August 28, 2014
(++++) UNUSUALLY INTERESTING
Music for Alfred Hitchcock—works by Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Arthur Benjamin and Danny Elfman. Klaudia Kidon, soprano; Danish National Concert Choir and Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Mauceri. Toccata Classics. $18.99.
Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No. 3; Haydn: String Quartet No. 61 (“Quinten”); Grieg: Holberg Suite—Air; Brahms: String Quartet No. 3—Agitato; Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 3—Allegro non troppo. The American String Project. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Maya Beiser: Uncovered. Maya Beiser, cello. Innova. $14.99.
Music need not be great to be intriguing and enjoyable. There are times when the sheer cleverness of music composed for popular consumption makes it very much worth hearing – and the cleverness of arrangements and performances add to the fun. John Mauceri has edited and arranged a variety of works written for Alfred Hitchcock films by some of the best film composers of the 20th century, and the result is a Toccata Classics CD that is scarcely important in any grandiose way but is too enjoyable to ignore. Included here are Bernard Herrmann items for The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho – the last of these an extended “Narrative for String Orchestra” that will remind filmgoers of some the most-chilling scenes of that 1960 classic. From Franz Waxman comes music from Rebecca and Rear Window; from Dimitri Tiomkin, pieces from Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder; and from Danny Elfman, end-credits music from the 2012 film Hitchcock – the only work here not commissioned by Hitchcock, who died in 1980. There is even a vocal piece, called “The Storm Clouds – Cantata,” written by Arthur Benjamin for The Man Who Knew Too Much and arranged by Herrmann, the film’s primary composer. This gives soprano Klaudia Kidon and the Danish National Concert Choir a chance to hold forth in Hitchcockian terms along with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, which plays throughout the CD with considerable enthusiasm. The disc makes no attempt to be comprehensive – after all, Hitchcock directed more than 50 films in his 60-year career – and fans may regret the omission of some items, such as Herrmann’s music for The Birds or even the theme from the TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (which was Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette). But the reality is that this is a very generous Hitchcock music sampler indeed – the disc runs 81 minutes, which is all a single CD can hold – and four of the pieces here receive their first-ever recordings in these versions. This is a live recording, and a very good one – and who knows? It might lead Mauceri or another conductor back to the Hitchcock film-music library at some point in the future.
The works played by the conductorless chamber group called The American String Project are more-traditional classical fare, but these too are arrangements – and are as interesting in their unusual way as the Hitchcock film works are in theirs. The chamber music here was arranged by ensemble founder Barry Lieberman, who has led concerts of his arrangements of quartets and quintets since 2002. On this MSR Classics disc, he and the ensemble undertake a particularly difficult task in playing Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3 – a dark, dense and difficult work whose funerary sound is entirely intentional: the third movement is intriguingly marked Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto. The 1876 quartet is a memorial to Czech violinist Ferdinand Laub, who had died the previous year, and Tchaikovsky makes considerable demands of the violins in terms of both technique and expressiveness. Lieberman’s arrangement has a rich sonorousness that expands the sound Tchaikovsky was looking for without overwhelming the themes beneath too many instruments. The ensemble’s tempos are convincing, if slightly on the fast side here and there, and the playing is uniformly excellent. This arrangement will surely never supplant the original, which is one of Tchaikovsky’s most moving works, but it is very much worth hearing for its own sake. And it contrasts quite effectively with Haydn’s “Quinten” (“Fifths”) Quartet, Op. 76, No. 2, the first work ever rehearsed and performed by Lieberman’s group and therefore something of a classic within this rarefied atmosphere. Named for the falling fifths that open and dominate the first movement, the work is as well-made as are all the Op. 76 quartets – and features a particularly intriguing Menuetto that is sometimes known as the Hexenminuett (“Witches’ Minuet”). The verve and spirit of the ensemble in this work are as effective as its depth and intensity in the Tchaikovsky. The CD concludes with three “encore movements” that further display the group’s emotive abilities: warmth and emotional evocation in the Grieg, strength and depth in the Brahms, and fine balance and rhythmic skill in the Shostakovich. While all the quartet music here is better heard in its original form, these ensemble versions bring their own considerable pleasures. They will be especially enjoyable to the listeners who are most familiar with the works as they were written and are interested in hearing them in a new light.
The Innova CD featuring cellist Maya Beiser is a lesser “arrangements” disc, not because of a lower skill level but because the music itself is simply less interesting. Beiser here “covers” (in pop-music terms) a variety of works by Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd and others, but the CD is called Uncovered in an apparent attempt to suggest that these vocal works of classic rock somehow have a great deal to say as cello-focused instrumentals. This is, however, nonsense, no matter how well Beiser plays – and she plays very well indeed, which is why the disc gets a (+++) rating and will be of interest to cellists as well as to fans of the original music heard here. Beiser and Innova might have considered watching the music video 4 Chords by The Axis of Awesome before choosing these works and this disc’s title: the video hilariously shows just how many pop and rock songs are built on the same dull, repetitive chordal structure. That does not mean that all similarly created songs sound the same with vocals – certainly Muddy Waters’ Louisiana Blues sounds nothing like Jimi Hendrix’ Little Wing – but it does mean that there is an underlying sameness to a great deal of pop and rock music, a sameness that Beiser’s arrangements and fine playing cannot ultimately dispel. This is a disc that intrigues in some ways but simply misfires in others, as Beiser puts her considerable ability at the service of music that does not repay it particularly well.