June 04, 2015
Penderecki: Magnificat; Kadisz. Wojtek Gierlach, bass; Olga Pasichnyk, soprano; Alberto Mizrahi, tenor; Daniel Olbrychski, speaker; Warsaw Boys’ Choir, Warsaw Philharmonic Choir, Warsaw Philharmonic Male Choir, and Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $12.99.
Vladimir Jurowski: Symphony No. 5; Russian Painters—Symphonic Pictures for Full Orchestra. Norrköping Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michail Jurowski. CPO. $16.99.
From the Keyboard—Music by Bach, David Rakowski, Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Mussorgsky. “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band conducted by Colonel Michael J. Colburn. Altissimo. $16.99.
Elements—Winning Works of the 2012 and 2014 Bassoon Chamber Music Composition Competitions. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Yarlung Records—10th Anniversary. Yarlung Records. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Some new CDs provide a chance, intentional or not, to look back on a composer’s work and see the ways in which it has changed over time. Although not specifically planned for that purpose, the new Naxos CD of the Magnificat and Kadisz by Krzysztof Penderecki (born 1933) offers considerable insight into the way the composer has altered his approach over a 35-year time period – and what things he has left untouched. Penderecki’s penchant for evocative, impassioned vocal material permeates both Magnificat (1973-74) and Kadisz (2009), but his method of putting the material across has changed significantly. Magnificat attains much of its effect through tonality, which at the time was Penderecki’s deliberate choice as a kind of declaration of independence from the modernistic dictates of 20th-century composition. Using contrapuntal elements dating back to Bach’s time and before, the work is structured in a way that absorbs the past without ever sounding anything like it. The reason is that Penderecki here retains certain distinctly modern sounds, notably massive note clusters, that mark his Magnificat as a work of its time. The old words, contrapuntal techniques and willingness to use tonality to make points are thus contrasted with a thoroughly modern harmonic language and emotionally charged delivery by a solo bass, male vocal ensemble, boys’ choir and mixed choir, producing music whose distinctly contemporary sound is clear but whose overall effect is that of a gloss on a time long ago. Kadisz, on the other hand, focuses on the more-recent past: it was written to mark the 65th anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish ghetto in Łódź. The sound here is quite different, and not just because the work focuses on the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead that is also a plea for peace and an affirmation of God’s greatness – that is to say, in its own way a sort of Magnificat. The emotional evocation of Penderecki’s Magnificat is present in Kadisz as well, but here it is contrasted with inward-looking passages in a form that is essentially a dramatic cantata, complete with speaker as well as solo soprano and tenor and male choir. Kadisz is only half the length of Magnificat but is its equal in expressiveness and offers even starker contrasts among its sections. The works are abrasive enough in sound and intense enough in expression to be somewhat difficult to hear, especially back-to-back, but their emotive qualities are undoubted – and are very well brought forth by Antoni Wit through the vocalists and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, which plays them with stylistic familiarity and a sure sense of understanding.
There is a retrospective of a different sort in the form of a new CPO recording of music by Vladimir Michailovich Jurowski (1915-1972), who today is virtually unremembered as a composer – although he is known through his son, conductor Michail Jurowski (born 1945), and his name is identical to that of his conductor grandson (born 1972). Vladimir Jurowski the composer wrote a considerable amount of film music, including some for cartoons, but he also produced music in traditional classical forms: he studied with Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950) and, as Jurowski’s Symphony No. 5 shows, absorbed the basic lessons of large-scale construction well. The symphony is a three-movement work as long as Tchaikovsky’s four-movement Nos. 4, 5 and 6, expansive in its scope and appealing in its themes. It breaks no new ground and sounds like something of a throwback to the 19th century, but it is well-crafted and enjoyable to hear, with the sort of sumptuous scoring usually associated with the Russian symphonic school (although Jurowski was in fact Ukrainian). More interesting than the symphony is the suite Russian Painters, whose seven movements depict specific scenes as visualized by Isaak Iljitsch Levitan, Viktor Michailowitsch Wasnezow (two movements), Iwan Nikolajewitsch Kramskoj, Wassilij Iwanowitsch Surikow, Konstantin Alexejewitsch Korowin, and Boris Michailowitsch Kustodiew. These are scarcely household names outside Russia, but Jurowski’s music brings their depictions of various scenes and people vividly to life, from Wasnezow’s 1889 Ivan Tsarevich, Riding the Grey Wolf, which displays a famous scene from Russian folklore, to Surikow’s 1881 Morning of the Streltsy’s Execution, a well-known work based on the aftermath of a 17th-century uprising (Surikow was in his time the foremost creator of large-scale paintings on historical subjects, and his work remains very well-known in Russia). For most listeners, a comparison with the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition will probably be inevitable. Jurowski’s music is more broadly conceived, lacking the piquancy that Ravel brought to Mussorgsky’s already-detailed piano work, but Jurowski does quite well in scene-painting in his own way, as in Korowin’s impressionistic A Winter Scene, whose sonic portrayal is the shortest movement of the suite. Jurowski the composer had a fine sense of melody and style, and Michail Jurowski conducts his father’s music with understanding and heartfelt empathy.
An unusual contrast with Jurowski’s Russian Painters comes in an Altissimo release featuring “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band performing, among other things, a military-band arrangement of Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. To say that this is a curiosity is to understate: Paul Lavender’s transcription does its best to be faithful to Ravel’s orchestral colors, but the band’s sound inevitably changes the emphasis of the music, as is particularly notable when a section featuring strings, including special string effects, is followed by one in which Ravel emphasized brass – Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and then Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. Colonel Michael J. Colburn leads the band a touch stodgily, as if to make sure the ensemble’s military bearing and dignity are never forgotten. The result is a carefully controlled performance of Pictures at an Exhibition, in which there is considerable grandeur and even hauteur when it is called for (Catacombs, The Great Gate of Kiev), but not much sense of fun or grotesquerie in, for example, Gnomus, Bydlo or The Hut on Hen’s Legs. The remaining works on this CD are similarly interesting and similarly limited by the band’s sound and its approach to the material. The transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, by Staff Sergeant Ryan Nowlin, a member of the band, is effective enough, as is the Lavender transcription of the Lento Assai from Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances – although the lumbering first dance (Non allegro) might have been more interesting to hear with these performers. The delicacy of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, however, does not fully emerge in Merlin Patterson’s transcription. Also here is David Rakowski’s own transcription of his four-movement piano suite Sibling Revelry (2004), which comes across nicely thanks to Rakowski’s careful attention to the band’s high-quality playing and its particular sonic balance. The disc as a whole is called From the Keyboard because it contains works transcribed from their original keyboard versions; its attraction is clearly for listeners who want to look back at some familiar material and some that is less familiar, hearing the music in a new guise.
The retrospective elements of a new MSR Classics release do not go back far at all – only to 2012 and 2014. The four works on this CD, all featuring bassoonist Susan Nelson, are taken from those years’ Bassoon Chamber Music Composition Competitions; Nelson became director of the competitions in 2013. Nelson is a very fine performer who clearly knows how to get to the evocative heart of these works, all of which take the bassoon well beyond its “clown of the orchestra” persona (which it did not have until fairly recently: Vivaldi, among others, took it quite seriously as a solo instrument). Nelson’s handling of Colored Stones for Solo Bassoon (2014) by Jenni Brandon (born 1977) shows sensitivity both to the structure of the composer’s three-movement suite and to the capabilities of the instrument. Nelson also shows that she can blend very well with vocals, in Fire and Ice for Soprano, Bassoon and Piano (2012) by Devin Farney (born 1983) – a single-movement work that includes soprano Jennifer Goode Cooper and pianist Solungga Fang-Tzu Liu. The other two pieces here complement the bassoon with somewhat more traditional chamber ensembles. Seikilos Quartet (2012) by David Angelo Ciancaglini (born 1983) has an intriguing sonic mixture: in addition to bassoon, it features oboe (Nermis Mieses), piano (Liu) and marimba (Jeffrey Barudin). The instruments are treated more or less equally, with the result that the coloration of the single-movement work, although it is certainly that of a quartet, is a fluctuating one in which the overall sound ebbs and flows differently depending on which instrument takes the lead at any given time. The sound is more traditional in many ways in Suspended (2005) by Greg Steinke (born 1942). This is a work for bassoon and string quartet (Stephen Miahky and Christina McGann, violins; Matthew Daline, viola; Jacqueline Black, cello) and is the most-extended piece on this disc. It explores throughout its 20 minutes the ways in which the bassoon can lead, follow or be intimately connected to the strings, and gives the string players themselves ample opportunity to develop themes and pull the music along. All four pieces here are world première recordings, and as always in contemporary music, not all will likely be of equal interest to all potential listeners. What unites the works, though, and makes all of them worthy of being heard, is Nelson’s smooth handling of the bassoon, her carefully controlled breath work, her ability to maintain a mellifluous line or produce a staccato one that dances about with élan.
There is a retrospective element of a different sort in the 10th-aniversary release from Yarlung Records. What is celebrated here is not so much music as sound, and the initial successful decade of a company devoted to it. Self-congratulatory releases like this are not rare: Chandos, for example, offered a 30-CD set to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2009, and Yarlung Records itself issued a single-CD commemoration of its first seven years. Now, instead of producing, say, a 10-CD box containing full works, Yarlung has opted for a two-CD release containing 29 tracks of brief excerpts from its catalogue. The company is devoted to the sound of its recordings, using Mercury Living Presence and similar high-quality offerings from the vinyl era as its model. So the excerpts here could be expected to showcase sonic quality, and so they do – but with subtlety, not in any overwhelming or overdone way, which is exactly the point of Yarlung’s approach. There are many gems here, from Sasha Cooke singing Handel’s Ombra mai fu with the Colburn Orchestra under Yehuda Gilad, to the same orchestra’s handling of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as conducted by Gerard Schwarz, to Blessing of the Environment by the Monks of Nechung Monastery, to several appearances by the Sophisticated Lady Jazz Quartet and the Smoke & Mirrors Percussion Ensemble. This release is a fair sampling of what Yarlung has produced in its first decade, but that is exactly what it is: a sampler, not a full-fledged recording that will likely attract many listeners because of the repertoire it offers. By presenting only tidbits of its catalogue, Yarlung may hope to lure listeners into buying the full CDs from which these excerpts are taken; but that begs the question of why anyone would want to buy this promotional release in the first place. Certainly Yarlung’s sound quality is very high, and certainly its catalogue’s mixture of classical music with jazz and some other forms is interesting; but asking listeners who are not already familiar with Yarlung to buy two CDs showcasing the label’s catalogue is at best something of a stretch. Had Yarlung decided, perhaps for the next year, to include a CD of catalogue excerpts with each of its releases as a free bonus disc, that might have been a creative way to expand listeners’ interest – they would already have purchased one CD and might be lured by the quality of the excerpts to buy others. But it is hard to see who is expected to buy and benefit from a self-referential release like this one, offering as it does a touch of Brahms, a bit of Ginastera, a little Korngold, a couple of dabs of Bach, a modicum of Chopin, plus short entries from Jason Barabba, Derek Tywoniuk, Misha Bigos, Abel Meeropol and Jerome Kern. No matter how well-played and well-recorded this agglomeration may be, it is still, in the end, little more than a musical patchwork.