February 20, 2014


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Christian Thielemann. Unitel Classica. $64.99 (3 DVDs).

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis. Lucy Crowe, soprano; Jennifer Johnson, mezzo-soprano; James Gilchrist, tenor; Matthew Rose, bass; Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.

Bach: Cello Suites (selections). Amy Porter, flute. Equilibrium. $24.99 (2 CDs).

American Art: Music for Flute and Piano by Eldin Burton, Robert Beaser, Michael Daugherty, and Christopher Caliendo. Amy Porter, flute; Christopher Harding, piano. Equilibrium. $16.99.

     Music that is very frequently performed can lose its luster over time – even the greatest music. All too often, readings of often-heard works can become stodgy, ordinary, uninspired, perfunctory – in stark contrast to the inspiration with which they were created and the intensity and emotional force that turned them into standards of the repertoire in the first place. It is therefore a particularly happy circumstance when a conductor takes a genuinely fresh look at well-known music, as Christian Thielemann does in a new video release that presents the four Brahms symphonies on two Unitel Classica DVDs, plus Thielemann’s  52-minute “Discovering Brahms” discussion on a third. That third title is a touch misleading, since for most listeners – not to mention most conductors – these performances will be a matter of rediscovering Brahms rather than discovering him. But in some ways this is a distinction without a difference, for Thielemann insists on delivering Brahms with clarity, brightness and intense energy, a far cry from the often-plodding readings these symphonies sometimes receive and from the frequently muddy, massed sound with which some orchestras deliver them. Staatskapelle Dresden handles this music marvelously, with lyricism and vibrancy, and Thielemann directs with propulsiveness that moves the music along smartly even though, by the clock, his tempos are not particularly fast. Thielemann here makes an effective case for some of the symphonic movements that tend to get short shrift elsewhere – the middle movements of Symphony No. 4, for example, gain significantly in stature in this interpretation without any diminution in the effectiveness of the outer ones. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of whether classical music benefits from or is harmed by video presentations as opposed to ones of pure sound, but this particular set of DVDs is a highly impressive one. Thielemann’s podium manner is very involving, featuring broad gestures and quite a lot of motion – the plus being that this makes the DVD fascinating to watch, the minus being that watching it can be distracting to one’s involvement in and absorption of the music. Thielemann’s discussion of his interpretation of these symphonies is intelligent and cogent, and it is easy for listeners/viewers to return to the performances, if they so desire, and find out for themselves just how Thielemann translates his thoughts into podium behavior. These are live recordings – the First and Third at NHK Hall in Tokyo, the Second and Fourth at the Semperoper in Dresden – and they offer much of the excitement of live performances without any excessive playing-to-a-live-audience elements that can sometimes intrude. Thielemann’s Brahms Symphonies are among the best available, his thoughtful approach and highly knowledgeable handling of the scores making it possible to see once again just why these works are so central to the standard classical-music repertoire.

     Beethoven is just as much a core of classical music as Brahms, but his Missa Solemnis, although an undoubted masterpiece, is not heard nearly as often as his symphonies – and it presents some significant performance challenges, even more so in a largely secular age in which the overtly Catholic text does not have the direct and immediate audience connection that it did in the composer’s time. It takes a performance as good as the new one under John Eliot Gardiner to turn this into a piece that connects musically with the audience, whether or not its texts have personal meaning for any particular listener. Gardiner has recorded the Missa Solemnis before, in fact using the same Monteverdi Choir that appears on his new release – well, not the same group, its members having changed in the 20-plus years since the earlier recording, but a group of the same name and with the same history of excellence and continuity of sound. Gardiner’s earlier recording was an excellent one, but the new release on SDG – which stands for “Soli Deo Gloria,” a singularly appropriate label for this music – is even better. The primary reason is sound: like Thielemann’s Brahms Symphonies, Gardiner’s Missa Solemnis is a live recording (made at London’s Barbican Hall in October 2012), and in this case as in Thielemann’s, the presence of an audience helps bring out the best in the performers. That “best” is very good indeed. The chorus is slightly larger in this recording than in Gardiner’s earlier one, but its sound is at least equally clear, and so is the sound of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, whose instrumental lines beautifully support and complement the vocal ones. This is a faster-than-usual Missa Solemnis, lasting just 70 minutes – while other performances can last 80 or more. But nothing here feels rushed. If anything, the tempos – which are only slightly faster than those of other conductors in any given section – lend the work a propulsive forward motion that sweeps listeners along effectively without compromising the solemnity of either words or music. The four soloists are all more than adequate, even if none of them stands out as transcendent in the way that the horns and woodwinds do. From the gorgeous solo violin in the Benedictus to the intense climax of the Dona Nobis Pacem, this is a Missa Solemnis that is musically heartfelt, stylishly performed and thoroughly convincing – a reaffirmation of the greatness of the work.

     The greatness of Bach’s Cello Suites is beyond doubt as well, these being both seminal and towering works for their instrument, for all the particular difficulty of performing No. 6, which was written for a five-string instrument, not a modern, four-string cello. These are emphatically cello suites, despite the oft-repeated claim that Bach’s music is so pure, so inherently “musical” (however one chooses to define that word in this context), that it can be played on any instrument. The fact is that these particular suites are very clearly designed to test the mettle of cellists (and cellos!) and are written with the specific sonorities and capabilities of the cello in mind. They have nevertheless often been transcribed, most notably for viola, and it is probably inevitable that Bach’s music in general will continue to be played on instruments other than the ones designated in the composer’s scores – especially since Bach himself often redid movements or entire pieces originally written for one instrument so they could be played on a different one. Still, Amy Porter’s flute transcriptions of 25 movements from the six cello suites verge on the quixotic, most notably in the two she arranges from Suite No. 6, the Prelude and Courante. The problem is not Porter’s playing, which is absolutely first-rate, and not her transcription ability, which is substantial (although this release is rather oddly titled “In Translation”). The problem is simply that this music does not lie at all well on the flute, whose constricted, high range is about as far from the very substantial, low range of the cello as it is possible to be. Porter is quite obviously aware of this, and it explains why she chooses only some movements of the suites to transcribe, not all of them: many are simply beyond the compass of the flute and would require rewriting rather than transcription – an endeavor that would scarcely repay the effort even if it were not to seem almost sacrilegious. In any case, what Porter gives us here is a fascinating tour of portions of these six-movement suites: five movements apiece from Nos. 1, 3 and 4, four movements apiece from Nos. 2 and 5, and the two movements from No. 6. Porter uses these arrangements as teaching exercises in her master classes, but these suites were never intended as études, and the flute transcriptions do not come across that way: they are musically solid even though their sound, two octaves above that of the cello, can be somewhat wearing if listened to for too long – it is usually single suite movements, not sequences of them, that are played on various instruments not intended by Bach, as the Bourrée of the third suite occasionally is on bassoon, trombone or even tuba. Listeners intrigued by an unusual handling of some Baroque masterpieces will enjoy this two-CD Equilibrium set, which – notwithstanding the excellence of the performance – gets a (+++) rating in light of its niche nature and its ultimately limited appeal.

     Porter shows her skill and virtuosity as well in another (+++) CD on the same Equilibrium label – this one, called American Art, containing no masterpieces but providing interested listeners with a chance to hear some virtually unknown flute music by some contemporary American composers. The most interesting work here is by Michael Daugherty (born 1954): Crystal, a 2006 arrangement taken from the second movement of the composer’s 2004 Concerto for Orchestra and set by Daugherty for flute (here played by Yi-Chun Chen), alto flute (Porter), metal windchimes and piano. Both acoustically and musically, this piece shows Daugherty’s considerable skill in structuring his music and in making it aurally unusual and appealing. Unfortunately, Crystal is the shortest work on this CD, and the others are not at this level. Eldin Burton (1913-1981) contributes a Sonatina for Flute and Piano (1948) that is pleasant enough, classically proportioned, but not especially distinguished. The Variations for Flute and Piano (1982) by Robert Beaser (born 1954) are considerably more substantial, superimposing a three-movement form on a set of 15 variations, but at more than 27 minutes, they go on rather too long and do not have any particular thematic distinction. More interesting is Flute Sonata No. 3, “The N.C. Wyeth Sonata” (2006), by Christopher Caliendo (born 1960). It was written for Porter, who gave its première, and it certainly requires considerable virtuosity and breath control. But it is one of those self-consciously programmatic modern works whose movement titles try to give the audience information that the music itself does not effectively convey: “Youth, Trains, and Tin Pan Alley,” “A Dead Son, Reflection, Memory,” and “Bronco Buster.” Porter plays the work sensitively and with clear emotional involvement, and pianist Christopher Harding ably supports her here and throughout the CD. It goes without saying that works like those on American Art pale by comparison with the music of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, but listeners will not come to this disc with the same expectations they will bring to the other recordings. Those interested in hearing fine flute playing of some moderately interesting, well-constructed but scarcely groundbreaking contemporary music would seem to be the target audience for this disc – and the people who will find it most satisfying.

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