February 14, 2013

(++++) OLD AND NEW, TRIED AND TRUE


New Year’s Concert 2013. Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. Sony. $13.98 (2 CDs).

Salon Chromatique et Harmonique: Music of Wagner, Liszt and Rossini. Silke Avenhaus, piano. BR Klassik. $17.98.

Beethoven: Variations and Fugue in E-flat, Op. 35 (“Eroica”); Haydn: Variations in F minor; Schumann: Symphonic Études, Op. 13. Emanuel Ax, piano. Sony. $12.98.

James Whitbourn: Annelies. Arianna Zukerman, soprano; Westminster Williamson Voices; The Lincoln Trio (Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; Marta Aznavoorian, piano) and Bharat Chandra, clarinet; conducted by James Jordan. Naxos. $9.99.

      Here are a number of attractive mixtures of the familiar and unfamiliar, each taking its own approach to melding the better-known and less-known and each achieving considerable success in its own way.  The January 1 New Year’s Concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic are a longtime institution not only in Europe but also throughout the world, and each and every one is a Straussfest, but the 2013 concert – the 73rd of them – was also a celebration of the bicentennials of Wagner and Verdi, both of whom were born in 1813. Furthermore, this concert interestingly, unusually and quite intelligently showcased Josef Strauss rather than Johann Strauss Jr. Josef may have been even more talented than Johann Jr., but Josef’s death at age 42 in 1870 left the question forever unanswerable in any definitive way. What is certain is that Josef’s music consistently contains subtleties and inventiveness of harmony, organization and orchestration beyond those of most of the works of Johann Jr., and certainly Josef’s works deserve to be heard much more frequently. Franz Welser-Möst leads seven of them with the always-splendid Vienna Philharmonic, including one of the greatest waltzes of all, Sphären-Klänge, which really does sound like the music of the spheres when played as beautifully as it is here.  There are also five works by Johann Jr. (with the Blue Danube in its traditional pride of place as an encore) and two by Johann Sr. (whose Radetzky March is the other encore and the concert’s ebullient conclusion).  But this Straussfest has other elements as well – some expected (Suppé’s Light Cavalry overture) and some without precedent at these concerts (the prelude to Act III of Wagner’s Lohengrin and the Prestissimo from the ballet music from the five-act version of Verdi’s Don Carlo).  Also here are Joseph Lanner’s Styrian Dances and a pleasant polka-mazurka called Unter vier Augen (“Between the Two of Us”) by Joseph Hellmesberger II, who was conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1901 to 1903 and a once-well-known operetta composer.  The bright festivity of this concert for the new year will surprise absolutely no one; nor will the excellence of the playing. But the musical mixture does hold some surprises, very pleasant ones, that make the celebration even more enjoyable than usual.  The recording does have one oddity, though: nowhere are timings for any of the works provided – a curious omission.

      What is curious about the Silke Avenhaus recital labeled Salon Chromatique et Harmonique is the musical mixture as well as the overall concept – which should whet many listeners’ curiosity. In an attempt to expand the experience of listeners’ ears, Avenhaus mixtures some moderately well-known works with some almost completely unknown ones, stirring them together into an imaginary “salon” performance akin to those in the 19th century, in which more-elaborate and less-complex works frequently appeared together.  From Wagner’s virtually unknown Mathilde Wesendonck piano tribute, A sonata for the album of Madame M.W., which opens this BR Klassik CD, to Liszt’s monumental “Dante” sonata (Fantasia quasi Sonata from the third year of Années de Pèlerinage) at the disc’s conclusion, Avenhaus unfurls a series of loosely connected and very loosely interrelated works, playing them all with considerable panache and great stylistic sensitivity. The Wagner sonata, a surprisingly effective and well-constructed work, is followed by Liszt’s arrangement of Isoldens Liebestod, and then by Liszt’s Seven brilliant variations on a theme by Rossini, which quickly transports this recital from tender lugubriousness to bright virtuosity and display. The choice and sequencing of pieces are quirky but effective: the Rossini variations are followed by Liszt’s Nostalgic Waltz after Schubert, then by Rossini’s short Une caresse à ma femme; then it is back to Liszt for Li Marinari, a “tempest duet” (more accurately, in terms of its mood, “after the tempest,” originally for tenor and bass) that is again based on Rossini, followed by Liszt’s R.W.—Venezia. Then comes another Rossini curiosity, his Valse lugubre – which is succeeded by and very interestingly contrasted with Liszt’s La lugubre Gondola No. 1.  And then Avenhaus caps the recital with the “Dante” sonata, whose scope and seriousness dwarf everything that has come before, even Wagner’s sonata.  The works chosen here, and the order in which they appear, are unusual and may even be off-putting to some listeners in their mood changes and swoops from seriousness to lightheartedness and back. Certainly this is a highly personal CD, expressive of Avenhaus’ tastes in music and her interests in particular composers and types of piano music.  It is, in the final analysis, her extraordinarily fine, nuanced playing of all the pieces – however greatly they differ – that pulls the disc together and makes it so worthwhile.

      Emanuel Ax’s pianism is equally fine, although very different stylistically, as is the program he offers on his new Sony CD.  Ax is a considerable stylist who, at age 63, is long past having anything to prove about his technique or musicality, both of which are top-notch.  Yet he continues to explore new repertoire: he has only recently started performing Schumann’s Symphonic Études, to which he gives a sensitive, carefully balanced and highly effective reading on this disc (whose sole significant flaw is that it is somewhat too brightly recorded).  Ax is clearly a fan and advocate of the variation form, and does an excellent job of showing the ways in which all the composers here alter, reuse and rearrange their thematic material.  Beethoven’s monumental “Eroica” variations bring out all Ax’s grandeur of style and temperamental enthusiasm, which complement those of Beethoven very well indeed, as Ax shapes each individual variation to excellent effect while still building the set toward the highly impressive and extended concluding fugue.  And Ax does not give short shrift to Haydn’s variations, either: they are on a smaller scale than the Beethoven and Schumann works but are hardly less inventive, including some fascinating thematic exploration that listeners may be surprised to find in Haydn and that Ax explores fully – but carefully, with awareness of but without undue emphasis on the contrast between the composer’s choice of F minor as a key and his repeated use of an unexpected G-flat-major chord.  Variations tend to attract less attention from pianists than do sonatas, but Ax here shows that whether they are familiar or not, they can be considerable pieces in their own right and highly worthy of the attention and the excellent interpretations that he gives them.

      The familiar and unfamiliar elements of Annelies by James Whitbourn (born 1963) are different from those on the other discs considered here. What is well-known here is extramusical: The Diary of Anne Frank, which forms the basis for Melanie Challenger’s libretto. Whitbourn’s music, however – whose chamber version here receives its world première recording – will be unknown to almost everyone who hears this Naxos CD. It deserves to become much more familiar, though, because it not only bears witness to a now-familiar tale that has new resonance with every news story of hatred, intolerance and mass murder, but also is highly expressive in its own right.  Whitbourn uses the communicative techniques of both the 19th and 20th century in this piece, which he arranged in 2009 from his original, more extensively scored version. The chamber form of Annelies (whose title is Anne Frank’s full, rarely heard first name) uses the same complement of singers but reduces the accompaniment to the same instruments used by Olivier Messiaen when he wrote Quatuor pour la fin du temps in a prisoner-of-war camp: piano, violin, cello and clarinet.  This arrangement deepens the resonance of Annelies, in which Challenger draws on Anne’s actual words, which are not heard as often as people may believe – interpretations and paraphrases are more common.  Yet none of the thinking behind Annelies, none of the connections, would have much meaning if the work itself did not communicate immediately and effectively with an audience unaware of what went into creating it.  But it does communicate, viscerally and emotionally and with strength and understated heartbreak, not only for Anne Frank but also for all the victims, young and old, of so many wars and so many other acts of violence over the years and right up to the present day.  Annelies is essentially a choral work that is not an opera or cantata, yet not really a song cycle, either.  It is more a meditation on the events that trapped and eventually doomed Anne (its final section is called “Anne’s meditation”); and, through Anne’s words, it becomes a musical thought piece about so much that is evil in the world, and so much that is good and that somehow survives even when the good people themselves do not.  Whitbourn has here created a work that is for our time as much as for Anne’s – and is likely, perhaps unfortunately, to have continued resonance in times to come, since humanity shows few signs of moving beyond the sort of thinking that caught Anne and imprinted her memory so painfully on so many who never met her.

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