April 07, 2011


Josef Suk: Fantasy in G minor, Op. 24; Pohádka (Fairy Tale), Op. 16; Fantastické scherzo, Op. 25. Michael Ludwig, violin; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.

Ernesto Halffter: Carmen—Music for the 1926 silent film by Jacques Feyder. Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald. Naxos. $8.99.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 13 (“Quasi una fantasia”) and 14 (“Moonlight”); Schumann: Fantasie in C, Op. 17; Chopin: Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49. Ian Parker, piano. Azica. $16.99.

     Because music inspires the mind and heart without actually having any inherent significance – Leonard Bernstein famously commented that music does not mean anything – it is a medium uniquely well adapted to fantasizing. And it has inspired many, many fantasy-oriented works, both better-known and less-known. The ones by Josef Suk on a new Naxos CD do not deserve their comparative obscurity: they are eloquent, tuneful, emotionally evocative and thoroughly enjoyable to hear. The Fantasy in G minor is simply an orchestral tone poem of considerable beauty, not telling any particular story but neatly stirring together the traditional elements of fantasy: romance, boldness, sylvan scenes and ultimate triumph. It is well orchestrated and very well played by the Buffalo Philharmonic under JoAnn Falletta, who has been doing an outstanding job of reviving less-known works of the Romantic era. The inclusion of a solo violin will remind listeners of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and Michael Ludwig’s playing is both virtuosic and appropriately emotive. Pohádka (Fairy Tale) is a gem, too – and also somewhat reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov. It is an orchestral suite of music that Suk (1874-1935) wrote for a stage play that chronicles the legendary and entirely typical story of a prince seeking the hand of a princess and forced to endure many trials before finally winning her. The suite’s four movements include love music and passages of beauty, bravery and a stylized representation of death – symbolized by swans in the stage play and expressed by Suk in terms somewhat akin to Tchaikovsky’s in Swan Lake. Also on this CD is the very effective Fantastické scherzo, which seems to depict everything from mischievous woodland creatures to an idyllic setting where even the elves and gnomes can relax for a while. This disc is a very fine rediscovery indeed.

     A lesser discovery that gets a (+++) rating, the music to the 1926 silent film Carmen by Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989) is appropriately dark and doom-laden, but rather one-dimensionally so. Halffter – whose older brother, Rodolfo, was also a composer of some talent – here produces a series of snippets, many lasting under two minutes and a few less than one, designed to illustrate scenes from Jacques Feyder’s movie, which follows essentially the same course as Bizet’s opera. The story of the seductive gypsy girl has plenty of elements of both fantasy and fairy tale, and its appeal as the basis for a movie is not at all difficult to understand. Presumably the music, which here receives its première recording, highlighted the various scenes appropriately and heightened the intended effects of the story on the audience. But as music, although it is certainly well-constructed and atmospheric, it is not always particularly interesting. By the time the fifth section marked “Mystérieux” comes along (actually, two of them are marked “Triste et mystérieuse”), the point has been abundantly made and over-made: sadness and mystery abound here. There is a certain amount of exoticism, too, and appropriate emotional heightening for “Mort de Carmen” at the end. But heard on its own, the music has only a modicum of emotional impact. Mark Fitz-Gerald leads the Frankfurt Radio Symphony with aplomb, and the CD will certainly be of interest to movie buffs and fans of silent films, whose music could be so crucial to storytelling (as opposed to today’s movie music, whose main purpose is to redouble whatever emotion the director puts into a scene). But this is not the sort of disc to which one returns repeatedly for the sheer pleasure of the music itself.

     The Ian Parker CD rather coyly called “Moonlight Fantasies” is one in which the pleasures of the music predominate, but this too is a (+++) disc, simply because Parker handles the well-known piano works admirably but without bringing anything especially new to any of them. Beethoven’s two Op. 27 piano sonatas are both labeled “Quasi una fantasia,” but the second is almost always known by the title “Moonlight,” and Parker does a fine job of evoking the delicacy and refinement that led critic Ludwig Rellstab to give it that label in 1832. Parker plays Op. 27, No. 1 nicely, too, with a similarly delicate touch. But in neither sonata is there any sense of new or unusual ideas, or even any deep affinity for the music – these are solid, respectable performances but not ones of any particular distinction. Parker seems more involved in the Schumann and Chopin fantasies. The Schumann is a knotty work, as long as the two Beethoven sonatas combined, with considerable rhythmic complexity and frequently dense harmonies. Here Parker produces a performance of sweep and some depth. And he handles the Chopin Fantasy in F minor quite well, too, seeming altogether more comfortable with the Romantic emotion and finger work of this and the Schumann than with the balance between Classical and Romantic eras characteristic of the two Beethoven sonatas from 1801. This CD is actually a somewhat odd mixture, given the familiarity of the works: it does not really explore Beethoven, Schumann or Chopin, but instead presents unrelated works from different time periods that have in common only their “fantasy” identification. Listeners who do not yet own recordings of any of these pieces may find the combination appealing, but it is hard to imagine that many people who enjoy classical music will not already possess good performances of these standards of the piano repertoire.

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