May 31, 2012


Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: A Composer’s Approach. Don Freund, piano. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs + DVD).

Cécile Chaminade: The Composer as Pianist—All of Her Known Recordings for G&T and Duo Art. Pierian. $18.99.

Chopin: Ballade No. 3; Scherzo No. 3; Fantasy in F minor; Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23, “Appassionata”; Piano Sonata No. 32. Van Cliburn, piano (Chopin); Claudio Arrau, piano (Beethoven). ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8. Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Steinberg. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 4; Mozart: Symphony No. 35. Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.

Scott Brickman: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3; L’Orfeo for guitar; Fiddleheads for violin; Snowball for violin, guitar and piano; Knotty Pieces for violin and guitar; Winter and Construction for violin, guitar and piano. Nathanael May, piano; Matt Gould, guitar; Beth Ilana Schneider-Gould, violin. Ravello. $16.99.

Sophia Serghi: Night of Light; Ikon; Full Moon Haiku; Cantus Integritatis. Alena Hellerová and Lucie Silkenova, sopranos; Eliska Weissova, mezzo-soprano; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vit Micka. Navona. $16.99.

Sergio Cervetti: Leyenda; Chacona Para El Martirio De Atahualpa; Nazca; Madrigal III. Alena Hellerová  and Eva Kolkova, sopranos; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vit Micka and Petr Vronský. Navona. $16.99.

      A very interesting combination of performance and pedagogy at a very reasonable price, Don Freund’s performance and discussion of the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier may not be in the forefront of piano versions from an artistic standpoint, but it is well-played, thoughtfully presented and distinguished for Fruend’s genuine attempt to communicate with 21st-century audiences about this brilliant 18th-century music.  Freund (born 1947) presents the music itself, played forthrightly on a modern piano, on two CDs, and then offers a DVD containing “lessons” about four specific pieces – the preludes and fugues in C major, C minor, C-sharp major and C-sharp minor.  Freund clearly understands this music both historically and in terms of its communication potential, and rehearing the four works on the DVD after listening to and watching the “lessons” is quite an interesting experience after initially simply hearing them played on CD.  Freund is himself a composer, as the title of this recording makes clear, but what really comes through in the DVD is that he is a fine teacher (he is professor of composition at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University).  Freund discusses Bach’s compositional process and how it affects specific elements of the performance of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and if his emendations on the basis of his analysis are generally small ones (e.g., a grace note added to the C-sharp minor prelude), they are nevertheless fascinating to learn, and they do add to a listener’s appreciation of Bach’s music.  On its own, the CD performance is all right but scarcely outstanding; even those who like hearing this music on a modern piano will find Freund an adequate but not exceptional player.  Still, this Navona release is a valuable three-disc set for its combination of an understanding rendition of the music with discussions that will help listeners better comprehend and relate to Bach’s work.

      A new Pierian CD of piano music by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) delves into the past in a different way.  Chaminade is almost completely forgotten as a composer today, although her Concertino for Flute does get an occasional performance.  What is intriguing is that she made six recordings of her compositions for G&T, the company that later became EMI, in 1901, and those recordings are among the most sought-after among collectors of piano recordings.  Transfers of the six, which are of works dating to 1884-99, all appear on the newly released CD, along with a dozen recordings dating to 1920-27.  Chaminade proves to be a fine advocate of her own music, and if none of the works is particularly substantial – they are not quite salon music, but are scarcely profound – all are very well structured, and are convincing both formally and emotionally.  Chaminade was comfortable writing in a variety of forms, from Troisième Valse Brillante (1898) to Danse Créole (also 1898) to Marche Américaine (1909 – Chaminade’s music was for a time quite popular in the United States, which she visited in 1908).  The value of this CD is almost entirely historical, but the music itself has considerable charm, and perhaps this recording will spark at least a modest Chaminade revival.

      Historical reasons are also the main ones for considering three newly released ICA Classics DVDs, although the piano performances of Van Cliburn and Claudio Arrau, which date to 1959-60, are themselves highly worthy of being heard.  In fact, they are worth being seen as well, for the contrast between the performance styles of these two preeminent pianists.  Cliburn, playing just a year after his legendary triumph at the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition, is highly involved in the music but has a somewhat cool on-stage persona, while Arrau is fiery and intense in his Beethoven – of which the reading of the composer’s final sonata, No. 32, is particularly well-informed and well-articulated.  Cliburn’s Chopin is something of an acquired taste, lacking the strong emotional involvement provided by some other pianists but revealing the underlying structure of the music in a very effective way.  The Fantasy in F minor is a highlight here.  The problem with this DVD is the rather odd pairing of the pianists – Cliburn or Arrau fanciers would surely have preferred a disc containing only one pianist or the other – but presumably these BBC recordings were what was available, and the repertoire fits together well enough even though the melding of performers is somewhat uneasy.  The DVD is really for those interested in exploring on screen the techniques of great mid-20th-century pianists: the sound is all right but not up to today’s standards, but the playing is first-rate throughout.

      ICA Classics’ two latest Boston Symphony DVDs are also for those with a strong historical interest – in the orchestra, which for a time was likely the best in the United States, as well as in the specific conductors.  There are many excellent Bruckner Eighth and Mahler Fourth recordings, not to mention the huge number of CDs of Mozart’s “Haffner” symphony, so these specific performances, despite many felicities of detail, will not likely be anyone’s first choice.  However, those with an interest both in the Boston Symphony in 1962, and in the approach to Bruckner of William Steinberg (never considered a first-tier Bruckner conductor), will certainly find this release intriguing.  Steinberg’s emphasis is more on Bruckner’s warmth than on his massive sonorities, although the orchestra provides full-throated sound and the burnished brass section is particularly good.  Steinberg was not yet the orchestra’s music director when this recording was made – he assumed that post in 1969.  By 1977, when Seiji Ozawa was music director and when the Klaus Tennstedt Mahler/Mozart DVD was recorded, many players were different and the Boston Symphony was a bit past its pinnacle: Ozawa allowed sprawl and sloppiness into what had been a beautifully balanced and well-controlled orchestra, although the Boston forces never matched the precision of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell.  In any case, Tennstedt’s Mahler/Mozart concert, recorded in color, offers serviceable if scarcely revelatory performances of both works, with lovely singing in the Mahler finale by soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson.  Collectors of Boston Symphony recordings will find these interesting, but it is the orchestra and the conductors, not the music, that takes center stage in both these DVDs.

      Composers in the 21st century look toward the past in a very different way, and indeed define “past” differently from the way older composers did.  Scott Brickman (born 1963), who teaches at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, deems the past to consist as much of the Beatles as of the Second Viennese School, and his works often have the sound of pastiche as a result.  They are both modern and modernistic – the former word being descriptive, the latter critical of an approach filled with sudden high notes followed by crashing chords, which is pretty much what listeners who are not fans of modern compositions would expect to hear.  The piano sonatas – No. 2 (2006) in four movements and No. 3 (2008) in three – are clear enough in structure and somewhat related to each other, but never seem to go anywhere; nor does it seem they were intended to do so.  Winter and Construction (2010) has the fullest sound here, but the three movements of L’Orfeo (2007) are the most interesting on Ravello’s disc, giving guitarist Matt Gould a real workout in movements intended to evoke “Styx,” “Eurydice” and “Morpheus.”  The remaining works on the CD – Snowball (2003), Knotty Pines (2008) and Fiddleheads (2010) – are intermittently interesting, with the busy noisiness of Fiddleheads offering more attraction than the others, although this is involvement of an intellectual sort: nothing here touches the emotions or appears created for that purpose.

      In contrast, the works on a CD featuring the vocal-and-instrumental compositions of Cypriot composer Sophia Serghi (born 1972), a music professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, are filled with emotional and spiritual elements.  Like Brickman, she draws inspiration from a variety of sources, but in her case they may be classic literature (Petrarch, Sappho, a string quartet called “Remembrance of Things Past”) or more recent literary productions (she has written incidental music for several plays).  On the new Navona CD, Night of Light is a spiritually oriented response to Easter in Manhattan; Ikon was inspired by an icon that Serghi saw in Paris; Full Moon Haiku sets moon-related poems by Nancy Schoenberger; and Cantus Integritatis sets four of the composer’s own Latin poems to music that is inward-looking and meditative.  A shortened Night of Light: Reprise ends the CD, which begins with the full-length version, but the circularity here is more apparent than real: the music moves in a number of different directions, but all of it is poetic and intended to evoke a variety of emotions and moods.  Very much unlike the music of a composer such as Brickman, the works of Serghi showcase an alternative way of absorbing and reinterpreting the past while creating music intended to speak directly to modern concerns.

      Sergio Cervetti (born 1940 in Uruguay) comes from an earlier generation than Brickman and Serghi, but he too can be heard reaching back while seeking ways to move himself and his audience forward.  Cervetti has written film music (for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, among other movies) and has composed more electronic music than any other type, but he has also written an opera based on a story by Oscar Wilde, and a number of works for solo harpsichord – plus a Concerto for Harpsichord and 11 Instruments.  Cervetti’s interest in the harpsichord (which provides an intriguing balance to the tendency of modern performers to play Bach’s harpsichord music, including The Well-Tempered Clavier, on the piano) is reflected in Chacona Para El Martirio De Atahualpa, the second movement of the harpsichord concerto.  The concerto (which dates to 1991) bears the overall title Las Indias Olvidades and uses the old-fashioned instrument to create a sense of time and place as well as a contrast with the forces of a modern orchestra.  Leyenda (also 1991), for soprano and orchestra, also looks to the past for its presentation of a legend, while Madrigal III (1975), for two sopranos and chamber orchestra, recalls a very old vocal form in a modern context – Cervetti has written four madrigals, the others being for soprano solo.  The most-recent work on Navona’s new CD is Nazca (2010), Cervetti’s first foray into writing for string orchestra.  It ties in an interesting way into his fascination with electronic music: the piece requires the strings to play in their highest ranges a great deal of the time, with the result that their acoustic properties sound electronic even though they are not.  The five movements of this substantial piece are intended as musical representations of figurations discovered in the Atacama Desert almost a century ago: line patterns that appear, from the sky, to be representational, but that look only like scratches from ground level.  Since these ancient lines long predate any known ability of humans to get to the level at which they are recognizable in form, they have provoked many theories about their origin and meaning, and the fourth movement of Nazca (“Dreams of the Extraterrestrial”) refers to those ideas as well as to the possible depiction of an alien being in some of the lines.  The four other movements are more mundane (“The Monkey’s Plain,” “The Spider,” “The Hummingbird” and “The Hands, Hymn”), but the music has an odd ethereality throughout that seems to fit well with its subject matter.  Cervetti’s works draw on everything from African-inspired dance to old Latin hymns, seeking – as do the works of many other modern composers – both to come to terms with the past and to incorporate it into music with a distinctively modern sound.

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