January 02, 2014


Villa-Lobos: The Guitar Manuscripts, Volume 1. Andrea Bissoli, guitar; Federica Artuso, guitar; Stefano Brait, flute; Schola San Rocco Chorus conducted by Francesco Erle; Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabio Mechetti. Naxos. $9.99.

Xavier Montsalvatge: Folia daliniana; Madrigal sobre un tema popular; Concertino 1+13; Serenata a Lydia de Cadaqués; Cinco invocaciones al Crucificado. Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Tim Fain, violin; Perspectives Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Naxos. $9.99.

James MacMillan: Missa Dunelmi and Other Choral Works. Cappella Nova conducted by James MacMillan and Alan Tavener. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).

Hindemith: Music for Cello. Sébastien Hurtaud, cello; Pamela Hurtado, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

     Anyone looking to step outside the standard repertoire and still encounter works of very considerable musical interest has an increasing numbers of ways to do so. Whether well-known or less-known, composers often leave behind works that, for any of a variety of reasons, fail to engage the imagination of performers and audiences – but that turn out, at a later time, to be well worth exploring. In the case of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), known to most listeners almost entirely through his Bachianas Brasileiras, there is some music that was thought lost and has only recently been rediscovered – in part by guitarist Andrea Bissoli, who has now recorded the first of a planned three-volume set of Villa-Lobos’ guitar works. Very little on this Naxos CD will be at all familiar to listeners, although the Guitar Concerto, which has been recorded by others and gets particularly skillful handling here, may be known to some. The final work on the CD, a transcription of the first movement (“Aria”) from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, will be known to even more people, although not in this version (which features soprano Lia Serafini). However, several other works here get world première recordings: Cirandas No. 14, Valsa and Motivos Gregos – the last of these being an interesting choral work that is well sung by the Schola San Rocco Chorus. None of these pieces is particularly  substantial – Valsa lasts less than a minute – but all show the fine workmanship for which Villa-Lobos is justly admired. The composer’s unique blend of cosmopolitanism with Brazilian folk music appears again and again on this recording, which is essentially (except for the Guitar Concerto) a collection of short pieces. Simples, Valse-Choro and Cirandas No. 1 are instrumental works; Floresta de Amazonas: Canção do Amor and Veleiros, Canção do poeta do século XVIII, and Serestas No. 5—Modinha are vocal pieces featuring Serafini. This CD is not a very good introduction to Villa-Lobos – the pieces are not entirely representative of his oeuvre and are mostly not at his highest compositional level, although the Guitar Concerto is very well made. But for listeners with a modicum of familiarity with the composer, this CD and the two volumes yet to come will be pleasantly revelatory.

     Music lovers attracted to Villa-Lobos’ Brazilian intricacies may also find themselves interested in the Catalan sensibilities of Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002). Montsalvatge actually had wide-ranging stylistic interests, and his concern for music went beyond the works that he himself composed: he was an influential critic. Although not particularly well-known internationally, Montsalvatge was enormously important in Catalonia, the area of northeast Spain and adjacent France where the Catalan language dominates. Montsalvatge’s more-substantial works reach beyond ethnicity to communicate with cross-cultural genuineness that is highly effective – especially so in his major song cycles, such as Cinco invocaciones al Crucificado (1969), sung with intense feeling on Naxos’ new CD by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, and conducted with sure-handed skill by Angel Gil-Ordóñez, one of the foremost exponents of modern small-ensemble works, both choral and instrumental. Cooke also gives a lovely rendition – with cellist Wendy Sutter – of Madrigal sobre un tema popular (1991), whose theme is the well-known Catalan Christmas song, El cant dels ocells (“Song of the Birds”), most familiar in its cello arrangement by Pablo Casals (who was Catalan: his first name was actually Pau). Other pieces here are Folia daliniana (1995), a fantasy with elements of Impressionism; Serenata a Lydia de Cadaqués (1970) for flute (Sato Moughalian) and piano (Blair McMillen); and the very interesting Concertino 1+13 (1975), in which violinist Tim Fain is “first among equals” with Gil-Ordóñez’ very adept chamber ensemble. Montsalvatge’s music will be something of an acquired taste for those unfamiliar with it, but it is a taste worth acquiring: one whose emotional communicativeness and structural strength quickly grow on a listener through repeated hearings.

     The choral works of James MacMillan (born 1959) are also an acquired taste, but they are somewhat more limited in scope and orientation than Montsalvatge’s music, resulting a new Linn Records SACD getting a (+++) rating despite the fine sound that complements excellent performances by Cappella Nova. The highlight here is MacMillan’s conducting of his own Missa Dunelmi, a compressed Mass (four movements lasting 20 minutes) that lies well within the vocal ranges of chorus members and hits the right notes both musically and emotionally, but is not quite as original or heartfelt as some of the shorter works heard here. Other than the Mass, only Invocation has been recorded before: the six remaining pieces will be genuine discoveries for those interested in MacMillan and in modern religious music for chorus, since all are world premières on disc. St. Patrick’s Magnificat, …fiat mihi…, Cum videsset Jesus, I am your Mother, Domine non secundum peccata nostra (“Lord, do not pay us in kind for our sins,” best known in César Franck’s setting), and Alpha & Omega are all heartfelt works, paeans to God or prayers of hope, and all are performed quite well, with their frequent resemblance to plainchant effectively brought forth and Madeleine Mitchell’s violin in Domine non secundum peccata nostra adding a particularly nice touch. MacMillan’s works are determinedly old-fashioned and will be especially appealing to listeners interested in a modern composer’s adaptation of forms that were already well-established in Bach’s time.

     The discovery element of a new Naxos CD of Hindemith’s cello music is avowedly the performer: Sébastien Hurtaud was first-prize winner at the Adam International Cello Competition in 2009, and this disc is intended to showcase his talent. In reality, though, the music is as much a discovery as the cellist, since much of Hindemith’s output remains little-known, and his cello works will be unfamiliar to a great many listeners. Like the works of the slightly earlier Max Reger, those of Hindemith can come across as academic and even turgid when not explored thoroughly and performed with understanding as well as virtuosity. In high-quality readings, though, like those of Hurtaud and pianist Pamela Hurtado, Hindemith’s music shows considerable depth and ingenuity – even though its somewhat stolid (if skillful) construction can make it a bit hard to digest. Two pieces here are early Hindemith and two are much later, lending this CD something of a “survey” approach – and indeed, Hindemith’s cello works span much of his creative life. Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (1914-16) is one of Hindemith’s earliest works for any instruments (it is his Op. 8), with a brief introductory movement introducing two more-substantial ones that offer considerable substantiality despite their three rather lighthearted designations of Capriccio, Phantasiestücke and Scherzo. The Sonata for Solo Cello (1925), in contrast, is a work of quite modest dimensions, its five movements lasting less than 10 minutes; yet this is an intense, technically demanding piece that quite obviously owes a debt to Bach’s Cello Suites. On the lighter side – a side not often in evidence in Hindemith’s music – is A frog he went a-courting—Variations on an Old English Nursery Song (1941), which is scarcely evanescent but does give the cellist some chances to skip pleasantly about. In sharp contrast, the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948), the latest work here, is much closer to what listeners will expect from Hindemith: intense, weighty, serious and steeped in knowledge of earlier music (the final movement is a passacaglia). Hurtaud handles all the works with sure technical skill and a level of attachment to this music that is somewhat surprising in a young cellist. Indeed, the playing is good enough to earn the CD a (++++) rating even though, on the basis of the appeal of the music itself, (+++) would be more fitting. This is music worth discovering – and a cellist definitely worth hearing.

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