January 12, 2012

(++++) THE VIRTUES OF SERIES

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 20. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

John Philip Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 10. Royal Norwegian Navy Band conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $9.99.

Hanson: Symphony No. 3; “Merry Mount” Suite. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Hanson: Symphony No. 4, “Requiem”; Symphony No. 5, “Sinfonia sacra”; Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky; Dies Natalis. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 11: Adnan Saygun—Piano Concerto No. 1; 12 Preludes in Aksak Rhythms; Jean Françaix—Piano Sonata; Charles Valentin Alkan—Le chemin de fer; Mily Balakirev—Islamey. Idil Biret, piano; Orchestre Colonne conducted by Adnan Saygun (Concerto). IBA. $9.99.

     Although it is certainly possible for ongoing series devoted to a particular composer or performer to become tiresome, or to be less interesting over time because they offer less and less notable material in the interest of completeness, all five of these releases in continuing series are top-notch in their own ways – giving listeners a better sense of the depth and quality of the work of composers and artists alike. True, “depth” is not a word often associated with Johann Strauss Sr. or John Philip Sousa: both wrote occasional music, very much of its time, intended to entertain and bring enjoyment to audiences rather than to storm the heavens in a Beethovenian sense – and indeed, certainly in the case of Strauss, not necessarily planned to be heard more than a couple of times during a single season, after which the composer would deliver something new to entice audiences. But it is a measure of the quality of the creations of Strauss and Sousa that so much of their work retains tremendous charm in an era so divorced from theirs – almost as if their pieces endure in spite of themselves.

     The latest Strauss Sr. volume, performed with the usual relish by the very fine Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina under the expertly idiomatic direction of Christian Pollack, includes six waltzes, two marches and three quadrilles (a form to which Strauss Sr. was quite partial), all from the composer’s very productive years in the mid-1840s. The waltzes were created for specific occasions, ranging from Carnival celebrations to benefits for flood victims and a children’s hospital – Strauss was a highly civic-minded composer and often gave generously of both his money and his music to disaster victims. Sofien-Tänze (“Sophie Dances”), Moldau-Klänge (“Sounds of the Moldau [Vltava]”), Die Vortänzer (“The Dancing Masters,” for an event whose motto was “Life Is a Dance”), Epionen-Tänze (“Epione Dances”), Fest-Lieder (“Festival Songs”) and Die Unbedeutenden (“Those of No Importance,” after a farce by Johann Nestroy) are all very well-made, elegantly assembled and thoroughly danceable, even today. Concert-Souvenir-Quadrille (based on melodies from a work by Félicien David plus, of all things, “Yankee Doodle”), Zigeunerin-Quadrille (“Bohemian Girl Quadrille,” using melodies from an opera by Michael William Balfe), and Eldorado-Quadrille (composed to celebrate improvements made to Europe’s biggest dance-hall, the Odeon) are all bouncy and enthusiastic within their rather foursquare format. And Österreichischer Fest-Marsch (“Austrian Celebration March”) and Esmeralda Marsch are fine examples of works Strauss composed in his role as bandmaster of the First Viennese Civilian Militia.

     It is Sousa, though, whose name is most firmly attached to marches, and the 10th volume of Keith Brion’s excellent survey of Sousa’s works contains seven of them – all comparative rarities. The Salvation Army March (1930), The Free Lance March (1906), The Quilting Party (1889), When the Boys Come Sailing Home (1918), The Beau Ideal March (1893), Anchor and Star (1918), and Who’s Who in Navy Blue (1920) show Sousa, decade after decade, producing gems, most of them as suitable for the concert stage as for the parade ground. Yet there was more to Sousa’s work than marches, as this fine series continues to show. Brion intersperses the marches here with Jazz America (1925), a fantasy that is not so much jazzy as it is inspired by the Jazz Age; People Who Live in Glass Houses Suite (1909), a balletic tribute to various forms of alcoholic beverages by a composer who was scarcely a teetotaler; Myrrha Gavotte (1876), a very early work set in formal classical dance style; Vautour Overture (1886), a Rossinian opening for a play by Adolphe Eugene Philippe d’Ennery; and Look for the Silver Lining Humoresque (1922), a highly amusing work based on a 1919 hit tune by Jerome Kern and several other recognizable songs of the time – and containing a touch of early big-band jazz. One of the best things about the Naxos Sousa series is that it provides a chance to hear both well-known and little-known Sousa marches while also showing, time and again, that the famous bandmaster composed in a variety of forms with considerable flair.

     There is more to Howard Hanson’s music than symphonies, but his seven symphonies are of major importance among his compositions, and Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony received well-deserved commendations for their fine Hanson symphony recordings on Delos, from performances done in the late 1980s and 1990s. Naxos is re-releasing the Delos discs, and they have stood up very well – as indeed do the symphonies themselves. No. 3, composed from 1936 to 1938, was written to commemorate the first Swedish settlement in the United States. It is the longest of the symphonies and the most strongly redolent of Sibelius – always a potent influence on Hanson. Expansive, lyrical and knitted together by a recurrent chorale theme, it has a strong spiritual undercurrent that is presented through skillful and colorful orchestration. The suite from Hanson’s only opera, Merry Mount, is a fine complement to the symphony. The opera too is about spirituality – but focuses on its perversions. Based loosely on a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, the 1934 opera is a grim story of Puritans and Indians, with a libretto whose language was considered unusually blunt. Hanson extracted a suite from it in 1938, and the fervor and intensity of the music come through well in strictly orchestral form – from the austerity of the Overture, to the light-sounding “Children’s Dance” that has a darker undercurrent in the opera, to a “Love Duet” that also is troubling in context, to a final set of “Maypole Dances” that scandalize the Puritans in the opera but that here make for a bright conclusion (and a disconcerting one for those who know the stage work itself).

     Hanson’s Symphony No. 4, Requiem, is a wartime work, from 1943, and was one of the composer’s favorite compositions. Its inspiration was not the battlefield, however, but the death of Hanson’s father, to whom he dedicated the score. Its four movements, which bear titles from the Mass for the dead, range emotionally from an acerbic scherzo to a concluding Largo pastorale that dies off in a form of catharsis. Symphony No. 5, Sinfonia sacra, is Hanson’s shortest, a 15-minute work from 1954 written in one movement, with echoes of Sibelius (as in several other Hanson symphonies) and a Gregorian-style theme whose old-fashioned nature contrasts with the modern compositional techniques with which it is handled. Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky, written five years after the conductor’s death in 1951, combines full-orchestra writing with chamber-like sections that give the piece a more-personal cast – Koussevitzky had given the first performances of Hanson’s piano concerto and three of his symphonies. Completing a CD pervaded by sacred elements even without any overtly religious works, Dies Natalis (1967) is a set of variations on a Lutheran Christmas chorale. It features some particularly effective instrumentation, including impressively constructed brass chords and an eight-bar timpani solo. Schwarz has taken the measure of all this music and conducts it with understanding and considerable sensitivity.

     Idil Biret shows those same characteristics, and to quite a high degree, in the music of Adnan Saygun (1907-1991) and Jean Françaix (1912-1997) on the latest IBA release. Small wonder: Biret has been intimately involved in the works heard here from the pieces’ inception. She gave the first performance of Saygun’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1958, the year after the work was completed, and Saygun dedicated his 12 Preludes in Aksak Rhythms to her in 1967; while for his part, Françaix dedicated his piano sonata (1960) to Biret as well. These performances are as close to definitive as these works are likely to get – but this CD gets a (+++) rating rather than (++++) both because of the repertoire and because of considerable sonic deficiencies. The Saygun concerto is a monophonic recording of the work’s 1958 première, transferred to CD from an acetate disc, while the preludes come from a homemade cassette tape recorded in the 1970s. The restoration for IBA is fairly good, but there remain notable sonic inadequacies that mar the flow of the music – making these recordings of historical interest and importance for fans of Biret, but less than satisfactory for a general audience. The remaining works here come from more-modern recordings and are in stereo: the Françaix dates to 1960 and is a studio recording; the Alkan is a studio performance from 1998; and the Balakirev was recorded live in 1993. Despite the engineers’ hard work, there are noticeable differences in sound quality throughout the CD, making it somewhat frustrating to listen to, and at times in the 12 Preludes actually unpleasant. As for the music, Saygun’s concerto is in the traditional three movements, with traditional contrasts among them, although its harmonic language is clearly that of the mid-20th century. The 12 Preludes are rhythmically derived from Turkish folk music; Bartók used similar rhythms (“aksak” means “limping”) in Mikrokosmos and elsewhere, describing them as Bulgarian. Biret does an especially good job here of showcasing the contrast between the binary and ternary units that together create the “limping” feeling. In the Françaix, which is quite short but packed with technical demands, Biret’s grasp of rhythmic complexity is particularly well shown in the opening Allegrissimo section in 7/4, although she handles this largely neoclassical work well throughout. However, neither the Saygun pieces nor the Françaix sonata will likely be found highly memorable by most listeners – they are competently made works, but do not seem to have a great deal to say. Alkan’s Le chemin de fer and Balakirev’s Islamey, positioned as afterthoughts on the CD, are more interesting pieces, requiring considerable pianistic dexterity but putting the virtuosity at the service of some intriguing musical ideas and expressions. Biret again shows herself on this CD as a technically formidable pianist and a highly thoughtful one, but most of the music, like most of the recorded sound, is less than enthralling.

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