January 17, 2008


Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes; Danses concertantes; Scènes de Ballet; Variations; Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. Philharmonia Orchestra, Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble, Orchestra of St. Luke’s and London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft; Mark Wait, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Dowland: Lute Music, Volume 3. Nigel North, lute. Naxos. $8.99.

Cimarosa: Opera Overtures, Volume 2—L’Armida immaginaria; Oreste; L’Italiana a Londra; Artaserse; Alessandro nell’Indie; La donna sempre al suo peggior s’appiglia; La Circe; Il fanatico per gli antichi Romani; Giannina e Bernardone. Toronto Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $8.99.

      Naxos, a company with an apparently endless appetite for exploring the classical repertoire in depth, here offers continuations of three series, each of them promising to be definitive in its own way – and two of them absolutely top-notch.

      The latest entry in Naxos’ Robert Craft Collection is the ninth devoted to the music of Stravinsky. Strictly speaking, the CD is not new – everything on it was previously released either by Koch or by MusicMasters. But the compilation is new, and adds to the ever-increasing breadth and depth of this composer’s works as explored by Robert Craft, his greatest living exponent. The CD is rather coyly titled “Later Ballets,” which is accurate but slightly misleading, since these are by no means Stravinsky’s latest ballets. And there are a few other minor quibbles as well: for example, Craft’s performance of Jeu de cartes is not quite as upbeat and enthusiastic as it might be, especially in the rather heavy-handed opening. But by and large, these are excellent readings of works not often heard in the concert hall. Jeu de cartes, Stravinsky’s only ballet without slow music, includes a “where did that come from?” quotation from Rossini and effective rhythmic writing. Danses concertantes is even more upbeat (unusually for a wartime work: it dates to 1941-2), with different but equally interesting rhythmic effects. Scènes de Ballet, Stravinsky’s only work written for Broadway, is rather brash and even vulgar, with a conclusion that doesn’t seem to know when to stop (perhaps intended to sound that way). Variations, on the other hand, is compact and difficult, its notes clear but its twelve-tone structure requiring several hearings before a listener is likely to get a sense of its carefully organized form. Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, which became Rubies from George Balanchine’s ballet Jewels, is the earliest work on this CD, written in 1929, and seems to sum up the exuberance of the Jazz Age in its final days. All the ensembles respond precisely and skillfully to Craft’s direction, and Mark Wait’s pianism in Capriccio is flamboyant and fun-filled.

      There is virtuosity of a different sort in the third volume of Nigel North’s exploration of the lute music of John Dowland. North, who plays a modern nine-course lute based on a 16th-century model, is a remarkable performer, beneath whose hands the instrument sings with a surprisingly wide variety of emotions. For his latest CD, North assembled seven miniature dance suites, beginning each with a pavan (the longest movement), continuing with a galliard, and concluding with an almain (usually the shortest movement). The individual dances vary widely in length, from about a minute to seven minutes, and their moods range from melancholy to lighthearted. Not all are equally distinguished, but some are quite unusual, such as “Galliard on a Galliard of Bachelar,” in which Dowland uses another composer’s dance as a jumping-off point for a brief but wide-ranging fantasy. It is easy, when listening to this music, to imagine yourself transported back to Shakespeare’s time – he and Dowland were contemporaries – and to plays that used the music of Dowland and other composers to set the mood and enliven the proceedings.

      There is plenty of liveliness in the music of Domenico Cimarosa as well, but there is a great deal of repetitiveness, too, so the second volume of his opera overtures gets a (+++) rating despite fine playing by the Toronto Chamber Orchestra under Kevin Mallon. Listeners who bought Naxos’ first volume of Cimarosa overtures, played by the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia under Alessandro Amoretti, will likely notice something familiar in Volume 2 – indeed, several things. The reason is that Cimarosa regularly reused themes, sections, even whole overtures for different works; and since there is a certain sameness (albeit a pleasant one) to much of Cimarosa’s music, even some overtures not performed before in this series tend to sound as if they were heard already. Four of the nine overtures here are cast as three-movement mini-symphonies; the other five are single movements, but often contain a slower middle section and faster conclusion anyway. Among the single-movement overtures, L’Armida immaginaria is light and scurrying, while Oreste starts with trumpets, drums and a fanfare and becomes dramatic. Artaserse is unusually interesting, with a halting opening that leads to a strongly striding theme, a dip into the minor, and effective timpani use. La donna sempre al suo peggior s’appiglia (“Women Should Be Taken at Their Worst” – some title!) is in typical scurrying-slow-scurrying form, while Giannina e Bernardone is jocular and speedy, with a pleasant oboe tune and a broad second theme in the strings. Among the three-movement overtures, L’Italiana a Londra (“The Italian Girl in London”) has a nicely flowing first movement; Alessandro nell’Indie (“Alexander in India”) has an emphatic opening and fanfares in the finale; La Circe features some interesting orchestral flourishes and a stop-and-start theme in the finale; and Il fanatico per gli antichi Romani (“The Fanatic for the Ancient Romans”) is distinguished by a graceful second movement with a touch of melancholy. None of the overtures contains music from the operas, so the works were readily interchangeable for Cimarosa’s purposes. Unfortunately, they also sound largely interchangeable to modern listeners.

No comments:

Post a Comment