October 30, 2014
(+++) TALES FROM THE KEYBOARD
Music for Brass and Organ. Thompson Brass Ensemble with Barbara Bruns, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The Wanamaker Organ Centennial Concert: Music for Organ and Orchestra by Guilmant, Jongen and Widor. Peter Richard Conte, organ; Symphony in C conducted by Rossen Milanov. Gothic Records. $18.99.
Stephen Paulus: Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra; Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra—Three Places of Enlightenment; Veil of Tears for String Orchestra. Nathan J. Laube, organ; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $9.99.
Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28; Mazurkas—Op. 6, No. 1; Op. 17, Nos. 2 and 4; Op. 50, No. 3; Op. 63, No. 3; Nocturnes—Op. 9, No. 3; Op. 27, No. 2. Ingrid Fliter, piano. Linn Records. $22.99.
Scarlatti: Complete Keyboard Sonatas, Volume 15. Orion Weiss, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Lovers of organ music and of the mellow, mellifluous sound of well-played brass will enjoy the new MSR Classics CD featuring 11 works – most of them transcriptions – from nine composers. Bach and Giovanni Gabrieli are represented twice, the former with the well-known choral prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele and the Fantasia in G, BWV 572; the latter with Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2 and Canzon Noni Toni from Sacrae Symphoniae. There is no apparent order to the presentation of these four works or of the others here: Suite of Dances from Les Fêtes Vénitiennes by André Campra; Senza Misura from the Sonata for Trumpet and Organ, Op. 200 by Alan Hovhaness; Dream Pantomime from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel; Adagio from the Four Canonic Studies by Schumann; Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern by Buxtehude; Procession of the Nobles from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada; and Solemn Entry of the Knights of the Order of St. John by Richard Strauss. This is quite a disparate collection, giving listeners a considerable taste of the way organ-and-brass arrangements of music of many periods sound, and showing off Barbara Bruns’ skills at the consoles of three Fisk organs in Massachusetts – at the Old West Church in Boston, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Gloucester, and Christ Church in Andover. Bruns’ sound mingles pleasantly, and frequently with considerable splendor, with that of the Thompson Brass Ensemble, led by trumpeter James Thompson. Not all the music is equally striking: the Gabrieli, Rimsky-Korsakov and Strauss compositions are standouts, the Humperdinck and Schumann less so. Still, the disc is a welcome opportunity for organists and organ fanciers to hear the instrument in a combination that is of relatively recent vintage but that carries with it considerable pleasure as a way of arranging music of earlier times.
The pleasures are manifest as well in a Gothic Records release focusing on the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in Philadelphia – the largest operational pipe organ in the world. Peter Richard Conte is featured in four works, two of them very substantial indeed, with which this hundred-year-old instrument is at least marginally connected. Symphony No. 6 by Charles-Marie Widor is the best-known piece here, and Conte gives it a fine, full-throated reading with the accompaniment of the ensemble called Symphony in C, conducted by Rossen Milanov. Conte is in his 25th year as Wanamaker Grand Court Organist – a somewhat puffed-up title that nevertheless reflects the importance of this instrument. The Widor symphony was first performed in this version on the Wanamaker organ in 1919, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. A less-known organ symphony, No. 2 by Félix Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911), is also on this disc – and also proves a very substantial piece, its five movements well constructed to show off the capabilities of the soloist. Guilmant did not write the work for the Wanamaker organ, which did not yet exist in its present form, but he gave 40 recitals on its predecessor instrument and is thus closely connected to its history. The connection of the third composer heard on this disc, Joseph Jongen (1873-1953), is a bit more tenuous: he wrote only three pieces for organ and orchestra, and one of them, A Grand Celebration, was indeed composed for the Wanamaker – but that work is not given here. Instead, Conte and Milanov offer Jongen’s other organ-and-orchestra works, Alleluja and Hymne, which both draw more explicitly on the organ as a church instrument than do the symphonies by Widor and Guilmant. Grand-scale organ music performed on a grand-scale instrument is the order of the day here, in a program that bypasses the usual helping of Bach and Buxtehude to deliver pleasures that may be somewhat rarefied – organ music in general is something of an acquired taste – but that are substantial for those who enjoy experiencing them.
The Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra by Stephen Paulus (born 1949) is conceived on a scale nearly as large as that of the Widor and Guilmant works, but its structure and means of communication are quite different. It is a work filled with the very wide contrasts typical of 21st-century classical music (it dates to 2004), and its melodies and keyboard requirements are broad, sweeping and meant to impress. The movement designations are particularly apt: “Vivacious and Spirited,” “Austere; Foreboding,” and “Jubilant.” Nathan J. Laube brings forth exactly those feelings and emotions in a world première recording for Naxos, and the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero – a conductor who has worked with Paulus for many years – delivers strong, balanced and nuanced accompaniment. Nearly as interesting in concept as the Grand Concerto is another work that here receives its world première: Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra—Three Places of Enlightenment. The solo quartet (Jun Iwasaki and Carolyn Wann Bailey, violins; Daniel Reinker, viola; Anthony LaMarchina, cello) is set against orchestral strings that get as much of a workout as the soloists do. And that is saying something, since these soloists are principals of their Nashville Symphony sections (first and second violins, violas and cellos). Where this 1995 work falls short is not structurally but in its rather ordinary journey to the supposed “places of enlightenment.” The movements are “From Within,” “From Afar” and “From All Around and Radiating Ever Outward,” and the overall effect is somewhat too New Age-y to evoke emotions beyond that of admiration for the quality of the performance. The third work on this disc, and the only one previously recorded, is the highly evocative Veil of Tears for String Orchestra, taken from Paulus’ Holocaust oratorio, To Be Certain of the Dawn (2005). Unlike the somewhat overdone Three Places of Enlightenment, this short, quietly reflective piece conveys a sense of mourning in a simple, straightforward and affecting manner.
For listeners whose tastes run more to the keyboard of a percussion instrument (piano) than that of a wind instrument (organ), Ingrid Fliter’s (++++) performance of Chopin’s Op. 28 Preludes will be a real treat. There are many fine recordings of this music, and which one (or which ones) a listener selects will depend largely on the particular emphasis that high-quality pianists choose to bring to the works. Fliter goes for the emotions underlying the Preludes, seeing these pieces as a kind of “salon music with much more depth” rather than chances for virtuoso display – although she is certainly not lacking in technique. Her handling of several minor-key Preludes is especially involving: No. 8 in F-sharp minor, No. 10 in C-sharp minor, No. 22 in G minor and No. 24 in D minor all come off particularly well here. The first three of those all have the word molto before their tempo indications, while No. 24 is marked Allegro appassionato, and Fliter takes Chopin at his word, emphasizing in particular the agitation built into and created by the music. No. 10 is actually the shortest of the Preludes, but Fliter does not allow it or similarly brief works, such as No. 7 in A, to become mere punctuation points: she explores each piece carefully and thoroughly, making up through involvement what the works lack in duration. These Preludes are passionate in some pianists’ readings, emotionally involving in many renditions. In Fliter’s Linn Records recording, they are eloquent. The CD is filled out with five assorted Mazurkas and two Nocturnes, all of them treated with the same degree of respect and the same seeking of their emotional core that Fliter brings to the set of Preludes. The result is a disc that is not only well-played but also strongly emotionally expressive.
The playing quality is certainly there as well in the 15th volume of Orion Weiss’ exploration of the complete Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas, of which there are 555. Weiss, however, follows a rather disingenuous pianistic practice by calling these works “keyboard” sonatas, which they are not. Even more so than other works of their time, these pieces are intended for the harpsichord and specifically designed to be played on it – the complex hand-crossings of the middle-period sonatas, for example, are directly connected to the instrument’s action, scope and capabilities. No one would deny pianists the chance to play these wonderful, compact, highly varied works. But the piano’s lesser elegance and greater emotive power tend to lead to the sonatas being seen as emotional vehicles in a way that Scarlatti never intended. Weiss, like other pianists who perform this music, deliberately looks for connections both musical and emotional, and thus offers 19 sonatas on his new Naxos recording in a sequence having nothing to do with the works’ chronology and everything to do with the ways in which the pianist believes they connect with each other – or wants them to interconnect. The specific sonatas here, using their Kirkpatrick numbers, are: D minor, K. 552; C, K. 326; A minor, K. 265; G, K. 455; E minor, K. 233; D, K. 177; B minor, K. 293; A, K. 220; F-sharp minor, K. 448; E, K. 216; D minor, K. 553; C, K. 72; F minor, K. 365; E-flat, K. 253; C minor, K. 230; B-flat, K. 439; G minor, K. 43; F, K. 296; and D minor, K. 92. The emotional reason for alternating major-key and minor-key sonatas is clear, as is the mixture of early, middle and late ones to attain greater emotive impact. Whether or not this is the best way to hear Scarlatti is a matter of opinion. It certainly plays well to modern sensibilities; but by the same token, it is an inauthentic way to present this music, which is quite capable of standing and succeeding entirely on its own and on the instrument for which it was written. Weiss’ well-played (+++) CD ably continues his Scarlatti project, and will certainly please listeners looking for a 21st-century pianistic approach to this 18th-century music.