June 11, 2015
(++++) NOT STRICTLY ROMANTIC
Grieg: Piano Concerto; Fragments of Piano Concerto in B minor; Helge Evju: Piano Concerto in B minor on fragments by Grieg; “With a Water Lily” from Grieg’s 6 Poems, Op. 25, No. 4; “A Dream” from Grieg’s 6 Songs, Op. 48, No. 6. Carl Petersson, piano; Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kerry Stratton. Grand Piano. $16.99.
D’Indy: Orchestral Works, Volume 6—Wallenstein; Prelude to Act III of “Fervaal”; Lied for Cello and Orchestra; Suite dans le style ancien; Sérénade et Valse. Bryndis Halla Gylfadóttir, cello; Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3, “Organ”; Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso; La muse et la poète. Jan Kraybill, organ; Noah Geller, violin; Mark Gibbs, cello; Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern. Reference Recordings. $16.99.
Martin Amlin: Kennel; Lullaby; Sonata; Violetta; Robert Merfeld: Animal Miniatures; Monica Houghton: Whalefall. Michelle LaCourse, viola; Martin Amlin, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto. Arabella Steinbacher, violin; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Charles Dutoit. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
There may seem to be no particularly good reason for yet another recording of Grieg’s ubiquitous Piano Concerto, but a new Grand Piano release has a highly unusual rationale: a recording of a work that is almost, sort of, Grieg’s second piano concerto. Grieg did intend to write one, and left behind a couple of minutes’ worth of thematic material – which pianist/composer Helge Evju (born 1942) has fashioned into a concerto that is definitely not what Grieg would have written but that is surprisingly Grieg-like in four of its five movements. This B minor work, built around a four-note motif from the surviving Grieg fragments (which are given in their entirety on the CD before the Evju concerto begins), manages to retain much of Grieg’s Nordic sensibility and his thoroughly Romantic sense of harmony, rhythm and orchestration; yet it does not sound like a neo-Romantic throwback – it really does sound much like a work that Grieg could have written, perhaps in a parallel universe. Shorter than the famous A minor concerto, Evju’s follows Grieg closely in its many within-movement tempo changes – except in the slow movement, which in both works is simply marked Adagio. Evju’s first and final movements are particularly successful: there are moments in the finale, in fact, in which the spirit of Grieg seems to hover over the entire creation. Evju misfires only in the Scherzo, the second movement, whose basic theme is almost laughably trivial (and oddly familiar) and sounds nothing at all like music by Grieg. On the other hand, Evju’s cadenza (cast as the fourth movement rather than being contained within the first, as in the A minor concerto) works quite well, and his assemblage of the total concerto as essentially a series of interconnected miniatures shows great understanding of and empathy for the style of Grieg, who was essentially a miniaturist even in his longer pieces. Carl Petersson plays the Evju concerto with the same stylishness and attentiveness that he brings to the A minor – indeed, in some ways a bit more, because there is a touch too much rubato in the first movement of Petersson’s handling of the A minor. Even that thrice-familiar concerto sounds fresh rather than being a Romantic-era warhorse here, because Petersson uses the fine-tuned revision of the work done by Grieg in collaboration with Percy Grainger. The differences between this revision and the concerto’s earlier version are small, but they do make some sections more pointed and expressive (many of the changes in this edition involve the addition of expression marks to make Grieg’s intentions clearer). This is a very well-played and in many ways exceptionally interesting release, featuring not only first-rate pianism but also very fine accompaniment by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kerry Stratton. And the CD ends with two delightful short encores that further cement the Grieg-Evju relationship: they are Evju’s piano transcriptions of two Grieg songs, done with the same sensitivity and coloristic beauty that are in evidence in Evju’s creation of a piano concerto that is highly Griegian although certainly not a work by Grieg. The transcriptions and the Evju concerto here receive their world première recordings and are well worth listening to – not just once but repeatedly.
Repeated hearings are useful in a different way for the orchestral music of Vincent d’Indy, which Chandos is releasing in an extended series of excellent CDs featuring performances by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. The latest disc in the series is the sixth, and it comes in top-quality SACD sound that also carries through to excellent reproduction on standard CD players. The sound is at the service of a number of works in which d’Indy (1851-1931) clearly shows himself steeped in Romantic approaches to music – and in particular debt to the works of Wagner. This is one reason these works bear hearings and re-hearings: a French composer’s immersion in Wagner to this extent is unexpected, and it produces some highly intriguing material. The nature of the music itself is the other reason to pay attention to these works: d’Indy is scarcely a major composer, but his music does not deserve the near-total obscurity into which it has long since fallen (even his Symphony on a French Mountain Air, released earlier in the Chandos series, is almost never heard anymore). D’Indy was a fine orchestrator and a strong craftsman, if not exactly an inspired one. The major work on this disc, a trilogy of symphonic poems collectively called Wallenstein (1888), shows many of d’Indy’s best traits. It clearly echoes Wagner – some themes seem to have been lifted in modified form from Der Ring des Nibelungen, whose 1876 Bayreuth première d’Indy attended – but it uses the Wagnerian material in d’Indy’s own distinctive way, clothing the music in such unusual forms as a three-part fugato for bassoons and in sections written for cornets à pistons. Based on a drama by Friedrich Schiller, Wallenstein is about episodes in the Thirty Years’ War in which a famed but duplicitous general named Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634) played a significant role. There is something a bit like the tone painting of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred in d’Indy’s Wallenstein, as well as the influence of Wagner – but this music sounds entirely like d’Indy’s own, not seeming derivative in its totality despite its thematic echoes from elsewhere. Also here, rather oddly, is the prelude to Act III of d’Indy’s first and very Wagnerian opera, Fervaal (1889-95) – the oddity being that the prelude to Act I was in Volume 5 of this series, and it would have made more sense to keep the preludes together. In any case, this is an effectively atmospheric work, which is to say it is somber and funereal: the act opens on a battlefield covered with bodies of the dead. Specific leitmotifs are heard within the music – some of which also appeared in the Act I prelude, this being another reason it would have been better to release the two works on the same CD. The current volume also includes Lied for Cello and Orchestra (1884), in which one theme, yet again, is reminiscent of Wagner (in this case the “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried); Bryndis Halla Gylfadóttir plays the slight work with warmth and feeling. Two orchestrations by d’Indy of his piano pieces make up Sérénade et Valse (1885), a gentle and pleasant work for small orchestra. Also here is the five-movement Suite dans le style ancien (1886), all of whose movements are dance-influenced and all of which are in the key of D. The piece is very nicely played, but there is a disappointment here in Gamba’s use of a full string section: the work is scored for two flutes, trumpet and string quartet, having possibly been influenced by Saint-Saëns’ use of a trumpet in his 1880 Septet. Played as it is here, the suite lacks some of the poise and balance that d’Indy intended it to have: the instrumental relationships skew more toward the strings than the composer wished. The work is nevertheless an interesting and well-made one that shows, as do all the pieces here, that d’Indy’s thoroughly Romantic music is surely worthy of more attention and more-frequent revival than it has heretofore received.
Saint-Saëns himself is among the more-often-performed Romantic composers, but only a few of his works are heard with any regularity – a shame, since he wrote so much music that is just as tuneful and emotionally communicative as his often-performed pieces. A new Reference Recordings release of two familiar pieces and one that is very unfamiliar makes the point clearly. Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, “Organ” – actually his fifth symphony, there being two without numbers – is his only one heard with any regularity, and is indeed the best of the five. It actually includes not only organ but also piano: Saint-Saëns said he intended the work to reflect instrumental forces and capabilities more accurately and in a more-updated way than did other symphonies of the time (1886). In its structure and in the way it strives for new forms of expression, the work is reminiscent of compositions by Liszt, to whose memory it is dedicated. The performance by Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony is a good one, although scarcely revelatory: there is suitable emphasis on the organ (played by Jan Kraybill), which comes to full prominence only in the finale, but the sections containing only the traditional orchestral instruments tend to get somewhat short shrift, as happens distressingly often in performances of this work. The lovely Adagio introduction to the first movement, for example, deserves to be broader and more emotive than it is here. Still, many of the beauties of the score come through nicely in this performance, aided by exceptionally clear sound that showcases Saint-Saëns’ skill in orchestration. The CD also includes another well-known work, the highly virtuosic Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra, which Noah Geller tosses off with aplomb and keeps at a surface level – a justifiable approach to this showpiece, although there is somewhat more depth to the first part of the work than this performance fully conveys. In many ways the most interesting piece here is the one listeners are least likely to know: La muse et la poète, which is both a tone poem and a double concerto for violin and cello. A late work (1910), it retains the sensibilities of much earlier Romanticism – Saint-Saëns was deemed far too harmonically conservative by the generations that came after him – but for that very reason, it is a throwback to a time of beautiful melody and accomplished musical storytelling. There is no specific “plot” here: the violin is the muse, inspiring the cello as the poet; the former’s beauty and lyricism gradually win over the somewhat more-forceful, more-emphatic material given to the latter, until eventually the soloists are in emotional as well as musical harmony in a thoroughly convincing blend. Geller and Mark Gibbs handle the solo parts well, and Stern’s support here is thoroughly empathetic, helping to make this little-known work a very convincing one.
The best-known of all Saint-Saëns’ pieces is Carnival of the Animals, which the composer himself disdained as insufficiently serious. It has inspired everyone from subsequent composers to the producers of animated cartoons – and some distant echoes of it may be heard in a delightfully entertaining MSR Classics release entitled An American Menagerie. The works here, all receiving their world première recordings, are for viola and piano, and four of them are by pianist Martin Amlin (born 1953). They are a well-made and rather traditional Sonata (1987), the expressive Violetta (2010), a brief and warm Lullaby (2012), and – more to the point of the CD’s title – a work called Kennel (2012) in which Amlin pays tribute to seven dog breeds: boxer, collie, Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless dog), bull terrier, papillon, weimaraner and whippet. The short movements are impressionistic: there is no particular “portrayal” of the dog types – just a communication of Amlin’s impressions of them, abetted by very fine playing by Michelle LaCourse. If the wit here does not approach that of Saint-Saëns, there is still enough of it to make the experience of this short work (seven movements in 12 minutes) a very engaging one. And Saint-Saëns’ spirit is channeled even more strongly in Animal Miniatures (2012) by Robert Merfeld (born 1945). Here are four vignettes whose titles quite accurately reflect their musical content and sound: “The Donkey (Braying Tempo),” “The Mice Visit the Cows in the Barn,” “The Turtle’s Lament,” and “Music of the Night (Cricket Tempo); Lullaby.” The warmth and beauty of the viola’s sound are particularly apt for the third movement and conclusion of the fourth, but LaCourse also seems to have plenty of fun with the donkey and mouse portrayals – this is lighthearted music that is easy to enjoy. The other work on this disc is more serious: Whalefall (2006/2007/2013) by Monica Houghton (born 1954). The title refers to the physical remains of a whale that dies in the ocean: the body drifts down to the seabed, where it becomes food and shelter for many other sea creatures. The image is a somber one, befitting the original version of Whalefall as a moving song for soprano and piano to words by naturalist and poet Elizabeth Bradfield. The piece was later turned into one for viola and organ. In its viola-and-piano version, it retains its sense of seriousness, of the inevitability of life’s end, and of the way a whale’s death is part of an oceanic cycle that benefits many other creatures. This entire CD gives LaCourse and Amlin ample chances to display their sensitivity both to musical matters and to animals – and if the works here are certainly post-Romantic, they all retain some of the Romantic era’s preoccupation with expressing and communicating emotion to the audience.
Sometimes, though, that expressiveness can be overdone, not so much by composers as by interpreters. This is a particular risk in recordings of highly familiar Romantic music – and it is a trap into which the new PentaTone SACD of the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky violin concertos unfortunately falls. Certainly everything here is thoroughly professional: Arabella Steinbacher is a fine violinist, Charles Dutoit a highly experienced conductor, and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande a high-quality orchestra that is as familiar with this repertoire as every ensemble is required to be. But the performances never catch fire in this (+++) SACD, largely because Steinbacher tries too hard to make them something they are not. The Mendelssohn concerto, it has been said, is not the hardest violin concerto to play, but is the hardest to play well, and the truth of that observation shows here: what makes this gorgeous piece work so well is its seemingly inevitable flow, the tremendous skill with which Mendelssohn propels the music from start to finish with a just-right mixture of lyricism and beauty. This is a virtuoso work, yes, but it should never sound as if the soloist is struggling with it – yet that is how it sounds here, not because Steinbacher really is having difficulty but because she so strongly emphasizes specific technical demands of the music that she brings its evenness of sound repeatedly to a screeching halt. There is simply no reason to alter Mendelssohn’s tempo indications so frequently and to such a significant degree, and all the rubato detracts from the emotional impetus of the music instead of adding to its communicative power (as Steinbacher presumably wants to do). What should be fleet and should sound easy here becomes craggy and too often emerges in a stop-and-start fashion that is foreign to the music. And some of the same issues affect the Tchaikovsky, especially in the first movement, which is quite large and complex enough without the soloist trying to push its sections in directions other than the ones in which the composer wanted them to go. Steinbacher’s playing itself is quite fine, and more idiomatic than in the Mendelssohn, but here too she simply overdoes things instead of letting the music speak for itself. The best movement on the disc, because it is the one that flows most naturally and is most in accordance with the composer’s intentions, is the Canzonetta of the Tchaikovsky: more than a mere interlude here, it has real expressive power – while also serving as a respite from the monumental first movement and a pause before the fireworks of the third. Fans of Steinbacher will find her playing here as good as ever, but fans of these very familiar (deservedly familiar) concertos will likely be disappointed that her abilities and Dutoit’s are somewhat vitiated by interpretative decisions that do not show either of these works in the best possible light.