November 20, 2008


Ives: Songs, Volume 5. Jana Baty, Lielle Berman, Patrick Carfizzi, Jennifer Casey Cabot, Michael Cavalieri, Robert Gardner, Ian Howell, Sumi Kittelberger, Ryan MacPherson, Tamara Mumford, Mary Phillips, David Pittsinger, Kenneth Tarver and Leah Wool, vocalists; Jooyeon Kong, violin; Kelli Kathman, piccolo; Ryan Johnston and Cary Parker, trombones; Frederick Teardo, organ; Douglas Dickson, Laura Garritson, J.J. Penna and Eric Trudel, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Bottesini: Fantasia “Lucia di Lammermoor”; Romanza drammatica; Introduzione e bolero; Romanza: Une bouche aimée; Capriccio di bravura; Elégie in D; Fantasia “Beatrice di Tenda”; Grande Allegro di Concerto. Thomas Martin, double bass; Anthony Halstead, piano; Jacquelyn Fugelle, soprano. Naxos. $8.99.

Leopold Mozart: Sinfonias in G, D and A; Kindersinfonie (Toy Symphony); Sinfonia in G, “Neue Lambacher Sinfonie.” Toronto Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $8.99.

     The odd decision to produce an alphabetically arranged six-volume set of the songs of Charles Ives pays handsome dividends in the fifth volume, which – by sheer abecedarian coincidence – is the meatiest and most interesting one yet (as well as the longest: at a full 80 minutes, it strains the capacity of a CD). This volume runs from “Paracelsus” (1921) through “Swimmers” (1915), starting and ending with fascinating items; and it includes Ives’ very first song (“Slow March” from 1887, when Ives was 13) as well as his last wholly original one (“Sunrise” from 1926, a work that was left unfinished and nearly illegible and was rendered performable by John Kirkpatrick). There are wonders on almost every track here: “Premonitions” (1921) is fatalistic and defiant at once; “Peaks” (1923) is tonally and texturally ambivalent and altogether fascinating; “The Rainbow” (1921) has an improvisatory feeling and makes the well-known words of William Wordsmith (“My heart leaps up”) sound quite fresh; “A Sea Dirge” sets Ariel’s words from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in an exceptionally dark way; and such less-than-a-minute gems as “The Side Show” (1921) and the wonderfully titled “Slugging a Vampire” (1902) are marvels of pithy expressiveness. Also here is an exceptionally amusing take on the college tune “A Son of a Gambolier,” which is early Ives (1895) but which looks forward to later Ives humor through its de-emphasis of words and inclusion of parts for violin, piccolo, piano, trombones – and four kazoos. Also of special interest among the earlier songs on this CD is “Rough Wind” (1902), to words by Percy Bysshe Shelley, featuring music that Ives used as well in the opening movement of his first symphony. This volume is a winner on all levels.

     The latest Naxos re-release of 1980s recordings of music by famed 19th-century double-bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini may not be as instantly appealing as the earlier ones, since it uses piano rather than orchestral accompaniment. But it shows Bottesini’s skill in chamber music, and thanks both to Thomas Martin and Anthony Halstead, it in some ways has as much sweep as does Bottesini’s music for double bass and orchestra. As Franz Liszt so famously did with the piano, Bottesini used his double bass to create encapsulations and expansions of themes from various popular operas of his day, including Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda. These fantasias are fascinating, showing the string family’s largest member to be as adept and soulfully expressive – in sufficiently skilled hands, such as Martin’s – as its smaller cousins. The remaining works on this uniformly well-played CD are of somewhat less appeal, although the song Une bouche aimée is an interesting curiosity and a souvenir of the tours that Bottesini did with leading sopranos of his time. One other especially interesting work here is Grande Allegro di Concerto, a somewhat Mendelssohnian tour de force in which the degree to which the double bass is pushed to its limits (notably, the top of its range) is truly hard to believe. Like Paganini, to whom he was in his lifetime compared, Bottesini wrote mainly for himself and not for the ages, but his music retains considerable charm – and its exploration of the extremes of which the double bass is capable is amazing.

     Leopold Mozart’s posthumous obscurity as a composer is quite different from Bottesini’s: the considerable reputation of the elder Mozart was completely overwhelmed by the brilliance of his son and the love-hate relationship between the two. Little of Leopold’s music is performed nowadays, except for his “Toy Symphony,” which exists in several versions – and may not be by him at all, or may be by him in only one version (including four movements that for some reason are omitted in Kevin Mallon’s performance). What is especially interesting about the Toronto Chamber Orchestra’s fine playing of Leopold Mozart’s music is the seriousness, even intensity, that orchestra and conductor bring to it. Even the “Toy Symphony” is treated as a seriously constructed work, not a mere throwaway. The CD is oddly arranged for those who might like to listen to it straight through in order to hear Leopold’s growing mastery of the orchestra: the first work played was the third composed; the third played was composed first; and so on. The reason this matters is that Leopold did develop significantly in his style, to the point at which some of his symphonies (including the “Neue Lambacher Sinfonie” and the G major on this CD) were for a time believed to have been written by Wolfgang. On their own merits, these are tuneful, well-constructed works that break no more ground than had the Mannheim School but that flow well and are even – in the case of the “Neue Lambacher” – substantial four-movement constructions. No one will think Leopold Mozart a great musical rediscovery after hearing this CD, but the elder Mozart may well gain new respect among listeners who have previously thought of him only in the context of his thorny relationship with his young genius of a son.

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