November 10, 2011

(++++) VIRTUOSITIES

Berlioz: Overture to “Béatrice et Bénédict”; Harold in Italy; Paganini: Sonata per la Gran Viola e Orchestra. David Aaron Carpenter, viola; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ondine. $16.99.

Couperin: Concerts Royaux. Bruce Haines, hautboy; Arthur Haas, harpsichord; Susie Napper, viola da gamba. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

William Alwyn: Concerti Grossi Nos. 2 and 3; Dramatic Overture—The Moor of Venice; Serenade; Seven Irish Tunes—Suite for Small Orchestra. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos. $9.99.

     Both individual and ensemble virtuosity are much in evidence in these fine new recordings. David Allan Carpenter’s is particularly good: he restores some extra-difficult elements of Harold in Italy that Berlioz wrote in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Paganini to accept and perform the work – which Paganini never did, although the great violinist gave the piece high praise when he heard it played by someone else. The added elements do not significantly change the overall work, which is neatly described as a “symphony with viola obbligato” on this Ondine recording. Paganini, of course, wanted a pure display piece in which he would play constantly. In fact, the viola, although important, is not sufficiently prominent in Harold in Italy for the work to be dubbed a concerto. Nevertheless, without prominent and strongly played viola elements, the piece falls flat – which it decidedly does not as performed by Carpenter with the Helsinki Philharmonic conducted effectively by Vladimir Ashkenazy. The final “Orgy of the Brigands” is particularly well done here: not as orgiastic as the finale of the earlier Symphonie fantastique, it nevertheless has considerable power and drama. Ashkenazy also leads a light, well-paced and bouncy version of the overture to Béatrice et Bénédict, which functions as a sort of curtain-raiser for Harold in Italy. Also on the CD is Paganini’s own version of a piece – to his taste – for viola, the Sonata per la Gran Viola e Orchestra. This is actually a fairly small-scale work, its three movements lasting less than 13 minutes, but there is certainly plenty of virtuosity in it, especially in the final set of variations. Carpenter plays it quite well, and both he and Ashkenazy are careful not to over-expand the work into something larger than it is.

     The scale is also appropriately small in the excerpts from François Couperin’s Concerts royaux on a lovely reissue by ATMA Classique of a 1999 CD featuring the late Bruce Haynes. Haynes, who died in May at age 69, was a multitalented advocate of Baroque performance practices, not only playing the hautboy (ancestor of the oboe) – as well as the recorder and modern oboe – but also crafting replicas of Baroque woodwinds at his studio in California. Haynes also wrote extensively on historical performance and was by all accounts a fine teacher. What stands out on the Couperin disc, though, is simply his musicality. All the works here, which date to the 1720s, require delicacy and careful blending of instrumental voices, with the hautboy not so much “first among equals” as it is an equal ensemble member whose aural prominence is due more to its innate tone than to any especially virtuosic writing. Couperin’s blending of voices is, in fact, a particularly pleasant sort of chamber music, in which the performers (and Haynes is very abled partnered by Arthur Haas and Susie Napper) make music together, cooperatively, the ebb and flow of the melodies and the instrumental sounds carrying listeners along with apparent effortlessness on the part of the players. This CD stands as a fine tribute to Haynes and his art: elegant, understated, beautifully played and a delight to hear again and again.

     The virtuosity is of a different order in the works of William Alwyn (1905-1985), even when Alwyn superficially adopts the Baroque form of the concerto grosso. Alwyn wrote three works with that title, and while the second and third, on the surface, partake of the correct form, they are filled with a lyricism that goes beyond their Baroque models. The third, which features a particularly well-handled blending of brass, winds and strings, is especially pleasant. Indeed, “pleasant” is a pretty good adjective for a lot of Alwyn’s music – for which reason it is not quite at the level of the works of fellow Britons Holst and Vaughan Williams. Even in his Shakespeare-based Dramatic Overture—The Moor of Venice, Alwyn seems more inclined to the lyrical than the overwhelmingly dark and despondent, although certainly the overture has its moments of power. This is the world première recording of the overture, and also of the Serenade and Seven Irish Tunes, both of which are well-made, nicely orchestrated works that flicker through multiple moods. None of the music here is as interesting as Alwyn’s oboe concerto or his Lyra Angelica for harp and strings, so this CD is not really the best introduction to Alwyn for those unfamiliar with him; the disc, which is very well played and conducted, gets a (+++) rating. Those who have already encountered Alwyn will find this an enjoyable expansion of their knowledge of his music.

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