April 04, 2013

(++++) UNUSUAL VERSIONS


Mahler: Symphony No. 4, arranged by Erwin Stein. Zoe Nicolaidou, soprano; Orchestre Régional de Basse-Normandie conducted by Jean Deroyer. Skarbo. $18.99.

Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole; Namouna—Suites Nos. 1 and 2; Scherzo in D minor. Alexandre Da Costa, violin; Orquesta Sinfónica de Radiotelevisión Espaňola conducted by Carlos Kalmar. Warner. $18.99.

Handel: Concerti Grossi, Op. 6. Aradia Ensemble conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $29.99 (3 CDs).

Bach: Cello Suites (complete). William Butt, cello. Warner. $11.99 (2 CDs).

     There are ways to make the familiar unfamiliar, sometimes resulting in amazing insights into music that you may think you know well but have never heard quite this way before. Who would have thought that Mahler, he of the grand and carefully structured orchestral arrangements employed with tremendous precision to limn his symphonic ideas, could be heard in the guise of a chamber orchestra? Well, Mahler himself was, as a conductor, an inveterate arranger and rearranger of others’ music, including that of Beethoven; and he even assembled an entire opera by Carl Maria von Weber (Die Drei Pintos) despite the fact that Mahler himself never composed an opera of his own. So perhaps there is some poetic justice in what Mahler’s fellow Austrian composer, Erwin Stein (1885-1958), did with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony: he created a version for a mere 12 players plus soprano. This is less an act of lèse majesté than one of tribute and rethinking: Stein had studied with Schoenberg, who himself rethought and rearranged a variety of older works, and Stein’s skeletal version of the Mahler Fourth does many of the same things as Schoenberg’s rethinkings and transcriptions of Bach. That is, it presents the music accurately but with entirely different emphasis, laying bare its structural foundations, certainly losing its lushness and orchestral color but presenting in return its underpinnings in a way that is nothing less than revelatory. The performance by Orchestre Régional de Basse-Normandie (with 13 players, including two percussionists) is a very fine one, expertly conducted by Jean Deroyer to bring out the music’s clear lines and the intricacy with which Mahler constructed this entire symphony to lead up to the vocal finale (which he had composed earlier, originally intending it for his Third).  The scordatura violin in the second movement, for example, contrasts more eerily with the smaller ensemble than it generally does with a full orchestra; and while the third movement loses a good deal of its warmth and sense of wafting toward heaven, it gains a feeling of inevitability in its forward motion. Capped by a lovely version of Das himmlische Leben sung by Zoe Nicolaidou, this Mahler Fourth is scarcely a first choice for listeners, but it is more than an oddity, being a genuinely interesting and often surprisingly effective version of the symphony.

     What is unusual in Alexandre Da Costa’s rendition of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole is not the music – that is quite familiar – but the violinist’s approach to it. From the first notes, this is a surprising performance: it takes the work seriously. Far from being a light and enjoyable divertissement, this Symphonie Espagnole is closer to a full-fledged and serious violin concerto. Tempos are on the deliberate side but scarcely slow – Da Costa achieves his effects by bringing to this music the same level of intensity usually lavished on more-substantial violin-and-orchestra works. After the first movement sets the involving, even intense tone for the work, the following Scherzando is almost painfully beautiful, more a serenade than a joke. Indeed, there is a heightening of beauty as well as seriousness throughout the first four movements, with only the concluding Rondo being presented with a contrasting lighter touch that is more in keeping with traditional performances of the Symphonie Espagnole. This is a very unusual and very effective reading, not only because of Da Costa but also because the Orquesta Sinfónica de Radiotelevisión Espaňola under Carlos Kalmar collaborates so clearly with the violinist’s handling of the music. It is a rendition that makes you think – not at all a typical reaction to this Lalo work. And to make this CD even more unusual, there are its additional elements: the two suites from Lalo’s ballet, Namouna, a work that never attained stage success but is filled with gorgeous melodies and lovely instrumental touches, plus a lively Scherzo in D minor that is almost wholly unknown and that makes a wonderful concluding encore. A second-tier composer Lalo might have been, but first-class performances like these show that there is more to him than most listeners realize and that his music is worthy of further exploration.

     Handel is, in contrast, clearly in the first rank of composers, and his Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 are among his best-known instrumental works – long established as string-ensemble standards and ever revealing new felicities of compositional technique. However, the excellent performances by the period-instrument Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon are unusual ones – and not just because of their high quality and sensitivity to historic performance practices, although those are certainly major pluses of this three-CD set. What is unexpected here is the use of oboe, flute and recorder parts in these string-ensemble works. There is nothing sacrilegious about this: Handel himself began writing oboe parts for these pieces after completing their strings-only versions, but he did not complete the wind elements, finishing only those for Concertos Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6. Mallon uses these, and then turns them into the basis for added oboe parts for all the other concerti (except No. 4). As for the use of flute and recorder, it was customary in Handel’s time for oboists to play flutes or recorders as well – so in movements without oboe, the Aradia Ensemble players offer flute or recorder parts. On the one hand, there is no reason to make too much of this unusual handling of the music: these pieces certainly do not become oboe concertos, the winds simply adding to and somewhat enriching the texture of the music and providing a rarely heard but entirely appropriate alternative version of these works. On the other hand, hearing interpretations so carefully attuned to the performance practices of Handel’s time, and incorporating winds modestly into works so well-known as string pieces, makes this an unusually attractive set of the 12 works from Op. 6. Mallon also does a fine job of distinguishing the six major-key concertos from the six minor-key ones, and highlighting the differences between the concertos that feel like suites in near-Telemann style (such as Nos. 5, 8, 9 and 10) and those that have more of a flavor of near-Classical concerto style (such as Nos. 2 and 4). Playing with verve and enthusiasm, the Aradia Ensemble handles all the concertos in a manner both spirited and highly attractive.

     There is nothing unusual in the instrumentation of William Butt’s version of Bach’s Cello Suites, with Butt even using the usual four-string cello for No. 6 rather than the five-string instrument for which Bach wrote the work. But there is something unusual in the recording of Butt’s interpretations: it was made at live performances in 2009. In these days of live recordings of practically everything, this may not seem unusual, but it is: these suites are works of extraordinary complexity, filled with tricks and traps for the unwary cellist, with intonation and fingering difficulties throughout – plus a constant need to be sensitive to the dance forms Bach used and the frequently introspective uses to which he put music that, on the surface, does not easily admit of much inward focus.  Because so many forces conspire to make the live performance of even one of these suites difficult, the idea of making live recordings of all six is very unusual indeed. Yet that is what we have here, and the result is triumphant. Butt, who plays a 1690 Milanese cello made by Giovanni Grancino, is so involved with his instrument and with Bach’s music that he quickly sweeps listeners into Bach’s sound world and the composer’s emotional world as well. Each of the suites is carefully balanced and played with elegance and poise, with Butt paying particular attention to the opening Prélude movements as stage-setters for the dance forms to come. Throughout the Courantes, Sarabandes, Gavottes, Menuetts and other dances, Butt keeps the underlying rhythms clear while allowing the movements the free flow of melody and emotion that Bach put into them. The concluding Gigues, which often come across as afterthoughts in some performances, are more substantial and interesting here, functioning as capstones of the suites rather than inconsequential “lighteners” of what has come before. In all, these are sturdy, elegant, well-modulated and thoughtful performances, and remarkably free of errors or the sorts of inconsistencies that are usually ironed out in studio recordings. The most interesting thing about these being live recordings is that listeners will be unaware of that fact while listening – they will simply hear excellent readings of some of Bach’s most compelling music.

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