July 10, 2014
(++++) THE PAST REVISITED
Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 14. The Central Band of the RAF conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $9.99.
Elisabeth Kuyper: Violin Concerto; Sonata for Violin and Piano. Aleksandra Maslovaric, violin; Tamara Rumiantsev, piano; Brno Philharmonic conducted by Mikel Toms. Feminae Records. $16.98.
Here Comes the Dance. Ferenc Sánta Jr., violin; Hungarian National Gypsy Orchestra. Hungaroton. $19.99.
Bartók: 44 Duos for Two Violins, transposed for two violas, with original field recordings. Claudine Bigelow and Donald Maurice, violas. Tantara Records. $16.99 (2 CDs).
The excellent ongoing Naxos series devoted to the music of John Philip Sousa provides the continual delight of a return to an earlier time in the United States, when patriotism was simpler and more straightforward and bands held as high a position in musical life as orchestras did. In fact, when many of Sousa’s compositions were written in the 19th century, and through the height of the band era early in the 20th, bands were dominant and orchestras less common and less popular. Sousa’s music itself was a big reason for this: forthright, very well crafted and often considerably cleverer than it seems to be on the surface, it stood up well in its era and – as Keith Brion’s recordings show – has stood the test of time into our own century as well. The 14th volume of the series, and the second in a row featuring recordings made in 2012 with the Central Band of the Royal Air Force, affirms that Sousa’s works sound wonderful when played by any band of the first water: they are full of American spirit but reach out musically to just about any place. This volume contains two unusually attractive, little-known Sousa works. The International Congress is a very early piece, from the American centennial year of 1876, that collects patriotic and popular tunes from around the world and combines them skillfully and highly inventively – concluding with The Star Spangled Banner in a setting derived directly from Wagner’s Tannhäuser (which seems ridiculous, if not impossible, until you hear how well Sousa pulled it off). Also here is the world première recording of a suite called El Capitan and His Friends, assembled by Sousa from three of his operettas of the 1890s: El Capitan (1896), The Charlatan (1898) and The Bride Elect (1897). This is one of three première recordings on the CD, the others being the overture to the operetta The American Maid (1909), which is also known as Overture “The Glass Blowers,” and an 1888 humoresque called Listen to My Tale of Woe. Sousa’s tie-in of his works to popular songs and poems of his time can make the music more obscure today than it was when the works were written, but there is no denying the ebullience and, sometimes, the considerable sensitivity that he brought to his compositions. The best-known piece on this CD is Esprit de Corps, the 1888 march still used by the Marines today. But the other works here are every bit as worthy of attention: March of the Royal Trumpets and The Triton Medley (both 1892), The Lambs (1914), The Loyal Legion (1890), and The Circumnavigators Club (1931). The last of these was the last march Sousa composed, and it shows that his creativity and commitment remained intact to the end of his life.
There is something very masculine, in a distinctly old-fashioned way, about much of Sousa’s music, which dates to a time when women had far fewer opportunities and a far lower public profile than they later assumed. There were occasional women whose role in classical music was a large one – Clara Schumann, for example – but they were very much the exception to the rule of obscurity. For composers such as Elisabeth Kuyper (1877-1953), the situation rankled, and Kuyper, a student of Max Bruch (who supported and advocated her work), found herself in the midst of societal changes even as she tried to make a career of composing and conducting. Whatever the interest of Kuyper’s involvement in the women’s liberation movement of her time, it is her music that matters today, and on the basis of a new Feminae Records CD featuring violinist Aleksandra Maslovaric, the music is creative, elegant, very well-formed, and quite firmly in the Romantic tradition. Maslovaric performs Kuyper’s Op. 1 Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Tamara Rumiantsev, and the four-movement work unfolds effectively and often movingly in their hands – and has the distinction of an unusual second-movement Bolero. Still, the sonata is less intriguing and on a smaller scale than the very impressive Violin Concerto, which Kuyper composed after becoming the first woman to win the Mendelssohn Prize (in 1905), and whose première in 1908 was conducted by Bruch. The three-movement layout of the concerto is entirely typical of a large-scale Romantic work, with a broadly conceived first movement, a heartfelt central Adagio, and a finale marked Prestissimo that really puts the soloist through some virtuosic paces. Maslovaric is a first-rate advocate for this music, giving it all the drama and intensity it deserves; and while the Brno Philharmonic under Mikel Toms is not quite an orchestra of the highest rank, it provides very serviceable backup and allows Maslovaric to remain front-and-center pretty much throughout the performance. It would be stretching things to deem Kuyper a major composer, but she was certainly a very skilled one – and one whose music, it turns out, largely transcended a time in which women had little ability to bring their artistic endeavors to the attention of the music establishment of their age.
The playing of violinist Ferenc Sánta Jr. harks back to the past in a different way. Sánta, a founder of the 100 Member Gipsy [sic] Orchestra and an expert in gypsy-style fiddling, has spent 45 years playing and advocating the gypsy music that has long been associated with Hungary – but that remains little understood elsewhere and rarely performed in a genuinely idiomatic fashion. The new Hungaroton CD called Here Comes the Dance (in Hungarian, Most Kezdődik Tánc) includes 16 works by composers likely to be completely unknown to most listeners: Szentirmay Elemer, Danko Pista, Murgács Kálmán, Rácz Béla, Sallay Mihály and others – and note that the personal name comes second in Hungarian, which means that the violinist’s name in Hungarian style is Sánta Ferenc. Some of the works here are in comparatively familiar forms, such as czardas and pacsirta, while others have familiar designations such as intermezzo and caprice. The remainder will be much less known to most listeners. But all the pieces are charming and tuneful, wearing their emotional heart on their sleeve (figuratively speaking), and played by Sánta and the Hungarian National Gypsy Orchestra with involvement, verve and what certainly sounds like complete authenticity. The music will be something of an acquired taste, although one that should be easy enough to acquire for listeners familiar with some of the less-authentic but far better known use of Hungarian and/or gypsy and/or pseudo-gypsy tunes by such composers as Brahms and Liszt. There is a certain similarity to many of the works on the CD, and the disc’s sound is not quite as full and warm as the sound of the best CDs today, so the recording gets a (+++) rating – but for anyone interested in exploring some fascinating and very accessible music with a strong ethnic identity, the disc will be highly enjoyable.
The enjoyment is more rarefied in a (+++) release from Tantara Records that is quite accurately entitled Voices from the Past. This is a recording that, like Sánta’s, delves deeply into the Hungarian musical spirit, but it does so quite differently, combining original field recordings of Hungarian folk music – the ones actually made by Bartók, presented complete here for the first time – with the violin duos that the composer created from these raw materials. The performance of the duos on two violas is a bit strange in a release as dedicated to authenticity as this one is, although Bartók’s music certainly sounds fine this way, and it is played very well by Claudine Bigelow and Donald Maurice. The layout of the music on the CDs is one that only real devotees will appreciate. The first CD provides a field recording, then the duo based on it, then another field recording, then the duo based on that one, and so on (not all duos are tied directly to field recordings; the ones that are not are simply given in their place in the total sequence). For anyone interested in how Bartók recorded and adapted the music from which he created these duos, listening to this CD will be revelatory. For anyone else, it will be far too dry and academic an experience (and the original recordings are, not surprisingly, of less than sterling quality). The second CD is for more-casual listeners, presenting the 44 duos in sequence, without the field-recorded material. Since the performances are quite good, anyone interested in hearing the duos on violas should be quite satisfied with this recording. However, the primary purpose of the release is not the duos themselves but the duos in the context of Bartók’s field recordings – a matter of substantial value to a very limited audience. Anyone in that small group will find this two-CD set fascinating.