August 21, 2014


Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1—a comprehensive music lesson. Lara St. John, violin; Eduard Laurel, piano. Learning from the Legends. $79.99 (2 DVDs).

Bach: Partita No. 1; Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 15, “Pastoral”; Chopin: Ballade No. 3; Scherzo No. 2; Gluck-Sgambati: Orfeo Melody; Schumann-Liszt: Frühlingsnacht. James Rhodes, piano. Instrumental Records. $17.99.

Fauré: Lydia’s Vocalises; works by Chabrier, Saint-Saëns, Reynaldo Hahn, Rameau, Couperin and Louis Marchand. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, trumpet; Roy Howat, piano (Vocalises); Daniel-Ben Pienaar, piano (other works). Linn Records. $19.99.

Myroslav Skoryk: Violin Concerto No. 7; Cello Concerto; Carpathian Concerto for Orchestra; other works. Nazary Pilatyuk, violin; Valery Kazakov, cello; Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hobart Earle. Naxos. $9.99.

Wood Works: Nordic Folk Tunes. Danish String Quartet (Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and Frederik Øland, violins; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola; Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello). Dacapo. $16.99.

     Defiantly offered for only a very, very limited subset of classical-music listeners, these recent releases are all fascinating in their own ways – even though they do not reach out to anyone beyond a small core audience, and do not intend to. The Lara St. John two-DVD set focusing on Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is an outstanding use of the DVD medium for classical-music presentation. It is in effect a master class in a box: the complete performance of the concerto is the least of what is offered here. St. John is a fine violinist, but what matters is that she is also a fine teacher: these DVDs are strictly for violinists seeking to learn and understand this concerto, as St. John goes through the work movement by movement and measure by measure. This release on the Learning from the Legends label combines elements that have previously been offered on CD by Naxos and on vinyl by a company called Music Minus One. Naxos’ seven-disc set of “Suzuki Evergreens,” played by Takako Nishizaki, was an excellent example of a top-notch violinist performing student music in an accessible manner that students could themselves follow and from which they could learn through repeated listenings. Music Minus One released vinyl LPs containing the orchestral accompaniments of a variety of works for soloist and orchestra – the idea being that students would play the solo parts and understand how it would feel to blend in with and perform in front of an orchestra. The St. John DVD set goes beyond both these earlier, audio-only offerings by letting students see just what fingerings St. John uses and why – she explains performance practice clearly and provides a highly useful and quite extensive set of technical exercises for tone, vibrato, bowing techniques and more. Also here is a play-along accompaniment track – not orchestral, unfortunately, but on piano, which is certainly helpful for learning this concerto. There are also discussions of how to practice more effectively, how to find the right teacher, and more. The DVD set is certainly not inexpensive, but if regarded as a master-class lesson, it is more than reasonably priced. Violin students interested in this famous Bruch concerto will find here a treasure trove of information and guidance – this is a remarkably useful release for its admittedly narrow target audience.

     The audience is surely intended to be wider for a new CD featuring pianist James Rhodes, but what narrows things down here is the self-indulgence of the whole project. Rhodes is determined to achieve pop-star status in the classical-music world by using a certain amount of pop-star attitude, reflected in this case by entitling the unusually packaged and designed disc “Five” because it is his fifth release – and by creating his own label, Instrumental Records, to handle the recording. Rhodes is scarcely the first performer to set up a label of his own – indeed, it has become quite common for individuals, ensembles and orchestras to do so, for purely economic reasons – but Rhodes’ entry is on the grandiose side, with the pianist claiming that the label exists to further multiple artists’ endeavors and as part of Rhodes’ own overall dedication to music education. So far, though, there is nothing here to hold even a small candle to something like the St. John DVD release. Rhodes takes a highly visual approach to classical music – not on this CD, of course, but in his live and DVD performances and on TV – and seems determined to make it as “cool” as pop music (for those who consider pop music “cool”). Pop music focuses more on the performer and less on the works performed than classical music generally does, so Rhodes’ approach lets him put himself very much center stage at all times. More power to him if that works for him; and if it does bring new listeners to classical music, more power to the whole concept. But this specific recording really does nothing to advance Rhodes’ stated cause or to attract new or existing classical-music lovers. There is nothing bad here, but there is nothing revelatory, either. Bach played on piano is always a compromise, and Rhodes’ determination to make Bach’s Partita No. 1 into a pianistic work does neither composer nor performer very much good. Rhodes’ way with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata is all right, but the performance lacks nuance and sensitivity – it is fine, but scarcely stirring. Rhodes seems more comfortable with Chopin, giving rather over-indulgent readings that at least reflect a high level of emotional commitment. And the two short encore pieces are played quite adequately. The CD as a whole, though, does not possess any particular thematic unity or any forcefulness in arguing for the music – lacking a visual element, Rhodes must be judged strictly as an interpreter, and on that basis he is middle-of-the-road rather than highly distinguished.

     There is thematic unity to the world-première recording of Gabriel Fauré’s Lydia’s Vocalises, and here there is also a teaching element: the works were written when the composer headed the Paris Conservatoire and were intended to help teach and improve students’ vocal techniques. There are 30 of these very short works, most lasting less than one minute, and the recording also includes six “appendix” Vocalises, some certainly by Fauré and others probably by him. The entire recording of music unheard for a century is of historical value and of importance to those interested in Fauré and in the reforms he brought to music education, but the works themselves – even as arranged in the six neat groupings they receive on this Linn Records disc – are of variable quality and only intermittently interesting. And the decision to perform them on trumpet and piano is an odd one: yes, the trumpet makes possible clarity of expression and articulation in a way that Fauré would surely have favored, but unlike, say, the clarinet or French horn, the trumpet has little of the “human voice” register or range that would make its use here a clear choice. And these are not “songs without words” – they are instructional materials, usually with very simple chordal accompaniments in the piano; they lack the sort of emotive qualities that would make a trumpet-and-piano reading truly compelling. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood and Roy Howat handle the music well, but there is little of strictly musical value here, although there are certainly elements of extramusical interest for historians and musical academicians. The CD is filled out with a potpourri of arrangements in which Freeman-Attwood is accompanied by Daniel-Ben Pienaar. These include Chabrier’s Aubade and Danse villageoise; Saint-Saëns’ Romanza poco adagio from his Cello Sonata No. 2; A Chloris by Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947); Rameau’s Overture and Gavotte pour les Zephirs from the Naïs Suite; Couperin’s Cromorne sur la Taille from Messe pour les Couvents; a work called Grand Dialogue by Louis Marchand (1669-1732); and the Allegro non troppo from Fauré’s Deuxième Sonate pour Violin et Piano. None of these works is of much consequence when heard on trumpet and piano and when isolated from the larger pieces from which most are taken; the pieces come across as an extended series of encores, pleasant enough to hear but scarcely a reason for most people to own this disc – although trumpet players will likely find the CD an attractive demonstration of their instrument’s capabilities.

     A specialty item of a different sort, and also one packed with world-première recordings, is a new Naxos CD featuring music by Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk (born 1938). Six of the eight works here have never been recorded before – in particular, both Skoryk’s Violin Concerto No. 7 (2009) and his Cello Concerto (1983) get their first recorded readings here. These two works show Skoryk’s personal style quite clearly: his is music of dramatic and often unexpected contrasts, with intensity and dynamism suddenly turning into or following passages of lyricism and even sweetness – although, more usually, the tone is bittersweet. Nazary Pilatyuk and Valery Kazakov make fine soloists in the concertos, and the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra under Hobart Earle performs admirably in support and throughout this recording, which was made during live performances marking Skoryk’s 75th birthday in 2013. The other world premières here are of shorter works: Diptych (1993), the humorous Caprice No. 19 from “24 Paganini Caprices” (2003), the quietly thoughtful Melody (1981), and the Spanish Dance from “The Stone Host Suite” (1973). The two pieces here that have been recorded in the past are the short “Childhood” from the “Hutsul Triptych” (1965) and the particularly approachable Carpathian Concerto for Orchestra (1972). This last work’s combination of rhythmic clarity and folk-music elements makes it unusually accessible for a work of its time. Skoryk may not have all the incisiveness and appeal of other composers from the region, but he does have a distinctive voice that emerges in music that is quite well-crafted.

     Folk music’s influence on classical works is longstanding, but classical ensembles that actually perform folk music are far more unusual. The Danish String Quartet’s new Dacapo release is therefore something of a rarity. There are 13 tracks here, three of them being the three parts of Ye Honest Bridal Couple/Sønderho Bridal Trilogy, from Denmark’s Faroe Islands – the islands to which Carl Nielsen once took an imaginary journey about which he composed a rhapsody overture. The music here is far more straightforward than Nielsen’s 10-minute work, although the three parts combined last just about as long. Here the folk elements predominate and there is no attempt at tone-painting. Nor, indeed, is there anything especially “classical” in approach or intent in the 10 remaining pieces on the disc, of which four are from Denmark, three from Norway and three from Sweden. Many classical composers have been inspired by folk music and have incorporated it into their works to a greater or lesser degree. But what the performers do here is simply arrange a variety of folk tunes for string quartet, not attempting to make them grander or more complex than they already are. This is therefore a straightforward presentation of some very listenable but scarcely compelling music – everything is very well played, and the quartet members seem to be enjoying themselves, but the music itself has little staying power and is largely inconsequential despite its manifest pleasantries.

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