John Blow: Venus and Adonis; Welcome, ev’ry Guest; Ground in G minor for Two Violins and Continuo; Chloe Found Amyntas Lying All in Tears. Boston Early Music Festival Vocal & Chamber Ensembles conducted by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. CPO. $16.99.
Biber: Vesperae longiores ac breviores; Magnificat; Rupert Ignaz Mayr: Domine ad adjuvandum me festina; Sancta Maria, Mater Dei; Leopold I: Ave maris stella; Giovanni Legrenzi: Salve Regina. Yale Schola Cantorum and Yale Collegium Players conducted by Simon Carrington. Carus. $18.99.
Telemann: Concertos for 4 Violas in C and G; Max von Weinzierl: Nachtstück für 4 Violen; York Bowen: Fantasie Quartet for 4 Violas; Bartók: 9 Duos from “44 Duos for Two Violins”; Astor Piazzolla: Four for Tango; Christopher Norton: Steering Wheel Blues. Tertis Viola Ensemble (Konstantin Sellheim, Dirk Niewöhner, Burkhard Sigl and Julio Lopez). Oehms. $16.99.
Ries: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas, Volume 5—Sonata in A Major, Op. 114; Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 176; Sonata in B Minor, WoO 11. Susan Kagan, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Debussy: Orchestral Works, Volume 6—Suite bergamasque; Petite Suite; Printemps; En blanc et noir; Symphony in B minor. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $9.99.
A bit of wandering along musical byways can be a delightful experience – and it is one that is easier to have with recordings than at concerts, where much of the musical fare tends to be on the bland side when it is not self-consciously “contemporary.” Early operas (before Handel) are especially difficult to find on stage or even in concert performances, and that is a shame, because some are quite delightful – such as Venus and Adonis by John Blow (1649-1708). This is the very first opera in English, unless you regard it as a masque, as some scholars do. Dating to 1683, it is a mangled retelling of the myth of Venus and the mortal lover she took after Cupid, her son, accidentally pierced her with one of his arrows. Unlike happy-ending emendations of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which were common in the 17th century, the main plot alteration in Blow’s opera has more to do with motivation for the final tragedy, in which Adonis dies after being gored by a wild boar he is hunting. The legend has Adonis insisting on the hunt despite Venus’ misgivings; in contrast, Blow’s opera has Adonis claiming himself content with Venus’ love but having the goddess herself say he should hunt, as he is wont to do. In any case, Blow’s music for the story is lovely, and his skilled handling of vocal and orchestral forces is in the same league as that of his great contemporary, Henry Purcell. The final G Minor chorus, “Mourn for their servant,” is particularly affecting, and everything is very well played and sung – in accordance with period style – by the Boston Early Music Festival members (both conductors on this CD, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, are lutenists as well and are well versed in music of this period). The brief additional pieces on the disc further showcase Blow’s considerable compositional abilities. Soprano Amanda Forsythe sings Welcome, ev’ry Guest, an ode for St. Cecilia’s day, with sureness and beauty; Chloe Found Amyntas Lying All in Tears (sung by tenors Jason McStoots and Zachary Wilder, and bass-baritone Douglas Williams) makes a suitable envoi to the opera, using the poem by John Dryden; and the Ground in G minor showcases Blow’s purely instrumental music to fine effect.
Sacred rather than secular music of Blow’s time appears on a particularly well-performed CD featuring the Vesperae longiores ac breviores by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704). Biber was an extraordinary violinist and an unusually forward-looking composer, famously employing multitonality in one section of his Battalia. He was also very devout, showcasing his beliefs in some unusual ways (the complex scordatura of his Mystery Sonatas in particular). The Vesperae (1693) are more conventional, as is the Magnificat that also appears on this CD, but they are very effective examples of part writing and of the interweaving of vocal and instrumental lines. The short works by Rupert Ignaz Mayr (1646-1712), Leopold I (1640-1705) and Giovanni Legrenzi (ca. 1620-1690) are even less familiar than Biber’s music, partaking of the same devotional feelings and many of the same musical approaches. Simon Carrington and the Yale performers bring subtlety as well as beautiful sound to all these performances of devotional works.
Beautiful sound is also the order of the day from the Tertis Viola Ensemble, comprising four members of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra and named for famed violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975). Hearing four violas playing together is a sonic treat, bringing tremendous warmth and beauty to works either written for this grouping or, in most cases, arranged for it. The two Telemann concertos on this CD were written for four violins, but both sound richer and more elegant in these four-viola arrangements – and are played with a historically informed approach that limits vibrato and uses it with care. The ensemble simply plays these works a fifth lower than written, to accommodate the tuning of the viola, so in a sense these are not arrangements at all. But call them what you will, they are lovely and exceptionally well performed. And they contrast interestingly with newer, virtually unknown pieces by Max von Weinzierl (1841-1898) and York Bowen (1884-1961) that were written for an ensemble of four violas. The arrangements of Bartók’s 9 Duos may be more a matter of taste – these very short pieces were published for two violas by the composer’s son, Péter, and sound richer if perhaps less pointed on four instruments. Piazzolla’s Four for Tango is reasonably well known as a work for string quartet, and this piece is a real arrangement, sounding quite different from the better-known version and quite interesting in its own way. And Steering Wheel Blues by Christopher Norton (born 1953) makes a suitably quick (90-second) and enthusiastic encore. This is a very unusual CD containing both rarities and music heard in ways quite different from what listeners will expect. It is a must for viola lovers and will please anyone who loves gorgeous string playing.
Susan Kagan’s fine exploration of the now little-known piano music of Beethoven’s pupil, friend and biographer, Ferdinand Ries, continues in a fifth volume with two of Ries’ most substantial piano sonatas. Op. 114, which dates to 1823 – while Beethoven was still alive – is warm, cheerful, serene and lyrical, unchallenging to hear although far from easy to perform. It sounds like a throwback to pre-Beethoven sonatas, although it does have more weight than many of those by, say, Haydn. The final rondo, a moto perpetuo requiring a steady hand and clear sense of rhythm (both of which Kagan possesses), is particularly pleasant. Op. 176, written in 1832, is the last of Ries’ 14 piano sonatas, and it has some intriguing formal characteristics, such as metrical shifts between 6/8 and 9/8 in the expressive slow movement. It remains essentially a Classical-era work, though, with its general air of optimism, its typical-for-Ries final rondo, and a third movement (out of four) labeled as a Scherzo and featuring a Haydnesque contrast between major and minor (the latter in the trio). Both these sonatas are more substantial than the early WoO 11, which probably dates to around 1801 – five years before Ries’ two sonatas, Op. 1. This early work’s minor key gives it a somber (although scarcely heavy) feeling, and the third and final movement – not surprisingly, a rondo – shows the influence of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8, “Pathétique.” The melodic writing is strong here and the sonata is well put together, but it is not highly original – an issue for much of Ries’ music, but certainly no reason for it to have fallen into near-total obscurity.
The sixth excellent Debussy volume from Jun Märkl and Orchestre National de Lyon contains one genuine and fascinating rarity in additional to several works that are well known, although not necessarily in orchestral guise. The rare piece is Debussy’s sole attempt at a symphony, which dates to 1880, when the composer was 18 – and which has a tie-in to Tchaikovsky, since it was written for the older composer’s patroness, Nadezhda von Meck. Only a single movement was composed, and only for piano duet; Debussy later disclaimed any interest in symphonies. Hearing this rather derivative (although not particularly Tchaikovskian) piece, in an orchestration by Tony Fimmo, is one of those fascinating musical excursions into the land of what might have been. Also on this CD are the Suite bergamasque, originally for piano, in orchestrations by Gustave Cloez (three movements) and André Caplet (one: the ubiquitous Clair de lune); and the Petite Suite, written for two pianos, as orchestrated by Henri Büsser. Listeners who know the piano works will find it interesting to compare them with the orchestrated ones – both suites sound very good indeed in their orchestral guise. Less known in their original form are Printemps, originally for wordless female chorus and orchestra, heard here in a Büsser arrangement without chorus, and En blanc et noir, a two-piano work written during wartime (1915) and here heard as orchestrated by Robin Holloway. All the orchestral arrangements on this CD are quite worthy, and respectful of Debussy’s sonic world. Lovers of this composer’s music will find much to enjoy in this latest well-played and sensitively interpreted disc from the Naxos Debussy series.