December 18, 2014


Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—A Night at Karlštejn Castle; Comenius—Festival Overture; The Jew of Prague—Overture; Hedy—Ballet Music; Hippodamia’s Death—March; Tableaux Vivants—Prologue to the Opening of the New Czech Theatre, The Great Musical Monograph of the Building of the National Theatre, Music for the Reopening of the National Theatre, Music for the Celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Jan Amos Comenius. Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri. Duke Vespers Ensemble and Cappella Baroque conducted by Brian Schmidt. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Sax Spectrum 2: New Music for Alto and Soprano Saxophone. Glen Gillis, alto and soprano saxophone; Bonnie Nicholson, piano; Richard Gillis, trumpet; James Cunningham, didgeridoo. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Ástor Piazzolla: Five Tango Sensations; Oblivion; Robert Di Marino: Concerto for Bandoneon and String Orchestra. Cesare Chiacchiaretta, bandoneon; Croatian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Naxos. $9.99.

     Here are some CDs that derive much of their pleasure from the sounds that the composers create and the performers elicit – that is, the appeal here is not so much one of form or mental appreciation as it is one of simple enjoyment of the skill with which composers create aural beauty and performers bring it out. Of course, this is not to say that the music is intended, like (say) much New Age and minimalist music, simply as sound in which one’s consciousness floats. Every work here has its point – but after listening to the recordings, a listener is as likely to be carried away by the sheer sonic experience as by the more intellectual elements underlying the musical works. The fourth volume of Naxos’ fine survey of the orchestral works of Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900) includes some of his shorter works and ones for theatrical projects, all of them very well played by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Marek Štilec. None of the pieces has significant depth; none seems designed to have any. Instead, what each does is encapsulate a particular mood and explore it effectively and in brief, with some very well-done orchestration. Inspired by a play, the concert overture A Night at Karlštejn Castle contrasts horn calls and wistful woodwinds with expressive string themes. A more celebratory piece, Comenius—Festival Overture was written in honor of the important 17th-century Czech writer and teacher, Jan Amos Comenius; but it is not the history but the sound of its ominous opening, Fibich’s use of lower brass, and the eventual triumphant conclusion that will most engage listeners. The overture to the tragedy The Jew of Prague has memorable episodes of menace and drama. The ballet music from Fibich’s fourth opera, Hedy, features picturesque and effective use of percussion, a solo cello, and considerable grace in the strings. The march from Hippodamia’s Death, third in a trilogy of musical melodramas, has strong pacing and a memorable use of harp. And then there are four works for the now-obsolete form of tableaux vivants: “staged pictures” presented a single time for a specific occasion and not intended to be seen, nor their music to be heard, again. The four examples by Fibich are short and to the point, with an appropriately celebratory sound, showing the composer’s skill with (again) the harp, as well as his particular ability to weave pleasant combinations of strings and woodwinds. Interestingly, Music for the Celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Jan Amos Comenius was written at the same time as Comenius—Festival Overture and uses the same theme, but is as brief and simply triumphal as the overture is extended and multifaceted.

     The sound world is very different but equally enthralling in the performance by the Duke Vespers Ensemble of Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri. The work’s full title, Membra Jesu Nostri Patientis Sanctissima, means "The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus" and consists of seven cantatas addressing seven parts of Christ’s body – with stanzas of a Medieval hymn interwoven with Biblical words (mostly from the Old Testament) that are taken to be about Jesus’ feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head. Considered the first Lutheran oratorio, Membra Jesu Nostri contains no fewer than 43 movements and is scored for two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass, plus two violins, basso continuo, and (in the sixth cantata, Ad cor or “To the heart”) a viola da gamba consort). The work is an extended one, lasting nearly an hour, and highly expressive within the Baroque framework in which Buxtehude composed. This MSR Classics recording features somewhat expanded forces – the Duke Vespers Ensemble has about 20 members – and some subtle, engaged and highly reverent phrasing of the musical material. A live recording, made at the Duke University Chapel in 2013, the performance is particularly notable for the warmth of the singers’ voices and the resonant beauty of the sound quality of the university’s neo-Gothic chapel. Cappella Baroque, founded by Brian Schmidt – who is Assistant Conductor of Chapel Music at Duke – uses period instruments, which add an underpinning of richness and solidity to the vocal material here. It is not necessary to follow the Latin or share Buxtehude’s (and Bach’s) Lutheran faith to be transported by this work, written in 1680, to a region of very considerable aural beauty.

     The sound is also the big attraction in an MSR Classics release featuring saxophonist Glen Gillis, but here the music is somewhat too slight to be as involving as the works of Fibich and Buxtehude, with the result that this CD gets a (+++) rating. It is nevertheless a feast for the ears of saxophone lovers. Gillis (born 1956) includes four works of his own and two co-written with others, all of them as new as can be, dating to this year: Fantasia, Aurora Australis, Celtic Air, Doppler Wah Wah Air Jig, Canis Lupus (with James Cunningham, born 1954), and Spectrum Mashup (with Wayne Giesbrecht, born 1964). The works’ titles are reasonably descriptive of their sound, but they are not quite as distinctive as those titles would seem to indicate: all showcase the saxophone’s sonic qualities in somewhat different styles and somewhat different ways, but all come across as being written more as display pieces than for the purpose of communicating any particular non-superficial emotion or viewpoint. Sonically, the most interesting of these is Canis Lupus, because the blend and contrast of saxophone and didgeridoo is unusual and sufficiently exotic to capture the ear effectively. Also on the CD are two works by Richard Gillis: Shades (2014) and Blues & Remembrance (2009, on which the composer hauntingly plays the trumpet). There is a 2014 sonata called Making Changes by Barbara York (born 1949) and a brief but effective two-movement work from 2012 called Narrative by David Kaplan (born 1923). Also here is a 2014 piece by Paul Suchan (born 1983) called Danse Exotique des Gros Papillons, whose intended exoticism would have been brought forth somewhat more effectively if it had been directly followed on the CD by the Glen Gillis/Bonnie Nicholson arrangement of part of The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by He Zhanhao (born 1933) and Chen Gang (born 1935). This concerto is unusually effective in its original instrumentation in the way it combines solo violin playing using Chinese techniques with tonal music written for a Western orchestra. The Gillis/Nicholson arrangement shows that the piece can be interesting to hear when arranged for saxophone and piano, although the aural experience does not match that of the original work. There are a few fairly substantial pieces on this CD, but by and large, the disc comes across as a saxophone-encore showcase of sorts – and there is nothing wrong with that, although nothing particularly profound about it either.

     The sound of the bandoneon, which is popular in several countries but seems to be a quintessentially Argentinian instrument because of the way Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) not only played it but also used it to transform the entire experience of the tango, pervades a new Naxos CD with a strongly international flavor. Hearing an extended bandoneon concerto by an Italian composer – Roberto Di Martino (born 1956) – is itself enough to make a listener’s ears perk up. And hearing the concerto played by an Italian virtuoso, Cesare Chiacchiaretta (who started as an accordion player and then moved to the bandoneon), with a Croatian orchestra and conductor, certainly gives a worldly flavor to the whole listening experience. Di Martino’s concerto, which here receives its world première recording, is in the traditional three movements and does a good if not outstandingly distinctive job of exploring the emotional compass of the bandoneon, from its virtuoso capabilities to a rather surprising amount of sensual expressiveness. This 22-minute work nevertheless pales before the four-minute Oblivion by Piazzolla, whose intensity is quite striking and shows a sonic character that even listeners familiar with the bandoneon may not realize that the instrument possesses. More familiar in sound and expression are Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations, which explore the dance form with which the composer is most strongly associated. They perhaps try a bit too hard for the sort of emotional involvement that comes across more meaningfully in Oblivion, but they have notable elements of their own – and a particularly intriguing contrast between the third movement, “Anxiety,” and the fifth, “Fear” (the others being called “Asleep,” “Loving” and “Despertar”). Taken as a whole, this is a (+++) CD that, like the Glen Gillis saxophone offering, will be of greatest interest to listeners who simply want to immerse themselves in a particular instrument’s unique sound and discover ways in which composers make that instrument expressive in a variety of ways.

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