September 22, 2016
(++++) SOMETHING SYMPHONIC
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6; Waltz Suite. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.
Michael Daugherty: Tales of Hemingway; American Gothic; Once Upon a Castle. Zuill Bailey, cello; Paul Jacobs, organ; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.
Giorgio Gaslini: Murales Promenade; Adagio Is Beautiful; Piano Concerto. Alfonso Alberti, piano; Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento conducted by Yoichi Sugiyama. Stradivarius. $16.99.
Kevin Puts: Symphony No. 2; River’s Rush; Flute Concerto. Adam Walker, flute; Peabody Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.
Prokofiev’s most delightful symphony is his first, the “Classical,” but his best and most important are his two from World War II, Nos. 5 and 6. They are something of a pair. The large and imposing three-movement No. 6 has an overall dark cast that contrasts with a certain lightness, if not exactly levity, and a greater sense of triumph over adversity in the four-movement No. 5. That makes No. 5 somewhat more traditional both structurally and emotionally, and means that No. 6 requires a conductor of considerable sensitivity and willingness to take chances for it to have its full effect. Marin Alsop is not that conductor: she tends to be perfunctory and surface-level in most of her interpretations, especially of familiar or relatively familiar works. Yet in her new Naxos recording of Prokofiev’s Sixth with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, part of a Prokofiev cycle that now lacks only his final, seventh symphony, Alsop turns up with an excellent reading almost in spite of herself. Something in the work speaks, if not to her, then to the orchestra, which plays with fervor and intensity fully befitting the music and with considerable sensitivity to the many shades of darkness that Prokofiev here puts on display. Alsop seems more to be carried along with the music than to shape it – her overly fast finale, indeed, almost derails the movement’s effectiveness. But the performance as a whole turns out to be very successful indeed, with the gradations of Prokofiev’s anti-triumphalist writing coming through clearly and the sectional stability of the orchestra allowing the symphony’s many themes and unusual balances to emerge to fine effect. The reality must be that Alsop is responsible for shaping this very fine performance, but it almost feels as if the orchestra is playing without a conductor, with suppleness and sectional sensitivity that bring forth, all in all, a very impressive reading. Alsop seems a stronger presence in the six-movement and altogether lighter Waltz Suite, in which Prokofiev recycled three pieces from Cinderella, two from War and Peace and one from an abandoned film project, Lermontov, into a half-hour suite that explores three-quarter time from a wide variety of angles and with numerous emotional high and low points. The music is neither substantive nor substantial, but it is thoroughly pleasant and showcases ways in which Prokofiev was a worthy, if lesser, successor to Tchaikovsky in the waltz medium. The least-known of the waltzes, Mephisto Waltz from Lermontov, is the biggest surprise of the suite, speeding along with real panache and some particularly interesting turns of phrase. Again the orchestra delivers first-rate playing, and the result is a highly interesting juxtaposition of a 1945-47 symphony that is very serious indeed with a 1946-47 suite that remains determinedly on the frothy side.
The symphonic nature of three very recent compositions by Michael Daugherty (born 1954) comes through especially clearly on a new Naxos disc that gives all three their world première recordings, all taken from live performances. Daugherty has a fine command of large orchestral forces and a style that, while very clearly modern, does not eschew tonality or emotional communication when those are the tools he needs to make his musical points. The three works here could be collectively called “Portraits.” Tales of Hemingway (2015) is a very symphonic cello concerto that gets a bang-up reading from Zuill Bailey and wonderful accompaniment from the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero. The percussion alone, requiring two players, is remarkable: one performer handles chimes, vibraphone with yarn mallets and bow, marimba, mark tree (a set of bell chimes), suspended cymbal and triangle, while the other is in charge of crotales, glockenspiel, triangle, piccolo snare drum, kick drum, a different suspended cymbal, tambourine, castanets, claves, maracas and another mark tree. The music is not even slightly Mahlerian, but Daugherty uses the percussion complement much as Mahler used his vast orchestral forces: surprisingly delicately, a bit at a time, only rarely bursting forth with the strength and intensity that so large a collection of instruments is capable of delivering. The performers here gave this work its world première concert performance, and that is the live recording heard on the CD. The rather surprising choice of a cello to represent Hemingway ties to the reality that the famously macho author actually played that instrument as a child, in school orchestras. Certainly much of the cello writing is big, almost brassy (an odd adjective for a cello, but there it is); but much of it uses the instrument’s considerable lyrical potential as well. The four movements of the work are named for four Hemingway stories or novels: Big Two-Hearted River, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Sun Also Rises. Daugherty’s subtlety is much in evidence here, in his minimal but clear use of castanets and maracas for the Spanish setting of The Sun Also Rises and his sprinkling of bell sounds throughout For Whom the Bell Tolls instead of having them resound intensely. Tales of Hemingway contrasts interestingly with American Gothic (2013), a three-movement orchestral suite intended to reflect the life and works of Iowa artist Grant Wood and coming across partly as Daugherty’s tribute to his own Iowa childhood. Here too the scope is symphonic. The first movement, On a Roll, is bright and colorful; the second, Winter Dreams, reflects the bleakness of an Iowa winter as well as Wood’s paintings of those cold-weather scenes; and the third, Pitchfork, based on Wood’s most-famous painting, is quirky and witty and amusing and difficult to pin down as to its meaning – much like the painting itself. Also on this attractive CD is Once Upon a Castle (2003/2015), which is an organ concerto and, yet again, a piece of symphonic proportions and scale. The castle here is not a European one but that of William Randolph Hearst in California, famous as a 165-room grand estate, a symbol of “wretched excess,” and part of the inspiration for Orson Welles’ iconic Citizen Kane. Daugherty’s work has as strong a personal stamp here as in American Gothic. He opens with The Winding Road to San Simeon, taking listeners on the five-mile trip through the mountains to Hearst’s monument. Neptune Pool offers strictly contemporary water music, befitting the tremendously over-decorated Olympic-size pool surrounded by statues of Neptune and water nymphs. Rosebud moves into Welles territory and juxtaposes the organ-as-Kane (the Hughes figure in the film) with a solo violin representing his mistress, Susan Alexander (the film’s name for Marion Davies). Paul Jacobs, who gives a wonderful performance throughout, offers especially sonorous material here. The final movement, Xanadu, musically portrays one of the many elegant parties held at Hearst Castle during the 1920s and 1930s. It neatly ties up a suite in which fairy tales about castles, fairy tales Hollywood style, and the real world in which the Hearst castle still exists, are all on display. All of Daugherty’s music on this disc is very American, very contemporary, and at the same time very personal: Daugherty is one composer who has developed, maintained and over time expanded a musical vocabulary all his own.
There are distinctive elements as well to the musical style of Giorgio Gaslini (1929-2014). His come mainly from jazz, the musical field in which he is best-known. But a new CD on the Stradivarius label shows that he could work effectively in more traditionally classical modes as well. Like Daugherty, Gaslini does not shy from tonality, but while Daugherty’s works tend to be carefully planned and tightly controlled, Gaslini’s often have an improvisational feeling to them even when they are fully written out. As a performer, Gaslini was known as an effective improvisational jazz pianist; the two piano-and-orchestra works on this disc show how he adapted that element of his career to music with a more classical, even symphonic structure. Murales Promenade is a kind of Pictures at an Exhibition, Gaslini style. This four-movement piano concerto dates to 2008 but derives its thematic material from a 30-year-earlier jazz work. In this form, the work was inspired by walking through a Latin American town and seeing a series of large, impressive murals whose subjects varied from the celebratory to the sinister. The colors and forms were often violent and always emotionally expressive, and those are the qualities of Gaslini’s music, which seesaws repeatedly among expressions – from the solemn to the agitated, from the bright and outgoing to the dark and portentous. Murales Promenade is followed on this CD by the strongly contrasting Adagio Is Beautiful, a 1998 piece for 16 strings that shows Gaslini at his most Romantic: it starts in darkness and uncertainty and gradually is transformed into a kind of radiant affirmation. This relatively short work (nine minutes) makes an effective dividing line between the two large concertos heard here. The second of those, simply called Concerto, dates to 2013 and is one of Gaslini’s last works. Interestingly, although Murales Promenade has traditional tempo markings for its four movements and Concerto has descriptive ones (starting with Ursa Major for the first and Terra! for the second), Concerto really does have a more traditionally classical structure and approach. All four movements are traceable to the same seven-note series, and the work as a whole follows an arc not too different from that of Adagio Is Beautiful. After the first two movements, in which Concerto focuses on the dark and the vast emptiness of space, the third movement bears an Italian title that translates as “Echoes of the songs of John Donne in the 21st century,” and the fourth has a title, also in Italian, that can be translated, “Crossed paths – head-on into the wind.” These movements represent a turn to the human and philosophical from the first two movements’ outward focus on nature and the natural universe. The initial darkness of Concerto becomes increasingly exultant – and, interestingly, increasingly tonal – until the work finally ends triumphantly and includes an actual spiritual, indicating in what way Gaslini sees human reaching-out as leading eventually to emotional affirmation. Pianist Alfonso Alberti handles both concertos on the CD skillfully, and the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento under Yoichi Sugiyama provides effective, if rather dutiful, backup, albeit with strings that really shine in Adagio Is Beautiful. Gaslini is not among the best-known contemporary composers, but on the strength of this disc, he is worthy of more attention: unlike many modern composers who insist on adding together classical and jazz elements in ways that often seem awkward or overdone, Gaslini offers more of a jazz sensibility within formal classical models, giving his works – at least the ones heard here – a consistent voice, with more genuineness than is to be found in most music that proclaims itself to be “crossover.” Gaslini’s pieces are more a true blend than a colloidal suspension of jazz and classical elements – that is, they are an altogether smoother and more-complete mixture.
The music of Kevin Puts (born 1972), available on another new Naxos CD conducted by Marin Alsop, has some interesting elements but is less compelling than that of Daugherty and Gaslini. The three world première recordings here showcase Alsop in her most-effective role, as an advocate of new and less-known music rather than a presenter of well-known works by composers whose reputations are already solid. Puts’ Symphony No.2 (2002) is one of an innumerable number of well-meaning works responding to the terrorist murders in New York City and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Its introspective sincerity is undoubted, but it is not especially distinctive or evocative in its progression from rather standard evocation of tragedy to a meditative conclusion whose ending in uncertainty reflects the notion of not knowing what lies ahead. It is an occasional work rather than one for the ages. River’s Rush (2004) is also straightforward in presenting the sense of rapidly moving river currents. The work is cast as an orchestral perpetuum mobile featuring a series of short motives. Like any number of other portrayals of flowing water, it inevitably recalls Smetana’s Vltava, which continues to stand far above its imitators and successors. Like the symphony, this tone poem is well-crafted but not really distinguished in any significant way from similar works by other composers. The best piece here is the Flute Concerto (2013/2014), with Adam Walker’s excellent playing complementing the equally fine sound of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra under Alsop – all at the service of a work that, ironically, has a much-more-personal style than the others here even though it also includes more-overt echoes of earlier composers. The lyrical opening of a first movement marked “With great sincerity and affection; flexible, with motion” very definitely recalls Copland in manner and directness of appeal; the second movement, simply labeled Andante, rather oddly (but surprisingly effectively) mixes Mozartian beauty with parody of (or, perhaps, commentary upon) the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 21; and the finale, a toccata marked “Very fast, with tremendous energy,” puts both Walker and the orchestra through some highly exuberant paces whose unflagging high energy makes for a thoroughly rousing conclusion. There is no “big message” in this concerto, and perhaps for that reason it comes across much more directly and successfully than the meaning-heavy Symphony No. 2. The CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating – it is worth having for the concerto alone, and River’s Edge is pleasant enough, but although well-intentioned and well-made, Puts’ Symphony No. 2 has little staying power and ultimately not much to recommend it for repeated hearings.