May 05, 2016


Ravel: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—Orchestrations of Chabrier’s “Menuet pompeux,” Debussy’s “Sarabande” and “Danse,” excerpts from Schumann’s “Carnaval,” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.

Stokowski: Symphonic Transcriptions (Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” “Air on the G String,” “Sheep May Safely Graze” from Cantata No. 208, and “‘Little’ Fugue in G minor; Tchaikovsky’s “Solitude,” Op. 73, No. 6; Wagner’s “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” and “Ride of the Valkyries”; Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bare Mountain”; Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”; Boccherini’s “Minuet”; traditional Slavic Christmas music). Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $12.99.

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto Nos. 1 and 3; Rimsky-Korsakov: Piano Concerto; Khachaturian: Piano Concerto; Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1. Joshua Pierce, piano; RTV Symphony Orchestra of Slovenia conducted by Paul Freeman (Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev); Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor (Rimsky-Korsakov); Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman (Khachaturian). MSR Classics. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Ástor Piazzolla: Transcriptions and arrangements by M. Brent Williams. enhakē (Wonkak Kim, clarinet; M. Brent Williams, violin; Katherine Decker, cello; Eun-Hee Park, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Eighth Blackbird: Hand Eye. Cedille. $16.

     The third in Naxos’ first-rate series of CDs featuring Orchestre National de Lyon under Leonard Slatkin performing Ravel’s orchestral music moves into territory where Ravel is both well-known and little-known. A first-rate orchestrator in a long French tradition dating back to Berlioz, Ravel brought subtlety and a sure sense of color to various works he orchestrated at the request of ballet impresarios and publishers. His handling of the Chabrier, Debussy and Schumann pieces heard here is exemplary and entirely typical of Ravel’s method of extracting warmth and color from others’ music while giving it a stamp indicative of his own careful attention to orchestral nuance. Only four movements of Ravel’s orchestration of Carnaval survive, enough to whet the appetite for more: Préambule, Valse allemande, Intermezzo: Paganini, and the final Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins. None of these Ravel orchestrations is heard particularly often – but his most-famous orchestral arrangement certainly is. It is his brilliantly realized version of Mussorgsky’s piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition, a piece so frequently performed that it sometimes comes as a shock to remember that it is not by Ravel. The elegant touches Ravel brings to Mussorgsky continue to delight listeners: the alto saxophone in The Old Castle, the tuba in Bydlo, the varied handlings of the reappearances of the Promenade, and many more. Slatkin has himself orchestrated one Promenade that was originally omitted by Ravel, who was working from a version of Pictures at an Exhibition prepared by Rimsky-Korsakov – the only one available when Ravel took on his commission in 1922. There are arguments that can be made against aspects of what Ravel did with Mussorgsky: the whole suite has more of a smooth French sound than a traditional, less-elegant Russian one, and individual elements can certainly be nitpicked by those so inclined. But the fact is that this two-composer orchestral Pictures sounds wonderful in and of itself, and although many others have had a go at Pictures (Slatkin himself has previously recorded a pastiche version, with movements by multiple orchestrators), it is Ravel’s that stands as testimony both to the fascination of Mussorgsky’s original work and to the brilliant display it can present in orchestral guise.

     One orchestrator who was dissatisfied with Ravel’s Pictures because he deemed it insufficiently Russian in tone was Leopold Stokowski, who made his own transcription (omitting two of the movements) in 1939. Stokowski was an inveterate changer and rearranger of others’ music, generally in a bid to popularize works that he felt worthy but underplayed – but sometimes for reasons that seem, in retrospect, capricious. It is certainly true that Gustav Mahler, an expert conductor and arranger prior to Stokowski, had expanded and even bloated some music and had not even hesitated to make changes to Beethoven. But Mahler was also a pre-eminent composer, and if his changes seem like depredations many years later, that means only that they were mired in the aesthetics of Mahler’s own time. Stokowski, however, sometimes seemed to overdo things simply because he so much enjoyed doing so. His onetime associate conductor, José Serebrier, has made a series of recordings of Stokowski’s transcriptions in recent years, and his latest Naxos release – a compilation from the earlier ones – shows both the pluses and the minuses of the Stokowski approach. Pictures at an Exhibition is not included here, but A Night on Bare Mountain (also from 1939) is, and it comes across quite well, with a kind of gnarled intensity that is closer to Mussorgsky’s own orchestration (which was then unknown) than is the more-often-heard, much-smoothed-over orchestral version by Rimsky-Korsakov. Other meldings of Stokowski’s thoughts with those of other composers are less happy ones: his re-emphasis of Wagner is over-the-top, and while Stokowski’s orchestral versions of Bach may bring back fond memories of the conductor’s participation in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia, they are quite overdone and unsubtle from a strictly musical standpoint. The Tchaikovsky, Boccherini and Purcell works are pleasant miniatures (with some fine cello playing by Timothy Walden in the Purcell), and Stokowski’s short arrangement of traditional Slavic Christmas music has a pleasant encore-like feeling about it despite its placement midway on this disc. The CD is enjoyable for Stokowski fans – he was, after all, so well-known in his time that both Disney and longtime rival Warner Brothers included him in cartoons, with Bugs Bunny doing a hilarious “Leopold” impression in Long-Haired Hare (1949). And some of Stokowski’s orchestral touches are elegant and perspicacious. But they are also relics of an earlier time, when the music heard here was not thought (at least by Stokowski himself) to be able to stand on its own in its original guise.

     While professed Russophiles argue back and forth about the various merits of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Stokowski, music lovers in general can get a hefty and very welcome dose of Russian music for piano and orchestra on a newly and nicely remastered MSR Classics two-CD set of six concertos played, with considerable élan and technique to spare, by Joshua Pierce.  The concertos range from the extremely well-known to the not-very-understandably neglected. The two by Tchaikovsky heard here are at the poles: everyone knows No. 1 and it sometimes seems that everyone plays it, while the one-movement No. 3 is rarely heard. Pierce probes the lyricism as well as the dynamism of both works, and conductor Paul Freeman makes a first-rate partner, helping sustain interest in No. 1 after the grand (and grandiose) first movement gives way to the gentleness of the Andantino semplice, then pulling out all the stops for a fiery finale. The single-movement No. 3 shares some elements of the first movement of No. 1 in its frequent tempo and mood changes, and Pierce and Freeman handle them in a similar and highly convincing way. The short (13-minute) and infrequently heard (at least outside Russia) concerto by, yes, Rimsky-Korsakov, is a fascinating foil for the two Tchaikovsky concertos. It is a lyrical, good-humored work with careful orchestration and elegantly concise expression – and Kirk Trevor, who conducts only this concerto among the six in this release, ably abets Pierce’s bright and forthright approach. The set’s second CD focuses on the 20th century rather than the 19th, and is every bit as winning. The orchestration of Khachaturian’s concerto is particularly attractive (although Freeman does not use the musical saw for which the composer called in the Andante). This is a vivid reading that, to its credit, pays particularly close attention to Khachaturian’s exotic themes and strong rhythms. Shostakovich’s Second Concerto is upbeat, too, unlike most of the composer’s non-theatrical music, and it is also rather superficial, albeit in a pleasing and involving way. The enthusiastic outer movements, whose difficult passages appear to give Pierce no trouble at all, contrast nicely with the only slightly melancholic Andante. Prokofiev’s First is sterner, darker stuff, a strong contrast with the Shostakovich, with very speedy outer movements and a central Andante assai whose beauty has a rather sinister tinge to it. This thoroughly engaging recording makes both a fine tribute to Pierce’s pianism and a memorable memorial to Freeman (1936-2015), who shows himself in these concertos to be a full and able partner for Pierce – two Americans whose sensitivity to and understanding of this Russian repertoire is as convincing as it is involving.

     The MSR Classics project undertaken by a fine chamber ensemble with a deliberately obscure name, enhakē – small first letter, whole word from the Seminole for “sound,” and, really, why? – is to present works by Argentine concert-tango master Ástor Piazzolla in the unusual instrumental combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Violinist M. Brent Williams is responsible for arranging Piazzolla for this recording, and he does so with considerable skill. All nine works here come across with a pleasant mixture of exotic sound, concert-hall solemnity and a kind of “street smarts.” There are some very well-known pieces on the CD, including Primavera Porteña and Libertango, and they have a freshness here, thanks to the unexpected instrumentation, that shows them in a new light and further affirms the appropriateness of their place in “high” music despite the decidedly “low” origin of the tango itself. The Concerto para Quinteto comes across particularly well in this performance – these are musicians who are clearly comfortable with each other as well as with their individual instruments, and there is a relaxed, jazz-ensemble feeling to their performances despite the fact that these are not pieces played extemporaneously. All the works here are worth hearing – the others are Revirado, Escualo, Oblivion, Prepárense, Kicho and Buenos Aires Hora Cero. Williams’ arrangements sometimes try a bit too hard to make sure that each performer gets front-and-center attention and that, when the group plays together, everyone is balanced equally against everyone else. This is excellent camaraderie but can result in arrangements that are a bit too cautious not to overdo the sound of any specific instrument. This is a quibble, though, and some listeners will actually like the disc more because of the neat ensemble balance and the careful way the arrangements make just about equal room for everyone. The CD is short – 47 minutes – but long enough to give listeners a strong sense of the quality of Piazzolla’s music and the effectiveness of hearing it on instruments other than those for which it was originally composed.

     There is also an unusual and well-matched chamber ensemble on the new CD called Hand Eye. The group is a sextet, Eighth Blackbird, that takes its name from the Wallace Stevens poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. The chamber players here are Tim Munro, flute; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinet; Yvonne Lam, violin; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion; and Lisa Kaplan, piano. As for the disc itself, its title is the title of the single piece on it – which is actually a compilation of works by Timo Andres (Checkered Shade), Andrew Norman (Mine, Mime, Meme), Robert Honstein (Conduit, with movements labeled Touch, Pulse and Send), Chris Cerrone (South Catalina), Ted Hearne (By-By Huey), and Jacob Cooper (Cast). This is one of those projects that proclaims itself totally contemporary, with-it, avant-garde, up-to-date, and so forth, and it actually contains enough interesting musical material to get a (+++) rating – although the individual elements of this world première recording are scarcely riveting. Hand Eye takes us right back to Pictures at an Exhibition, with which a comparison is probably inevitable, since this brand-new work, like Mussorgsky’s, is intended as a musical representation of modern art (in the case of Hand Eye, works from the private collection of the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art in Michigan). Contemporary art is in the main non-representational, and certainly has none of the photographic qualities of art in the days before photographs became ubiquitous. It is therefore a bit quixotic to create a work representing that which is inherently non-representational; but that sort of self-reference, or self-non-reference, is integral to a great deal of modern thinking in and about art and music. Since listeners cannot be expected to know the specific works “represented” (or reacted to) in Hand Eye, and since the composers cannot paint miniature aural pictures of representational paintings in the way that Mussorgsky could of Victor Hartmann’s work, this CD must rise or fall as a purely musical experience. It lasts nearly an hour and a quarter, twice the length of Mussorgsky’s Pictures, and often feels over-extended despite the different approaches of the composers. The reality is that the six-person ensemble does not have the sonic variety that Ravel brought to Mussorgsky’s piano suite, and the original suite itself possesses coloristic elements that are, by intent, largely absent in contemporary compositions. Hand Eye is an interesting experiment in melding modern visual and aural art, with some involving elements and others that simply sound as if they are trying too hard to be cutting-edge. Eighth Blackbird plays the music commendably, but the project itself proves less than compelling.

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