CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
31 MAY 2018
The albums below are "Classical Releases Of Current Key Significance," or "CROCKS", if you will. To purchase an album, simply click on one of the Web site retail outlets given in the "AVAILABILITY" table under the write-up.
Heuberger: Der Opernball (cpte operetta); Soloists/Burkert/Graz OpC&PO [CPO]
SUGGESTED (2 CDs)
Richard Franz Joseph Heuberger (1850-1914) was born in Graz, Austria, where he first studied engineering, and started out in the railroad construction business. But his university friends included several up-and-coming musicians, one of whom was the distinguished teacher-composer Robert Fuchs (1847-1927; see 30 April 2018). Consequently, in 1876, Richard decided to follow a musical career and attended the Graz Conservatory, where Fuchs was one of his instructors.
He'd subsequently become a highly successful music critic, teacher and composer, whose major works were for the stage. The one on this release was highly popular in its day and ranks with those from the "Silver Age" of Viennese operetta such as Franz Lehár's (1870-1948) Frasquita (1922, see 7 October 2011) and Emmerich Kálmán's (1882-1953) Die Bajadere (The Temple Dancer, 1921; see 30 April 2017). It's the only readily available version currently on CD.
As presented here, there are fifteen musical numbers lasting a total of 77 minutes. They include a modicum of talking, and are interspersed with nine, unaccompanied dialogue tracks that clock in at around 10. The latter are rigorously banded, so those not liking chatter can easily avoid them. As for the former, they've been juggled around for dramatic purposes, and two songs that were added soon after the work's premiere are omitted. Consequently, this release only gets a "SUGGESTED" rating.
Der Opernball (The Opera Ball, 1896) is in three acts with a libretto by Victor Léon (1858-1940) and Heinrich von Waldberg (1860-1942) based on the French farce Les Dominos Roses (The Pink Dominos, 1876) of Alfred Delacour (1817-1883) and Alfred Hennequin (1842-1887). As for the story, the album booklet has minimal, English and German plot synopses of this ludicrous, convoluted intrigue, plus a totally confusing German text. But with music this entertaining, who cares!
The operetta is set in Paris at Carnival time during the late 1800s and concerns the machinations of two young ladies named Angèle and Marguérite. They get Marguérite's chambermaid Hortense to help them test the fidelity of husbands, Paul and Georges, which smacks of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's (1756-1791) Cosi fan tutte (1790), or even Johann Strauss Jr.'s (1825-1899) Die Fledermaus (1874). It will also involve the three women wearing pink domino broaches at a big Paris ball, as well as assignations in what's referred to as a "Chambre sépareé" ("secluded room").
Today Heuberger's works have mostly been forgotten. However, the overture to this one [D-1, T-1] has become a "Pops" classic that almost everyone knows, even if they can't remember the name, let alone tell you the composer. It gets this delightful contrivance off to a striking start with an arresting, indelible riff (AI) [00:01] that's toyed with [00:29] and followed by an infectious AI-derived melody [00:52]. The latter engenders a fetching waltz [01:09], which is the first of many to come.
After a short pause, AI returns [02:40], bridging into another gorgeous waltz (WG) [03:27] that remains popular to this day. It will accompany an upcoming "Chambre sépareé" (see above) number (WC) [see D-2, T-2], which was the operetta's big hit, and would became one of the most popular songs in its day.
Then there's a brief break and flighty transition [05:07] into an AI-based recap [05:20] with wisps of WG [05:43]. This comes to a dramatic halt succeeded by a cheeky closing coda with a saucy dance number (SD) [06:07] that suggests the musical world of Jacques Offenbach (1819-1890), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and the Moulin Rouge.
The first act curtain goes up revealing Georges's Paris residence, where Paul and Angèle are visiting. This begins with a duet for the two men [D-1, T-2] set to a couple of lilting waltzes [01:09 & 02:22]. Then there's a scene for Angèle along with her Uncle Theofil and Aunt Palmira, in which she sings a "Paris-Lied" ("Paris Song") [D-1, T-4] that's accompanied by two more waltz melodies. The sprightly first [00:27] is followed by a flowing second (WF) [01:18], which we'll be hearing more of (see below).
Next, Hortense and Naval Cadet Henri appear for a duet that's begun by him [D-1, T-6]. This opens playfully [00:15], turns amorous [01:08] and then rather martial [01:45], after which it's repeated, but this time, starting with Hortense [02:11].
A quartet comes next [D-1, T-8], that includes Georges, Paul, Henri and Theophil. It's set to a couple of comely melodies, one of which is another of those ubiquitous waltzes [00:33]. Then it's the ladies' turn with Angèle and Marguérite delivering a coy duet [D-1, T-10], where they're joined by Hortense for a subsequent trio [D-1, T-12]. The latter is again of waltz persuasion and comes to a perky conclusion [beginning at 03:21].
All the foregoing is filled with the women scheming to see if they can lure their men into acts of infidelity and culminates in an engaging finale for everyone [D-1, T-13]. The main tunes are recapped here, and a magnificent ensemble number set to a commanding waltz [10:47] ends this act.
The second is the titular ball, which is a masked affair that begins with a glorious chorus of attendant revelers. This is set to a magnificent, mazurka melody [D-2, T-1] and immediately succeeded by a flirtatious duet for Henri and Hortense [D-2, T-2], in which she sings that WC [02:51] mentioned above.
After some brief dialogue, there's a terrific ensemble selection [D-2, T-4] that opens with Georges, Hortense, Marguérite, Paul, Angèle, Philippe (a head waiter), Henri and Theofil recounting the romantic, domino-related shenanigans, which have taken place. Then a variant of SD returns [07:26], and the chorus joins in, bringing this act to an exultant conclusion.
The final one takes place back at Georges's home and starts with an entr’acte [D-2, T-5] based on WG [00:14]. It's succeeded by a scene for a hungover Hortense [D-2, T-6], who intones WC [01:43], after which we get a flighty, girl-talk duet for Marguérite and Angèle [D-2, T-8]. Then there's a chirpy ensemble number for everyone [D-2, T-10], where all the domino skullduggery is revealed, and the operetta ends with Angèle followed by the others singing "everything is beautiful in the world" to WF [00:07].
The soloists include sopranos Nadja Mchantaf (Angèle), Sieglinde Feldhofer (Hortense) and Margareta Klobucar (Marguérite), contralto Lotte Marquandt (Palmira), tenors Martin Fournier (Georges), Alexander Kaimbacher (Henri) and János Mischuretz (Philippe), as well as baritones Ivan Orescanin (Paul) and Gerhard Ernst (Theofil). All are in fine voice and sing their parts with that informal levity that characterizes this “Silver Age" of Viennese music.
They receive outstanding support from the Graz Opera Chorus and Philharmonic Orchestra under Viennese-born Marius Burkert, who’s considered one of today's finest operetta conductors and gave us Nico Dostal's (1895-1981) marvelous Die ungarische Hochzeit (The Hungarian Wedding, 1939), which we told you about not long ago (see 31 October 2016).
Done in early 2016 at the historic Graz Opera House, the recording is good with no extraneous stage action or audience noise. It projects a wide sonic image with the soloists and chorus ideally placed across the stage, where they’re well highlighted against the orchestra in this pleasing venue.
The upper voices have a bit of that edge typically found on conventional CDs. However, the orchestral timbre is generally characterized by pleasant highs, a natural midrange, and clean bass. While this album is not demonstration quality, it gives us a good sounding account of some memorable music that Lehár and Kálmán fans will love.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, S180531)
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Karayev: Sym 1, Vn Conc; Gandelman/Yablonsky/Kiev Virtuosi [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
On this new Naxos release the "Kiev Virtuosi" under Dmitry Yablonsky regale us with more Russian discoveries (see 30 November 2017), this time from the pen of Kara Karayev (also spelled Gara Garayev or Qara Qarayev, 1918-1982). Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, he began studying piano at age eight, and would go on to attend the Moscow Conservatory (MC) in 1938-41. One of Kara's instructors was Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975; see 31 May 2017), who'd become a good friend and strong supporter of his music.
After that he went back to Baku and was appointed director of the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Society. But in 1944-6, he returned to the MC for further studies. Karayev then pursued a highly successful career at home as a musicologist, teacher, writer, cultural ambassador and, along with Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007), became one of the Soviet Union's most honored composers.
He'd leave a substantial body of works across all genres, and here we're treated to a couple in the orchestral category. They're the only readily available recordings of them currently on disc.
His two-movement Symphony No. 1 of 1943 scored for large orchestra begins the program, and opens "Molto sostenuto" ("Very Sustained") [T-1]. The influence of Azerbaijani folk music known as mugam (also spelled mugham; see 19 December 2011) is apparent right from the start with the ambulant, introductory tune (FA) played by the flute [00:03].
This turns dancelike [01:20], abruptly giving way to the movement’s remaining "Allegro" ("Fast") segment that's announced by a martial version of FA (MA) [01:58]. Here there are overtones of combative moments in Shostakovich's War Symphonies (Nos. 4-9, 1935-45).
MA is explored and bridges into a serenely complacent idea (SC) [04:49], engendering an extended, rhapsodic episode [05:49], which ends with an explosive forte outburst [08:02]. The latter triggers an aggressive, MA-based fugal development, having references [beginning at 09:40] to that harbinger of doom, which haunts Rachmaninov's (1873-1943) orchestral works (1891-1941), the Dies Irae (DI).
Then we get a big tune version of MA [11:42] that wanes into recollections of SC [12:37]. These are followed by tranquil SC-MA-related passages [14:18] that end the movement in quiet resignation.
The closing one is a theme and variations, which opens with an MA-reminiscent, dolorous main subject (MS) in the winds and strings [00:00], having intimations of DI [00:41]. Then several variants of MS follow, each of which is briefly developed.
The first is arrestingly peripatetic [01:54] and second, whimsically dancelike [03:07] with more tinges of Shostakovich. They're succeeded by a melancholy number [06:46] and subsequent bubbly variant, having effervescent piano decorations [08:53]. After that a captivating, fugal transformation [10:33] leads to a chugging one [12:30], which waxes into a big tune return of MS (MB) [14:05].
But MB loses steam and is followed by a sad epilogue [15:00]. This ends the movement like it began and brings the symphony to a sorrowful conclusion, presumably reflecting the horrific events of World War II (WWII, 1939-45) that surrounded its birth.
Next up, Karayev's Violin Concerto of some twenty-five years later (1967), which stylistically is a bird of a different feather! It reflects his exposure to the dodecaphonic music by the Second Viennese School's composers and resultant serialism. Consequently, this work is atonally oriented, but not to the point where it becomes one of those later, emotionless, intellectual exercises.
In the conventional three movements, the opening "Allegro moderato" ("Moderately Fast") [T-3] is scored for strings with a little help from the percussion section, which includes a piano. It begins with a hushed tutti and the soloist playing an engaging, twelve-tone row (TT) [00:01].
TT undergoes a captivating development [01:06] of highly chromatic rather than rigorously, serialist temperament. Here the music builds to spiky passages for violin and orchestra [02:12] that trail off into a brief, subdued cadenza [03:18-04:06].
The return of the tutti inspires a yearning episode from the soloist [04:12], which becomes increasingly agitated and culminates in a timpani-tam-tam-reinforced outburst [06:25]. This fades giving way to subdued string ruminations with a sad suggestion of TT [06:39] that's commented on by the violin [07:09]. Then baleful passages, where the soloist recalls TT [08:42], conclude the movement in hushed, dark tranquility.
Woodwinds begin the middle "Andante" ("Flowing") [T-4] with a chorale-like, inverted variant of TT (TC) [00:00]. They're shortly joined by the violin [00:28], which launches into a dire monody over reverent wind ruminations.
Other members of the orchestra soon appear [00:48], after which the music waxes and wanes with several virtuosic displays from the soloist. Then the movement concludes with a sustained pianissimo note for the violin over grumbling woodwinds.
There's a complete change of pace with the concluding "Allegro" ("Fast") that begins with a snare drum tattoo. It introduces a cheeky, raucous, march in the orchestra, over which the soloist plays twitchy riffs. Then trumpets [01:05] turn this into what might well accompany one of those WWII Movietone newsreels showing victorious, strutting Soviet troops.
The violin soon joins the fray in antic passages [01:23] that receive wild tutti encouragement. It prompts a monster, killer cadenza [03:02-05:10], and the return of those trumpets, announcing a resumption of the movement's martial opening. However, this time around the music becomes rather freaky [05:33] with the soloist engaging in some last-minute, frenetic fiddling [06:10], and then the concerto ends with a final forte crash [06:58].
Violinist, Russian-born, Israeli-émigré Janna Gandelman gives a magnificent account of the concerto. Her attention to detail as well as phrasing bring out all the nuances of Karayev's knotty music. What's more, she displays her considerable technical skills by dispatching this virtuosically demanding work with great aplomb.
The Ukrainian National Chamber Ensemble known as the "Kiev Virtuosi" under their principal conductor, Dmitry Yablonsky, give her superb support. Maestro Yablonsky and this outstanding group of Russian musicians also deliver a splendid account of the Symphony.
These recordings were made two years ago in the National Radio of Ukraine Concert Hall, Kiev. They project a generous sonic image in a reverberant, enriching venue with Ms. Gandelman's violin well captured and balanced against the orchestra.
The overall instrumental timbre is characterized by acceptably bright highs, a pleasing midrange, and lean-clean bass. This disc should appeal to those liking twentieth century, Russian orchestral fare, while fully meeting the expectations of any audiophiles among them.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y180530)
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Martinu: Early Orch Wks V3 (Ballade after Böcklin's..., Dream of…, Vanishing... ); Kopacka/Hobson/SinfaVars [Toccata]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
As far as surveys of neglected, twentieth-century, orchestral music go, this one from Toccata devoted to Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's (1890-1959) early works is one of the most enlightening now underway (see 31 July 2016). Here they give us another three selections, these being the only readily available versions currently on disc. Two are world premiere recordings indicated by "WPR" after their titles.
Proceeding chronologically, the first dates from 1914-15, and is the only surviving one of four symphonic dances. Titled Ballada k Böcklinovu obrazu: Villa na Mori (Ballade after Böcklin's Picture: Villa by the Sea, WPR) [T-4], it was inspired by the paintings of Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), who's previously been mentioned in these pages (see 27 November 2009 & 15 January 2010).
Done between 1863 and 1878, there are several versions of what’s commemorated in the Martinu. They show a seaside villa with a young woman standing in the foreground, gazing at the incoming waves (to see, click here). And judging from his music, it would seem he had one of the more foreboding in mind.
The work begins with three subdued, ominous chords for full orchestra [00:00]. They're made all the more threatening by some underlying bass drum work, over which a piano enters playing hushed, dark-clouded chords [00:17]. Then we get a dusky, sorrowful motif (DS) [00:41], that waxes and wanes, bridging via walking passages into a gloomy despairing idea (GD) [03:08]. This is examined and followed by a trembling string spasm [03:39] that gives way to a fateful, choralelike melody (FC) [05:45].
FC builds and fades into the return of DS [07:42], which is commented on by piano and orchestra. Then a thunderous bass drum roll [09:52] heralds the reappearance of GD in a more heroic guise [09:59]. It's followed by FC [11:38], which builds to a climax that suddenly quits.
After that the piano returns with some idle musings [13:28]. But the strings try to bring it back in line with suggestions of GD and FC [beginning at 13:52], which is cause for a subdued argument between them.
In the end, the piano compromises by playing a GD-FC-related idea [15:06] that receives their approval in underlying ppp passages [15:03]. Then the music recalls the Ballade's opening three chords [16:57], and this captivating symphonic tone picture ends with a subdued, orchestral sigh [17:15].
Five years later Bohuslav reputedly planned an orchestral triptych that was to be called Háj satyru (The Grove of Satyrs). But only the central movement titled Sen o minulasti (Dream of the Past, 1950) has come down to us, and it's next [T-5].
Stylistically speaking, this is a real curiosity! Moreover, it's one of his few excursions into the world of Impressionism, and has a dreamy, windswept opening [00:01] that smacks of Debussy's (1862-1918) Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune ("Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun", 1892-4).
This drifts into an upward, spiraling thematic nexus introduced by the strings [03:12], which blossoms into four, sequential, florid episodes [04:54, 05:48, 08:04 & 09:47]. Then there's a pause and dissonant forte outburst [10:57], which subsides [12:01] with the return of that faun [12:13] to end the piece as it began.
The symphonic triptych of 1922 titled Míjející pulnoc (Vanishing Midnight, WPR) fills out this release. Like the preceding work, it's of impressionistic persuasion, and begins with more satyrs, i.e., "Satyri v háji cyprisu" ("Satyrs in the Grove of Cypresses") [T-1]. What's more there are thematic similarities between the two, making one wonder if "Dreams..." was a preliminary study for this.
Martinu left program notes telling us what the music is meant to depict (see the album documentation), and the opening movement limns the composer's nighttime imaginings of fairy tale beings. It falls into two parts, the first [00:01] being a chimeric characterization of these creatures that brings to mind Maurice Ravel's ballet Ma mère l'Oye (Mother Goose, 1912).
Here there are hints of a sweeping waltz theme (SW) [00:04] and captivating pastoral idea (CP) [00:39] that will soon appear. Then the music swells, suddenly giving way to subdued repeated passages [01:57] followed by vaporous, oneiric ones [02:15]. The latter become quite heroic, and we finally get CP played by the brass [03:12] followed by SW in the winds [04:09].
Next, SW engenders a whirling dramatic episode [04:41] with references to CP [beginning at 05:46] that builds to a percussion-laced climax. This fades into shimmering pianissimo strings with hints of SW in the brass [06:47 & 07:32] and underlying timpani rolls [beginning at 06:54], bringing this part of the movement to a somber conclusion.
The second is a much more lively affair, which going by what the composer says, depicts the forestial celebrations of these legendary creatures. It starts with whimsical passages [08:01], followed by a series of episodes that ebb and flow.
There are remembrances of CP [08:54] as well as SW [09:17], and a subsequent, lovely CP-based interlude featuring a solo violin [11:37-12:46]. The latter bridges into a rhapsodic, SW-derived closing section [13:14] along the lines of Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911), or even La valse (1920). This waxes and wanes with the music assumably vanishing into the midnight mists.
Martinu tells us the succeeding Modra hodiná (The Blue Hour) [T-2] depicts the "mild blue evening" as seen through his window, and "sounds of life" from a far-off town. Accordingly, this is also in two parts like its predecessor.
The first is a brilliantly scored, drop-dead gorgeous, Ravelian evocation of eventide. It begins with an enthralling preface [00:00], which is succeeded by a dramatic pause and rapturous, CP-related, nocturnal episode [04:02] that dies away.
Then the music suddenly switches gears into the concluding urban part. This opens with peppy passages [07:11], having moments reminiscent of Debussy's "Fêtes" in his Nocturnes (1900). These turn into a joyous, tuneful, SW-related cavort, which becomes crestfallen [beginning at 10:41] and darkens into a crashing, percussively-enhanced afterthought. The latter has tragic CP-related motifs [11:18 & 11:33] and ends the movement in hushed despair.
This sets the tone for the concluding Stíny (Shadows) [T-3], which is a sweeping expressionistic tour de force, and arguably the most dramatically intense music Martinu would ever write! It reputedly characterizes disturbing, chilly autumn winds, eerie shadows cast by a cloud-covered moon, and fears of the "Unknown" brought on by an intimidating, midnight-starlit sky.
The troubled opening [00:00] owes a debt to Debussy's La Mer (1903-5) and has intimations of CP [00:33] as well as SW [00:55]. Then the music becomes tempestuous [beginning at 01:27], presumably reflecting those winds and shadows, after which it fosters a captivating, CP-reminiscent ditty (CC) [02:25].
Subsequently, the mood turns more optimistic with a big tune version of CC (BC) [04:21] that's very Martinu sounding, and in some ways presages Maurice Jarre's (1924-2009) title tune for Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Be that as it may, BC then engenders a brief sanguine section that seemingly expresses hopes for better days to come. However, this spirals into a despairing episode [06:24] that suddenly quits with a harp glissando and snare drum flourish.
Spooky, subdued passages follow [06:46], presumably representing more shadows. They're interspersed with a curious, SW-reminiscent, march-like motif [beginning at 07:03], which powers a frantic episode [09:47], invoking images of the "Unknown". This comes to a dramatic halt, immediately succeeded by a sinister afterthought [12:29]. Then an ecstatic outpouring of what could be hopes for better days [12:58] seemingly end the work.
Not! As after a break, Martinu serves up cataclysmic, wrenching, brass-introduced- percussion-reinforced passages [14:20]. These finally close the work with a tragic reference to CC [15:09] and forte, drum-roll-bolstered chords for full orchestra [15:38].
Once again English conductor Ian Hobson and the Warsaw-based Sinfonia Varsovia (SV) give us another outstanding release of more early Martinu orchestral goodies (see 31 July 2016). As before, he gets superb playing from the members of this first-rate Polish ensemble, who instill these youthful, forgotten scores with an exuberant vibrancy, which gives them a new lease on life. Also, pianist Agnieszka Kopacka deserves a big round of applause for her significant contribution to Ballade....
All of these recordings were done at the Polish Radio's Witold Lutoslawski Concert Studio in Warsaw. However, three years separate those of Dream... and Ballade... (2014) from Vanishing... (2017). Consequently, it's not surprising that, while all took place in the same venue, they sound somewhat different.
More specifically, the sonic image projected by the earlier two is somewhat narrow, distant and dry sounding. On the other hand, the later one is appealingly wide and deep, and although the venue was the same, it seems more enriching.
As for the overall instrumental timbre, Vanishing... is characterized by pleasing highs, a lifelike midrange, and with Martinu's heavy-duty scoring, impressive, rock-bottom bass. The other selections have brighter highs with hints of digital grain, marginally pinched midranges, and lean, clean bass. However, Panna Kopacka's piano is well captured and balanced against the SV.
Lavishly scored Vanishing... represents a challenge for the most sophisticated sound systems. However, Dream... and Ballade... aren't demonstration quality, which precludes this release from getting an audiophile rating.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P180529)
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Pal: Starling Triple Conc (vn, vc, pno & orch), Into the Wonder Sym; Post/Gryphon Trio/ThunderBay SO [Analekta]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
A few weeks ago we told you about a superb CD of string quartets by three Canadian composers (see 31 March 2018). And on the heels of that, Analekta gives us a couple of orchestral selections by one of their compatriots, Jordan Pal (b. 19??), who hails from Toronto, Ontario. He first studied music at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, then in his hometown, where he got his master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Toronto in 2007 and 2011 respectively.
He's since become one of Canada's most highly regarded, up-and-coming composers with many successful commissions to his credit. Having written a significant number of works across all genres, many have been performed by Canada's best chamber groups and orchestras. The two here met with great success in the concert hall, and we're now lucky to have these recordings, which are the only ones currently available on disc.
Our program begins with his three-movement, triple concerto of 2013, where the soloist is a piano trio (violin, cello & piano). Titled Starling, this piece is literally "for the birds"! Moreover, the composer’s album notes allow as how it's an orchestral murmuration inspired by that phenomenon.
Pal goes on to pontificate that the music seeks to capture the same boundless, breathless, fleeting and visceral qualities indicative of nature. He also states the work is meant to inspire a greater appreciation of our environment. In that regard, he considers it follows in the footsteps of Debussy’s (1862-1918) La Mer (1903-05), as well as many of Sibelius’ (1865-1957) tone poems (1892-1926) and Messiaen’s (1908-1992) nature-oriented creations (1930-91).
In three movements, the first marked "Allegro non assai, ma non spontaneità" ("Somewhat fast, but not spontaneously") [T-1] starts with flighty passages for the winds and upper strings [00:01]. They're soon followed by the trio, which circles about [00:20], introducing a contemplative idea with avian-like cries (CA) [00:49]. It undergoes an animated exploration [01:56] that makes a slow decent into a challenging cadenza for the three soloists [04:01]. The latter ends with the return of CA and gradual reappearance of the orchestra [beginning at 05:37].
Then there's a fitful development [06:21] with bounding flights of fancy for the tutti [beginning at 06:34]. This makes a restless transition [beginning at 07:16] into a delicate, rhapsodic passages dominated by the soloists [08:08]. However, they’re interrupted by trio-embellished, orchestral twists and turns [10:59] that give way to a captivating final episode [11:59]. Here it's easy to imagine a swirl of starlings, soaring skywards as the movement comes to a thrilling conclusion [beginning at 14:55].
The next "Largo nobile" ("Slow and noble") [T-2] alternates wistful sighing passages for the tutti with ruminative, aria-like ones intoned by the soloists. The music builds to a climax followed by a brief pause [11:12], and then waxes and wanes away with sad afterthoughts for all.
The concluding "Presto, Electric and Wild" [T-3] is a virtuosic, airborne rondo that begins with capricious passages [00:00] hinting at a CA-related, skittish, recurring idea (CF) [00:08]. This appears in a number of captivating orchestral guises with decorative support from the trio and brings the concerto to an impetuously skittish conclusion.
Filling out this disc there's Into the Wonder completed in 2014. It’s a three-movement symphony with pretentious philosophical associations as outlined in the composer's lofty notes. He proclaims it “celebrates the creative will of our universe”. Moreover, were told the music's meant to invoke birth, death, creation and destruction, as well as universal interconnectedness along with the rapture of love -- a tall order for a piece lasting just under thirty minutes!
What's more, his scoring includes a keyboard synthesizer to produce exotic sounds representing the inscrutability of the cosmos. And like Berlioz (1803-1869) did in his Symphonie fantastique (1830), Pal employs a recurring idée fixe motif (IF). According to what he says this is the “connective tissue”, which binds the work's movements together.
The opening one marked "An Infinite Range" [T-4] begins much like Starling's last. But here those birds have become flights of fancy, which according to the composer represent the enigmatic, endless range of creative forces throughout the universe. Initial scurrying passages (SP) [00:00] seemingly limn whirling galaxies, and then that IF (see above) soon appears [00:34]. It's an undulating thematic nexus, which in the context of this work, we'll refer to as a genesis effect motif (GE).
GE undergoes a pensive exploration [01:25] interspersed with more SP. Then there's a brief pause succeeded by a swirling segment [03:59], which evokes images of coalescing planetary systems. Going on that premise, it's followed by evolutionary-like, developmental passages [04:58] that might connote the formation of Earth [07:02].
Then the music escalates [beginning at 08:14] back to the mood of its busy opening, only to fade away, bringing the movement to a tranquil conclusion. This sets the tone for the next one.
A profound offering titled "Birth and Death" [T-5], it gets off to a subdued, GE-related, glowing start (GS) [00:00] that may reflect the first appearance of life on earth. Then the mood turns austere [03:11] ostensibly with the rise of mankind. Subsequent ominous passages [05:20] would next seem to mirror his demise. But the reappearance of GS [08:49] ends the movement with intimations of better times ahead.
The concluding "That Drives Us Forth... (Ebullient)" [T-6] is a brief GE-based, rondoesque romp, which brings the work full circle with a return to the sanguinity of its opening movement. This closes the Symphony with implications of advanced worlds and civilizations yet to come.
Our conductor Arthur Post is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music, and served as assistant to Lorin Maazel, when he was conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, as well as Michael Tilson Thomas (see 31 March 2011) at The New World Symphony. He was Music Director of the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra (TBSO), when these recordings were made, and gets a dynamic, committed performances of both works from them (TBSO).
They’re joined by Toronto's Gryphon Trio (violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon, cellist Roman Borys and pianist Jamie Parker) for Starling and deliver an equally memorable account of this concertante curiosity. Maestro Post has a reputation for championing new contemporary orchestral fare such as this, and hopefully he’ll introduce us to more of the same in the not too distant future.
The recordings date from two years ago and were done at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium, Ontario. Generally speaking, they present a broad, somewhat recessed soundstage in a bright, reverberant venue, and should appeal to those liking wetter sonics.
More specifically, the Gryphon players are generously spaced to left (violin) and right (cello) of a centered piano. While all three are well balanced against the orchestra, and the keyboard is ideally captured, the strings sound occasionally steely in their upper registers.
The latter also holds for the overall instrumental timbre, which isn't helped by a rather thin, distant sounding midrange. Despite an ideal low end, the foregoing shortcomings make for a disc that's not demonstration quality. However, as noted before with releases featuring repertoire this rare, we're lucky to have what's here.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P180528)
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Stephenson, J.M.: Liquid…, Colors, Les Chants, Cl Son, Fant, Étude...; Yeh/Kulenovic/LakeF S/Klein/ChicPM [Cedille]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Having earned a degree from the New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, Massachusetts, James M. Stephenson (b. 1969) began his career as a trumpeter. He then moved on to arranging and conducting, eventually becoming a full-time composer, who's for the most part self-taught.
Moreover, there's an enthusiasm along with a give-and-take about his music that makes it immediately appealing. But it’s also intellectually stimulating as attested to by the frequent commissions and prizes he's gotten over the past few years.
James has written many concertos featuring a variety of instruments, and the clarinet takes center stage on this new Cedille release. It's accompanied by recordings of five additional chamber works for that instrument, these being the only currently available versions on disc of the six selections included here.
The program starts with Stephenson's four-movement clarinet concerto of 2011, which he calls Liquid Melancholy. This is a metaphorical phrase he lifted from American author Ray Bradbury's (1920-2012) novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Apparently, it's meant to suggest what the composer refers to as "the clarinet's ability to play smooth and fluid lines at all dynamic levels" (see his garrulous program notes).
Bradbury's story involves book-burning, and its title is the temperature at which paper catches fire. This seems reflected in the work's opening "Con fuoco" ("With fire") [T-1], which begins with a fitful, flamelike idea in the low strings (FF) [00:00] that's repeated by the bassoons [00:13]. Then there's a stroke on what sounds like a fire bell [00:25] that marks the entry of the clarinet. It picks up on FF, and along with the tutti soon plays a martial, flowing melody (MF) [00:50].
MF is followed by an agitated, virtuosically demanding episode [01:04], in which it alternates [beginning at 01:45] with frenetic, FF-spiced segments. The last of these wanes with more of that fire bell [05:15], and the movement's flames flicker out in perfunctory, descending passages [05:27].
Next, there's a consummate, emotionally charged "Adagio Lamentoso" ("Slow and Mournful") [T-2] that gets off to a subdued, shimmering start in the orchestra [00:00]. It’s soon joined by the clarinet intoning a melancholy, extended melody [01:16] with sobbing virtuosic flourishes, which is made all the more gloomy by intermittent, depressive thumps on the bass drum [03:00].
This subsides [03:15] into a haunting episode, recalling the movement's opening mood. But not for long, as orchestra and soloist suddenly launch into an antic "Cadenza Interlude" [T-3, 00:00] that’s a whimsical, virtuosic display for the clarinet intermittently tweaked by the tutti.
It adjoins a final "Fast" [T-4], which begins with skittering passages for clarinet and tutti [00:00] that give way to a somewhat Eastern-sounding, pensive episode [01:04-02:02]. Then flighty passages bring the concerto to an animated conclusion, ending with a colorful, percussively-accented, caterwauling coda [04:00].
Turning to chamber music for clarinet on this CD, we get a sextet written in 1997 that includes an oboe and string quartet. This is a set of four impressionistic movements, each inspired by a different color, and accordingly named Colors.
The composer views the opening "Red" [T-5] as angry, and apparently with Soviet associations as it's characterized by peevish passages [beginning at 00:00], which bring to mind splenetic moments in Shostakovich's (1906-1975) string quartets (1935-74). These prevail despite intervening palliative ones [00:34 & 01:39], and then things end in a twit.
After that the mood changes for "Blue" and "Green". Moreover, the former [T-6] is bluesy [00:00] with a jazzy midriff [02:18-03:13], while the latter takes on a Hibernian air [T-7]. It starts with a lazy, folklike jig [00:00], and invokes images of the legendary green Irish countryside [00:59-01:40].
Then the work closes with "White" [T-8], where a merry-go-round of notes [00:00] alternates with a warm pastoral tune introduced by the oboe [00:14]. The composer describes his music as "evoking the blinding image of throwing open the curtains on a bright, sunny morning."
Moving ahead almost twenty years, we have a quintet (2015) for clarinet, string trio and piano, called Last Chants. Stephenson says "Chants" is a deliberate, albeit somewhat far-fetched play on words, recalling "Dance" and "Chance", which describe other aspects of this piece.
In a single movement, lasting about twelve minutes [T-9], it opens with a Gregorian-chant-like, oriental-flavored thematic nexus [00:00]. This engenders a virtuosic frenetic "dance" (VF) [01:42] having anguished, klezmer-like cries for the clarinet [beginning at 02:03].
The foregoing material appears in two differently scored treatments [05:12 & 08:21], which give the musicians another "chance" to show their stuff. After that the work slows [beginning at 11:19], but last-minute, VF-derived flourishes [11:38] bring it to an exciting finish.
Then the string players leave, and the disc concludes with three selections for clarinet and piano. The most substantial is the composer’s Sonata of 2015, which is available in two versions. The standard one has three-movements that follow a fast-slow-fast schema. And the other, which has an "Interlude" inserted between the second and third, is what we have here.
Its opening "Allegretto" ("Lively") [T-12] starts with a comely fetching tune (CF) [00:00] that's examined and followed by razzle-dazzle development [01:47]. The latter has a searching midsection [02:36-03:28] and shrieking, virtuosic clarinet outcropping [03:30]. Then CF is recapped [05:19], eventually bringing the movement to a tranquil conclusion.
Next, there's one marked "Lazily" [T-13], which is much as advertised and begins with a hushed, running piano commentary [00:00]. This is soon overlaid by a lovely, soft, peripatetic idea for the clarinet (SP) [00:08]. After that, the soloist conducts an introspective exploration of SP [02:14] with some bravura asides [beginning at 03:19], and the music ends tranquilly.
Then we get that extra movement [T-14], whose name, "Interlude, Jam-Bourée", contains another of those cutesy Stephenson puns. He tells us it's meant to reflect the music being a a "cross between baroque counterpoint and somewhat bi-tonal relationships".
Accordingly, here the clarinet [00:00] descants a twittering ditty over a busy piano accompaniment. All this smacks of J.S. Bach's (1685-1750) bustling moments, spiced with that intriguing queasiness, which characterizes such polytonal pieces as Darius Milhaud's (1892-1974) jazzier creations.
The concluding movement marked "Spike" [T-15] opens with jagged, piercing passages (JP) [00:00]. They gradually become more subdued, bridging into a catchy, angular number (CA) [00:55] that calls to mind Gershwin's (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924; see 31 March 2011). Then CA triggers three increasingly frenzied episodes [01:46, 02:23 & 03:36] with demanding bravura passages for the soloist, and the sonata ends maniacally with a final reminder of CF [06:39] (see above).
The first of the other two clarinet-piano works filling out this disc is titled "Fantasie" [T-10]. This began life as an eponymous, trumpet-piano piece, which was written and dedicated in 2005 to the great Russian trumpeter Timofei Dokshizer (also spelled Dokschitzer, 1921-2005), who had just died. Then the composer transcribed it for clarinet, giving us what's here.
It begins with the soloist playing a melancholy melody seemingly of Slavic folk persuasion (MS) [00:00] to a sympathetic keyboard accompaniment. MS then becomes the recurring subject for this squirrelly rondoesque work, where we next get a couple of variational, developmental episodes that are respectively tripping [01:48] and stern [03:31].
They're followed by the return of MS [04:14], which introduces a flighty clarinet cadenza [05:56-06:56] that gives way to a whimsical MS-based episode [07:12]. It brings the work to a merry conclusion with a reminder of MS [08:46] and subsequent quirky closing riff [09:01].
And as an encore there's a tiny Étude Caprice (1997) [T-11], which started out as a whimsical exercise for solo clarinet. Then Stephenson added a piano part for concert performances like the one included here. It's a virtuosic, bubbly tidbit that adds a frivolous touch to this engaging release.
American clarinetist John Bruce Yeh makes a strong case for this music, delivering technically accomplished yet sensitive, emotionally moving accounts of these captivating works. He receives unqualified support from the Lake Forest Symphony (LFS) under its music director Vladimir Kulenovic in Liquid Melody. As for the chamber selections, Yeh is joined by members of the Chicago Pro Music along with oboist Alex Klein for Colors. Together they deliver stunning accounts of them, making a strong case for these winsome works.
All the recordings were made last year. Liquid Melody was done in the College of Lake County's James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts, Grayslake, Illinois. The others took place at the University of Chicago's Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. They sound amazingly consistent despite the differing locations, and deliver sonic images perfectly proportioned to the varying number of performers involved.
The concerto finds Mr. Yeh well highlighted and balanced against the LFS. As for the chamber works, all of the performers are ideally placed and magnificently captured. The overall instrumental timbre is characterized by lifelike highs, a musical midrange, and clean bass, which goes down to rock bottom with those bass drum strokes in the Concerto. Conventional CDs don't get any better sounding than this, and audiophiles with a penchant for the clarinet won't want to be without it!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y180527)
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