January 23, 2020
(++++) THE PAST IS PRESENT
Beatles Go Baroque, Volume 2. Peter Breiner and His Orchestra. Naxos. $12.99.
Joseph Summer: Shakespeare Concerts 7—Summer’s Distillation. Navona. $14.99.
Chan Yi: Memory; Kai-Young Chan: Away Alone Aloft; Yao Chen: Miles upon Miles for solo violin; Austin Yip: Miles upon Miles for solo violin and electronics; Michael-Thomas Foumai: Relics. Patrick Yim, violin. Navona. $14.99.
A decade ago, Naxos released a curious and curiously appealing CD called Beatles Go Baroque, featuring Peter Breiner conducting what was then called His Chamber Orchestra. Unlike some other releases putting Beatles tunes into classical context – notably Joshua Rifkin’s clever and exceptionally amusing 1965 The Baroque Beatles Book, featuring arrangements played by the “Baroque Ensemble of the Merseyside Kammermusickgesellschaft,” no less – Breiner’s Baroque-ifying of Beatles music was constructed entirely seriously and with the intent of showing respect both for Baroque forms (in particular the concerto grosso) and for the works of (primarily) John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The long-awaited (or at least long-delayed) second volume of Breiner’s creations, conceived on a larger scale and played by a group no longer sporting the adjective “chamber,” goes further than Breiner’s earlier CD by actually placing the Beatles and Baroque masters (Bach and Vivaldi) on an equal footing. To do this, Breiner has actual elements of selected Bach and Vivaldi works played, interspersing quotations from Beatles songs within the Baroque composers’ material. The extent to which this is convincing is a matter of opinion and, indeed, depends largely on the definition of “convincing.” Nothing on the disc is intended to sound exactly like Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1052) or Violin Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1041), much less like the Mass in B Minor – except for the notes taken directly from those three works. The cleverness here lies in the way Breiner makes elements of the songs Come Together, Blackbird and Drive My Car fit into BWV 1052, while I Want to Hold Your Hand, Something and Day Tripper appear within BWV 1041, and Here, There and Everywhere, Yesterday, and Hello, Goodbye show up inside or side-by-side with portions of the Mass in B Minor. Most of what Breiner does is musically motivated, although there are some nice extramusical touches, such as using Hello, Goodbye with the Et resurrexit. These connections, however, are neither numerous nor clear enough to drive the CD as a whole; indeed, they are perhaps a bit too subtle. So are certain ingredients of the music – for example, the transformation of an accompanying rather than melodic element of Day Tripper into a triplet melody for cellos. Indeed, considerable familiarity with Beatles songs is pretty much a necessity for full enjoyment of this disc, which otherwise could come across as “spoiling,” in some odd but clearly intentional way, not only various Bach pieces but also selected movements from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There is, however, no intent to be a “spoiler” in any sense here, and when the Beatles/Baroque mixture is at its best, it works surprisingly well. That is the case in Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (BWV 1047): here the first movement begins with a flourish from Nowhere Man before the actual Bach notes enter, and the inclusion in the later movements of While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da somehow sounds particularly fitting. Like its predecessor, Beatles Go Baroque, Volume 2 is designed as a mixture of “high” and “low” art, undoubtedly with an eye (or ear) to showing that the distinction between the two is artificial. It never quite makes a convincing case for elevating Beatles tunes to the level of Bach and Vivaldi, but it never seems to want to: the CD seeks to be fun and at the same time a bit thought-provoking, and it manages, rather surprisingly, to be both.
The seventh release in Navona’s ongoing series drawn from Joseph Summer’s Shakespeare Concerts looks to the past rather differently from the way prior discs did. The Shakespeare connection is still very much present, in seven settings by Summer himself – five sonnets and excerpts from The Tempest and All’s Well That Ends Well. But the main focus of this (+++) CD is on the past of the Romantic era, not that of Elizabethan times. That is because the two most-substantial works here are song cycles by Schumann and Brahms: Drei Gesänge, Op. 95 by the former and Vier Gesänge, Op. 17 by the latter. There is a slight touch of Shakespeare in the Brahms, one of whose songs sets a German translation of lines from Twelfth Night, but what really connects the Romantic song cycles with the music written by Summer is not the words but the way in which those words are set. Schumann’s texts are from Lord Byron’s Hebrew Melodies and are written for soprano and harp, but rarely heard with that accompanying instrument. This makes them especially welcome in this performance, in which Jennifer Sgroe’s soprano blends and contrasts quite well with Franziska Huhn’s playing. Huhn is in some ways the musical glue tying the whole CD together, being heard on every track except Summer’s setting of O God, That I Were a Man, which features mezzo-soprano Thea Lobo and Kevin Owen on horn. It is the horn, singular, or horns, plural, that provide additional accompaniment – with or without harp – throughout this disc. The Brahms songs feature four voices (Lobo, Sgroe, Jessica Lennick, and Sophie Michaux), Huhn’s harp, and Owen and Josh Michal on horns – these are the most substantively scored pieces heard here, and come across with both warmth and delicacy in this performance. The Schumann and Brahms may have at most an oblique connection with Shakespeare, but they are well worth hearing in their own right. As for Summer’s own works – plus one by Benjamin Pesetsky to words from As You Like It, used here to end the CD – they are nicely produced and appropriate in allowing the language to remain front-and-center. The straightforward single-voice-and-accompaniment arrangements of sonnets CIV and XCI, and of If by Your Art and O God, That I Were a Man, work particularly well. The use of additional voices for sonnets V and VI (set as part of the same piece), LXXIII, and CXXXIII, plus Pesetsky’s setting (which uses three voices, harp and two horns, a grouping similar to that of Brahms), draw more attention to the singers and somewhat less to what they are singing. This is fine from the standpoint of aural variety, although a focus directly on Shakespeare’s words remains the best way to accentuate their beauty and penetrating thoughtfulness. The material on this CD is a bit oddly assorted, but fans of Summer’s compositional work will enjoy it, and the chance to hear the Schumann and Brahms song cycles is a particularly welcome one.
A new (+++) solo-violin CD featuring Patrick Yim is permeated by the past in yet another way, with the title of Chen Yi’s Memory also being used as the overall name of the recording. In terms strictly of sound, the disc will mainly be of interest to violinists and lovers of the instrument, since a full hour of solo-violin music has a certain sonic monotony to it even when the works themselves come from five different composers. In this case, all the pieces are contemporary and all of them have a strong flavor of China; and three of the five pieces tie specifically to an exhibit at the Hong Kong Museum of History about the cultural importance of the ancient Silk Road. This is a lot of freight for the music to bear, and the works will be somewhat rarefied for a general audience, although they will likely appeal both to lovers of fine violin playing and to those with a strong interest in China and in Asia’s past. Yi’s work, the only one not commissioned by Yim himself, is actually a tribute not to a grand ancient time but to her late violin teacher, and it is suitably heartfelt and melancholy. Kai-Young Chan’s Away Alone Aloft, both commissioned by and dedicated to Yim, has a much older referent, being based on an ancient Chinese tale that it would be unreasonable to expect most Western listeners to know. Taken simply as music, the piece evokes a variety of emotions that range from the intense to the placid. The three other pieces on the disc are those with a Silk Road focus. Yao Chen and Austin Yip both produce three-movement works called Miles upon Miles. Chen’s uses different specific performance techniques in each movement: tremolos, trills, open strings, pizzicati and more. Yip’s is for amplified violin and electronics and relies heavily on the aural modifications for which it calls. Yim seems quite comfortable playing it, although listeners may find at least some of the electronic effects intrusive rather than enhancing. Michael-Thomas Foumai’s Relics is a set of eight pieces specifically intended for performance at the Silk Road exhibit in Hong Kong: each miniature goes with an artifact put on display at the museum. These are accompaniment pieces rather than ones intended to stand on their own, and it is hard, in the absence of visuals, to make sense of what the music is saying. “Jeweled Loops,” for instance, lies high on the violin and keeps striving even higher, while “Galloping Jade” sounds a bit like a horse’s gallop at first but soon becomes rhythmically irregular in a way that could indicate a horse having difficulty finding its footing – which is probably not the intent. Yim plays very well throughout this CD, but the narrow focus of the material makes it strictly a limited-interest release.