April 19, 2012


Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem; Schütz: Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen; Selig sind die Toten. Katharine Fuge, soprano; Matthew Brook, baritone; Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.

The Music of Charles Dickens and His Time. The Seven Dials Band and the St. Clements Chorus. Warner. $18.99.

Sarasate: Music for Violin and Piano, Volume 2—Homenaje a Rossini; Souvenir de Domont; Fantaisie de concert sur “Martha”; Gavota de Mignon; Mélodie roumaine; Mosaïque de Zampa; Moscovienne; Fantaisie de concert sur “La forza del destino.”  Tianwa Yang, violin; Markus Hadulla, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Sarasate: Music for Violin and Piano, Volume 3—Boléro; Zortzico d’Iparraguirre; Sérénade andalouse, Op. 10; Adiós montaňas mias—Danse espagnole; Le Sommeil; Rêverie; Introduction et fandango; Fantaisie-Caprice; Prière et berceuse; Confidences—Romance sans paroles; Caprice sur “Mireille” de Gounod; Airs écossais; Los pájaros de Chile; Les Adieux. Tianwa Yang, violin; Markus Hadulla, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

      The contrast between “high” art and “low” in the Victorian age is abundantly clear from these recordings – and it turns out that there is little reason to choose one over the other, since they are both appealing in very different ways.  Brahms’ German Requiem is about as sober and serious a work as any in the 19th century, and gains in impressiveness and stature when heard in juxtaposition with two works by Heinrich Schütz that likely influenced it and even used some identical textual material: Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen from Psalmen Davids (1619) and Selig sind die Toten from Geistliche Choirmusik (1648).  Ein Deutsches Requiem itself dates to the mid-to-late 1860s, before the composer had produced any symphonies, and in some ways shows him developing his handling of the orchestra in directions he would later employ symphonically.  It also shows the curious relationship with religion that would later lead to his split with the more traditionally religious Dvořák: nominally Lutheran, the German Requiem is essentially humanistic in outlook, focused primarily on finding comfort for those who have endured the death of others rather than calling for solace for the souls of the departed.  Its opening line, “Blessed are they that mourn,” sets the tone immediately, and its texts – primarily from the Old Testament and the Epistles of the New Testament rather than the Gospels – show a decidedly nontraditional orientation.  John Eliot Gardiner paces the work deliberately but not with the sort of stolidity it often receives, the orchestra plays with understanding and a lovely, warm tone, and the soloists and chorus contribute elegant, refined singing, the chorus doing so in the Schütz selections as well.

      The soloists, St. Clements Chorus and Seven Dials Band are the opposite of elegant and refined on a new Warner CD, starting with the band’s name: Seven Dials not only refers to the Cockney area of London but also means “hemorrhoids” in Cockney rhyming slang (“Seven Dials” = “piles”).  Somehow this all fits exceptionally well with a delightful and thoroughly downscale CD called The Music of Charles Dickens and His Time, which includes several works by Dickens himself, some that Dickens knew and referred to in his writings, and some that would have been known by just about everyone in Dickens’ time (which was only slightly earlier than Brahms’).  There is not a single piece of “great” music here, and one thing listeners will find out from the ditties and instrumental selections is how good W.S. Gilbert was as a versifier (compared with Dickens and others)...and how impressive the dance music of the Strauss family was (compared with the mundane examples heard here).  Yet this disc is not so much a celebration of mediocrity as an acknowledgment of it, within the overall theme of the bicentenary of the birth of Dickens (1812-1870).  Of particular interest here are two songs that Dickens wrote for an operetta called The Village Coquettes, “Some Folks Who Have Grown Old” and “A Country Life.”  Neither is particularly distinguished, but they are interesting examples of Dickens writing something other than his usual prose.  Two of his other songs are somewhat more intriguing: “The Ivy Green” and the political satire, “The Fine Old English Gentleman (New Version)” – which, however, is (again) nowhere near Gilbert’s level in the Bab Ballads, much less in the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  The instrumental works here are pretty thin stuff (“David Copperfield Ballads” and “Christmas Carol Quadrille,” for example), but there are some works of genuine beauty or rough humor.  In the former category is the still-beautiful love song, “Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms.”  In the latter are several comic songs, sung with considerable relish by Ian Giles, of which the best and bounciest is “Shiverand Shakery, the Man That Couldn’t Get Warm” (which includes choral sections as well).  The Music of Charles Dickens and His Time is a fascinating foray into the lower-class musical world of Victorian England – a place worth an occasional visit if not regular ones.

      And what lies between highbrow music and lowbrow?  One answer: salon music and display pieces, such as those produced with consistent skill by Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908) for his own use in the violin recitals and concerts at which he so excelled.  It would be a mistake to seek profundity here, but unlike the works on the Dickens disc, those on the two newest Sarasate violin-and-piano recordings by Tianwa Yang and Markus Hadulla do repay a series of repeated listenings.  For one thing, the technical demands of the music make it fascinating to hear Yang, again and again, overcome the barriers that Sarasate set for himself; for another, the piano parts here, especially the introductions, are more substantive than in similar compositions by many 19th-century virtuosi, and Hadulla handles them very well indeed.  Furthermore, Sarasate was an accomplished melodist, making both his original works and the ones he based on the creations of other composers pleasantly enjoyable to hear, if not particularly challenging to listeners’ ears or emotions.  Nearly all of Volume 2 of this Naxos series consists of opera paraphrases and opera-tunes sequences; Caprice sur “Mireille” de Gounod from Volume 3 is a work of the same type.  These pieces range from out-and-out pastiches such as Homenaje a Rossini and Fantaisie de concert sur “La forza del destino” (the latter being Sarasate’s Op. 1) to lovely bel canto works such as Gavota de Mignon and elegant and technically impressive creations such as Fantaisie de concert sur “Martha.”  The non-operatic pieces on both CDs are uniformly well-constructed and require considerable technical proficiency, but many are musically inconsequential.  Among the exceptions are Mélodie roumaine, based on tunes from Transylvania; Boléro, a wistful and delicate version of the dance; Fantaisie-Caprice, which requires some extraordinarily difficult bowing; and Les Adieux, a tender and wistful work rather than a bright display piece.  As a composer, Sarasate stood as far above the mediocrities heard on the Dickens-themed CD as below Brahms – but it is fascinating to discover how much enjoyment there is to be had in the 21st century from so many different levels of music created in the 19th.

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