July 25, 2019
(++++) CROSSING CENTURIES
Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite; Spring Song; Suite from “Belshazzar’s Feast.” BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Chandos. $18.99.
Contemporaries of the Strauss Family, Volume 4: Oscar Fetrás, Johann Schrammel, Siegfried Translateur, Franz von Blon, Josef Bayer, Karl Kratzl, Richard Eilenberg, Carl Millöcker, Béla Kéler, Karl Komzák III, Max Heinecke, Josef Gung’l, Iosif Ivanovici. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.
Fikret Amirov: Six Pieces for Flute and Piano; Cécile Chaminade: Autumn; Sigfrid Karg-Elert: Exotic Impressions; Kenneth Frazelle: Blue Ridge Airs II. Beth Chandler, flute and piccolo; Paulo Steinberg, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The numbering of years is an arbitrary human construct, but it has been so thoroughly absorbed into so many societies that changeovers from one hundred-year period to the next tend to take on more than casual significance – in music as in other areas. Certainly the works of Sibelius are among those that seem a significant bridge between the 19th century and the 20th, just as the composer’s life spanned much of the 1800s and more than half of the 1900s (although his compositional life was much shorter). The three works on a new Chandos CD featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo all have a feeling of the end of one time period and the start of another. Actually, Sibelius’ music almost always has a sense of tristesse about it, and it is this, seen retrospectively, that helps create the “end of an era” feeling in these pieces. But the music itself carries most of the freight. The Lemminkäinen Suite was begun by the composer as early as 1893, but this is one work that he continued touching up long after he essentially stopped writing new music in the 1920s: the last version dates to 1939. From a changing-sensibilities standpoint, what makes the work interesting is that Sibelius did not use it to trace the exploits of the headstrong and occasionally foolish hero of Nordic legend. Instead, he created four movements of varying atmosphere, inspired by the tales of Lemminkäinen rather than depicting them in any sort of explicit detail. Thus, the Lemminkäinen Suite is a form of Impressionism, although Sibelius certainly never called it that. It is the atmospheric nature of the music that Oramo excels in binging forth in this recording, not only in the famous The Swan of Tuonela movement (featuring lovely cor anglais playing by Alison Teale) but also throughout the other three. Oramo does, however, make one odd choice in the suite: he places The Swan of Tuonela third in the sequence, as Sibelius himself did at the first performance of the piece in its original form. But Sibelius eventually discovered that that arrangement did not quite work, and so when the entire suite was published, he placed The Swan of Tuonela second (which also makes more sense from a narrative standpoint, to the extent that that matters). Oramo’s decision means the first two movements, together lasting 31 minutes, overbalance the suite significantly, since those played third and fourth, The Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkäinen’s Return, together last only 15 minutes. This arrangement is very much a matter of taste – but it is certainly very well-paced and well-played. It is followed by a work that is much of an end-of-the-century piece, Spring Song, to which Sibelius appended the distinctly melancholic French subtitle, “La Tristesse du printemps.” Seeing spring as a sad season seems like a peculiarly Sibelian trait. The gentle, somewhat nostalgic and crepuscular sound of this short tone poem of 1894-95 fits the subtitle very well. Also here is the suite that Sibelius arranged from his early-20th-century music to the Hjalmar Procopé play Belshazzar’s Feast (1906-07). Here too the composer’s distinctive moodiness is much in evidence: two of the four movements represent quiet and nighttime, while the opening “Oriental Procession” is a march as different in tone and effect from those of, say, Sousa, as possible. Even the final movement, “Khadra’s Dance,” is anything but intense and frenetic, for all that its second part is a “dance of death” in the play. Sibelius seems in all these works to straddle a time of musical sumptuousness and point the way toward a new set of emotional evocations.
Even in lighter musical fare, there was noticeable change between the late 19th century and the early 20th. Johann Strauss Jr. died on the cusp of the new century, in 1899, and while Eduard Strauss continued the family legacy for a time, and some of the Strauss family’s compatriots and competitors kept writing music of a similar type, tastes were certainly evolving. That is one impression left by the fourth and final volume in the Marco Polo series, Contemporaries of the Strauss Family, which includes one work as early as 1868 and another as late as 1926 – with the 12 others’ dates falling somewhere in between. Most of the now-nearly-unknown composers heard here appeared on one or more of the three earlier entries in this excellent series, in which John Georgiadis leads the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice with just the right blend of enthusiasm and piquancy. As was the case with the three earlier releases, all the pieces heard here are world première recordings, several of them reconstructed or resurrected by Georgiadis himself. The fact that the sensibilities of the 19th century did not disappear all at once is abundantly clear by, for example, contrasting Sibelius’ “Oriental Procession” with the high-stepping and brightly scored Juchhei Tirolerbub! Tyrolean March by Oscar Fetrás, written seven years after the Sibelius, in 1914, but retaining the panache of the Straussian waltzes of decades earlier. Its spirit is shared by the Deutschmeister Regiments-Marsch of 1896, by Josef Bayer; by Richard Eilenburg’s utterly charming 1887 parade-passing-by Die Wachtparade kommt, Characteristic March; and by a march written the same year as Sibelius’ “Oriental Procession,” Adlon Marsch by Max Heinecke. Several of the dance forms so inextricably associated with the Vienna of the soon-to-be-eclipsed Austro-Hungarian Empire are heard here, including Diabolo, Galop by Siegfried Translateur; the particularly engaging Sempre Crescendo Galop by Béla Kéler; and Céline, Polka Mazurka, by Iosif Ivanovici. And of course, and most prominently, there is the waltz: half the 14 pieces here are waltzes, and all are very well-made and quite danceable. They include Im Wiener Dialekt by Johann Schrammel; Mein Ideal by Franz von Blun; Die letzte Tropfen by Karl Kratzl; Mein Jugend by Carl Millöcker; In der Zaubernacht by Karl Komzák III (the third and least-known of his family bearing that name); Pandekten-Walzer by Josef Gung’l; and, at the very end of the disc, a second work by Kéler, the only composer represented here twice, Von Rhein zur Donau – Kéler’s last waltz, and a piece that quotes from Suppé’s famous O du mein Österreich. This is the longest work on the disc, and although it dates to as far back as 1881, it somehow seems fitting that its Rhine-to-Danube connection helps bring to a close the Viennese era of the 19th century and makes way for what was to come in the 20th.
Whatever the century, seasons, folk music and impressions of nature intrigue composers – in fact, the Kéler waltz incorporates folk tunes from both Germany and Austria. And the one 19th-century work on a (+++) MSR Classics CD of music for flute and piano is seasonal, while the remaining works, all from the 20th century, have folk and nature-focused elements. Autumn by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944), which dates to 1886, is a typical piece of Chaminade’s salon music, slight and charming and, in this arrangement by Trevor Wye, lying nicely on the flute. Moving into the 20th century, Exotic Impressions by Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) includes five short tone paintings, mostly of specific natural scenes. Idylle champêtre (“Rustic Idyll”), Danse pittoresque (“Picturesque Dance”), and Colibri (“Hummingbird”) tie directly to nature, with the third portrait especially effective in displaying hummingbird-like sounds, played by Beth Chandler on a piccolo. Lotus, the fourth piece, is evocative in a different way, tying to the spirituality of the concluding Evocation à Brahma (“Evocation of Brahma”) in its sensibility. Dating to 1918, this Impressionistic suite partakes of some, although not a great deal, of the sounds that emerged in the 20th century in reaction to the opulence of the late 19th. Six Pieces for Flute and Piano (1976) by Fikret Amirov (1922-1984) combines natural scenes with elements of folk music. The whole work is based on Azerbaijani melodies, but Amirov uses them in a variety of different ways in movements whose titles clearly reflect their intent: Bardenweise (“Song of the Ashug”), Wiegenlied (“Lullaby”), Tanz (“Dance”), In den Bergen Aserbaidschans (“In the Mountains of Azerbaijan”), An der Quelle (“At the Spring”), and Nocturne. The first movement uses the piano to good effect (Paulo Steinberg is a fine partner for Chandler throughout); the second is a bit dour for a lullaby; the third is upbeat and quite short; the fourth is suitably atmospheric; the fifth features some uneven rhythms that make this water flow seem rather turbulent; and the sixth has more of the gentleness and quietude that might have been expected in Lullaby. Stylistically and harmonically, Amirov’s work is not much different from Karg-Elert’s despite the half-century-plus between them. The final and longest piece on the CD, Blue Ridge Airs II by Kenneth Frazelle (born 1955), takes listeners to the cusp of our present century, dating as it does to the year 2000. Running a substantial 23 minutes, this is a work that takes Impressionism to contemporary times and invokes nature – specifically, the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Shenandoah Valley – at considerable length. There is certainly beauty here, intermittently, but while the work is one that flautists will surely find both challenging and attractive, it is somewhat less so for a general audience: there are extended sections that are more monotonous than meaningful, and the flute’s leaps and bounds wear thin after a while. This single-movement piece is 50% longer than either the five-movement Karg-Elert or six-movement Amirov, and does not really sustain audience interest throughout. Some of its unexpected elements do stand out, such as a piano outburst and transition about a third of the way through, but as a whole, it is rather thin for such an extended piece. Indeed, flautists are likely to find more to enjoy throughout this disc than are listeners who do not play the flute – but individual elements of all the pieces here are certainly attractive, no matter in what century the works were created.