December 11, 2014
(++++) WORDS, MUSIC, PICTURES
Verdi: Requiem. Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano; Marina Prudenskaja, mezzo-soprano; Saimir Pirgu, tenor; Orlin Anastassov, bass; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik, $37.99 (2 CDs); Arthaus Musik DVD, $29.99.
Carl Davis: Last Train to Tomorrow; Liberation—A Film Suite; National Songs. Children’s Opera Prague and Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. Carl Davis Collection. $24.99.
Granados: Goyescas—La Maja y el Ruiseñor; Canciones Amatorias; Falla: Siete Canciones Populares Españolas; Turina: Tres Arias. Danielle Talamantes, soprano; Henry Dehlinger, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Astor Piazzolla: Tango Nuevo—arrangements for violin and piano. Tomas Cotik, violin; Tao Lin, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
An unusually well-integrated Verdi Requiem in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the performance by Mariss Jansons and the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks provides a welcome opportunity to consider the pluses and minuses of music-only vs. music-and-video presentation. What Jansons has here is an absolutely first-rate chorus and orchestra, with a quartet of soloists who are all right but scarcely outstanding – but who, in the context of the work as a whole, sound just fine for their roles and help produce a highly impressive reading. Verdi’s Requiem is more theatrical, more operatic, than any other Requiem in the repertoire, notwithstanding the drama and sometimes even greater flair of Berlioz’. It is always tempting to overdo Verdi’s extremely dramatic Dies irae, which is not only tremendously impressive in itself but also repeated frequently as the work progresses. But Jansons eschews this approach, keeping the Dies irae and the rest of the Latin funeral rite in the perspective of the Requiem as a whole, giving considerable weight to the eight-part double fugue of the Sanctus and allowing the lovely Ingemisco to flow freely and with considerable beauty – although Saimir Pirgu’s voice does not seem ideally suited to the music. The beauties and terrors of the presentation get equal weight in this performance, with the choral sections exceptionally effective. As to the question of whether to choose the performance on CD or on DVD (with the visual version being, unusually, less expensive than the audio-only one): the decision depends on whether a listener believes the visuals of people singing and orchestral musicians playing add to the work’s effect or detract from it. This is music that is sublime as well as highly dramatic, and there is much to be said for simply listening to it in audio form – preferably in an otherwise quiet setting, without surrounding distractions. In that form, using the BR Klassik CD version, this Verdi Requiem is at its most impressive. Watching Jansons conduct and the soloists and chorus perform on the DVD tends to be distracting rather than enlightening – and it is always true that a recorded performance requires the viewer’s eye to go where the director wants it to go, which is different from attending a live concert and deciding, on one’s own, where to look at any given time. One can always close one’s eyes during the DVD, of course, but that undermines the purpose of having the work in a visual format. As operatic as Verdi’s Requiem is, it is not an opera, and it is at best arguable whether seeing formally dressed musicians and singers on a stage adds to or distracts from the impact of the performance. Jansons extracts very fine sound and very involving performances from orchestra and singers, but it is not really necessary to see how he does so in order to get the full effect of what he has done. The Arthaus Musik video is well done, and director Michael Beyer is sensitive to the music and tries not to make the visuals of this 2013 performance at the Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein overly distracting. But the video elements really add little here, and they do, to some extent, pull attention away from the excellence of the music.
On the other hand, visuals would have helped the Carl Davis Collection release of Davis’ score for Last Train to Tomorrow, a song cycle written by children’s author Hiawyn Oram. The cycle tells the story of the Kindertransport, a rescue mission launched by the British government after Kristallnacht in 1938. Through the Kindertransport, some 10,000 children, ages 3-17, found refuge in Britain from the Nazi regime. They left by train from Vienna, Berlin, Prague and other cities in Europe, and very few saw their families again. Oram tells their story through songs including “Night of Breaking Glass,” “A Big Adventure,” “Goodbye to Our Treasures,” and “Sun Rising on Another World.” And the Children’s Opera Prague and Czech National Symphony Orchestra, under Davis’ direction, sing the texts with feeling – the songs are mostly in the words of the rescued children themselves, and the whole story is told from their perspective. As one of many, many remembrances of World War II and the Holocaust, the song cycle is effective enough – but Davis created the music not for the concert hall but for a film, and in the absence of the visual element, Last Train to Tomorrow comes across as just another well-meaning, well-written bit of accessible movie music, designed to support a story being told primarily in a visual medium. The inclusion of a complete libretto is a nice touch and a meaningful one, but it is no substitute for seeing what Davis created the music to enhance. Over a period of decades, some excellent composers have written some first-rate film works: Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Korngold, Tiomkin and many others. Davis’ work is, by comparison, rather ordinary, however well-meaning and sincere. That applies as well to Liberation—A Film Suite, which is another work designed to explore and lend impact to the story of Nazi oppression and murder. The movements here bear titles such as “Annihilation,” “Massacre of Children,” “The Death Camps,” and “Free at Last: Liberation,” and Davis does his best to have the music make the titles’ meaning self-evident. Listeners strongly committed to any and all memorials of World War II and the depredations of the Nazi regime will surely find these accessible works to their liking. But for listeners in general, the music is insufficiently dramatic or moving – that is, insufficiently distinctive in storytelling – to mark the release as important. This (+++) CD also includes, as an encore or afterthought, La Marseillaise, Rule Britannia and Hatikvah, with those three national songs collectively underlining the purpose of the other music on the disc.
Less portentous and considerably lighter are the songs performed by soprano Danielle Talamantes and pianist Henry Dehlinger on a new MSR Classics CD. Redolent of Spanish rhythms and strongly imbued with a sense of national identity, these works by Enrique Granados, Manuel de Falla and Joaquín Turina are by and large not especially substantive, but they are uniformly attractive in their handling both of the voice and of the piano. The most substantial piece is Turina’s Tres Arias, which sets texts by three different Spanish authors: Ángel de Saavedra, Duque de Rivas (1791-1865), a poet and playwright who became Prime Minister of Spain; José de Espronceda (1808-1842), a Romantic poet well-known for his radical politics; and Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870), an influential poet from Turina’s birthplace, Seville. Turina makes Rivas’ heroic ballad Romance quite dramatic; offers gentle, wavelike rocking motion for Espronceda’s El pescador (“The Fisherman”); and in Bécquer’s Rima (“Rhyme”), picks up on the passionate intensity of the poem with a thrilling vocal line that Talamantes handles particularly well. The Granados and Falla songs are comparatively mild, although La Maja y el Ruiseñor from the opera Goyescas comes across with considerable feeling. What is interesting about all the music on this (++++) disc is that, even in the absence of any visuals whatsoever, it makes it easy to envision Spanish scenes and Spanish landscapes, so vividly do the composers capture the mood of the words and so feelingly do Talamantes and Dehlinger brings the songs to life. The CD may contain little of deep meaning, but it offers much of beauty and a great deal of impressionistic music that allows and encourages listeners to envision the Spanish landscapes and culture from which these texts and settings sprang.
The performances are also first-rate on a new Naxos CD of the music of Argentine composer and bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla – who is best known for The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and an apparently inexhaustible series of tangos, which Piazzolla rethought from their wrong-side-of-the-tracks roots and turned into concert-hall music ranging from the smooth to the energetic and incorporating the influences of jazz, rock and klezmer music. Piazzolla’s music has a strongly visual element: it clearly bespeaks its country of origin and often calls up images of the dance halls where tango originated and developed. The attractively edgy playing of Tomas Cotik and Tao Lin – with additional violinist Glenn Basham heard in two works – is the main attraction of Tango Nuevo, which is musically something of a hodgepodge. Of the dozen pieces here, seven were arranged by Cotik himself; other arrangers represented are Dmitriy Varelas and Sofia Gubaidulina. The disc begins and ends with high points: the fast and virtuosic La muerte del ángel and the bright Libertango, respectively. The material in between is more of a mixed bag. The four movements of Histoire du Tango neatly trace the dance’s evolution through the 20th century; two excerpts from María de Buenos Aires are atmospheric stage accompaniments, the second (No. 3 in the score) being especially evocative; Melodía en la menor (Canto du Octubre) is particularly emotionally evocative, while Le Grand Tango is elegant and striking. The works, however, are not presented in any especially intelligible sequence, either chronologically or based on their moods or other factors. The remaining pieces here are also served up willy-nilly: Tanguano (No. 1 from Dos piezas breves), Milonga sin palabras, Aire de la zamba niña, and two pieces from Henry IV, an Italian film from 1984—Ave María (Tanti anni prima) and Oblivion, the latter being another milonga (a kind of cousin of the tango). Clearly some thought has gone into the arrangement of the disc – otherwise, why would Ave María appear between the two excerpts from María de Buenos Aires? But the overall effect of the CD is of a series of disconnected and rather random encores, with the result that the totality seems to go on longer than it actually does. The performances by Cotik (who is himself from Argentina) and Lin – by turns warm, sultry, bright, rhythmically intense and brilliantly ornamented – are what give this CD its (+++) rating. Fans of the violinist and/or pianist will be especially drawn to it, but those not already familiar with the performers or with Piazzolla’s music may find themselves a bit puzzled by the choice of pieces and their sequencing.