January 30, 2014


Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 13. The Central Band of the RAF conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $9.99.

Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony No. 12, “In memoriam D. Shostakovich”; The Golden Key—Ballet Suite No. 4. St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos. $9.99.

Sarasate: Music for Violin and Piano, Volume 4—Transcriptions and Arrangements of Works by Moritz Moszkowski, Chopin, Jean-Pierre Guignon, Jean-Joseph de Mondonville, Jean-Marie Leclair, Handel, Jean-Baptiste Senaillé, Bach, and Joachim Raff. Tianwa Yang, violin; Markus Hadulla, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Panorama Argentino—Piano Music of Argentina, Volume 2. Mirian Conti, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

     The 13th volume in Naxos’ excellent series of the music of John Philip Sousa proves yet again, if more proof were necessary, that the “march king” was far more than a maker of marches. It also proves yet again that his quintessentially American music has considerable international resonance – something Sousa himself showed during his band’s many world tours and something that conductor Keith Brion is now demonstrating by conducting a series of bands outside the United States. This time, instead of the Royal Swedish Navy Band heard on the last two volumes or the Royal Norwegian Navy Band heard on the two before those, Brion conducts the United Kingdom’s Central Band of the RAF, which proves every bit as adept as the Swedish and Norwegian ones in Sousa’s music – and every bit as attuned to these works as any American band would be. There are several world première recordings here that show Sousa to be as clever and tuneful in his less-known works as in his better-known ones: the overture to an 1879 operetta called Katherine; an excerpt called Mama and Papa from Sousa’s 1899 retelling of the Aladdin story, Chris and the Wonderful Lamp; waltzes known as Paroles D’Amour from 1880; and two works from 1923: a humoresque for a comedy duo called Gallagher and Shean and a pastiche of popular and march tunes called When Navy Ships Are Coaling. Every one of these heretofore unrecorded works is reflective of Sousa’s creativity and essentially bright outlook on music and on life – but not all the pieces here are light. President Garfield’s Inaugural March and President Garfield’s Funeral March “In Memoriam” both date to 1881, when Garfield was assassinated four months after his inauguration, and while the first of these works is suitably grand and lyrical, the second is a moving dirge that shows how deeply Garfield’s death must have affected the composer. This 13th Sousa volume also offers four early marches that have been recorded from time to time but are scarcely common fare: Occidental March (1887), Mother Goose March (1883), Resumption March (1879) and White Plume March (1884). Also here is the late Camera Studies—Suite, a three-movement work from 1920 that includes a Spanish dance, a lyrical interlude and a bright and happy conclusion in the positive mode that listeners generally associate with Sousa, even though this top-notch series has shown him to be anything but a one-dimensional composer.

     Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) was a substantial composer as well, writing at more length and with greater depth than Sousa did and justifying his reputation as the third great Soviet-era composer, after Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Naxos has not officially announced a Weinberg series, but it has been releasing a few of his 19 numbered symphonies along with a selection of his other orchestral music, with CDs including the Sixth and Nineteenth conducted by Vladimir Lande and one containing the Eighth conducted by Antoni Wit. A new Naxos disc is the third featuring Lande, and this time the symphony is especially significant, having been written in 1976 in memory of Shostakovich, who was a major supporter of Weinberg’s music and his close friend for three decades, and who died in August 1975. This hour-long work is not only massive but also very close structurally to many of Shostakovich’s symphonies, and the elements of its tribute to the older composer are many and varied – and subtle enough so they will not all be obvious to listeners. There are, for example, various uses of the D-S-C-H monogram that Shostakovich incorporated into many of his works, and there are many touches of themes and orchestration that are drawn from Shostakovich’s works and draw upon them structurally if not in any overt imitative sense. Weinberg’s Symphony No. 12 is recognizably “Shostakovich-ian” without being a forthright tribute: it is a highly worthy work in its own right as well as a heartfelt memorial to a major influence on Weinberg’s music. Lande conducts it feelingly and with fine attention to detail – and its seriousness is well balanced by the fourth of four suites drawn from Weinberg’s The Golden Key, one of the composer’s two surviving ballets. A satirical work in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, but with many distinctly Russian elements and music that often recalls the theatrical productions of both Shostakovich and Prokofiev, this is a lively and amusing work that, on the basis of its fourth suite, is filled with character pieces that flit by quickly while evoking amusement, lyricism, rustic dances, humor and geniality. The light ballet suite makes a fine complement to Weinberg’s weighty Twelfth Symphony while confirming, as has each of these Naxos releases, that Weinberg is worthy of high regard among 20th-century composers.

     Two other new series entries, from Naxos and Steinway & Sons respectively, offer music that is much less consequential. They therefore get (+++) ratings, even though the works are performed with consummate skill. The fourth and last CD in Naxos’ series of violin-and-piano music by Pablo Sarasate is entirely devoted to encore-style salon music transcribed or arranged by Sarasate for his own use in concert performances. There is a substantial piece here in Sarasate’s early Souvenirs de Faust (on themes from Gounod’s opera), and there are five Chopin arrangements (Waltzes 3, 4 and 8 and Nocturnes 2 and 8) that are very much worth hearing in the composer-violinist’s arrangements. But the rest of the music on this CD is rather thin gruel. One piece, Joachim Raff’s La fée d’amour, has considerable historical interest, since it was Sarasate’s own favorite concert piece – and it is the longest work on the CD. It is pleasant music and highly virtuosic, but without the Sarasate connection has little to offer on a strictly musical basis. Also here are Sarasate’s version of the famous Largo from Handel’s Xerxes and of the Air from Bach’s D Major Suite (BWV 1068) – plus a number of pleasant handlings of pleasant-enough music by less-known to nearly unknown composers, including Guitarra by Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925), the Allegro from Sonata No. 1  by Jean-Pierre Guignon (1702-1775), “La Chasse” from Sonata No. 5 by Jean-Joseph de Mondonville (1711-1772), the Sarabande and Tambourin from the Violin Sonata, Op. 9, No. 3, by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), and the Allegro from Sonata No. 9 by Jean-Baptiste Senaillé (1687-1730). Sarasate had no particular affinity with Baroque music and made no attempt to focus on its style – his whole approach involved making the simple more complex so as to showcase his own very considerable violinistic abilities, and all these arrangements and transcriptions fill the bill nicely for a concert virtuoso of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Tianwa Yang scales the summits of the works’ requirements highly effectively, and Markus Hadulla provides exemplary support while remaining firmly in the background, as any accompanist of Sarasate would have been expected to do. This is a fine and highly listenable CD, but lacking in real musical substance: had Sarasate not been shown to be a skilled composer through works on the other discs in this series, he would come across through this one as a very accomplished dilettante.

     Argentine pianist Mirian Conti also brings very considerable skill to engaging but less-than-profound music in her second release of piano music from her homeland on the Steinway & Sons label. The 10 composers whose brief works – some of them very brief indeed – appear on this disc are almost wholly unknown, although Conti argues strongly in her booklet notes that they deserve more than obscurity. The music itself makes a weaker case than the words do, though: Remo Pignoni, Enrique Albano, Anibal Troilo, Carlos Guastavino, Mario Broeders, Cayetano Troiani, Angel Lasala, Julián Aguirre, Horacio Salgán, and Mariano Mores tend to blend together in these pieces into creators of well-constructed, rhythmic, folk-music-based piano pieces, many of them taking off from traditional Argentinian dances. There is expressiveness here but little subtlety. To cite one example among many, a listener would expect Troilo’s Milonguero triste to sound sad, simply on the basis of the second word in its title, and so indeed it does, in entirely unsurprising ways. The six very short pieces by Pignoni – four of them last less than a minute apiece and the other two not much longer – are highly enjoyable vignettes; the overtly nationalistic and more-extended Impresiones de Mi Tierra by Lasala and Aires Nacionales Argentinos—5 Tristes by Aguirre are somewhat more substantive; Guastavino’s Sonatina for Piano shows a firm grasp of classical form; and so on. All the music here is easy to hear and nicely constructed, and the use of Argentinian melodies provides a pleasantly exotic flavor to many of the pieces. But there is little distinctive among the composers, at least in these brief works – a fact that the excellence of Conti’s playing does nothing to conceal.

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