October 13, 2011


Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 1, “Nordic”; The Lament for Beowulf. Seattle Symphony and Chorale conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Robert Helps: Chamber Music with Piano. ATOS Trio (Thomas Hoppe, piano; Annette von Hehn, violin; Stefan Heinemeyer, cello); Naomi Niskala, piano; Bernhard Krug, horn; Ronald Carbone, viola; Frank Dodge, cello; Marieke Schneemann, flute; Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer, clarinet; Robert Helps, piano. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Arvo Pärt: Piano Music. Ralph van Raat, piano; Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.

Kaija Saariaho: Clarinet Concerto; Laterna Magica; Leino Songs. Kari Kriikku, clarinet; Anu Komsi, soprano; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Ondine. $16.99.

Ross Edwards: Violin Concerto, “Maninyas”; Sibelius: Violin Concerto. Adele Anthony, violin; Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arvo Volmer. Canary Classics. $16.99.

     Consider, for a moment, a cyclical view of “modern” classical music, defined very roughly as music composed from the beginning of the previous century to the present day. The enormous upheavals in harmony, structure and effect of this music have made it difficult even to define what “classical music” now means and what listeners it is designed to attract. Composers of every sort still seek audiences and still feel they have something to communicate, but their means of doing so have changed so radically that it sometimes seems there is little to connect them. Sometimes – but not always. Howard Hanson’s music is quite approachable to anyone who enjoys Sibelius, a lifelong influence for Hanson (1896-1981). Hanson’s first symphony (1922) is in the same key as that of Sibelius (E minor) and, with its subtitle “Nordic,” could be expected to partake of similar sensibilities. To an extent, it does, but it is a more serene and stately work and less distinctly Germanic than that of Sibelius, which dates to 1898. It is paired on a new Naxos CD with another clearly Nordic-influenced work, The Lament for Beowulf (1925) – Beowulf was, after all, a legendary Scandinavian king and hero. Not surprisingly, this is a dark and poetic piece, and it is well sung and well played by the Seattle Symphony and Chorale under Gerard Schwarz. This disc is actually a re-release of a Delos CD: the performances date to 1988 (symphony) and 1990 (Beowulf). The sound stands up well, and the inclusion of Beowulf texts in the booklet is welcome – but the CD runs just 48½ minutes, so some listeners may feel a bit shortchanged.

     The music of Robert Helps (1928-2001) has a generally more “modern” aural palette than that of Hanson, and the new two-CD Naxos set of his complete chamber works for strings or winds with piano will be welcomed by those who enjoy Helps’ sonic world. Helps sometimes sounds a bit like Scriabin (as in the 1997 Piano Quartet), but more often partakes of the sensibilities of Schoenberg and his followers (as in the 1963 Fantasy and 1997 Piano Quintet). Also on the first CD here are Postlude (1964) and Duo (1977). But the second CD is in many ways more interesting. It includes Helps’ two Piano Trios (called simply Trio I and Trio II) – works written more than 40 years apart (1957 and 2000) that, between them, showcase nearly all the styles and influences informing Helps’ career. They are offered on a CD that also contains more than half an hour of Helps’ own piano playing – not only of his own work but also of pieces by Mendelssohn, Ireland, Poulenc and Godowsky. These live recordings were made during Spectrum Concerts Berlin performances in 1997 and 2000, and they show Helps to have been not only a considerable pianist but also a composer quite familiar with and attuned to the works of earlier times, whether he chose to absorb their lessons or discard them.

     Arvo Pärt’s piano music moves still farther, sonically, into an identifiably “modern” idiom. Like the trios on the Naxos Helps disc, the Naxos Pärt CD provides an opportunity to hear where a composer’s thinking began and where it has gone over time. The first two published works by Pärt (born 1935) are the first two on the CD: Zwei Sonatinen für Klavier and Partita. Both show the Estonian composer’s respect for and understanding of earlier music – a stance from which he broke rather dramatically during the 1960s, when his language became entirely atonal. The sound of the two earlier works contrasts with the simplicity of line in the latest piece here, Für Anna Maria (2006), which is also the shortest work at the CD, lasting just over one minute. The two other solo pieces stand somewhere between the earliest and latest ones in both sensibility and length. They are Für Alina (1976) and Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (1977); all this solo piano music is very well played by Ralph van Raat. He also does a very fine job in the longest and most substantial work on the CD, a 2002 piece for piano and orchestra called Lamentate: Homage to Anish Kapoor and his sculpture “Marsyas.” Described by Pärt as a lament for the living rather than the dead, this is a large-scale work whose programmatic effect will be clear only to those familiar with Kapoor’s giant steel-and PVC sculpture, which dates to the same year as Pärt’s composition and which reached from one end to the other of a 3,400-square-foot hall in London’s Tate Museum. Effectively orchestrated and very well played by the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic under JoAnn Falletta, the work will nevertheless seem somewhat abstruse to those who are not already acquainted with its subject and inspiration.

     Even less known to almost all listeners will be the music of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (born 1952), who proves on a new Ondine CD to have a distinctive voice and considerable skill in both instrumental and vocal composition. The Clarinet Concerto is called (in all-capital letters) “D’OM LE VRAI SENS,” and it will be up to individual listeners to decide what “the true meaning” of the work is. But there is no doubt that it is filled with large gestures and requires very considerable virtuosity – even athleticism. Kari Kriikku is fully equal to the work’s many challenges, although it is arguable whether the considerable skill required of the soloist fully repays the listener: this may be a work that is more interesting to see in concert than to hear in recorded form. Saariaho is the 2011-12 Composer-in-Residence at Carnegie Hall in New York, and her Laterna Magica (2008) would likely sound particularly good there: it is a substantial piece for large orchestra that shows her eclectic musical tastes and approaches (which range, in various works, from the tonal to the electronic and from rather delicate chamber music to large-orchestra pieces such as Laterna Magica). Four Leino Songs conclude this CD, on which all the works receive their world première recordings. The songs are settings of poems by one of Finland's most important poets, Eino Leino, whose work mixes symbolism, mythic tradition and influences from Nietzsche with a highly Romantic concept of the poet as truth-seeking visionary. The four songs (“Looking at You,” “The Heart,” “Evening Prayer” and “Peace”) were written for Anu Komsi, who performs them with elegance and grace.

     Leino (1878-1926) is of the era of Sibelius (1865-1957), even though Saariaho’s national connection with Sibelius does not show in her music in the way that American composer Hanson’s emotional one does. But the tie back from the very modern to the “modern” of a century ago is nevertheless intriguing. And it is even more so in a new Canary Classics CD that actually pairs the justly renowned Sibelius Violin Concerto with a violin concerto by Australian composer Ross Edwards (born 1943). Edwards has some highly nontraditional ideas about composition – his oboe concerto, for example, includes choreography for the soloist. In the case of the violin concerto, what Edwards offers is reuse of two of five pieces that he had previously written for other forces under the meaningless title “Maninyas.” The made-up word came to connote, for Edwards himself, the chant-like quality of this rather static music, which he created from what he describes as “randomly chosen phonetic units.” What this will mean to the listener uninitiated into Edwards’ approach is unclear: the violin concerto was composed in 1988, but the deliberate use of randomness in its creation harks back to an earlier sort of “modern” music in which aleatoric construction was a major element. There is something gimmicky about the whole process, although the concerto itself – which Adele Anthony plays very well – is more than intermittently effective. Pairing it with the Sibelius concerto, however, may not have been the wisest decision. The Sibelius, even though it dates to 1904, still sounds distinctly modern, yet it pulls the listener along inexorably in a way that the Edwards concerto never does; and although Sibelius’ language is essentially tonal, this is tonality stretched so far that it is on the verge of breaking – again, an element of the work’s very modern sound. Anthony plays this concerto quite well, too, and she gets fine accompaniment in both works from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Arvo Volmer. What this CD ends up showing is that modernity is, to a certain extent, in the eye (and ear) of the beholder (and listener) – and that anyone interested in how classical music has developed in the last century can both start with Sibelius and his influence and end with it.

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