December 29, 2011

(++++) THE VARIED POWERS OF THE VOICE

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Jane Henschel, mezzo-soprano; Gregory Kunde, tenor; Houston Symphony conducted by Hans Graf. Naxos. $9.99.

Jack Prelutsky and Lucas Richman: Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant; Jack Prelutsky and Camille Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals. Jack Prelutsky, narrator; San Diego Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jahja Ling. San Diego Symphony. $16.99.

Berlioz: Harold in Italy; Les Nuits d’Été; Le Roi de Thulé. Antoine Tamestit, viola; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble conducted by Marc Minkowski. Naïve. $16.99.

Shostakovich: New Babylon. Basel Sinfonietta conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     So many are the musical uses of the human voice that the sheer variety of vocal works is a wonder to behold – or rather to hear. Few pieces in music are as serious and intense as Das Lied von der Erde, which Mahler gave that title to avoid calling it his Symphony No. 9 – the superstitious composer worrying that a Ninth would be his final completed symphony, as it had been for Beethoven (and, ironically, as it turned out to be for Mahler after all, when he finally did give a symphony that number). Mahler called Das Lied von der Erde a “symphony for tenor and alto (or baritone) and orchestra,” although the very dark version with two male voices is rarely heard and the alto part is often taken by a mezzo-soprano – as it is in the new Naxos recording conducted by Hans Graf. The Houston Symphony is not one of the world’s top orchestras, but it plays quite well here, with rich tone and impressive sonority in all sections. This is clearly a work that Graf has studied and whose depths he has plumbed. Jane Henschel has a strong voice that fits this music well, despite Mahler’s intention of writing it for a deeper-voiced female soloist; and she is expressive and understanding, especially in the final, extended Der Abschied. Gregory Kunde is not quite as well attuned to this music – he does not seem to delve fully into its depths – but his voice is a good one, and he offers considerable enthusiasm if not always complete understanding of the darkness that pervades even the lighter songs. As a whole, this is an admirable performance, in which singers and orchestra alike generally rise above themselves to deliver what is mostly an impassioned reading.

     On the flip side of Das Lied von der Erde is Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, which treats vocal matters as casually as the Mahler work handles them portentously. Here the vocalizing is in the form of narration, with Jack Prelutsky reading all 17 poems from the children’s anthology that gives this piece its title, plus a concluding quatrain created especially for the music. The piece is a close collaboration between Prelutsky and composer Lucas Richman, with both clearly understanding the short attention span of children – at whom this work is aimed, just as surely as Mahler’s is intended for the most adult of audiences. Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant mixes accompanied poetry with extremely brief musical interludes (the shortest run just eight seconds and the longest runs 21). The music nicely supports the poetry, although it is really Prelutsky’s wordplay, including numerous portmanteau words, that shines in such snippets as “Here Comes a Panthermometer,” “The Eggbeaturkey” and “The Trumpetoos and Tubaboons.” This piece is created and presented entirely for fun, and seems to last a lot less than its half-hour duration – there is just so much going on, both verbally and in the music. The work is paired, perhaps inevitably, with Saint-Saëns’ ever-wonderful Carnival of the Animals, modified to accommodate Prelutsky’s way with words. Saint-Saëns’ piece, originally for a chamber group, was an amusing parody of and for musicians, but here it becomes a children’s delight akin to Prelutsky’s collaboration with Richman. Instead of flowing from one brief portrayal to another, the work becomes a series of musical illustrations of Prelutsky poems written especially to be heard in this context. The wordplay is nearly as prominent here as in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, and if the addition of the poetry to the music seems almost sacrilegious at times, that is purely an adult perspective – from the viewpoint of a child, especially one encountering Carnival of the Animals for the first time, the Prelutsky poetry makes the entry easy and highly enjoyable. An ebullient time is had by all the performers on this CD – conductor Jahja Ling, pianists Jon Kimura Parker and Orli Shaham, and the members of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra – with Prelutsky himself clearly relishing his role as master, or ringmaster, of the poetic ceremonies.

     Poetic in a much more serious and adult way, Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’Été gets a beautifully controlled and warm performance from Anne Sofie von Otter and Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble under Marc Minkowski. A sensitive conductor with a special interest in French music, Minkowski emphasizes the differing musical and emotional character of each of these summer-night songs by Théophile Gautier, while von Otter shows their common elements of love, loss and longing. This is a moving and highly effective rendition from start to finish. Harold in Italy is outstanding, too, as Minkowski takes every opportunity to bring out Berlioz’ coloristic orchestral effects while pacing each of the four movements carefully and shaping the work as a whole with considerable understanding. Violist Antoine Tamestit fits wonderfully into Minkowski’s approach, offering virtuosity when called for but generally allowing himself to be treated as “first among equals” in the orchestra rather than as a towering soloist. The result is a modest viola performance that fits carefully into a well-thought-out conception of Harold in Italy as a whole – and one with an exceptionally dramatic finale. The disc concludes a touch oddly with Le Roi de Thulé, Marguerite’s rather peculiar entrance song from La Damnation de Faust. The song’s Gothic elements fit the overall world of Faust but seem a trifle strange in the mouth of Marguerite, especially as an entrance song. The underlying melancholy comes through clearly as von Otter sings, and Minkowski again provides just the right kind of nuanced accompaniment.

     Nuance is largely absent from Shostakovich’s film music, including that for New Babylon, a 1929 film about the love between a shopgirl and a soldier, set against the backdrop of the radical Paris Commune of 1871 – a congenial subject for Soviet authorities. Here the human voice is notable by its absence: this is a silent movie, its emotions communicated through the visuals and through Shostakovich’s music. Or at least that was the plan. In reality, Soviet censors made several cuts in the film just a few weeks before its opening, and Shostakovich’s score was jettisoned – either because it no longer matched the film or because it was perhaps a bit too musically radical for the authorities. In either case, the result is that the mixture of marches, carnival music, can-cans and surging rhythmic passages had to wait until now to be reassembled in reasonably complete form for this world première recording. Mark Fitz-Gerald presents the full hour-and-a-half of music on two CDs, and there are certainly enough elements of wit and dissonance here to worry the good grey bureaucrats of early Soviet times. But there is also plenty of connective tissue and a lot of less-than-inspired musical “fill.” Without visual images – which, after all, this music was designed to supplement, not replace – the New Babylon music seems to go on too long and often at too uninspired a level. This release gets a (+++) rating: it is very well played by the Basel Sinfonietta, and the music is certainly worth hearing as a Shostakovich rarity, but the whole thing is a bit too much of music that is a bit too far below the composer’s best works to be considered more than a curiosity.

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