December 14, 2017
(++++) VISITS TO SPECIFIC TIMES AND PLACES
Carl Millöcker: Waltzes, Marches and Polkas. Nürnberger Symphoniker conducted by Christian Simonis. CPO. $16.99.
Black Manhattan, Volume 3. The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra conducted by Rick Benjamin. New World Records. $15.99.
Music of Granados and others. Concerto Málaga String Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. SOMM. $12.50.
Carl Millöcker (1842-1899) is one of those also-rans of 19th-century Vienna, a composer and conductor well-known in his own day but nowadays remembered, if he is remembered at all, only for Der Bettelstudent (1882). That was Millöcker’s biggest success and the stage work that prompted him to give up conducting and become a full-time composer – after which he never wrote anything that became remotely as popular. On the basis of a new CPO disc featuring 13 works by Millöcker, his relative lack of success is hard to understand, since he quite obviously produced tuneful, enjoyable, danceable music that, if not quite at the level of the works of the Strauss family, certainly comes across as worthy of more-frequent performances and certainly not worthy of the total obscurity in which the material languishes. Christian Simonis and the Nürnberger Symphoniker essentially take listeners on a visit to old Vienna with this release, and the trip proves highly engaging. There is one piece here from Der Bettelstudent, its overture, which is suitably frothy and attractive and yet, really, no more worthy of attention than the other material on the CD. In fact, Der Bettelstudent is merely one of the nine operettas that Millöcker composed to libretti by Richard Genée and Friedrich Zell, deepening the mystery of the other works’ lack of popularity in and after their time. And Millöcker wrote 21 stage works in all – an ample oeuvre from which to choose the material heard here. The CD includes waltzes from Das Sonntagskind (1892) and Der Probekuss (1894); a march from Apajune, der Wassermann (1880); a galop from Das Nordlicht (1896), Millöcker’s final operetta; and a polka from a farce called Der Untaugliche (1878). Non-stage-related material here includes an Ouvertüre in E-flat; Ida—Polka française; Cyprienne—Polka schnell; Melitta—Polka mazurka; Carnevalslaunen—Polka schnell; Pizzicato-Walzer; and Quecksilber—Polka schnell. If the naming of the dance tunes for specific people or times recalls the habit of Johann Strauss Sr., and the titles of some works are reminiscent of those of Strauss’s famous sons, that is no accident, since Viennese music in this time had many characteristics in common, including its naming conventions. It cannot be said that the music of Millöcker stands dramatically above or apart from that of other contemporaries of the Strauss family such as Carl Michael Ziehrer, Joseph Hellmesberger Jr., Philip Fahrbach Jr., and Karl Komzák II. But for that very reason, listening to Millöcker’s works produces a feeling of being transported in time and space to the milieu in which these pieces were written – which, from a purely musical perspective if not from a sociopolitical one, proves a very pleasant place to visit indeed.
Two (+++) anthology discs provide more-rarefied enjoyment, largely because they lack the focus of the all-Millöcker one, which manages both to keep the composer in the spotlight and to connect listeners with the time and place where he flourished. Black Manhattan, Volume 3, from New World Records, certainly aims to bring listeners into aural contact with a particular place – and a specific time period (1879-1922). The music intended to do this, however, is scarcely of uniform interest and quality, and for that matter scarcely of uniform familiarity or unfamiliarity. Well-known composers and/or pieces heard here include Eubie Blake (I’m Just Wild about Harry and Love Will Find a Way), Scott Joplin (Wall Street ‘Rag'), and James A. Bland (Oh Dem Golden Slippers). And listeners will likely have particular favorites among the other, less-known works – perhaps The Dancing Deacon: Clef Club Fox-Trot by Frederick M. Bryan, Dear Old Southland by J. Turner Lyton, The Slow Drag Blues by Q. Roscoe Snowden, or Delicioso: Tango Aristocratico by Will H. Dixon. Certainly everything on the CD is played with style and enthusiasm by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra conducted by Rick Benjamin. And certainly this third release in a series that started in 2003 effectively shines the light on a time and a set of composers that have been given short shrift for a century or more. There is an unevenness to the quality of the music, though, and while listeners will find much to enjoy here, they will also likely find themselves uninvolved in some of the material, which fits the cause of documenting African-American composers and compositions of a particular time but does not offer, in and of itself, anything approaching a uniformly compelling auditory experience.
The new SOMM recording featuring the Concerto Málaga String Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier also has a curious lack of focus despite its title, “Serebrier Conducts Granados.” The fact is that Serebrier does not here conduct only music by Enrique Granados (1867-1916), and as a result the release becomes an anthology of variable quality rather than a focused one paying attention to one of Spain’s most important composers. Once again here there is very well-performed material that varies a good deal in musical quality and interest; and the string-orchestra arrangements of works originally written for other instruments, although effective enough, stop short of being fully authentic. The material by Granados himself is uniformly interesting, but there is not much of it – only two of the Danzas españolas, a string-quartet movement, El Himno de los Muertos, and the lovely Intermezzo from Goyescas. Also of interest here are two works by Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909),Tango and Mallorca, and two by Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Gran Vals. But the other material on the CD is generally weaker, whether contemporaneous with that of Granados or composed in tribute to or recognition of him and his time. The other composers represented are Eduardo Toldrà (1895-1962), Joaquim Malats (1872-1942), Ruperto Chapí (1851-1909), Enric Morera (1865-1942), Jesús de Monasterio (1836-1903), and Ricard Lamote de Grignon (1899-1962). None of the 16 pieces on the CD lasts much more than five minutes, not even those by Granados, and most are even shorter; so what listeners get here is essentially a collection of snippets and encores that provide some evidence of vibrant Spanish musical life during and after Granados’ time, but that – like the works heard on Black Manhattan, Volume 3 – are of greater interest from a documentary standpoint than they are from a strictly musical one. Still, those wishing to return for a time to 19th- and early 20th-century New York City and Spain, respectively, will find themselves transported there for an hour or so by these two diverse recordings.