July 20, 2017
(+++) IN SEARCH OF IMPORTANCE
Prokofiev: The Stone Flower. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $34.99 (2 CDs).
Ross Crean: The Great God Pan. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).
Gregg Smith: Peter Quince at the Clavier; Double Sonata for Violin, Voice, and Piano; Fallen Angels. Eileen Clark, soprano; Thomas Schmidt, piano; Ari Streisfeld, violin; Evan Ziporyn, clarinet. Albany Records. $16.99.
Mark John McEncroe: Symphonic Suites Nos. 1 and 2. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.
Vivaldi/Matej Meštrović: 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos. Matej Meštrović and Matija Dedić, piano; Hakan Ali Toker, piano and accordion. Navona. $14.99.
It would be nice to think that composers continue to improve in skill and the ability to produce literally noteworthy music throughout their careers. But while there are some composers for whom that is assuredly the case – Mozart and Beethoven come immediately to mind – there are many others who produced music at essentially the same level over time (Mendelssohn), whose output showed signs of deterioration in later life (Schumann), or who stopped being productive altogether despite having many decades yet to live (Ives, Sibelius). Prokofiev is in more or less the same category as Schumann, although in Prokofiev’s case, the later-life issue was not mental deterioration but societal strictures, notably the notorious 1948 Zhdanov decree against musical “formalism,” which was deemed anti-Soviet. Unlike Shostakovich, who found ways in his later pieces to work around Soviet musical strictures, Prokofiev largely withdrew into simplicity and diminished expressiveness and creativity in his last years. The Stone Flower is one example of his works of this period. First performed in 1954, a year after the composer’s death, it is a very long ballet (two and a half hours of music) that tries hard to be “significant” in the context of the non-musical requirements of the time. It contains occasional flashes of excellence – notably the themes associated with the supernatural Mistress of the Copper Mountain, and the orchestration of sections such as “Solo of the gypsy girl and coda.” Unfortunately, there are lengthy arid stretches of music as well. Various sections (there are 46 in all) are orchestrated and repurposed versions of earlier Prokofiev works, and the pieces newly created for The Stone Flower are generally rather foursquare. Also, there is little dramatic tension in the story. It involves a craftsman named Danilo who wants to make a perfect malachite vase and hopes for magical help from the Mistress of the Copper Mountain; Danilo’s love, Katerina; and, for a nemesis, a bailiff named Severyan whose simplistic musical identification is of the twirl-your-evil-mustache variety. The orchestration of the ballet is frequently of greater interest than the thematic material, and in a new Chandos recording, the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda plays the work with considerable finesse – more, indeed, than the music really justifies. It is quite understandable that The Stone Flower is rarely heard, but it is good to have the work available in this first-rate performance – for those interested in less-known Prokofiev and those wondering what happened to the composer’s creativity when it came directly into conflict with the political environment in which he lived his final years.
The search for meaningfulness also permeates the Navona release of a non-orchestrated version of Ross Crean’s opera, The Great God Pan. Crean wrote his libretto from a novella by Arthur Machen that was roundly condemned as horribly decadent by many critics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that was admired for its atmospheric elements by H.P. Lovecraft (albeit with reservations about its plentiful coincidences and pervasive melodrama). The story starts as science fiction and rapidly spirals into fantasy: it involves a doctor using surgery to connect a woman with the spiritual realm, which the doctor refers to as “the great god Pan,” and the terrible consequences when the operation succeeds and Pan – or a child of Pan – is loosed upon the world. This basic description makes the story sound more coherent than it actually is; its climax, in which the evil character is persuaded to commit suicide rather than be exposed as demonic, is particularly nonsensical. Crean clearly intends his opera to explore complex issues of science and spirituality, of the real and the fanciful; but the music, especially when heard with the two-piano accompaniment by John Cockerill and Stephen Uhl, rarely rises to any level of significant impact. The singing itself is the usual contemporary mixture of melodic elements plus atonality and Sprechstimme, with little variation of sound from character to character and, as a result, little enough for the audience to have a feeling of empathy, much less experience any sense of horror or even spiritual unease. The primary approach used by Crean is to create ostinato passages that are supposed to carry forward the story with a sense of inevitability, but in fact this technique quickly becomes aurally wearing and atmospherically ineffective. A couple of piano-only sections work well, as does the wordless chorus that opens “The Confrontation and Ultimatum,” but although the 10 individual singers handle their parts skillfully enough, the material itself is simply not sufficiently convincing to make The Great God Pan more than an interesting attempt to tell a strange and unusual story in operatic terms.
Another vocal recording intended to elicit a sense of significance, on Albany Records, features three works for voice and instruments by Gregg Smith (1931-2016). The topics here are wide-ranging and the performances very fine; whether the material adds up to something meaningful, or only to well-crafted display pieces, will depend on each listener’s view of the poetry Smith sets as much as it will on his music. Peter Quince at the Clavier, a four-movement setting of Wallace Stevens’ four-stanza poem of the same title, is the shortest work here and in some ways the most effective. Stevens’ poem, despite using the name of a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in its title, offers an erotically charged version of the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the elders – essentially setting the story up as if one of Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” is telling it. Abounding in musical images (as well as ones of color), Stevens’ poem either lends itself naturally to musical adaptation or is itself so inherently musical that any notes to which it is set seem somewhat beside the point. Smith clearly respects the poem and handles its moods with delicacy and understanding. But despite the fine performance by Eileen Clark and Thomas Schmidt, the music does not add any particular degree of subtlety or expressiveness to what is already a very subtle and expressive work. Double Sonata for Violin, Voice, and Piano reaches back to an earlier era for its text, using poems of Robert Herrick and John Milton for an extended five-movement work that partakes both of sonata form and of something approaching oratorio – although Smith’s handling of excerpts from L’Allegro and Il Penseroso is quite different structurally and sonically from that of Handel, who created a full-scale oratorio using Milton’s entire exploration of characters driven by different bodily humors. In Smith’s work, the violin is almost a second vocalist. And here as with his setting of Stevens, Smith is quite clearly aware of musical elements in the poetry itself: Smith’s second movement uses Herrick’s “To Musique, to becalme his Fever” as its text. Fast-forward to modern-day big-city life and you have the third work here, Fallen Angels, to 10 poems by Kim Rich Norton. This is the least interesting and most conventional poetry on the CD, and oddly seems more time-bound than the other works. So much has been written in both words and music about New York City that yet another sampling of titles such as “Natural History,” “A Taste of City Summer,” and “New York Cabbie’s Meditation” has little to offer unless there are some genuinely original insights or perspectives in the material – which, in this case, there are not. There is nothing exceptional in what Norton has to say about New York, and while Smith’s music complements and underlines the words satisfactorily, it does not expand or deepen them to any significant degree, although the use of a clarinet does lead to some interesting soundscapes. The setting of Stevens is the most emotionally poised and involving of the three pieces here. However, the Double Sonata is the most structurally complex and musically interesting work, containing a smorgasbord of both old and contemporary compositional techniques, from canon and gigue to patter song and waltz, all within multiple meters and twelvetone writing as well as some conventional harmony.
Mark John McEncroe is another composer who looks to the past as well as the present when seeking significance for his music. A new Navona disc of his two Symphonic Suites, which together he calls “A Medieval Saga,” shows this clearly. In the seven movements of Suite No. 1 and the six of Suite No. 2, McEncroe tries his hand at storytelling that is intended both to evoke a medieval setting and to have contemporary resonance. The suites are well-written and show a sure command of the orchestra, but they are not especially strongly tied either to the past or to the present. Their tone painting tends to be rather obvious, as in the contrast between the first suite’s third movement (“Rising Discontent”) and its fourth (“Peasants’ Uprising”). McEncroe does not seem entirely sure of whether he wants the audience to take the suites at face value or with a sense of irony, as is shown in the works’ individual titles: the first suite is “Just Another Medieval Tale” and the second is “And the Medieval Tale Continues.” The story arc, if not the musical one, begins and almost ends with a look at rulers: the first suite’s opening movement is “Entrance of the King” (suitably if conventionally celebratory), while the second suite’s penultimate movement is “Hail to the New King.” The second suite, more than the first, is essentially about warfare; but its very last movement is the somewhat puzzlingly titled “A Brave New World,” and it is never quite certain whether McEncroe here tries to move the underlying tale of nobles and peasants, rulers and ruled, into something different and more in line with our contemporary world – or whether the last movement’s title somehow reflects Shakespeare’s creation of the well-known phrase or Aldous Huxley’s ironic adaptation of it. Simply listening to these two orchestral suites without trying to impart any particular meaning to them – hearing them as a sort of film music without visuals, which is a pretty fair description of their overall sound – leads to a satisfying experience. It is only when one tries to find and accept the deeper meaning that McEncroe wants the music to have that the works fall short.
Some composers do not just look backward for meaning – they try overtly to overlay the present on the past, musically speaking, and in so doing to produce works that retain an aura of earlier times while still speaking in modern musical language and for a contemporary audience. This approach can lead to something of a mishmash, which is where it leads on a Navona release of 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos by Croatian composer/pianist Matej Meštrović. Vivaldi’s four seasonally focused violin concertos are among the most popular of all classical works, and many composers have adopted or adapted them in various ways, or used them as springboards for other works – Ástor Piazzolla’s Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (1965-70), especially in the 1996-98 arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov, being one especially successful example. Meštrović, however, uses Vivaldi only as a springboard for wide-ranging jazz arrangements that frequently sound improvisational even though they are not. He and pianist colleagues Hakan Ali Toker (who arranged the Presto movement of “Summer”) and Matija Dedić (who arranged the Largo of “Winter,” here misspelled “L’Ineverno”) delight in adding introductions, byways, modern harmonies, over-the-top frills and runs, and much more to Vivaldi’s foundational material, which peeks through from time to time but never seems to be the primary reason for the existence of 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos. The work is undeniably fun much of the time, notably when it features interpolations from other composers’ works and makes use of an accordion. But its constant riffs on Vivaldi become repetitious and thus dull after a while, and the three players seem at times to be trying too hard to make the entire proceeding fresh and enjoyable. The pounding chord sequence that opens the finale of “Spring,” for example, just sounds silly, and the ostinato with dappled high notes at the start of the first movement of “Winter” is more an insult than a tribute to Vivaldi’s outstanding cold-weather tone painting. On the other hand, the scurrying opening of the last movement of “Autumn” comes across nicely (in a somewhat overdone way); and the finale of “Summer,” which opens essentially as Vivaldi intended, uses the tonal quality of the piano to good effect. 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos is more a discursion from Vivaldi than an excursion into his music. But when taken at face value and as an exercise in fun rather than attempted meaningfulness, it is pleasantly diversionary and has more than its share of effective pianistic exhibitionism.