July 02, 2020
(++++) SMALL GEMS
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.