June 04, 2015
(++++) THEATRICAL THINKING
Sibelius: Kuolema—complete incidental music; King Christian II—complete incidental music; Overture in A minor; Two Songs from “Twelfth Night.” Pia Pajala, soprano; Waltteri Torikka, baritone; Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam. Naxos. $12.99.
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2; Gabriela Montero: Ex Patria; Improvisations Nos. 1-3. Gabriela Montero, piano; YOA Orchestra of the Americas conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. Orchid Classics. $16.99.
Arvo Pärt: Te Deum; Wallfahrtslied; Berliner Messe; Dopo la Vittoria. Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Peter Dijkstra. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Joan Tower: Stroke; Violin Concerto; Chamber Dance. Cho-Liang Lin, violin; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.
There is a theatrical element to a great deal of music and a great deal of musical performance – sometimes overtly, as in opera, and sometimes in the way a composer chooses to create a work or a performer chooses to perform one. Sibelius did write one opera (the one-act The Maiden in the Tower in 1896), but his theatrical involvement was primarily in plays, and was more extensive than people familiar only with his symphonies and tone poems realize. A very well-played new Naxos CD featuring the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra under Leif Segerstam provides an excellent opportunity to become more familiar with some of Sibelius’ theater music, offering his complete music for King Christian II (1898) and Kuolema (1903). In both cases, there are vocal elements as well as orchestral ones in the incidental music, and the highly atmospheric handling of the material indicates that Sibelius had a strong sense of the dramatic and of ways in which music could enhance a stage performance. The first piece within Kuolema (“Death”), marked Tempo di valse lente, is the best-known work on this disc, since Sibelius later transformed it into the Valse triste. In context, it is an effective introduction to a series of six pieces that end with an Andante ma non tanto at which the inevitable 12 bells toll. The seven King Christian II pieces are effective as well, having no pomp or ceremony but considerable fluidity and warmth – and a central “Fool’s Song of the Spider” that is strange indeed. Also on this CD are two brief songs from Twelfth Night (1909), the first of which – Kom nu hit, Död! (“Come Away, Death!”) was one of the last pieces on which Sibelius worked, revising it in 1957, the year of his own death. Segerstam also offers the rarely heard Overture in A minor (1902), which provides an unexpected insight into Sibelius’ theatrical thinking. The work has a very dramatic, intense opening that is followed by a central section whose thematic material is so light as to be almost trivial – with no attempt to connect the two. The concluding portion returns part of the way to the seriousness of the start. This shows, intriguingly, that Sibelius was quite comfortable juxtaposing heavy and light dramatic elements without feeling obliged to weave them together – a revelation that helps explain not only his theatrical music but also some of the more puzzling elements of his symphonies.
The theatricality of a new Orchid Classics release featuring Gabriela Montero is of a different sort. Here Montero makes herself the dramatic center of the CD, insisting that listeners accept her viewpoint on music and its meanings and not hesitating to showcase herself both as pianist and as composer/advocate. The result is a CD more interesting for its extra-musical connotations than its musical ones. In Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Montero accomplishes something remarkable but surely unintended: all three movements are the same length. This lends the work a kind of balance that it rarely attains elsewhere, but aside from that balance, there is nothing particularly special in Montero’s interpretation: she plays well, expresses herself in line with what the music indicates, avoids swooning too much in the big (and overly familiar) themes, but brings no particular revelations to the music and never really makes the concerto come alive either emotionally or as a technical tour de force. Montero’s performance is fine but not really memorable, and it receives equally fine, if somewhat colorless, support from the YOA Orchestra of the Americas under Carlos Miguel Prieto. Montero proclaims her own music with far more passion: Ex Patria is a lament for her native Venezuela’s descent into what she describes as “lawlessness, corruption, and chaos,” and in it Montero blazes forth with passion and intensity beyond what she brings to Rachmaninoff. Montero acknowledges the polemical nature of Ex Patria, and from a strictly musical perspective, the work is not especially distinguished. It is, however, well-crafted and certainly very skillfully performed. And the three Improvisation pieces presented at the conclusion of the CD affirm Montero’s pianistic skills in a way that her handling of the Rachmaninoff never quite does. This is an interesting (+++) release in which music and sociopolitical awareness form an uneasy alliance.
There are theatrical elements both in the music of Arvo Pärt on a new BR Klassik disc and in the handling of that music by conductor Peter Dijkstra. The electronic effects in the Te Deum, which get particular prominence in this recording, are only one of the presentation elements that call attention to themselves. Pärt knew his Te Deum to be a kind of theater as well as a kind of religious offering – as his requirement of three choirs, for example, shows. The choirs’ placement is not especially clear in Dijkstra’s recording, but the singing itself is fine and the sound, which provides a lot of bass, helps make the music effective. Wallfahrtslied (“Pilgrim’s Song”) benefits from the fine sound as well, and the performance here is nicely sustained throughout. Berliner Messe, though, contains an oddity: Dopo la Vittoria (“After the Victory”) is for some reason played within it, separating the Gloria from the Credo. The reasoning here is very difficult to understand. Berliner Messe, like other multi-movement works by Pärt, tries to build an atmosphere from start to finish – and in this case, the switch from the more inward-looking Gloria to the more extroverted Credo is important to the journey. Dopo la Vittoria sounds very good – again, the chorus is first-rate – but even if one assumes the “victory” relates directly to the preceding Gloria, what emerges is a sequence that just does not work. And the Credo itself is so well-paced by Dijkstra that the failure to have it follow the Gloria immediately is all the more glaring. The rest of the Berliner Messe is lovely, with the Sanctus especially effective in its sustained beauty, but it is difficult to recover from the unwonted interpolation. Pärt (born 1935) has long since been deemed a major modern composer, although his music is still not to all tastes. Dijkstra’s recording of some of Pärt’s best choral works cements the composer’s reputation even if it does not quite enhance it – this is a (+++) release because of its odd elements, but a sure success for the sheer quality of the performances.
There is one exceptionally theatrical – and highly personal – piece of music on a new Naxos CD of works by Joan Tower. That is Stroke (2010), dedicated to the composer’s younger brother, whose major stroke in 2008 left his body paralyzed on the left side. The music features a dramatic, often loud, steady “heartbeat” combined with several series of fast notes that depict anxiety and are interrupted by five solos – for horn, bassoon, violin, clarinet and trumpet – that are intended to provide moments of peaceful contrast. This is a 21st-century tone poem and a work whose “staginess” is quite explicit in its design and sound. The harmonies here are jarring, in keeping with the topic, but the work as a whole is tonal, albeit within a contemporary understanding of the term. Stroke is not really an enjoyable work; it scarcely seems to be intended as one. It is effective in its own way, but although there is obvious emotion underlying it, it comes across as something of an intellectualized attempt to cope with the overwhelming emotional impact that Tower’s brother’s stroke had both on him and on her. It may simply be too personal to reach out to an audience as thoroughly as effective theatrical pieces generally do. Certainly it is quite well-performed by the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero – and that is no mean feat, since Stroke is quite a challenge to play. The other music on this (+++) CD is also handled quite well. Chamber Dance (2006), for small orchestra, is a wholly abstract and much more modest work than Stroke, and has a more overtly modernistic structural sound, with quiet sections interrupted by great gouts of notes. As for the 1991 Violin Concerto, it is technically demanding but not really concerto-like in structure, being more of an extended and often quite challenging song for solo violin (very well played by Cho-Liang Lin, who seems unfazed by even the greatest technical requirements here). Being difficult to play without being impressively virtuosic to hear, the concerto comes across as a work more for performers than for audience – indeed, like the other pieces on this disc, it is an easier work to respect and admire than to love and respond to with the sort of emotional involvement typical of both theatrical music and theatrical performances.