June 21, 2012
(++++) ODDITIES THAT ACTUALLY WORK
Bach: Goldberg Variations. Janne Rättyä, accordion. Ondine. $16.99.
Bach: Motets. Monteverdi Choir conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.
Charlie Chaplin: City Lights. City Lights Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. Carl Davis Collection. $16.99.
The eternal quest for the unusual sometimes takes performers and recording companies into distinctly odd areas – some of which, in a great surprise to listeners (and, one suspects, to some of those involved in the productions) turn out very well indeed. For example, there is a longstanding notion that Bach wrote such “pure” music (however defined) that his works can be played on any instrument to equally good effect. To some extent, this is a self-serving argument made, for instance, by pianists determined to perform The Well-Tempered Clavier and Bach’s other harpsichord works on modern concert grands. That particular element of the argument fails: Bach’s contrapuntal lines, so integral to all his music, tend to get lost in the sonority of a modern piano, especially when a performer liberally employs the sustaining pedal. On the other hand, the “pure music” argument gets a tremendous boost from Janne Rättyä’s remarkable performance of the Goldberg Variations on, of all things, the accordion. Who would have thought it? To be sure, there are some countries with a rich classical-music tradition involving the accordion: Russia with its bayan, for example, and Denmark, where the instrument has attracted such composers as Ole Schmidt and Per Nørgård. But performing Bach on the accordion seems well-nigh sacrilegious – until one hears Rättyä’s knowing, nuanced and quite beautiful playing. The sound of the instrument does take some getting used to, although less than one might expect, since Rättyä produces as much delicacy from his accordion as expressiveness. The big, swooning folk-music sonorities usually associated with the accordion are altogether missing here, although Rättyä brings forth the fullness of what is essentially a wind instrument when that is appropriate. Above all, this Goldberg Variations is a musically convincing one, and of course that is ultimately what matters, no matter from what instrument the notes emerge. This is quite a short CD – only 46 minutes, including eight minutes of “alternative takes” of sections of the music – but it is such an interesting one that listeners may well find themselves wishing Rättyä had included some additional Bach works on accordion.
The oddity of an excellent new Bach Motets recording by the Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardiner is not in the performance but in the packaging. The CD’s cover features a tightrope walker – a most unmusical image (like mimes, tightrope walkers perform silently), although perhaps one intended to highlight the metaphorical tightrope that all performers walk when bringing Bach’s religious music to a modern audience that is far more secular than the one for which the works were written. The entire package is actually unusual, if not entirely unheard-of, consisting of a hardcover book that contains a sleeve for the CD and extended notes about the music, including Gardiner’s own commentary plus the texts of all the works. Other companies have used a format similar to this one – PentaTone’s excellent series of Wagner opera recordings by Marek Janowski and the Glyndebourne Festival’s releases from its own operatic catalogue come to mind – but it seems particularly apt coming from SDG, whose initials stand for Soli Deo Gloria, “all for the glory of God,” the reason Bach said he wrote his music. As for the performances, they are exemplary throughout, emotionally uplifting no matter what one’s religion (if any) may happen to be. Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227, is the longest work here, with Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225, almost as extended. Both move from high point to even higher point through singing of great beauty and stylistic understanding. The remaining works are every bit as effective: Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230; Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229; Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226; Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir, BWV 228; and Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, BWV Anh. 159. Unusual packaging, excellent performances and gorgeous music combine to make this set of Bach Motets treasurable.
Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film, City Lights, is treasurable in a different way and is deemed by many to be his masterpiece. Although made in the early era of “talkies,” the movie is silent – a deliberate decision by Chaplin, who felt his character, the Little Tramp, communicated best in mime. But Chaplin wanted to make a movie with synchronized sound, using the same technology that allowed actors to speak in sync with film, and City Lights became that movie – his first with the sound synchronized. Chaplin created the music himself, leaving it to arrangers to write it down and orchestral players to perform it. The whole project was something of an oddity, and Carl Davis’ handling of the score is one as well. Davis transcribed all the music to allow it to be performed by orchestras that he conducted. Then, for this recording on his eponymous label, Davis had a group dubbed the City Lights Orchestra listen to the original recording of the film score, which had been made in 1931. From Davis’ transcriptions and that original recording, Davis and his musicians learned the instrumental style of the period and the way in which each piece was cued into scenes from the film. The ultimate oddity of this recording is that it really wants to be a DVD, so carefully has Davis put the entire project together. But even in CD form, the music has a great deal to say, even to listeners who do not know City Lights or remember it only vaguely. The music is simple, straightforward and heartfelt, communicating emotions clearly and with considerable warmth and style. It is not great music, certainly, but it is expressive and often surprisingly subtle for a film score. Chaplin was writer, producer and director of City Lights as well as the film’s composer, and there is no doubt that he saw the movie as a totality. This CD provides only one piece of the total film experience, but it is a piece that stands surprisingly well on its own and shows Chaplin to good effect in a musical light – one in which he is very rarely seen.