July 24, 2014


Lars-Erik Larsson: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Symphony No. 1; Four Vignettes to Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”; Music for Orchestra; Pastoral for small orchestra; Lyric Fantasy for small orchestra. Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze. CPO. $16.99.

Matthew Malsky: Chamber Works. Ravello. $14.99.

Sydney Hodkinson: A Keyboard Odyssey—Music for Piano and Organ. Barry Snyder, piano; Boyd Jones, organ. Navona. $16.99.

Ute Lemper: Forever—The Love Songs of Pablo Neruda. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Stravinsky in Hollywood: A Film by Marco Capalbo. C Major DVD. $24.99.

A Tribute to Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima; Duo Concertante for violin and double bass; Concerto Grosso for three cellos and orchestra; Credo. Soloists, choruses and Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Charles Dutoit, Valery Gergiev and Krzysztof Urbański. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.

     Music is not entirely independent of place, any more than it is independent of the era in which it is written. This is a given for some composers and a matter for others to explore: think of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien as two clear examples. Other geographical areas are less well-represented than Italy. Sweden, for example, has a rich musical heritage dating back at least to Franz Berwald (1796-1868), but its composers are frequently unknown outside Scandinavia. Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986) is one who deserves wider recognition. From early works that lie within the Romantic tradition but contain his personal stamp, to late ones that adapt 20th-century compositional techniques to Larsson’s unique viewpoint, Larsson’s music is unfailingly well-crafted and repays both initial hearings and repeated ones. The first volume of CPO’s planned survey of Larsson’s orchestral music is a fine place for those unfamiliar with this composer to make his acquaintance. His First Symphony is a youthful work, dating to 1927-28, and is obviously influenced by Sibelius and Nielsen; but for all that, it already shows a composer with a firm grasp of large forces and a willingness to tackle complex musical forms. And it simply sounds good. The Four Vignettes to Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” (1937-38) and Pastoral for small orchestra (1937) are far more delicate, even lilting at times, with these theater scores combining immediate accessibility with thoughtfulness about the subject matter being offered on stage. Music for Orchestra (1949) is a knottier work and far more modern in sound, with dissonance throughout and austerity that contrasts strongly with the lushness of the early First Symphony. And the Lyric Fantasy for small orchestra (1967), a work with a distinct 20th-century sound, is complex in construction but not so when heard: it communicates effectively with the listener in a way that many pieces of its time do not. Andrew Manze has clearly studied Larsson’s music carefully, conducting all of it with care and involvement, and the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra seems to have no difficulties at all with its complexities, all of which are at the service of a more direct reaching-out to the audience than is evinced in music by many of Larsson’s contemporaries.

     Matthew Malsky takes the geographical approach of Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and so many others directly to heart on a (+++) Ravello CD whose title, Geographies & Geometries, neatly encapsulates its intentions. The works here are intended to evoke emotions musically, based on those felt by people – or, more accurately, by Malsky – at certain locations or in certain circumstances. Escaping the Delta (2005), for example, is inspired by the blues, specifically as exemplified by the music of Robert Johnson; but it combines a Johnsonian sensibility with elements of traditional chamber music. The work is a duet for flute and cello, performed here by the duo C-Squared (Lisa Cella, flute; Franklin Cox, cello). Another riparian work, Same River Twice (2008/2013) for wind quintet, is designed to use a geographical feature as a metaphor for having a familiar experience and finding something new in it. Members of the Radius Ensemble – Sarah Brady, flute and piccolo; Jennifer Montbach, oboe; Michael Norsworthy, clarinets; Sally Merriman, bassoon; and Anne Howarth, horn – offer a well-blended sound here. A third geographically inspired work is tied by its title quite directly to Malsky’s intentions in writing it: Archipelago of Regrets (2012) is a theme and variations intended to illustrate, bit by bit, the experience of disenchantment and the way through it to an eventual acceptance that puts one in mind of the conclusion of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “A sadder and a wiser man/ He rose the morrow morn.” The other two works on the CD fall under the “geometries” rather than “geographies” label. The rather ridiculously titled -42.489° 108.756° (elegy) (2011), for two violas, is palindromic; that fact and the work’s overdone name are about all that need be said about it – except that violists Mark Berger and Peter Sulski approach it gamely. Finally, there is Subtending the Right Angle (1999/2013), again featuring Radius Ensemble members Brady, Montbach and Norsworthy, plus Kent O’Doherty on bassoon; Benjamin Wright on trumpet; John Faieta on trombone; Linda Osborn-Blashke on piano; and Susan Hagen on bass, with the ensemble conducted by Jeffrey Means. Once again here, there is a somewhat abstruse and overthought attempt to integrate musical sensibilities with those from other fields. The ultimate question for music, though, is whether it works as music, for people who do not know (and perhaps do not care) about the composer’s thought processes or compositional techniques. It is in this area of connection with the audience that Malsky’s works fall short, for all that they are clearly thought through with considerable attentiveness.

     The journey enshrined on a (+++) CD called A Keyboard Odyssey is one that explores two forms of keyboard instrument: piano and organ (the latter being more of a wind instrument in terms of how its sound is produced: analogously, one would scarcely call an accordion a keyboard instrument just because a keyboard is used to alter the sound of the wind that produces the notes). Everything on this Navona CD is short: there are seven works in all, but the longer ones are essentially suites of brief, disconnected pieces, being in their totality heirs to the suite of Bach’s and Telemann’s day. Curiously, five of the seven Sydney Hodkinson pieces here are excerpts, the only two complete works being the pleasantly bouncy Mini-Rag for Right Hand Alone (1990) and Organmusic: Six Tableaux for Solo Organ (2009), which mixes old forms with modern sensibilities. The disc’s other contents are Nos. 1, 4 and 5 from Episodes: Five Thoughts for Solo Piano (2007); No. 3 from Dance Overtures (1981); Nos. 1, 2 and 5 from Faded Anecdotes: Five Images for Solo Piano (2009); Nos. 3 and 2, in that order, from Stolen Goods: Four Preludes for Solo Piano (2008); and Nos. 1 and 2 from Snapshots: Three Miniatures for Solo Piano (2007). The short-form works are often effective in their small ways, with the Snapshots vignettes (“A Strange Dream” and “A Faded Dance”) being particularly affecting, and several of the fast-paced items tumbling neatly over themselves and over the piano keys. Barry Snyder and Boyd Jones do a good job throughout, although the reasons for including only bits and pieces of Hodkinson’s various suites are rather obscure.

     The journey in Ute Lemper: Forever is one of both geography and time. English, French and Spanish songs appear here, all written by Lemper as well as performed by her; string arrangements are by Juan Antonio Sanchez. This is a Lemper production through and through: concept and direction, as well as melodies and vocals, are by her, with some assistance from composer and bandoneon player Marcelo Nisinman. The actual words, as the disc’s full title indicates, are by Pablo Neruda, but – and this is the traveling-in-time element – the settings place the songs directly in the cabaret tradition. It is quite easy to imagine Lemper singing them in a smoky British pub or its equivalent in France or Spain in the years of the Weimar Republic; indeed, Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair dates to the Weimar years (1924). Lemper’s rich, throaty voice, mingled with strings, bandoneon, and the sound of the lutelike charango (played by Freddy Torrealba), takes listeners through a multilingual song cycle that tends to dwell a bit too much on the obviously emotive as it meanders from La nuit dans l’ile (a first night together) to The Saddest Poem / Nr. 20 (a predictable finale of heartbreak and despair). Lemper’s voice has enough variety to encompass the various emotions of the 12 poem settings, but not enough to carry listeners along effectively through more than an hour of music that not only features sameness of topic but also is all set by Lemper herself in ways that quickly become familiar. It is difficult not to be swept into the emotional intensity that opens this (+++) CD on the Steinway & Sons label, but equally difficult to remain at that level of involvement throughout the recording. In a live concert, Lemper’s stage presence and the setting itself would contribute to and presumably enhance the mood of the performance. In recorded form, however, what works well for five minutes, or 15, or even 25, becomes a bit much at a length of nearly 65.

     The travels chronicled in Marco Capalbo’s film, Stravinsky in Hollywood, are both geographical and emotional. Stravinsky was not just an old-world European trying to accommodate himself and his ambitions to the new world of Hollywood. He was also, by the time he moved to California in 1939, world-famous for his groundbreaking music of the years before World War I and for his neoclassicism of the 1920s. He left Europe as World War II was breaking out and ended up living in Los Angeles longer than in any other city – but his relationship with his adopted country (he became a U.S. citizen in 1945) was complex and not always a happy one. This is what Capalbo explores in his film, a niche production that lasts just 53 minutes and appears on a C Major DVD without bonus material. The entire (+++) DVD may be regarded as a bonus by Stravinsky fans, however, and will be of special interest because it is one of the few Stravinsky-related offerings in recent decades that does not come from the ever-present Robert Craft, longtime molder and keeper of the Stravinsky legacy. This is not to say that Stravinsky in Hollywood contains anything to which Craft or other legend managers would be likely to object. It is, in fact, somewhat on the bland side. There is the usual archival footage, including some not previously seen, and there are the to-be-expected interviews with Stravinsky himself, and there are scenes from some of the films whose music he created: several 20th-century Russian composers, including Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Polish-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg as well as Stravinsky, had quite an affinity for film scores. There is nothing revelatory in Capalbo’s film, which is a once-over-lightly covering more than three decades of Stravinsky’s life in less than an hour. The pacing is good, and fans of Stravinsky will enjoy seeing him in a Hollywood context (he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame). Those seeking insight into the composer and his reasons – other than the obvious financial one – for spending so much of his life in the Hollywood milieu will be disappointed, but those who deem Stravinsky a celebrity and are interested in him in the context of the celebrity culture of his time will enjoy Capalbo’s offering.

     If Stravinsky was often considered a citizen of the world, Krzysztof Penderecki is intimately associated with his native Poland. A new Accentus Music DVD chronicles the November 23, 2013 concert at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw, at which numerous artists paid tribute to Penderecki on his 80th birthday. Conductors Charles Dutoit, Valery Gergiev and Krzysztof Urbański were featured, along with Anne-Sophie Mutter and Roman Patkoló in the Duo Concertante for violin and double bass; Daniel Müller-Schott, Arto Noras and Ivan Monighetti in the Concerto Grosso for three cellos and orchestra; plus vocal soloists, along with the Chorus of the Polish National Opera, Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Warsaw Boys Choir, and Sinfonia Varsovia. The DVD includes the entire concert plus a 15-minute discussion of it by Penderecki himself as a bonus. Invariably, events like this are respectful to the point of being hagiographic, and that is certainly the case here. The four works are all performed with devoted attention and consummate skill, with the 1960 Threnody especially impressive half a century later and still sounding ultra-modern through its use of unusual textures, peculiar bowing techniques and considerable use of tone clusters. The DVD is, as usual in a visual version of a concert, intended primarily for people who want to feel as if they were present during the performance – and who do not mind having their visuals guided by the choices of the director. There is nothing especially dramatic or unexpected in those choices, but also nothing that adds significantly to the experience of the music in this (+++) release. Devotees of Penderecki’s music, who want to have a keepsake of the concert marking his 80th birthday, will be highly pleased to take a virtual trip to Poland through this offering. Listeners with a more-casual interest in Penderecki’s work will have  little reason to own this visualization rather than any of the many fine audio recordings of his individual compositions.

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