December 22, 2011


Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra; Julius Conus: Violin Concerto; Anton Arensky: Violin Concerto. Sergey Ostrovsky, violin; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling. Naxos. $9.99.

Stravinsky: Violin Concerto; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6. Peter Rybar, violin; Winterthur Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Sternberg. Pierian. $18.99.

Music for a Time of War: Ives—The Unanswered Question; John Adams—The Wound-Dresser; Britten—Sinfonia da Requiem; Vaughan Williams—Symphony No. 4. The Oregon Symphony conducted by Carlos Kalmar. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

John Neumeier and Lera Auerbach: The Little Mermaid. San Francisco Ballet conducted by Martin West. C Major. $29.99 (2 DVDs).

     The pervasive influence of Tchaikovsky, even many decades after his death, comes through clearly in a new Naxos CD that features violinist Sergey Ostrovsky in his first solo recording. Ostrovsky, concertmaster of L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, offers three works from Tchaikovsky’s own time (Arensky’s concerto dates to 1891) and thereafter (the Conus concerto dates to 1898, the Weinberg concertino to 1948). Only Weinberg’s work, which here receives its world première recording, shows elements of modernity, but they are muted in a piece cast in traditional three-movement form and filled with yearning and wistfulness. Weinberg (1919-1996) is sometimes referred to as the third great Soviet composer of his time, after Shostakovich (to whom he was close) and Prokofiev; but this concertino, although well-made and filled with grace, is not highly distinctive. Ostrovsky nevertheless plumbs what depths it has, showing it to be a primarily expressive work with occasional outbursts of fervor. The Bournemouth Symphony under Thomas Sanderling sounds rather thin in the accompaniment: lusher strings and more forceful conducting would have made for a more-distinguished performance. The concertos by Arensky (1861-1906) and Conus (1869-1942) are also pleasant enough, if scarcely dramatic – once again, they preponderantly come across as pleasant, moody pieces with warm but not highly original themes. Both these concertos are single-movement works in multiple sections, along the well-established lines of Liszt’s piano concertos, and both show skill in orchestration and thematic creation – notably in the Tempo di valse section of the Arensky, which has genuinely lovely flow. As in the Weinberg concerto, Ostrovsky’s playing is top-notch and highly committed to the music; also as there, the orchestral backing is a trifle pale. It is nevertheless a pleasure to hear these works, which are now seldom performed, and to have a fine violinist’s first solo recording that includes only unfamiliar material.

     An earlier concertmaster of L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Peter Rybar (1913-2002), is featured on a new recording from the nonprofit Pierian label, giving an absolutely wonderful performance of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. This CD is the first in a series called “The Sternberg Collection,” which will feature performances by the now-92-year-old maestro. Sternberg is a fine conductor who never attained “superstar” status but whose musicianship and skill both as orchestra director and teacher have long been known and appreciated. He stepped in at the last minute to conduct the concert where the Stravinsky concerto was recorded live: Stravinsky himself was supposed to direct, but became ill. This was in 1954 – and therein lies a dilemma for potential purchasers of this CD. Rybar’s playing is excellent, his handling of Stravinsky’s angular rhythms and the constant flux of the concerto being top-notch from start to finish. And Sternberg provides first-class accompaniment with the very good if not quite first-class Winterthur Symphony Orchestra. The sound, however, is 57 years old – and shows it. There is no fullness and little sense of presence, and the squashing that was inevitable in monophonic recordings is pronounced here. Therefore, despite the high quality of the performance, this is a CD for the enthusiast rather than the general listener. It is even more so because of the other work on the concert and therefore on the disc: Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony, which gets a perfectly adequate but scarcely inspired reading. Well played and well paced – but lacking in rhythmic lilt in the second movement and sufficient drama in the third – the symphony sounds all right but not nearly as moving as it can. Given all the fine performances of this symphony that are available, there is really no reason to opt for this one – unless a listener intends to become a collector of Sternberg memorabilia.

     The target audience for an eclectic SACD called Music for a Time of War is also likely to be limited – and not only because the title is a mischaracterization of half the works on the disc. Only two pieces here, John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser and Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, speak clearly, distinctly and movingly of wartime. The Adams is particularly well performed, with baritone Sanford Sylvan intoning Walt Whitman’s words with just the right blend of forthright and withheld emotion, and Jun Iwasaki contributing fine solo-violin elements. Adams’ setting is strongly reminiscent of some of the songs of Charles Ives, not in an obviously imitative way but in its use of quintessentially American poetry with an accompaniment that adds to the words’ effect in ways that are more subtle than dramatic. The piece on this disc that is actually by Ives, though, fares less well than the Adams. The Unanswered Question has become perhaps Ives’ most-performed work, and it remains a splendid existential miniature with some remarkable sound painting (the “background of the universe” created by the strings has been imitated countless times). Jeffrey Work’s solo trumpet, though, is somewhat too quiescent here, and the snide commentary to which the woodwinds eventually descend is altogether too smooth. And this 1906 piece is scarcely “for a time of war” except in some very general sense. Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem is also less dramatic than it can be – even the explosive opening on timpani seems overly subdued. Carlos Kalmar seems to have a rather urbane view of this work, taking away from it some of the obvious tone-painting (for example, by downplaying the radio signals in the second movement) while emphasizing the eventual triumph of the finale. This is a justifiable approach to the music, but not a very involving one. Nor does Kalmar seem particularly involved in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 – another non-war-related piece, despite its forcefulness. This symphony, which dates mostly to 1931 (although it was not completely finished until 1935), is, in the best performances, craggy and menacing and snarling with power. Here it is simply too tame. The Oregon Symphony plays it well, but not very idiomatically – in fact, the orchestra plays Britten and Vaughan Williams as if they wrote music in the same style, which they decidedly did not. There is nothing really wrong with Music for a Time of War, except for the misleading title, but it is not ultimately a very successful disc either in terms of the performances or on the basis of uncovering some sort of relationship among the four pieces recorded here.

     The thematic underpinning of choreographer John Neumeier’s reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is, on the other hand, very clear indeed. The new two-DVD release of the San Francisco Ballet’s performance of Neumeier’s visualization – which includes unsettling, frequently dissonant music by Russian composer Lera Auerbach – is entirely concerned with the notion of being a “fish out of water.” Literally, in the case of the title character; figuratively, by extension, in the case of everyone in the audience who has ever felt that he or she somehow does not “fit in” in some way. Ballets are usually identified by their composers, but this one is Neumeier’s show more than Auerbach’s: Neumeier created the sets and costumes as well as the choreography, and the music is only part of a whole that is more theatrical than most ballets and more imbued with spectacle. It is easy to forget that Andersen’s original story was at most bittersweet, eventually providing the mermaid with release only through the comfort of organized religion (a frequent theme in Andersen) and promising her a better post-life future through her adherence to God’s precepts. Later versions of the story, certainly including Disney’s film but not limited to it, excised the religious elements and downplayed the pain and fear that the unnamed mermaid experiences when giving up her watery home in a vain attempt to obtain love from a human who does not love her in return. It is the pain and fear that Neumeier restores and emphasizes, even over-emphasizes, in this production. For example, there is nothing pretty about the transformation scene: the orchestra plays violent chords as the sea witch (Davit Karapetyan) yanks off the fluid blue costume of the mermaid (Yuan Yuan Tan) and leaves her almost naked, shivering and contorted. Angular movements and stark lighting, mostly in blue and white, keep the production unsettling. So does the introduction of a new character, the Poet (Lloyd Riggins), inspired by Andersen himself. This is not a particularly happy idea – it confuses the story and creates layers that obscure rather than emphasize its points. But it is an integral part of Neumeier’s overall conception – which also includes choreography with Japanese and Balinese influences that quite deliberately look strange to an audience accustomed to traditional Western ballet. The sets are dramatic, to the point of sometimes distracting the audience from the dancers; and there are elements in the production that seem to make little sense and have little bearing on the story, such as a group of dancers at the back of the stage. The roles of the prince (Tiit Helimets) and princess (Sara Van Patten) are well performed but not especially compelling. Emphatically not for children and equally emphatically not for all ballet lovers (or Andersen lovers), Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid is visually exciting, choreographically somewhat muddled, and thematically even more depressing than Andersen’s original tale: what little buoyancy Neumeier offers at the end seems scarcely sufficient for all that the mermaid has endured. The two-DVD set of the San Francisco performance is well made, and viewers interested in behind-the-scenes looks at the production and the people involved in it will enjoy the bonus material, which lasts more than half an hour. However, lovers of Andersen’s rather dour, straitlaced but ultimately uplifting original will be better served by rereading it than by wallowing in Neumeier’s very dark reinterpretation.

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