April 03, 2014

(++++) TAKE TWO

Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite; Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals; Ralf Bölting: French Toccata on “Helmut.” Emanuele Cardi and Gianfranco Nicoletti, organ 4-hands. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.

Offenbach: Cello Duets, Opp. 49, 51, 54. Andrea Noferini and Giovanni Sollima, cellos. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

     Here are some duet releases that are fascinating for entirely different reasons. The notion of music for organ 4-hands, especially such decidedly secular and popular music as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, is rather strange. But these lighthearted pieces prove quite adaptable in the transcriptions by Alexander Därr that Emanuele Cardi and Gianfranco Nicoletti perform on a new Brilliant Classics CD. The organ is essentially a wind instrument, for all that it uses keyboards to produce most of its sounds, and the modern Mascioni organ at the Church of Santi Cosma e Damiano, Vairano Scalo in Caserta, Italy, proves to be a good choice for these unexpectedly effective adaptations, with a pure tone and clear sound that are highly effective in the registrations chosen by Cardi and Nicoletti. The “Pianists” movement in Carnival of the Animals sounds something like an in-joke here, and “Fossils” is a bit of an oddity, but the organ arrangement is particularly well-suited to such movements as “Tortoises” and “The Elephant,” and the performers have no hesitation about cutting loose in the finale. In the Tchaikovsky, the sinuous “Arabian Dance” is particularly impressive, and the “Waltz of the Flowers” comes across with more dancelike grace than listeners might expect – not that the organ is ever likely to be thought of as an instrument for danceable music. These arrangements are curiosities, to be sure, but their very unfamiliarity nicely complements the well-known music in delightful ways, providing an unanticipated sense of freshness to works that, for all their many charms, are somewhat overplayed in their more-familiar versions. And the CD contains a very pleasant surprise in French Toccata on “Helmut” by Ralf Bölting (born 1953). This serious 10-minute foray into and adaptation of a Baroque form was written for organ 4-hands in the first place, in 1999. It mingles the style of Louis Vierne with distinct references to Bach and Charles-Marie Widor, all within a piece requiring very considerable virtuosity of both players from start to finish. All three works on this unusual CD showcase ways in which the “king of instruments” continues to play a vital role in music today – beyond that of its expected religious associations and the performance of its established repertoire.

     The established musical work of Jacques Offenbach includes nearly 100 operettas and his unfinished opera, Les contes d'Hoffmann. But Offenbach, in addition to being a composer and impresario, was a cello virtuoso – one of very considerable skill. And he wrote a number of works for cello that would surely be better-known if his stage music had not become such a huge success. (He even composed some cello-and-piano works in collaboration with Friedrich von Flotow, best known for the 1847 opera Martha.) Among Offenbach’s cello music are three sets of cello duets – six brief works in the first set, three more-substantial ones in the second, and three really large-scale ones in the third. All three sets are now available on Brilliant Classics in excellent performances by Andrea Noferini and Giovanni Sollima, who are so comfortable playing together than Noferini takes the first part in the first two sets and Sollima takes it in the third. Two of these dozen pieces are in two movements, omitting slow central movements; the other 10 are all in three and are all in fast-slow-fast form except the very last duet, which opens with a brief Adagio that is in effect an introduction rather than a separate movement, then proceeds into two extended fast movements. In each of the three sets of duets, there is a single example in a minor key, with all the others in major keys. The works noticeably progress as the sets do, all the pieces in the third set being substantially beyond any in the first. These pieces, especially those in the first two sets, were intended for talented amateurs to play, and all the music is of a type that would have fit neatly into the salons where Offenbach did in fact perform on the cello. Not surprisingly, the music shows excellent command of the capabilities of the instrument, and also not surprisingly, it often displays the puckishness for which Offenbach would later become known in his stage works: some movements have the cellos imitating brass instruments such as tubas and French horns, others are directed to be played only in first position (which complicates fingering and articulation), and tunes range from the prayerful or funereal in slow movements to the dashing and grotesque in speedy ones. As a whole, the duets may be more fun to perform than to listen to – for all their variety, there is a certain sameness about them, particularly in the first set – but there is nevertheless a great deal here to please non-performers in the skillful, sometimes intricate interweaving of the two cellos’ lines and the unremitting tunefulness of which Offenbach was always capable. These very fine performances reveal a side of Offenbach with which most listeners will not be familiar, showing him to have both compositional and performance skills beyond those with which he is usually credited.

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