February 25, 2016
Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Fair Melusine; The Hebrides. Camilla Tilling and Magdalena Risberg, sopranos; Women’s Voices of the Swedish Radio Choir and Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
Rain Worthington: Shredding Glass; Reversing Mirrors in the Quiet; Tracing a Dream; Fast Through Dark Winds; Within a Dance; Yet Still Night; Of Time Remembered. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra and Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Ian Winstin, Petr Vronský and Ovidiu Marinescu. Navona. $14.99.
Franck: Sonata for Violin and Piano; Bloch: Poème Mystique (Violin Sonata No. 2); Julien Krein: Berceuse. Zina Schiff, violin; Cameron Grant, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The musical creation of dreamscapes is by no means simple and by no means done the same way by different composers. That music has the power to transport listeners to places amazing and imaginary, there is no doubt. But there is no inherent meaning to any particular sequence of notes, any particular harmonic or contrapuntal construction, and therefore the success of a work at disconnecting listeners from reality and bringing them somewhere else depends as much on the audience as on the music’s creator. It is crucial to bring listeners to the right imaginary landscape in order to communicate effectively with them once they arrive. This is far from easy. Wagner accomplished it brilliantly with his opening to Parsifal, for example, but Mozart relied on staging and visualization rather than the character of the music to pull the audience into the world of Die Zauberflöte. Chronologically between these two examples lies Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it is as perfect a dreamship as was ever constructed. The well-paced and delicate performance by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard confirms this yet again, if further confirmation be necessary. The grandeur of the ever-popular Wedding March is here, to be sure, but what is most impressive in this performance is the delicacy with which Dausgaard presents the quieter, more dreamlike musical material, such as the Notturno. It is the gentleness of the more-even-tempered segments that makes the brighter and bouncier ones so effective by contrast, and Dausgaard understands this well. In fact, it is clear from the very start, in his handling of the ever-amazing Overture, whose four opening chords so clearly raise the curtain on a world different from and yet allied to the real one, a fantasy world where spirits scurry as love seeks love and “rude mechanicals” play out their roles with enthusiasm and utterly without understanding. Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains a marvel, and poised and sensitive performances like this one ensure that it continues to sound like one. The additional evocative works on the CD complement A Midsummer Night’s Dream very well. The Beautiful Melusine has all the yearning and drama befitting the story of the water spirit in human form who, when seen by her husband as she truly is, must return to the waters. And The Hebrides broods, swirls and surges with strength and intensity, sweeping listeners into a dark, impassioned world that seems the stuff of dreams even though Fingal’s Cave, which inspired the overture, is very much a real place. Dreamer Mendelssohn may have been, but he knew how to bring his dreams to real audiences in ways that continue to inspire listeners’ flights of fancy today.
Rain Worthington clearly wants to reach out to and reach people in a similar way, but on the evidence of a new (+++) Navona CD, she does not have the tools to do so effectively. She certainly has the musical tools, albeit a rather deliberately limited set of them: her work is pervaded by the typical contemporary tropes of minimalism and constricted and oft-repeated harmonies and forms of orchestration (she favors tone clusters in the woodwinds and upper strings). There are dreamlike and nightmarish inspirations underlying the seven orchestral works on this disc, and there is emotional reaching-out in all of them, but the problem is that it sounds like the same reaching-out, no matter what the inspiration behind each work. Worthington repeatedly contrasts sounds of desolation with ones that have a kind of intellectualizing, distancing effect, as if the way to move through and past despair is to separate oneself from the emotions it provokes. There is no triumphalism here and little that is joyous or even especially life-affirming. For example, Shredding Glass, a response to the terrorist murders of September 11, 2001 in New York City, although it is scarcely placid, seems to find an adequate response to the horror only by standing back and avoiding a visceral reaction to it. Similarly, Within a Dance, subtitled “A Tone Poem of Love,” assiduously avoids grand Romantic-style sweeping gestures and as a result produces diminished, if not exactly minimized, emotions. Yet Still Night, whose subtitle is “A Nocturne for Orchestra,” sounds no more nocturnal than Tracing a Dream or Fast Through Dark Winds, both of which go some distance to create dreamscapes (not always pleasant ones) but offer no truly satisfactory escape from them. Worthington titles these orchestral pieces cleverly, but swapping the titles around would make little if any difference: the works use essentially the same procedures to approach the audience in essentially the same way. The fact that Worthington wants to involve listeners emotionally puts her music a cut above that of contemporary composers who seem to create mainly for themselves and others in their circle; but the narrow range of techniques that Worthington employs and the similar way she uses them from piece to piece combine to make this not-particularly-lengthy CD (55 minutes) seem to go on and on in the same vein of heard-it-before repetition.
Dream pictures are displayed more effectively on a new (++++) MSR Classics CD of well-known works by Franck and Bloch and a world première recording of a short Berceuse by Julien Krein (1913-1996). Here as on the Worthington disc, many of the same techniques are employed to produce emotional communication, but the three composers represented use them in different ways – and the effect is less of ordinary dreams than of wider-ranging ones that come closer to mystical visions. This is not to lay too much at the foot of the music: all these pieces come across effectively without requiring listeners to delve into their spiritual undercurrents. Yet they invite such exploration for those who wish to undertake it, and the care and sensitivity of the performances by Zina Schiff and Cameron Grant make it easy for those so inclined to explore as they wish. For example, Schiff and Grant pay particular attention to the cyclicality of the Franck Sonata, clearly bringing forth the recurring thematic elements without drawing undue attention to them. Although nothing here repeats in the manner of an idée fixe, the use of the reflective-sounding main theme throughout helps give the sonata its dreamlike quality, that theme being employed very differently – and, in this performance, to very good effect – in the intensity of the second movement and contrastingly in the fantasia-like, freely expressive third. Franck then brings the emotional explorations of the first three movements to a triumphant conclusion in the finale, leaving behind a sense of awakening from drifting thoughts into bright sunlight. In contrast, Bloch’s Poème Mystique is comparatively serene, even tranquil, although – as the title indicates – it reaches for a certain level of mystical insight and spiritual connection: halfway through its single extended movement, it quotes a motif previously employed by Bloch in his Jewish cycle and then switches quickly to music from the Latin Mass (Bloch even places the Latin text above his musical notation, lest anyone miss the connection). Simpler and more straightforward than his first sonata for violin and piano, this second one is attractively lyrical and has a very specific connection with dreams: it was inspired by one that Bloch had after taking an overdose of a barbiturate. The final work here, Krein’s, dates to the same decade as Bloch’s, having been written in 1928 (Bloch’s sonata is from 1924; Franck’s is much earlier, dating to 1886). The overall sound and use of harmony are somewhat similar in the Bloch and Krein works, and Krein’s piece shares Bloch’s work’s sense of mystery, if not its depth. This Berceuse makes a pleasant, rather superficial encore after the two more-substantial works, allowing a gentle close to a recital both dreamlike and thoughtful.