January 19, 2012

(++++) THE COLORS OF MUSIC

Rimsky-Korsakov: Suites from “The Snow Maiden,” “Mlada” and “Le Coq d’or”; “Sadko”—Musical Picture. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronya. Mikhail Kazakov, Vitaly Panfilov, Tatiana Monogarova, Mikhail Gubsky, Gevorg Hakobyan; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari conducted by Alexander Vedernikov. Naxos DVD. $39.99.

Lawrence Ball: Method Music. Navona. $16.99 (2 CDs).

     Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the great musical colorists, sensitive to the nuances of all orchestral instruments and highly adept at combining them into evocative pieces (Scheherazade is a prime example), using them in unfamiliar ways (his trombone concerto), or adapting them to the works of other composers (his version of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is almost always the one performed, and while it undeniably smooths some of Mussorgsky’s rough edges too much and undermines some of the original’s bizarrerie, it also produces a more-effective tone poem with a very satisfying conclusion). Rimsky-Korsakov’s coloristic skill was especially evident in his operas, which are enticingly scored and make up in musical attractiveness what they tend to lack in drama. But because they are not particularly action-oriented, they have never caught on in world opera houses in the same way that some of the composer’s orchestral works have become staples in concert halls. However, the musical (if not vocal) qualities of the operas come through quite well in the suites that the composer extracted from them – several of which are played very well indeed by the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz. Individual movements of these suites are actually quite well known, such as “Dance of the Clowns” (or “Tumblers”) from The Snow Maiden and “Procession of the Nobles” (or “Cortège”) from Mlada. But the suites add other elements to these and provide a fuller picture of the operas’ subjects and the sensitivity with which Rimsky-Korsakov treats them. The Snow Maiden (1880-81) is a folkloric work, while Mlada (1889-90) is a dark fairy tale. Le Coq d’or (usually known by its French title) was the composer’s final opera, finished in 1907 but not staged until 1909, a year after Rimsky-Korsakov’s death: based on a Pushkin poem, it has elements of both legend and fairy tale, and was rightly thought by Czarist censors to be a thinly disguised sarcastic, even subversive work. As for Sadko (1869; revised 1892), it is taken from traditional heroic ballads. Thus, all the works heard here have ties to olden times in Russia, and Rimsky-Korsakov takes full advantage of the settings to produce music that mixes tone painting (the sea in Sadko, for example) with characteristic dances (Mlada) and outright exoticism (the music of the queen in Le Coq d’or). Even though the Seattle Symphony does not have a recognizably Russian sound – the strings lack the depth and lushness associated with top Russian orchestras – the musicians play with verve and beauty, and Schwarz brings considerable understanding to suites that are essentially sequences of miniature scenes. The result is a CD that shows Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral effects burnished to a fine sheen.

     It is nevertheless somewhat unfair to Rimsky-Korsakov to hear his operatic music in concert form, and a fine new DVD release of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh shows why. This 2008 performance, featuring a Russian cast and conductor performing with Italian musicians in Sardinia, gives context to the composer’s skill in orchestration while also showing why his operas are not particularly popular outside Russia. It is only Le Coq d’or that has some ongoing international presence; but that work is not, musically, a very typical opera for Rimsky-Korsakov – Kitzeh, his penultimate one, is much more in line with his other operatic works. Indeed, the composer expected Kitezh (completed in 1905 and first staged in 1907) to be his final opera, returning to the form more for sociopolitical reasons than for strictly musical ones. Kitezh stands as an excellent summation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s approach to the stage and to orchestration as well. Its full, rather unwieldy title results from the combination in Vladimir Belsky’s libretto of two separate legends, that of the city of Kitezh (said to become invisible when attacked by the Tatars) and that of St. Fevronya of Murom. This is the composer’s only opera with any sort of religious theme – Rimsky-Korsakov was an atheist – and its plot eventually leads to the triumph of love and justice in a rather secular heaven. This is not an especially stirring conclusion; nor is the story of invasion and mystical triumph told with any particular fervor (there is only one battle scene). The most interesting character here is a typical Russian fairy-tale type: the town drunkard, Grishka Kuterma (Mikhail Gubsky), who mocks Princess Fevronya (Tatiana Monogarova), turns traitor, repents of the betrayal, and is eventually pardoned by Fevronya (but is last seen when he runs off screaming, tormented by nightmares). The princess herself is perfectly good; her betrothed, Prince Vsevolod (Vitaly Panfilov), is perfectly noble and gives his life in battle (the two are united at the opera’s end, after death). But if these characters are not especially noteworthy, their music is, with strong vocal writing and beautifully supportive orchestration in a through-composed work that uses Wagnerian techniques without sounding one bit like Wagner. Kitezh is not an opera that people outside Russia often have a chance to see, so this Naxos DVD is particularly welcome for making its brilliant musical colors and oddly fascinating thematic mixture of legend and religion available to a wider audience.

     Color is also a significant element in the multimedia work of Lawrence Ball (born 1951); but Ball deals not so much with color evoked by instruments as with actual color images created with what he calls "harmonic maths” – Ball’s computer-based compositional system for generating electronic music, and specifically for individualizing pieces so that listeners (or users, if you prefer) create their own input and thus produce pieces attuned (yes, that’s a pun) to their personal characteristics. Ball actually creates much of this music nowadays without using computers, despite the computerized basis of the system; and he also generates interestingly shaped and colored images through the system. None of this is a recipe for widespread acceptance of Ball’s work, but the two-CD compilation of pieces created under his system is sufficiently interesting to deserve a (+++) rating – even though many listeners will find that the pieces wear thin well before they hear all of this two-hour set. The first CD contains 11 works under the umbrella title “Imaginary Sitters,” with every work lasting within a few seconds of every other one (just over five minutes) but with audio components of the works differing. Whether they differ enough to make the works interesting listening, or whether the whole fractal-like mathematical creativity underlying Method Music is simply a gimmick, is a matter for individual listeners to decide. Ball is actually a wide-ranging creator in multiple fields, working with artists ranging from the international painting group Collective Phenomena to choreographers, pianists and the female vocal quartet Rosy Voices. But the shapes and colors evoked on this CD are not, sonically, all that different from ones created by other composers of electronic music – ones who do not have, or need, the degree in Computer Science with Mathematics that Ball possesses. The second CD here, which includes three much longer works called Galaxy (numbered 01, 02 and 03 and dedicated to the memories of singer-songwriter Syd Barrett, bass guitarist Hugh Hopper and composer György Ligeti), is more interesting than the first, at least intellectually, because it expands the concept of five-minute individualized electronic portraits (as heard on the first disc) into much more elaborate forms (all lasting virtually the same amount of time: a few seconds over 20 minutes). Listening to the entire second CD at one time can be something of a chore: it is packed with aural material that can be somewhat overwhelming in a 20-minute dose, much less three of them. But those who find the permutations and combinations of Ball’s Method Music intriguing will be enthralled by the way they are used here, although neither Ball’s work nor this particular sampling of it will by any means be to all tastes.

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