March 10, 2011


English Music for Viola: Works by Rebecca Clarke, William Walton, Frank Bridge, Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Theodore Holland. Matthew Jones, viola; Michael Hampton, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

English Recorder Music from the Stuart Era: Works by George Frideric Handel, Daniel Purcell, Solomon Eccles, Luis Mercy, Jacques/James Paisible, Godfrey Finger, William Topham, Thomas Tollett, Arcangelo Corelli and anonymous. Alison Melville, recorders; Lucas Harris, archlute and baroque guitar; Nadine Mackie Jackson, baroque bassoon; Borys Medicky, harpsichord; Joëlle Morton, bass viol. Pipistrelle. $16.99.

Debussy: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—La boîte à joujoux; Six épigraphes antiques; Estampes No. 1: Pagodes; Estampes No. 2: La soirée dans Grenade; L’isle joyeuse; Le triomphe de Bacchus. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $8.99.

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 18. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Ernst Märzendorfer. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Haydn: The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross. Lisa Milne, soprano; Ruxandra Donose, mezzo-soprano; Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Christopher Maltman, baritone; London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $16.99.

     Music need not be particularly significant – indeed, need not be noteworthy at all – in order to provide considerable listening pleasure. Sometimes it is fun to hear composers’ lesser works, or the works of lesser composers, simply for the enjoyment of the performances and the chance to have an aural experience outside the norm. The works may not be ones to which a listener will often return, but they can certainly be worth hearing once in a while. For example, new CDs of English viola music (of the 20th century) and English recorder music (of the 17th and 18th centuries) contain at most a few works that could be called important. The viola became a far more popular solo instrument in the 20th century than it had been before – in large part because of English violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975), who was involved to a greater or lesser degree with many of the century’s major composers and compositions. The Sonata for Viola and Piano by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) is one of only two major works she ever composed (the other was a piano trio), and shows a fine understanding of the viola’s tonal capabilities – although, stylistically, the piece never quite settles down. The Suite for Viola and Piano by Theodore Holland (1878-1947) is also a substantial and very well-crafted work by a composer whose considerable output is little known – he is remembered primarily as a teacher. This is the work’s first recording. Arnold Bax’s Legend for Viola and Piano and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Romance for Viola and Piano, both short works, are associated with Tertis – Bax’s piece for sure, Vaughan Williams’ in all probability. The Bax work moves through many moods, while Vaughan Williams’ sustains a single one. Also on this CD are three transcriptions: William Walton’s Two Pieces for Violin and Piano, transcribed by Matthew Jones; Frank Bridge’s Four Pieces, transcribed by Veronica Leigh Jacobs; and Arthur Bliss’ Intermezzo, transcribed by Watson Forbes. Although not intended for the viola, all sound quite good in its rich tone, with Walton’s pieces having an especially pleasing lilt. The performance by Matthew Jones and Michael Hampton is quite fine: they accept the generally modest scale of these works and play them pleasantly and with the right degree of intensity.

     The performances of English recorder music on original instruments are also quite good, although there is little that is distinctive about most of the music. The longest work on this CD, which is entitled “The Business of Angels,” is Corelli’s “Folia” sonata (Op. 5, No. XII), and it is also the most substantial of the pieces; most of what remains is very short indeed (the CD has 31 tracks and lasts only 58 minutes). Handel’s Rinaldo overture has a particularly pleasant sound to it, and the very brief Solo 2 by Daniel Purcell (Henry’s younger brother) has some interesting moments in its five very short movements. But there is not much to distinguish Godfrey Finger’s Sonata IV, Op. 3 from William Topham’s Sonata II, Op. 2 or Jacques/James Paisable’s Sonata VI. Still, these and the various airs and other short works on the CD – some by named composers, others anonymous – all have a lovely sound, and the disc is one that listeners will find pleasurable, if musically inconsequential.

     The fifth volume of Debussy’s orchestral music by Orchestre National de Lyon under Jun Märkl is also comparatively inconsequential – certainly less substantial than the first four. It contains very well-done performances of very minor music, all of which was either left incomplete at Debussy’s death or orchestrated by others. The most substantial and interesting piece on the CD is La boîte à joujoux (“The Toy Box”), a seven-movement children’s ballet orchestrated in part by Debussy himself and in part by André Caplet. First performed after the composer’s death, it contains a series of miniatures in the mode of the Children’s Corner suite. Also here are Ernest Ansermet’s orchestration of Six épigraphes antiques, another set of miniatures, this time offering impressions of scenes from the ancient world – as does Le triomphe de Bacchus, orchestrated and arranged by Marius-François Gaillard. Additional impressionistic tone painting is contained in the two Estampes, the first orchestrated by Caplet and the second by Paul-Henri Büsser; and in L’isle joyeuse, orchestrated by Bernardino Molinari. This is a CD for seekers of completeness rather than a disc that most listeners will want for its own sake – there are interesting moments aplenty, but the recording as a whole is a hodgepodge of material, none of it especially compelling in itself. Still, it is quite worthwhile to have these pieces available as part of Naxos’ Debussy series.

     Marco Polo’s series of music by Johann Strauss Sr. is far more extended than the Debussy sequence, having now reached its 18th volume. Pretty much everything by Strauss Sr. is rarely heard, except for his ultra-famous Radetzky March and the occasional shorter dance that may be performed here and there. For that very reason, the extent of this composer’s production is a source of continued amazement. The uniformity of the excellence of his dance music fully explains his tremendous popularity in Vienna and beyond, and if the musical uniformity of many of his works – their tendency to be a bit foursquare – helps explain their being less popular than those by his sons Johann Jr. and Josef, it does not provide a justification for the nearly complete neglect of Johann Sr.’s music. The latest CD includes six waltzes, two quadrilles and a polka, all of them well balanced, tuneful and eminently danceable, and all dating from 1844 and 1845 – Johann Sr. was nothing if not prolific in producing these pieces for specific occasions. On this disc are the waltzes Rosen ohne Dornen (“Roses without Thorns”), Wiener-Früchteln (“Viennese Fruits”), Willkommen-Rufe (“Shouts of Welcome”), Maskenlieder (“Songs of the Maskers”), Eunomien-Tänze (“Eunomia Dances,” named for a daughter of Zeus), and Odeon-Tänze (“Odeon Dances,” named after a new dance hall). The single polka here (Strauss Sr. was not especially fond of this musical form) is called Marianka-Polka, and the CD is filled out with Musen-Quadrille (“Muses Quadrille”) and the awkwardly titled Quadrille über beliebte Motive aus der Oper: Die vier Haimonskinder (“Quadrille on favorite themes from the opera The Four Aymon Sons,” a work by long-forgotten Irish composer Michael William Balfe). Every work here is formally correct, and if none is as distinctive as the best Strauss Sr. dances, that shows only that even the most consistent composer can be a bit profligate in the use of his talents – besides which, by the time these pieces were written, Strauss Sr. was beginning to face some stiff competition as an entertainer from his eldest son, Johann Jr. Yet the music retains tremendous freshness and joy that belies its composer’s personal circumstances – and the lovely, perky performances belie the age of conductor Ernst Märzendorfer, who was 88 when he made this recording and who died just four months afterwards, in September 2009.

     Unlike the works on the other CDs considered here, Haydn’s Seven Last Words is not a byway among the composer’s productions – it is a well-known and important piece. But the way Vladimir Jurowski handles it turns it into something unusual and decidedly off the beaten track. Haydn’s work exists in a variety of forms, including one for string quartet and one for piano. But it originated in 1786 as an orchestral piece – and was recast by the composer as a solo-voice-and-choral work in 1796 (with the help of Gottfried van Swieten, later the librettist for The Creation and The Seasons). What Jurowski does is perform the 1786 and 1796 versions together, juxtaposing the strictly instrumental version (which includes an introduction and final “earthquake” section) with the vocal one. This expands the piece well beyond anything Haydn ever intended – the whole runs more than an hour in this live recording – and it is arguable whether the doubling of the material adds to or subtracts from the effect of Haydn’s music. All the performers do a fine job – soloists, chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra – although the choral sections sometimes overwhelm the passion and delicacy of Haydn’s heartfelt scoring. It is a fair bet that even those who know Haydn well have not heard Seven Last Words performed this way before. Whether they will want to hear it this way again after an initial sampling will be a matter of taste. The approach is undeniably creative, even if it is not what Haydn intended; but its main attraction seems to be its novelty rather than any inherent musicality in the handling of the material.

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