July 03, 2013


Richard Strauss: Josephslegende (complete ballet); Love Scene from “Feuersnot”; Festmarsch. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Nigunim: Hebrew Melodies by Josef Bonime, Joseph Achron, Avner Dorman, John Williams, Leo Zeitlin and Ernest Bloch. Gil Shaham, violin; Orli Shaham, piano. Canary Classics. $16.99.

Knudåge Riisager: Symphony No. 2; Sinfonia (Symphony No. 3); Concerto for Orchestra; Primavera—Concert Overture; T-DOXC (poème mécanique) for orchestra. Aarhus Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bo Holten. Dacapo. $16.99.

     There are various ways to look for the unusual in classical music: seek out unknown composers, for example, or search for little-known or overlooked works by the well-known. In the latter approach, Richard Strauss’ Josephslegende (1912-1914) is certainly a find, or rediscovery. One of the very few works of Strauss’ maturity to remain rarely played and infrequently acknowledged, this ballet based on the biblical legend of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife had little success in its own time, initially running for only seven performances. The problem probably traces back to Strauss himself, for he said when writing the ballet that Joseph, a symbol of God-seeking chastity, was not a character to his taste and “if a thing bores me I find it difficult to set it to music.” This is the Joseph of the “coat of many colors,” sold into slavery by his brothers, then becoming an adviser to the Pharaoh because of his skill in dream interpretation. Joseph is plucked from prison to advise the Pharaoh – and Potiphar’s wife is the reason for his being in prison in the first place: angered at his refusal of her seduction, she falsely accuses him of rape, and her husband, the captain of the palace guard, throws Joseph into confinement. Strauss’ ballet is entirely about the attempted seduction and false accusation, not involving Joseph’s later success at all. Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra give it a bright, stirring performance, as full of color as its instrumentation – which includes four harps, organ, celeste, glockenspiel, xylophone, large and small cymbals, four pairs of castanets, and a double-bass clarinet – would indicate. This recording fills a gaping hole in the Strauss catalogue, but it has to be admitted that the ballet is more workmanlike than truly stirring. The sumptuous orchestra is there, the exotic sounds are present, and there are a number of intriguing dances (four for women, four for Joseph, two for slave-girls, and so forth). There is also a guardian angel to save Joseph, and there are predictable armed men to respond to Potiphar’s wife’s false claim. But even when as well played as it is here, Josephslegende sounds like a piece in which Strauss was largely going through the motions – the dashing creativity he brought to other biblical stories, certainly including the earlier Salome (1905), is largely absent here. Strauss fans will, and should, celebrate this recording, but in truth, this ballet is something less than a must-have for most listeners. The two short pieces that fill out the SACD are equally well played, and are considerably earlier: Love Scene from “Feuersnot” dates to 1900-01, and Festmarsch is Strauss’ Op. 1 – dating to 1876, when the composer was 12 years old, but already showing considerable maturity in writing for orchestra.

     The exotica on a new Canary Classics CD are more of the “unknown composers” type, and the disc is quite a mixed bag, including three pieces from Schindler’s List by John Williams (born 1932), the fairly well-known Baal Shem by Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), and a series of pieces by composers with whose names few listeners are likely to be familiar. The disc helpfully explains its title, noting that nigunim is the plural of a Hebrew word referring to instrumental improvisations, sometimes secular and sometimes religious. That is a pretty broad definition, and the pieces themselves convey a wide variety of moods, too. There are two works here by Joseph Achron (1886-1943): Hebrew Melody and Two Hebrew Pieces; and one work apiece by Josef Bonime (1891-1959: Danse hébraïque); Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930: Eli Zion, transcribed by the same Joseph Achron whose own works appear here twice); and Avner Dorman (born 1975: Nigunim—Violin Sonata No. 3). Bloch’s work is the best-known one here (although perhaps not for moviegoers, for whom the Williams will be most familiar), but the piece that is most substantial, at least in terms of length, is Dorman’s. This is the world première recording of this nicely constructed sonata, which does have the feeling of improvisation in places, if not throughout. The piece does not really have enough ideas to sustain for 20 minutes, but it is well put together and makes interesting use of the sonic contrast between violin and piano – with the brother-and-sister team of Gil and Orli Shaham performing it feelingly, as indeed they play all the pieces here. There is no music on the disc of real importance, but several of the pieces do have an out-of-the-ordinary sound because of their melodies and the way the music is developed, and the disc as a whole is a pleasant if scarcely revelatory exploration of music with strong Hebrew roots.

     Speaking of world première recordings, making them is certainly a legitimate way to produce something out of the ordinary – by definition. The new Dacapo CD of works by Knudåge Riisager (1897-1974), labeled as Volume 2 of “The Symphonic Edition” of the composer’s works, contains no fewer than five world première recordings: every piece here has never been recorded before. Riisager, although not especially popular outside Denmark, was a composer with a wide variety of interests, and one who worked with skill in numerous forms. His one-movement Symphony No. 2 (1927) is quite compact and shows fine command of the orchestra. His Symphony No. 3 (1935), which he called Sinfonia even though it is longer than his second and is in three movements, is an exceptionally turbulent work, its movements labeled, respectively, Feroce, Violento e fantastico, and Tumultuoso – there is indeed very little respite to be found here. Concerto for Orchestra (1931) does not give the orchestra the sort of workout that listeners have come to expect since hearing Bartók’s later work with the same title, but it is an effective suite with some good writing for individual sections. Primavera—Concert Overture (1934) is a short and pleasant enough work. And T-DOXC (poème mécanique) for orchestra is unusual: a tribute to the then-new world of airplanes, this 1926 piece will remind some listeners of Edgard Varèse in its frank celebration of mechanization and human ingenuity in the creation of machines. There is a restlessness to Riisager’s music that makes it hard to pin down to a single style, with his more-intense works (here, Sinfonia and T-DOXC) tending to be more compelling than his emotive ones, although the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra under Bo Holten plays all the works idiomatically and with fine attention to detail. As a sampler of the composer’s early-but-mature style, this CD offers those interested in Riisager’s music a chance to hear just how varied his productions could be within a relatively short period of time.

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