December 12, 2013


Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Songs and Dances of Death; The Nursery (all orchestrated by Peter Breiner). New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Breiner. Naxos. $9.99.

Verdi: Messa da Requiem. Juliana DiGiacomo, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Vittorio Grigolo, tenor; Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, bass; Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. C Major DVD. $24.99.

Daniel Clarke Bouchard: Scènes d’Enfants. Daniel Clarke Bouchard and Oliver Jones, pianos. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Chanticleer: Someone New. Chanticleer Records. $16.99.

     In some recordings, the focus is less on the music than on the performer or performers bringing it to life. Or sometimes there is a mixed focus, as in Naxos’ new Mussorgsky CD featuring Peter Breiner and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The attraction here is that of a curiosity: Breiner has entirely reorchestrated Pictures at an Exhibition, actively seeking to move it well beyond the sonic compass of the familiar Ravel version and to produce sonorities that may make a 21st-century audience sit up and take notice. Whether or not this serves the music well is a matter of opinion, but it certainly puts Breiner in a long line of orchestrators of Mussorgsky’s piano suite. Indeed, an earlier Naxos CD of Pictures at an Exhibition featured orchestrations of the work’s 16 sections by 15 different composers, retaining one Ravel segment and adding ones by Leopold Stokowski, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Henry Wood, Lucien Cailliet and a number of contemporary composers. In that CD and in the new Breiner one, what is most striking is how well the template of Mussorgsky’s piano pieces stands up under multiple considerations and reconsiderations: Pictures really is a work that can be seen through many different lenses and still emerge whole and impressively effectively. Breiner’s handling of the material is sure and sensitive, having some of the overt emotional tweaking of film music and building to an overwhelming climax with The Great Gate of Kiev. Breiner is more in the tradition of Stokowski than anyone else, not hesitating to load the music with doublings (or multiples) of instruments in seeking a really big sound, willingly sacrificing subtleties in the name of special instrumental effects. The Breiner Pictures will surely not displace Ravel’s smoother and more elegant orchestration, but it is fun to listen to and sheds some new light on this very familiar music. Breiner also does a fine job with some less familiar Mussorgsky, orchestrating two of the composer’s death-haunted song cycles with rather more sensitivity and even delicacy than he brings to Pictures at an Exhibition. All the works are quite well played, and Breiner the conductor is clearly adept at bringing out the lines and emphases that Breiner the arranger has put into these works. The result is a disc that tells more about Breiner than about Mussorgsky – and is no less interesting because of that fact.

     What is particularly interesting in the DVD of Gustavo Dudamel conducting Verdi’s Requiem is Dudamel himself. He is one of those conductors actually worth watching on video, even when doing so distracts from the music – a certain amount of distraction from Verdi’s highly dramatic, overblown Requiem is not particularly harmful. Conducting without a baton – a risky decision for a work this big and multifaceted – Dudamel brings more subtlety to the performance than one might expect from him. Yes, the brass is encouraged to play at white heat throughout, and yes, the timpani and bass drum seem to shake the entire Hollywood Bowl in this live performance. But Dudamel actually allows the music to flow at a moderate pace, keeping the 98-minute performance moving well and exploring what sensitivities the work possesses. The 18-minute DVD bonus – the usual interview plus rehearsal footage – actually provides some insight into Dudamel’s thinking about the music, and if this is scarcely a mature performance or one without occasional ragged edges, it is an undeniably exciting one and true to the conductor’s still-emerging operatic vision. The excellent chorale is a big reason for the interpretation’s success, and the soloists are quite impressive, too. The fervent delivery of soprano Julianna DiGiacomo and strong vocal contrast of mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung are a pleasure throughout. Bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo does not have the very deep bottom notes that can serve this music particularly well, but he uses his voice skillfully and with restraint, producing a very effective performance. Tenor Vittorio Grigolo is a notch below the other soloists, but only a small notch: he tends to want to over-interpret, requiring Dudamel to pull him back, which the conductor does; but there is a slight awkwardness to the whole back-and-forth between them. Awkward too are some of the shots in the DVD: there are too many extreme closeups, not always at appropriate times, and the overall visual element here is overly cinematic – Verdi’s music is quite dramatic enough without a somewhat too-enthusiastic set of visuals being laid atop it. This DVD contains many high points – especially for fans of Dudamel – but includes many less-than-felicitous elements as well.

     There is no claim of a focus on anything but the performer in the ATMA Classique CD featuring 13-year-old Québec pianist Daniel Clarke Bouchard. This is a 52-minute disc of encores and showpieces, featuring the pianist bowing (perhaps a touch smugly) on the cover. The one full sonata here, Mozart’s K. 332 in F, is nicely handled but scarcely profound, and indeed profundity is not yet a significant arrow in Bouchard’s quiver. He certainly has plenty of technique, and certainly enjoys deploying it – as in Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny” rondo and Debussy’s “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” from the Children’s Corner Suite – but it is surface-level, glitzy technique with, at this point, not a great deal of feeling or emotional involvement underlying it. Certainly this is a matter of chronological maturity, and certainly Bouchard may grow into his abilities and become a truly fine pianist within the next few years if he is not distracted by celebrity and his early entry into the international concert scene. All that remains to be seen – and heard. What listeners get to hear now are Schubert’s Impromptu No. 2, Mendelssohn’s op. 14 Rondo capriccioso, two movements from a Haydn sonata, and one from Schumann’s Kinderszenen. All these small works are nicely handled, with appropriate levels of drive or delicacy, albeit without any significant interpretative insight. The most interesting pieces here are the piano duets that open and close the CD. The curtain raiser is an improvisation on Mozart’s variations on Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman, which is already a work based on Mozart’s own fondness for improvisation. The jazz inflections here are scarcely surprising – the second pianist, Bouchard’s mentor Oliver Jones, is well-known in jazz performance – and the interplay of the pianos is highly attractive. At the other end of the CD is a work by Claude Léveillée (1932-2011) called La Grand valse fofolle à deux pianos, and although this is scarcely music at Mozart’s level (even his playful level), it is a piece that invites enthusiasm from the pianists and enjoyment from the audience – which it receives in abundance.

     There is plenty to enjoy in the jazz elements of Chanticleer’s new CD as well. Someone New actually blends jazz and pop selections, plus a bit of gospel – there is nothing classical here. What the 12 voices of the vocal group offer are a cappella arrangements by various people of works such as Freddie Mercury’s Somebody to Love, Peter Gabriel’s Washing of the Water, Dave Brubeck’s Strange Meadow Lark, and Ring of Fire by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. This is an eclectic mixture, to be sure, all of it rendered smooth and warm by the quality of Chanticleer’s voices. The works are sometimes familiar, sometimes obscure, and the arrangements have a certain sameness of expression about them when run through Chanticleer’s vocals; the result is a disc that sounds as lovely as Chanticleer’s performances always do, but that is a bit too far on the monochromatic side to stand with the very best recordings these singers have made for their own label and others. Listeners who already know many of these tracks in other forms and want to hear Chanticleer’s highly personal handling of them will enjoy the CD for the way it stays firmly focused on the performers no matter what specific music they are singing.

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