January 04, 2018
(++++) PROFUNDITY NOT REQUIRED
Offenbach: Overtures to “Orphée aux enfers,” “La Fille du tambour-major,” “L’Île de Tulipatan,” “Monsieur et Madame Denis,” “La Belle Hélène,” “Vert-Vert,” “La Vie parisienne,” and “La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein”; Ouverture à grand orchestra. Orchestre National de Lille conducted by Darrell Ang. Naxos. $12.99.
Czerny: Introduction e Rondo Brilliant in B-flat; First Piano Concerto, in D minor; Introduction, Variations and Rondo on Weber’s Hunting Chorus from “Euryanthe.” Rosemary Tuck, piano; English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge. Naxos. $12.99.
Nobody would argue that music must have deep meaning in order to be enjoyable, but there is an unspoken bias in that direction when it comes to classical music – as opposed to pop music, which is generally assumed and most often intended to be superficial. There are plenty of classical works that may have serious underpinnings in terms of what the composers meant to communicate and how they constructed the pieces, but that nowadays are enjoyable purely for how they sound and for the joie de vivre that emanates from them. Offenbach, for example, had more in mind than pure farce in many of his operettas, although the earlier ones for a restricted number of singers were, by and large, comedies for their own sake. Still, the pacifism underlying La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, the sendup of “modern” French life as perceived by tourists in La Vie parisienne, and the deliberately skewed take on ultra-serious classical-Greek pretension in Orphée aux enfers and La Belle Hélène are not what listeners are likely to focus on today. It is instead the apparently effortless production of beautiful tunes, the unending smooth flow of the music, that will delight anyone hearing the overtures to these works (although the more-serious undercurrents still come through, to a degree, in complete performances of the stage pieces). The overtures conducted by Darrell Ang on a new Naxos CD featuring Orchestre National de Lille are all quintessential Offenbach, all tuneful and charming and easily dismissible as trifles by anyone unaware of the underlying plots of the works they introduce. Ang is not perhaps the best advocate for this music, not having yet discovered the difference between being lively and being frenetic – but he is only 38 years old and has time to slow down a bit and allow Offenbach his expansiveness as well as the breathless pace that the orchestra can barely handle in, for example, La Fille du tambour-major. And Ang deserves credit for including a rarity on the CD: Ouverture à grand orchestra is very early Offenbach indeed, dating to 1843, when the composer was just 24. It is the only non-theatrical work on the disc, and while it lacks the sheer impulsiveness and melodic beauty of the introductions to the later stage works, it already shows how much promise as a composer was possessed by the young Offenbach – who was at the time primarily a cellist. Listeners seeking pleasure without any particular experiential depth will certainly gravitate to this disc.
One conductor who over the years has consistently given Offenbach more of his due in performances is Richard Bonynge, who is now 87 and shows little sign of slowing down in his commitment to directing music with feeling and elegance. Both are very much on display on a new Naxos CD of works by Carl Czerny – works intended in their time to have some seriousness, even pretension, but ones now best heard as enjoyable and very well-made pieces that are a step or two beyond the salon but nowhere near the emotional intensity of composers such as Beethoven, with whom Czerny studied for a time. To be sure, Czerny absorbed some Beethovenian gestures, and they are in the forefront in his First Piano Concerto of 1811-12, especially in the very extended first movement, which is longer than the totality of many Mozart piano concertos. The seriousness of this work, which here receives its world première recording, is evident throughout, and both Bonynge (himself a fine pianist) and Rosemary Tuck perform the work with the grandeur, even hauteur, that Czerny intended. But the overall impression of the piece is one of donning its garb of intensity somewhat awkwardly. This is abundantly clear when the slow movement proves very short and functions mainly as an intermezzo before the brightness of the concluding Allegro molto vivace. Czerny simply does not sustain, and may never have intended to sustain, the sort of emotional depth that the work’s first movement promises. Tuck and Bonynge certainly showcase the piece’s strengths, and the English Chamber Orchestra plays with its usual fine intonation and clarity. But Czerny as a composer seems more comfortable in the milieu of the Variations and Rondo on Weber’s Hunting Chorus from “Euryanthe,” another world première recording – in fact, it is surprising that two of the three works on this disc have never been recorded before, since both are interesting in so many ways. These variations, which date to 1824, are very extended indeed – again, about the length of many complete Mozart piano concertos – and they turn and twist Weber’s music in multiple ways while always remaining respectful of Euryanthe (an opera that itself deserves more attention than it generally receives). Tuck and Bonynge are as well-matched here as in the concerto, pacing themselves and each other with sureness and clearly bringing out all the skillful methods in which Czerny uses the variation form. The CD also includes one work that has been recorded in the past and, indeed, is heard fairly often as a pianistic display piece: Introduction e Rondo Brilliant in B-flat, from about 1833, in which Tuck cuts loose and displays plenty of the forthright virtuosity of which performers and audiences were so fond in Czerny’s time and thereafter. Nothing heard on this CD qualifies as “deep” music, and nothing strongly involves listeners’ emotions except, to an extent, the concerto’s first movement. But if the pleasures of these pieces are scarcely profound, they are nevertheless quite real, and the fine quality of the performances helps produce a disc that is highly satisfying from start to finish.