August 01, 2013
(++++) STRINGS AND THINGS OF NOW AND THEN
Ives: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. Juilliard String Quartet (Robert Mann and Earl Carlyss, violins; Raphael Hillyer, viola; Claus Adam, cello). Newton Classics. $12.99.
The Unknown Sibelius: Rarities and First Recordings. Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä and Okko Kamu; Helena Juntunen, soprano; Anne Sofie von Otter and Monica Groop, mezzo-sopranos; Gabriel Suovanen and Jorma Hynninen, baritones; Folke Gräsbeck, Bengt Forsberg and Peter Lönnqvist, piano; Dominante Choir; Orphei Drängar. BIS. $21.99.
Grieg: Piano Concerto; Holberg Suite. Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano; Ohio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Domenico Boyagian. Centaur. $16.99.
Kaija Saariaho: Chamber Works for Strings, Volume I—Tocar; Vent nocturne; Calices; Spins and Spells; Nocturne; Nymphéa. Meta4 (Antti Tikkanen and Minna Pensola, violins; Atte Kilpeläinen, viola; Tomas Djupsjöbacka, cello); Anna Laakso, piano; Marko Myöhänen, electronics. Ondine. $16.99.
There are two great composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who lived long lives but created almost nothing new in their final three decades: Charles Ives (1874-1954) and Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The reasons for their compositional cessation appear to have been different and personal – not, for example, related to World War I, which ended a few years before they stopped writing music but does not seem to have been a precipitating factor. Ives is known to have said that the notes stopped doing what he wanted them to do. Sibelius did make some attempts to continue creating, most famously with an Eighth Symphony that he did not finish and/or destroyed. Both composers did some tinkering with their works after they stopped producing new ones, but the three-decade drought has always been fodder for thoughts about what might have been if these two brilliant and innovative minds had continued along their very different musical paths. Figuring out where Ives might have gone is particularly difficult, given the extraordinary enigma that was his compositional style and his way of hearing and interrelating with the world. His two string quartets, for example, are about as stark a contrast as any in music of their time, yet they were composed not long apart and almost overlapped: No. 1 dates to 1897-1900 but was revised as late as 1909, while No. 2 dates to 1913-15 but has elements dating back as far as 1904. The first quartet, called “From the Salvation Army,” is built around a number of Ives’ beloved hymn tunes and has a warm and fairly traditional Romantic feel, which is interesting in light of Ives’ later decision to turn its first movement into the slow movement of his Symphony No. 4. The second quartet, on the other hand, is atonal, complex and programmatic, being a musical interpretation of an argument (an extension of the idea of chamber music as conversation) that ends peacefully only because the four men involved, represented of course by the four performers, decide eventually to climb a mountain to “view the firmament” and presumably realize just how petty their everyday disputes about politics are in the grand scheme of things. The Juilliard String Quartet recorded these works superbly in 1966 and 1967, and the Newton Classics reissue of these performances is most welcome. The playing is warm, elegant and nuanced, the interpretations knowing and enthusiastic, and the overall effect something close to magical.
There is nothing this lofty on a fine new BIS disc called “The Unknown Sibelius,” but there is plenty of fascinating material here for those who regret the composer’s early conclusion of his compositional career and wish there were more of his music readily available than the seven symphonies, theater music and major tone poems. This CD features a potpourri of performers from as long ago as 2000 and as recently as January 2013. Scarcely unified in music or performances, the disc is nevertheless fascinating for the opportunity it provides to hear Sibelius works that range from the little-known to the wholly unknown: seven of the 20 pieces are world première recordings, including four very short orchestral fragments that may (or may not) have been part of, or intended for, the Eighth Symphony. Of interest in other ways are a preliminary version of Finlandia called Finland Awakes, the first version of the tone poem The Oceanides, and the incidental music for a play called Ödlan (The Lizard) – this last material, for chamber orchestra, being not very substantial but nevertheless featuring the expressive, meandering characteristics of Sibelius’ middle compositional period (the work dates to 1909). There are a number of short vocal pieces here as well, a lovely Serenata for two violins and cello, a heartfelt Adagio dedicated “to my beloved Aino,” and a concluding Masonic work that Sibelius orchestrated as late as 1938, long after he stopped creating new music. This CD beautifully fills out the portrait of Sibelius for those who love his music and wish there had been more of it.
There is nothing particularly revelatory about another Scandinavian composer, Edvard Grieg, on a new Centaur CD, simply because the Piano Concerto and Holberg Suite are entirely familiar – delightful to hear when well played, as they are here, but certainly not new or surprising. This disc of tried-and-true Grieg lasts just 50 minutes and gets a (+++) rating – simply because the material is so well-known and neither Antonio Pompa-Baldi nor Domenico Boyagian proffers anything particularly insightful about it. There is nothing at all wrong with the performances: Pompa-Baldi brings forth a very big sound when it is called for and does particularly nicely with the dancelike finale of the concerto, while Boyagian and the Ohio Philharmonic provide fine backup in that work and a sensitive, well-paced and nicely played Holberg Suite. There is some genuine excitement and involvement in this live recording from May 2012, but there is nothing interpretative in it to make listeners familiar with the music sit up and take notice. Both Pompa-Baldi and Boyagian are up-and-coming performers, and listeners specifically interested in one or both of them will enjoy having this recording as a souvenir of a well-mounted collaboration between the two. However, anyone who already owns one or more recordings of these pieces will find little reason to add this one to his or her collection.
In contemporary Scandinavian music, one of the major composers is Finland’s Kaija Saariaho (born 1952). She is not generally considered as important as Einojuhani Rautavaara, but she has developed a niche – a series of niches, really – all her own, moving from serialism and small forces in the direction of larger works containing a mixture of styles, without slavish adherence to any particular one. She does retain her fondness for mixing electronics with traditional instruments, however. Ondine’s first volume of Saariaho’s chamber music includes works spanning more than two decades, from Nymphéa for string quartet and live electronics (1987) to Tocar for violin and piano (2010). Between these two pieces fall Nocturne for violin solo (1994), Spins and Spells for cello solo (1997), Vent nocturne for viola and electronics (2006), and Calices for violin and piano (2009). Nymphéa is the longest work here and one of Saariaho’s better-known ones, but it does not wear particularly well, sounding as if it is trapped in a kind of time warp beyond which contemporary composers, Saariaho herself included, have since moved. The two solo-instrument pieces are in many ways the most satisfying works on the disc, using the violin and cello in some interesting ways that include elements of expressiveness as well as sonic experimentation. This (+++) CD will be attractive to listeners already familiar with Saariaho’s works as well as ones interested in hearing one direction in which Finnish music, so strongly identified with Sibelius, has gone in the half-century since the great composer’s death.