Kenneth Leighton: Orchestral Works, Volume I: Symphony for Strings; Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani; Concerto for String Orchestra. John Scott, organ; BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Richard Hickox. Chandos. $18.99.
Aulis Sallinen: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5. Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Ari Rasilainen. CPO. $16.99.
Debussy: Complete Works for Piano, Volume 3. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $18.99.
Not every composer deserves to have his (or her) complete works performed, much less recorded; and it is a safe bet that the vast majority of listeners will be interested in hearing only a percentage of the works by even the greatest composers: there is little demand for Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus or L'oca del Cairo. Yet more and more composers are getting the “complete” treatment nowadays – with the result that some good, interesting, little-known music is now available, but can be very hard to find among all the lesser compositions being performed and recorded. Surely there are people interested in the works of postwar British composer Kenneth Leighton and modern Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen. But how many will be interested enough to buy all Leighton’s orchestral works or CPO’s entire “Sallinen Edition,” in which the sixth CD has now been released?
Leighton (1929-1988) was in fact a substantial composer, with a fine sense of counterpoint and the ability to create interesting effects from sometimes-unusual combinations of instruments, as in his Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani (1970). Leighton’s music tends to be introspective and rather severe (although it became more lyrical in his last years, which are not represented on this CD). Leighton was also a fine pianist, and his understanding of the keyboard clearly extended to the organ as well. The other works on this Chandos CD are earlier and somewhat more brittle: Symphony for Strings dates to 1948-9 (it is Leighton’s Op. 3) and Concerto for String Orchestra to 1960-1. One of the attractions of these works, and indeed of Leighton’s music in general, is the avoidance of dogmatic approaches and gestures for their own sake – even when the music is dour, it is organically so. Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are clearly comfortable and familiar with this music, which is especially popular in Britain, and these performances are top-notch.
Ari Rasilainen seems equally comfortable conducting Sallinen’s music, although Sallinen (born 1935) may be more of an acquired taste than Leighton. Sallinen has written eight symphonies, the first dating to 1971 and the most recent to 2001, and he is adept at writing for large and diverse forces (he has also composed six operas). The Symphony No. 3 (1975), Sallinen’s first in multiple movements, showcases his technique of motivic repetition that leads eventually to transformation of themes. This approach takes some getting used to – it is not at all the way most listeners are accustomed to hearing symphonies structured – but it is certainly effective. The Symphony No. 5 (1985-7) is called “Washington Mosaics” – it was commissioned by the Washington National Symphony Orchestra and its then-music director, Mstislav Rostropovich – and its technique is a more extreme version of that in the earlier symphony. No. 5 repeats a large number of thematic snippets again and again, much in the way that individual mosaic tiles are applied; over time, the themes build to a work of surprising richness – although one that is perhaps more clever than heartfelt.
It seems easier to justify “completeness” in the case of an acknowledged compositional master such as Debussy than in the case of fine but less-well-known composers. But the third Chandos volume of Debussy’s piano works, although it is quite well played by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, is not an unalloyed pleasure. It bears repeating that even the greatest composers created some (often many) less-than-great works, and there are several on this CD. The longest and best-known pieces here are Children’s Corner and Suite Bergamasque, and Bavouzet’s sure and idiomatic performances are certainly worth having. But most of the pieces on the rest of the disc are trifles, from the under-a-minute-long Morceau de Concours to the only slightly longer The Little Nigar and Page d’Album. Some of these short works are certainly interesting, such as the atmospheric Nocturne and Hommage à Haydn (not a composer to whom one would necessarily expect Debussy to pay homage). But the overall feeling of the CD is of a couple of significant piano pieces with a great deal of filler material – certainly of interest to those who love Debussy’s music and who therefore hunger for completeness, but not by any means a “must have” addition to most collections.