Debussy: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—La boîte à joujoux; Six épigraphes antiques; Estampes No. 1—Pagodes; Estampes No. 2—La soirée dans Grenade; L’isle joyeuse; Le triomphe de Bacchus. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $9.99.
Liszt: Aprés une lecture du Dante—Fantasia quasi sonata; Lacrymosa (Mozart); Ballade No. 2; Liebeslied (Schumann); Mazeppa; Nuages gris; Ständchen (Schubert); Funérailles; Isoldes liebestod (Wagner). Lise de la Salle, piano. Naïve. $16.99.
Stephen Barber: Chanson Rond Point; Conversatio Morum; Marbles; Elvis and Annabelle; Multiple Points of View of a Fanfare; String Quartet No. 1; Les Mots; The Killing. Tosca Strings, American Repertory Ensemble, the Boiler Makers and others. Navona. $16.99.
Lee Actor: Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra; Dance Rhapsody; Concerto for Horn and Orchestra; Opening Remarks; Celebration Overture. Debra Richtmeyer, alto saxophone; Karol Nitran, horn; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. Navona. $16.99.
Sometimes there is a sense that a CD is tightly knit, its pieces naturally flowing from one to the next or being connected in some musically clear way – even better, a musically intriguing one. At other times, though, CDs are simply compendia of not very strongly related music, tied together by the composer’s name (or composers’ names) or by some loose and not always apparent production concept. The fifth volume in the very fine Naxos Debussy series by Jun Märkl and Orchestre National de Lyon offers works with very little in common except for the fact that they were all orchestrated by someone other than Debussy. Well, almost all: the composer himself did some of the work on La boîte à joujoux (“The Toy Box”), with the balance handled by André Caplet, whose best-known Debussy orchestration is of Clair de Lune. Other orchestrations here are by conductor Ernest Ansermet, in Six épigraphes antiques; Caplet again in Estampes No. 1; Paul-Henri Büsser in Estampes No. 2; Bernardino Molinari in L’isle joyeuse; and Marius-François Gaillard in Le triomphe de Bacchus, which Gaillard also arranged. The works themselves are of varying interest and quality. Debussy conceived La boîte à joujoux as a ballet both for and by children, to be performed by young people or even by marionettes; but the work was not staged until after the composer’s death. It has some affecting moments, although it is less effective, overall, than the better-known Children’s Corner. The Six épigraphes antiques and Le triomphe de Bacchus are rather naïvely evocative of scenes from the ancient world, tending somewhat to the precious. The two Estampes (taken from a set of three piano pieces – the title means “Prints”) are well-proportioned miniatures, especially the first, which evokes the sound of the Balinese gamelan. L’isle joyeuse, inspired by a picture by Antoine Watteau, is an attractive piece of wistful, pastoral tone-painting. As in the other volumes of this series, Märkl conducts with a sure hand and the orchestra plays with a fine sense of style. The CD will be most appealing to collectors interested in having the entire Naxos series.
The appeal of Lise de la Salle’s new Naïve disc is straightforward: it is for her fans. The CD is all-Liszt, but it is hard to find a unifying foundational theme of any sort here. Four of the pieces represent Liszt’s arrangements or interpretations of works by Mozart, Schumann, Schubert and Wagner; all are very well played, but their relationship to the formidably difficult Fantasia quasi sonata (“Dante Sonata”) is far from clear. This sonata, first published as part of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage, is a tour de force for any pianist, and something of a coming-of-age piece for virtuosi: it is one of the most difficult of all works in the standard piano repertoire. De la Salle takes a poetic approach to it, perhaps not fully plumbing its sheer technical difficulty (certainly not for its own sake) but instead showcasing the free-flowing complexities of the music – which, however, is more fantasia than sonata here (that is to say, the underlying subtleties of Liszt’s structure are not entirely clear). This is by any standards a very fine performance, although in some ways it lacks foundational strength. The remaining works on the CD are also nicely handled, especially Ballade No. 2, whose B minor tonality is insistently melancholy here. De la Salle is a very fine pianist, and her fans will surely enjoy this CD; but she is not an especially adept interpreter of Liszt – there is nothing wrong with any of her performances, but they seem a trifle less than idiomatic, and the scattershot approach of the programming of this CD makes the whole thing seem a bit more like a vanity project than it was probably intended to be.
One could argue that recordings of many modern works are vanity projects, likely to be of interest to the composer and/or performers, their supporters, and few others. In some cases this is true, but it unfairly maligns some genuinely interesting music and some genuinely interesting creators of it. Two new Navona CDs will, to be sure, not be for all tastes, and make no attempt to be; they get (+++) ratings here, primarily for their narrow focus. And one disc, devoted to music of Stephen Barber, is at least as unfocused as de la Salle’s Liszt CD. Three works here, Conversatio Morum, Elvis and Annabelle, and Multiple Points of View of a Fanfare, are presented as separate movements, with other works offered in between – but then why did Barber conceive of the split-up works as unified wholes in the first place? Barber’s music is best described as eclectic, which means it has little readily identifiable style of its own, but tends to sound like a lot of styles of other composers. In addition to composing, Barber is a producer and arranger, and this may account for the many different approaches his music takes and its overall lack of focus, style or strong personal imprint. The works are generally well made, and some have particularly attractive elements – there is a sort of Ivesian flare to the music (and title) of the Fanfare piece. Other pieces, though, have little to them, such as the five-minuet String Quartet No. 1, which starts nowhere in particular and stays there. Barber does have some unusual ideas (soprano plus piano plus steel-drum trio), but they generally seem to be exist mainly for their aural effect, not for any particularly communicative purpose.
Lee Actor’s music adheres more closely to traditional classical forms than does Barber’s, and Navona’s new Actor CD is a better-unified disc than the others considered here. The five works are all from the 21st century, and all show some skill in orchestration and structure, although they are not quite as innovative as they may appear at first glance: Actor’s saxophone concerto (2009) was written 75 years after Glazunov’s, which (despite a different harmonic language) also explored the emotional potential of the solo instrument. The horn concerto (2007) is well constructed and suitably challenging for the soloist, but from an audience perspective is not especially revelatory or emotionally gripping. Dance Rhapsody (2010) is more interesting, alternating strong rhythms in dancelike sections with slower interludes that sound as if they have no rhythm at all. On the lighter side are Opening Remarks (2009), designed as a concert opener and quite effective in making listeners sit up and take notice; and Celebration Overture (2007), a longer (perhaps slightly over-long) work of orchestral color and drama whose overall brightness makes for pleasant listening and whose sheer bravado makes it worth repeated hearings.