September 11, 2014
(++++) ROADS LESS TAKEN
Lehár: Wo die Larche singt. Gerhard Ernst, Sieglinde Feldhofer, Yevgeny Tauntsov, Wolfgang Gerold, Miriam Portmann, Florian Resetarits, Sinja Maschke; Chor des Lehár Festivals Bad Ischl and Franz Lehár-Orchester conducted by Marius Burkert. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Bartók: Kossuth—Symphonic Poem; Two Portraits; Suite No. 1. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3—original version (1873). Altomonte Orchester St. Florian conducted by Rémy Ballot. Gramola. $18.99.
Mozart: Bassoon Concerto; Françaix: Divertissement for Bassoon and String Orchestra; Vivaldi: Bassoon Concerto in C, RV 472; Villa-Lobos: Ciranda das Sete Notas for Bassoon and String Orchestra; Elgar: Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra. Rui Lopes, bassoon; English Chamber Orchestra. Solo Musica. $18.99.
Many, many people know Franz Lehár as the composer of the incomparably tuneful, gorgeously and seductively scored Die lustige Witwe, one of the greatest operettas ever written. Fewer, although still a fair number, know of his longtime collaboration with Richard Tauber after World War I, a relationship that blossomed through works such as Paganini and Das Land des Lächelns. But very few music lovers know of the Lehár who composed between The Merry Widow and the later Tauber-focused works. This is the Lehár of war and the runup to it, the composer whose world of elegant salons and flippant aristocratic dalliances collapsed around him as World War I systematically destroyed rulers and their empires. This is the Lehár of Endlich allein (1914), Der Sterngucker (1916) and Wo die Lerche singt (1918). The last of these was the most affected by the war, having been largely written in 1915-16 and completed in 1917. It is almost wholly unknown nowadays, although it was in its time the composer’s second-most-successful work at Theater an der Wein, trailing only Die lustige Witwe. And it was the only Lehár operetta to have its première in Budapest – fitting, since the whole work is set in Hungary, to which the setting was moved because of the war (the work was originally to take place in Russia, which was on the other side in the conflict). CPO’s recording of Wo die Lerche singt is a very fine one and will be of exceptional interest to those who love Lehár and are interested in the way he developed into a composer of sentimental dramas with unhappy endings – along the lines of his good friend Puccini, whose own La Rondine (1920) shares many of the feelings expressed by Lehár in Wo die Lerche singt. The libretto set by Lehár (based on a German play from the 1840s) is a standard upstanding-country-vs.-corrupt-city tale: naïve young country girl falls for an artist who paints her while visiting her small town, follows him to the city, but discovers after some months that town life is not for her and she is not for him – so she returns to the country and her spurned fiancé, and he goes back to his sophisticated former lover. The ending is bittersweet rather than heartbreaking – less emotionally fraught than the conclusions of later Lehár operettas – and the characterizations are on the one-dimensional side. But the music is highly expressive, especially in the effective way Lehár contrasts country girl Margit (Sieglinde Feldhofer) with city woman Vilma (Miriam Portmann). The various relatives, hangers-on and servants all fill their roles effectively, while Margit’s grandfather, Török Pál (Gerhard Ernst), makes an effective contrast to the superficial, city-focused painter, Sándor Zápolja (Yevgeny Tauntsov). In music and plot, Wo die Lerche singt is neither here nor there – it is easy to see it, with hindsight, as a transitional work for Lehár. It is nevertheless effective on its own terms and as representative of a time of enormous upheaval in the composer’s life and in the world in which he lived and worked. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the recording – of a live performance – is significantly undermined for English speakers by the absence of a libretto or any link to one online. The audience in Bad Ischl frequently reacts to elements of the dialogue and music that those not fluent in German will be wholly unable to understand. CPO’s very brief synopsis of the operetta’s action is no substitute for access to a translated libretto – it is a real shame that the company persists in undermining the excellence of its Lehár releases by preventing non-German speakers from understanding the musical numbers’ words and the very extensive dialogue and thus from enjoying the performances fully.
The Bad Ischl Festival specializes in less-known Lehár; JoAnn Falletta focuses on the obscure, too, but casts a wider net by performing less-known music by well-known composers as well as works whose creators are themselves unfamiliar. Falletta’s new Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra CD on the Naxos label offers works by Bartók that are so intriguing that their comparative obscurity is hard to explain. True, they are early works, in which the composer was still groping toward a unique style and his later intense focus on folk music. But these pieces communicate so well and are so interestingly orchestrated that one would expect orchestras seeking something out of the ordinary to play them at least from time to time. Perhaps this very well-performed CD will encourage some to do so. Kossuth is a dramatic symphonic poem whose subject is the unsuccessful 1848 battle for Hungarian independence – part of Europe-wide protests and rebellions in that year. The scene-setting may remind some listeners of works such as Dvořák’s Hussite Overture, despite the difference in sound and the fact that Bartók’s work does not end with a musical promise of eventual triumph. Bartók does offer some very well-done musical storytelling here, albeit in line with what was being done by others in the late 19th century (especially in Richard Strauss’ tone poems) rather than in any significantly personalized direction. Two Portraits, featuring a fine solo violin performance by Michael Ludwig, is a work of strong contrasts between the initial, comparatively lengthy Ideal: Andante and the following, much shorter Grotesque: Presto. Again, there is nothing new here musically, despite the considerable emotional impact. But Suite No. 1, first performed in 1905 and revised in 1920, does hint strongly at the direction in which Bartók was to go: it follows the well-worn form of the Baroque suite, with five movements in contrasting tempos and expressiveness, but its orchestration is unusual in mixing clarity and fullness – and its demands on performers look all the way ahead to the decades-later Concerto for Orchestra. This is a work of considerable interest that might be heard more often if it were not by Bartók, of whom we expect certain things that this piece does not yet fully deliver. Falletta makes a very strong case for the Suite No. 1 to be performed more frequently.
Another strong case, and an unusual one, is made for Bruckner’s Third Symphony by the Altomonte Orchester St. Florian under Rémy Ballot. This would scarcely seem, at first glance, to be a little-known work – but it is, in the version heard on this Gramola CD. Ballot does something rare here, performing the first (1873) version of the symphony, the one that Wagner allowed Bruckner to dedicate to him (Bruckner had asked Wagner to choose either his Second or his Third for the dedication). The labeling of this work as the “Wagner Symphony” likely puzzles some modern audiences, because in its later, more-often-performed revisions (1877 and 1889), it is not particularly Wagnerian except in scale. Indeed, this is the most-revised Bruckner symphony – there are six versions, and the very first is the grandest, especially when taken at the slow and stately pace that Bruckner wanted: this performance runs a full hour and a half (all of which, remarkably, the engineers at Gramola have managed to fit onto a single disc, in an extraordinary display of technical prowess: a CD almost never includes more than 80 minutes of music). Ballot does a fine job emphasizing the “Brucknerian” elements of the symphony, which is filled with quotations from Wagner’s works but is also the first Bruckner symphony in which the composer’s own unique style comes through clearly, from the opening trumpet motto that unites the work to the overall sense of majesty and monumental structure that listeners will readily identify as “typical” of Bruckner. Various conductors in recent times have successfully emphasized the Schubertian elements of Bruckner’s work and the delicacy with which he sometimes employs sections of the orchestra and even individual instruments – and this is a justifiable approach for the Third, particularly when conducting later versions of it. But in playing the first version, a large and strong sound is clearly called for, and this is what Ballot and his orchestra deliver. Together with their sensitivity to the symphony’s structure, it is the performers’ clear appreciation of the monumental elements of this work that makes this live recording an altogether winning one.
A combination of less-known and better-known music adds up to a very fine Solo Musica CD featuring bassoonist Rui Lopes and the English Chamber Orchestra. Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, with cadenzas by Lopes himself, is the centerpiece of the CD, played with verve and a fine sense of ensemble and fully exploring the bassoon’s varied moods, from the virtuosic to the comedic. Vivaldi’s concerto RV 472, one of more than three dozen that he wrote for the bassoon, is also a pleasure to hear: bright and relatively uncomplicated, it lets the soloist take center stage without requiring too much intensity or expressivity – what matters here is poise and balance. The same is true of Elgar’s poetic Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra of 1909-10, here receiving its world première recording in an arrangement that Lopes made for string orchestra. Elgar himself arranged the work for cello and orchestra, and its songfulness fits well on either solo instrument and also works in the Lopes string arrangement – although there is no particular reason to play it using strings alone as accompaniment, except perhaps to provide an even stronger focus on the soloist. Heitor Villa-Lobos’s 1933 Ciranda das Sete Notas was created for bassoon and string orchestra in the first place, and the blending and interplay during this dance fantasia come through very well in Lopes’ recording. Also here is Jean Françaix’s Divertissement, which receives its world première recording in a version for bassoon and string orchestra and which also sounds very fine indeed. Interestingly, this 1942 work was designed by the composer for full orchestra or string quintet, so the string-orchestra version is not much of a stretch. The Lopes disc bears the rather unnecessary title Through Time, presumably intended to show how the bassoon has been handled by composers from the 18th century well into the 20th. What is more interesting about this CD than the time span is the way in which the works frequently showcase the bassoon’s thoughtful and poetic potential rather than the amusingly bubbly sound with which it is more-often identified. The Elgar is the clearest example of this, but there are elements of this sort of sensitivity in all the works here, and Lopes’ warmth and fine breath control make his instrument’s emotive capabilities very clear indeed.