June 08, 2017
(++++) INCONSEQUENTIAL PLEASANTRIES
Carl Friedrich Abel: Symphonies, Op. 7. La Stagione Frankfurt conducted by Michael Schneider. CPO. $16.99.
Paganini: Complete Works for Violin/Viola with Cello and Guitar. Nils-Erik Sparf, violin and viola; Andreas Brantelid, cello; David Härenstam, guitar. Proprius. $18.99.
Walton: Façade. Carole Boyd and Zeb Soanes, reciters; ensemble directed by John Wilson. Orchid Classics. $13.99.
There is nothing wrong with superficial music. Whether in the 18th century, the 19th or the 20th, the vast majority of music, even when created by important composers, is less than significant – well-made if the composers are good, worth hearing if well-constructed, but scarcely notable enough to become part of what is sometimes called the classical canon. The vast number of excellent, trailblazing classical works should not cause listeners to turn a deaf ear to music that exists on a less-lofty plane and functions perfectly well on it – including some that was quite popular in its time. In the 18th century, the symphonies of Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) were highly regarded, and indeed one of them has a Köchel number (KV 18) because it was long thought to be by Mozart. Abel created his symphonies, Op. 7, all of them short (eight to 13 minutes) and all in major keys, at a time when Haydn was still solidifying what was soon to become standard classical symphonic form. Today Abel’s works seem largely like throwbacks to the days of sinfonias or overtures (as they were in fact called), and are in the main lighter and much less emotive than the far-more-familiar masterpieces of both Haydn and Mozart. But Abel was a fine musical craftsman with some genuinely original ideas. In particular, he tended to create slow movements that, while not deeply emotional, were quite distinctive in their use of dynamics: they were often marked sempre piano and, as such, stood in strong contrast to the comparatively lightweight outer movements of these three-movement works. The young Mozart was indeed strongly influenced by Abel’s Symphony in E-flat, Op. 7, No. 6, the one that ended up in the Köchel catalogue: Mozart apparently copied it as a model for his own works in 1764, when he was all of eight years old. This is in fact the most interesting of the six pieces on a new CPO recording featuring excellent performances by the chamber group known as La Stagione Frankfurt, conducted by Michael Schneider. For one thing, the central Andante of Op. 7, No. 6 is in C minor and hints at the level of emotion that other composers, Mozart included, would later pack into minor-key movements and (in Mozart’s case) into ones in C minor in particular. The song-like central movements of Abel’s Op. 7, Nos. 2 and 4 also had their influence. Today these works sound straightforward, and no one would argue that they are symphonies of great importance, but they remain very pleasant to hear, and it is easy to see why audiences in Abel’s time found them so attractive.
In the 19th century, a time of greater individual display by instruments and performers, Paganini long stood out as the violinist above all violinists, and his concertos remain outstanding virtuoso vehicles as well as finely constructed and elegantly presented – and very Rossinian – orchestral works. But Paganini was a virtuoso not only on the violin but also on the viola and guitar, and his chamber compositions featuring these and other instruments have never become particularly well-known. Many are fairly close to the salon-music genre, and they do not have the spectacular fireworks of virtuosity called for in the concertos. Yet they are highly attractive pieces, in which Paganini’s ability to make the violin and viola nearly equal to other instruments shows him to be a composer of more sensitivity than he is usually credited with possessing. A very-well-played new Proprius CD includes what is rather grandly termed Paganini’s complete works for violin or viola with cello and guitar – a statement that is a bit much because the complete set includes exactly three pieces. The viola is featured in Serenata in C and Terzetto Concertante, the violin in Terzetto in D. The Serenata dates to 1808, the two works marked Terzetto to 1833, but there is little stylistic difference among the three pieces. The violin/viola parts are virtuosic, although not extremely so, and the music seems balanced between Classical elegance and Romantic expressiveness. The guitar writing is particularly attractive – the instrument sounds much like a harp in the Terzetto Concertante – and the interplay of the instruments is handled with skill and a sure sense of each instrument’s capabilities in a chamber-music context. The Serenata is followed on this recording by a Polacca written by Paganini’s granddaughter, Nicola, which actually shows up in manuscript as the fourth of the work’s five movements – here the performers remove it, play the four movements of the Serenata as the composer intended, then offer the Polacca as a kind of appendix. And a pleasantly tuneful one it is, being very much in keeping with everything else on the disc.
By the 20th century, musical trifles had changed considerably in character. Not all listeners would consider Walton’s Façade to be a minor work, despite its thoroughgoing playfulness and the extremely short duration of most of its 22 movements (only six last as long as two minutes). There was indeed some serious avant-garde thinking about poetry perpetrated here, within the words of Edith Sitwell and in their relationship with the instruments chosen by Walton to illustrate the poems if not necessarily to flesh them out: flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, cellos and percussion. But even in the service of a specific set of ideals, the poetry comes across as trifling with listeners. It is filled with amusing wordplay and silliness, with pervasive rhymes that exist as verbal petit fours – delicacies that sweetly tickle the auditory palate without ultimately possessing much of nutritional value. Carole Boyd and Zeb Soanes are first-rate reciters and very much in the spirit of Façade in a new recording from Orchid Classics, and the instrumental ensemble led by John Wilson is as jazzily bright and bouncy as anyone could wish. Americans, however, will wish for the texts of the poems, which are not provided and not readily accessible online: the complexity of Sitwell’s language and the accents of the reciters combine to make parts of this Façade harder to follow than they ought to be. On the plus side, there is a fascinating bonus on the CD: a 27-minute interview with Sitwell that originally was heard on the BBC in 1955 and that deals explicitly with Façade as well as with other issues of poetry and Sitwell’s fascinating family (including brothers Sacheverell and Osbert). Hearing Sitwell – by this time designated Dame Edith – hold forth on everything from her early work, to writing for film, to the meaning and importance of poetry, results in a fascinating juxtaposition of seriousness with the often-sarcastic amusement that is Façade. Indeed, listeners who pay close attention to what Sitwell had to say 60-plus years ago may well decide that the apparently flippant nature of Façade is there to conceal something a great deal more portentous and thoughtful – and thus that, in fact, the work itself is a kind of façade. Sitwell (1887-1964) would no doubt have enjoyed just such a meta-analysis and meta-reaction to her pleasantly piquant little poems.