October 01, 2015
Julius Fučík: Orchestral Music. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Auguste Franchomme: Chamber Music and Chopin Arrangements. Louise Dubin, Julia Bruskin, Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir and Katherine Cherbas, cellos; Hélène Jeanney and Andrea Lam, piano. Delos. $16.99.
Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Serenades for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 69; Nielsen: Violin Concerto. Baiba Skride, violin; Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Orfeo. $22.99 (2 CDs).
Gabrieli: Sacrae Symphoniae—Excerpts; John Williams: Music for Brass. National Brass Ensemble. Oberlin Music. $19.99 (SACD).
Everybody, but everybody, knows one work by Julius Ernst Wilhelm Fučík (1872-1916) – or, more accurately, part of one work. And virtually nobody, except for band enthusiasts in the Czech Republic and some German-speaking areas of Europe, knows anything else by or about the composer – or even knows the balance of the work whose beginning is utterly, totally and completely familiar. Fučík was, especially in the early 20th century, the most famous Czech composer of light music, writing hundreds of works – especially for wind bands, being himself known as a bandmaster of considerable skill. Wind and military bands still play his music frequently, but his works for strings and full orchestra have languished, and outside the band world, almost nothing he wrote is heard on concert programs. And what a shame that is, as Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra demonstrate again and again on a simply marvelous new Chandos SACD that really ought to, if there is any justice at all in the music world, revive Fučík as a name to be reckoned with. There are 14 works recorded here, all of them tuneful, elegant, beautifully proportioned, and – it is worth saying twice – tuneful. Fučík was a master melodist, writing marches as peppy as Sousa’s and waltzes as winsome as Johann Strauss Jr.’s (and some with a hint or two of Lehár). It is nearly unbelievable that music this good, produced with this level of consistency, should have disappeared so thoroughly – but given Fučík’s short life and the fact that he was most productive in the band realm and in the years after Johann Strauss Jr.’s death, it is perhaps understandable. Nevertheless, this ebullient recording makes a simply splendid case for a Fučík revival and for much more frequent performances of his works. Every piece here has its own set of charms, from the sort-of-American march The Mississippi River (Fučík never actually visited the United States), to the comic polka Der Alte Brummbär (“The Old Grumbler,” featuring a delightful bassoon part that is played very well here by David Hubbard), to the march Die lustigen Dorfschmiede (“The Merry Blacksmiths,” whose trio calls for two anvils and will remind some listeners of Josef Strauss’ Feuerfest Polka), to the oddly titled and unusual march Onkel Teddy (“Uncle Teddy”). None of these works is as often heard in any form as the military march Die Regimentskinder (“Children of the Regiment”), which retains more than a modicum of popularity – but even that work pales in recognition before the opening of Einzug der Gladiatoren (“Entry of the Gladiators”), a highly chromatic march for large orchestra that has become 100% identified with the circus and almost as thoroughly popularized in innumerable cartoons, wrestling matches and other sports events. Talk about unimagined popularity – and what an astonishing development for a work intended to reflect Roman gladiatorial combat! But there is little expected about the rediscovery of Fučík, and a great deal to enjoy in becoming acquainted with his tremendous creativity and compositional skill.
There are equal pleasures of rediscovery to be had in hearing the works of Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884), friend to Chopin and frequent transcriber of Chopin’s music for one or more cellos. Franchomme was the most highly regarded French cellist of his time, and not surprisingly wrote a number of works for his own performance – just as was done by violinists aplenty and also by string players such as double-bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini. It would be a mistake to look to Franchomme’s works for profundity, but looking to them for beauty and a fascinating exploration of the range and emotive capabilities of the cello is another and more fruitful matter. Louise Dubin, lead cellist and prime mover of what is called on this Delos CD “The Franchomme Project,” offers five Chopin arrangements and nine of Franchomme’s compositions. Some arrangements stand out, in particular three of Chopin’s works: the Andantino from Ballade No. 2, the Prelude, Op. 28, No. 9, and the Marche Funèbre from Sonata No. 2 – each heard here on four cellos. Students of the history of musical humor may remember a Chopin arrangement for four very different instruments: Mazurka No. 47 played on four tubas in the first Hoffnung Musical Festival. Rest assured that the four-cello arrangements are nothing like that: they are serious, warm, expressive and surprisingly effective at getting to the emotional heart of the music. The other two Chopin arrangements, which are for cello and piano, stand up well, too: Mazurka, Op. 33, No. 3 and Polonaise Brillante Précédée d’une Introduction, Op. 3. Franchomme’s own music is uniformly well-constructed, with a tendency toward elegance, and not surprisingly uses the cello – already an instrument of many, many moods – to very fine emotional effect. Franchomme is not above including ornamentation for its own sake (as in his version of Chopin’s Polonaise Brillante, for example), but he is equally concerned with the sheer beauty of his instrument’s sound and its ability to elicit emotional reactions from the audience. This makes his opera-derived works of special interest: Caprice sur Preciosa de Weber and La Norma de Bellini from Dix Mélodies Italiennes, the latter here arranged for cello and piano. But Franchomme’s combination of sensitivity and virtuosity is evident as well in the other music on this CD: Nocturnes for Two Cellos, Op. 14, No. 1 and Op. 15, Nos. 1, 2 and 3; Caprices for Two Cellos, Op. 7, Nos. 1 and 9; and Solo pour le Violoncelle, Op. 18, No. 3, heard here with piano. None of this rises much above the level of salon music, but it is worth remembering that salon music itself was often better than the somewhat sneering references to it would indicate. This is music that serves a particular purpose, that of combining performer challenge with listener enjoyment; and while it never reaches for or attains anything approaching greatness, it is highly enjoyable to hear and filled with small touches of stylistic piquancy. Dubin and the other performers play with relish, clearly enjoying exploring some out-of-the-way parts of the cello repertoire, and Franchomme’s music is good enough so that this disc may well pave the way for it to start appearing with greater frequency on recital programs. Nothing here is really substantive enough to become a centerpiece of a concert, but in intimate settings and as encores, Franchomme’s works definitely deserve a place. And his arrangements of well-known Chopin pieces provide a new way to hear familiar music and bring out some beauties even beyond those that these works are already known to possess.
Violinist Baiba Skride is certainly capable of bringing out the beauties of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, which remains something of a rediscovery even though it has received occasional performances in recent years. Nielsen’s 1911 work receives the most effective reading among those on a new two-CD release from Orfeo, in which Skride also performs the better-known Sibelius Violin Concerto and the Finnish composer’s two Op. 69 Serenades for Violin and Orchestra. Nielsen’s concerto is a two-movement work, with each movement prefaced with an extended introduction. Essentially neoclassical in concept despite its structure, the work eschews overt displays of virtuosity even though it is quite difficult to play. It is one of those early-20th-century works that lie somewhere between Romanticism and full-fledged embrace of serialism and other new techniques: Nielsen, who had his own way of straddling compositional eras (for example, although his music is mostly tonal, he was fond of beginning a work in one key and ending it in another), reaches here for a kind of acerbic emotionalism that is not immediately appealing – perhaps a reason for the relative neglect of this concerto. What Skride does particularly well here is to plumb the emotional depths of the music, reaching for the connective tissue that unites the introductory material of each movement with the main sections that follow, and using what opportunities Nielsen provides for virtuosic display (such as the cadenza near the end of the finale) to heighten the concerto’s emotional elements. What is missing here, though, is a strong sense of “conversation” between soloist and orchestra – another characteristic of this concerto, and one that gets comparatively short shrift from the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra under the workmanlike but uninspired direction of Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Skride makes a stronger case for the work than Rouvali does. And neither soloist nor conductor comes off particularly well in the Sibelius concerto. Skride here seems determined to “do the concerto differently,” engaging in considerable portamento and deemphasizing the work’s cragginess and rhythmic bite as she turns it into more of a Romantic (or post-Romantic) display piece than it usually comes across as being. Her playing itself is very fine – and so, for that matter, is the orchestra’s, even when Rouvali takes a noticeably quirky approach (as in the particularly odd-sounding beginning of the finale). What this performance lacks is any sense of inwardness: a concerto that features distinctly introverted elements is here almost entirely made into an extroverted piece – an approach that sounds good but that is antithetical to many elements of the music. The two serenades, In D major and G minor, make interesting filler pieces, and the emotionalism that Skride brings to both the concertos fits these shorter works rather well. Neither short work comes across as particularly substantial, however. This is a (+++) release with some very fine playing but some interpretations that simply sound wrongheaded in significant ways.
The playing is also very fine – in fact, often outstanding – on a new Oberlin Music release of music from Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sacrae Symphoniae, in arrangements by Tim Higgins. This is a (++++) recording for those interested in the wonderful sound of modern brass instruments – played by 26 members of seven major U.S. orchestras – but a (+++) recording for those who prefer more authentic, less overtly bright and intensely punchy sound of the sort that is historically correct for the music of Gabrieli (1554/1557-1612). By intent, this is a recording steeped in sonic splendor, one simply to be enjoyed for the marvelous way in which the performers explore the music, blending their instruments to fine effect and expertly bringing out Gabrieli’s rhythmic and contrapuntal elements and his finely honed concern for dynamics (for example, in Sonata Pian e Forte). The 16 Gabrieli works heard here include nine Canzoni, the aforementioned sonata, plus Buccinate in Neomenia, O Magnum Mysterium, Hic est Filius Dei, Magnificat a 12, Sancta Maria, and Exaudi me Domine. The works with religious themes and the essentially secular canzoni fit the National Brass Ensemble equally well and are played with equal warmth and equally high levels of skill. And the short Music for Brass by John Williams, offered at the end of this very well-recorded SACD as a kind of encore, neatly connects Gabrieli’s brass music with our own time. There are no particular interpretative insights here, but there is a great deal of excellent music-making, and the CD as a whole represents the kind of “sonic spectacular” in which the aural delights, rather than any significant interpretative nuances, are the recording’s reason for being. For lovers of brass music, those delights will be more than enough reason to own the disc.