April 30, 2009


Janáček: Orchestral Suites from the Operas, Volume 2—Kát’a Kabanová; The Makropulos Affair. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Breiner. Naxos. $8.99.

D’Indy: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Symphony No. 2; Tableaux de voyage; Karadec. Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $18.99.

     These second volumes in series devoted to particular composers’ orchestral works continue and expand upon the promise of the first entries. Peter Breiner is in the midst of a three-volume set of orchestral suites he has assembled from Leoš Janáček’s operas, and here as in the first volume (which included Jenůfa and The Excursions of Mr. Brouček) he shows himself to be an adept arranger and a fine conductor of his countryman’s music. The suites this time are arranged a bit differently from those in the first volume. The one from the tragic Kát’a Kabanová more or less follows the action of the story, as did both suites in the earlier volume, although here Breiner’s choice of multiple excerpts that include the work’s ominous eight-note timpani strikes makes the suite even darker and more claustrophobic than the opera itself. This is a deliberate decision on Breiner’s part and is certainly not a flaw, but it gives the suite an intensity and strong focus that the somewhat more sprawling opera lacks. The suite from The Makropulos Affair is a bit more problematic, since here Breiner substantially deviates from the opera’s sequence in order to fashion a more dramatic work – and one which, incidentally, also emphasizes ominous timpani strokes, which the composer used frequently in his operas (but more sparingly than it would seem from the music Breiner selects). Listeners unfamiliar with The Makropulos Affair, and even many who know the opera, will not be bothered by Breiner’s decision here to create a suite with as much cohesion as this one has: it begins with a sense of glory for central character Emilia Marty (Elina Makropulos) in her long-ago days as an opera singer – a musical element that appears near the end of the opera, as a sort of flashback – and ends with a different sort of triumph when Emilia rejects a potion to extend her long life further and decides to die naturally. Thus, the suite both begins and ends with music from the opera’s conclusion, with various elements of the story sandwiched in between. Breiner’s approach to all these suites, which involves using originally vocal material converted into purely orchestral form, results in a kind of “opera without words” that effectively conveys much of the power of Janáček’s writing. The fine playing of the New Zealand Symphony adds to the suites’ effectiveness.

     New Zealanders playing Czech music and the Iceland Symphony beautifully handling some very French works – orchestras are nothing if not international in orientation these days. Conductors, too: Rumon Gamba is British, but his feeling for Vincent d’Indy’s music is strong and intuitive. Last year’s first volume of Gamba’s survey of d’Indy’s orchestral works included Jour d’été à la montagne, La Forêt enchantée and Souvenirs, showing d’Indy both in his musical maturity and in his earlier phase, when he was heavily influenced by Wagner. In the second d’Indy volume the whole orientation is Romantic, with the latest work here – Symphony No. 2 in B-flat – dating to 1903, but being constructed very strongly on mid-to-late-19th-century lines. This is a big symphony and a very well-made one, with a huge number of tempo changes within movements (d’Indy was a stickler for such things) and considerable use of leitmotif-like mottos that recur and are developed skillfully. The symphony often sounds darker and more sinister than its B-flat major tonality would indicate, thanks in part to d’Indy’s choice of instrumentation – the melancholy solo viola in the third movement, for example. This is not a forward-looking work – d’Indy was as conservative musically as he was in his strict Catholic theology – but rather is a strong assertion of the importance of maintaining structural ideals in the face of the rise of Impressionism and other post-Romantic trends. Gamba takes the work at face value – it is not, in the final analysis, argumentative – and presents it with a pleasing mixture of fervor and dignity. He does very well with the two earlier, smaller works on this CD, too. Tableaux de voyage is an 1892 arrangement for orchestra of six pieces from a 13-piece set for piano that d’Indy wrote in 1889. Largely solemn in mood, the work expresses d’Indy’s feelings during hikes through Germany’s Black Forest and Tyrol regions. The sound here is sometimes simple, notably in a Schubertian trumpet melody in a section called “La Poste,” but d’Indy’s frequent forays into minor keys, and his sophistication in repeatedly recalling earlier themes during later sections, give the work a level of gravitas. This is notably lacking in Karadec, a lovely little suite for small orchestra that d’Indy composed in 1890 based on his music for a play by André Alexandre. By turns martial, gentle and jaunty, and always melodious, Karadec provides a fine encore-like conclusion to a CD that otherwise leans toward d’Indy’s serious side – and will make listeners eager to hear more of the music of this underperformed composer.

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