February 20, 2014
(++++) THE TOPIC’S THE THING
Mister Paganini: Homages by Kreisler, Albéniz, and Ysaÿe. Laurent Korcia, violin; Haruko Ueda, piano; Orchestre de Chambre de Paris conducted by Jean-Jacques Kantorow. Naïve. $16.99.
Elliott Carter: 103rd Birthday Concert. Fred Sherry, artistic director. NMC DVD. $34.99.
Korngold: Opera and Ballet excerpts; “Much Ado about Nothing” Suite; Rubin Goldmark: Plaintive Air; Carl Goldmark: Suite for Violin and Piano; Romanze; Robert Dauber: Serenata. Orsolya Korcsolan, violin; Emese Mali, piano. Solo Musica. $18.99.
The Image of Melancholy. Berit Norbakken Solset, soprano; Jon Balke, organ; Bjarte Eike, baroque violin and conducting Barokksolistene. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
Packaging matters. Not just physical packaging, although that can certainly affect the attractiveness of a release, but packaging in the sense of what a particular recording is trying to communicate. When there is not something obvious on which to focus – a complete opera, a Beethoven symphony cycle, whatever – then sometimes it is the packaging that determines whether a release works well, coming across as carefully thought through and unified, or whether it appears to be a hodgepodge. Laurent Korcia’s new Naïve disc is a striking example of how to do packaging well. Instead of calling this a collection of virtuoso violin works by disparate composers – which is what it is – the title “Mister Paganini” focuses on the great and notorious Paganini himself and on those who performed and wrote music in his style or in homage to him. The final work on the CD is actually by Paganini: I Palpiti, an introduction with variations on the aria Di tanti palpiti from Rossini’s Tancredi. It provides a wonderful opportunity to hear Paganini’s own compositional style (which in fact was heavily influenced by Rossini’s) and, through that style, the pyrotechnic technique of the master violinist. The first work on the disc approaches Paganini somewhat differently and in quite a fascinating way. It is Kreisler’s Concerto in One Movement for Violin and Orchestra, transcribed from the first movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1. So the CD’s opening and closing give us Paganini’s own music reimagined and as Paganini himself imagined it. In between these two pieces for violin and orchestra are five for violin and piano, all with roots firmly in Paganinian soil. The Albéniz-Kreisler Malagueña, Kreisler’s own La Gitana and Petite Valse for Solo Piano, and the Paganini-Kreisler La Campanella, from the famous theme of the finale of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2, all come across here with just the right amount of glamor and vivacity, very nicely complementing the extremely well-played violin-and-orchestral works. But the real gem of this CD is a work that here receives its world première recording: Ysaÿe’s Paganini Variations, in which the very considerable virtuosity is beautifully tempered by considerable warmth and lyricism. Top-notch playing – Haruko Ueda is a first-rate accompanist for Korcia, and the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris under Jean-Jacques Kantorow sounds very fine indeed – makes this CD a joy to listen to and a disc that comes across as carefully and thoughtfully put together to showcase the music to its maximum benefit.
The packaging of the DVD called Elliott Carter: 103rd Birthday Concert seems obvious on its face and from its title, and on one level it certainly is. But what is special in this exceptionally well-produced video from December 8, 2011 – three days before what would prove to be Carter’s last birthday, since he died on November 5, 2012 – is the sequencing of the music and the ancillary material. The whole production fits together exceptionally well. In order, the pieces here are Duettino for violin and cello (2008), Figment IV for viola (2007), Mnemosyné for violin (2011 – receiving its world première here), String Trio (also 2011 and another world première), Rigmarole for bass clarinet and cello (2011 again and yet another world première), Bariolage for harp (1992), Trije glasbeniki for flute, bass clarinet and harp (2011 and a U.S. première), Double Trio (2011 and another U.S. première), Retracing for bassoon (2002), Figment V for marimba (2009), Hiyoku for two clarinets (2001), and A Sunbeam’s Architecture for tenor and ensemble (2010 and a world première). The works’ interplay is marvelous, the sequence of solo instruments apt and sonically delightful, and the showcase of Carter’s talents in writing for numerous individual and grouped instruments makes the tribute all the more telling. The buildup to the six-movement tenor/ensemble work – which at 17 minutes is by far the longest piece here – makes A Sunbeam’s Architecture into a concert climax that nevertheless implies there is still more to come from Carter and from those paying tribute to him. And indeed, the DVD next presents the inevitable “Happy Birthday, Elliott,” followed by five tributes to the composer – from George Benjamin, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews. If the contents of those tributes are scarcely unexpected and their existence at a birthday celebration quite inevitable, they nevertheless form a capstone to this particular gala offering. And the music-making itself, under the overall direction of cellist Fred Sherry, is of uniformly high quality. The other performers here are violinist Rolf Schulte, violist Richard O’Neill, bass clarinetist Virgil Blackwell, harpist Bridget Kibbey, Marie Tachouet on flute and piccolo, Mike Truesdell on percussion, Jim Pugh on trombone, Peter Evans on trumpet, pianist Stephen Gosling, Peter Kolkay playing bassoon and contrabassoon, clarinetists Charles Neidich and Ayako Oshima, Stephen Taylor on oboe, and conductor Ryan McAdams. These are all highly talented musicians and advocates of contemporary music, all familiar with Carter’s works and his unique style, and all giving these pieces finely honed and sensitive readings that clearly show, when taken in toto, just how varied Carter’s music was in the years since his 84th birthday – since every single piece heard here was written in 1992 or later. This is an exceptional release for anyone interested in Carter and in the variety and significance of his later music.
The packaging is less successful and the music less compelling in the (+++) disc with the odd title of “KornGOLDmark” – a tortured title that in fact reflects the difficulty of presenting works as disparate as the ones here and pretending that they are related in any significant way. Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) dominates this very well-played disc, with the nicely constructed four-movement “Much Ado about Nothing” Suite having more substantiality than the four shorter works included: Serenade from the ballet Der Schneemann and three opera excerpts – Ich ging zu ihm from Das Wunder der Heliane, plus Tanzlied des Pierrot and Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s best-known opera, Die Tote Stadt. The Suite and Romanze by Carl Goldmark (1830-1915), a Hungarian composer whose first name, Károly, is usually rendered as Karl with a K, are pleasant works but not particularly consequential ones, although the lyricism of the suite’s Andante sostenuto is winning. Also here is the world première recording of Plaintive Air by Rubin Goldmark (1872-1936), a teacher of Gershwin and Copland, who on the basis of this piece certainly knew how to write expressive music with surface-level charm but without any great depth. The final piece here, designated as a “bonus track” presumably because it alone has a composer who does not fit the CD’s odd “KornGOLDmark” title, is a lovely Serenata by Robert Dauber (1922-1945) – the only preserved composition by Dauber, who was imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and died in Dachau. Orsolya Korcsolan plays all these relatively minor pieces soulfully and with feeling, and Emese Mali provides a solid piano accompaniment. But neither the music nor the packaging of the CD is really enough to make most listeners sit up and take notice of works that the artists presumably regard as undiscovered gems.
The packaging of The Image of Melancholy is even odder. This (+++) CD offers 20 tracks – all personally chosen by baroque violinist Bjarte Eike – that produce the feeling of melancholy, meditate upon it or reflect it. The works, arranged in no particularly logical order, date from as far back as Shakespeare’s time (John Dowland, Anthony Holborne, William Byrd) and the early Baroque (Dietrich Buxtehude) to our own era (Jon Balke, Eike himself). Whether traceable to strong religious conviction (Heinrich Biber’s Die Kreutztragung) or to the Scottish fiddle tradition (Neil Gow’s Lament), these are mostly pieces in which melancholy means something other than “depression,” for which it is often used as a synonym today. It is actually a bit surprising that Eike chose to omit Handel from this disc, for Milton’s poem L’Allegro, which Handel set, opens with the words, “Hence, loathèd melancholy,” while its counterpoem, Il Penseroso, makes it clear that Miltonian/Handelian melancholy stands for thoughtfulness and inward focus, closer to modern introversion than to any depressive state. Melancholy, in short, is not sadness, or at least not merely sadness. But when music, however well-constructed and well-performed, is consistently downbeat (no pun intended), the impression left behind is quite different from the one that many of these composers themselves intended. The individual pieces here, mostly pretty rather than profound, generally create a pleasant sense of quietude, relaxation and contemplativeness. But 20 of them in a row are a bit much, and the differing styles, juxtaposed for no apparent reason, make the disc an engaging but less-than-enthralling experience. The performances are excellent, but the packaging here falls short.