September 27, 2012
(++++) LISTENING TO THE PAST
Johann Friedrich Fasch: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—Ouvertures in D and F; Recorder Concerto in F; Concerto in D; Lute Concerto in D minor; Konzertsatz in F. Tempesta di Mare—Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra. Chaconne/Chandos. $18.99.
Haydn: Piano Sonatas, Volume 4—Nos. 30, 38 and 40; Variations in F minor. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $18.99.
Handel: Opera Arias. Karina Gauvin, soprano; Arion Orchestre Baroque conducted by Alexander Weimann. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Kaj-Erik Gustafsson: Missa Brevis for accordion; Ahti Sonninen: Hymns of Zion for cello and accordion; Tapio Nevanlinna: Hug; Petri Makkonen: Chorale prelude; Haydn: Sonata No. VII from “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross”; Mozart: Adagio in B minor, KV 540. Matti Rantanen, accordion; Marko Ylönen, cello. SibaRecords. $18.99 (SACD).
There are many ways of looking in a rearview mirror in terms of classical compositions. One involves exploring centuries-old music that has fallen out of favor or is otherwise unfamiliar today. That is what the excellent-sounding but rather awkwardly named Tempesta di Mare—Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra is doing in its series of recordings of orchestral works by Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758). On the latest disc, the piece called a concerto and the two labeled “ouverture” more closely resemble Classical-era symphonies (early ones) than they do Vivaldi-style virtuoso concertos. The Vivaldian approach is clearer in the concertos for recorder and lute, with the latter being especially interesting for its effective use of a minor key. Fasch was highly respected in his time – notably by Bach, who owned copies of six Fasch orchestral suites and arranged a Fasch piano trio for organ. But Fasch’s music is quite unlike that of Bach or Vivaldi. Those Baroque composers favored a certain austerity in style and a general coolness in themes and organization, exemplified above all by the fugue. Not so Fasch, whose music starts to move away from the Baroque model toward the Classical, with greater thematic development and frequently more interesting orchestral color than is generally found in the Baroque. All the works here, including a brief Konzertsatz that ends the disc, are solid and well-constructed, elegantly and carefully crafted, and all flow very well. Except for the recorder and lute concertos, all these works are world première recordings: for all its popularity in its time, Fasch’s music is almost unknown today.
Not so the music of Haydn, through whom views of the past are much more common. Yet Haydn is known primarily as a symphonist and for his late, great oratorios – not for his piano sonatas, which pale beside those of Mozart but whose poise, balance and elegance make them well worth rediscovering. The fourth volume of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s very well-played survey of Haydn’s sonatas continues to show the many beauties of these works, despite their relatively modest technical requirements (Haydn, unlike Mozart, was not a piano virtuoso). Haydn tends to adhere more rigidly to formal sonata structure than Mozart did, but Bavouzet nevertheless manages to give each sonata as much individual character as possible. All three here are in major keys: No. 30 in D, No. 38 in F and No. 40 in E-flat. The Variations in F minor are interesting not only for their use of the minor key but also for their somewhat more virtuosic treatment of the instrument. In fact, the variations exist in two versions, both offered here: the second, which was never published, includes a short cadenza, and listeners interested in Haydn’s original conception of this work can simply program their CD players to have the unpublished track appear at the appropriate place in the music. As in his earlier Haydn volumes, Bavouzet seems to enjoy playing these sonatas, especially their energetic finales, and the CD conveys a satisfying impression of music-making for the sake of pleasure, without the need or intention of plumbing any particular emotional depths.
This is not to say that music of Haydn’s time lacked emotion – far from it. It is there in plenty in Karina Gauvin’s CD of 10 Handel arias (plus one by Vivaldi and one by Leonardo Vinci [1696-1730]). The disc is entitled “Prima Donna,” but the implications of a high-strung and demanding lead singer are nowhere in evidence here: Gauvin has an unusually even voice, with little sense of strain in any register, even the highest. And she seems quite as comfortable singing forte as in a delicate pianissimo. It is interesting that she is increasingly focusing on Baroque music, since her vocal abilities would seem to fit bel canto very well indeed – but she also has a sure sense of Baroque style, and seems very comfortable with the generally rigid structure of these arias and the opportunities afforded during repeats to decorate and vary the music. Four selections here are from Alcina, two from Orlando, and one each from Lotario, Sosarme, Flavio and Atalanta. There are also three Handel instrumental works to break up the vocal offerings: the Lotario overture and two Adagio movements from concerti grossi (Op. 3, No. 1 and Op. 6, No. 8). Like any collection of this type, the CD will be of most interest to listeners who want to hear the singer rather than to those primarily interested in the operas – of which it is not possible to get any significant sense from these brief excerpts. Of course, in Handel’s time, opera action was carried forward in recitatives, with arias reserved for expressing emotion and commenting on events, so in a sense, little is lost by hearing these pieces out of context. In any case, Gauvin’s voice is lovely, she uses it well, and this CD makes a visit to the past very enjoyable indeed.
Sometimes, though, the way one looks at the past is by reinterpreting it for today, and that is what is happening on a very unusual SibaRecords SACD featuring the accordion. Classical music and the accordion would seem ill-suited to each other, but in fact the instrument is significant for modern composers in some countries, notably in Scandinavia. Most pieces on this disc come from Finland, and the works are mostly reconsiderations of some very old religious themes often used by composers in the past. The focus on religion is quite deliberate here: the 2005 Missa Brevis by Gustafsson (born 1942) is the first Mass ever written for accordion. It was only in the 1970s that parishes in Finland started allowing accordion players to perform in churches – the instruments were considered sinful, even devilish, in the 19th century and beyond. Their modern use in churches is interesting, since church acoustics lend the accordion more depth and fullness than it otherwise has. The religious theme of Gustaffson’s work carries through as well in Hymns of Zion (1979) by Sonninen (1914-1984), while the old-fashioned Chorale prelude (2005) by Makkonen (born 1967) looks back toward the past in a somewhat different way. Hug (2002) by Nevanlinna (born 1954) is a more overtly modern and secular work, but then, Mozart’s Adagio in B minor is secular as well – although the feelings it evokes can certainly be considered spiritual. This piece – and Haydn’s very strongly religious Sonata No. VII from “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” – are in some ways the oddest works here, because they were never intended for accordion. Yet Matti Rantanen makes a strong case for the accordion even here: these genuinely old pieces do sound strange at first, but within a few notes, Rantanen’s fine playing and his ability to express emotion with his instrument become engaging, then enthralling. The result is a disc throughout which the past speaks quite eloquently, if in a somewhat unusual way, to and with the present.