible."At the other extreme is Danish Poul Ruders, whose Credo for two violins, clarinet and orchestra is rhapsodically beautiful without lapsing into expressive cliches. There are two oriental works (Menuhin's son-in-law was the Chinese pianist, Fou T'song), both with national complexions, both haunting. Chen Yi - the third woman composer - is represented by Romance of Hsaio and Ch’in, which are traditional Chinese instruments impersonated by a pair of violins, accompanied by the Karlsruhe Ensemble. As the basis of Innocence for violin, soprano and six cellos -- the most individualized music by a Japanese composer since the death of Takemitsu five years ago -- Somei Sato used a 1,300-year-old poem "about the love between husband and wife."

There are two pieces by German composers -- Hans Werner Henze's Adagio adagio, a.k.a. Serenade for Piano Trio, which sounds neo-Darmstadt on the brink of burnout in its second half, and Wolfgang Rihm's Cantilena (sehr ruhig) for solo violin, which is cerebral in a very quiet way. Lukas Foss' Romance -- a setting of Walt Whitman's poem "Love" (from "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking") for soprano, violin and strings -- occupies a heart-on-sleeve polarity. It is one of his most convincing works in a very long time, after decades of riding in avant-garde cabooses either outdated or left to rust on sidings.

Yinam Leef composed T’Filah (the Hebrew word for prayer) to celebrate Lord Menuhin's 80th birthday in 1997, at Mitchel's request. If I say I don't remember his writing for three violins, it is not a put-down -- only that Ruders follows, and sweeps the board clean. Finally, there are distinguished works by Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Glass' Echorus for two violins and strings was "inspired by thoughts of compassion and is meant to evoke feelings of serenity and peace," over which Allen Ginsberg (posthumously, on tape) reads excerpts from his "Wales Visitation," maybe a little florid as verse now and again, but a compelling reading in a most companionable musical setting. Reich's Duet for two violins and string orchestra concludes the collection sturdily and absorbingly, despite its being "built around simple unison canons" beginning and ending in F.

As important to the success of this disc is a rare appearance by Max Wilcox as both producer and engineer, reminding us of his storied place in the pantheon of recorded achievement since the mid-'50s. The seamlessness and beauty of sound on this CD belies three venues occupied over an 18-month period (and I need to add that no one has made Dvorák Hall in Prague's Rudolfinum sound more velvety or full-bodied). In the same league, Foss conducts the Czech Phil's Chamber Orchestra masterfully despite his years (now nearing 80), while the Karlsruhe Ensemble, recorded in their Hochschule home base, boasts a comparable polish. The soloists are too many to single out, but none is less than a peer in distinguished company whether here or abroad.

I hadn't planned on listening to, much less reviewing this disc, which came with several other"do what you want"items from Command Central.  I finally did listen, however, and have re-listened several times; let me urge you to do the same (and de-program what you don't care for later on, as I did the Xennakis, Henze, Husa and Rihm pieces). Compassion is important, with or without italics, and Edna Mitchell deserves a Grawemeyer Prize for it.

R.D. (Sept. 2001)