June 07, 2012
(++++) FOND LOOKS BACK
J.S. Bach/Bruce Haynes: “Brandenburg Concertos” Nos. 7-12. Band Montréal Baroque conducted by Eric Milnes. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 15. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $9.99.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Four Dances from “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” Alessandro Marangoni, piano; Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Mogrelia. Naxos. $9.99.
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $9.99.
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 20-27. Daniel Barenboim, piano and conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker. EuroArts. $34.99 (2 DVDs).
A supremely clever and intriguing collaboration between Bach and the late Bruce Haynes, the six new “Brandenburg Concertos” played by Band Montréal Baroque under Eric Milnes are examples of Baroque scholarship at its best – and most lighthearted. What Haynes did was to choose elements of various Bach works, mostly cantatas, and arrange them in instrumental combinations corresponding to those in the Brandenburg Concertos, so that “No. 7” uses the same instruments as No. 1, “No. 8” uses those of No. 2, and so on. The rearrangement and reuse of material in Bach’s time was constant: Bach’s own use of Vivaldi’s music is well-known, and Bach constantly found new uses for his own works as well. And the line between vocal and instrumental music was by no means as clear in the Baroque as it later became. So Haynes’ use of mainly vocal music for these new “Brandenburgs” has, as it were, Bach’s own imprimatur. More importantly, these pieces really work – the instrumentation is well handled, the vocal parts sound fine on instruments (most frequently oboe), and the performance abets the whole project by using original instruments and paying close attention to period style. The one thing a listener will need to do here is get past the “Brandenburg” title, which is both accurate (for the instrumentations) and not to be taken at all seriously. Anyone not expecting to hear the real Brandenburg Concertos is in for a great treat with these non-Brandenburg “Brandenburgs,” which are very much in Bach’s spirit and are, indeed, accorded spirited – and thoroughly winning – performances.
Shostakovich looked back to earlier music, too, and did so with considerable piquancy in his final symphony, No. 15. This work contains snippets of everything from Rossini’s William Tell to Wagner’s Ring cycle and Shostakovich’s own previous works. Vasily Petrenko continues his outstanding Shostakovich cycle by presenting the Symphony No. 15 in a very carefully balanced reading that highlights Shostakovich’s elegant (and sometimes strange) instrumentation, brings forth the various quotations without making them seem to be the primary point of the work, and turns this eccentric final symphony into a work of elegance and poise through his handling of the passacaglia in the final movement – the passacaglia being itself a significant nod to the musical forms of the past. Petrenko’s cycle continues to feature some distinctly odd symphonic pairings, with No. 15 here offered with the overblown and self-consciously modernistic No. 2, known as “To October,” a work written for the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and concluding with a Communist-party-approved final choral section whose words are so bad that the composer himself expressed disdain for what he was setting. Interestingly, the other great 20th-century Russian symphonist, Prokofiev, also wrote a Symphony No. 2 whose primary characteristic is a kind of blaring intensity, for all that it is formally based on Beethoven’s final piano sonata. But Prokofiev was writing for Paris, while Shostakovich was creating for Moscow, and the works’ differences are instructive. Petrenko does about as fine a job with “To October” as a conductor can, playing up the dissonances and compositional extremes (which now seem quite dated) of the work’s first two movements, then taking the choral finale at an appropriately dignified tempo and making it as straightforward as the Soviet authorities no doubt wanted it to be. This is scarcely one of Shostakovich’s better or more-important symphonies, but Petrenko expertly brings forth what value there is in it. And although the pairing of No. 2 and No. 15 is quite unusual, it does serve to show just how far Shostakovich developed as a composer between 1926-27 and 1971-72: his symphonies do not chart clear emotional progress as do those of many other composers, but his technique and skill in orchestration in No. 15 are far more finely honed than in No. 2.
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco looked back throughout his compositional life to one source in particular: Shakespeare. He set 35 of Shakespeare’s sonnets and 33 songs from the plays, wrote two operas based on Shakespeare, and created 11 concert overtures drawing on Shakespeare’s stage works. But the Four Dances from “Love’s Labour’s Lost” are new: they were never published and apparently never performed during the composer’s life or afterwards. So the reading by Andrew Mogrelia and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra appears to be a double première – first performance and first recording – and a welcome one. The dances are essentially character pieces, focusing on several of the roles in this complex and difficult war-between-the-sexes play. Two of them specifically bear designations that look to the past (sarabande and gavotte), although in neither of them does Castelnuovo-Tedesco attempt to imitate the old forms slavishly. The other two pieces, a Spanish and a Russian dance, are clever exaggerations with a satirical bent, fitting the atmosphere of the play very well indeed. The more-extended works on this Naxos CD, the piano concertos, are also very much worth hearing. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s two concertos were written a decade apart (1927 and 1936-37) but partake of very different worlds. The first, in G minor, tempers virtuosity with lyricism and, despite some introspection suitable to its minor key (which inevitably recalls Mozart’s 25th and 40th symphonies), is by and large expressively upbeat, and in the finale even joyous. The second concerto – re-created by Alessandro Marangoni for this performance after the original plates and all other materials were apparently destroyed in the disastrous flood of the Arno River in 1966 – is darker, with a feeling appropriate to the growing storm over Europe even though it is by no means occasional music. Although this concerto is in F major and has a slow movement marked tranquillo e meditativo, it is the meditative nature of the music that predominates, and the work’s overall inward-focused approach is not fully relieved even by the charm and passion of its finale. Marangoni is a strong, even ardent advocate for these concertos, playing not only with considerable virtuosity but also with sensitive understanding that brings out the differing flavors and emotional underpinnings of the two works.
When Bartók looked at the past, it was usually at the folk music of his homeland and the lifestyle represented by that music – which had essentially vanished by the time of the Concerto for Orchestra. Written in 1943, when the composer was in ill health and financial difficulties, this justly renowned work is less attuned to folk melodies than many of Bartók’s other pieces, although the rhythms and harmonies of folk music – if not its tunes – are apparent throughout. Fritz Reiner, who knew Bartók personally and was a pre-eminent interpreter of his music, once recorded a pairing of the concerto with the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and if the new (+++) Naxos CD by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in no way compares with Reiner’s, it is nevertheless a very worthy recording – and further evidence that Alsop does some of her best work in modern compositions (as opposed to much 19th-century and standard-repertoire music, in which her performances are frequently pale and rather fussy). The very start of Concerto for Orchestra is particularly impressive here, building highly effectively from the depths of the orchestra to a main section that is perhaps a touch too restrained by comparison but is certainly well-played. Indeed, the orchestra’s playing is a major plus of this disc: the ensemble is sure in sound, very well balanced and as virtuosic as the music needs it to be. The main thing that Alsop lacks in the Concerto for Orchestra is a sense of humor: neither the Giuoco delle coppie nor the Intermezzo interrotto is calculated to draw as much as a chuckle here, despite the wry amusement that Bartók inserted into both. And the concluding Presto is something less than a headlong rush – although the strings are particularly impressive. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is also very well played, paced rather slowly, ebbing and flowing through its sequence of mostly darker moods in a well-balanced reading that never quite takes off in the faster movements but has lovely flow in the slower ones.
Flow is also a significant strength of the remastered two-DVD set featuring Daniel Barenboim’s live performances of Mozart’s last eight piano concertos, recorded between 1986 and 1989. These are good, solid readings rather than revelatory ones – the release gets a (+++) rating. The video itself is somewhat inconsistently presented: there were three directors, which is no surprise in light of the time span of the recordings. It is actually somewhat distracting to observe Barenboim from different angles while he is acting both as soloist and as conductor; listeners may be tempted to close their eyes and just listen to the music, which of course defeats the purpose of having it on DVD. The performances themselves are somewhat on the Romantic side – in that sense, Barenboim here looks back to some earlier pianists’ handling of the music rather than at more-recent attempts to perform the works in period style. But Barenboim does not overdo the broad expressiveness, not even in the minor-key concertos (No. 20 in D minor and No. 24 in C minor). His somewhat restrained handling of No. 20 actually works quite well and helps justify the unexpected turn to a very bright D major at the end, but the approach is less effective in the deeply emotional No. 24 – or, for that matter, in No. 22, which despite its key (E-flat major) includes a very extended meditative section. The single best word for these performances is “solid.” They are well done by Barenboim as soloist and well supported by the elegant playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker. The two-DVD set will certainly be of interest to listeners who would like to have all eight of the concertos in a single release, and who enjoy watching as well as listening to the way a top-notch pianist approaches these works – or at least did approach them more than two decades ago.