April 28, 2016
(++++) WITH SOMETHING EXTRA
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Altomonte Orchester St. Florian conducted by Rémy Ballot; Matthias Giesen and Klaus Laczika, pianos. Gramola. $27.99 (SACD+CD).
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings; Souvenir de Florence. Russian Virtuosi of Europe conducted by Yuri Zhislin. Orchid Classics. $16.99.
The Story of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps”—A Film by Peter Rump. ArtHaus Musik DVD. $29.99.
Jonathan Sheffer: The Conference of the Birds. Joyce DiDonato, narrator; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Sheffer. Navona. $19.99.
Joseph Bertolozzi: Tower Music. Innova. $14.99.
Not content to deliver repertoire in the expected manner, even in first-rate readings, some recording companies and performers offer unexpected additions to the music itself, sometimes shedding new light on the works performed and sometimes simply giving listeners a chance to hear things from what can be thought of as a different direction. Rémy Ballot has already shown through two Gramola releases of Bruckner symphonies that he does not hesitate to look at these works in decidedly unconventional ways. Both his version of No. 8 and his recording of the original (1873) version of No. 3 were genuinely revelatory, the earlier symphony in particular spreading to a vastness virtually unheard-of even for Bruckner and emerging as an astonishing musical and, in a sense, spiritual experience. Now Ballot has brought his sensibilities, his willingness to take chances, and his unusual long-reverberation recording venue together in a grand, sweeping, broadly conceived and altogether convincing recording of the three finished movements of Symphony No. 9. Not quite willing to present any of the intriguing but flawed four-movement versions of this unfinished masterpiece, Ballot explores the depths of the three completed movements at a length more usually associated with complete Bruckner symphonic works: 77 minutes. Ballot takes chances throughout this reading, expanding and drawing it out so that the long lines of the first movement seem to stretch to eternity, while the forward-looking harmonies of the third movement sound as if they are reaching for a musical future seen through a glass darkly and always just out of reach. The unusually slow handling of the flickering Scherzo provides respite from the grandeur of the other two movements while at the same time showing that this movement too has an underlying expansiveness that is quite apposite between the half-hour-plus swellings of each of the others. This is a gripping and beautifully played performance – and it comes with a thoroughly unexpected bonus in the form of a version of the symphony for two pianos. What a revelation this is – and what a contortion. The two-piano version was made in 1911 by Karl Grunsky, using the truncated 1895 Ferdinand Löwe version of the symphony; pianists Matthias Giesen and Klaus Laczika took Grunsky’s version and, in effect, overlaid it on the original score of the work, producing what is heard here on Blüthner and Yamaha pianos whose tonal qualities complement each other beautifully. Piano and chamber versions of major orchestral works were the norm in the days before recordings, providing a way to perform and therefore experience pieces at home. But this two-piano Bruckner Ninth is more than a reduction of the score: it is an exploration in its own right, a way of analyzing through sound the genuinely remarkable elements of Bruckner’s final symphony and following the interplay of its lines in a manner that is difficult, if not impossible, when listening to the work in orchestral guise. The two-piano version in no way takes the place of the orchestral one, but it is fascinating and revelatory in its own right, and an experience that Bruckner lovers will welcome as much as they will Ballot’s thoughtful and glowing orchestral performance.
The orchestra is much, much smaller than Ballot’s on a new Orchid Classics recording of two Tchaikovsky works: the Russian Virtuosi of Europe is a group of a mere 18 players. The ensemble’s name is apt, since these are indeed virtuoso, soloist-quality performers, their tonal beauty and precision of playing at the very highest level. The Serenade for Strings, one of Tchaikovsky’s sunniest scores, is bright, charming, vivacious and wonderfully rhythmic here, with touches of elegance throughout and a Valse that is a thoroughgoing delight. Yuri Zhislin leads the ensemble with great skill, although these performers are so adept with their instruments that they would seem able to go without a conductor and produce an equally tightly knit and well-kept reading. What is “extra” here is the version of the second work, Souvenir de Florence. Eighteen strings may not seem like many, but Tchaikovsky wrote this piece for only a sextet, and that is the form in which it is always heard – which is not often enough: it is a beautifully proportioned work despite some difficulties that Tchaikovsky clearly had in balancing his chamber forces. Zhislin himself did the small-string-orchestra adaptation of Souvenir de Florence heard here, and he did a wonderful job. The breeziness of the piece comes through clearly, but so do its Brahmsian unison passages and its clever touches of pizzicato and organ-like string sonorities. Listeners who have never heard Souvenir de Florence will enjoy encountering it in this version, but Zhislin’s arrangement will be even more involving and attractive for those who know Tchaikovsky’s original. The sextet is an unusual work and an effective one despite some awkwardnesses. This string-orchestra version flows with beauty and in so effective a manner that it makes an even stronger case for the sextet than some sextet performances make on their own.
The ArtHaus Musik DVD of Peter Rump’s film about Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps contains the same sort of extra material that visual works about music inevitably include. The actual performance of the music is led by Valery Gergiev, so of course the film includes a number of scenes of him discussing the work, explaining what he finds special and important about it, and rehearsing sections of it. Gergiev is an intriguing character (although an uneven conductor), and his insights and thoughts are certainly worth hearing; they give as much information about his personal attitude toward conducting and toward Stravinsky as they do about the actual music. Gergiev’s comments stand interestingly next to Stravinsky’s own, which are brought in from archival material; and Gergiev’s handling of the music also complements and contrasts with Stravinsky’s. The composer was not always the best conductor of his own music, but he certainly knew what rhythms he wanted and what tempos he expected sections to be played at, and the differing thoughts and styles of Stravinsky and Gergiev (and other top-notch musicians brought into the film, notably Pierre Boulez) make this a fascinating film for a limited audience. It requires listeners/viewers who know enough about Le Sacre du Printemps to appreciate how special it is even a century after its notorious, riot-causing première – but not enough to find the clips, the stories, the archival footage repetitious or unnecessary. Like many films about classical music, Rump’s (+++) production is nicely made but somewhat distancing in the way it asks viewers to join musicians in analyzing and picking apart a work whose visceral power comes through quite clearly without all the talk and all the old film clips.
The new Navona CD featuring Jonathan Sheffer targets people who so enjoy The Conference of the Birds that they want to own it twice – at the same time. The extra feature here is a second recording of the identical piece, but without the narration included with the first recording. This is actually a fascinating work, with musical elements reminiscent of Peter and the Wolf combined with a story resembling that of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The 12th-century work that forms the basis of Sheffer’s piece is actually an anticipation of some of Bunyan’s concerns from a vantage point 500 years earlier. It is a mystical Persian poem (and a long one, at 4500 lines) in which birds representing various human foibles journey to the home of a phoenix-like creature called the Simorgh in search of guidance as to which bird should lead all the others. After a series of adventures during which many birds drop out of the quest because of failings of one sort or another, the 30 birds remaining get to their goal and find only a lake in which their own visages are reflected – thus attaining enlightenment. The tale is far more winding and complex than a brief summary indicates, and Sheffer does not even try to set all of it – only highlights. He does so through sections called “The Conference,” “The Birds Demur” (with four subsections devoted to the nightingale, duck, owl and peacock), “The Journey” and “The Answer.” Like Prokofiev (and like Britten in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), Sheffer uses the orchestra skillfully to denote (yes, that is a pun) the different birds and musically explore their characters and their flaws. The Conference of the Birds really does need a narrator, although Joyce DiDonato’s intensity is somewhat over-the-top and tends to make the piece more of a children’s fable than it is intended to be. The version without the narrator, though, does not quite work, because without knowing the original poem by Farid ud-Din Attar, which most listeners likely will not, the music is disconnected and, although often interesting, does not have its own narrative flow. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer’s direction certainly performs the material well, and Sheffer is a good, solid conductor of his own piece. But a listener must really want this specific work (which runs 29 minutes with narration, 23 without) to be willing to buy the CD and have it served two ways; this is a (+++) CD simply because it contains only one item, twice, and thus significantly self-limits its audience. There are many intriguing elements to Sheffer’s creation, but a double helping (with the narrated version suffering from less-than-ideal verbal presentation) will be a bit much for most people.
The entire experience of Joseph Bertolozzi’s Tower Music will be a lot for most listeners. This is a CD of what can best be described as performance art: what Bertolozzi does is take microphones and mallets to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and use the iconic landmark as an instrument to produce music – or sounds, anyway. This is very much an acquired taste – listeners who found Bertolozzi’s previous release, Bridge Music, appealing are the obvious targets of this (+++) Innova CD, which is highly unlikely to be of much interest to anyone else (although a DVD of the whole project would have potential). Bertolozzi essentially treats the Eiffel Tower as a huge percussion instrument, which in a sense it is, and strives to extract melodic as well as, well, percussive sounds from it. The fact that he occasionally manages to do so is fascinating – seeing how he did this would be part of the attraction of a DVD – but the material itself is not particularly interesting. If you did not know how this music was created, you would not find much in it to keep your interest. Bertolozzi strives for sonic differences and evocative titles: “The Harp That Pierced the Sky,” “Ironworks,” “The Elephant on the Tower” and “Glass Floor Rhythms” give some indication of what he attempts on those four of the nine musical tracks here. A 10th , extra track, “Audio Tour of the Eiffel Tower,” gives some intriguing information on what Bertolozzi did and just what sort of “instrument” he found the landmark to be. There is a lot of scientifically fascinating material here, along with a certain voyeuristic satisfaction (or its aural equivalent) to the notion of a man finding ways to take an industrial creation and turn it into a gigantic musical instrument. Fifty minutes of this, though, which is how much the CD offers, is really a lot, and there simply isn’t enough variation in tone or enough of a fully realized sound world to make this disc more than a curiosity. It is quite a curiosity, to be sure, but even its extra element – that “Audio Tour” track – is not enough to make an absorbing, even daring concept into a satisfying musical experience.