December 08, 2011

(+++) BEST AND BRIGHTEST?

Steve Reich: Different Trains for String Quartet and Tape; Samuel Barber: String Quartet in B minor; George Crumb: Black Angels for Electric Quartet. Quatuor Diotima (Yun-Peng Zhao and Naaman Sluchin, violins; Franck Chevalier, viola; Pierre Morlet, cello). Naïve. $16.99.

American Mystic: Music of Alan Hovhaness. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz; Charles Butler, trumpet; Michael York, narrator; Diane Schmidt, accordion; Shanghai Quartet; Ohio State University Concert Band conducted by Keith Brion. Delos. $16.99.

Einojuhani Rautavaara: Apotheosis and Other Works. Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano; Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mikko Franck and Leif Segerstam. Ondine. $12.99.

Astor Piazzolla: Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas; Hommage à Liège; Histoire du Tango. Jason Vieaux, guitar; Julien Labro, bandoneón; “A Far Cry” Chamber Orchestra. Azica. $16.99.

James MacMillan: Who Are These Angels? and Other New Choral Music. Cappella Nova conducted by Alan Tavener. Linn Records. $19.99.

Gratitude, Gravy & Garrison: A Thanksgiving Concert. Garrison Keillor, storyteller; Vocal Essence Chorus & Ensemble Singers conducted by Philip Brunelle. Clarion. $16.99.

     Even in modern music, some CDs try to distill composers’ works into what amounts to “greatest hits” collections. Whether they succeed is of course a matter of opinion: even when the music is well-performed, as is the case on all these discs, the collections may or may not offer the pieces most likely to attract listeners who know the composers already – or ones seeking to expand their horizons to include previously unknown music. Take the Quatuor Diotima disc, for example. It offers a very curious mixture of material. From Steve Reich (born 1936), one of the most prominent minimalist composers and one fond of (among other things) using tape loops to establish phase patterns, comes the Grammy-winning Different Trains (1988), whose three movements center on World War II: “America – Before the War,” “Europe – During the War,” and “After the War.” The piece uses recorded speech as its melody source, and after each melody is introduced, a recording of the spoken phrase from which it is derived is played. There are sirens, train whistles and other sounds in the piece, commingled with the playing of the string quartet, resulting in an interesting work that is perhaps over-enamored of its own cleverness but does, at least in part, have emotional impact. The strings alone play Samuel Barber’s Quartet, Op. 11, which is a “greatest hits” piece in the sense that its second movement is well-known in its string-orchestra arrangement as the Adagio for Strings. Placing the movement in context as part of the whole quartet does not diminish it, as Quatour Diotima performs all the movements with sensitivity and feeling. However, placing the Barber Quartet between the Reich work and George Crumb’s Black Angels is a bit odd. Crumb’s work, written in 1970 and subtitled “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land,” is built around the numbers 13 and 7 and is filled with references to Hell; Crumb associated the work with the Vietnam War, although he did not begin composing it with that conflict in mind. In any case, this is one of those works that challenges and can even thrill the players, who must perform not only on their usual instruments but also on metal thimbles, crystal glasses, paper clips and maracas. For a listener, though, it is somewhat overdone and rather too full of itself – one of those cleverly constructed compositions that seem to have less to say than their composers intend. It is, however, one of Crumb’s better-known pieces, so if nothing else, this Naïve CD is a “greatest hits” disc of sorts. Listeners will have to decide what sorts.

     The CD called “American Mystic” offers a collection of works from the highly unusual musical mind of Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000). Many of the pieces here evoke contemplative emotions and a sense of mystery, including the best-known of his 67 symphonies, “Mysterious Mountain” (No. 2, written in 1955). Hovhaness’ use of nature is shown in works called The Flowering Peach and And God Created Great Whales; his approach to mysteries and times of old emerges from Prayer of St. Gregory and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam; his inclusion of evocative works within the form of the string quartet comes through in “Gamelan in Sosi Style” and “Spirit Murmur” from his second quartet; and his creation of pure music is shown through 4 Bagatelles. Intended to give a portrait of Hovhaness, or at least an introduction to him, these works are drawn from a variety of times and sources. For example, Prayer of St. Gregory, for trumpet and strings, dates to 1946 and is an interlude from the opera Etchmiadzin, while And God Created Great Whales is a 1970 work for taped whale songs and orchestra. The music of Hovhaness is often more interesting than emotionally gripping, but the performers on this Delos disc certainly play it with understanding and enthusiasm, at least some of which should come through to the attentive listener.

     The new Ondine CD of music by Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928) is an avowed “greatest hits” compendium, being entitled “The Best of Einojuhani Rautavaara.” It is hard to pin down the “best” of the prolific Finnish composer, but certainly the seven works heard here give a sense of his range and his essentially Romantic sensibility. Cantus arcticus and Apotheosis are given in their entirety; the remaining pieces are excerpts from the Clarinet Concerto, Autumn Gardens, Manhattan Trilogy, Piano Concerto No. 3 and Symphony No. 7. As in the Hovhaness CD, this one certainly shows the composer’s range, if (in Rautavaara’s case) not really his depth. The “Come un sogno” movement from Symphony No. 7 (1994) scarcely showcases the work as a whole, for example, and “Energico” from Piano Concerto No. 3, which is subtitled Gift of Dreams, is very well played by Vladimir Ashkenazy (who commissioned the concerto) – but, again, does not plumb the work’s depths. This is an interesting disc for those who may have heard of Rautavaara – sometimes called the most important Finnish composer since Sibelius – and wondered what his music sounds like. It is a once-over-lightly look at a musician whose work has more substance than this single CD shows.

     Astor Piazzolla has more substance than The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, too, but that piece seems to turn up all the time, in all sorts of guises, on CDs devoted to Piazzolla’s music. Arranged for guitar, bandoneón and chamber orchestra, it turns up yet again in a performance featuring Jason Vieaux and Julien Labro – and it sounds as interesting and rhythmically exciting as always, even in this unfamiliar version. Even more interesting, though, is Hommage à Liège, a double concerto for bandoneón, guitar and string orchestra and a much-less-known work. Well played and filled with verve, it makes a fine central portion of a CD whose outer “bookends” constitute a kind of “greatest hits,” Piazzolla style. For the CD’s third piece is Histoire du Tango, which focuses on Piazzolla’s trademark dance form (indeed, Hommage à Liège ends with one) and traces the tango from “Bordel 1900” to “Concert d’Aujourd’hui,” with stops at “Café 1930” and “Nightclub 1960.” This is a good introductory CD for those unfamiliar with Piazzolla’s music, and even those who already know these works (or at least two of them) will find much to enjoy here. In a sense, though, the disc represents a superficial look at a very interesting composer – fine for those who do not yet know him, but perhaps not very meaty for those already familiar with his music.

     The “greatest hits” element of the CD called “Who Are These Angels?” is the Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman by James MacMillan (born 1959). MacMillan is strongly influenced by Scottish history and his Roman Catholic faith. He sometimes works with a folk band – but in 2010 he was asked to compose this Mass, which was fully in accord with his faith; he has in fact written several Masses. As Masses go, this one is quite short, but quickly became well-known because it was sung at two of the three Masses celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in Great Britain. The Mass was designed for choir and congregation; much of MacMillan’s music is easy to learn and easy to sing, and this may account for its popularity. In addition to this Mass, the CD by Cappella Nova contains a variety of short liturgical works that will primarily be of interest to MacMillan’s fellow Roman Catholics and to listeners interested in one direction that sacred music is taking in the 21st century. There is nothing particularly forward-looking either in this music or in its subject matter, which includes “Lux aeterna,” “Benedictus Deus,” “O Radiant Dawn,” “Think of How God Loves You,” and the work that gives the CD its title. Pleasantly written with straightforward affirmations of faith, these works break little new musical or dogmatic ground – which seems to be their whole point.

     There is something new in the CD called Gratitude, Gravy & Garrison, but whether it is something appetizing will be a matter of opinion. There are religious works on this CD as well as on that of MacMillan’s music – Psalm and His Eye Is on the Sparrow, for example. The disc also includes the traditional spiritual This Little Light of Mine and Verdi’s Egyptian Thanksgiving Song, and its longest single track is Comfort Ye. But it also includes three ruminations about pie by Garrison Keillor, a rendition of America, and a series of other talks and songs about Thanksgiving that collectively are supposed to focus on who is being thankful for what and why. Individual elements are pleasant enough, even if an hour and a quarter of all this homespun wisdom and chattiness is a bit much. But for whom is this Clarion disc intended? It seems to be primarily targeting fans of Keillor, who like his way with words and his down-home delivery of slightly offbeat stories of everyday life. Yet there is plenty of music here in which Keillor is not front-and-center; and there is a sort of meandering tribute to the whole notion of Thanksgiving running through the entire production. A curious CD that has many pleasant elements, it comes across as a production in search of an audience rather than one likely to make the perhaps thankful but not Keillor-focused listener sit up and take notice.

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