November 26, 2014


Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals; Percy Grainger: Shepherd’s Hey; Bernstein: Turkey Trot; Georgia Stitt and Jason Robert Brown: Waiting for Wings Overture; Johann Strauss Jr.: Nightingale Polka; Liadov: The Mosquito; Mussorgsky: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks; Respighi: The Cuckoo; Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee; Elgar: The Wild Bears; Gershwin: Walking the Dog (Promenade); Copland: Happy Ending from “The Red Pony.” Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by John Morris Russell. Fanfare Cincinnati. $16.99.

Carlos Kleiber in Rehearsal & Performance—Carl Maria von Weber and Johann Strauss. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Carol Kleiber. EuroArts DVD. $29.99.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Elsa Cavelti, alto; Ernst Haefliger, tenor; Otto Edelmann, bass; Lucerne Festival Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Audite. $18.99.

Asphalt Orchestra Plays Pixies. Cantaloupe Music. $16.99.

Michael G. Cunningham: Counter Currents; Trumpet Concerto; Piano Concerto; TransActions; Islands; Schubert Honorarium. Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Ian Winstin; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský and Vít Micka; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ovidiu Marinescu. Navona. $14.99.

     In a classic case of doing the wrong thing for the right reason, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conductor John Morris Russell has decided to try to bring classical music to young people by making a horrible mishmash of overdone depravity out of Saint-Saëns’ elegant, amusing, carefully orchestrated, wry and witty Carnival of the Animals. Never mind that the composer himself was very careful, in creating this work featuring two pianos (originally with chamber ensemble, later with orchestra), to make the presentations funny as well as subtle. Subtlety, Russell clearly thinks, is something to which young people cannot possibly respond. So he has re-orchestrated, rearranged and re-ordered the work. Tortoises dancing the can-can in slow motion? Get rid of it! (Russell omits the movement.) Pianists pacing up and down like caged animals? Too hard to understand! (He omits that one, too.) Elephants lumbering about? Well, all right, but start out with a trumpeting elephant call to make everything super-obvious. Oh – and put the elephants after the kangaroos instead of before them (that is really inexplicable). Russell’s execrable re-orchestration of Carnival of the Animals completely lacks the sensitivity of the original and turns it into an ugly cartoon version of itself – and it is worth remembering that the composer thought his original too personal and “unmusical” to be published. Russell even overdoes “Fossils” to such an extent that the xylophone seems like an afterthought, not a focus. This is a truly bad idea for a truly good purpose. Adults who do not give kids credit for having some musical taste, who have to dumb down a composition to try to reach some imagined lowest common denominator, are really doing young listeners a disservice. And what Russell does with Carnival of the Animals is even more of a shame because the rest of the CD containing the Saint-Saëns is played as the composers wished – no tinkering with Ravel’s orchestration of Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks from Pictures at an Exhibition, for instance, or with Respighi’s The Cuckoo from The Birds. The music that is played as intended proves far more effective than that with which Russell tampers. Indeed, Elgar’s The Wild Bears from the second suite from The Wand of Youth is a high point of this Fanfare Cincinnati CD, as is Johann Strauss Jr.’s Nightingale Polka (despite being unnecessarily preceded by some actual birdsong). There is even a work here written specifically for children: Waiting for Wings Overture by Georgia Stitt and Jason Robert Brown, inspired by Lois Ehlert’s children’s book. And it has none of the talking-down-to-kids elements that mar Russell’s approach to Carnival of the Animals. The CD as a whole is much better than its featured work. A little more respect for children, please.

     One of the most respected conductors of modern times was Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004), who remained something of an enigma to audiences because of his near-fanatical meticulousness, his insistence on multiple rehearsals of even the most familiar works, and his reluctance to appear on the podium with any significant frequency. As a result of all this, Kleiber left only a small recorded legacy, and many of his recordings produce near-fanatical admiration from his fans. They are the niche audience for a EuroArts DVD called Carlos Kleiber in Rehearsal & Performance—Carl Maria von Weber and Johann Strauss. Dating to 1970, this black-and-white presentation is a fascinatingly intimate look at Kleiber’s extensive rehearsals with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR. It shows his preoccupation with detail and precision while also showing his unusual manner on the podium: he is genuinely respectful of the orchestra and unfailingly polite to its members, bringing them along on the paths of his own imagination with charm and a certain winning elegance. Unfortunately for anyone not already steeped in Kleiber fandom, the 102-minute DVD, directed by Dieter Ertel, contains only 20 minutes of actual music-making: Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz and Johann Strauss Jr.’s overture to Die Fledermaus. Both performances are very well done – not a surprise after all the rehearsals beforehand – but they seem scarcely to be the point of this recording, which is more a portrait of an important artist in rehearsal than a concert, more a DVD about music than one of music. The recording is actually quite enlightening for anyone who wonders why there is so much fuss about conductors, who in concert seem to do little more than wave a baton about: it is what happens before the concert, not during it, that is the conductor’s real job and real focus. So the DVD may be useful to potential conductors and those who want to understand better how an orchestra leader works. In the main, though, it is for those who just cannot get enough material on Kleiber.

     Like Kleiber, Wilhelm Furtwängler has achieved near-cult status among his admirers. Unlike Kleiber, Furtwängler is very well represented in recordings, having made multiple ones of certain works – such as Beethoven’s Ninth – with various orchestras over a period of many years. Furtwängler (1886-1954) is a polarizing figure among music lovers, as are other super-high-profile conductors of the 20th century such as Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini and Herbert von Karajan. The issue with Furtwängler is that he took tempos as suggestions rather than indications, always felt free to modify speed and emphasis within a portion of a work even when the composer did not indicate that he should do so, and was generally more concerned with extracting maximum emotional effect from music on his own terms than in doing so on the terms of the composer. This entire style of conducting has largely gone out of favor nowadays in favor of literalism, historic performance practice and other attempts to bring modern audiences the sound and approach that composers would have heard in their own time. So listeners unfamiliar with Furtwängler will have some difficulty understanding what all the devotion is about. They will not likely be convinced of his greatness by the new Audite release of Furtwängler’s last recording of Beethoven’s Ninth, which was made at the Lucerne Festival on August 22, 1954, just three months before the conductor’s death. Audite has remastered the live recording from the original tapes, and has generally done a fine job; and Furtwängler was usually at his best in live performances rather than in the recording studio. So this is a version of the Ninth that is about as good a reflection on Furtwängler and his legacy as anyone is likely to get. It will likely cement the opinions of his fans without necessarily making any new ones. It has all the trademarks of intensity and emotional expressiveness associated with Furtwängler, and also his trademark capriciousness with tempos and sometimes even with rhythms. There is passion aplenty here, but it is at least as much the passion of Furtwängler as it is the passion of Beethoven. And that, finally, is the dividing line between those who revere Furtwängler and those who do not: his fans find his personal visions exemplary and revelatory, while non-fans are more interested in the composers’ views and intentions than in those of the conductor interpreting the music.

     The interpretations of the Asphalt Orchestra on a new Cantaloupe Music CD fall into another sphere entirely. This influential 12-piece New York ensemble here takes on a seminal alt-rock album by the Pixies, Surfer Rosa (1988), reworking and reimagining it in a series of new arrangements intended to stay true to the original while finding new things to say about it. As in classical works that pick up a composer’s intentions and move far beyond them in an expansive way – such as Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, notwithstanding the fact that the theme is not by Haydn – the Asphalt Orchestra’s work with the Pixies’ album is intended to go beyond the original while paying extended homage to it. The ensemble, which despite its name is really a marching band (even a marching-and-dancing band), explores and expands the innovations of the Pixies in ways that shed new light on what made the original recording special. Or at least they do so for people who are intimately familiar with the Pixies’ recording and genuinely interested in exploring it as more than what it sounds like on the surface, which is typically noisy rock-and-roll. In the absence of any visual, street-theater, performance-art aspect, which is a big element of the Asphalt Orchestra’s approach and its reason for being, Asphalt Orchestra Plays Pixies is strictly a recording for people who were so moved and fascinated by what the Pixies produced a quarter of a century ago that they want to explore the songs and sounds more deeply, and from different angles, today. That is a decidedly limited audience, but by definition a strongly committed one.

     The likely audience for a new Navona CD of the music of Michael G. Cunningham will be one interested in interactions among and within sections of a traditional orchestra. All six works on the disc are essentially orchestral, even though two are labeled as concertos: Cunningham’s primary interest is not in solo instruments but in the way in which solos are balanced with and opposed to larger groups. And although Cunningham follows essentially classical forms and orchestrations, he joins many other contemporary composers in drawing on types of music other than classical (principally jazz) and on nonmusical sounds as well. Thus, Counter Currents sounds themes and phrases against each other, leaving listeners to sort out the cacophony. The Trumpet Concerto uses a kind of expanded chamber-music approach by having “conversations” not among all instruments but primarily between the trumpet and the orchestra as a whole, while the Piano Concerto simply treats piano and orchestra as equals and is structured accordingly. The remaining works here are concerned more with contrasts in density – full or sparse – than with thematic development or emotional communication. As a whole, this is cerebral rather than emotive music, created to explore elements of orchestral music-making itself – a kind of navel-gazing that can be involving for those interested in the intricacies of how parts of an orchestra relate to themselves and each other, but not an approach likely to appeal to many people beyond a group sharing Cunningham’s rather rarefied musical interests and inclinations.

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