February 21, 2013

(++++) ARRANGEMENTS AND SURPRISES


Bernstein: Transcriptions for Wind Band. University of South Carolina Wind Ensemble conducted by Scott Weiss. Naxos. $9.99.

Duke Ellington: Black, Brown, and Beige—Suite; Harlem; Three Black Kings—Ballet; The River—Suite; Take the “A” Train. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.

Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos in E minor and D minor; Violin Sonata in F minor. Tianwa Yang, violin; Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä conducted by Patrick Gallois; Romain Descharmes, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Zia: Music of Gabriela Lena Frank, Lou Harrison, José Evangelista, Reza Vali and Elena Kats-Chernin. Del Sol String Quartet (Kate Stenberg and Rick Shinozaki, violins; Charlton Lee, viola; Kathryn Bates Williams, cello). Sono Luminus. $16.99.

      It is common when speaking of Bach’s music to say that it is almost independent of the instrument or instruments on which it is played – it is so transcendent that it can be played on anything and have its essence still come through. This is surely a bit of an exaggeration, but it makes the valid point that, at least at a certain level, Bach’s works do not depend for their communicative potential on the means by which they are presented to the listener – there is something in them that goes beyond any specific instrument or performer. For other composers, though, the experience of music changes, sometimes dramatically, based on the instruments used.  A change of instrumentation can make familiar music sound entirely different, providing new insights into a composer’s thinking – or can simply sound like a ham-handed attempt to do something new for its own sake.  Happily, new Naxos CDs of the music of Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington are more revelatory than capricious.  The six Bernstein works transcribed for wind and played by the University of South Carolina Wind Ensemble under Scott Weiss all sound fresh and new, with Bernstein’s characteristic rhythmic flair coming through clearly and with some nice instrumental touches adding to the enjoyment of the performances. The brief Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy, orchestrated by Sid Ramin, is straightforward enough. More interesting are three transcriptions by Clare Grundman: Overture to “Candide,” Divertimento, and “Candide” Suite, all filled with attractive melodies and all nicely paced and very well played here. Also on the disc are Jay Bocook’s transcription of Symphonic Suite from the film “On the Waterfront” and Marice Stith’s transcription of Three Dance Episodes from “On the Town.”  Much of this music, although not all of it, is quite familiar, and taken as a whole, it shows clearly how comfortable Bernstein was in highly popular forms as well as more strictly classical ones. The wind arrangements give the works a pleasant and welcome tinge of the unusual.

      The music of Ellington, as played with considerable verve and spirit by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta, is not transcribed but orchestrated. Ellington, after all, did not write for a full symphony orchestra – but his works sound mighty good in that guise. There are five of them here, the most famous by far being Ellington’s own arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train, offered at the end of the CD as an encore of sorts.  But this perennial favorite is far from the only great pleasure on this CD. Harlem, orchestrated by Maurice Press, is as bouncy and bright as can be, while Black, Brown, and Beige, also orchestrated by Peress, is more subdued and heartfelt – its three movements include settings of work songs and spirituals. The River, orchestrated by Ron Collier, is a late work, dating to 1970, four years before Ellington’s death. Its five evocative movements (“The Spring,” “The Meander,” “The Giggling Rapids,” “The Lake” and “The River”) filter the longtime musical preoccupation with tonal portraits of water through a strong jazz sensibility that flows very well indeed. And the ballet Three Black Kings, never finished by Ellington and completed by his son, Mercer, is inventive and eminently danceable in its portrayals of “King of the Magi,” “King Solomon” and “Martin Luther King.” Falletta is an enthusiast where American music is concerned, and she inevitably brings attentiveness and a fine sense of pacing to it – as she does here. The surprise on this CD is the discovery of just how good Ellington’s music sounds when dressed for the concert hall.

      There is quite a different surprise in Tianwa Yang’s new Naxos recording of Mendelssohn’s violin concertos. Yes, concertos – not only the ever-famous and always gorgeous E minor but also the earlier, far less known and admittedly lesser one in D minor. Knowing that Mendelssohn wrote this work in 1822, when he was all of 13, reinforces the 19th-century opinion of him as another Mozart. Even 22 years before writing the E minor concerto, Mendelssohn had a marvelous sense of balancing propulsiveness with lyricism; and if the D minor is very much a derivative work – not of Mozart’s violin concertos but of those of such now-little-known composers as Rodolphe Kreutzer – it is also a piece that shows Mendelssohn’s early mastery of sonata form, of dance rhythms and of attractive solo passages. Yang plays the work stylishly and with a forthright manner that works very well indeed, not overwhelming its modest proportions with an overdose of virtuosity. She does a fine job with the E minor concerto as well, although she is perhaps a bit blasé in tossing off the work’s comparatively modest technical requirements. It has been accurately said that Mendelssohn’s E minor is not the most difficult concerto to play, but is the most difficult to play well.  The reason is that its virtuosity is wholly at the service of beauty of line, perfect flow and wonderful balance between soloist and orchestra. Yang sounds a touch too self-confident, or perhaps self-involved, for this to be a great performance, but it is certainly a very good one, with the fine accompaniment by Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä under Patrick Gallois being a big reason for its success. Also on this CD, Yang and pianist Romain Descharmes deliver an attractive performance of the early Violin Sonata in F minor, written a year after the first violin concerto – that is, when Mendelssohn was 14.  This is a more forceful and dramatic work than the D minor concerto, and it too is a demonstration of Mendelssohn’s inborn melodic skill and his adept handling of instrumental balance and the back-and-forth of chamber music. Although certainly not a major work, it is a pleasant and nicely proportioned one that, like so much of Mendelssohn’s music, is remarkable in part because of the age at which the composer produced it – he was, after all, just 17 when he wrote the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

      The surprises of a new Del Sol String Quartet CD entitled Zia are of a more-modern type and are unlikely to have as wide an appeal. There are still many pleasures to be had, though, in the five works chosen for this recording by a quartet that, since its founding in 1992, has focused on contemporary music from a wide variety of sources.  The pieces offered here are eclectic in sound, style and design, and their connection to the album title is tenuous and not actually reflected in the music. The title of this Sono Luminus disc has to do with the Zia Indians of New Mexico, who are known for their pottery and their four-pointed sun symbol, which appears on the New Mexico flag. The music, though, mostly reflects a combination of Western European training with folk and traditional music from Peru, Turkey, Spain, Iran and Uzbekistan – the different sensibilities integrated into the works in varying ways and with varying degrees of success. Lou Harrison’s String Quartet Set (1979), for example, opens with an interesting movement called Variations on Walter Von der Vogelweide’s “Song of Palestine” but then moves into a variety of different influences that do not hang together particularly well – although the performers make the work sound about as unified as possible. Gabriela Lena Frank’s 2001 Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout is more firmly rooted in a particular culture and geographical region, and its six movements all partake of similar sensibilities. José Evangelista’s 1993 Spanish Garland: 12 Folk Melodies from Spain is largely straightforward and very pleasantly presented. On the other hand, Reza Vali’s Nayshâboorák (Calligraphy No. 6), which dates to 2005-06, seems not to have very much to say either in form or in substance. The last and shortest work on the CD, Elena Kats-Chernin’s 2007 Fast Blue Village 2, is presented as an encore, and is mainly interesting for showcasing the skill with which the players intermingle their parts.  The CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating: it has many interesting moments but is not particularly effective as a whole, either thematically or in terms of the relationships among the pieces. However, fans of the Del Sol String Quartet will surely welcome their skillful handling of a number of less-than-familiar works.

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