March 15, 2012

(++++) THE PLAYING’S THE THING

Falla: The Three-cornered Hat; Nights in the Gardens of Spain; Tributes. Raquel Lojendio, soprano; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena. Chandos. $18.99.

Grieg: String Quartets in G minor and F major, arranged for string orchestra by Alf Årdal; Arne Nordheim: Rendezvous. Oslo Camerata conducted by Stephan Barratt-Due. Naxos. $9.99.

Delius and Ireland: Songs arranged for cello and piano. Julian Lloyd Webber, cello; Jiaxin Cheng, cello; John Lenehan, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

     Sometimes it is sheer pleasure just to listen to the sumptuous sounds of well-composed music well-played. The new Chandos CD of music by Manuel de Falla is one such case. This is familiar, or at least reasonably familiar, music, but the BBC Philharmonic under its chief conductor, Juanjo Mena, performs it with such flair, such rhythmic vitality, that a listener can simply bask in the sounds and delight in them. From the opening fanfare of The Three-cornered Hat all the way through to the final rambunctious Jota, this is a captivating performance that fully appreciates and beautifully brings forth the many charms of the work and of the Andalusian folk music that permeates it. Raquel Lojendio has a fine voice and uses it well, although Falla wrote the part for a mezzo-soprano and Chandos has not included the texts of her two songs. Still, the vocal elements here – hers and those of the enthusiastic chorus at the opening – combine with the clever orchestration and ever-changing rhythms to produce a performance that sounds completely authentic and very fresh indeed. Nights in the Gardens of Spain is equally successful, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet showing himself a pianist of subtlety as well as skill, doing just as lovely a job with the misterioso elements of the Alhambra’s garden as with the beautiful coloration and wonderfully quiet ending of the concluding visit to the Sierra de Córdoba. And in Tributes, one of Falla’s latest works (which is, however, largely based on earlier compositions), the orchestra is on its own, neatly moving from the initial bright fanfare to the elegiac writing that Falla used to memorialize Debussy, Dukas and Felipe Pedrell. From start to finish, this well-recorded CD is never less than a delight to the ear.

     The sonic pleasures are of a different kind in the Oslo Camerata’s recording of music by Grieg and Arne Nordheim (1931-2010). Grieg’s complete and well-known G minor quartet and his unfinished one in F major are heard here in finely crafted arrangements by Alf Årdal, which are imaginative and elegant but make the writing somewhat less transparent and less neatly balanced than in the original four-voice versions. Stephan Barratt-Due conducts with sensitivity, and the orchestra is small enough so there is good balance and a sound that is not too thick; as a result, the quartets in this form are certainly pleasant to hear. But by comparison with Grieg’s original versions, these are a trifle pale; the CD therefore gets a (+++) rating. Nordheim’s Rendezvous (1986) is far less known than Grieg’s quartets (especially the G minor), but it is emotive and well-crafted – and works well in a string-orchestra arrangement by the composer himself (this work was originally, yes, a string quartet). The final movement, Nachruf (“Obituary”), is particularly moving without sounding morbid or dwelling too depressingly on its subject matter. As a whole, the CD offers a chance to hear some lovely playing of music that is either little-known or known in a different form.

     Somewhat less successful, although still worthy of a (+++) rating, Julian Lloyd Webber’s performances of his own arrangements of 21 songs by Frederick Delius and John Ireland are, again, lovely to hear, especially for listeners who enjoy the gorgeous tones of which a cello is capable, and which Webber fully exploits and explores. Indeed, he somewhat over-explores them, with the result that the 10 Delius and 11 Ireland songs, which are intermingled on the disc, sound much the same – not only as if the composers had the same style but also as if each wrote all his songs to sound very much alike. Unlike Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, which the composer created in such a way that the audience could infer the vocal line from the melodic treatment, Webber’s arrangements reduce pieces that were always intended to use voices to shadows of themselves. They are often very beautiful shadows: Webber plays with warmth and élan, and the other performers (cellist Jiaxin Cheng in two of the songs and pianist John Lenehan throughout the CD) also perform at a very high level of skill. Considered simply from a sonic standpoint, the disc is certainly a success, although it better repays use as background or being heard a small amount at a time than it does attentive listening straight through. It is any sense of substantiality in the music that is lacking: the beauty here is plentiful, but its attractiveness is surface-level.

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