September 24, 2015


Schumann: Dichterliebe; Schubert: Songs—Du bist die Ruh; Die Forelle; Frühlingsglaube; Gretchen am Spinnrade; Nacht und Träume; Beethoven: Adelaide. Andrew Parker, oboe; Alan Huckleberry, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on the Bare Mountain; Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 3; Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1; Prelude for left hand alone, Op. 9, No. 1. Alessio Bax, piano. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Bartók: 14 Bagatelles; Two Romanian Dances; 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs; Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs; Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from “Mikrokosmos.” Terry Eder, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     There are several specific classical forms in which works sound like songs and may even be overtly songlike, but do not include words. Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, written from 1829 to 1845 and presented in six volumes, are well-known and have been often imitated; here the title indicates a songlike approach to music that never had a vocal element but sounds as if it could, perhaps even should, have one. Then there is the concept of vocalise, presented (for example) in Rachmaninoff’s Op. 34, No. 14, and in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, in which a singer is present but his and/or her voice is treated entirely as an instrument, producing sounds but no words – narrative is absent, but this is very clearly singing. A new MSR Classics release featuring oboist Andrew Parker offers wordless singing of a different sort, through transcriptions for oboe and piano of music originally intended to be sung. Whether the oboe is the instrument that best approximates the human voice is a matter of opinion – arguments could be made for the clarinet, cello, even French horn – but attempting to duplicate vocal sounds through the oboe is not the point here. Instead, Parker and pianist Alan Huckleberry offer thoughtful, emotionally involving interpretations of works whose storytelling was always uppermost in their composers’ minds but that communicate effectively even in the absence of words. Or at least the pieces are effective in this form for listeners who know the originals. A point worth repeating is one famously made by Leonard Bernstein, to the effect that music does not mean anything – a statement he backed up amusingly in his Young People’s Concerts by playing some of Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote and telling the audience that it was all about Superman, which indeed made as much sense as the work’s original program. In an analogous vein, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a 16-song cycle with specific material to communicate from a longer set of poems by Heinrich Heine, does not tell any specific story as heard here. Yet lack of knowledge of the narrative material does nothing to diminish the fine quality of Parker’s and Huckleberry’s playing and nothing to reduce the emotional involvement to which they invite listeners – but Dichterliebe does not mean anything in this form; it is simply a collection of brief oboe-and-piano pieces that collectively make for pleasant but not exceptionally telling listening. Similarly, Beethoven’s 1795 proto-Romantic song Adelaide loses something in its transformation to an oboe-and-piano piece: its oddly ecstatic final stanza, in which the poet exults over his coming death and transfiguration, makes an effective capstone for the work as heard on oboe and piano, but, again, it does not mean anything: it is simply a march that caps earlier, more dreamy material. It is the five well-known Schubert songs that come across best as oboe-and-piano works, perhaps because Schubert himself led the way from song to instrumental work by building the famous “Trout” quintet around Die Forelle. Listeners who know this original song or its quartet version will find the Parker-Huckleberry transcription quite appealing, and indeed, all of these Schubert songs sing forth here with delicacy, lyricism and a kind of compelling purity. They no longer say what Schubert intended them to say, it is true, but they do speak out pleasantly and emotionally.

     Singing was much on Scriabin’s mind in regard to his Piano Sonata No. 3. After initially calling this sonata “Gothic,” he later rethought what he was trying to communicate and declared it to represent “States of the Soul.” The soul wants to sing and flourish, he wrote of the second movement, and there is a song of triumph prominent in the fourth and final movement. Indeed, there are songful elements throughout this work, as well as in the Etude and Prelude that accompany it on a new Signum Classics CD featuring pianist Alessio Bax. The poetry and intricate intensity of the Scriabin sonata come through forcefully in Bax’s reading, and although the work ends in defeat, Bax effectively communicates Scriabin’s notion that the failure is only temporary, even if the form of eventual victory is not apparent within the sonata itself. The turbulent colors of Scriabin are well-balanced here by the elegant miniatures of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which Bax handles less as a virtuoso showpiece than as a vivid visit to an artist’s world – or rather two artists’ worlds, those of Mussorgsky and of Viktor Hartmann. The contrasts between the lighter, piquant pictures and the darker, dour ones are brought forth particularly well here, with the final Great Gate of Kiev a potent capstone for the work. Also on this CD is Night on the Bare Mountain, which Bax himself has here edited and arranged. On the piano, this orchestral showpiece inevitably loses some of the brilliant characterization that Mussorgsky achieved through instrumentation and Rimsky-Korsakov (in the best-known version) subsequently polished and moderated. But the anarchic pleasures of the earlier parts of the work come through especially well under Bax’s hands, and the tone poem as a whole retains a kind of craggy beauty.

     In the case of the songs underlying piano works by Bartók on a new CD from MSR Classics, the original sung texts are absent by design: the songs are building blocks used by the composer as some of his studies, elaborations and explorations of folk music. What Terry Eder plays here is an entire disc of miniatures: the CD runs 78 minutes and includes 45 tracks. No individual song or element stands out from the others or is intended to: Bartók’s aim in all the works heard here was to express himself through folk music while at the same time utilizing the generally simple tunes and harmonies of folk material to produce works of greater emotional compass and impact than folk tunes themselves possess. Thus, the 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs and Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs take off from simple material and sometimes present it more-or-less straightforwardly while at other times offering it in expanded, more-complex form. The songs that form the basis of these works are neither more nor less foundational to Bartók’s construction of the pieces than the dances that underlie Two Romanian Dances and Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm. The danceable elements remain present in these works, although not always on the surface, but the composer’s purpose here is the creation and use of a compositional method focusing on folk elements without being fully beholden to them. This makes the works sound academic, however, and that is not at all how they sound in Eder’s performances, which are light and lithe when they should be and strongly accented and emphasized when that is the appropriate approach. The most interesting piece on the CD is 14 Bagatelles, which shows a transitional stage in Bartók’s compositions as he sought to use more Eastern European folk music in his works and also incorporated some of the influences of Debussy. There is a distinctly modern sound here, even though 14 Bagatelles is early Bartók (Op. 6, 1908). Experimental harmonic passages are frequent throughout these character pieces, and Eder does a fine job of exploring the modern-sounding elements while also staying true to the essentially folklike material on which Bartók built this work.

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