December 31, 2015
(++++) SUPERIOR SEQUENCES
Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 15. Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $12.99.
Grieg: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume V—Music to Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt”; Six Orchestral Songs; Two Lyric Pieces; The Mountain Thrall; Norwegian Dances. Camilla Tilling, soprano; Tom Erik Lie, baritone; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Eivind Aadland. Audite. $19.99 (SACD).
Vivaldi: Twelve Concertos, Op. 7. Federico Guglielmo, violin and conducting L’Arte dell’Arco; Pier Luigi Fabretti, oboe. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
The risk of providing complete, or simply extended, series of pretty much any music is that no one produces material of the same quality all the time. There is lesser Mozart, lesser Bach, lesser Beethoven. On the other hand, the great thing about hearing the totality of a composer’s production in one form or another is to have a chance to make up one’s own mind as to whether the less-known works deserve their relative obscurity – or whether they are less frequently heard just as an accident of history or because of factors incidental to their musical quality. The excellent Naxos series of Sousa’s music for wind band, whose 15th and penultimate volume features Keith Brion conducting yet another of the international bands that seem thoroughly at home with this quintessentially American music, contains not a single Sousa piece that could be described as well-known. Indeed, four works here – including the three longest on the CD – are world première recordings. But it is very difficult to understand why these pieces are so rarely played, compared with better-known ones, for everything on the disc has the same naïve charm, fine sense of rhythm and excellence of band orchestration for which Sousa is justly famous. If there is nothing here with the lilt and sheer verve of The Washington Post, The Liberty Bell or The Thunderer, there is also nothing that deserves to languish as these pieces have. The longest work on the disc, The Band Came Back, is also the oddest: a collection of tune snippets used at Sousa band performances to reassemble the musicians on stage after intermission. Created in 1895 and differing at different performances, it is heard here in a version from 1926 by Sousa’s assistant conductor, cornetist Herbert L. Clarke. The other world premières are excerpts that Sousa assembled in 1894 from his 1884 operetta, Désirée; the “electric ballet” from Act II of his 1899 retelling of the Aladdin story, Chris and the Wonderful Lamp; and a fascinating arrangement that Sousa made of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 11, which includes offstage as well as onstage brass instruments. The remaining pieces here, although they have been recorded from time to time, are mostly rarities. They are the marches Prince Charming (1928), Across the Danube (1877), Magna Charta (1927), Legionnaires (1930), Volunteers (1918), Pet of the Petticoats (1883), Ben Bolt (1883), and Yorktown Centennial (1881), plus a rather odd tango-with-foxtrot-elements called Gliding Girl (1912). The wide date range of the music offers listeners an ideal chance to hear the ways in which Sousa’s style changed – and did not change – over time. And individual pieces have standout elements showing just how creative Sousa could be: Ben Bolt, for example, is made up of multiple popular tunes transformed into march rhythm, while Volunteers, written to honor workers building warships, includes riveting, sirens and anvils. Like the earlier volumes in this first-rate series, this one shows Brion to have a thorough understanding and appreciation of Sousa’s music and to be a band conductor of considerable élan.
The fifth and last Audite SACD of Grieg’s symphonic works, conducted by Eivind Aadland, also fulfills the promise of the earlier issues. Little on this disc will be familiar to most listeners: the recording includes Grieg’s orchestral arrangements of his own songs as well as various dances and short lyrical pieces. One thing confirmed here is Grieg’s reputation as a miniaturist: the works range in length from two minutes to six-and-a-half. Grieg captures multiple moods by juxtaposing short works rather than by developing sections of longer ones; that is especially apparent here. The only work with any real continuity is the Norwegian Dances, in whose four movements Grieg explores a march and three Hallings; the suite, originally written for piano four hands, is quite effective in this form. Two Peer Gynt excerpts sound quite interesting in the orchestral versions here, especially Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter, whose orchestration includes piano, harp and xylophone. Moodiness comes through clearly in the two orchestrated Lyric Pieces, while Six Orchestral Songs – taken by the composer from a wide variety of his song cycles – are all affectingly sung by soprano Camilla Tilling. There is also a single, extended song here for baritone, The Mountain Thrall, which Tom Erik Lie handles with appropriate drama and anguish. But Audite provides no texts for any of the songs, and that is a significant lack in a CD that is half made up of vocal music – especially since the booklet spends four pages on the background of the two singers, which is really overkill. Nevertheless, for listeners intrigued by Grieg and able to track down the songs’ words online, this disc brings its series to a very fine close, with Aadland showing once again that he is highly sensitive to the rhythmic and harmonic nuances that are so important for thorough appreciation of Grieg’s music.
Vivaldi’s concertos provide tremendous enjoyment all the time, and particularly so when played by a violinist such as Federico Guglielmo, with his superb understanding of period style and his use of authentic instruments not only for himself but also for the ensemble he leads, L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics has already released absolutely first-rate recordings of Guglielmo’s readings of the Op. 3 and Op. 4 concertos, among others, and it is reasonable to ask why those collections are heard so often while Op. 7 is almost completely unknown. The reason is that at least some of these concertos are not by Vivaldi at all, and there is scholarly argument over which ones are. The dozen works in Op. 7 may have been rushed out by an unscrupulous music publisher, of which there were many in Vivaldi’s time, to take advantage of the popularity of the composer’s other concertos. Little is certain, or is likely to become certain, about just how Op. 7 came to be – but many of these works, whether by Vivaldi himself or by someone imitating his style, have considerable interest in their own right; and their very rarity makes it interesting to hear them, especially when one can do so in such a wonderfully played and well-priced recording as this. Op. 7 includes two six-concerto portions, each starting with an oboe concerto and proceeding with five violin concertos. Scholars agree that the oboe concertos are certainly not by Vivaldi; Guglielmo includes them here anyway, as a sort of appendix, and they are quite harmless if not particularly noteworthy. Listeners can play their own guessing game with the violin concertos, which are arranged helter-skelter on the discs for no apparent reason (they appear in the sequence 11, 10, 4, 2, 3, 6, 12, 8, 9, 5). Trying to decide whether a given concerto is or is not by Vivaldi can be fun, but it is worth remembering, again, that even great composers did not produce works at the same high level all the time, so a lesser piece here may simply be lesser Vivaldi. For example, of the two minor-key concertos, No. 4 in A minor has so many deficiencies of sound and structure that it is hard to imagine it being by Vivaldi, while No. 3 in G minor has enough felicitous touches so that it certainly seems that it could be a Vivaldi work. The chance to form one’s own opinion about the provenance of the music is one pleasure to be had here. The other is simply the quality of the playing: no matter who wrote these pieces, Guglielmo and his forces deliver them with as much enthusiasm and authenticity as they are ever likely to receive.