August 09, 2007


Stravinsky: Violin Concerto; Zvezdolikiy: Cantata for Male Chorus & Orchestra; Symphonies of Wind Instruments; The Rite of Spring. Robert Craft conducting Jennifer Frautschi, violin, with the Philharmonia Orchestra (Concerto); Gregg Smith Singers with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (Zvezdolikiy); Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble (Symphonies); Philharmonia Orchestra (Rite). Naxos. $8.99.

Ma Sicong: Music for Violin and Piano, Volume 1: Dragon Lantern Dance; Mountain Song; Madrigal; Inner Mongolia Suite; Lullaby; Lantern Festival Dance; Amei Suite; Rondo No. 1; Tone Poem of Tibet. Hsiao-mei Ku, violin; Ning Lu, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      The very different development of music in the Occidental and Oriental worlds – and some surprising parallels between them – emerge from two excellent Naxos series, of which one is ongoing and the other has just begun. The Robert Craft Collection continues to offer superb performances – definitive in their own way, as Stravinsky’s own readings were in his – of both familiar and less-familiar Stravinsky works. The latest CD in the series showcases a very well-played Violin Concerto, a notoriously difficult work in which the soloist rarely gets a chance to pause and stretch his or her fingers (there is no rest at all in the third movement and few chances for repose elsewhere). This 1931 work moves effectively from its opening-movement march, through two lyrical movements marked Aria I and Aria II, to a presto finale (designated Capriccio) that concludes in a burst of excitement in which both Jennifer Frautschi and the orchestra fully participate. In strong contrast is the little-known Zvezdolikiy (“The Star-Faced One”), a setting of a Symbolist poem of rather surrealistic piety. This work has little of what is nowadays considered the Stravinsky sound, being slow throughout and without strong rhythms. It is in part a homage to Debussy, whose music is quoted toward the end, and indeed sounds like a tribute.

      More often heard – although not necessarily in these versions – are Symphonies of Wind Instruments and The Rite of Spring. Robert Craft conducts the original and very difficult 1920 version of the Symphonies, which Stravinsky rewrote and simplified in 1947. The work is considerably more impressive in its earlier form, which was greeted with hostility at no fewer than six premieres (in London, Geneva, Paris, Philadelphia, Brussels and New York). The work’s complex structure includes nine motives repeated at intervals in one of three related tempos – but it is not necessary to understand the minutiae behind the composition (Craft’s booklet notes for this entire CD are, unfortunately for most listeners, nothing but minutiae) to appreciate its forcefulness and effective use of the most complex techniques of which wind players are capable.

      Of course, the most famous hostile premiere of a Stravinsky work was that accorded The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. In this recording, Craft conducts – with great fervor and superb attention to rhythmic intensity – the final, 1967 version of the work, incorporating into it changes from the original manuscript. The performance has nonstop vigor and intensity, and Craft’s attention to sonic detail brings out elements of the score that even listeners who have heard the work often may not have realized were there. This is actually the second Rite in Naxos’ Robert Craft Collection: in the other, Craft conducts the original version of the score in a pairing with The Nightingale. Both performances are excellent, and Stravinsky fanatics will surely want the two of them.

      Stravinsky is as important in 20th-century Western music as Ma Sicong, who is far less known in the West, is in 20th-century Chinese music. Ma (1912-1987) pioneered the use of folk music within classical style, and was especially well-regarded for his violin music. The first release in a new Naxos collection called Chinese Classics features nine of Ma’s works, played with great style by violinist Hsiao-mei Ku and pianist Ning Lu. Ku, a member of the Ciompi Quartet and Associate Professor of Violin at Duke University, not only understands this music viscerally but also commands the many techniques needed to play it effectively. Ma’s music melds surprisingly Western sounds and themes with ones that clearly come from China’s very different pitch and rhythm structure. Ku effectively varies the sound of her instrument to fit the various elements of these mostly short works, notably by giving it some of the sound of an erhu in pieces such as Dragon Lantern Dance. Like many works here, this one is tripartite in structure and based on folk tunes. Unlike others, it has, in passing, the distinct sound of Gershwin. Mountain Song is wistful and mostly lies high on the violin. Madrigal has simple, straightforward lines. The three-movement Inner Mongolia Suite starts with “Epic,” which has a cadenza-like opening that then switches to pastoral mood; next is a heart-on-its-sleeve movement called “Nostalgia”; and finally, “Dances beyond the Frontier” has strong, bouncy rhythms followed by a slower section. Lullaby, the earliest work offered here, was written in 1935. It is gently rocking and quiet throughout. Lantern Festival Dance has, surprisingly, the flavor of a hoedown.

      The latest piece on this CD, Amei Suite, dates to 1981 and includes five short movements whose moods range mostly from thoughtful to gentle; it ends with a dance in irregular rhythms. Rondo No. 1 is light and scurrying, filled with speedy figurations and ending in the minor. The final and longest work on the CD is Tone Poem of Tibet, which includes three substantial movements. “Legend Telling” starts with rumbles in the piano and becomes serious and episodic; “Lamasery” is stoic and slow-paced, sounding as if its emotion is held firmly in check; and “Sword Dance,” which includes fast and lyrical sections, is a showpiece for multiple bow techniques – all of which Ku puts effectively on display. Ma’s music on this disc is, on the whole, pleasant and unpretentious, and stands (to Western ears) in strong contrast to the sort of 20th-century classical fare that is more often played.

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