September 10, 2009


Janáček: Orchestral Suites from the Operas, Volume 3—The Cunning Little Vixen; From the House of the Dead. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Breiner. Naxos. $8.99.

Elgar: Cello Concerto, arranged for Viola; Schnittke: Viola Concerto. David Aaron Carpenter, viola; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Ondine. $16.99.

     The third and final volume of Peter Breiner’s thoughtfully assembled orchestral suites drawn from operas by Leoš Janáček is as effective as the first two. This time the six-movement suites draw from two late works, The Cunning Little Vixen (1924) and From the House of the Dead (first performed in 1930, two year after the composer’s death). There are lighter moments in The Cunning Little Vixen than in most of Janáček’s operas, despite the death of the title character, and Breiner does a good job of assembling a suite that preserves some of the Aesopian moments (such as the wedding celebration and the triumphal dance when the vixen dispossess the badger) as well as the lyrical ones (the lush courtship dance of the vixen and young fox). But there is melancholy throughout the opera and throughout the suite as well, with woodwinds representing late-summer heat, the orchestra depicting the hardships of winter, and solo clarinet and oboe heightening the tragedy of the vixen’s death before the suite ends with the opera’s paean to nature – a message whose ecological awareness seems, if anything, even more timely today than it was in the 1920s. For his suite from Janáček’s final opera – a non-narrative work based on Dostoevsky and filled with bitterness – Breiner intelligently opens with the opera’s overture, whose sounds (including that of chains) pull both operagoers and CD listeners immediately into the prison where the work is set. The middle portion of the suite uses music associated in the opera with the prisoners’ false hopes of liberty, and the work concludes – as does the opera – with musical pessimism. The pairing of these two suites works well on Breiner’s CD, and the New Zealand Symphony, here as in the two earlier volumes, plays very well for him. These suites are particularly effective for people who know the operas from which they are assembled, but even those unfamiliar with Janáček’s stage works will be pulled into his sonic world – and his philosophical one – by Breiner’s well-constructed arrangements.

     The new viola arrangement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto (1919) is less likely to please everyone – although violists, who have few enough grand works to play, will surely welcome it. Hindemith’s viola works, and the concertos by Walton and Bartók, are among the few 20th-century viola-and-orchestra pieces around, and today’s violists are not fully satisfied by Telemann’s Viola Concerto or the viola arrangements of Bach’s Cello Suites (as tremendously challenging as those are). Nevertheless, the decision to produce a revised viola arrangement of Elgar’s concerto is bound to ruffle some feathers. The basic viola version has impeccable provenance, having been made by Lionel Tertis (1876-1975), for whom Bax, Vaughan Williams and others wrote pieces. Tertis actually played his version for Elgar in 1929, and the composer approved it. But that is not quite the version heard here: this one has been modified by the soloist, David Aaron Carpenter, to produce what Carpenter considers a work more closely attuned to Elgar’s intentions. Given the concerto’s near-classic status, this may well be deemed hubris by a 23-year-old violist making his first recording. So the question is: how does the Tertis/Carpenter version sound? The answer is that it is very effective, filled with lyricism and virtuosity, and played very well indeed by Carpenter, who gets top-notch support from the Philharmonia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach. In fact, Carpenter’s modifications occur at the margins, leaving most of the Tertis version intact. However, the interpretation seems a bit lacking in what can only be called maturity: this is an autumnal Elgar work whose depth of meaning Carpenter does not always seem to plumb, even though he gets the notes right. The Elgar arrangement is paired on the CD with a fascinating 1985 viola concerto by Alfred Schnittke, which is in the same slow-fast-slow sequence that Elgar used. This is a concerto that grows as it progresses – each movement is longer than the previous one – and shows the influence of Walton and Shostakovich as well as violist Yuri Bashmet, who inspired it and gave the first performance. Stylistically, Schnittke’s concerto is a synthesis more than a statement of personal style; emotionally, it is a bleak work. Carpenter’s technique here is highly impressive, although some of his heart-on-sleeve gestures can seem a bit over the top. But his overall reading, filled with a kind of intense melodramatic flair, actually fits the music quite well.

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