July 02, 2020
The Book of Dragons. Edited by Jonathan Strahan. Illustrated by Rovina Cai. Harper Voyager. $35.
You may think there are two schools of thought about dragons: the Occidental, in which they evilly lay waste to vast areas, breathe fire, and are ripe for destruction by a lengthy series of St. George epigones; and the Oriental, in which they are earthbound or water-bound, beneficent or at least neutral where humans are concerned, and are generally harbingers of good luck. The Book of Dragons, however, shows that there are 29 ways of looking at a dragon, one for each contribution to Jonathan Strahan’s anthology. There may be even more, but even an almost-600-page book has to end sometime.
Readers who are fond of dragon lore will wish this volume went on even longer than it does, because the variegated views of dragons espoused and explored herein make for fascinating reading from just about every angle that fantasy takes today. Here is a mundane real-world autobiographical tale that shades at last into wonder: Pox by Ellen Klages. Here is a traditional dragon-demands-maiden-sacrifice story, turned personal and enigmatic: The Nine Curves River by R.F. Kuang. Here is outlandish humor, in which dragons have to figure out, among other things, lawsuits: Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage by Zen Cho. Here is a tale so packed with detailed world-building that it feels like a novel compressed into 20 pages, or a 20-page story around which a novel can (and probably should) be built: Matriculation by Elle Katharine White. Here are two poems of enigmatic thoughtfulness: What Heroism Tells Us and A Nice Cuppa by Jane Yolen.
Dragon lore is multifaceted, so in some ways it is no surprise to find The Book of Dragons so packed with so many variations on so fruitful a theme. But the sheer extent of those variations is a surprise, and a pleasant one. Dragons mean so much in this book. They mean that it is better to be a low-paid lighthouse keeper with dragons than a well-paid lawyer without them: The Dragons by Theodora Goss. They mean that a particularly lucky dragon-slayer is forced by a particularly unpleasant prince to capture a dragon alive so the prince can overcome it: Habitat by K.J. Parker. They mean that an otherworldly tug-of-war is ongoing over dragon-shaped human souls, or rather external manifestations of human emotions in the shape of dragons: Lucky’s Dragon by Kelly Barnhill.
And there is much more here, from some of today’s best-known and most-accomplished fantasists – Michael Swanwick, Garth Nix, Patricia A. McKillip – and from numerous up-and-coming fantasy authors whose imaginative treatment of the topic is equally enthralling. It turns out that dragons continue to inspire creativity of all sorts, often with echoes of the traditional Occidental and Oriental views of them but equally often with echoes of a different kind: Where the River Turns to Concrete by Brooke Bolander, for example, imagines a river spirit ousted by human encroachment in essentially the same way that this happens in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, but with much more brutal consequences.
There are many stories here in which dragons are central, as is only to be expected. But there are also some intriguing cases in which they are almost incidental: Peter S. Beagle’s Except on Saturdays, which is more of a musing upon the persistence of myth and the ways in which some people, a few, are open to it even in the modern world; and Sarah Gailey’s We Don’t Talk about the Dragon, a tale of an abusive family, more draconian than draconic, that is as monstrous in its small, casual and constant cruelties as any imagined winged beast.
Most of the stories do their own word painting, their own scene creation, rendering the nicely sculpted Rovina Cai drawings decorative enough, but only modestly connected to the narratives or illustrative of them.
Unsurprisingly, the book begins and ends with Tolkien, specifically with quotations from The Hobbit about Smaug. The opening one is the dragon’s self-description of might and potency; the closing one, Tolkien’s poetically nuanced words, “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.” In truth, Smaug is dispatched in The Hobbit with rather more alacrity and ease than would be expected, given the buildup to his appearance and his own boastful words. But The Hobbit, unlike The Lord of the Rings, was intended for younger readers, and at least in Tolkien’s time, dwelling overmuch on the dragon’s depredations simply would not do. The authors in The Book of Dragons, on the other hand, are writing for adults, and their themes are frequently quite dark and very adult indeed. They are also quite a bit further removed from Tolkien than Strahan’s choice of opening and closing quotations might lead one to expect. Today’s best fantasists have absorbed the lessons of Tolkien, yes, but have by and large moved beyond them where dragons are concerned, finding new ways to use the dragon legends – of whatever provenance. There is little in The Book of Dragons that directly recalls Smaug, but much to indicate that Smaug and other draconic characters of earlier times continue to enthrall and captivate the newer generations of fantasy authors.
Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies. Kate Royal, soprano; Christine Rice, mezzo-soprano; Tuomas Katajala, tenor; Derek Walton, bass; MSO Festival Chorus and Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Trevino. Ondine. $39.99 (5 SACDs).
A Beethoven-symphony cycle is an inevitable rite of passage for young conductors, and one that will likely be held to even-higher-than-usual standards during this 250-year anniversary of Beethoven’s birth – when all things Beethovenian have proliferated to an even greater degree than usual. So Ondine’s release of a five-SACD set, featuring live performances from October 2019 by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Trevino (born 1984), faces unusually stiff competition among recordings – to the extent that it is valid to turn performances of this music into competitive endeavors. Trevino himself is still developing as a conductor, and although the Malmö Symphony Orchestra is a full-scale modern symphonic one (the booklet included with the release lists 91 musicians), it is not an ensemble routinely deemed among the very best in the world, or even in Europe. So it is particularly enjoyable to find out that Trevino brings some genuine thoughtfulness and a few new ideas to Beethoven’s symphonies, and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra plays them expertly and enthusiastically – if perhaps not quite with the highest precision or best sectional balance at all times.
Trevino’s care with the music is everywhere apparent. At the very start of No. 1, he is careful not to rush things, to let the music of the Adagio molto opening bloom naturally before the ensuing Allegro con brio bursts forth at quite a quick pace. Speed turns out to be a characteristic of Trevino’s mostly bright and lively interpretations, although he does not rush the music – the first movement of No. 1 sounds playful as much as quick. The second movement is finely balanced between its walking pace and songful lyricism, just as its tempo indication, Andante cantabile con moto, indicates. The third movement is a headlong burst of enthusiasm, with well-considered dynamic contrasts. The chord that opens the finale is as surprising as the famous one in Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony, and the movement as a whole is bright and perky in a very Haydnesque manner, showing Beethoven’s debt to the older composer from whom he famously and rather churlishly claimed never to have learned anything. The clear articulation of the Malmö Symphony’s strings is a particular pleasure here, helping to compensate for the fact that the ensemble is really too large for the delicacy of this music.
Symphony No. 2 announces itself with powerful opening chords that anticipate the more-famous ones that begin the “Eroica.” Trevino clearly sees these symphonies as a progression, not just as individual, independent works. In the first movement of No. 2, he contrasts a slow and stately opening with a propulsive main Allegro con brio section. The second movement comes as a surprise: it is lovingly paced as a true Larghetto, pretty rather than profound – and played with great delicacy and warmth without, however, lapsing into any inappropriately Romantic gestures. This entire symphony is under-appreciated, and Trevino shows in this movement why its poise and beauty mean that it should be seen and heard as more than just a transitional work between Nos. 1 and 3. The third movement of No. 2 here has rough good humor that looks ahead to No. 8, with Trevino doing a particularly good job highlighting the swift changes of dynamics. The finale opens at a quick tempo that could challenge the strings, but the Malmö players handle it well, and Trevino finds some especially attractive balance between the string section and the rest of the orchestra, even to the extent of highlighting the bassoon line as well as the more-usual horns, and bringing out the timpani effectively at the very end.
To present the symphonies in order on five SACDs, this release needs an 85-minute second disc for Nos. 3 and 4. And this disc sounds just as good as the other, shorter ones – which is to say, very good indeed – showing yet again that it has become possible to offer top-quality sound without adhering to the 80-minute length previously considered the limit beyond which digital-disc audio would deteriorate. The fine sound quality is noticeable in the “Eroica,” which Trevino launches with a first movement that is a well-balanced mixture of drama and lyrical flow. Although the movement does not lack scale, it is not as grand and intense as in some other performances; as a result, Trevino’s reading ties the second and third symphonies together in interesting ways, showing the “Eroica” as growing from the earlier work rather than being a complete break from it. In this interpretation, the second movement comes as something of a shock: it opens in deep sorrow of a proto-Romantic type, with a halting rhythm that belies the notion of a funeral march. Only gradually does the notion of a cortège emerge. The lower strings are very fine here, solidly underpinning the entirety of a dirge that, as lengthy as it is, seems even longer because of its emotional depth. This performance offers a movement that blends high drama with deep sadness to very fine effect. Where to go after this second movement is always a problem for conductors. Trevino opts for a third-movement opening that breaks the spell of the funereal second immediately, with scurrying strings and particularly bright woodwinds playing at a tempo that immediately leaves the gloom of the second movement behind. The effect is to split the symphony into two parts – a common enough result in performances, and one that works well here because the third movement is played with enough enthusiasm (and pointed-enough horn parts) so it does not seem a comedown or afterthought in the wake of the second. As if to emphasize the structure of this “part two” of the symphony, Trevino leaps attacca into the finale and sets a faster-than-usual pace for it, with a genuinely breakneck coda. The result is intriguing: this “Eroica” in effect has three movements of approximately equal length – the first, second, and third-plus-fourth. Heard this way, the symphony has clearer through-darkness-to-light progress than it usually possesses. This is an unusual approach that may not be to all tastes: certainly the finale is propulsive, but its pacing, especially in the presto conclusion, makes it less weighty than it can be. Still, Trevino’s handling of the symphony is convincing on its own terms and shows that he has really thought through the ways in which the “Eroica” both fits into the cycle and marks the beginning of a new symphonic approach after the first two, comparatively Classical symphonies.
Symphony No. 4, like Nos. 2 and 8, tends to get short shrift, or at least shorter shrift than the others, from many conductors. Given Trevino’s propensity for speed, listeners may expect a somewhat hectic approach to No. 4 here. Happily, though, Trevino again shows himself to be a thoughtful conductor. No. 4 is not really a “small” symphony, seeming that way only because it follows the “Eroica” and is about one-third shorter. But the orchestration, the emotional connection, the rhythmic development that Beethoven used in No. 3 are all refined further in No. 4, and Trevino recognizes this – showing his understanding, for instance, in the grandness of the chords that end the first movement’s slow opening section and introduce a well-paced and strongly rhythmic main portion of the movement (in which the bassoon and other winds sound particularly good). There is a sylvan quality to this movement that looks ahead to the “Pastoral,” and Trevino highlights it effectively. The gentle flow of the second movement, in which Beethoven explores contrasting piano and forte passages, is well-handled, with the quietest passages being played in exemplary fashion by both strings and winds. The overall scale of the movement comes through quite well – it is as long as the first, and as long as the third and fourth combined – and shows that this is in no way a “little” symphony. The third movement starts with a strong contrast: as he often does, Trevino opts for a faster-than-usual tempo, which in this case effectively pulls the symphony into brighter territory than it inhabits for the first two movements. This also happens in the “Eroica,” of course, but the change here is more seamless and feels less abrupt – one instance of the ways in which No. 4 moves beyond No. 3. The slower Trio of the third movement does come as a bit of a surprise here, since the main portion of the movement is so quick, but Trevino gives it an almost dancelike quality that works quite well. At the movement’s end, Trevino takes the same approach as in the “Eroica,” starting the fourth movement attacca. And this again has the effect of having listeners hear the last two movements as a whole, giving them, and the symphony as a totality, additional cohesiveness. Despite his penchant for quick tempos, Trevino does not rush here, adhering to the Allegro molto designation but not pushing past it. The result is a conclusion that is almost the symphony’s capstone, although not quite – Beethoven does not become thoroughly finale-focused until his next symphony. No. 4 is, in retrospect, something of a transitional work, and Trevino’s performance does a fine job of showing that while preserving the symphony’s individuality.
Although the insistently hammering first movement is by far the most famous part of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, the second movement is some 50% longer; and this is the first of his symphonies in which Beethoven builds toward making the conclusion the climax – by himself connecting the third and fourth movements directly and adding certain instruments only in the finale (trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon). Trevino gives the first movement plenty of drama, taking it at a suitable tempo and not rushing it (it is marked Allegro con brio). The orchestra’s strings show their mettle here, and so does the brass – which, however, is not as warm and rounded in sound as are the brass sections of the very best European orchestras. The brief periods of quietude in the movement, and the always charming but slightly odd oboe cadenza, are well-contrasted with the overall momentum and drama. The second movement, which so often comes across as a letdown after the intensity of the first, here starts with exceptional beauty in the strings that relieves the first movement’s tension almost at once. But here as in Symphony No. 4, Beethoven resolutely uses strong dynamic changes to carry over some of the emotions of the first movement and transform them. Trevino’s close attention to the dynamics is a big plus for his interpretation. In the third movement, when the first movement’s four-note “motto” theme returns after its absence in the second movement, the orchestra’s brass again shows its strength, making up in pointedness what it somewhat lacks in tonal warmth. Trevino quickly restores the drama level of the first movement in the third, and the strings’ handling of the Trio – especially in the lower strings – is first-rate. The justly famous sense of the orchestra “falling asleep” near this movement’s end, preparing for the tremendous “wake up!” call as the finale begins, is well-handled; and the finale itself rings forth immediately with a tremendous sense of triumph. It is, however, another movement in which Trevino pushes the pace, in this case perhaps a bit too far: there is lyricism as well as splendor in this movement, but rather less in Trevino’s reading than there could be. However, the palpable excitement of the music certainly comes through very clearly. The slow and delicate section midway through the movement contrasts well with the rest of the material, paving the way for a recapitulation as forceful as anything that has gone before. Trevino highlights the glaring dissonances and some nice instrumental touches just before the coda – including the brightness of the piccolo – and the very end, which is taken very quickly, leads to as effective an insistence on the key of C as anyone could desire.
Conducting the “Pastoral” has proved a challenge for many conductors of Beethoven cycles, even the most distinguished among them. Herbert von Karajan, for example, never seemed to know quite what to do with the symphony’s rather meandering gentleness and thematic simplicity: none of his many recordings of the work was quite satisfactory, no matter how well-played. No. 6 would also seem likely to be a particular challenge for Trevino, with his fondness for brisk pacing and thematic clarity. Trevino doers indeed have some difficulty at the symphony’s start, choosing a speed a bit beyond the designated Allegro ma non troppo. But a slight, barely perceptible slowdown early in the movement improves the pacing considerably, and the delicacy with which the orchestra handles the flowing themes is winning. Having settled on a satisfactory tempo, Trevino sticks with it and lets the music unfold at its own pace, focusing mostly on varying the dynamics – the very quiet pianissimo sections are especially effective. The second movement is the symphony’s longest and often feels that way, its Szene am Bach coming across as essentially static. But Beethoven wants this movement paced Andante molto mosso, not a crawl but a fast walk. Trevino does not take it quite that quickly, but he maintains a consistent walking pace with, as in the first movement, careful attention to the dynamic contrasts that provide what drama this essentially undramatic-by-design movement contains. The feeling here is of a pleasant waterside stroll with occasional pauses to sit and admire the scenery – a most justifiable portrait, although Beethoven made it clear that he was not writing “program music” so explicitly. Trevino does seem to be more comfortably in his element in the somewhat-more-ebullient remainder of the symphony. There is a pleasant jauntiness to the third movement, whose deliberately coarse rhythms Trevino handles very well, although the Trio sections are a bit too fast to be fully convincing. Unsurprisingly, the fourth movement’s storm is managed with great aplomb, the timpani pounding out the thunderclaps and the rest of the orchestra cutting loose to fine effect. Then the finale enters a touch tentatively, as if Trevino is reluctant to let the storm go – but the pace soon becomes a very pleasant Allegretto, and the sense of joy at the storm’s passing comes through well. What Trevino gets right here is that the music needs to sound entirely natural, unforced and straightforward, although it is scarcely simple in structural terms. By letting the movement flow with gently rocking motion, Trevino allows the symphony to conclude warmly and effectively. This is, all in all, a sensitive and very nicely balanced reading.
The enthusiasm with which Trevino approaches Beethoven’s Seventh is scarcely surprising, but his statuesque handling of the first movement’s opening is a touch unexpected. He allows this introduction, Beethoven’s longest, to unfold at an unrushed pace and build in its own time, so it comes across almost as a self-contained four-minute piece that contrasts strongly with the quick, celebratory Vivace. The orchestra’s winds shine especially brightly here, and there is unflagging enthusiasm from the whole ensemble, with Trevino sometimes shading over almost into impatience to get to the next delightful episode. The performance is not so much rushed as it is eager. The very quiet opening of the Allegretto therefore comes as something of a shock, pulling listeners into an altogether different world. Trevino adheres closely to the Allegretto designation, not pushing the music but not allowing it to drag or become over-serious. It flows quite well, Trevino’s care with dynamics making the gradual crescendo about two minutes from the start very effective. The following decrescendo is handled with equal thoughtfulness, as is the full-throated delivery of the main theme as the movement’s end approaches. The performance is a trifle on the cool side, a bit studied, but otherwise very convincing. The third movement bursts forth with vigor and at a slower tempo than might be expected, given its Presto indication and Trevino’s tendency to keep things brisk. Here the rhythmic contrasts among the movement’s sections come through with fine clarity, and Trevino’s usual care with dynamics serves the material very well. The finale, taken attacca, goes beyond jauntiness and almost borders on hysteria through sheer speed and rhythmic insistence (the horns hold up well but are clearly being pushed close to their limit). The undeniable excitement of the movement comes partly from wondering whether the orchestra can possibly keep together at this speed – and it does, but the performance could not have been an easy one for the musicians to get through. Certainly Trevino’s flair for the dramatic is on full display here: the movement is a whirlwind of sound and orchestral color, concluding as if the music simply runs off the page in sheer delight.
And then we get to the puzzle of Symphony No. 8, the toughest nut to crack in the cycle. Beethoven thought it better than No. 7 and said he was not pleased that people generally preferred the Seventh. No. 8 is the only symphony in which Beethoven repeats a home key: F major, the same key as the “Pastoral” and therefore an indication of a similarity of intended mood and effect – but certainly not of method. In most cycles, including Trevino’s, No. 8 is the shortest of all the symphonies; but this is a work that is compressed, not truncated. It has no slow movement, although both central movements partake of a reduced tempo. It is certainly Haydnesque, among other ways in its touches of humor and its third-movement Tempo di Menuetto. But it is not really a tribute to the older composer, who had died three years before this symphony’s creation in 1812 and for whom Beethoven seems to have had at most a grudging respect. Despite its brevity, the Eighth is not a “little” symphony – it requires the same power and dynamic range as the Seventh. Most conductors have no very clear idea of what to make of it, and therefore tend just to present the music and let the audience make of it what it will. That is what Trevino does, offering a very well-played rendition that is a performance but not really an interpretation. There is greater stateliness to the first movement than might be expected, thanks to a tempo that is slower than would seem likely from Trevino in a movement marked Allegro vivace e con brio. The second movement percolates along pleasantly, being perhaps a touch more serious than its Allegretto scherzando marking would indicate – the sudden dynamic changes here are among the ways in which this symphony’s humor channels that of Haydn. The third movement, which is almost a second Scherzo, is well-paced here and features nicely accentuated rhythms and well-highlighted brass – especially so in the Trio, where the horns are warmer in sound than usual. The fleet finale, another movement in which Trevino opts for a faster-than-usual tempo, is bubbly and suitably outgoing – once more showing parallels with Haydn, although again Trevino is a bit on the too-serious side. The performance as a whole is very pleasant, if scarcely revelatory.
If conductors tend to be unsure what to do with Beethoven’s Eighth, all of them seem to be quite certain of how to handle the Ninth – although their certainty inevitably changes over time, being transformed into some other, more-mature certainty that is in its turn transformed yet again. So Trevino’s handling of the Ninth in this cycle will surely not be his last word on the symphony – but it is a very fine, as it were, “first” word, from a recording standpoint. The first movement opens with suitable drama and is, as it should be, un poco maestoso, although the pacing is a bit quick for the designation Allegro ma non troppo. The orchestra plays with sufficient weightiness to make this a strong opening for so extended a symphony, with a sense of turbulence quite different from that in the “storm” movement of the “Pastoral.” Trevino is not quite as attentive here as he is in the other symphonies to changes in dynamics, but the quieter passages of the movement are nevertheless quite well handled and are suitably contrasted with the grander and louder ones. Interestingly, the pacing results in Trevino’s performance having nearly equal lengths for the first three movements: the first and third run 14½ minutes each, the second just one minute less. This conveys balance in a way that is rather unusual for the Ninth. The second movement builds strength onto the first, but the pacing here, surprisingly, is a touch on the slow side: the primary tempo is supposed to be Molto vivace, but in this performance the speed is a bit slower than that of the first movement – resulting in a rather curious effect, in which the Scherzo seems more a continuation of the opening movement than a contrast to it. The movement’s subsequent Presto material retains the same basic pulse as the main portion, being differentiated more through instrumental emphasis than by its pacing. The movement is quite well played but not particularly distinctive. The third movement, on the other hand, is lovely in every way: Trevino clearly takes to heart the cantabile portion of the tempo marking, drawing a songful, warm and rather sweet performance from the orchestra. The sheer beauty of Beethoven’s themes here stands in marked contrast to the craggy and turbulent nature of those in the first two movements, and Trevino lets the pleasures unfold with natural flow surpassing that of flowing brook in the second movement of the “Pastoral.” Indeed, there is a touch of pastoral quality in this performance, a sense of simplicity and manifest beauty that sweeps away the concerns of the first two movements and aptly sets the stage for a resumption of drama in the finale. The last movement duly returns to the symphony’s earlier mood, after which the fourth movement’s main theme is introduced so quietly that it seems to sneak into listeners’ ears – an effective approach that gives Trevino plenty of opportunities to build the theme’s orchestration and volume, which he does to good effect. When bass Derek Walton enters to proclaim “enough of these sounds,” there is a genuine sense of change, and the woodwind accompaniment in the first verse of Schiller’s An die Freude is handled with excellent precision and balance. The MSO Festival Chorus sings with enthusiasm and voices the words clearly – and clarity is also a hallmark of the performance of soloists Kate Royal, Christine Rice and Tuomas Katajala. The Turkish march midway through the movement has some piquancy here, neatly anticipating the use of “Turkish” percussion at the movement’s very end – which, not surprisingly, Trevino takes at a genuine Presto. In fact, throughout the finale, all the instrumental passages maintain solid forward momentum as they provide bridges between and among the vocal ones. And in the sung portions, the verse starting with Seid umschlungen, Millionen is here delivered with a great deal of feeling, and the prayerful feeling of this section shows considerable sensitivity. Overall, it is the sensitivity of this performance, and of Trevino’s readings of the symphonies as a whole, that is the primary impression left behind by this very finely played, clearly recorded, thoughtful and frequently elegant entry among the many available releases of Beethoven’s complete symphonies.
Offenbach: Excerpts from “Les trois baisers du diable,” “Robinson Crusoé,” “Le voyage dans la lune,” “Fantasio,” “Le Roi Carotte,” “Les Fées du Rhin,” “Barkouf,” “La Haine,” and “Orphée aux enfers.” Leipziger Symphonieorchester conducted by Nicolas Krüger. Genuin. $18.99.
Kete: Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora. William Chapman Nyaho, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Jacques Offenbach is scarcely thought of as a miniaturist, having created 100-some stage works in his life, ranging in length from an hour or so to several hours. But in the manner of his construction of those works, Offenbach did indeed specialize in miniatures: the arias, choruses, entr’actes and other component parts of his productions are mostly brief and self-contained. This, among other things, made it easier for Offenbach to recycle components of unsuccessful productions, give them new words or a new dramatic purpose, and use them in entirely different ways. He was a showman and a businessman above all, enormously influential musically on composers from Suppé to Sullivan but allowing no head-in-the-clouds notions about musicality to interfere with his determination to make a good living by entertaining the Parisian populace. Accidents of history undermined his ambitions – in particular, France’s defeat by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), which made Offenbach persona non grata because he was German by birth (his first name was originally Jakob). It is to Offenbach’s credit that he rebuilt his career in Paris, to an extent, despite the military debacle; but there are distinct differences in both form and substance between his prewar and postwar works. One thing they all have in common, though, is their remarkable tunefulness and their approach of stringing together many little pieces to make an entirety greater than the sum of its parts. Offenbach’s musical imagination was so fertile, his focus on entertainment so precise, that there are tremendous numbers of almost unknown pieces from his stage works that are every bit as delightful to hear as the far-better-known material from La Belle Hélène, La Vie Parisienne, Les Contes d’Hoffman, Barbe-bleue, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, and others. Several of the works excerpted for a new Genuin CD are almost completely unknown today, but were very significant (for better or worse) in Offenbach’s life as composer and impresario – the early Les trois baisers du diable, for instance, and the late and ill-fated La Haine (“Hatred”), whose very costly production was largely responsible for driving the composer into bankruptcy. From a strictly musical standpoint, the biographical elements underlying the various works scarcely matter – except when it comes to Orphée aux enfers, whose overture is the only piece here likely to be familiar (indeed, hyper-familiar) to listeners. What is interesting here is that the overture is not by Offenbach – and does not appear in either of the two primary versions of the score (1858 and 1874). It was assembled by Carl Binder (1816-1860) for the opera’s first production in Vienna, in 1860. The fact that this collection of tunes from the opera fits together so well and has become overwhelmingly popular even though Offenbach did not himself assemble the material shows just how lasting and effective are the miniature components of his stage productions. The Leipziger Symphonieorchester under Nicolas Krüger gives this overture a rousing performance that fully justifies the work’s popularity. But it is the nearly unknown jewels, whether precious or semi-precious, that are the main attraction of the CD: the overtures to Les trois baisers du diable, Le voyage dans la lune, and Les Fées du Rhin; entr’actes from Robinson Crusoé, Fantasio (one each from Acts II and III), Le Roi Carotte and Barkouf; the introduction to Act I of Fantasio; the Marche Religieuse from La Haine, which was written as theater music rather than as opera or operetta; and the introduction and ballet/valse from Le Roi Carotte, which includes some marvelous music recycling from the ballet Le Papillon. The various pieces are arranged on the disc in no particular order, but it does not really matter: everything here has its own pleasures, and everything showcases Offenbach’s enormous skill at creating sparkling and memorable melodies that served their many and various purposes well – even when repurposed because a particular work turned out to be less than successful.
The 32 little piano works played by William Chapman Nyaho on a new MSR Classics release are of varying interest and quality, being united not by the people who composed them but by the composers’ African roots. This (+++) CD is therefore for listeners who want to hear a degree of “African-ness” in music or to celebrate composers based on their ethnicity. Thus, the focus is less on the music itself than on its background and biographical connections – resulting in an overall presentation that is on the uneven side. The disc’s title is intended to reflect its purpose: “kete” refers both to a specific African dance form and to a particular woven fabric. Only a few composers represented here may be familiar to a non-specialist audience: perhaps Ulysses Kay, Florence Price, and Laurindo Almeida (who, however, is known for bossa nova, not for anything particularly African). Others here are Isak Roux, Hale Smith, Nkeiru Okoye, Robert Kwami, Halim El-Dabh, Valerie Capers, André Bagambula Vindu, Kwabena Nketia, Christian Onyeji, Robert Nathaniel Dett, Joshua Uzoigwe, Wallace Cheatham, Amadeo Roldán y Gardes, John Wesley Work III, Akin Euba, Alain-Pierre Pradel, and Eleanor Alberga. The miniatures heard here range in length from 35 seconds to four-and-a-half minutes. They are mostly consonant, mostly rather simple to perform, and mostly reflective of their titles: Kay’s Tender Thought is tender, for example, and Okoye’s Dusk is crepuscular, while Smith’s Off-Beat Story uses off-beats and Price’s Ticklin’ Toes does have the pianist tickle the keys (metaphorically). Among the other pieces, Capers’ Sweet Mister Jelly Roll is reminiscent of Scott Joplin, Roux’ Lullaby is suitably soporific, Uzoigwe’s Nigerian Dance No. 1 is rhythmically interesting, Work’s At a Certain Church is bell-like and hymnlike; and so on. It is easy to find something to enjoy on this disc, and easy to bypass or simply endure one less-enjoyable short piece in order to get to the next, hopefully more-likable one. It is less easy to discern any particular theme or overarching purpose to the material beyond that of ethnic ancestry: nothing here is profound or revelatory, and little is interesting enough to be likely to stay with listeners after Nyaho’s recital is over – unless those listeners are themselves pianists seeking some off-the-beaten-path short pieces that are nicely constructed even if they are, all in all, not particularly meaningful.
June 25, 2020
Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—Symphony No. 3; Šarka—Overture; Bouře (The Tempest)—Act III Overture; Nevěsta messinská (The Bride of Messina)—Act III Funeral March. Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $11.99.
Music for Cello and Piano by Composers of African Descent. Duo Dolce (Kristen Yeon-Ji Yun, cello; Phoenix Park-Kim, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Although it is certainly possible to listen to the music of Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov because it is deeply Russian, to that of Ives or Copland because it is deeply American, or to that of Dvořák or Smetana or Janáček because it is deeply Czech, it is fair to say that this is not the primary reason most people hear and enjoy these composers’ works. Instead, it is because their creations partake of their respective cultures while also transcending them that the works reach out to a wide audience rather than one listening out of a sense of obligatory patriotism or social/political “correctness” of some sort. Even composers who draw deeply on their heritage without being quite as brilliant in turning it into something with wider appeal may create works that effectively incorporate national (or nationalistic) material into pieces that listeners can enjoy, and that can evoke audiences’ emotions, without requiring people to be deeply “in tune” with the music’s roots. This is the situation with Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900), the fifth volume of whose orchestral music has finally been released by Naxos after a five-and-a-half-year gap since the prior release. This concluding CD, which features top-notch and highly idiomatic playing by the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava conducted by Marek Štilec, offers a particularly interesting mixture of material that is redolent of Czech atmosphere and music that pays homage to its ethnic roots but goes well beyond them. Fibich’s third and final symphony has some strongly Czech elements, notably in its third movement (which is just the sort of Scherzo in which Dvořák also brought folklike material to the fore); but its overall impression is only incidentally one of Czech music. Instead, it comes across as a thoughtful and dark work (its home key is E minor) that claws its way somewhat laboriously to a positive resolution. Almost unrelieved intensity, starting with a movement labeled Allegro inquieto, is the chief characteristic here – there is not even a broad or expansive slow movement to relieve the headlong forward motion. Even the start of the Allegro maestoso finale retains the pervasive sense of gloom – but eventually, brighter (and definitely Czech-inflected) material pushes through, somewhat effortfully, and a struggle with the more portentous elements ensues. Brass chords closely resembling those bridging the last two movement of Smetana’s Má Vlast herald a conclusion in which positivity finally wins through to a triumphal major-key resolution.
The remaining works on the disc, all from operas, partake of Czech culture to varying degrees. Šarka is based on the same legend that inspired the third movement of Smetana’s Má Vlast, and this is definitely a folktale of Fibich’s and Smetana’s homeland. But Fibich, to a greater extent than Smetana, does his scene-setting on a broad canvas, emphasizing the tragic elements of the story in grand fashion and only introducing a degree of local coloration in the slower part of the overture, prior to its emphatically dark conclusion. Bouře (The Tempest) draws on an English source – Shakespeare’s play – and the overture to the third act conveys a suitable scene of sylvan placidity and overall gentleness, albeit with a few gestures, especially in the lower winds and strings, that could well be indicative of the strange supernatural beings found on Prospero’s island. The source for The Bride of Messina is German – the play is by Friedrich Schiller – and this is a somewhat overdone tragedy, redolent of revelations in the style of ancient Greek tragic plays. The plot involves two brothers who fall in love with the same woman, who turns out to be their long-lost sister – a revelation that results in both brothers’ death and fulfillment of a prophecy that their sister would be fatal to them both. There is nothing particularly Czech in the story or in Fibich’s handling of it, with the funeral march from the opera’s third act simply functioning as a highly effective mood-enhancer within a tale that is melodramatic in the extreme. Fibich’s music on this disc, and the four prior ones in this series, is very well-crafted, quite aptly structured for its various purposes, and amply flavored with Czech nationalism and feelings – without, however, ever sounding like mere patriotic assertion or a pure affirmation of the individuality of the Czech nation within what was, in Fibich’s time, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Assertion of provenance is, however, the point of a new (+++) MSR Classics CD featuring works by seven African-descended composers from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The dozen works here are of varying quality and varying levels of interest, but the disc’s focus seems to be less on the music than on the background of the composers – as if they deserve to be heard because of where they come from (or where their ancestors came from), not because of the music’s quality. This is unfortunate, since it implies that the music cannot stand worthily on its own. But it can – some of it, anyway. Four of the composers represented here are still living: Richard Thompson (born 1960), Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941), John Wineglass (born 1972), and Michael Abels (born 1962). The other three flourished in the 20th century, although one was born in the 19th: William Grant Still (1895-1978). Of the remaining two, Howard Swanson lived from 1907 to 1978, and Moses Hogan from 1957 to 2003. The CD is not presented chronologically, and while some of the works were written for cello and piano, others are arrangements; again, they appear in no particular order. Presumably Kristen Yeon-Ji Yun and Phoenix Park-Kim simply thought these pieces, in this sequence, would make a pleasing recital. The disc opens with two atmospheric works by Still, Summerland and Mother and Child, both of them slow-paced and moody. Next is Swanson’s four-movement Suite for Cello and Piano, the longest piece on the CD – and one whose mood cleaves rather closely to that of the two Still character pieces, although Swanson’s second movement, “Pantomime,” has a bit more brightness to it. Thompson’s Preludes Nos. 1 and 5 are for solo piano. No. 1 continues in the same vein already established on the disc, of mid-tempo, mostly quiet, mildly emotional music; No. 5 is somewhat more varied in mood and covers a bit more ground even though, at only two minutes, it is quite short. The next work here is Hailstork’s Theme and Variations on “Draw the Sacred Circle Closer,” a solo-cello piece whose African roots are clear from its title – but one whose structure and development are far more European than African, with Hailstork showing considerable command of the variation form and a fine ability to write cello music that lies well on the instrument and communicates effectively. This is followed by Wineglass’s Piano Suite No. 2, “Times of Solitude,” whose three movements are the slow and melancholy “A Midsummer Waltz,” the slow and atmospheric “The Journey,” and the slow and delicate “Distant Memories” – there are nice piano touches throughout, but the generally plodding pacing makes the work seem longer than its 10½ minutes. This is followed by four Hogan arrangements, for cello and piano, of spirituals: “Deep River,” “Let Us Break Bread Together,” “Give Me Jesus,” and “Were You There.” The music is performed with considerable feeling, and the warmth of the cello comes through very well, but by now, listeners may well have tired of the unremittingly slow-to-moderate pace of nearly all the works on the CD. The last piece on the disc, an arrangement of Abels’ Chris and Rose (the love theme from a film called Get Out), is more of the same: a fine opportunity for the performers to bring forth emotion (rather surface-level emotion in this specific case), but once again at a pace that implies there is never anything upbeat, bright, quick or light in music by composers with roots in Africa. In reality, that notion is nonsense: it is simply that the performers’ choice of these works by these composers leads to a recording that offers what is essentially 77 minutes of a single mood. Casting a wider net among the works of these composers, or including pieces by entirely different ones, would give a much better picture of the musical thinking of composers of African descent – and a much stronger reason to listen to this disc than the composers’ ethnicity and ancestry.
Aaron Jay Kernis: Color Wheel; Symphony No. 4, “Chromelodeon.” Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $11.99.
Sunny Knable: Song of the Redwood-Tree; Tango Boogie; Double Reed; The Busking Bassoonist. Scott Pool, bassoon; Natsuki Fukasawa, piano; Stefanie Izzo, soprano; Xelana Duo (Ana García, alto saxophone; Alex Davis, bassoon); Gina Cuffari, soprano and bassoon; Sunny Knable, accordion. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Whether composed for a large complement of instruments or a small one, 21st-century classical music has developed its own kind of sound, one in which tonal and atonal, consonant and dissonant, strident and lyrical elements mix and intermingle with apparent abandon. Different composers’ works come across quite differently, of course, but there is a pervasive overall willingness to combine disparate characteristics and techniques of classical music – and jazz, non-Western and other musical forms – for the sake of creating a kind of polyglot aural experience. This plays out in distinct ways depending on each composer’s sound-palette preference. A new Naxos recording of music by Aaron Jay Kernis (born 1960) offers two orchestral works whose titles relate them directly to color, and whose approach focuses on displaying both the massed sounds of a full orchestra and the comparative delicacy of individual sections and, at times, individual instruments. Color Wheel (2001) is a raucous and generally dissonant set of exclamations given in conjunction with periodic episodes of more-moderate expression. It is an orchestral showpiece, and at 22½ minutes a somewhat overextended but often very intriguing one. Giancarlo Guerrero has plenty of chances here to showcase the individual and collective strength of the Nashville Symphony, whose players balance exuberance with episodes of careful attentiveness to sections of the score that exhibit a degree of delicacy. Orchestra and conductor are equally adept with the three-movement Symphony No. 4, “Chromelodeon,” written in 2018 and bearing only a superficial resemblance to anything traditionally symphonic. It does have three movements, but the music and the movements’ titles combine to make the work seem a half-hour tone poem rather than a symphony in recognizable form. The first movement rises, as its title indicates, Out of Silence, and here Kernis uses exclamations from individual instruments and small groups to build to a larger sound. The second movement is oddly and rather puzzlingly titled Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom (after Handel): certainly it is thorny enough in its dissonant denseness, and its overall somber mood comes through effectively, but any resemblance to Handel is so coincidental as to be thoroughly irrelevant. The work’s third and shortest movement, Fanfare Chromelodia, is its most accessible and structurally clearest, being built from and around a fanfare-like theme that somewhat recalls Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Listeners to this recording of two world premières are left at the disc’s end with a sense of having completed an extended melodic and rhythmic journey through some generally craggy environs.
The four chamber pieces by Sonny Knable (born 1983) on a new MSR Classics CD are also all world premières, with the emphasis here being on eliciting varying moods and experiences from modest, chamber-size instrumental groups. The bassoon is the anchor instrument throughout, even in the two works featuring vocals. Song of the Redwood-Tree (2012) is based on poetry by Walt Whitman: it opens soulfully with “A California Song,” continues with a distinct boogie-woogie rhythm for “Death-Chant,” and concludes in “Golden Pageant” with a rather uneasy mixture of the lyrical and passionate with the acerbic. The totality does not seem particularly Whitman-esque, but the cycle certainly explores multiple moods. Double Reed (2014) is based on To the World’s Bassoonists by Charles Wyatt and is written for soprano, bassoon and accordion – a striking and rather weird-sounding combination that produces surprising aural experiences in all three movements: “Noble Bassoon,” “Tragic Bassoon,” and “Impossible Bassoon.” The first movement is rather declamatory; the second is rather more whiny than tragic; and the third is rather pretentious (“it may be a new dawn will come”). But from the standpoint of sheer sound, the song cycle is interesting to hear. The other works here are instrumental. Tango Boogie (2017) is bright and upbeat, and the blend of alto saxophone and bassoon proves a surprisingly effective one. The work is clever, bouncy, and lies well on both instruments. The Busking Bassoonist (2013), in three movements called “Underground Blues,” “Park Bench Ballad,” and “Street Changes,” is notable for the way it explores the bassoon’s full compass both in terms of notes and as regards emotions. The first movement growls as well as sings, the piano insinuating itself into the bassoon’s lines here and there; the second movement has the bassoon sounding much like the accordion in Double Reed; and the finale features jazzlike riffs and considerable verve – as well as the only elements on this CD in which the bassoon’s often-heard propensity for humor is exploited to any significant degree. All the performers approach the works with enthusiasm (including the composer on accordion), and the CD as a whole does a fine job of exploring contemporary musical thinking not only about the sound of the bassoon but also about the way this instrument fits surprisingly effectively into several non-traditional, unusual and frequently very interesting-sounding chamber groupings.
June 18, 2020
Couperin: Suites (Ordres) Nos. 6, 7 and 8 for Harpsichord. Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. Cedille. $16.
Caroline Shaw: Is a Rose; The Listeners. Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Avery Amereau, contralto; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; Philharmonia Baroque Chorale and Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Philharmonia Baroque Productions. $20.
Cedille has put forward a clear two-word answer to the ongoing question of whether Baroque keyboard music is best played on the instruments for which it was written or is equally worthwhile when heard on a modern piano. The answer is: Jory Vinikour. The excellence of Vinikour’s performance of three of the 27 harpsichord suites by François Couperin “le Grand,” the alternating episodes of splendor and intimacy, the unerring connection between performer and instrument and, thus, between performer-plus-instrument and audience, all make this release into unarguable proof that this music should be heard as it was intended to be heard, and played on the instrument for which it was created. “Unarguable” or not, of course this excellent CD will not lay to rest the long-running, well, argument about Baroque music, which nowadays is often designated as being “for keyboard” to avoid the uncomfortable (to some) reality that it is no more “for keyboard” than, say, Brahms’ piano concertos are “for keyboard.” Leaving aside this continuing dispute – for this is scarcely an argumentative release: it is simply a tremendously convincing one – there is no question about the excellence of Vinikour’s playing and his understanding of Couperin (1668-1733) and the French style of his suites (which Couperin called ordres). These works were published in volumes dated 1713, 1717, 1722 and 1730, with the sixth, seventh and eight leading off the second book. It is a shame that even many people who enjoy Baroque harpsichord music are less familiar with Couperin than with Bach: indeed, Couperin’s name is best-known to some listeners through Ravel’s piano suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917), which uses the movements of a Baroque suite to pay tribute to friends of Ravel who had died during World War I. Couperin’s own music really deserves to be better-known, not only for its inherent excellence but also for its fascinating approach to the concept of a suite. Couperin does adhere to the basic idea of a sequence of dance movements, but he does not open any of his suites with an “Overture” and does not confine the works’ movements to dance forms for their own sake. Instead, he intersperses dances with character pieces that are cleverly conceived and delightfully reflective of their titles. The eight-movement sixth suite, for example, includes Le Gazouillement, which translates as “twitter” and features very considerable ornamentation whose reflection of birdsong is apparent. And that suite concludes with Le Moucheron, “the gnat,” whose irregular rhythm delightfully reflects an annoying little flying insect. The seventh suite, also in eight movements, includes four movements called Les Petits Ages (“the little ages”) that start with La Muse Naissante (“birth of the muse”), continue with L’Enfantine (“the child”) and L’Adolescente (“the adolescent”), then move on to Les Délices (“delicacies”). These are beautifully contrasted movements that invite listeners to imagine their titles’ connections to the music in addition to inviting the harpsichordist to decide how best to color the music so as to bring out each piece’s unique approach. The eighth suite contains 10 movements and, unlike the sixth and seventh, often (although not always) simply gives dance titles to each piece – Courante, Gavotte, Rondeau, Gigue, etc. But Couperin has his own, French-accented way of handling these forms that differs substantially from that of Bach and other German composers. The two Courantes, for example, are so strongly contrasted in mood and ornamentation that they scarcely seem to be the same underlying dance. And the Sarabande l’Unique does have an unusual (if not really unique) approach to the dance’s characteristic warmth and slow pacing. Vinikour’s exceptional performances fully plumb the intricacies of the wonderful miniatures that make up these suites, bringing forth emotions that clearly vary from the bright and happy to the inward-looking and darker – all with a comprehensive understanding of period style and an elegance of presentation that brings forth additional nuances on each hearing. This disc may not lay to rest all controversies about instrumental appropriateness for Baroque keyboard works – but it is hard to imagine wanting to hear these Couperin suites on anything but a harpsichord after listening to the way Vinikour makes it clear how intimately the music’s communicative potential is bound up with its performance on the instrument for which it was created.
One of the many pleasant elements of the Vinikour release is that it does not “celebrity-ize” the performer: as good as Vinikour is, he stays focused on the music, not on display for its own sake; and Cedille’s packaging also makes it clear that this recording is far more about Couperin than it is about someone interpreting Couperin’s music. Matters are quite different, rather surprisingly so, on a (+++) new recording from the excellent Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, on its own label. This features Baroque and post-Baroque music rethought, reconsidered, and in some senses (although not that of piano-vs.-harpsichord) brought “up to date.” The release bears the title “PBO & Caroline Shaw,” which is displayed on both the front and the back, and a would-be purchaser would search in vain on either of those sides for exactly what is performed here: neither of the actual pieces by Shaw is even mentioned on the packaging. There are, however, four photos of “stars” of the recording, including Shaw – attention is demonstrably being given to the people involved in the production more than to the music. And that is a shame, since the music has much to recommend it. The concept is intriguing: PBO, an original-instrument orchestra, collaborated with Shaw for the creation of contemporary music that is designed for PBO instruments and takes advantage of their sonorities and the particular quirks involved in playing them. Thus we get Is a Rose, a three-song cycle written for and sung by Anne Sofie von Otter, which includes poetry from both the 18th century and the 21st. The attempted interconnection is obvious; how well it works is a matter of opinion. Certainly Shaw, herself a professional vocalist (and violinist), knows what she wants from the mezzo-soprano voice and the instruments accompanying it. And certainly she knows where to go to get what she seeks: The Edge (2017) uses words by contemporary poet Jacob Polley (born 1975), while And So (2019) uses Shaw’s own words, and Red Red Rose (2016) uses Robert Burns’ famous Scottish verse from the 18th century while treating it in a distinctly (although not always distinctively) modern way. The writing for orchestra is assured, and the vocals show a clear understanding of effective use of the voice. But the work is underwhelming: its expressiveness is more gestural than heartfelt, its concerns rather sophomoric (“will we still sing of roses?”), and its preoccupation seems more with words as building blocks than with them as communicators of meaning. In these respects it shares some of the characteristics of The Listeners, a longer and more-elaborate work – for soloists, chorus and orchestra – that Shaw deems an oratorio. It is loosely based on – or, more accurately, reactive to – the continuing journey through outer space of the Voyager spacecraft that were launched in 1977 and that carry recordings of music and words (plus photographs) intended to be used in any potential alien encounter to explain about Earth. Shaw put together her own libretto for The Listeners, whose opening and closing focus on the Spanish word brillas (“you shine,” although why Spanish is used is not clear, since the work is otherwise in English). Shaw certainly knows her musical techniques: vocalise, choral and solo presentations, sinfonia, minimalism, chromaticism, ornamentation, and even some straightforward narration find their way into The Listeners. The poetry of Walt Whitman is juxtaposed with that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson – and that of William Drummond (1585-1649) and Yesenia Montilla (a 21st-century poet who does not reveal her birth year, which is around 1988). A snippet of commentary by Carl Sagan pops in at one point and actually provides some respite from the broad but rather unfocused material that has preceded it. The instrumental sinfonia, placed next-to-last in the 10 movements, seems intended, along with the concluding epilogue, to pull listeners outward into space alongside the voyaging Voyagers. But it is all so contrived, scaled so cleverly but with so little sense of emotional commitment – much less a sense of wonder – that the entire oratorio is far less evocative of a mystical-and-hopeful outward journey than, say, “Neptune” from Holst’s The Planets (1914-16). The performances, vocal and instrumental, are first-rate, and listeners who find the basic idea of 21st-century creativity brought to bear on instruments designed for the 17th and 18th will surely be intrigued by Shaw’s work in both The Listeners and Is a Rose. But the focus of both pieces does seem to be more on Shaw herself, and the performers putting across her ideation, than on any sort of musical experience: this is material that is intellectually exciting but emotionally unconvincing. The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has elsewhere shown its creativity again and again when performing works of the past. For these works of the present, it takes something of a back seat in presenting pieces that seem to be thought experiments rather than emotive expressions taking advantage of the PBO’s special capabilities.
David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe: Singing in the Dead of Night. Eighth Blackbird (Lisa Kaplan, piano; Yvonne Lam, violin; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Nathalie Joachim, flute; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinet; Matthew Duvall, percussion). Cedille. $16.
There is an abyssal divide between contemporary music that is totally integrated into a stage performance and the same music when heard without visuals. Certainly stage works of earlier times can be listened to without staging and still be effective: concert performances of operas are a longstanding tradition, as is the singing of excerpts from them. But opera is a merger of multiple effects: Franco Zeffirelli once memorably called it “a planet where the muses work together, join hands and celebrate all the arts.” Contemporary musical stagings, especially those that are avant-garde by design, are a different matter: music often seems not to be their main point, which means that absent the visual material, the sounds come across as a somewhat pale and diminished part of a larger whole rather than as effective elements in themselves.
The new Cedille release of Singing in the Dead of Night is thus more of a take-home piece of memorabilia for listeners who have seen the production as a totality than it is a satisfying experience on a purely musical basis. It is important to have the right mindset for the whole thing – to know, for example, that Eighth Blackbird is a six-person ensemble, not an eight-person one, because its name was taken from the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Such esoterica may not be absolutely integral to audience enjoyment of what Eighth Blackbird does, but the extra-musical matters do help clarify the ensemble’s thinking and intent – the Stevens stanza refers to “noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms.”
Some such accents, some such rhythms, may be found in Singing in the Dead of Night, which is framed by a three-movement piece by David Lang that is not performed as three sequential movements – instead, the first movement is followed by a work by Michael Gordon, then the second Lang movement, then a piece by Julia Wolfe, then Lang’s conclusion. The reasoning behind this is a bit obscure, but remember that this is avowedly avant-garde material, and the entirety of the piece, or pieces, was created for this ensemble (in 2008). Oh – it also helps a good deal to know that each of the three works is named from the lyrics from Paul McCartney’s Beatles song, Blackbird. The three Lang movements are these broken wings, the Gordon work is the light of the dark, and the Wolfe piece is singing in the dead of night, the title for the overall assemblage.
If you do not know McCartney’s lyrics, if you do not know the relationship between his Blackbird song and the Eighth Blackbird ensemble and the Wallace Stevens connection and all the other elements that are foundational to this material, you will miss out on a great deal of the resonance (not musical but, if you will, editorial) of this world première recording. And that is not unusual in avant-garde productions, which so often speak to an “in” crowd that “gets” all the references and comments and connections and has little interest in “outsiders” who are insufficiently knowledgeable to make sense of everything.
In this particular case, “everything” would also include the elaborate staging elements that are de rigueur when it comes to Singing in the Dead of Night. This is a choreographed work using sound, lighting, costuming, and various vague but very with-it instructions, such as one from Lang telling the performers to “drop things.” Movement is supposed to be integral to the music, not an addition to it – which means that in the absence of visuals, listeners are exposed to a pale shadow of what this performance is supposed to be. The performers’ motions and actions are intended to be expressive but certainly not balletic – although it may be worth pointing out that many ballets are less than enthralling as pure listening experiences without their visuals: Tchaikovsky’s are the exception, not the rule.
There is nothing particularly “wrong” with hearing this music on its own, and the music itself has some interesting elements. Lang’s second movement, designated a passacaille, has a sense of drooping, of falling, of ongoing descent, that contrasts well with the much brighter near-ostinato rhythmic approach of his finale. Gordon’s piece is full of effects that are dear to contemporary composers, such as pushing the cello far past its usual tonal warmth into stridency and producing percussive bangs and crashes at unpredictable intervals. Wolf’s work, which runs an overextended 19 minutes and is by far the longest element of this offering, has its share of eeriness and oddity, all in the service of often-nightmarish electronic as well as acoustic effects, but seems to make its “dead of night” point far too many times. All the music is composed with skill, and all of it is played with enthusiasm that flows from a belief system in which this type of material is what contemporary music-making is all about, or should be. It is all very earnest despite having some lighter moments that presumably would correlate with visuals if any were present. Fans of everything avant-garde will welcome this CD, and audience members who already know the music in its visual context will enjoy using the disc as a recollection. But Lang, Gordon, Wolfe and Eighth Blackbird do not reach out with this disc in any sort of audience-building way – appearing to prefer the musical equivalent of “preaching to the choir,” just as so many other 21st-century musicians do.
June 11, 2020
The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century—including works by Beethoven, Varèse, Johannes Maria Staud, Richard Strauss, Bernd Richard Deutsch, and Prokofiev. Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst; Paul Jacobs, organ. Cleveland Orchestra. $60 (3 SACDs).
An exceptionally handsome presentation in which music, the supposed focus, often takes a back seat to design elements and self-praise, The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century consists of a well-designed, photo-packed, 150-page book that sits in a cardboard tray and, when removed, reveals a neat little flap beneath which nestle three recordings of live performances from 2017 through 2019. The whole assemblage fits in an elegantly modern-looking slipcase designed to complement coffee tables and/or bookshelves rather than listeners’ music-storage spaces.
The point of the whole elaborate façade, and of the content within it, is to proclaim a new century for the orchestra (founded in 1918), announce the ensemble’s return to issuing recordings (on its own, all-new label), and lay to rest (for reasons that are not immediately apparent) the longstanding association between The Cleveland Orchestra and its longest-serving conductor, George Szell (1897-1970). Szell led the ensemble from 1946 until his death, turning a fair-to-middling regional American orchestra into a world-class ensemble so good that it brought enormous favorable attention to American classical music-making in general. The fine conductors primarily associated with the orchestra in the three decades after Szell’s death – Louis Lane, Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, Christoph von Dohnányi – largely preserved the Szell legacy but never really advanced it, and there was, if anything, some backsliding in the remarkable precision and commitment that Szell elicited from an ensemble that came to sound, under Szell, like a 100-member chamber group.
Franz Welser-Möst came to The Cleveland Orchestra in 2002, and his contract was recently extended to 2027 – which would make him, surely by design, a longer-serving maestro in Cleveland than Szell. The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century appears to exist largely to celebrate both the ensemble’s centenary and its emphatic move beyond the Szell era – a move that is made exceptionally clear through the choice of works included on the CDs within this release. It is also clear in the book, an element that is just as important here as the music: outside a discussion of the history of the acoustics of Severance Hall, the orchestra’s home, and some obviously necessary paragraphs within a mandatory (and 100% public-relations-focused) “Past, Present, and Future” section, Szell gets a couple of brief, suitably complimentary mentions, but only in passing – his era, after all, ended half a century ago. The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century is a tribute to the orchestra as it has been polished and positioned by Welser-Möst, who contributes a significant amount of the written material as well as the podium leadership.
This is a release clearly aimed at supporters and potential supporters, financial and otherwise, of The Cleveland Orchestra in its current incarnation. But for such an elegantly produced and packaged production, it has some strange omissions and outright errors. For example, the book’s narrative discusses the importance that Welser-Möst attaches to opera; and indeed, the inclusion of opera within the orchestra’s concert seasons is one distinctive element of the Welser-Möst era – actually a revival, of sorts, of an approach introduced by Artur Rodzinski in the 1930s. But nothing operatic appears on any of the three included CDs. Also, as usual in a document intended to praise rather than explore or analyze, the book allows statements to stand at face value when they are clearly questionable: Welser-Möst, whose commentary is for the most part both learned and genial, at one point describes the orchestra as a “supreme amalgamation of many parts working effortlessly as one,” a comment that is as much at odds with the enormously effortful requirements of rehearsals and in-performance perfection-seeking as it is possible to be. Elsewhere, he comments on ways in which Beethoven was “like so many composers lucky enough to reach the later stages of life” – but Beethoven died at age 56, living decades longer than Mozart (one example from his time) but not nearly as long as Haydn (another example).
These and other inelegances of expression contribute to a sense that the book appears to have been produced without input from any objective editor. Minor but irritating grammatical mistakes abound. For example: “The people of Cleveland recognized that having an orchestra of their own offered potential, both at home and on the road, for performing great music and by [sic] representing Cleveland throughout the world.” And: “The New York Times has declared Cleveland under Welser-Möst’s direction to be the [sic] ‘America’s most brilliant orchestra…’” Even the book’s table of contents contains embarrassing errors: there is a section correctly listed as starting on page 119, then one incorrectly listed as starting on page 135 (the correct page number is 133), and then one listed as starting on the same page 119 as the previous section (that one actually starts on page 135). So elaborate and costly a production deserved better.
So, for those not especially enamored of this particular orchestra for its own sake, and not necessarily inclined to become donors to it, does the music included here justify the purchase price and invite a potential new audience to The Cleveland Orchestra in the Welser-Möst era? The answer is: it depends. Once again, the intention to move determinedly past the Szell legacy is apparent in the choice of repertoire on display here: there is not one single piece from the more-traditional time periods championed by Szell, and indeed nothing at all in which a Welser-Möst reading could be compared with one by Szell by anybody so inclined. There are two works from the 19th century, two from the 20th, and two from the 21st, but there has apparently been a concerted effort to remain off the beaten path throughout, as if to proclaim in this way, as in others, the orchestra’s new direction.
From the standpoint of performance, though, considerations of the oddity of the repertoire are swept aside: Welser-Möst does an absolutely first-rate job with everything, and listeners looking for less-familiar pieces of all sorts will find a very great deal to enjoy and admire here.
Still, a raised eyebrow or two would be in order. There is a Beethoven work offered, but as part of the assiduous attempt to avoid any cross-comparisons, it is not a work for orchestra: it is his String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132, in a string-orchestra arrangement. This is the quartet in whose extended central movement Beethoven expresses his gratitude to God after recovering from an intestinal ailment. It is a very deeply felt work that uses the quartet form, and in particular the careful relationship among the four instruments, in some altogether new ways. Does it “work” when played by a larger string complement? Well, yes, in the sense that the added instruments broaden and deepen the sound of the music (inevitable when double basses are included); and in the further sense that The Cleveland Orchestra’s strings are one of the orchestra’s most-impressive-sounding sections, along with the ensemble’s woodwinds. But does the arrangement serve any particular communicative or emotive purpose? Well, no: if anything, it distracts from the intimacy of what Beethoven communicates here. The result is an interesting experiment that ultimately says more about Welser-Möst and his thinking than it does about Beethoven.
The other 19th-century work here is by Richard Strauss, whose opulence and grandeur would seem ideal for putting a high-quality orchestra through its paces. But Welser-Möst here chooses to present none of the better-known tone poems: he opts for Aus Italien, which is Strauss’ Op.16 and was written when the composer was 22. This four-section work is uneven, does not yet display many of the characteristics of Strauss’ more-mature (and better-organized) tone poems, and – except for some lovely horn material in the first movement – does not come through with nearly as much individuality as do the composer’s later endeavors. Is it worth hearing from time to time? Absolutely. Will listeners who know Strauss enjoy a well-played version of this early piece? Again, absolutely. But using this as the work with which to help showcase the “new century” of The Cleveland Orchestra is another rather odd decision.
When it comes to the 20th-century pieces here, the choices – both from the 1920s – are again a bit strange. Edgard Varèse’s Amériques (1921) seems nowhere near as explosive today as it used to – although it is still one heck of a showcase for percussion, which turns out to be another outstanding section of The Cleveland Orchestra. Amériques seems mostly a work of its time, of an age of industrialization and immigration and crowding and endless mechanical susurrations. Welser-Möst leads the piece with enthusiasm, emphasizing its many contrasts and certainly not holding back when it comes to the notorious use of a siren; it is a fine performance. And Welser-Möst is equally enthusiastic in presenting the other 20th-century offering, a Prokofiev symphony. But this is another very odd choice: it is not the well-known “Classical,” or either of the great symphonies (Nos. 5 and 6), or even the restrained and melancholic No. 7; nor is it the peculiar and oddly compelling No. 2, which dates to 1925 and shares many sensibilities with Amériques. No, Welser-Möst selects Symphony No. 3, which dates to 1928-29 and consists of material from the unsuccessful opera The Fiery Angel, whose first full performance occurred only in 1954, the year after the composer’s death. This is the closest thing listeners get in The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century to something operatic, but there is actually little that is in any way opera-like in the symphony – themes from the stage are used very differently for the symphonic work. Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 is rarely heard in concert; listeners are most likely to own it as part of a complete cycle of the composer’s eight symphonic works (including the two very different versions of Symphony No. 4). It is, in fact, an underrated work that, when well-performed, has considerable power. And it is certainly well-performed here: Welser-Möst handles the complex and frequently rather noisy score sure-handedly and effectively. The Cleveland Orchestra’s excellent woodwinds, in particular, are standouts, and the strings are excellent in the pervasive eerie passages of the third movement. Yet as a whole, although this is a reading that is interesting and convincing, it is not one that is likely to leave anyone thinking that this work, despite its intriguing elements, is on the same level as the best of Prokofiev’s later, more-cohesive symphonies. It shows a different side of Prokofiev from those more typically heard, which may well have been Welser-Möst’s reason for programming it; but whether that is a sufficient rationale for including it in this particular package is at best arguable.
And that brings us to the two 21st-century pieces included in The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century, both of them world première recordings – and both of them offering good reasons for listeners to consider acquiring this release, despite its peculiarities and imperfections. Dating to 2016, Stromab (Downstream) by Johannes Maria Staud (born 1974) is not-quite-program music inspired by a specific program. Staud wrote it in response to Algernon Blackwood’s 1907 novella, The Willows, a tale that horror master H.P. Lovecraft placed at the top of both the lists he made of his favorite weird tales. Like many contemporary works for orchestra, Stromab calls for a very large orchestra and an enormous percussion section (needing four percussionists, which seems a lot except when compared with the number needed for Amériques: nine!) that includes cowbells and sleigh bells and tubular bells, nine gongs, four bongos, two conga drums, and much more. Staud uses the orchestra skillfully, creating a work whose meaning seems always just out of sight (thus reflecting the experiences of the characters in The Willows). The piece is unsettling rather than overtly frightening (again reflecting its source material) and is always anticipatory – from an opening that sounds a bit like that of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, through sections in which the orchestra emulates mystifying and possibly malevolent sounds, into segments that partake of minimalism but also feature sudden sonic eruptions. The work is largely and rather surprisingly tonal, certainly featuring plenty of dissonance but always bringing listeners to a grounding in consonance – it is no stretch to hear this as a contrast between the mundane world and something stranger, more evanescent and ultimately inexplicable, a stance that fits Blackwood’s ethos perfectly. Stromab is essentially a one-movement, 20-minute concerto for orchestra, and that is how Welser-Möst handles it: as a display piece, yes, and a showcase for the strength of the orchestra’s sections and the individual performers within them, but also as an opportunity to show the subtlety with which today’s Cleveland Orchestra can play a work of considerable rhythmic, harmonic and communicative complexity.
And then there is a piece that shows an entirely different side of The Cleveland Orchestra and, in the process, highlights an otherwise little-known element of its history through the performance of an outstanding soloist. The work, which dates to 2014-15, is Okeanos: Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, by Bernd Richard Deutsch (born 1977). And here Welser-Möst gets to show his approach to an element of conducting that many orchestra directors dislike or at best tolerate: accompanying a soloist and often playing second fiddle (sometimes literally) to the featured virtuoso. Much of the discussion of Okeanos in the book around which The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century is built centers on the Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellows program – Deutsch is currently serving in it, and Staud was in the program from 2007-2009 – and on the 1930-31 organ built for Severance Hall by Ernest M. Skinner, a famed Boston organ builder of the early 20th century. Remarkably – in light of the quality of the organ – the instrument essentially disappeared from Cleveland Orchestra use for 40 years, because of modifications to Severance Hall that significantly enhanced orchestral acoustics while seriously compromising those of the organ. This little-known story, told in the book (unsurprisingly) in a way that downplays the detrimental effects of the long neglect and builds to the reintroduction of the organ in 2001, after its restoration, becomes part and parcel of the story of Okeanos.
But it is Paul Jacobs who really tells that story – indeed, the story both of the work and of the organ on which he plays it. Jacobs is a remarkable organist, whose technical skill is wedded to profound musical understanding, whose comprehension of Bach is as impressive as his commitment to and elucidation of the works of contemporary composers. Okeanos gives him – and the orchestra – a real workout, and for that matter is also something of a workout, a bracing and pleasant one, for the audience. Like Staud, Deutsch calls for a large orchestra with plenty of percussion; also like Staud, Deutsch offers a work that is almost programmatic but never entirely illustrative. The concerto is named for the ancient Greek personification of the world’s oceans, but it is not simply about water: it deals with the old notion of “four elements,” the first being water, the second air, the third earth and the fourth fire. This is an excellent organizational structure – one thinks of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2, “The Four Temperaments,” which has an analogous crafting – and Deutsch uses it quite well. His writing for organ is very sensitive, and Jacobs knows exactly how to make it as effective as possible – for instance, when the high-pitched stops are played against piccolos and high percussion, and when soft string stops are heard against orchestral trumpets and trombones. Jacobs has plenty of chances to display his considerable virtuosity – parts of Okeanos sound like toccatas with all the stops pulled out, in some cases pretty much literally. But this is far from a straightforward display piece: Jacobs is also required in many places to perform in balance with, rather than aurally in front of, the orchestra, and here too his first-rate musicality and sense of style come to the fore. Interestingly, Welser-Möst also shows himself willing to subsume his strong musical personality into the requirements of Deutsch’s work: the orchestra is certainly loud enough when called for, but there is no sense of competition between soloist ad ensemble here – rather, Jacobs cooperates with Welser-Möst to produce a whole greater than its constituent parts. That is an ideal approach to this (and many other) concertos.
As for the music of Okeanos, it has derivative elements, but from a wide range of sources: it sounds here like film music, there like post-Schoenberg atonality, elsewhere like outright spookiness of the sort for which organs are sometimes (indeed, all too often) employed. What is interesting is the way Deutsch plays with and plays around with these elements, using them – and encouraging Jacobs to use them – in ways that make Okeanos sound genuinely new despite its inclusion of material familiar from elsewhere. For example, there are several occasions on which something portentous seems to be going on – until Deutsch suddenly changes the sound, and Jacobs takes listeners in an unexpected direction. Sometimes that direction is an amusing one, as in the first movement, when everything builds and builds and gets more and more dramatic, only to come to a sudden and unexpected full stop that leaves just the sound of chimes and bells behind. The speed of the second movement contrasts well with the slow meandering of the third, while the finale, if not exactly fiery, is witty and speedy and – in Jacobs’ hands – thoroughly engaging and involving.
It is for the world première recordings of Stromab and Okeanos, for the exceptional performance of Paul Jacobs as much as for the consistently high-quality leadership of Franz Welser-Möst, that listeners should seriously consider owning The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century. The whole thing is overdone, self-important, self-referential, and somewhat too determined to bypass the legacy of the great conductor who brought the orchestra to a quality on which Welser-Möst has been able to build. And really, given the odd repertoire selection, The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century smacks of being a moneymaking project as much as a musical one. Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with that: nothing here would be possible without sufficient generosity, and if this attractive-looking package is a bit over-the-top where packaging is concerned, and a bit underwhelming when it comes to repertoire, so be it. The Staud and Deutsch works are genuine finds, whatever the motivation for their inclusion here; Jacobs’ performance of the Deutsch is top-notch by any standards, and completely convincing; and even if self-aggrandizement has a somewhat too-heavy presence in The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century, it is difficult, after reading so much and hearing so much, to do anything less than wish the orchestra well with its music-making, marketing and, yes, fundraising.