May 30, 2013


Berlioz: Les nuits d’été; La mort de Cléopâtre; Roméo et Juliette—Scène d’amour. Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano; Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).

Nicholas Vines: The Butcher of Brisbane; Economy of Wax; Torrid Nature Scene. Navona. $16.99.

Erik Lotichius: Variations and Finale on “Mood Indigo”; Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra; Four Songs on American Poetry; Ragtime. Sandro Ivo Bartoli, piano; Miranda van Kralingen, soprano; St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $16.99 (CD+DVD).

Gordon Getty: Plump Jack. Christopher Robertson, Nikolai Schukoff, Melody Moore, Nathaniel Webster, Lester Lynch, Diana Kehrig, Bruce Rameker, Susanne Mentzer, Robert Breault, Chester Patton; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Gordon Getty: Piano Pieces. Conrad Tao, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     Intriguing mixtures of vocal and instrumental pieces from the 19th century through the 21st grace all of these new discs. The Berlioz SACD featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Robin Ticciati is the second Linn Records release of Berlioz’ music from this ensemble and conductor, after a very impressive recording of the Symphonie Fantastique. This time, Ticciati shows that he has considerable skill in accompanying a singer, and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill is a wonderful one to accompany. She has a strong, rich, velvety voice that is particularly impressive in La mort de Cléopâtre, composed in 1829 in Berlioz’ second unsuccessful attempt to win the Prix de Rome. This is purely occasional music, to an adequate but uninspired text by Pierre-Ange Viellard de Boismartin, but Berlioz makes a marvelous dramatic scene out of it – too dramatic, heartfelt and unconventional for the jury that year, which did not give him the prize (he won it in 1830). Cargill also brings considerable seriousness to the rather slight and thoroughly Romantic poetry of Théophile Gautier in Les nuits d’été, lending the four somewhat dour middle poems of this six-poem cycle more depth than they really deserve. A touch more of contrasting lightness in the opening and closing poems would have been welcome, but Cargill certainly sings those fluidly and with beautiful tone. And for the non-vocal portion of this disc, there is the love scene from Berlioz’ sprawling Roméo et Juliette, performed with such warmth and tenderness that it is easy to forget that this is an orchestra of only 44 players – barely half the size of the ones usually heard in this music. What makes it all work is Ticciati, whose affinity for Berlioz is considerable and whose skill in extracting beauty and even sumptuousness from a relatively small complement of musicians is very impressive indeed.

     The music of Nicholas Vines (born 1976 in Australia) is also colorful and strongly communicative, although not at all in the mode of Berlioz. A new Navona CD of his vocal and instrumental music shows him to be one contemporary composer who does not feel obliged to take himself seriously all the time – for all that he constructs his music carefully and, like Berlioz in this one way, seeks new instrumental sonorities and combinations designed to elicit audience responses in some new and different ways. This is particularly evident in Torrid Nature Scene, which Vines calls “a romp in seven parts” and scores for soprano (Paula Downes), mezzo-soprano (Thea Lobo), and chamber ensemble (Callithumpian Consort – quite a name – conducted by Stephen Drury). The seven short movements are outgoing, odd, energetic, and from time to time just plain strange, inspired by a cruder and more ill-mannered Nature than the comparatively placid one favored by many composers. The other vocal piece here, Economy of Wax, is a setting of the part of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in which the scientist carefully describes how bees build honeycombs. Intricate and intense, the work is interestingly scored for soprano (Adrienne Pardee), flute/piccolo (Jessi Rosinski), viola (Derek Mosloff), and harp (Franziska Huhn), with Drury directing the small group. And in a purely instrumental work, Drury again conducts the Callithumpian Consort, this time with saxophonist Eliot Gattegno, in The Butcher of Brisbane, which is based on, of all things, a series of Dr. Who episodes known collectively as “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” Vines calls this piece a “carnival for solo saxophone(s) and chamber ensemble,” and it certainly has carnivalesque elements – grotesqueries, really – as saxophone and chamber group struggle constantly for preeminence in a seven-movement suite that ranges from the amusing to the merely cacophonous, leaving listeners wondering from moment to moment what can possibly be coming next. Sort of like the manifold confusions inherent in the long-running Dr. Who.

    The music is equally well-made but not as unusually conceived on Navona’s new disc of works by Erik Lotichius (born 1929 and still apparently going strong). Like many composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Lotichius writes a sort of “fusion” music, in his case combining elements of classical form with a considerable amount of jazz, including ragtime and blues. Because of Lotichius’ firm command of underlying classical techniques, his works are more successful than many of those by younger composers who may be more facile with non-classical musical forms but have more difficulty integrating them into pieces that can hold listeners from start to finish. The vocal work by Lotichius on this CD, Four Songs on American Poetry, is a fairly straightforward art-song piece that effectively uses words by Robert Bly, e.e. cummings and Edna St. Vincent Millay and is nicely sung by Miranda van Kralingen. It is not, however, as interesting as Variations and Finale on “Mood Indigo,” which takes Duke Ellington’s famous tune and subjects it to full-scale, multi-tempo, multi-mood treatment that produces a thoroughly satisfying work that zips through theme, nine variations and finale in just 14 minutes. That makes the piece shorter than the first movement alone of Lotichius’ Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra, which is a large-scale work in the traditional three movements, thematically well-constructed and showing considerable formal skill even though it lacks the sheer verve and swing of the “Mood Indigo” variations. Sandro Ivo Bartoli plays it very well indeed, and the St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Lande, which shows a distinct ability to handle the American jazz idiom in Lotichius’ Ellington-based music, here does a top-notch job of backing Bartoli up while coming to the forefront when called to do so. The orchestra also handles Ragtime, a bright six-minute encore, to fine effect: the piece is filled with short solos for numerous instruments, and every one of the players comes forth with skill and apparent enjoyment of the music. The CD is packaged with a bonus DVD containing a documentary about Lotichius’ music and career, which will be of interest to listeners curious about the composer. The DVD also includes some of the recording sessions for the “Mood Indigo” variations – of interest to those wondering what goes into the smooth-sounding final release of a piece requiring considerable interpretative and performance agility.

     Gordon Getty is of the same generation as Lotichius (Getty was born in 1933) and is best known for his vocal music – that is, in addition to his philanthropic endeavors and his family’s wealth. Two new PentaTone SACDs give listeners a chance to hear not only one of Getty’s major works – his Shakespeare-based opera, Plump Jack, heard here in a concert version that omits two scenes – but also quite a few of his minor ones, which is what the piano pieces are. These are recordings in which absolutely first-rate performances are lavished on music that is not exactly unworthy but also not especially distinguished. Getty is an almost entirely tonal composer, and it is actually something of a relief to hear recently composed works in which dissonance is used for specific purposes – to indicate emotional dissonance in the opera’s events, for example – rather than as the basic building block of everything.  Nevertheless, Plump Jack is a rather pale take on the Falstaff legend, with the fat knight never emerging as the boisterous, larger-than-life character he is in Shakespeare’s plays and in, for example, Verdi’s final opera. The emotional involvement needed to make Hal’s eventual renunciation of Falstaff so moving is largely missing here: neither the libretto nor Lester Lynch’s performance as Falstaff manages to give the character very much depth. For that matter, there is not much to Hal (Nikolai Schukoff) either. The most impressive performance comes from Christopher Robertson as Henry IV: he has both the dignity and the self-doubt of an anguished ruler whose claim to the crown is shaky and who wishes better for his son. Plump Jack proceeds mainly in recitative, with occasional orchestral commentary on the words – a technique not all that different from the design of opera seria, and certainly one that give Shakespeare’s words their due by not subsuming them beneath music, but ultimately not a very dramatic approach. There are some very effective moments on this (+++) recording, but they are only moments, their quality not sustained throughout despite the truly excellent handling of the music by the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Ulf Schirmer.

     Conrad Tao’s piano disc also gets a (+++) rating, not because of Tao’s performance, which is superior from start to finish, but because the music – composed by Getty over a period of half a century – shows little evidence of growth or development and mostly sounds like salon pieces or, in the case of Raise the Colors, like warmed-over Sousa. There are a number of small pleasures to be had here, for instance in the very brief movements of Homework Suite and in the multiple waltzes (four of them) included in the 11-movement Ancestor Suite. But all the pleasures here are small ones – the pieces are quite lovely and enjoyable as far as they go, but they do not go very far. Getty is a skilled composer technically, but not a particularly innovative one: his music stays with the listener only while it is being played and soon after simply evaporates. It is hard to imagine his works receiving better readings than the ones they get on these two PentaTone releases, but it is a bit of a shame to have so much pianistic, vocal and orchestral talent devoted to music that does not really repay the considerable investment of time and effort that these performances clearly entail.

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