October 16, 2014


Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring—versions for orchestra and for piano four hands. Sinfonieorchester Basel conducted by Dennis Russell Davies; Davies and Maki Namekawa, piano four hands. Sinfonieorchester Basel. $18.99.

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Antigone; Oedipus in Kolonos. Anne Bennent, Julia Nachtmann, Angela Winkler, Joachim Kuntzsch and Michael Ransburg, narrators; Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Claudia Schubert, alto; Manfred Bittner, bass; Kammerchor Stuttgart, Hofkapelle Stuttgart and Klassiche Philharmonie Stuttgart conducted by Frieder Bernius. Carus. $34.99 (3 CDs).

Joseph Summer: Shakespeare Concerts 3—Goddesses. Navona. $16.99.

Cantus: A Harvest Home. Cantus Sings. $20.

A Thanksgiving of American Folk Hymns. The Choirs and Orchestra of Brigham Young University. BYU Records. $16.99.

     Although far better known as a concert work – and as a huge challenge for any conductor – Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was always conceived as a ballet. And although it was planned from the start as an orchestral piece, a four-hand-piano version was created as a study and rehearsal guide and was actually published before the ballet’s première in 1913. Hearing excellent performances of the two versions on a new CD on the Sinfonieorchester Basel’s own label is revelatory. Dennis Russell Davies, a fine pianist as well as a conductor, brings both technical and expository skill to the work in its two forms (actually two of its three forms: there was also a version for solo piano, now unfortunately lost). Even without the visual element of the ballet, The Rite of Spring is so carefully structured that anyone who knows its program can envision what is happening on stage – in fact, Stravinsky wrote in detail about the actions that his music portrays. Davies conducts the orchestra with care and a sure hand, letting the music flow and build naturally in a structure that even today sounds revolutionary – for example, in the way in which sections become louder through the addition of instruments rather than through changing dynamics (essentially a bold reinterpretation and highly dramatic use of the Rossini crescendo). The astonishingly dramatic, pounding rhythms and their near-constant changes, the still-bold-sounding use of the orchestra as a rhythmic rather than melodic device, the abrupt section-to-section changes that nevertheless serve an overarching structural purpose – all these come through clearly here, with the excellent playing of Sinfonieorchester Basel making the soft sections of the work as dramatic as the loud and intense ones. The piano-four-hands version, in which Davies is joined by Maki Namekawa, is subtler as well as being more stripped-down. Similar to the orchestral work but not identical to it, the piano-four-hands rendition strips The Rite of Spring to its essentials, lacking the color of the version for orchestra (and this is, to be sure, a huge loss) but having a certain sinewy power that accentuates the matter-of-fact brutality of the story very effectively indeed. This is a very fine release that provides genuine insight into a seminal work not only of modern ballet but also of 20th-century music as a whole.

     Also intended for the stage and also heard far more frequently in concert, Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream sparkles and bubbles in a 1997 Stuttgart performance led by Frieder Bernius and now available on the Carus label. This is a far more complete and authentic rendition than is usually heard on disc, never mind in concert: it includes not only the singing but also all the narration, and places the music for the melodramas properly in context by having it played behind spoken dialogue rather than on its own, in the forefront – a way that Mendelssohn never intended. This sort of musical melodrama, highly popular in Mendelssohn’s time, has long since fallen from favor, but it is important to hear in this work, because it shows how carefully the composer melded – or distinguished – words and notes. The performance is in German, as was the original composition: Mendelssohn learned English quite well, but did not know it at the time of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Carus has done an outstanding job of presenting Bernius’ finely balanced and highly effective performance: there are extensive booklet notes about the work and a full libretto in German and English. The result is a version of the complete A Midsummer Night’s Dream that will be a must-have for anyone who wants to know how the composer really wanted this marvelous setting of Shakespeare to sound. And there is equally fine treatment accorded by Bernius and Carus to two 2004 performances of Mendelssohn works that are far less familiar than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They are Mendelssohn’s settings of the second and third parts of Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy: Oedipus in Kolonos (the last of the plays to be written, but the second in terms of its events) and Antigone (the third in the event timeline). The stately seriousness of Mendelssohn’s setting of these works, where his focus was primarily on the Greek choruses, contrasts starkly with the airiness of his Shakespeare setting. But the works are noticeably similar in their use of spoken dialogue, musical background and faithfulness to their underlying texts. Mendelssohn’s handling of the Greek plays is surprisingly forward-looking, in some ways resembling  Carl Orff’s declamatory Antigonae, which dates to 1949, more than a century after Mendelssohn’s death, and is also in German. Mendelssohn’s settings are essentially encapsulations of the Sophoclean tragedies, presenting much of what happens without attempting to be comprehensive. They are talk-oriented in a way that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not, yet they also contain music that is apt and explanatory, furthering the verbal elements and adding tension and drama to them. Interestingly, Antigone was for a time one of Mendelssohn’s most popular works (although Oedipus in Kolonos never was). Today, when the form in which Mendelssohn worked is rarely used – Orff notwithstanding – the music may seem more of a distraction than an enhancement. But it is worthy in itself, if not at the level of Mendelssohn’s Shakespeare setting, and this admirably paced and sung Oedipus in Kolonos and Antigone provide a rare opportunity to hear Mendelssohn as a stage composer who was adept at working within a form that was highly popular in his time.

     Shakespeare, of course, continues to enthrall composers and stage performers alike. Among modern composers finding inspiration in Shakespeare’s works is Joseph Summer, whose Oxford Songs is a collection of settings of Shakespeare’s sonnets and scenes. The third Navona release in the Shakespeare Concerts series, which focuses largely on Summer’s work, is officially devoted to goddesses – as the CD’s title says – but actually includes both divine and human manifestations of the feminine. There are six selections here, the longest and most elaborate by far (and the most goddess-oriented) being Honour, Riches, Marriage-Blessing, to words from The Tempest. There are also settings from Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and Hamlet – respectively, Gallop Apace You Fiery-Footed Steeds, If Music Be the Food of Love, and There Is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook. Two sonnet settings complete the disc: number CXXVII, “In the Old Age Black Was Not Counted Fair,” and number XVIII, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” The settings are uniformly sensitive both to the words’ meanings and to their poetic rhythms, and Summer does a fine job of creating varying ensembles to present the music: Sonnet CXVII, for instance, is for four voices, French horn, string quartet and bass, while Sonnet XVIII is for mezzo-soprano, flute, string quartet and bass. The differing ensembles both reflect and emphasize the different cast of the poetry, creating a pleasing musical contrast that parallels the contrasting subject matter. Likewise, the play scenes are set vocally and instrumentally in ways designed to highlight their meaning and emotional underpinning: sparest of all is the Hamlet excerpt, for soprano and piano, but even the extended material from The Tempest uses only a piano as an instrument, weaving above it three separate and harmonized voices – two sopranos and a mezzo-soprano. All the performers handle their roles with sensitivity and apparent understanding of Shakespeare’s fluent and mellifluous language, showing the Oxford Songs to be an effective way of communicating the timeless elements of Shakespeare to audiences in the 21st century.

     The latest release by the vocal group Cantus, on its own label, is more time-bound, being specifically oriented toward Thanksgiving. Its “stage” orientation involves both the group’s physical performances around the United States and their virtual ones on the electronic scene: this disc announces itself as “Recorded Live for Broadcast.” The works here are a touch on the monochromatic side, both musically and thematically, resulting in a (+++) rating for the production. This is certainly not to fault Cantus’ handling of Mendelssohn’s Trinklied or Grieg’s Tyteberet, or for that matter the singers’ performance of America the Beautiful, Simple Gifts or Turkey in the Straw. Everything is beautifully harmonized, warm and even lush in expression, and sung with pleasant but never-too-deep feeling – this is comfortable music and comfort music, quite suitable for chilly autumn evenings if not for in-depth contemplation. Taken as a whole, the disc is seasonal and unlikely to receive frequent reuse, even though some of the songs are quite appropriate anytime: A Thankful Heart, For the Beauty of the Earth, and, on the lighter side, Food, Glorious Food. But the mixture of hymns and secular music, the emphasis on being thankful for whatever sort of abundance one has (material or spiritual), and the overall sound of the arrangements, together make this CD a fine Thanksgiving tie-in – but a touch too narrow in focus to provide all-year-round listening pleasure.

     Similarly, a very pleasant and nicely sung (+++) CD called A Thanksgiving of American Folk Hymns offers music that is mostly unchallenging to hear (although not always to perform) and has a seasonal focus with both secular and sacred elements. Four Brigham Young University choirs are heard in these 18 works: the BYU Singers, conducted by Ronald Staheli; the BYU Men’s Chorus and BYU Concert Choir, both conducted by Mack Wilberg; and the BYU Women’s Chorus, conducted by Amy Dalton. Singing sometimes a cappella, sometimes with support from the BYU Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Dalton, the choirs perform works ranging from the well-known Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts, and martial Battle Hymn of the Republic (a rather warlike offering for the peacefulness of Thanksgiving) to the African-American spiritual Let Me Fly and the American folk hymns The Morning Trumpet, Wondrous Love and Cindy.  Most listeners will know a selection of these works, but relatively few will know them all, making this BYU Records release a journey of discovery as well as celebration. There is even one orchestral piece here – an excerpt from Copland’s Symphony No. 3 – to complement the vocal material. This is a digitally remastered 20th-anniversary edition of a disc that, although tied to a specific time of year, is timeless in its words of thanks and spiritual uplift, and that offers warmth of expression and feeling that is welcome at any time of year.

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