March 01, 2012


Gershwin: Concerto in F; Rhapsody No. 2; “I Got Rhythm” Variations. Orion Weiss, piano; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.

Xavier Montsalvatge: Poema concertante for Violin and Orchestra; Cinco canciones negras; A la española; Concerto breve for Piano and Orchestra. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Lucia Duchoñová, mezzo-soprano; Jenny Lin, piano; NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Celso Antunes. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.

Jonathan Little: The Nine Muses—No. 6, “Polyhymnia”; No. 7, “Terpsichore”; Fanfare, op. 3A; Sacred Prelude, op. 1; Kyrie, op. 5. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský; Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Ian Winstin; Thomas Tallis Chamber Choir conducted by Philip Simms. Navona. $18.99.

     Modern classical music, which means roughly the compositions of the last 100 years, has developed a reputation with audiences – sometimes justifiably – as “difficult,” offering perhaps some intellectual enjoyment but not a great deal of emotional involvement or the sorts of attractions that would bring listeners back again and again. Anyone who knows the field will bristle at this portrayal and immediately think of numerous exceptions, but in fact even the exceptions have exceptions of their own: for everyone who cites Copland’s rhythmic and clever ballets, someone can point to his more overtly serious and much thornier works. Whether it is fair or not, modern classics must often be programmed in concerts along with more-familiar works, to draw in audiences and hopefully stretch their ears a bit. Yet as these three new CDs show, there are some composers, and some compositions, that audiences will likely take to their hearts as well as their minds – if given the chance.

     Gershwin’s music was always intended to delight. Even at his most serious, as in Porgy and Bess, he poured forth an unending series of memorable tunes, melodies so infectiously hummable that some critics, in his time and afterwards, denigrated his work and found it hard to take him seriously as a classical composer. But he was more than capable of using traditional forms with skill while imbuing them with Jazz Age sensibility. His sole (1925) piano concerto, deliberately written to be more traditional than Rhapsody in Blue, is a nearly perfect example, and Rhapsody No. 2 (1931) is another. The concerto is non-programmatic, while the rhapsody was originally planned as film music, but in both cases, Gershwin puts his talent for modern but easy-to-follow harmony and memorable tunes at the service of forms that would be quite recognizable to composers of earlier times. The best performances of these works offer a kind of devil-may-care pianism with an improvisatory feel; and if Orion Weiss does not quite manage that, he nevertheless plays with vivacity and power, and the Buffalo Philharmonic under JoAnn Falletta backs him up with altogether infectious enthusiasm. Actually, the brightest and bounciest performance here is the “I Got Rhythm” Variations (1934), in which both Weiss and Falletta seem more uninhibited than in the other works: they simply sound as if they are having more fun. The whole CD is fun, though – and at the same time a showcase for music whose modern sensibilities blend beautifully with classical models to produce a highly listenable and thoroughly enjoyable experience.

     The music of Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) is more intense and serious than that heard on the Gershwin CD, but no less attractive. The piano work here, Concerto (or Concierto) breve, is actually a full-length concerto (about 25 minutes) written, like Gershwin’s concerto, in the classical three movements. Dating to 1953, it uses more overtly avant-garde techniques; indeed, Montsalvatge was influenced, at various times in his career, by Messiaen and 12-tone music as well as by Wagner. The concerto is well-structured and well-orchestrated, and effectively combines a strong Spanish flavor with audible influences of Ravel and Stravinsky. It is convincingly played by Jenny Lin, who gets fine support from the NDR Radiophilharmonie under Celso Antunes. The orchestra also plays very well for mezzo-soprano Lucia Duchoñová, who sings Montsalvatge’s best-known work, Cinco canciones negras, with style and emotion. The fourth song, a lullaby called Canción de cuna para dormer a un negrito, is especially warm and heartfelt. Poema concertante for Violin and Orchestra, written for Henryk Szeryng, is especially interesting for the lengthy unaccompanied cadenza that appears almost at the start – and which Rachel Barton Pine tosses off skillfully and with apparent effortlessness. A single-movement work, Poema concertante is a display piece that mixes virtuosity with a very attractive lyrical sound. Also on the CD is A la española from Tres danzas concertantes, a display piece of another sort – for orchestra. All these pieces are colorful and stylish, and all will offer listeners enjoyment not only on first hearing but on later ones as well.

     Now that we have reached the 21st century, it has become even more unusual to find contemporary music that will repay repeated attention and that people would actually want to hear more than once. That makes the works of Jonathan Little (born 1965) very rare indeed. His music on a new Navona CD, although it certainly uses up-to-date techniques, does so less self-consciously than that of Montsalvatge, incorporating its modern elements into pieces that are as often lush and poetic as they are pointed and intense. Two pieces from Little’s The Nine Muses are the features here. Polyhymnia, subtitled “‘She of Many Hymns’ or Muse of Sacred Poetry,” and Terpsichore, subtitled “‘The Whirler’ or Muse of Dance,” are both substantial works, but they are as different as those two ancient Greek Muses were. Polyhymnia, for string orchestra in multiple parts, is as warm and fervent as religious poetry, its overall aural impression being of slow motion within near-stasis; while Terpsichore, for large orchestra, is a nine-section work that is percussion-filled and is dancelike mostly in an abstract sense – and is a sonic tour de force. Little is an expert orchestrator: his Fanfare for brass and percussion, which lasts less than a minute, displays as much forthright splendor as anyone could wish, while Kyrie (from Missa Temporis Perditi), for double choir and soloists, is a moving work that looks back to older Mass settings and shows how well Little can write for voices a cappella. Also here is Sacred Prelude, for string quintet, which lies very well on the instruments and very comfortably in the listener’s ear, evoking just the right philosophical-religious mood. Little is clearly comfortable writing in multiple forms for many different instrumental and vocal combinations. And although no one hearing these works will confuse them with music of the 19th century or earlier, they are pieces in which the lessons of earlier times have been thoroughly absorbed, then reworked in a way that has visceral appeal to today’s listeners – if they will only give them a chance to be heard.

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