November 27, 2013

(++++) THE MEANING OF MODERN


Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht; String Quartet No. 1; Four Canons. Fred Sherry String Quartet and Sextet. Naxos. $9.99.

Prokofiev: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Piano; Sonata for Two Violins; Sonata for Violin Solo; Five Melodies for Violin and Piano. James Ehnes, violin; Amy Schwartz Moretti, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $37.99 (2 CDs).

Peter Maxwell Davies: Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 5 and 6. James Clark, violin; Catherine Marwood, viola; David Nicholson, flute; Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Peter Maxell Davies. Naxos. $9.99.

Philip Glass: Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra; John Rutter: Suite Antique; Jean Françaix: Concerto pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental. Christopher D. Lewis, harpsichord; John McMurtery, flute; West Side Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $9.99.

Howard Blake: Wind Concertos. Jaime Martin, flute; Andrew Marriner, clarinet; Gustavo Núñez, bassoon; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Dimitar Nenov: Piano Music. Viktor Valkov, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.

Stopping By: American Songs. Kyle Bielfield, tenor; Lachlan Glen, piano; Michael Samis, cello. Delos. $16.99.

I Am in Need of Music: Songs on Poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Suzie LeBlanc, soprano; Blue Engine String Quartet; Elizabeth Bishop Players conducted by Dinuk Wijeratne. CMC. $16.99 (CD+DVD).

Vittorio Grigòlo: Ave Maria. Vittorio Grigòlo, tenor; Francesca Dego, violin; I Pueri Cantores della Cappella Musicale Pontificia detta Sistina and Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta conducted by Fabio Cerroni. Sony. $12.99.

Van-Anh Vanessa Vo: Three-Mountain Pass. Innova. $14.99.

     The definition of “modern music” starts for many listeners with Arnold Schoenberg, even though Schoenberg’s works date back all the way to the end of the 19th century. And this raises the interesting question of just what it means to be “modern,” as opposed to “contemporary,” which is simply a synonym for “of today.” The two notions do tend to blend and blur, but certainly “modern” in classical music has a great deal to do with a work’s sound, which is why Schoenberg’s music is still classified that way well over a century after much of it was written. Verklärte Nacht, for example, dates to 1899, and was considered by the composer to be the first tone poem ever written for chamber ensemble. It retains hints of modernity even for 21st-century ears, although it is certainly less dissonant and more wedded to tonality than many later Schoenberg works. In the fine Naxos performance by cellist Fred Sherry and other skilled interpreters, both this work and the technically similar and even more extended String Quartet No. 1 (1904-05) show both their roots in Romanticism and the way Schoenberg, even when in his 20s, was starting to move beyond it to create a new language that remains “modern” in sound even today. Four Canons (taken from Thirty Canons, 1905-1949) shows the composer reaching further into the realms he was later to explore in considerable and often controversial detail.

     Prokofiev’s explorations were wide-ranging, too, and his sound also retains significant Romantic elements while still having the tinge of modernity about it, both through the composer’s handling of dissonance and through the sardonic wit heard frequently in his music. James Ehnes’ excellent survey of the composer’s complete solo-violin works showcases music both straightforward (the first concerto) and masterly (the second), and provides an opportunity to hear some comparative rarities (the two-violin sonata and the one for solo violin). The performances here are exemplary precisely because Ehnes does not insist on a strictly “modern-sounding” interpretation of Prokofiev’s violin works, allowing their angularity and rhythmic complexity to coexist side-by-side with their post-Romantic themes and their general adherence to traditional musical forms. Abetted in the two sonatas for violin and piano by excellent readings by Andrew Armstrong, and complemented with sure skill by Amy Schwartz Moretti in the two-violin sonata, Ehnes turns in soloist-focused performances that are nevertheless clearly designed to maintain the balance between his own elements and those of the other musicians. Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic get the nuances of accompaniment just right, stepping to the fore or merging into the background as appropriate and with a fine sense of collaboration. This very well-recorded two-CD Chandos set equally displays the skill of Ehnes as a performer and Prokofiev as a composer true to his own vision while at the same time redolent of the times in which he wrote.

     The times are far more recent for Peter Maxwell Davies (born 1934) and his Strathclyde Concertos, two of which he conducts with sensitivity and aplomb on a new Naxos CD (actually a re-release of a 1993 Collins Classics recording). Davies’ musical language, like that of Prokofiev, looks back as well as forward, and his structure for these concertos is fairly traditional: each is in three movements, although the tempos of the movements are not always in accord with what one would expect. Still, the sound of the works has both “modern” elements and distinctly old-fashioned ones. No. 5 was inspired by Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, although it uses those two solo instruments in very different ways, while No. 6, for flute and orchestra, is distinctively scored and combines a Classical-era lightness and transparency of sound with a modern handling of the orchestra and of the balance between ensemble and solo instrument. Davies has a fine sense of how his works should sound and considerable skill at bringing the sound out – he is in fact a fine conductor of works other than his own. And the soloists all handle their roles with skill and careful involvement. These pieces sound in some ways less “modern” than those of Schoenberg and Prokofiev, even though both of Davies’ date to as recently as 1991. So this CD again raises the question of just what a “modern” sound is.

     Another fine Naxos disc makes the question even more complex. Philip Glass (born 1937) is one composer whose distinctive style and sound would surely be designated as “modern” by supporters and detractors alike. But Glass is quite capable of putting his sonic and compositional approaches at the service of forms with a very long history indeed, as he does in his Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra. No one could possibly mistake this for a Bach harpsichord concerto, yet its three movements (which are numbered rather than bearing tempo indications) fit broadly within the framework of sensibilities that are hundreds of years old – although the approach to the writing, and indeed to the harpsichord itself, is undeniably modern. The situation is much the same in Suite Antique by John Rutter (born 1945): here too an old form, dating to the Baroque, and an old instrument, the harpsichord, are at the service of a work that quite deliberately mixes the “antique” and the new – for example, containing both an Ostinato movement and a “jazz waltz.”  Matters are somewhat more complex, though, in the case of Jean Françaix’ Concerto pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental, because Françaix (1912-1997) takes Baroque models more seriously as a framework for modern reinterpretation than do Glass and Rutter – this harpsichord concerto does not view Bach’s time as a jumping-off point but as an era that still has something to say to today’s listeners. As a result, the Françaix work has about it a stronger sense of neo-classicism (or neo-Baroque-ism) than do the Glass and Rutter pieces, even though it dates from essentially the same time period. The inescapable conclusion is that “modern” sound means different things to different composers – or to the same composer under different circumstances.

     Furthermore, the whole issue of what is “modern” is somewhat fraught with confusion, as is clear from a PentaTone SACD bearing the overly cute title “The Barber of Neville.” The title reflects the fact that composer Howard Blake (born 1938) and conductor Sir Neville Marriner use the same barber, and it was the barber who introduced the two and thus set this recording in motion. Be that as it may, what is of greater interest here is the way Blake, who is primarily a film composer, interprets “modern” sound. Essentially, he ignores the notion – in favor of producing approachable, pleasant music that is of no great consequence and is not highly innovative, but that is undeniably enjoyable to hear in a way that the works of many more self-consciously avant-garde composers are not. Of the four works on this disc, the Flute Concerto (1996), Bassoon Concerto (2009) and Serenade for Wind Octet (1990) all stray very little from classical models and all provide a pleasing mixture of virtuosic display and nicely structured (if scarcely innovative) ensemble material. The Clarinet Concerto (1984/2011) is somewhat different in its use of programmatic material (the three movements are “Invocation,” “Ceremony” and “Round Dance”), but is musically more of the same. The sameness is quite easy on the ears, and the very well-played and well-recorded disc earns a (+++) rating even though the music is on the forgettable side.

     The Grand Piano release of music by Dimitar Nenov also gets a (+++) rating, again because the music itself is interesting but not highly distinctive even when it is performed by as high-quality a pianist as Viktor Valkov, who approaches it with fervor and understanding. Nenov (1901-1953), a fine pianist and noted pedagogue at the Sofia Conservatoire, ran afoul of the Communist regime installed in Bulgaria in 1944, with the eventual result that an apparatchik had virtually all recorded performances by Nenov destroyed. The personal tragedy of the composer did not prevent his music from surviving, though, and one of his works – Toccata (1939), whose chromaticism and sense of building to a climax are quite attractive – is still heard from time to time. It appears on this CD, as does the more-interesting Theme and Variations in F sharp minor (1932), in which Nenov shows a firm grasp of variation form as well as the ability to write a work requiring considerable virtuosity. How “modern” Nenov’s music sounds depends largely on which work one is hearing. Cinema Suite (1924-25) is sufficiently dissonant and technically demanding to sound “modern” even today, but other pieces here – Miniatures (1945), Dance (a 1941 essay in folk music), Etude No. 1 (1931), and Etude No. 2 (1932) – all have the feeling of miniatures with little that is “modern” about them. The latest work on the CD – Fairy Tale and Dance (1947, another folk-music piece) – is Nenov’s final piano composition and yet another miniature, well put together but not particularly distinctive. Valkov’s very impressive pianism stays with the listener after the end of this recording in a way that the music itself does not.

     Part of what makes classical music “modern” in sound seems to be the willingness of composers and performers to blur the lines between musical genres, as seen clearly in two recent (+++) vocal releases featuring tenor Kyle Bielfield and soprano Suzie LeBlanc, respectively. Delos’ Bielfield disc, the singer’s first recording, includes a wide variety of American songs from some composers considered classical (Carter, Copland), some deemed popular (Foster, Berlin), and some who straddle both worlds (notably Bernstein). There are three separate settings of the poem that gives the disc its title, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” – by Barber, Rorem and John Woods Duke (1899-1994). And there are works here ranging from “Beautiful Dreamer” to “Simple Gifts.” The disc is a potpourri designed to showcase Bielfield’s pleasant but not particularly distinguished voice, the overall presentation sounding “modern” not because of anything specific in the music but because of the singer’s willingness to tackle vocal works in a variety of fields that are usually seen as separate. Somewhat similarly, the CMC disc featuring LeBlanc focuses on a particular poet, Elizabeth Bishop, rather than a specific style – although in this case all the composers are modern (Alasdair MacLean, John Plant, Emily Doolittle and Christos Hatzis). LeBlanc has a clear, pleasant voice and pronounces and accentuates the words well. None of the music stands out especially from the rest structurally or in effectiveness – all the settings are well done but not very striking. Whether there are many listeners interested in LeBlanc, in Bishop and in these four composers is an open question – the CD would seem to be designed for a very limited audience. The bonus DVD, a 36-minute video called Walking with EB, makes the production even more of a narrowly targeted one.

     A third new vocal disc, Ave Maria from tenor Vittorio Grigòlo on Sony, deliberately reaches into the past – the musical one and the singer’s own – but also includes distinctly modern elements that are nevertheless redolent of earlier times. Grigòlo (born 1977) was a chorister with the Sistine Chapel Choir in the Vatican from ages 11 to 14, and this disc is in many ways his return to his past. That means the music includes a number of inevitable works – the Ave Maria of Schubert, Ave verum corpus of Mozart, Verdi’s Ingemisco and Franck’s Panis angelicus – plus traditional sacred music and pieces by church composers. But it also contains four pieces by choirmasters whom Grigòlo personally knew during his time in the choir, Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci and Padre Giovanni Maria Catena. These are “modern” works that in sound are anything but contemporary, their uplifting intent clear throughout and their obeisance to church and musical tradition complete. There is a single secular piece on the CD – Offenbach’s orchestral version of La Sérénade de Schubert – but everything else is intended to showcase Grigòlo’s background and the intensely religious experience of serving in the Sistine Chapel Choir. Grigòlo has a very fine tenor voice and is quite clearly involved deeply in this music of beauty, serenity and religious expression. However, the CD will be a bit much for many listeners, particularly those who are not Catholic, to take, since even the most recently composed music here fits so seamlessly into the older works that the disc has a feeling of sameness approaching monotony. For most listeners, this will be a (+++) CD, although those who are strongly religious or who especially enjoy Grigòlo’s voice will delight in it – and it seems to be targeted precisely at them.

     But at whom is Three-Mountain Pass targeted? This (+++) Innova recording is a genuine curiosity, again blurring the classical and popular boundaries but this time blurring a variety of others as well. Van-Anh Vanessa Vo, whose name is sometimes spelled with a variety of accents and sometimes without, is a virtuoso on the Vietnamese đàn tranh, a 16-string zither. She is also a composer: she wrote the CD’s title work. And she is an arranger: the oddest track on the disc is her arrangement of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3. She performs most of the tracks alone, but is accompanied on one called Green River Delta by the Kronos Quartet – and the sonic environment for this piece is peculiar and fascinating. The music itself, though, is mostly just peculiar to Western ears, and not terribly interesting despite the quite obvious skill with which it is played. It is hard to know what to call a CD like this, which is neither classical nor pop, not exactly “world music” and not really a production focused on an artist – although it is clearly an artistic showcase. The sound of the đàn tranh tends to wear thin after a while, and even though the disc lasts only 46 minutes, it seems longer. It is impossible not to admire the skill with which Van-Anh Vanessa Vo performs, but it is not so easy to enjoy hearing her at such length. This is one music CD that, oddly, might have been better as a DVD, since visual elements would have made the somewhat monotonous sound of the music more interesting. Certainly the disc sounds “modern” because of the way it combines so many elements and refuses to be confined to a single form of music, but it is nevertheless a CD whose potential appeal it is difficult to pin down – as is often the case with “modern” music and the recordings that capture it.

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