September 19, 2019
(++++) VIGOR AND QUIETUDE
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2; Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet—excerpts. Fabio Bidini, piano; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Beau Fleuve. $20 (2 CDs).
Jeffrey Jacob: Symphony No. 5, “Dreamers”; Sanctuary I; Adagietto; Epitaph; The Persistence of Memory; Final Sanctuary. Navona. $14.99.
Mark John McEncroe: Musical Images for Chamber Orchestra—Reflections & Recollections, Vol. 1. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).
The notion of Brahms’ two piano concertos being, in effect, symphonies with piano obbligato, is not a new one, but performances that treat them that way are less than common. But the new one by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, interestingly, does handle the Concerto No. 2 in an essentially symphonic way. That certainly does not diminish the importance of pianist Fabio Bidini’s involvement and skill, but this reading is at its best when the orchestra is in charge and those grand Brahmsian themes and swells are washing over the audience in waves (an appropriate metaphor for a live recording on the orchestra’s own Beau Fleuve label). The concerto actually begins rather slowly and almost tentatively, as if gathering strength, but by the time the main theme of the first movement arrives, the music is at full flow, and the expansiveness of the first movement is heightened by the exceptionally warm sound that Falletta draws from the orchestra – notably in the strings and brass. Bidini is rather too much given to rubato in this movement and, indeed, pretty much throughout the performance: some tempo fluctuation is normal (for better or worse) in this concerto and other works of its time, but Bidini stretches a phrase here, compresses one there, just a bit too often. Falletta, however, when not keeping up with the pianist’s alterations to the score, moves the music ahead with vigor and tremendous warmth. The middle movements both benefit from this approach to a considerable degree, with the Andante spun out at length in a way that makes it the emotional centerpiece of the entire work. The finale, though, is a bit of a comedown, not only because there is again a bit too much inattention to tempo consistency, as in the first movement, but also because the very end of the whole work is simply taken too fast – it almost sounds as if Bidini and Falletta have had enough after 50 minutes and cannot wait to wind things up. Apparently the audience could not wait, either: applause starts during the final chord – a major faux pas in a recording and one that apparently could not be edited out. There are many beauties in this performance, enough to make it yet another of a number of recent showcases for the increasing excellence of Falletta and the Buffalonians. But the whole thing does not quite gel as a concerto experience, even though as a symphonic one it is impressively played. The second disc in this two-CD set is another live recording, this time of excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This is not one of the three suites that the composer extracted from his ballet – instead, it is a mixture of movements from all three. Falletta chooses nine pieces in all: six from the second suite, two from the first, and one from the third. She arranges them in an order designed to maximize a dramatic presentation, not in a sequence reflective of Shakespeare’s story or Prokofiev’s ballet. This works well for listeners who are not familiar with the music already, although those who do know it may find some of the juxtapositions a trifle jarring. Still, here as in the Brahms, Falletta brings forth exceptional playing from the orchestra – the very opening of the whole sequence, The Montagues and Capulets, is especially impressive – and she conducts with considerable flair for drama and a willingness to go all-in emotionally, notably in the concluding excerpt, Romeo at the Grave of Juliet. The sheer sound of the Buffalo Philharmonic makes this entire recording a pleasure to hear, even if some elements of the pieces fit together not quite seamlessly.
Contemporary composers often strive for the sort of impact that Brahms and Prokofiev produce, but their ambitions frequently fall short – at times because they are so determinedly earnest in trying to promote an extramusical agenda. That is the case with the music of Jeffrey Jacob on a new (+++) Navona release. Jacob’s Symphony No. 5, “Dreamers,” really is what Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 is often said to be: a symphony with piano obbligato. Jacob himself is the pianist in a performance by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jiří Petrdlík, and a heartfelt reading it is. But the work itself never quite makes the emotional connection that it seeks throughout. This is surely because it is a political work first and a musical one second: the title refers to children of illegal immigrants to the United States, ones who dream of a better life and may or may not be eligible for continued legal residence under a program that actually refers to them as “dreamers.” The immigration issue, in the U.S. and elsewhere, is a far more complex one than politicians acknowledge, requiring the balancing of legitimate national security and national financial interests against the desire of the oppressed to flee horrendous conditions and remake their lives. Jacob has no particularly profound or original thoughts on the matter – he simply creates a symphony designed to elicit sympathy and empathy for the “dreamers,” with movements called “Rain, Lagrimas (Tears),” “Fear; Grace,” and “Separation, Grief; Resolution, Triumph.” The music is primarily tonal and uses both the orchestra and the piano throughout to try to get the audience to feel a certain (one-sided) way about the plight of the “dreamers.” That is certainly Jacob’s expressive right, but considering the music simply as music – rather than as political argument – the work is rather monochromatic and not especially convincing. Sanctuary I is more of the same politically despite its different orchestration: it is played by the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Spalding, and includes extensive use of solo piccolo. The mood in the strings here is much the same as the mood in the full orchestra in the symphony, with the intent being to celebrate cities that oppose immigration authorities’ attempts to deal with illegal immigrants. Adagietto again features Jacob on piano, here with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joel Spiegelman. The piece has much the same mood as Sanctuary I, although it does not carry the same overt political freight. It also has a nicely wrought oboe part. Epitaph is yet another piece for piano (Jacob) and orchestra (the Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jon Mitchell). Lacking deliberate outward striving for consciousness-raising, it proves more effective than the symphony, Sanctuary I or Adagietto. Indeed, it is a work of considerable warmth and thoughtfulness, the piano undergoing a variety of uses, from the inward-focused and intense to the straightforward and music-box-like. Perhaps because this work has no designated program that listeners are supposed to follow, it opens a multitude of possible feelings and responses – the sort of connection that really good music provides and argumentative music rarely does. Also heard on this disc is The Persistence of Memory, again with Jacob on piano and this time featuring the Cleveland Chamber Symphony under Edwin London. Although not quite as effective as Epitaph, this work too is a strongly involving one, using passing references to the music of Brahms, Schumann, Schubert and Bartók as part of a two-movement contemplation of the similarities and differences between older and newer compositional styles – a somewhat rarefied and academic concept that manages not to be off-putting thanks to Jacob’s skill in interweaving the varying approaches. The CD concludes with Final Sanctuary, featuring Jacob not on piano but on oboe and electronics. This is an odd work, the oboe part warm and meditative but the electronic elements joining with it uneasily – it is hard to be sure whether the intent here is placidity or a kind of artificial sense of wellness above a rather ill-fitting background. Jacob shows himself on this CD to be both a versatile composer and a versatile performer, at his best when he looks inward rather than putting his skill at the service of nonmusical matters.
Another (+++) Navona release, a two-CD set of 20 works by Mark John McEncroe, offers chamber-orchestra arrangements by Mark J. Saliba of pieces that McEncroe originally wrote for piano. Unlike the multifaceted Jacob material, these works by McEncroe have considerable similarity among themselves, to the point that many titles could be swapped without significantly affecting listeners’ perceptions of the pieces. The two-CD set is not quite as lengthy as might be expected – the first disc runs 37 minutes, the second 44 – but it does wear thin quickly. Much of the material comes across as background music, suitable for listening to while doing something else: there is little here that commands full attention. Indeed, the music is so strongly tonal and so determinedly meditative that the recording could almost be classified as New Age, filled as it is with gentleness and little percussive tinglings that briefly draw attention beyond the quiet motion and even sound of the orchestra. It is scarcely a surprise that so many of the tracks refer to water: Ripples on Still Water, The Gargoyle Fountain, A Fish with the Blues, Shadows in the Water. There is a feeling of gentle flow, emphasis on “gentle,” almost everywhere here. The titles not including water references reflect a similar esthetic: Introspective Moments, Ghosts from the Past, Dancing in the Light, A Lazy Summer’s Afternoon, and so on. There is nothing wrong with any of this experiential music, certainly no problem with it for listeners who want something pleasant and unchallenging meandering through the background while they go about various quotidian tasks. It is mood music of a single mood, pleasantly soporific and engagingly undistinguished – nothing challenging or portentous here, nothing to make one’s ears perk up or one’s mind pay attention, but a great deal that can be used as an aid to meditation or to sleep, pretty much all of it at the same Andante Moderato tempo. Indeed, that is the title of one of the works here and could just as well be the label for all of them.