January 09, 2014

(++++) THE PERSISTENCE OF DANCE


Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 25. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $16.99.

Kara Karayev: The Seven Beauties—Ballet Suite; The Path of Thunder—Ballet Suite No. 2. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $9.99.

Saverio Mercadante: Flute Concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4. Patrick Gallois, flute and conducting Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä. Naxos. $9.99.

     To the very end of his life, Johann Strauss Sr. continued to produce the tuneful, well-made and highly danceable music for which he was known in Vienna and around the world – as evidenced by the 25th and final volume in the excellent Marco Polo series of Strauss’ complete music. As in earlier volumes, Christian Pollack proves himself an absolutely first-rate advocate of this music, which the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina plays with verve, enthusiasm and a sure sense of style from start to finish. Strauss died of scarlet fever in 1849, at the age of 45, leaving behind a fragment called Radetzky-Bankett-Marsch (“Radetzky Banquet March”) that would have been his Op. 250 had he lived to complete it. This one-minute remnant is, appropriately, the final piece on this CD, its 20 complete bars showing no flagging of the warmth and spirit that always pervaded Strauss’ music. The remaining works on the disc were all created under a cloud of sorts: the 1848 revolution had been suppressed, and by Carnival time in 1849, when Strauss would normally have brought forth numerous works greeted with great joy, the atmosphere in Vienna and elsewhere was more somber than usual. The specific pieces, though, are not. This CD includes three waltzes: Die Friedesboten (“Messengers of Peace”) and Soldaten-Lieder (“Soldiers’ Songs”) have obvious ties to the events of 1848, while Deutsche Jubellaute (“German Sounds of Joy”) may have been Strauss’ response to the fact that many German principalities regarded him as a reactionary in connection with those events. There are, however, no political elements anywhere in the music – Strauss had long given his works titles relating to contemporary people and occurrences, with most of them reflected little or not at all in the dance tunes themselves. Also on this CD are three very well-formed marches: Jellacic-Marsch, named for a military leader who for a time was regarded as highly as was Radetzky, Wiener-Jubel-Marsch, and Wiener Stadt-Garde-Marsch. There is one polka here, Exeter-Polka, and there are two quadrilles, showing that Strauss retained a fondness for this form to the end of his life: Almacks-Quadrille, named for an exclusive social club in London, and Quadrille ohne Titel (“Quadrille without Title”), published after the composer’s death. Strauss Sr.’s music never attained the symphonic heights and elegance of the music by his sons Johann Jr. and Josef, but it was never intended to: Strauss Sr. wrote occasional music, designed to enliven people’s humdrum existence and give them something to celebrate year after year, through consistently beautiful themes and rhythms that made dancing seem as natural as breathing. His legacy is beautifully served by the first-rate Marco Polo series devoted to it.

     In his own way, Kara Karayev (1918-1982) was just as much a composer of a specific time and place as was Johann Strauss Sr. Karayev, a pupil of Shostakovich, was Azerbaijani, and throughout his life was fascinated by the folk music of his native land – music whose exotic-sounding elements are as prominent in Karayev’s works as are the sounds of Armenia in the music of Aram Khachaturian, a better-known composer who also flourished in one of the nations contained in the old Soviet Union. Like Khachaturian in his ballets Spartacus and Gayane, Karayev found the dance forms of ballet highly congenial for storytelling that allowed him to use ethnic melodies and harmonies to striking effect. His first ballet, The Seven Beauties (1953), is in fact the first-ever full-length Azerbaijani ballet. But its story comes from an altogether different place, being based on a work by the 12th-century Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi – considered the greatest romantic epic poet in Persian literature. The suite from this tale of the seven wives of a shah is built around short, highly evocative dances representing each of the women, with considerable color and effective use of differing rhythms. The Path of Thunder (1958), Karayev’s second ballet, is exotic in a different sense, being the tale of a doomed interracial love in apartheid-era South Africa – and using a considerable amount of African music to complement some lovely, atmospheric orchestral writing in which oboe and English horn parts stand out. Dmitry Yablonsky conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with enthusiasm and skill on this Naxos CD, bringing the dance rhythms to the fore and taking full advantage of the coloristic elements of Karayev’s approach to orchestration.

     There are also ethnic dance elements in the flute concertos of Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870), although they are not the primary reasons for the concertos’ being. In fact, these concertos exist outside the mainstream of Mercadante’s work: he was primarily an opera composer (writing more than 60) and was for a time spoken of in the same breath as Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, whose careers and his overlapped. Mercadante had a fine sense of the dramatic, and his operas paved the way for the techniques used by Verdi. But his seven flute concertos (one of which is for two flutes) are closer to academic exercises, having their origin in his conservatory days amid students and teachers who were virtuosi and who clamored for new works for their instrument. Mercadante had a strong sense of the capabilities of various instruments; the flute’s were more limited at the time of these concertos than they were to be in later years, and Mercadante pushed them to those limits but not beyond. The result is a series of attractive but rather formulaic concertos, three of which Patrick Gallois plays and conducts with considerable skill and apparent enjoyment on a new Naxos CD. Whether in major keys (No. 1 in E, No. 4 in G) or minor (No. 2 in E minor), the three-movement concertos follow the same pattern: a first movement that is as long as the second and third combined, a second that is the shortest of the three and functions more like a bel canto interlude than an emotional center, and a third featuring those ethnic dances – Polacca brillante in Nos. 1 and 4, Rondò russo in No. 2. Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä plays the concertos with enthusiasm on this (+++) disc, and although no one would call this great music – a better description would be “pleasantly insubstantial” – the CD provides an enjoyable opportunity to hear some pieces whose lack of depth does not diminish the auditory pleasures they bring.

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