October 12, 2017
(++++) SOME CLASSICAL RETHINKING
Chopin: Nocturnes (complete); Ballades Nos. 1 and 4. Eliane Rodrigues, piano. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).
Johann Kaspar (Caspar Joseph) Mertz: Fantasies for Solo Guitar based on operas by Verdi. Alan Rinehart, guitar. Ravello. $14.99.
Lumina. Westminster Kantorei conducted by Amanda Quist. Westminster Choir College. $16.99.
The familiarity of Chopin’s Nocturnes does not prevent pianists from always finding new thoughts, ideas and emotions in them. Some of these charming miniatures, derived from the works of John Field but made wholly more expressive by Chopin, are indeed dark, but a great many of them are more crepuscular – twilight tone poems filled with sensuous melodies and a contemplative, often slightly melancholy atmosphere. It is almost as if they are songs without words, miniature tale-tellings whose exact story lines are unknown. What Eliane Rodrigues does that is fascinating in her new performances for Navona is to provide each of the 21 Nocturnes with text by Belgian pianist Jantien Brys; the text in turn is based on stories by Rodrigues herself. The words are not heard on the recording but presented in the accompanying notes, and they are structured as a kind of imaginary diary, something Chopin might conceivably have written for each of the Nocturnes but did not. The words with No. 2 in E-flat, for example, begin, “A faint hint of lavender, mixed with something I had never smelled before.” And those with No. 13 in C minor say, “I’ve come to accept that I will never be truly happy. Life has taken everything from me, but frankly, I couldn’t care less.” Such writing is scarcely what Chopin would have left and did leave behind, and the colloquialisms are those of today rather than the first half of the 19th century. Still, the words provide an interesting jumping-off point for a series of remarkably sensitive and well-considered interpretations. Rather than seeing the Nocturnes as a set, Rodrigues views them as independent pieces within a totality, and in this sense she parallels the music to the verbiage, providing connections of mood (as the words do of writing style) but keeping each entry (musical or verbal) independent of the others. The result is a fascinating performance that almost comes across as a multimedia odyssey through Chopin’s life, loves and illness. In fact, “performance” is not quite the right word – it should be plural, “performances,” since it is the multiplicity of moods within the general framework of the Nocturnes that Rodrigues brings forth here to especially good effect. Of course, it is entirely possible, even desirable, to listen to this two-CD set without ever reading or thinking about the specific words Brys has written – one adheres one’s own words, or one’s own feelings and emotions, to these pieces all the time, and that is exactly as it should be. But a second encounter with Rodrigues’ performance, listening this time while incorporating the texts, is revelatory, not so much of the music itself as of the varying emotions that may be evoked by it and may be reflected in, or inspired by, Rodrigues’ playing. This unusual handling of a set of very-well-known pieces has two of the four Ballades included as well, and that itself is interesting, since each of these is significantly longer than any of the Nocturnes and gives Rodrigues an opportunity to explore a very different emotional canvas – which she does with equal skill. This is, all in all, a thoroughly fascinating release.
A new Ravello CD featuring guitarist Alan Rinehart is fascinating as well, but for very different reasons. The works here are as little-known as Chopin’s are well-known. Indeed, the composer, Johann Kaspar Mertz, his name sometimes given as Caspar Joseph Mertz (1806-1856 in either case), is almost completely obscure today. But he was an important guitar virtuoso in his time, and was in fact responsible for creating guitar works that in many ways paralleled the emotionalism and technical requirements of the piano pieces of none other than Chopin. This method of guitar composition was not exactly a dead end, but over time it proved mush less popular than the approaches of Fernando Sor, who looked to the classical models of Haydn and Mozart, and Mauro Giuliani, whose guitar music partakes of Rossini’s bel canto style. Changing tastes were not kind to Mertz, and they have never quite changed back far enough for his music to become popular again. But Rinehart may have found an exceptional entry point for restoring Mertz to some degree of popularity. Like other virtuoso players of his day, on many instruments, Mertz the guitarist frequently played pieces that he had written based on popular operas of the time, from Flotow’s Martha to Meyerbeer’s Le prophète to Donizetti’s Don Pasquale to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Among these virtuoso pastiches are a number from operas by Verdi, and it is six of those that Rinehart plays – and plays extremely well – on this CD. All six of the operas are well-known today and will be familiar to contemporary operagoers: Nabucco, Ernani, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata and Il Vespri Siciliani. And each of the fantasies is a gem – a semi-precious one, it is true, without aspirations to profundity or anything revelatory, but nevertheless something sparkling and lovely. The complexity of the guitar parts is considerable, and tends to become more so toward the fantasies’ conclusions; the handling of the operas’ themes is generally straightforward, so the music is instantly recognizable to any audience that knows the works; and the overall virtuosic effect of the music is highly impressive – it is hard to see how some of this material can be played with only two hands and 10 fingers. There is nothing on this CD to indicate that Mertz was a great or even near-great composer, but there is quite a lot to show that he was a great or near-great guitarist. And the music unfolds with so much pleasure in Rinehart’s highly capable hands that it is hard not to wish for more of the same: Mertz wrote quite a bit of other solo-guitar music, plus some for two guitars in which one instrument is tuned differently from the other, and if other compositions are as intriguing and well-crafted as these, it would be wonderful to have additional Mertz recordings as good as this one.
The type of rethinking on a new Westminster Choir College recording does not involve new views of familiar music or a foray into long-obscure material. Instead, this CD, simply called Lumina, is distinguished by its juxtapositions of music by different composers from different eras. There is nocturnal music here of a vocal type, for example: the disc opens with Josef Rheinberger’s Abendlied. But this clearly Romantic work (Rheinberger lived from 1839 to 1901) is immediately contrasted with three pieces by Purcell: Miserere; Remember not, Lord, our offences; and Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei – and the two languages of the Purcell pieces themselves represent an effective contrast. The unexpectedness of sequencing is what makes this entire disc distinctive: after Purcell’s works comes Mendelssohn’s Heilig, then Bach’s hyper-familiar Komm, Jesu, Komm, and then Heinrich Schütz’s Selig sind die Toten. Next is John Dunstable’s Ave Maris Stella, and then Hildegard von Bingen’s O Vivens Fons, Byrd’s Vigilate, Tallis’ If You Love Me, and finally Lord, For Thy Tender Mercy’s Sake by the little-known Richard Farrant (c. 1525-1580). The combination of familiar and less-familiar material, all of it sung in exemplary and sensitive fashion by the Westminster Kantorei under Amanda Quist, makes this a highly attractive disc for listeners interested in a variety of religious expressions of different eras and in different languages. That is a somewhat rarefied group, and for that reason as well as its brevity (46 minutes), this disc gets a (+++) rating. But for those who are inspired by and enamored of liturgical music from multiple eras, sung with great beauty of sound and excellent articulation, this will be a CD to cherish.