Ernest Bloch: Deux Psaumes for soprano and orchestra; Suite hébraïque for viola and orchestra; Baal-Shem: Three Pictures of Chassidic Life for violin and orchestra; Trois poems juifs for orchestra. Christiane Oelze, soprano; Tabea Zimmermann, viola; Antje Weithass, violin; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Steven Sloane. Capriccio. $16.99.
Paul Dessau: In memoriam Bertolt Brecht; Symphony No. 2; Danse et Chanson; Examen et poème de Verlaine; Les Voix; Symphony in One Movement. Ksenija Lukic, soprano; Manuela Bress, mezzo-soprano; Holger Groschopp, piano; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Roger Epple. Capriccio. $16.99.
Per Nørgård: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 7. Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Choir and Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: Plateaux for Piano and Orchestra; For Piano. Juho Pohjonen, piano; Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ed Spanjaard. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).
Music changed in so many ways in the 20th century, clinging to and adapting the past on the one hand while creating entirely new structural precepts on the other, that listeners can be forgiven if they have the impression that there were two 20th centuries, often moving in diametrically opposed directions. There is in fact some truth to this notion, but it is really an oversimplification, as the works on these new CDs demonstrate.
Of the four composers here, Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) most comfortably inhabits the structures and tonal world that the 20th century carried over from the 19th. Bloch, a Swiss-born Jew, turned often to Judaism for his inspiration, and his work frequently has a sense of mysticism as well as considerable beauty – there is nothing of the klezmer here. Suite hébraïque (1951) is an especially moving work, its three movements all in moderate tempos and its emphasis on the viola grounding it in beauty, subtlety and melancholy. In contrast, Baal-Shem, with its solo violin, portrays Chassidic life as both contemplative and joyous; this work was arranged by Bloch for violin and orchestra in 1939, the original 1923 version being for violin and piano.. In Deux Psaumes (1912-4), the soprano movingly sings psalms 137 and 114 after an orchestral prelude, while in the contemporaneous Trois poems juifs (1913), it is left to the orchestra alone to produce the effects of a gentle dance, a calm “rite,” and finally a funeral cortège. In all these works – all of them lovingly performed by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Steven Sloane – there is a constant sense of the past both in the nonmusical thematic material and in the structure and tonality of the music itself.
But when the same orchestra – this time conducted by Roger Epple – plays works of Paul Dessau, listeners get a different sense of the uses of the past. Dessau (1894-1979), like Bloch, had Jewish roots – Dessau’s grandfather was a cantor – and also like Bloch, he eventually moved to the United States (although Bloch stayed in his adopted country and Dessau returned to Europe after less than a decade). For most of his life, Dessau was firmly attached to Romantic sensibilities and techniques, as is clear in his well-structured Symphony in One Movement (1926), the very brief Danse et Chanson (1937), the two-voice (soprano and mezzo-soprano) Examen et poème de Verlaine (1938), and the more extended Verlaine-based work for soprano, piano and orchestra, Les Voix (1939). In later years, though, Dessau – who was fond of theater and film, and actually wrote scores for some silent films and early Disney productions – began to adopt some avant-garde techniques, including serialism. These are not fully formed in In memoriam Bertolt Brecht (1957) or the Symphony No. 2 (begun in 1934 as a suite, completed in 1962 as a symphony -- and containing one movement marked “Hommage à Bartók”), but they became more prominent in Dessau’s later works; perhaps some of those will be offered on other Capriccio CDs.
For some 20th-century composers, there was little apparent tension between the lessons of the past and the most modern available approaches. In Denmark, both Per Nørgård and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen – both born in 1932 – have been firmly entrenched in 20th-century musical methodologies for decades. But they have taken their techniques in very different directions. Nørgård’s work has intellectual underpinnings rivaling those of Schoenberg. He uses a structure called the infinity series, related to fractals in geometry although not directly derived from them, as a basic building block. He first used the melodic version of this series for Voyage into the Golden Screen (1968) and Symphony No. 2 (1970) – after which he added harmonic and rhythmic infinity series and combined all three for the first time to create his Symphony No. 3 (1972-5). After three decades, this remains an impressive but not immediately accessible work, its two movements reflecting grand unifying forces and its alto solo (Ulla Munch in the new Dacapo recording) floating above but integrating with the choral and orchestral material. By the 21st century, Nørgård had thoroughly absorbed his organizational principles and was able to create, in Symphony No. 7 (2004-6), an even more complex work, which pulls listeners into a very different sound world that includes, among other things, 14 tuned tom-toms and substantial percussion. Thomas Dausgaard leads the first recording of Symphony No. 3 in 25 years, and the first ever of Symphony No. 7, with conviction and a fine feeling for the structure of Nørgård’s music. The music itself, though, will not come close to appealing to everyone: it is more intellectual than emotional, and seems often to display the composer playing with the orchestra simply because he can – for example, at the end of Symphony No. 7, which seems to have four distinct conclusions. This is interesting music, certainly, but it is not necessarily compelling.
Neither are the works of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen – but they are simpler, more direct and easier to follow than those of Nørgård, and are often leavened by a sense of humor that comes through despite the persistent use of 20th-century compositional techniques that can be off-putting when taken to extremes. For Piano (1992) is an expansive solo piano work that juxtaposes tender moments with more frenetic ones, often to humorous effect. The concerto called Plateaux for Piano and Orchestra is a work of the 21st century, dating to 2005, and is on an even grander scale – in nine movements with such designations as “Murmure,” “Composition” and “En majeur.” Although there is a great deal going on in Plateaux, much of it occurs quickly and surprisingly lightly, and the contrasts among the movements are nicely handled by Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen. The Danish National Symphony Orchestra provides its usual finely nuanced backup, although Dutch conductor Ed Spanjaard does not seem quite as comfortable with the many moods of this music as Thomas Dausgaard would likely have been. This SACD of two world premiere recordings is nevertheless a very fine accomplishment, as well as a testament to the different directions in which composers developed in the last century and are continuing to move in this one.