December 15, 2011

(++++) FROM RUSSIA AND ENVIRONS

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3; Symphonic Dances. Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano. ASO Media. $18.99.

Azerbaijani Piano Concertos: Works by Fikret Amirov and Elmira Nazirova, Vasif Adigezalov, Tofig Guliyev, and Farhad Badalbeyli. Farhad Badalbeyli and Murad Adigezalzade, piano; Joan Rodgers, soprano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $9.99.

Sofia Gubaidulina: Fachwerk for Bayan, Percussion and String Orchestra; Silenzio for Bayan, Violin and Cello. Geir Draugsvoll, bayan; Anders Loguin, percussion; Geir Inge Lotsberg, violin; Øyvind Gimse, cello; Trondheim Symphony Orchestra Strings conducted by Øyvind Gimse. Naxos. $9.99.

Baltic Portraits: Music by Erkki-Sven Tüür, Aulis Sallinen, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Arvo Pärt and Lepo Sumera. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi. CSO Media. $16.99.

     The Soviet Union has been gone for 20 years now, but it is still possible to hear its influence – that is, the influence of Russia, which lay at its center – on the music of composers who live or lived in the USSR’s so-called “sphere of influence.” That notably includes Sergei Rachmaninoff, who had long since left the Soviet Union behind when he composed his Piano Concerto No. 3 but who never abandoned the essential Russian Romanticism of his musical sensibility. Garrick Ohlsson gives a tremendously exciting and beautifully balanced performance of this concerto, moving without seeming effort from its grand and sometimes overdone gestures to its elements of tenderness and even delicacy. A prodigiously difficult work to play, this concerto sounds understated, if scarcely easy, under Ohlsson’s fingers: he manages to subsume the needed technical prowess within a wholly appropriate degree of expressiveness that stops short of the swooning that far too many pianists believe is necessary in Rachmaninoff. Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony provide excellent support for Spano: like him, they offer a big sound that fits the gestures of the music without overdoing them or making them seem merely vulgar. Spano is, however, less successful in the Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninoff’s last work. The issue here is the first movement, in which the dancing is, or should be, ungainly and even grotesque. Spano makes it too smooth, never bringing out the full snarls of the brass and rhythmic intensity of the movement. The second movement, Andante con moto, is considerably more effective, though, and the final one has all the verve and spirit that a listener could wish – a conclusion that is significantly more persuasive than the piece’s beginning.

     The effectiveness of the piano works on a new CD called Azerbaijani Piano Concertos is mixed as well. None of these composers will be a household name for most listeners; and their compositions are somewhat difficult to distinguish from each other, sharing similar-sounding thematic material (often derived from Azerbaijani tradition) presented within Western musical forms that generally exhibit significant Soviet or Russian influence. This is by no means a bad thing: the result is colorful and frequently interesting music. But it does make it a little hard to know whether one is enjoying the specific style of Fikret Amirov (1922-1984) and Elmira Nazirova (born 1928), whose Concerto for Piano and Orchestra after Arabian Themes (1957) opens the CD, or that of their influences. This concerto is in the traditional three movements and proportioned like a traditional piano concerto, with some exoticism to its themes. In contrast, Piano Concerto No. 4 by Vasif Adigezalov (1935-2006), written in 1994 and also in three movements, has a more symphonic and broader stature, and is conceived on a larger scale – and pays some attention to more-modern compositional techniques as well. Both these concertos are impressive in parts and would be interesting to hear occasionally, but neither is highly distinctive stylistically. The remaining works on this (+++) CD are considerably shorter. Gaytagi—Dance for Piano and Orchestra by Tofig Guliyev (1917-2000) originally dates to 1958 and was revised in 1980; it is jazzy, bouncy and brief. The Sea (1977, for piano and orchestra) and Shusha (a 2003 vocalise) are by Farhad Badalbeyli (born 1947), and each is atmospheric in its own way, the former being expansive and the latter mournful: Shusha, a popular mountain resort in Soviet times, is now officially part of Azerbaijan but remains under dispute because it is in the South Caucasian region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In this way the geopolitics of Soviet times persists today just as some of its musical influences do.

     Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931), half Russian and half Tatar by birth, has spent years forging her own musical esthetic and sound. She especially enjoys using unusual instruments or unexpected instrumental combinations, and one of her favored instruments is the bayan, an accordion-like instrument whose design and keyboard are sufficiently distinct from those of the standard accordion to give it a very different sound and different virtuosic capabilities. Its sound may well not be to all tastes – it can be grating and persistent – but there is no doubt that in the hands of a masterful player such as Geir Draugsvoll, the bayan holds its own as an impressive solo instrument. It was Draugsvoll for whom Gubaidulina wrote Fachwerk, which was composed from 2009 to 2011 and receives its world première recording on a new Naxos CD. This is a complex and rather long work (well over half an hour), in which the extensive use of percussion is as typical of Gubaidulina as is the writing for the bayan. The intermingling of bayan, percussion and strings is well handled, and the piece is certainly impressive, although not immediately or consistently gripping. It is well paced and conducted by Øyvind Gimse, who assumes the role of cellist for Silenzio, the other work on the CD and a significantly earlier one (1991). This five-movement piece requires balance among three instruments that do not naturally have it, with the bayan all too easily overshadowing the strings; but the performers here have figured out how to be sure everyone has a say in the conversation, and the result is an impressive performance of a work whose sound is somewhat more interesting than its musical ideas. The CD gets a (+++) rating for most listeners, but those who already know and love Gubaidulina’s music will surely want to have it.

     Which listeners would want to have the Cincinnati Symphony’s (+++) Baltic Portals is more of an open question. The five works here, all by composers from regions strongly influenced by Russian or Soviet hegemony, are very well-played and conducted with sensitivity by Paavo Järvi. All the pieces have some sort of connection with the Cincinnati Symphony, which explains why they appear on the orchestra’s own label; but their musical connections are thin at best. There are two symphonies here: No. 8 (“Autumnal Fragments”) by Aulis Sallinen (born 1935), written in 2001 and being most interesting for a scherzo-like section of running scales; and No. 6 by Lepo Sumera (1950-2000), which dates to the last year of the composer’s life and has some intriguingly handled (if rather conventional) tone-painting of an eerie atmosphere, with some intense segments and occasional hints of Mahler as leavening. The other pieces on the CD are shorter. Fireflower (2011) by Erkki-Sven Tüür (born 1959) is a curtain-raiser of sorts, although it takes a while to turn into anything approaching a fanfare. Gambit (2005) by composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (born 1958) is a slow-building, rather static piece with some well-proportioned if not highly original rhythmic and shimmering effects. And Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977) by Arvo Pärt (born 1935) is a simply designed, slow-building work that is deliberately rather repetitious but wears out its welcome a bit sooner than the composer may have intended. Each of these pieces has worthwhile elements, and the Russian or Soviet influence even peeks through here and there in the two symphonies; but the CD is one of those offerings that seems more like a souvenir of a concert (or several concerts) than a thoughtfully considered program of works that relate to each other in any integral way.

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