January 05, 2012

(++++) PIANO AND OTHER FOCUSES

Debussy: Orchestral Works, Volume 7—Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra; Première Rapsodie for Orchestra with Principal Clarinet; Rapsodie for Saxophone and Orchestra; Deux Danses for Harp and Strings. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano; Paul Meyer, clarinet; Alexandre Doisy, saxophone; Emmanuel Ceysson, harp; Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $9.99.

Wilhelm Stenhammar: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Niklas Sivelöv, piano; Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mario Venzago. Naxos. $9.99.

Vivaldi: Bassoon Concertos, Volume II—RV 499, 472, 490, 496, 504, 483 and 470. Sergio Azzolini, bassoon; L’Aura Soave Cremona conducted by Diego Cantalupi. Naïve. $16.99.

Johann Friedrich Fasch: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Concertos in D and G; Ouverture in A minor; Sinfonia in G minor. Tempesta di Mare—Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra. Chandos. $18.99.

     The seventh volume in Naxos’ excellent Debussy series with Orchestre National de Lyon under Jun Märkl moves into territory not often associated with this composer: concertos or concerto-like works. True, nothing here is as long or flamboyant as were typical concertos of Debussy’s time; and true, all these pieces have Debussy’s sensitive feel and flair for color rather than display. It is nevertheless interesting to have several of the composer’s pieces for soloist and orchestra on a single CD – all of them receiving excellent performances. Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra is an early work, dating to 1889-90, although Debussy continued changing It throughout his life and it was not published until after his death; indeed, the version performed here was published only in 1968, incorporating changes that did not show up in the first (1920) publication. Whatever the work’s provenance, it is a well-proportioned piece in which the piano and orchestra remain nicely balanced throughout, playing with rather than (as so often in Romantic concertos) against one another. The same is true of Première Rapsodie, which is notably titled as being for orchestra with principal clarinet. Written in 1910 for clarinet and piano and orchestrated the following year, this is a competition piece, designed to allow students to show their abilities in contrasting tempos and moods. Yet it is not a mere competition piece, having a prevailing dreamlike mood that is quite in keeping with Debussy’s usual manner. The saxophone rhapsody is evocative, too, even though Debussy was not very comfortable with the instrument – and even though he only sketched the work’s orchestration, which was completed after his death by Jean Robert-Ducasse. The CD concludes with two short dances from 1904 that focus on the harp – originally written for the chromatic harp, but nowadays played on the conventional instrument. These are works firmly embedded in their era and in the sensibility of such turn-of-the-century composers as Erik Satie, but they also carry faint suggestions of ancient times and require both sensitivity and virtuosity in interpretation – and receive both qualities here.

     The virtuosity needed for Wilhelm Stenhammar’s two piano concertos is of a more traditional Romantic type. Stenhammar (1871-1927) was considered the finest Swedish pianist of his time, and had a career more as a soloist and conductor than as a composer. He also took some time to find his own compositional voice: his first concerto (written in 1893 and first performed in 1894) is distinctly Brahmsian, not only in its four-movement structure with the scherzo placed second, but also in its vast scope and broad themes. There are hints in this work of an attempt to reach for a more individual style, especially in the writing for the keyboard, but the piece – although undoubtedly effective – leaves an overall impression of being more imitative than original. It is, however, well scored and impressive in its expectations of the soloist. The second concerto (1908) is more original: its four movements are played continuously, and the sound world here is no longer that of Brahms, nor even that of Liszt, although there are hints of the earlier composers here and there. Stenhammar had at this point moved from immersion in the works of Wagner and Bruckner to influence by Nielsen and Sibelius, although there is nothing especially Nordic about this concerto’s themes or approach. The things that are different here, in comparison with the first concerto, are a tighter and better-integrated design and a use of recurrent thematic material that makes the work as a whole sound more completely thought-through and less expansive than the earlier concerto. Niklas Sivelöv plays both concertos with mastery and a fine sense of style, and the accompaniment by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Mario Venzago is sure-handed, idiomatic and convincing throughout.

     It is not keyboard concertos but ones for the violin for which Vivaldi is known – but listeners are often surprised to discover that the Red Priest also wrote more than three dozen concertos for the bassoon. No one quite knows why. The concertos are all in Vivaldi’s standard three-movement form, and all require a fair degree of virtuosity, treating the bassoon not as the comic instrument it was to become in later times but as a full-fledged soloist to be set against a complement of strings. The second volume in Naïve’s survey of the bassoon concertos includes RV 499 (A minor), 472 (C major), 490 (F major), 496 (G minor), 504 (B-flat major), 483 (E-flat major), and 470 (C major). There is little except detail to distinguish among the concertos, although the two in minor keys do have some additional wistfulness (if not depth) when compared with the brighter and more common major-key ones. Sergio Azzolini plays all the concertos stylishly, overcoming their usually modest difficulties without any apparent strain, and the period-instrument ensemble L’Aura Soave Cremona provides excellent accompaniment, producing sound that is both warm and vivid – and melds quite well with that of Azzolini’s solo bassoon.

     Vivaldi’s dates were 1678-1741, while those of Johann Friedrich Fasch were 1688-1758, but the musical directions of these two contemporaries were quite different, as the second volume in Chandos’ series devoted to Fasch’s orchestral works makes clear. Two of the four pieces here are called concertos, but they – as well as the works labeled “ouverture” and “sinfonia” – more closely resemble Classical-era symphonies (early ones) than they do Vivaldi-style concertos. Fasch was highly respected in his time – notably by Bach, who owned copies of six Fasch orchestral suites and arranged a Fasch piano trio for organ. But Fasch’s music is quite unlike that of Bach – or Vivaldi. Those Baroque composers favored a certain austerity in style and a general coolness in themes and organization, exemplified above all by the fugue, of which Bach was such a master. Fasch’s music starts to move away from the Baroque model toward the Classical, with greater thematic development and frequently more interesting orchestral color than is generally found in the Baroque. The four works played by the rather awkwardly named Tempesta di Mare—Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra are all world première recordings, and all are solid, well-constructed and filled with lovely flow. The Ouverture in A minor is the most impressive of the pieces, being fully symphonic in scope (it lasts nearly half an hour) and offering multiple mood and orchestration changes. Despite his popularity in his own time, Fasch was overshadowed by Baroque giants – Telemann as well as Bach and Vivaldi – and his early progress toward Classical style led to his later being passed over, much as proto-Romantic composers such as Hummel and Field were later to be largely ignored after their own lifetimes, despite their once-innovative approaches. Hearing Fasch’s works today opens a window on a very interesting transitional time in music – besides which, these compositions are elegant and well-crafted statements in their own right.

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