April 26, 2012

(++++) A CHANCE TO HEAR THE LESS-HEARD


Alkan: Sonata for Piano and Cello; Chopin: Sonata for Piano and Cello. Job ter Haar, cello; Vaughan Schlepp, piano. Quintone. $19.99.

Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé. John Alldis Choir and London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. LPO. $16.99.

Gary Schocker: Garden in Harp and other works. Emily Mitchell, harp; Gary Schocker, flute. Azica. $16.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8; Haydn: Symphony No. 55. Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Steinberg. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

      Even when particular music – or particular performances of music – may not be for all tastes, it is a real pleasure to have access to unfamiliar works and little-known versions of familiar ones.  Sometimes there are real gems to be found, as in a new disc of sonatas for piano and cello by Alkan and Chopin.  These composers were two of the great pianists of the 19th century and are entirely identified with solo-piano music.  Never mind, for example, that Chopin’s two early piano concertos receive frequent performances – it is on their handling of the solo-piano repertoire that both men’s reputation rests.  So it is a genuine surprise to discover how well both of them handle the combination of piano with cello – and not in early or student works, either.  Chopin’s sonata, whose enormous and complex first movement lasts longer than the other three combined, dates to 1846, just three years before the composer’s death; and the première in 1848 – of the last three movements only – was to be Chopin’s final performance in Paris.  The piano and cello are surprisingly equally balanced in Chopin’s sonata, with considerable virtuosity required of both   The scaling of the heights promised by the first movement is not really accomplished in the other three, and the very short third-movement Largo is more of an interlude than a deeply felt slow movement.  Nevertheless, the sonata is a work of considerable skill and, in its first movement, a great deal of emotion as well – providing a view of a side of Chopin that is very rarely seen.  Alkan’s sonata, which dates to 1857, is an even more substantial work – not in length, which is about the same as that of Chopin’s sonata, but in the intensity of its four movements and the way the whole seems to move inexorably from one to the next.  Here the piano does tend to dominate the cello: Alkan gave the première performance of his sonata, just as Chopin played the debut of three movements of his, and Alkan clearly wrote for his own very considerable abilities.  But if the cello is often in a subsidiary position here, it is scarcely unimportant, with melodies flowing freely between the two instruments amid skillfully interwoven rhythmic exchanges.  Like nearly all of Alkan’s music, this sonata has fallen into neglect; like most of this composer’s works, it deserves revival as a considerable piece of well-constructed chamber music whose demands on the players are well repaid by the quality of the musical expression.

      Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is better known than either Alkan’s sonata or Chopin’s, at least in suite form, but the complete 1912 ballet is far less often performed.  The new CD by Bernard Haitink is not a recent performance: it was recorded live in 1979.  Nevertheless, after more than three decades, this reading stands up very well.  Ravel considered the piece symphonic, and that is how Haitink approaches it, giving it grand scale and very full sound from the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  The placement of the John Alldis Choir is somewhat removed, resulting in less fullness of choral participation than listeners might expect and hope for: the chorus is wordless but is an important part of the sonic fabric.  In fact, the choir sings well, and it is not hard to get used to the balance of chorus and orchestra, even if it is a bit unexpected at first.  The sound has stood up well, with more warmth and richer presence than is found in most of the early digital recordings that began to appear not long after this analog one was made.  The performance as a whole is sensuous and atmospheric, perhaps a touch overblown from time to time, but generally very effective in evoking the nuances of the pastoral setting that Ravel so carefully created.

      The music of Gary Schocker (born 1959) has an undeniably pastoral cast as well, in large part because of its strong emphasis on the flute: Schocker has written more than 150 works for the instrument, which he himself plays, and is the most-published living composer of flute music.  The emphasis of the CD called Garden in Harp, though, is less on the flute than on the named instrument: the four-movement title work is in fact for harp solo.  There is considerable delicacy and a kind of New Age-y languorousness in much of the music here, even in works that include trombone (Love Letter), oboe (September Morn), or viola (Summer Morning, Summer Afternoon).  The most substantial piece in terms of instruments employed is Cherry Blossoms, which uses string quartet and clarinet as well as flute and harp.  But “substantial” is a bit of a misnomer for Schocker’s music: it is transparent, evanescent, delicate and rather ephemeral.  This (+++) CD is very well played, and much of the music makes for pleasant background listening, but there is nothing genuinely gripping or aurally challenging here.

      The music on two new ICA Classics DVDs is mainstream and very well-known indeed, but these recordings nevertheless qualify as offering something not frequently heard, because both are first-ever DVD releases of particular performances by conductors the extent of whose interests has not been particularly well-documented.  Klaus Tennstedt (1926-1998) was a noted Brucknerian in his later years, but had emigrated from East Germany only in 1971 and was very little known in any capacity when he conducted Bruckner’s Seventh with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1977 – the performance on the new DVD, which is part of the “ICA Classics Legacy” series.  The technical quality of the recording is all right, but scarcely outstanding, and the performance, while spirited and at times intense, is less knowing (and less glowing) than much of Tennstedt’s later work.  The (+++) DVD will be of most interest to Tennstedt fans who want to see and hear more of the conductor’s earlier U.S. appearances – and for lovers of the Boston Symphony, whose warmth and fine balance in the 1970s come through clearly despite some technical deficiencies in the presentation.  The orchestra’s (+++) DVD featuring William Steinberg (1899-1978), part of the same “Legacy” series, has many of the same virtues as the Tennstedt recording even though it is significantly older: Beethoven’s Eighth was recorded in 1962, Beethoven’s Seventh in 1970, and the Haydn in 1969.  The less-than-top-notch sonic quality is more pronounced here, although, again, the warmth and precision of the orchestra come through – visually even more than aurally.  Steinberg’s personal warmth shines as well: almost alone among conductors of his time, he sought a genuine partnership with orchestral musicians, a kind of cooperative music-making that went against the then-common grain of dictatorial conducting and that frequently elicited a commitment from the musicians that resulted in great beauties of performance.  Steinberg was not particularly noted as a Haydn conductor, and his rather overly Romantic interpretation of the Symphony No. 55 seems distinctly old-fashioned today.  He was, however, known for his Beethoven, and if the versions heard here are not as crisp and rhythmically decisive as some others, they feature lovely flow and often a greater helping of exuberance than one usually hears in Beethoven.  This is a DVD for fans of Steinberg and lovers of the Boston Symphony – no truly classic performances here, but some very fine ones that display the individual touches of a skilled conductor known far more for his years with the Pittsburgh Symphony than for his work with other ensembles.

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