March 06, 2014


Ferenc Farkas: Orchestral Music, Volume One. Miklós Perényi, cello; MÁV Symphony Orchestra conducted by Péter Csaba. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

Peter Boyer: Symphony No. 1; Three Olympians; Silver Fanfare; Festivities; Celebration Overture. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Boyer. Naxos. $9.99.

Vincent Persichetti: Works for Violin and Piano. Hasse Borup, violin; Heather Conner, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Lent at Ephesus. The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Decca. $12.99.

     Listeners interested in forays into some unfamiliar territory that is very, well, listenable, have many directions in which to turn as classical-music labels explore composers and compositions that are well outside the standard repertoire – for whatever reason. The music of Hungarian composer Ferenc Farkas (1905-2000) is very little known outside Hungary itself, never having achieved the international status accorded the music of Bartók and Kodály. But on the basis of a new Toccata Classics release, the first disc of a planned series devoted to him, Farkas has more than enough skill and charm to belong in international concerts, at least from time to time. The works on this CD were written over a span of more than half a century, but all share certain pleasant characteristics: a fondness for dance tunes (not necessarily folk dances) and for Baroque forms, often-bright and always well-articulated rhythms, and generally very enjoyable tunes that are far less overtly modern than those of Farkas’ more-famous contemporaries. That means this music has less of a “modern” sound than much of the music of Bartók and Kodály, and accordingly is less distinctive – but often more immediately accessible. All the music here is easy to listen to and very well-crafted: Divertimento for Orchestra (1930), the earliest work here and the longest; March Suite for chamber orchestra (1947); Lavotta Suite (1951), also for chamber orchestra; Concertino all’antica (1964) for cello and string orchestra, a particularly enjoyable blend of solo virtuosity with Baroque-era forms; Trittico concertato, also from 1964 and also for cello and string orchestra; and Maschere for chamber orchestra (1983), which despite its late date shows no flagging of Farkas’ creativity – and also no significant formal or emotive advances over the earlier works, which some will deem a lack while others consider it a strength. Four of these six pieces have never been recorded before – only the two cello-and-orchestra works have previously been available – and it is quite pleasurable finally to have a chance to hear this well-constructed and appealing music, which is very effectively and idiomatically performed by cellist Miklós Perényi and the MÁV Symphony Orchestra under Péter Csaba .

     Peter Boyer (born 1970) offers accessible and well-made works, too, his American sensibility brought out in different structures and forms as well as a different handling of thematic material. And Boyer actually gets somewhat more-frequent performances, at least in some quarters, than does Farkas. A new Naxos CD shows him to be a very effective conductor of his own music, and shows that music itself to be pleasant and generally forthright. There are three overtly celebratory works here that come across particularly well: Celebration Overture (1997, revised 2001), Silver Fanfare (2004), and Festivities (2011). They are just as upbeat and easy to hear as their titles imply, and the London Philharmonic delivers them with considerable panache. Three Olympians (2000) is more of a musical-portrait piece, the three Greek gods portrayed being Apollo, Aphrodite and Ares – and if the music for each is on the predictable side, it makes for strong characterization and an interpretation of these immortals’ roles quite different from that of, say, Gustav Holst, whose juxtaposition in The Planets of Mars (Ares) and Venus (Aphrodite) is far more familiar but no more valid than Boyer’s. The most-thoughtful work here is Symphony No. 1, a very recent piece (2012-13) whose three movements parallel in some ways those of Three Olympians, with the symphony having an opening Prelude followed by Scherzo/Dance and then an extended and often moving concluding Adagio that is nearly as long as the first two movements combined. It would be overstating to call this a profound piece, but it does have things to say, and it communicates them in a musical language that is characteristically modern without being at all off-putting – indeed, it will remind some listeners of the music of Leonard Bernstein, to whose memory it is dedicated.

     Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987) had a modern language of his own, one that he used prolifically in a dozen piano sonatas and 25 so-called Parables, as well as a good deal of vocal, band and chamber music. The fact that his works are infrequently played may be attributed to the reality that he was more a stylistic integrator than an innovator: he absorbed, melded, used and reused various 20th-century musical approaches and clearly understood them well, but was more influential as a teacher (of Einojuhani Rautavaara, Philip Glass and many others) than as a composer. Still, Persichetti’s works are well worth hearing, and the chamber music very ably performed by Hasse Borup and Heather Conner on a new Naxos CD shows Persichetti to be undeserving of his comparative neglect. In fact, none of the 10 pieces here has been recorded before – a state of affairs that is hard to imagine when listening to these well-wrought miniatures, none of them running even 10 minutes and most being considerably shorter. Among the works here are Persichetti’s six piano sonatinas, written in 1950 and 1954 and lasting from 90 seconds to four minutes – miniatures indeed. His Op. 10 Sonata for Solo Violin (1940), a very early work, gives the performer ample opportunity for expressiveness. And there are three pieces here for violin and piano together: the Op. 15 Sonata of 1941; Serenade No. 4, Op. 28, of 1945; and Masques, Op. 99, which dates to 1965. It was not until the 1950s that Persichetti developed his own distinct musical voice through the absorption and blending of various styles, so among the works here, only Masques can really be said to represent “mature” Persichetti. But all the pieces show his understanding of the instruments for which they were written and his ability to produce works that lie well on them and provide performers as well as listeners with well-thought-out material that is certainly worth exploring.

     The explorations of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, are of a different sort, being wholly focused on the use of music to express and expand upon their contemplative religious mission. The monastic life of these nuns, who spend most of their non-praying time making vestments for priests and taking care of gardens and a small farm, would likely seem constricting to most of those who hear their new Decca recording. But like their two previous CDs, Angels and Saints at Ephesus and Advent at Ephesus, this disc actually shows the artistic depth of the lifestyle lived by this highly devoted Midwest order as the Sisters use their eight-times-daily prayers as occasions for singing together. The charms of Lent at Ephesus are purely musical ones, the 25 short tracks in English and Latin being uniformly uplifting and one and all beautifully harmonized and sung with feeling. It is, however, true that there is a certain degree of sameness to the material, both because of the highly traditional religious subject matter and because of the very similar sound of the Sisters from track to track. Thus, the CD as a whole is somewhat less compelling and involving than are its individual elements, or small groups of them. Those who are highly devout and dedicated to traditional organized religion will find the disc more congenial than will those whose spirituality is of a different sort. But even nonbelievers will likely be moved by the sincerity and musical clarity that is so much in evidence here in every one of these brief, deeply felt short vocal pieces.

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