July 17, 2008


Anderson: Orchestral Music, Volume 3—Harvard Sketches; Melody on Two Notes; Mother’s Whistler; The Penny Whistle Song; The Phantom Regiment; Plink, Plank, Plunk!; Promenade; Sandpaper Ballet; Saraband; Serenata; Old MacDonald Had a Farm; Seventy-Six Trombones; Sleigh Ride; Suite of Carols for Brass Choir; Wintergreen for President; The Typewriter; A Trumpeter’s Lullaby; The Syncopated Clock. BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

Kabalevsky: Piano Concerto No. 3, “Dedicated to Soviet Youth”; Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra on the theme of the song “School Years,” “Dedicated to Young Musicians of the Volga Region”; Poem of Struggle for Orchestra and Chorus; Rimsky-Korsakov: Piano Concerto in C sharp minor. Hsin-Ni Liu, piano; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra and Gnesin Academy Chorus conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $8.99.

      While much of 20th-century classical music moved in very serious directions – Schoenberg’s 12-tone constructions, Webern’s minimalism, Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, Richard Strauss’ operatic opulence, and so much more – some parts of it were distinctly less intense. Leroy Anderson’s music is a prime example: classically trained and quite expert in construction of orchestral miniatures, Anderson managed to bridge the classical and pop-music worlds through the short, upbeat pieces he created for the Boston Pops and for numerous recordings. The third volume of Naxos’ survey of Anderson’s complete orchestral music contains some of his most popular works, and they are real gems: The Phantom Regiment, a spooky march; Plink, Plank, Plunk! – a wonderful exploration of pizzicato; Sleigh Ride, perhaps Anderson’s most popular piece, which so beautifully captures a Currier-and-Ives winter event; The Typewriter, which treats the old-fashioned manual machine (played very quickly by Alasdair Malloy) as a percussion instrument; and The Syncopated Clock, featuring some highly creative tick-tock wood blocks. Anderson was quite a stickler for detail: Sandpaper Ballet requires three different grades of the construction material for its percussive effects. He was also highly self-critical, with the result that a number of his works have never been recorded before, because he withdrew them. There are four of those here: Harvard Sketches, Melody on Two Notes, the very clever Mother’s Whistler (not to be confused with the painting “Whistler’s Mother,” of course), and the rousing Gershwin arrangement Wintergreen for President. Actually, Anderson was highly skilled at arranging the music of others: Seventy-Six Trombones, from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, is quite a wonderful blend of Willson’s music with snippets of Sousa. And Old MacDonald Had a Farm is a simply hilarious sendup of the barnyard tune. The only ordinary-sounding piece here is Suite of Carols for Brass Choir, a pleasant enough seasonal medley, but not one with any unique Anderson touches. Leonard Slatkin leads the BBC Concert Orchestra with great verve and style, and the optimistic nature of the music on this CD is a welcome antidote to all the seriousness of the 20th and 21st centuries.

      Dmitry Kabalevsky intended to produce far more serious works than Anderson did, but Kabalevsky’s have turned out to be taken less seriously than he wished, since he created them in the service of the now-dismantled Soviet Union. Their particular brand of revolutionary fervor, proletarian uplift and stylistic simplicity wears very poorly indeed, so the new Kabalevsky CD gets a (+++) rating despite the appropriately boisterous pianism of Hsin-Ni Liu and the idiomatic intensity of Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. The best Kabalevsky here is his Piano Concerto No. 3, written in a bright D major and totally lacking in subtlety – but conveying a certain forthright charm that makes it enjoyable to hear, at least occasionally. The rhapsody that Kabalevsky wrote on his own song School Years is less successful, although the interplay of piano and orchestra is well handled. As for Poem of Struggle, it is one of those Socialist Realist works that are an embarrassment nowadays: written in 1930, it features a chorus promoting the idea of a worldwide October Revolution, bringing the world – country by country – into the Soviet system. Interestingly, the most substantial music on this CD was written during Russia’s Czarist period: Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1883 Piano Concerto. Despite being obviously modeled on Liszt – specifically his Piano Concerto No. 2 – the work has a strong Russian flavor in its themes and some real originality in the handling of both piano and orchestra. It doesn’t quite fit with the other works here, because it stands above them. But the juxtaposition of 19th-century seriousness with the Soviet-style 20th-century version is quite interesting to hear.

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