October 27, 2011


Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live: Arrangements for Symphonic Brass of Music by Walton, Gabrieli, Bach, Grainger, Revueltas and Prokofiev. Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass conducted by Dale Clevenger, Jay Friedman, Michael Mulcahy and Mark Ridenour. CSO Resound. $19.99.

Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No. 1; Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1; Bull: Cantabile doloroso e Rondo giocoso. Charlie Siem, violin; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Gourlay. Warner. $18.99.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio espagnol; Overtures to “May Night,” “The Tsar’s Bride” and “The Maid of Pskov"; Overture on Russian Themes; Dubinushka; Russian Easter Overture. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Gian Francesco Malipiero: Impressioni dal vero I, II and III; Pause del silenzio I and II. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

     Some CDs are worth owning just for their sonic splendor – not necessarily because the music on them is particularly outstanding. Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live is a perfect example. The Chicago Symphony’s brass section is one of the orchestra’s major strengths, being among the finest brass sections to be found in any American orchestra. The new CD from the orchestra’s own label is nothing more or less than a showcase for the brass players, who perform arrangements ranging from the well-considered to the rather odd – always playing them beautifully. Walton’s Crown Imperial coronation march sounds particularly good here: it is, after all, martial music, and well-suited to interpretation by a brass ensemble. And Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy is a somewhat unexpected joy: Grainger’s suite, originally written for winds, would not seem to lend itself especially well to brass arrangement, but the Chicago players offer enough sensitivity and ebullience to make this piece highly effective. The Baroque works on the CD are more of a mixed bag. Baroque music does lend itself well to brass interpretation – some Baroque music, anyway. The three Giovanni Gabrieli works, which were originally composed for brass but are here rearranged for the Chicago players, are, not surprisingly, interesting and effective. The famous Sonata Pian e forte from Sacrae Symphoniae No. 6 gets especially sensitive treatment, and the Canzon duodecimi toni à 10 and Canzon septimi toni à 8 also sound splendid. But the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, does not really sound as if it belongs in the brass, with the fugal lines being somewhat buried in the overlapping instrumental voices. Among more-modern works on this CD, Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemayà sounds very good indeed, but three scenes form Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet fare less well: tenderness is difficult to communicate solely through brass, and Prokofiev’s careful orchestration seems rather pale when transferred to brass alone. However, despite the fact that some elements of this CD work better than others, the overall impression it leaves is of superb playing, gorgeous sound and musicians performing at the highest level of skill – a winning combination even though not all the arrangements are equally impressive.

     The new Charlie Siem CD is a sonic treat of a different order. One of the works that Siem plays is quite well known: the first violin concerto by Max Bruch. Another, the first concerto by Henryk Wieniawski, is less often played but still heard from time to time. Simply listening to Siem’s handling of these pieces is a pleasure. He seems to have a natural affinity for both of these very different concertos, making the Wieniawski the tour de force that it is supposed to be through a strong emphasis on exemplary virtuosity, while turning the yearning lines of the Bruch into what they ought to be but often are not: the romantic expressions of a young composer creating a concerto in a form different from the norm and imbuing it with considerable passion throughout. That Siem is a substantial virtuoso goes without saying – but his sound says something more here, indicating that he is also a musician of very considerable sensitivity, with a well-honed awareness of the varieties of emotional communication asked by composers of differing sensibilities. Interestingly, Siem is particularly effective in the least-known work on this disc, Ole Bull’s Cantabile doloroso e Rondo giocoso. This is not a large or imposing piece, but its two contrasting sections require, first, a melancholy involvement in music that is sad but not tragic; and second, a feeling of relief and joy – nothing over-the-top, certainly nothing profound, but a lightness of expression that produces an altogether pleasant effect. Well supported by the London Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Gourlay, Siem provides just what the music asks for, making this entire CD a very pleasant listening experience indeed.

     Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony are not ideal interpreters of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music – there is little that is idiomatic in their playing of works so imbued with the Russian spirit – but their CD of Rimsky-Korsakov overtures is nevertheless a nearly complete success and a real pleasure to hear. The reason is the repertoire: much of this music is heard at best on rare occasions, and some pieces (notably the brief Dubinushka, an orchestration of a song associated with the 1905 student uprising in Russia) are virtually unknown. The familiar works that appear first and last on the CD, Capriccio espagnol and Russian Easter Overture, are the least satisfying pieces on the disc, not because they are poorly played (which they are not) but because they are so often heard that Schwarz’ comparative lack of intuitive understanding of the music is clear. However, even these works sound very good here, and it is perhaps mere nitpicking to note, in this context, that other conductors have a stronger feeling for Russian warmth, tenderness and occasional emotional overstatement. The four overtures, three to operas and the Overture on Russian Themes, generally fare better, with Schwarz offering a good command of the drama and pathos inherent in the music and the Seattle Symphony playing with strength and fine sectional balance. This is a CD worth having for the combination of interesting repertoire and very fine presentation.

     The latest Gian Francesco Malipiero CD – second-to-last in Naxos’ series devoted to all the composer’s orchestral music – is more of an acquired taste. A prolific composer, Malipiero (1882-1973) was also a musicologist of note, well-known for preparing comprehensive editions of the works of Monteverdi and Vivaldi. His own music is sometimes inspired, sometimes rather dull, and usually somewhere in between. Four of the five works on the new Naxos CD are world première recordings, and the entire disc is certainly worth hearing, but it will not be to all tastes and gets a (+++) rating. The three three-movement pieces called Impressioni dal vero (“Impressions from Life”), written between 1910 and 1922, are simply intended to evoke the sounds and sights of nature and the Italian countryside, with individual elements expressing everything from birdsong to the wind to the tarantella danced on the island of Capri. The tone painting tends to the obvious, but some of the coloristic effects are well done, and the works’ overall impression is pleasant, if not highly memorable. The first oddly titled Pause del silenzio (“Breaks in Silence”) is the only piece here that is not a world première recording, and in fact is often regarded as Malipiero’s best orchestral work. Certainly this single-movement work from 1917 (in seven contrasting sections) ebbs and flows effectively and is orchestrated with considerable skill. Its compression (it runs less than 13 minutes in all) is part of what makes it seem tightly knit and carefully constructed. The second Pause del silenzio (1925-26) is also well made, but suffers by comparison with the earlier piece, being nearly twice as long and in only five segments (which are arranged as separate movements rather than one continuously flowing one). This later work is more in the nature of a suite, and while it has some effective moments, as a whole it comes across as less interesting than its earlier cousin. It would be stretching things to call this Malipiero disc a sonic spectacular, but it is certainly well played by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia, and the music offers a number of interesting elements even though, taken as a whole, the 80-minute disc offers perhaps more of Malipiero than most listeners will feel they need to experience.

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