October 16, 2008


Ives: Songs, Volume 4. Lielle Berman, Patrick Carfizzi, Jennifer Casey Cabot, Michael Cavalieri, Robert Gardner, Ian Howell, Sara Jakubiak, Sumi Kittelberger, Ryan MacPherson, Tamara Mumford, Mary Philips, David Pittsinger, Matthew Plenk, Kenneth Tarver and Leah Wool, vocalists; Enrico Sartori, flute; Douglas Dickson, Laura Garritson, J.J. Penna and Eric Trudel, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Anderson: Orchestral Music, Volume 4—Irish Suite; Edward MacDowell: To a Wild Rose; Summer Skies; Scottish Suite; Blue Tango; Forgotten Dreams; Belle of the Ball; Alma Mater; A Christmas Festival. Kim Criswell, soprano; William Dazeley, baritone; BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 12. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Ernst Märzendorfer. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Buxtehude: Harpsichord Music, Volume 3—Suite in A major; Canzonetta in D minor; Suite in F major; Prelude in G major; Aria: “La Capricciosa” in G major. Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord. Naxos. $8.99.

     There is a certain joy to be had in collecting an entire series of CDs – provided that both the music and the performances are exemplary. Not all these series-in-progress will appeal to all listeners; but if you enjoy the composers’ music, you will find these latest high-quality entries to be every bit as good as earlier ones, and are likely to find yourself looking forward to the next volumes as well.

     The complete set of some 200 Ives songs is being released by Naxos in six volumes, with a large number of young performers handling the material. The oddest thing about the set is its alphabetical arrangement – Volume 4 runs from “Majority” to “Over All the Treetops.” Since the songs’ titles bear no relationship to their dates of composition or their musical interest level, each volume is a hodgepodge. But that, in a way, is one charm of this series: “Naught That Country Needeth,” an extended and fairly traditional song from 1898, is immediately followed by “The New River,” a pithy and environmentally provocative one from 1921 – merely because they occur next to each other alphabetically. This particular volume – again, simply for alphabetical reasons – contains an unusual number of early Ives songs: 21 of the 32 were written in 1903 or earlier; that is, before Ives turned 30. But despite the preponderance of early songs in Volume 4, there are outstanding late works as well, ranging from the very extended exposition of personal philosophy in “Majority” (1921) and the indignation of “Nov. 2, 1920 (An Election)” (1921) to the ultra-modern complexity of “On the Antipodes” (1923).

     Leroy Anderson’s music is just as American as that of Ives, but it exists on a different plane. Anderson is best known for his very short, light works, many of them designed to fit on a single side of a 78-rpm record. The fourth volume of his complete orchestral music, though, focuses mainly on longer compositions, including the 20-minute Irish Suite and 10-minute Scottish Suite – both of them, to be sure, made up of shorter pieces, but also having cohesion at their full length. Also included here are another of Anderson’s Christmas collections, A Christmas Festival (which, like those in previous volumes, is well constructed but does not really show the composer at his best), and a late work called Alma Mater that dates to 1964 and is a reworking of the composer’s Harvard Sketches of 1939. The shorter pieces on this CD, mostly arrangements or alternative versions, are pleasant discoveries if not especially distinguished ones: Summer Skies and an orchestration of Edward MacDowell: To a Wild Rose have pleasant lilt, while vocal versions of Blue Tango, Forgotten Dreams and especially the two-voice and cleverly rhymed Belle of the Ball are out-and-out curiosities. As in previous volumes, Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Concert Orchestra play the music with verve and apparent affection, and without looking down on it in any way.

     Some 19th-century composers and critics looked down on, or at least askance at, the works of Johann Strauss Sr., believing that the Strauss-crazed Viennese had turned their backs on serious music in order to dance the nights away. Certainly the ongoing series of releases of Strauss Sr.’s music shows why the dances were so much fun. Strauss himself was pretty down-to-earth about his works, frequently using them to comment on or exploit topical matters. For example, Taglioni-Walzer is a tribute to an 1839 performance by the great ballerina Marie Taglioni, while Rosenblätter was first played as accompaniment to a Taglioni appearance. Other lovely inspirations on this CD are Tanz-Recepte (“Dance Prescriptions”), written for a medical group and said to be so lively as to be able to cure hypochondria, and Myrthen (“Myrtles”), written in 1840 to celebrate the marriage of Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Also on this very well-played CD are Wiener Gemüths-Walzer, one of the composer’s happiest inspirations, plus Londoner Saison-Walzer, Der Berggeister and the very bouncy Mode-Quadrille, all of them thoroughly charming and quite suitable for dancing even some 170 years after they were composed.

     The Naxos rerelease of Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s performances of Dietrich Buxtehude’s harpsichord music – recorded a decade ago and originally made available by Dacapo – takes listeners back to a time when dance music was quite different from what it would become in the 19th century. There is plenty of spirit in these suites and variations, and Mortensen brings all of it out with skill and understanding. But it is the lilt of a time before Bach, having much of the court and church about it. The third volume in this series again offers very well-constructed and interestingly developed dance suites – and its featured work, Aria: “La Capricciosa,” is quite impressive. Lasting nearly half an hour, this elaborate and brilliant set of variations includes no fewer than 32 movements called “Partitas,” most only half a minute long and none lasting as much as two minutes. They range from minuets to gigues to sarabandes and provide, in totality, a marvelous tour of the major dance forms of Buxtehude’s time; a considerable challenge to a harpsichordist; and a great deal of delight to any listener interested in music of the 17th century.

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