June 11, 2015


James M. Stephenson: The Devil’s Tale—A Sequel to Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat.” Matt Bean, narrator; Western Illinois University Faculty Chamber Players (Julieta Mihai, violin; Matt Hughes, contrabass; Eric Ginsberg, clarinet; Douglas Huff, bassoon; Bruce Briney, trumpet; John Mindeman, trombone; Rick Kurasz, percussion) conducted by Mike Fansler. Ravello. $16.99.

Midgard. La Mandragore (Ingried Boussaroque, Seán Dagher, Grégoire Jeay, Alex Kehler, Andrew Wells-Oberegger, Amanda Kesmaat). Big Round Records. $14.99.

Il Trionfi di Dori—Madrigals. The King’s Singers (David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright, countertenors; Paul Phoenix, tenor; Christopher Bruerton and Christopher Gabbitas, baritones; Jonathan Howard, bass). Signum Classics. $17.99.

Dvořák: Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”; Varèse: Amériques. Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.

     Ridiculously ambitious and remarkably successful, James Stephenson’s The Devil’s Tale is a thoroughly fascinating continuation of, updating of, commentary upon and expansion of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, using the same instrumental complement that Stravinsky employed and channeling Stravinsky’s wit, sense of the fabulous (in the sense of telling a fable), and dramatic sensibility. Familiarity with Stravinsky’s work is an absolute necessity for full enjoyment of Stephenson’s, which literally begins where Stravinsky’s ends by reprising the conclusion of the 1918 piece. Indeed, it is easy to conceive of a marvelous theatrical evening in which the Stravinsky is the first part and, after intermission, the Stephenson is played and performed – for at the end of Stephenson’s piece, we are right back at the beginning of Stravinsky’s. This circularity is reflected in the titles for the sections of The Devil’s Tale, which are palindromes, including “Never Odd or Even,” “Devil Never Even Lived,” “Name No One Man,” and “Live, O Devil, Revel Ever! Live! Do Evil.” This is more than mere cleverness, just as the music’s reflection of Stravinsky is more than mere imitation. For example, Stravinsky’s three dances of the resurrected princess (Tango, Valse, Ragtime) have their parallel in three Stephenson dances called Cigar, Toss It in a Can, and It Is So Tragic. Stephenson places his work in modern Las Vegas, an apt location for continuing a fairy tale whose moral has to do with the impossibility of “having it all.” Stravinsky’s soldier becomes a pit musician who awakes after having just dreamt the entirety of L’Histoire du Soldat. This is a perfectly acceptable device: the entire second act of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore has sometimes been performed as a dream sequence, and even Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer has been staged (admittedly with  less success) as a dream in Senta’s disordered mind. In any case, having Stephenson’s protagonist, Joe, awake to discover he is in Las Vegas with his showgirl girlfriend, Hannah, is a wonderful way to get the action moving – and gravitating toward the Devil in the person of Sam, who is Hannah’s manager and a blackjack dealer. A series of narrations – Matt Bean handles the multiple voices extremely well – connects musical numbers that are positively redolent of Stravinsky and also, occasionally, reminiscent of Kurt Weill. The basic plot here is that of the trickster tricked: Sam eventually comments that Joe has caught him in his butterfly net (one of many direct references to Stravinsky, in whose work the Devil initially appears as an old man with a butterfly net). The upshot of the story – whose music weaves wonderfully into the tale-telling, just as it does in Stravinsky’s piece – is that Joe and Hannah escape the Devil’s clutches and, indeed, Las Vegas itself. But at the end, they are walking with their bags along a hot and dusty road – exactly the place where L’Histoire du Soldat begins. So what have they really accomplished, if Hannah’s suggestion that they “begin again” simply leads, indeed, to beginning again? Stephenson is extremely clever throughout The Devil’s Tale in both music and narrative, and although the work is self-limited by the need to know L’Histoire du Soldat, this Ravello recording shows it to be attractive enough on its own so that perhaps some listeners might be willing to try it first and then go back to Stravinsky to find out where the story began (if a circle can ever be said to begin).

     The performers of La Mandragore reach back much further in time for a Big Round Records recording called Midgard (the Norse word for Middle-earth, as lovers of Norse mythology and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien fans likely know already). The idea here is that the Vikings, of whose everyday lives (beyond their seafaring and battles) not much is known, almost certainly had music of some sort to tell their stories and celebrate their heroes. And if they did, they would have played the works on such instruments as the recorder, nay flute, shawm, cittern and oud. This is a bit of an exaggeration: the zither-like cittern, for example, is a Renaissance instrument, although presumably an ancestral form could have existed in Viking times (indeed, Vikings are known to have played instruments including versions of harps, violins, lyres and lutes). La Mandragore is an original-instrument ensemble that specializes in playing very old instruments akin to those the Vikings could have used – and those instruments have an odd, sometimes almost unearthly, sometimes very earthy sound in folk dances such as the polska and halling, which are among the features of Midgard. The songs and stories sung and, to an extent, declaimed here are presented in Old Norse, Swedish, Norwegian and French; and again, if all these except Old Norse are cognates of the language the Vikings would have spoken rather than examples of it, there is no claim here to absolute historical authenticity. The attraction of this recording lies in its attempt to reach back far, far into time to produce the type of music that a warlike, seafaring and extremely bold (and much-feared) group might have used to entertain itself. The 12 tracks on the CD are remarkably effective in generating a sense of otherworldliness, if not necessarily the dim past. There are, for example, songs and stories here about warriors (Kassias Saga), outlaws (Grettis Saga), and shepherdesses (Ingrieds Lilja). The presentation of the material is uniformly excellent, with all members of La Mandragore except cellist Amanda Kesmaat providing vocals at some point in addition to their instrumental contributions. Midgard is scarcely a clear window into the past, but it is a fascinating, even exhilarating way to explore a possible past through music that has considerable charm and a character quite unlike that with which modern listeners are likely to be familiar.

     A few hundred years after Viking times, in the early 16th century, there emerged the madrigal, which quickly became a highly popular form of secular choral music. The King’s Singers celebrate the form on a Signum Classics CD entitled Il Trionfi di Dori, offering 29 samples by 29 different composers, of whom a few are still well-known (G. Gabrieli, Palestrina), a number were quite famous in their own time (Giovanni de Macque, Tiburtio Massaino), but most are now quite obscure. The skill of the King’s Singers is everywhere in evidence here: the perfect blending of different vocal ranges, the first-rate enunciation, the ability to make works whose form and length are virtually identical sound distinctive through skillful changes of emphasis and careful attention to rhythmic detail. The King’s Singers’ sound is a homogeneous one; but at the same time, the individual voices within the ensemble come through with clarity and emerge as appropriate from within the overall choral presentation. An hour and a quarter of these madrigals is, in truth, a bit much, since all the pieces are, after all, written for similar vocal ranges, and each lasts roughly two to three minutes. Furthermore, there is little to choose among the works in terms of enjoyment: listeners will like most or all of them, or will not care for the disc at all. It is the sound of the performers, as much as the interest value of the music, that is the major attraction here: the CD is a feast for the ears, to mix a metaphor. The music itself focuses, as madrigals usually did, on love and on mythological themes; the disc’s title is that of a 1592 madrigal collection first published in Venice and dedicated to a nobleman who commissioned the 29 poems. Structurally, the works use the mythological figure of the sea-nymph Dori, daughter of Oceanus, to praise the nobleman’s wife; the recurrent concluding phrase Viva la bella Dori makes the intention of the collection plain. But if Il Trionfo di Dori is clearly a relic of its time, the performance of the music by the King’s Singers is something else: a beautifully modulated presentation that showcases, again and again, this group’s exceptional ability to make the music of hundreds of years ago come vividly alive for modern listeners.

     The music is considerably more recent and considerably more familiar on a new Seattle Symphony CD on the orchestra’s own label – but here too the concept is to take a new look at the past and thereby produce a disc of interest to listeners of the present. Unfortunately, the works chosen here are on the obvious side, and while the live performances by the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot are fine, they are scarcely revelatory. Interestingly, there is a fairly strong Stravinsky connection to Edgard Varèse’s Amériques, although not to the extent that exists in Stephenson’s The Devil’s Tale. The Varèse work, a sonic portrait of New York City written in 1918-21 and revised in 1927, directly quotes The Rite of Spring (as well as works by Schoenberg and Mahler) and makes its points structurally through juxtaposition of self-contained blocks of sounds – a Stravinskian approach. Amériques is, however, most famous for its portrayal of urban cacophony through the use of sirens, strong dissonance, and polyphonic wind and percussion segments. It is, in short, a big, brassy, intense work, the first composed by Varèse after he moved to the United States, and as strong in its portrayal of urban America as Gershwin’s far more tuneful An American in Paris (1928) is of urban life in France. Morlot sustains the dynamism of Amériques throughout, and the orchestration is as effective as always, but there is little sense of almost-ready-to-burst excitement here: the whole interpretation is just a bit too well-mannered for such a viscerally powerful work. As for Dvořák’s thrice-familiar Symphony No. 9, this has always been subtitled as a symphony from the New World, not of the New World – overstating its “American-ness” is misguided, since it is at heart a Czech Romantic symphony that just happens to incorporate tunes picked up by the composer in the United States. The best performances highlight the ways in which Dvořák’s final symphony represents continuity, if perhaps not exactly culmination, of his symphonic oeuvre. Morlot’s reading is fine, but neither it nor the Seattle Symphony’s playing is especially idiomatic – the strings, for example, are quite good, but not as lush and rich-sounding as those of European orchestras in this symphony, and the distinctively Czech rhythms of the work (notably in the Scherzo) are not given with as much emphasis as they could be. The most interesting thing about this (+++) disc is simply the fact that these two particular works share it: the programming concept is an intriguing one, even if the performances themselves, while convincing enough, are not quite at a high enough level to make it possible to recommend the recording unreservedly.

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