November 15, 2012

(++++) SEASONAL JOURNEYS AND OTHERS


Handel: Messiah. Karina Gauvin, soprano; Robin Blaze, countertenor; Rufus Müller, tenor; Brett Polegato, baritone; Tafelmusik Baroque Chamber Choir and Orchestra conducted by Ivars Taurins. Tafelmusik Media. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6. Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmuth Rilling. Hänssler Classic. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Christmas at Westminster. Westminster Concert Bell Choir conducted by Kathleen Ebling Shaw. Westminster Choir College. $16.99.

Solti: Journey of a Lifetime—A film by Georg Wübbolt. C Major DVD. $24.99.

John Cage: Journeys in Sound—A film by Allan Miller & Paul Smaczny. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.

      This is the wrong season for Handel’s Messiah – it is, if anything, an Easter piece, certainly not a Christmas one. But it has become inevitable to hear it innumerable times in recent years during Christmas season, and when the performances are good, who cares if they are at an inappropriate time of year? In fact, there is never a bad time to hear this work, which – in connection with its increasing prominence at Christmas, although in no way related to it – is now almost always correctly identified as Messiah, without the extraneous “The” that used to be included in its title.  A performance as good as Tafelmusik’s is welcome at any time of year, and in any year. Newly released on the orchestra’s own label, this Messiah is assembled from 2011 live performances conducted by Ivars Taurins, who is director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and who shows here that he can handle the orchestra (in which he was a violist for 23 years) just as well as the voices.  Hearing Messiah on period instruments is always a pleasure, and Tafelmusik plays these instruments as if they are the most natural things in the world, with no apparent struggles or difficulties of adjustment or intonation at all. The four soloists are all very fine as well, all quite comfortable with period ornamentation, and with countertenor Robin Blaze having a particularly sweet and well-modulated voice. The result is a Messiah that can be enjoyed at Christmas, Easter, and anytime in between, before or after.

      Bach also gets more-frequent performances around Christmas, of course because of his Weihnachts-Oratorium but also just because Bach’s music somehow seems to fit the spirit of the season so well – and he did, after all, say that everything he composed was for the glory of God.  The Brandenburg Concertos are truly “anytime music,” heard all year in any number of performances, in any number of concert and church venues, and on any number of recordings. There is nevertheless always something fresh and new to be found in them, and the Hänssler Classic re-release of the 1994 set conducted by Helmuth Rilling is therefore most welcome. Rilling is best known as a choral conductor, a role in which he pays close attention to solo passages vs. choral ones, to massed sound vs. light sound.  This turns out to be an excellent approach for the Brandenburgs as well: the Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra may not be at the pinnacle of chamber groups (not in Tafelmusik’s league, for example), but it is supple and responsive, and Rilling does a fine job of making sure that the solo instruments are well-balanced against the tutti and that the overall sound of the works is collected but never too massive. Tempos are well-chosen, the works are played with enthusiasm but without being in any way overdone or hectic, and the overall impression is of a fine set of Brandenburgs that would make a great seasonal gift for someone – including for oneself.

      The sound is the thing in the (+++) Christmas at Westminster CD, which really is designed to ring in the holidays: the Westminster Concert Bell Choir is a handbell ensemble, and the 18 works on this CD resound with just about every form of bell sound that a listener could imagine or want.  Familiar carols such as O Come, All Ye Faithful and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen gain new layers of sonic enjoyment here, and the inclusion of some non-carol music – the Farandole from L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2, the Troika from Lt. Kijé, and the march, Arabian dance and “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker – makes the disc more variegated than it would be if it offered only purely seasonal music. However, it is a seasonal disc, not one that most listeners will choose to listen to throughout the year, and Tchaikovsky’s nine-minute flower waltz unfortunately exposes a weakness beneath all the charm: no matter how skillfully the bells are deployed, no matter how many sizes of bell may be used, the sound of bells is ultimately rather ear-wearing when heard for extended periods.  There is more than an hour of music here, and the individual pieces are filled with beauties and delights aplenty, even making overly familiar works sound fresh and new (although Ave Maria and Stille Nacht are perhaps not ideally suited for this treatment).  So this disc, a re-release of one dating to 2001, is quite welcome. But it is best heard in small doses, not all the way through, and unlike, say, Messiah, will not likely retain its enchantment long after Christmas season.

      “Enchantment” is not exactly the word for two (+++) DVDs of films chronicling the lives and times of two significant men in the 20th-century classical-music world, Sir Georg Solti and John Cage. The films by, respectively, Georg Wübbolt and Allan Miller & Paul Smaczny are both well-made, reasonably straightforward portraits of their subjects, the Solti film running just 52 minutes (but with 54 minutes of bonus material) and the Cage film running 61 (with 49 minutes of bonus items).  Both DVDs contain the usual mixture of archival footage of their subjects, the usual praise for their accomplishments and their importance in the musical world, and the usual hagiographic approach.  Solti is traced from his early career as assistant to Arturo Toscanini to his international stardom as music director of both the Chicago Symphony and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and his recordings come in for particular attention – he was a prodigious recording artist and left quite a remarkable legacy, including a complete Wagner Ring cycle that in some ways remains unsurpassed more than 40 years later. The bonus material offers Solti and the Chicago Symphony performing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (which is his No. 1), and Mussorgsky’s Khovanschchina prelude – a slightly curious all-Russian set of bonus items, given the fact that Solti had very wide range as a conductor and was not specifically a specialist in the Russians.  The performances themselves are quite good, though, and the DVD will be welcomed by fans of Solti, even those who knew him only through his many recordings – which in fact are likely to be his most-lasting legacy.

      The Cage DVD is a bit quirkier, the comments on it a bit less serious-minded, and that is in keeping with Cage’s personality. A mycologist, performance artist (before that phrase was known), and expert in aleatoric music and the prepared piano (and other things), Cage was always treading the fine line between seriousness and playfulness.  Arguably his most famous work, 4’33”, in which the performer listens to the audience for four minutes and 33 seconds and then departs, is a perfect example of his oeuvre, being on one level outrageous, on another thoughtful in its exploration of the relationship between performer and listeners, and on another arguably not music at all. This piece is actually part of the bonus material, which also includes several other works and several interviews. The film itself, shot in Germany and Japan as well as the U.S., gives numerous people who knew Cage a chance to expound upon his importance and his oddities. John Lennon and Yoko Ono are here, and Merce Cunningham, and many others – Cage was of interest to a wide variety of people in a wide variety of fields, and some of that comes through clearly here. As with the Solti DVD, this one is clearly intended for aficionados, not to make converts; indeed, it is hard to see any way to “convert” people to an appreciation of Cage, who no longer seems quite as outré as he once did but who certainly took music in previously untried directions. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a matter of opinion. Those who believe it was decidedly good will be happy to accompany Cage on the journey portrayed on this DVD.

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