February 18, 2016
(++++) PORTRAITS IN SOUND
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Neil Sedaka: Manhattan Intermezzo; Keith Emerson: Piano Concerto No. 1; Duke Ellington: New World a-Comin’. Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Benjamin Wesner, clarinet; Brown University Orchestra conducted by Paul Phillips. Naxos. $12.99.
A Tribute to the Band of the Welsh Guards. British Military Music Archive. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Paul John Stanbery: Robert McCloskey—The Life for Me; Craig Madden Morris: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Frank T. Restesan, violin; Hamilton Fairfield Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul John Stanbery. Navona. $14.99.
An intriguing mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar, a blending of musical styles as well as genres, and a portrait of New York City in all its sprawl and excitement, a new Naxos CD of the music of Gershwin, Sedaka, Emerson and Ellington features first-rate pianism and a pervasive sense of joy in music-making. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue has been recorded innumerable times, although not always in the Ferde Grofé orchestration heard here. Jeffrey Biegel and the Brown University Orchestra under Paul Phillips proffer a performance in which the jazz elements of the music predominate and the rhythmic verve of the music carries it through from start to finish. This may be a student orchestra, but it is a well-trained and well-rehearsed one that has considerable polish and does not seem to be struggling with any of the material. The other three pieces on this disc are less often heard, much less often recorded, and also feature contributory work by hands other than those of their composers. Second-oldest after Gershwin’s 1924 piece is Ellington’s New World a-Comin’ from 1943, as arranged and edited by Maurice Peress. This is written-out jazz, with a written-out cadenza originally created by Sir Roland Hanna – something of a contradiction in terms, but the work retains the feeling of spontaneity associated with the jazz form, and the cadenza also sounds spontaneous, as if Biegel were making it up on the spot. Emerson is best known as a founder of the group Emerson, Lake & Palmer, not as a classical musician, but he clearly has abilities in the classical field. His Piano Concerto No. 1, which dates to 1976 and was co-orchestrated by John Mayer, is in the traditional three movements but gives very short shrift to the central slow one, which is not in an especially slow tempo (Andante molto cantabile) and lasts just two-and-a-half minutes in a 20-minute piece. The result is a work weighted toward positive emotions and a kind of bright optimism, despite the initial fury of the finale. Although not overtly connected to New York in the way the other works on this CD are, the concerto is certainly reflective of some aspects of the city’s personality, notably through its insistence on fighting through to optimism in the end – despite whatever reversals appear earlier. In contrast, Sedaka’s 2008 Manhattan Intermezzo, orchestrated by Lee Holdridge, does directly celebrate New York; and it makes a fascinating parallel and contrast to Gershwin’s Jazz Age piece of virtually the same length. Sedaka, like Emerson, is known for popular music, not anything classical, but here he shows himself quite capable of working in an admittedly free-form sort of concert piece, for which Biegel himself filled out and embellished the piano part. Essentially a freewheeling tribute to the energy, intensity and diversity of New York (Manhattan is only one of the five counties that make up the city, but is the one that virtually everyone refers to when speaking of the city as a whole), Sedaka’s piece is superficial but quite attractive – as the city on which it focuses often seems to be. Actually, none of the works here tries to look for the artistic and cultural depths that are elements of New York life: there is certainly no grandeur here. But all four pieces suggest that there is a great deal of enjoyment to be had in music that relates to New York, as well as in the city against whose backdrop the pieces were produced.
Even people who are not New Yorkers and perhaps not fans of the city can enjoy the Biegel/Phillips collaboration, but the new British Military Music Archive release paying tribute to the Band of the Welsh Guards is for a distinctly limited audience. This two-disc set chronicles the band’s first 25 years – it is now a century old; hence the “tribute” concept – and that means the recordings heard here date from 1916 through 1941. The ability to restore such early material to anything approaching acceptable modern sound is quite a feat, and the very fine job done by the producers and engineers of this release is to be commended. That does not, however, mean that the discs are up to modern sonic standards or that the performances will be of significant interest other than to devoted collectors of military music or ones particularly enamored of this specific band; it is the limited-audience nature of the production that results in its (+++) rating. The entire first CD offers recordings from 1916, from the very first one the band ever made (The Welsh Guards on Parade) to such curiosities as The Phantom Brigade (representing a retired colonel thinking of the glory of the past) and March of the ANZACs (a tribute to the fighters of Australia and New Zealand at Gallipoli – it is important to remember that this band was founded during World War I and did a tour to the front lines). The selections on the second CD were recorded from 1921 to 1941. Here, for instance, is Wedded Whimsies, a musical potpourri from 1931 including everything from Turkey in the Straw and My Old Kentucky Home to snippets of Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphony and Bizet’s Carmen. Separately, also recorded in 1931, there is a selection from Gounod’s Faust. From 1934 comes Eric Coates’ sturdy London Bridge, and from 1941 there is a collection of Welsh national songs featuring tenor David Lloyd. None of this material will be a must-have for listeners in general, but those devoted to fine band music and interested in celebrating a century of one first-rate ensemble’s performances will find the release very attractive.
The musical portrait is not of a city or a performing group but of an individual person in Paul John Stanbery’s Robert McCloskey—The Life for Me. This is film music, composed for a movie about the author of the well-known kids’ book, Make Way for Ducklings. Stanbery has extracted two brief suites from the film, and he conducts them with the Hamilton Fairfield Symphony Orchestra on a new Navona CD. This is uncomplicated, straightforward music, as befits both the film medium and children’s books: there are, for example, clear portrayals of mechanization in The Donut Machine and of broad outdoor spaces in The Rocky Coast of Maine. The most amusing movement, and the one most directly tied to McCloskey’s most-famous work, is called Ducklings Everywhere! It channels a touch of Copland through irregular “waddling” rhythms and is just plain fun. There is certainly nothing of far-reaching importance in Stanbery’s suites, but they are easy to listen to and enjoyable. Stanbery here also conducts the violin concerto by Craig Madden Morris, a substantial three-movement work with rather nonspecific programmatic titles for its movements: By the River, Breezes and Dance. Violinist Frank T. Restesan handles the solo part well – it is nothing special, but does include its fair share of technical complexities. There is little tone painting in the music, though. There is nothing especially bucolic about the first movement, and while there is some gentle swaying in the second, it is not particularly evocative of anything, although there is some attractive lyricism on display. The third movement adds some percussive elements to the mood of the second, but if these are dances, most are very slow ones, and they are not especially rhythmic through the majority of the movement. There is an overall monochromatic feeling to the concerto, a fact that is largely responsible for the (+++) rating of this CD despite the pleasantries of the shorter and lighter tribute to Robert McCloskey.