September 03, 2015
(++++) TAKING THE LIGHTER SIDE SERIOUSLY
Contemporaries of the Strauss Family, Volume 1: Johann Schrammel, Iosef Ivanovici, Joseph Lanner, Philip Fahrbach Jr., Oscar Fetrás, Joseph Hellmesberger Jr., Carl Millöcker, Alfons Czibulka, Kurt Schmid, Joseph Gung’l, Carl Michael Ziehrer, Paul Lincke. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.
Contemporaries of the Strauss Family, Volume 2: Iosef Ivanovici, Paul Lincke, Carl Zeller, Julius Fučik, Karl Komzák II, Franz von Suppé, Juventino Rosas, Josef Hellmesberger Jr., Joseph Labitzky, Oscar Fetrás, Johann Schrammel. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn for Two Pianos, Op. 56b; Sonata in F minor for Two Pianos, Op. 34b. Eleonora Spina and Michele Benignetti, pianos. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
Satiesfictions: Promenades with Erik Satie—A Film by Anne-Kathrin Peitz & Youlian Tabakov. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.
An absolutely wonderful two-CD offering from Marco Polo does something that is long overdue: it acknowledges just how good dance music was in Europe in the 19th century and early 20th even when the Strauss family was not writing it. Popular music today is so dull and formulaic that it is laughable (highly recommended: the YouTube video called Four Chords by The Axis of Awesome). But there was nothing funny about dance music in the Strausses’ time, and although certainly much of it was written to formulas – there were specific requirements for quadrilles, waltzes, galops, polkas and the like – there was tremendous inventiveness in applying the formulas, which is why the lovely but rather foursquare waltzes by Johann Strauss Sr. became far more symphonic in the hands of Johann Strauss Jr. and even more so in the hands of Josef Strauss. Besides, dance music in this time period was big business, and the venues where it was performed were highly competitive; hence the disputes between the bands of Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss Sr., and between Johann Strauss Sr. and Johann Strauss Jr., and between Johann Strauss Jr. and Carl Michael Ziehrer, and so on. The simple fact is that there was a great deal of excellent music written in a variety of dance forms in the late 19th century and early 20th, but very little of it is known by most people now except for the creations of the Strauss family. Hence the delightfulness of the 32 works on these two Marco Polo CDs, many of them world premières and many orchestrated and/or reconstructed by John Georgiadis, who leads the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice with enthusiasm and clear enjoyment of the material. A very few names here are quite familiar (Lanner and Suppé), and a few are somewhat less so (Ziehrer, Millöcker, Komzák). A few pieces have retained a special place even today: the march from Lincke’s Berliner Luft always features in the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concerts, for example, but heard in Volume 2 here is the operetta’s overture, which includes only a bit of the march -- plus some other fine tunes. Most of the material here will be wholly unknown to a modern audience. There are some really fine rediscoveries, notably the music of Iosef Ivanovici (1845-1902), and there are some genuine surprises (Kurt Schmid was born in 1942 and is still very much alive, but is included here because he continues to write music in the old Viennese style, as is evident from the Anniversary March played in Volume 1). Even the music by the more-familiar composers will be new to listeners: Georgiadis and the Johann Strauss Society of Great Britain scoured libraries for manuscripts of unpublished works or resurrected published pieces unheard for well over a century, no matter their provenance. The result of all the painstaking research, reconstruction, rehearsal and release of this material is two-and-a-half hours (on the two CDs) of absolute joy, a window into a vanished world and vanished time in which “light” music was a serious business and the composers and purveyors of dances produced – all right, in some cases cranked out – wonderful tunes, marvelous rhythms, lovely harmonies, and an overarching sense of elegant fun whose doom seems obvious in retrospect but was by no means clear at the time, and which certainly deserves a better fate than to fade into oblivion forever. The revival of these pieces and these composers makes for splendid listening tinged with appropriate wistfulness for a time long past.
Brahms, who at one point wrote that the Blue Danube Waltz was unfortunately not by him, appreciated and occasionally wrote light music – his Hungarian Dances were a big success, as was his Academic Festival Overture. But he is scarcely thought of as a “light” composer. Nevertheless, his Variations on a Theme by Haydn (which theme is apparently not by Haydn after all, so the piece is now often called the St. Anthony Variations) have many lighter moments, and they are particularly well realized in a performance by Eleonora Spina and Michele Benignetti of the original two-piano version of the score. The orchestral version of this work is far better known nowadays than the two-piano one, but the delicacy and clever interplay of the pianos throughout the eight variations make the keyboard version very much worth hearing and not at all duplicative of the impression made by Brahms’ later orchestration of the music. Spina and Benignetti handle the marchlike character of the basic theme particularly well, and the two pianists nicely bring out the varying characterizations implicit in the different variations, with two-against-three rhythms here, steady and pleasant melodic flow there, grace here, rhythmic insistence there, and real contrapuntal mastery in the finale. This is an altogether winning performance. It is paired on a very well-priced Brilliant Classics disc with a far more serious work: the two-piano version of Brahms’ Piano Quintet, Op. 34a. Even more than in the Haydn Variations, this two-piano piece, Op.34b, is far less known and far less often played than is the work’s other form. On pianos, the sonata sounds something like a study for a symphony, from its unison opening for the two instruments through its very extended, highly chromatic first movement, and on through a four-movement form that concludes with a rondo that recalls earlier material and employs techniques such as counterpoint and thematic overlays. The basic music here is familiar to anyone who knows the quintet, but the sound of the piece is quite different from that of the work for piano and strings. And again, Spina and Benignetti delve into the material with great skill and bring out its balances – and imbalances – to impressive effect, with the result that the sonata Op. 34b seems less like an alternative to the quintet and more like a work with something different to communicate, an effective piece in its own right that just happens to contain the same music as Op. 34a.
The blend of lightness and seriousness in music reached a pinnacle of sorts in the life and work – the two are inextricably tied together – of Erik Satie (1866-1925). Satie courted notoriety, reveled in it, acted the part of an eccentric (complete with umbrella and bowler hat) while actually being an eccentric, and managed in his music and life to anticipate or take part in movements ranging from dada to surrealism to minimalism. The 56-minute film Satiesfictions, now available as an Accentus Music DVD, is an attempt to use modern movie techniques to bring clarity to Satie’s life and music while also celebrating both. It is a very clever production, showcasing Satie as an early practitioner of what we would now call public relations, as a sort of Parisian Dorothy Parker (he constantly wrote remarks, often very witty ones, within and about his music), and a bit of a proto-Gerard Hoffnung (one of the cleverest elements of the film is the way it turns Satie’s drawings into cartoons). The film is, however, a rarefied one of deliberately limited appeal: viewers unfamiliar with Man Ray, Georges Auric, Pierre Bertin and Jean Cocteau will find themselves somewhat bewildered by what goes on, and those who do not already know Satie’s music and the iconoclasm that pervades it may have some difficulty figuring out what all the fuss is about. There are, for example, scenes of pianists playing stacked pianos and performers in unexpected locations (swimming pools, train stations) turning into “musical furniture.” To understand this, it helps a great deal to know that after Satie’s death, friends who entered his apartment found two grand pianos stacked upon each other – the upper containing musical manuscripts previously unknown or thought to have been lost, some of which would later be published as “furniture music.” Viewers who do not get all the “in” references and cross-references here may nevertheless enjoy hearing bits and pieces of Satie’s music – which was already bits and pieces when written – and may find bonus material such as “Stock Market Report à la Satie” amusing, if largely unintelligible. There is a chaotic if not quite frenzied feel to Satiesfictions, as if Anne-Kathrin Peitz and Youlian Tabakov decided that Satie was a bizarre enough character so they could do pretty much anything with his life and music and would in so doing illuminate the topic. That makes for a rather odd and self-indulgent movie that will be great fun for Satie aficionados, who will find it a (++++) production (perhaps four stacked grand pianos would be a better rating). But, in fairness, it has to be noted that the film makes no attempt really to explain Satie, his time or his art, and is too self-consciously self-aware of its self-referential nature to get more than a (+++) rating among those who are uninitiated into Satie-ism and what could be called Sati(r)e.