November 17, 2016
(++++) SINGING TO MAKE A POINT
Offenbach: La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein. Lucia Valentini-Terrani, Carla di Censo, Carlo Allemano, Thomas Morris, Richard Plaza, Etienne Ligot, Bernard Imbert, Frank Cassard; Bratislava Chamber Choir and Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia conducted by Emmanuel Villaume. Dynamic. $22.99 (2 CDs).
Shostakovich: Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti; Schoenberg: Kol Nidre. Ildar Abdrazakov, bass; Alberto Mizrahi, narrator; Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti. CSO Resound. $19.99.
Weill: The Road of Promise. MasterVoices and Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Ted Sperling. Navona. $14.99.
Marty Regan: Riding through Misty Clouds (2012); Overdrive (2005); Two Movements for Violin and Piano (2005); Runaway Train (2004); Three Poems by Tanikawa Shuntarō (2002); Splash of Indigo (2014). Navona. $14.99.
Opera has a long and honorable – well, maybe slightly dishonorable – tradition of puncturing the pretension and pomposity of the military. Mozart did so brilliantly in Così fan tutte as well as in Cherubino’s portion of Le nozze di Figaro. Johann Strauss Jr. did so with panache in Der Zigeunerbaron. But the ultimate sendup of all things military in its time may well be Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, which is so hilariously pointed and so packed with tunefulness that its comparative obscurity on the modern stage is something of a mystery. Maybe it is simply too much of its time: Otto von Bismarck recognized himself being made fun of in the character of General Boum, but perhaps 1867, the year of Offenbach’s work’s debut, is simply too distant now to be recognizable by many modern audiences. This is a real shame, because the music is simply wonderful, and the plot – in which the grand duchess, enamored of a private in her army, repeatedly promotes him until he is on par with the military’s top brass, which he then “shows up” by winning an important battle by getting the enemy drunk – is both pointed and complicated enough to be amusingly engaging. Dynamic has now re-released its full-length recording of a 1996 live performance of the opera, and the result is a delight from start to finish. Most cast members are not especially well-known, but every one of them fills his or her role with aplomb and excellent comic timing. Lucia Valentini-Terrani, who was to die of leukemia less than two years later at the age of 51, absolutely steals the show as the grand duchess: she is imperious, vulnerable, quick to anger and equally quick to forgive, and in superb voice throughout. Her famous aria, Ah! Que j'aime les militaires, bursts forth with rousing enthusiasm; her leading and later dismantling of the plot against the life of the man she fancies (who marries someone else) shows her as hot-headed but scarcely hard-hearted; and her transfer of affection and eventual bittersweet conclusion that if you cannot have the one you love, you might as well love the one you have, produces a genuinely poignant moment in what is otherwise a rousing conclusion. The soldier she fancies is well-sung by Carlo Allemano, his sweetheart comes through as very sweet indeed in Carla di Censo’s characterization, and the military officers and royal hangers-on emerge with just the right sort of staunch pomposity. Emmanuel Villaume keeps the whole production moving along at a speedy but never frenetic pace, and the chorus and orchestra sound consistently wonderful. The underlying seriousness of Offenbach’s parody of 19th-century military adventurism is present for those interested in looking for it – but even those without a history-driven interest in the material will find a great deal to celebrate in this first-rate performance of a first-rate work.
Matters are much heavier, although in a certain way no more serious, in Shostakovich’s final work, Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti. He wrote these 11 songs – which he considered to be his 16th and final symphony – for bass and piano in 1974, then orchestrated the accompaniment, but died before ever hearing the version performed by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a new CD on the orchestra’s own label. The themes explored here are ones that listeners familiar with Shostakovich will immediately recognize: love, creativity, death and exile. A prominent trumpet theme recurs as if calling forth a last judgment on Shostakovich’s own life – the composer was gravely ill when he wrote this work and apparently well aware of his coming death – and the singing by bass Ildar Abdrazakov of these dark, spare works is immensely effective. This is not exactly music to enjoy – it is music to contemplate and in which to become involved, highly expressive and doom-laden and all the more powerful for its refusal to become overly dramatic either vocally or instrumentally. The themes are heavy, and Muti allows their weightiness to come through without ever overemphasizing their darkness – late Shostakovich is quite expressive enough without a conductor over-interpreting it, and Muti is right to let the music flow naturally while Abdrazakov intones Michelangelo’s poetry to a new age facing so many of the same fears and problems with which the Renaissance attempted to cope. The 11 songs last about 40 minutes but seem to extend temporally through the performance, which was recorded live, as well as to form a connection between Michelangelo’s time and Shostakovich’s. This song cycle is an important work whose deep gloominess and need of a first-rate bass voice may help explain its comparative neglect. It is paired on the CD with Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre, also recorded live, which features narrator Albert Mizrahi and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. This work dates to 1938 and was composed at the request of the rabbi of a Los Angeles temple. The Kol Nidre is a statement of faith associated with the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – the most solemn of all Jewish holidays. From a 21st-century perspective, it is ironic that the work’s world première occurred within a month of the depredations of the intense anti-Semitic events of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany; undoubtedly contemporary troubles gave Schoenberg’s music extra poignancy at its first performance (the composer had fled Europe in 1934). But Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre, like the prayer itself, is intended to be timeless, an exploration of the relationship between God and humanity and the meaning of atonement – and who needs to atone for what. It is set as a dialogue between a rabbi and chorus, and remains striking in its modernity, if less poetically expressive and intense than the Shostakovich with which it is included.
The meaning of Judaism in the 1930s was also at the heart of a lengthy and complex construction with music by Kurt Weill and libretto by Franz Werfel. This was The Eternal Road, an allegorical work, part opera, part oratorio, intended to inform the people of the United States about Hitler’s attacks on European Jews. In its original form, the sprawling six-hour piece involved 245 actors and ran for 153 performances after its première in early 1937. It has now been given a concert adaptation by Ed Harsh and, under the title The Road of Promise, has been released as a Navona CD. The work is set in a synagogue where Jews are hiding through the night as a violent riot known as a pogrom rages outside; the story involves a rabbi reading from the Torah, which leads to explorations of both biblical history and more-recent events, ending with a confluence of the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and the deportation of the Jews who have been hiding. The approach of Weill’s and Werfel’s work has been picked up in almost identical form by Mohammed Fairouz in his 2015 Zabur (“Psalms”). Harsh’s adaptation, although much shorter than the original work, retains the mixture of biblical and modern material and the use of spoken dialogue, arias, ensemble pieces and chorus. It also showcases the varied musical styles that Weill included in the work: intonations like those used by cantors in synagogues, classical forms such as fugues, even some show tunes – but virtually none of the nightclub-influenced sarcasm and acerbity for which Weill is best known. This is an interesting work and arguably an important one, but it is far from gripping – although perhaps a modern Jewish audience would find it as telling in the 21st century as it was supposed to be in the 20th. The biblical stories within The Road of Promise are familiar ones, and the overarching concern about oppression of the Jewish people certainly has a contemporary connection; but simply as music, this is not a compelling work. It is well-meaning, certainly, and intended to draw attention to real as well as perceived injustice; and as Fairouz’ much later use of the form shows, there is material here that connects to the plight of refugees of all sorts, in all times. This is the stuff of lectures and hectoring, though, not the sort of powerful artistic statement that would make The Road of Promise speak cogently and coherently to a contemporary audience. The very considerable talents of both Weill and Werfel are here enlisted in a narrow cause that appears, from the perspective of many decades later, to have vitiated some of the creativity of both librettist and composer. This is a (+++) release that deserves to be called significant but is not highly effective on a strictly musical basis – a flaw that, by the way, it shares with Zabur.
Vocal elements appear in only one of the six works by Marty Regan on a new Navona CD, but Three Poems by Tanikawa Shuntarō is the longest work on the disc and comes across as its focal point. Shuntarō, among the most widely read and most respected contemporary Japanese poets, deals in these three poems with universal emotions and feelings: the first and by far the longest, “Kiss,” is about love; the second and shortest, “Koro, koro,” takes a much lighter look at heartfelt emotion; and the third, “Haru,” is a short and sentimental ode to spring with a focus on the cherry blossoms that figure so prominently in Japanese society. Regan, who is best known for his works written for Japanese instruments and who plays the shakuhachi (a type of flute), here uses the entirely traditional form of a cycle for soprano (Julia Fox) and piano (Andrea Imhoff) to try to show the universality of even apparently exotic forms of expression. The settings are pleasant enough, although the extreme chromaticism of “Kiss” becomes wearing in so long a work (12½ minutes for this single song). The remaining pieces on this (+++) CD are instrumental, for various forces. Riding Through Misty Clouds is for piano solo (Brendan Kinsella) and is a kind of miniature tone poem about air travel, with contrasting dramatic and lyrical sections. Overdrive is orchestral (played by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Petr Vronský) and is an extended fanfare – it is the most straightforward and accessible work on the disc, filled with typical flourishes and percussive elements, bright and forthright throughout. Two Movements for Violin and Piano (Chloé Trevor, violin, with Kinsella again on piano) is another of the innumerable works inspired by the Islamic murders of September 11, 2001, with a first movement intended to depict innocence and fate in conflict and a second intended to assert hopefulness through a mixture of musical styles – an uneasy combination and a work of undoubted sincerity but without anything to say that has not already been said countless times by other composers. Runaway Train is a perpetuum mobile trio commissioned by Trio Xia and played here by that group (Frederick Lau, flute; I-Bei Lin, cello; Tommy Yee, piano). The music is pleasantly frenetic and, like Overdrive, comparatively accessible. The most recent work on the disc, Splash of Indigo, has as strong a Japanese connection as do the settings of Shuntarō poems. It was commissioned by the performers heard here, a string quartet known as Apollo Chamber Players (Matt Detrick and Anabel Ramirez, violins; Whitney Bullock, viola; Matthew Dudzik, cello). Regan’s inspiration was a workshop on indigo design and dyeing in which he participated in Japan. Japanese or pseudo-Japanese material, built on the traditional pentatonic scale, permeates the music, whose single movement includes contrasting melodic, rhythmic and harmonic sections, and also draws on several musical styles. The piece has a pleasingly free-flowing form but does not seem to have much to say, although what it does contain is handled pleasantly enough. Existing fans of Regan’s music, who are interested in his handling of Western instruments rather than the Japanese ones he usually favors, would seem to be the primary audience for this specialized disc.