September 29, 2016
(++++) NOT QUITE STANDARD REPERTOIRE
Tchaikovsky: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra. Jennifer Koh, violin; Odense Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Vedernikov. Cedille. $16.
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2; Concert Fantasy. Eldar Nebolsin, piano; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Stern. Naxos. $12.99.
Copland: Appalachian Spring—Complete Ballet; Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.
Stravinsky: Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)—Suite; Octet; Les Noces. Tianwa Yang, violin; Rebecca Nash, soprano; Robynne Redmon, mezzo-soprano; Robert Breault, tenor; Denis Sedov, bass; Virginia Symphony Chorus; Les Noces Percussion Ensemble and Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
Just when you think certain works have been played and heard so often that there is no new way to present them, along come some performers (and producers) with a new angle, such as juxtaposition of the highly familiar with the much less known. This is a tried-and-true approach in concert programs and a traditional way orchestras introduce previously unknown (usually contemporary) music to straitlaced audiences. It is, however, much less common in recordings, since someone wanting a well-known work has so many versions of it available that there is no particular reason to choose the CD on which it is coupled with a little-known piece. Here too there is an answer, though: excellent performances, such as those of Jennifer Koh on a new Cedille release of Tchaikovsky’s complete violin-and-orchestra works. Listeners may be genuinely surprised at how little Tchaikovsky wrote for this combination: the Violin Concerto is ubiquitous, but there are only three other Tchaikovsky pieces for violin and orchestra, two being brief and one a bit of a mishmash. A listener considering a CD of the concerto may well wonder, “Why not get the one that also includes some pieces I have never [or, perhaps, rarely] heard before?” That would be a good question, and one likely to be answered by acquiring this disc. Koh plays the concerto wonderfully, allowing it to exude warmth while also accepting its requirements of precision bowing and completely even tone. The near-constant contrast here between the lyrical and the dramatic can become wearing, but not in Koh’s hands and fingers: there is lovely natural flow to the music, and none of the tendency to sound episodic that it can have in some performances. The Odense Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Vedernikov is supple, well-balanced and nicely attuned to Koh’s manner, resulting in the sound of a true partnership. And the other works on the disc are, if not major, very much worth hearing for any lover of Tchaikovsky’s music. The brief Valse-Scherzo offers some of the same contrast between lyricism and brightness that the concerto proffers, while the slightly more extended Sérénade mélancolique fully justifies its title as a moody, slightly depressive but always beautiful spinning-out of melodic invention and finely honed orchestration. And then there is Souvenir d’un lieu cher, the final work here and the only one besides the concerto of some substantiality. It is a three-movement piece whose first movement was actually created for the concerto. Interested listeners may want to program the CD to play the concerto’s first movement, then the first movement of Souvenir d’un lieu cher, and then the concerto’s finale, to get a sense of how the concerto changes with the central Meditation instead of the shorter Canzonetta on which Tchaikovsky settled. As the start of Souvenir d’un lieu cher, the Meditation carries most of the weight of the piece, being longer than the Scherzo and Melodie movements put together. Those two were originally for violin and piano and were orchestrated by Glazunov in a style nicely approximating Tchaikovsky’s own. Koh and Vedernikov present Souvenir d’un lieu cher, and indeed all the music here, with sensitivity and style, making the CD as a whole a particularly pleasant meandering through one aspect of Tchaikovsky’s style.
The Naxos recording featuring pianist Eldar Nebolsin and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Stern comes at the composer from a different angle. In one sense, this is a CD featuring two works that are comparatively unknown; certainly neither of these piano-and-orchestra pieces has anything like the popularity of Piano Concerto No. 1. However, Piano Concerto No. 2 has been programmed with increasing frequency in recent years as musicians have discovered numerous ways in which it is equal to, and some in which it is superior to, its better-known predecessor. No. 2 is a longer, more fully developed concerto than No. 1, and while No. 1 has that highly dramatic opening whose elements surprisingly never return, No. 2 has a slow movement that is in effect a miniature triple concerto for piano, violin and cello – a genuinely lovely piece that gives this concerto a unique sound and provides its slow movement with musical and emotional heft beyond that of the slow movement of No. 1, which is essentially an interlude. Nebolsin and Stern get the scale of No. 2 right, allowing its comparatively monumental scope to unfold naturally through the first two movements, so that the relatively slight finale provides listeners with catharsis and a certain amount of relief (the pianist gets none, though: the movement is quite difficult to play). The one significant flaw here is a cut toward the end of the second movement: many changes were made to this concerto by various hands, some (including the one here) accepted, at least for a time, by the composer, and others rejected; but at this point there is no justification for accepting an egregious, if brief, shortening of the material. The interesting pairing here is with a work that really is obscure: the Concert Fantasy, sometimes (as here) called Concert Fantasia, is a meandering, lovely, piquant piece of considerable length (its two movements last half an hour). It features quicksilver mood changes, in which Nebolsin seems to revel. That is the right approach for this work, which suffers from a certain directionlessness (for instance, the first movement, in sonata form, is marked Quasi Rondo) but more than makes up for it through sheer beauty and Tchaikovsky’s exploration of a wide variety of contrasting melodies and harmonies – indeed, the second movement is labeled Contrastes. Both these piano-and-orchestra pieces belong in the collection of anyone who loves Tchaikovsky’s music, and this pairing is as fine a one as a listener is likely discover.
Another new Naxos release is yet another example of mixing the familiar with the less-known. It is the second volume in a series of Copland’s ballets as performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, and it is as well-played as the first volume, which included the very well-known Rodeo, the virtually unknown Dance Panels, and other works. This time the highly popular – and, here, quite beautifully played – ballet is Appalachian Spring, and the one with which very few listeners will be familiar is Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Commissioned by Ruth Page, Hear Ye! Hear Ye! (1934) was Copland's first composition to be choreographed. Its topic is a murder in a nightclub and the following trial in a Chicago courtroom, during which an increasingly bored jury hears three mutually exclusive versions of what happened. It is a work very much of its time, with a jazzy score and, in its original staging, flashy costumes and stage design. Nevertheless, it was not a success and soon fell into obscurity – which the music, at least, really does not deserve, based on how it sounds here. There are 18 very short scenes lasting a total of just over 34 minutes, lending the work a frenetic pace that was, it is safe to assume, reflected in the stage action. The intent was presumably excitement rather than anything over-hectic. In any case, the catchy tunes and bouncy rhythms that pervade the score make pleasant listening, and there is a bit of controversy in the work as well, since at a couple of points Copland distorts part of the National Anthem, as if to indicate that the nation’s justice system is out of whack. Certainly Hear Ye! Hear Ye! lacks the maturity and careful organization of later Copland ballets – very definitely including Appalachian Spring (1944), commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for Martha Graham. Appalachian Spring is only a few minutes longer than Hear Ye! Hear Ye! But it is altogether broader, more expansive, and a work that more fully integrates Copland’s rhythmic propensities with a story whose timeless feel is almost the complete opposite of the in-the-moment intensity of the earlier ballet. The juxtaposition of the two works is quite intriguing, showing in one fell swoop just how much Copland had developed in the decade between the ballets – although of course his maturity came gradually, not with the abruptness experienced by listeners who hear the earlier ballet and then, immediately afterwards, the later one. Slatkin is a fine Copland interpreter, with a flair for the composer’s orchestral color and balance and a good sense of the danceability of both the pieces here.
A new Naxos CD of Stravinsky works, with JoAnn Falletta conducting a variety of Virginia-based performers, offers balletic elements even though it does not contain any of the composer’s actual ballets. Les Noces, however, has been labeled a “ballet cantata,” and does indeed include dance in its original conception. Les Noces was written in 1923 but partakes far less of the Jazz Age than does Copland’s Hear Ye! Hear Ye! of the next decade. Les Noces – Stravinsky actually described it as "choreographed scenes with music and voices” – is distinguished by its unusual scoring for percussion, pianists, chorus, and four vocal soloists. It is an exceptionally influential work because of its sound world, which continues to seem very modern in its balance of simplicity and subtlety. Its very Russian mixture of folklike and primitive elements reflects Stravinsky’s increasing interest in neoclassicism, which indeed he was just turning to in the same year as Les Noces – with his Octet. This was written for an unusual combination of winds: flute, clarinet (in B-flat and A), two bassoons, two trumpets (in C and A), and two trombones (tenor and bass). Stravinsky revised the work in 1952, and that is the version heard here, but the piece’s basic structure did not change with the revision. The first movement is in sonata form, which underlines the “neoclassicist” designation because Stravinsky rarely used it; the second is a theme and variations that is unusual because three of the variations are almost identical; and the third has a syncopated rhythm, based on that of a Russian dance, within a structure that resembles that of a rondo but is not quite the same. Both here and in Les Noces, Stravinsky is striving for something new in music without losing his attraction to the Russian elements that pervaded The Firebird – and also without falling into the comparatively formulaic approach of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Clarity of sound and rhythm is crucial to the effect of both these works, and Falletta is quite aware of this: the performances have plenty of bounce, and the playing and singing are quite good throughout, but it is Falletta’s sure hand in shaping the music and ensuring its crispness that is the primary attraction here. A number of the characteristics of Les Noces and the Octet were already emerging a few years earlier, in L’Histoire du Soldat, which in 1918 used a septet, narrator and two speakers to tell the story of a soldier who outwits the Devil before eventually, in his over-confidence, becoming the Devil’s victim. Naxos has already released the complete L’Histoire du Soldat under Falletta, featuring violinist Tianwa Yang, and it is a wonderful recording, with greater depth and scope than is to be found in the 1920 suite heard here. The suite does, though, contain much of the work’s attractive music, and those who do not know L’Histoire du Soldat – but who encounter it via this release – may well be tempted to pick up Falletta’s version of the full score as well. That temptation, unlike the Devil’s, is one to which it does no harm at all to succumb.