September 24, 2015
(++++) ON THE LIGHTER SIDE
American Originals: Songs by Stephen Foster and other works. Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by John Morris Russell. Fanfare Cincinnati. $16.99.
The Genius of Film Music: Hollywood Blockbusters 1960s to 1980s. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Mauceri. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 31 (“Hornsignal”), 70 and 101 (“The Clock”). Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).
There is not the slightest requirement that music be profound in order to be enjoyable – quite the opposite, in fact. Much enjoyable music is determinedly surface-level and straightforward, not only in the pop-music world (which is built almost entirely on superficiality) but also in classical music. After all, no matter how wonderful the works of Vienna’s Strauss family were, the basic purpose of the pieces was to be danceable and melodious. So no apology is necessary for the enjoyment listeners will receive from a new Cincinnati Pops recording of arrangements of Stephen Foster songs, released on the orchestra’s own label. The 17 tracks here include Foster’s most-popular, most-loved tunes (even though the songs’ words, written largely for 19th-century minstrel and blackface shows, have often been amended in recent times in accordance with modern sensibilities). There are arrangements of O! Susannah, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, My Old Kentucky Home, Old Folks at Home (“Swanee River”), Beautiful Dreamer and Camptown Races. There is also some less-known Foster here, and it is particularly delightful to hear the less-often-performed music of this first great American songwriter: Slumber My Darling; Ring, Ring de Banjo (the third word here given as “the”); Hard Times Come Again No More; and Why No One to Love? The more than 200 songs by Foster (1826-1864) are honored here in true modern musical-crossover style, with the orchestra under John Morris Russell joined by Rosanne Cash, Aoife O’Donovan, Joe Henry, Don Flemons and other performers – and with Foster’s music complemented on this live recording by spirituals and other works deemed quintessentially American, which means the disc includes Amazing Grace, Rolling River: Sketches on Shenandoah, Kumbaya, Aura Lee, Foster’s Folly, Red River Valley, and The Battle Cry of Freedom. Warmly and enthusiastically played throughout, this is music that often tugs at the heartstrings, especially if listeners know the original lyrics (to My Old Kentucky Home, for example), but whose poignancy is at the service of a generally upbeat upwelling of emotion.
The emotions intended to be conveyed or reinforced by film music (such as warmth, joy, and pathos rather than tragedy) are in some ways quite similar to those associated with Foster’s works. In other ways, film scores must be created in the same way as certain great ballets: the music for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, for example, was constructed according to the needs of the choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, just as film music is developed according to the needs of the director. The visual elements in both cases come first and are dominant. Tchaikovsky’s music has long outlasted the ballet’s original staging, but standalone film music, even by great composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, has a more checkered history. The reason is that even when film scores are at their best, they are intended as part of a multimedia experience – one in which the visual element dominates and drives everything else. Still, the new London Philharmonic Orchestra recording on the orchestra’s own label shows just how worthy certain film scores can be – although in all cases, familiarity with the movie for which the score was written will enhance the effectiveness of John Mauceri’s well-paced conducting. The nine composers represented on this two-CD set are among the best-known names in Hollywood film-music history: Alex North (Cleopatra Symphony), Nino Rota (The Godfather: A Symphonic Portrait), Franz Waxman (Taras Bulba: The Ride of the Cossacks), Bernard Herrman (Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra), Bronislaw Kaper (Mutiny on the Bounty), Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The New Enterprise), Ennio Morricone (Once Upon a Time in America: Deborah’s Theme), Maurice Jarré (Lawrence of Arabia: Lawrence and the Desert), and Alfred Newman (the very brief 20th Century Fox Fanfare). The shorter pieces here are often the most evocative: Waxman’s and Morricone’s pieces are highly effective even for listeners unfamiliar with the films. The longer works essentially compress their movies’ stories, or parts of them, and depend more on listeners’ knowing what the films were about (although there is no question what type of film Herrman, for one, was writing for). Much recent film music is quite forgettable; some, notably the John Williams score for the original Star Wars, deserves to stand with the great film scores, even if not quite at the level of, say, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. But greatness or long-term popularity has never been the primary point of film music: it is designed to enhance moviegoing, and as this LPO release shows, can provide pleasant if scarcely soul-stirring experience even outside the theater.
The original venues for Haydn’s symphonies were concert halls, whether at the Esterházy palace or in London for impresario Johann Peter Salomon, and it is worth remembering that these works’ primary purpose was always entertainment: Haydn managed to advance the symphony extensively and in very significant ways, but without the heaven-storming intensity that Beethoven (Haydn’s onetime pupil) brought to the form in ushering in the Romantic era. Haydn’s works are far from simple but are invariably pleasant, generally light in scoring if not “light” in the sense of communicating only on a surface level. A new Linn Records SACD featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Robin Ticciati offers an unusual combination of Haydn symphonies and in so doing highlights just how distinctive Haydn’s works in this form were. Ticciati is not an especially idiomatic interpreter of Haydn, but the orchestra plays very well indeed and the enthusiasm of conductor and musicians is palpable. This is especially so in Symphony No. 31, the unusually scored “Hornsignal,” which in addition to four horns calls for a solo flute and pair of oboes and includes solo parts for violin, cello and double bass. This highly inventive work sparkles here, with the horns if anything a touch too bright (natural horns fit this music much better); the gentle Adagio, where solo and pizzicato strings are prominent, comes off especially well. Symphony No. 70 is a rather odd choice for this disc: written in 1779, 14 years after No. 31, it is rarely performed and is generally rather conventional for a work of its time. It is also short – only about 19 minutes – and its longest movement, the Andante, is rather cold. Austere scoring and contrapuntal structure are this work’s hallmarks. Ticciati leads it in rather workmanlike fashion – there is nothing particularly distinctive in his approach, although the playing is again first-rate. Symphony No. 101, the popular “Clock” of 1794, fares better, the contrast between the rather eerie opening of the first movement and the bright main section handled very well, and the tick-tock sound in the second movement (whence the work’s nickname) given in proper context and not overemphasized. The dramatic closing of the symphony is rousing and attractive, and the overall impression of this recording is the happy one of musicians having as good a time with the music as Haydn intended his audience to have.