March 20, 2008


Shostakovich: Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings; Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1. Lise de la Salle, piano; Gulbenkian Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster. Naïve. $16.99.

Bizet/Serebrier: Carmen Symphony; Silvestre Revueltas/Serebrier: Mexican Dance; Alberto Ginastera: Estancia Suite; Serebrier: Night Cry; Villa-Lobos: Concerto Grosso for Wind Quartet and Wind Orchestra; Sousa: The Stars and Stripes Forever. “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.

      Both these CDs are, in a sense, “personality” releases, designed to attract buyers because of who performs on them at least as much as by what is performed. But both have considerable musical value on top of their personality orientations – making them worthwhile to consider for purchase strictly on the basis of their content.

      The Lise de la Salle CD is the better of the two. De la Salle, who turns 20 this year, is something of a phenomenon, with marvelous technique, an unusually light touch (despite her ability to extract plenty of sound when she wants to), and a striking appearance that is fully exploited in the photo of her that adorns both the cover of her new CD and the cover of its booklet. But forget how she looks and listen to how she plays. This CD uses the number one in four ways: it contains the first piano concerti of three composers, and it is de la Salle’s first recording of any concerti at all (her two prior recordings were piano solos). De la Salle is at her best in the lighter, brighter, more puckish parts of the two Russian works, and is quite wonderful almost everywhere in the Liszt. In the Shostakovich, she opens with a sparkling sound that creates a visceral rather than cerebral performance, and is ably abetted by fine trumpet playing by Gábor Boldoczki and excellent accompaniment by the Gulbenkian Orchestra under Lawrence Foster. Taken quite quickly, the first movement whizzes by. The Lento second movement is somewhat less effective – it drags a bit here and there – but the finale is speedy and sarcastic, with a very fast coda that is exactly as sardonic as it should be.

      In the Liszt, de la Salle combines power and grace, giving unusual attention to details of the softer sections. The balance of triangle, piano and pizzicato strings is especially good here, and the many passages of cascading notes are handled wonderfully well. The start of the march is perhaps a little limp, but the concerto’s conclusion is bright and brilliant. In the first movement of the Prokofiev, the orchestra is especially impressive, and de la Salle does particularly well in the lower register, although without as commanding a sound as she has in the Liszt. The second movement is elegant, with fine meshing between piano and orchestra, and the finale is filled with irrepressible high spirits, as de la Salle manages to dominate without ever pounding the keyboard. The breakneck pace of the coda is a fitting capstone to a delightful performance.

      The delights of the new José Serebrier CD are more those of a potpourri, offered by an outstandingly talented musician – but without any real thought to the overall effect of the program. This CD is a recording of a live concert, and is rather irritatingly presented with substantial applause after every work – more than five minutes of clapping in all. The playing is superb – the United States Marine Band is as good an ensemble of its type as can be found anywhere in the world – but the works offered are decidedly a mixed bag, and they are not mixed together in any very thoughtful way. Nevertheless, the CD earns a (+++) rating for the skill of the performances and the interest of some of the pieces.

      Serebrier’s Carmen Symphony, the major work here, is a little bit disappointing. It is really a suite, but Serebrier called it a symphony to distinguish it from the two well-known Carmen suites – which do not assemble their music in the order in which it appears in the opera. Serebrier set out to do just that, but soon realized that the opera’s final scene would not work without voices, so his finale drops back to Act II. Since the sequential approach did not succeed, Serebrier’s decision to use it everywhere except at the end seems rather silly and is not especially convincing. His arrangement of Silvestre Revueltas’ Mexican Dance, which here gets its world première recording, works better. The dance is Serebrier’s expansion of a piece from the score that Revueltas wrote for a film called Redes (“Nets”). It is effective and colorful.

      Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia Suite, drawn from a ballet, is colorful, too, but it is also repetitious and a bit too tub-thumping to work in this arrangement for wind band. Serebrier’s own Night Cry, another world première recording, is more successful. It represents Serebrier’s emotional response to Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream, and uses an interesting antiphonal technique in which there are only a few musicians on stage, with others playing offstage and still others in the balcony, behind the audience. Unfortunately, this element, which is important to the piece, is not terribly effective on the CD – although it would be in a recording made in true surround sound. Still, the mostly quiet and atmospheric piece is at least intermittently involving. Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Concerto Grosso for Wind Quartet and Wind Orchestra, one of the composer’s last works, is more involving still, placing a small group (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon) against the larger wind complement in a wide variety of ways – and the playing here, both of the quartet and of the full ensemble, is really wonderful. It is excellent too, not surprisingly, in the encore: Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever, which this band can probably play in its sleep. The brilliant march makes a light and upbeat ending to an uneven but frequently interesting CD.

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