October 25, 2012


Menotti: Violin Concerto; Barber: Violin Concerto; Theodore Wiprud: Violin Concerto (“Katrina”). Ittai Shapira, violin; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling (Menotti, Barber); Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neil Thomson (Wiprud). Champs Hill Records. $16.99.

Claude Baker: The Glass Bead Game (1982-83); Awaking the Winds (1993); Shadows—Four Dirge-Nocturnes (1990); The Mystic Trumpeter (1999). St. Louis Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin and Hans Vonk. Naxos. $9.99.

Alfredo Casella: Suite in C; Pagine di Guerra (“War Pages”); Concerto, Op. 61. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

      An interesting pairing of a brand-new American violin concerto with two that have become classics, Ittai Shapira’s CD of Menotti, Barber and Theodore Wiprud showcases a wide variety of moods. Menotti’s 1952 concerto is a restrained and lyrical work, with the intimacy of chamber music and a minimal amount of display – certainly none of the extended virtuoso pyrotechnics often heard in other violin concertos. The solo instrument frequently plays in its highest register, and a challenge for soloists – which Shapira meets quite well – is to prevent the solo line from sounding thin rather than songful. Barber’s concerto, first performed in 1942, has considerable subtlety as well, to such an extent that the man who commissioned it rejected the first two movements as insufficiently virtuosic. Barber subsequently added a short finale that is so difficult that it was at first deemed unplayable. The music radiates sincerity and personal expression, having in common with Menotti’s concerto an absence of unnecessary ornamentation or virtuosity for its own sake – although the emotional effects of the two works are quite different, and Shapira expresses those differences well. Theodore Wiprud’s “Katrina” concerto, of which Shapira gave the première in 2011, also seeks emotional involvement and release, but it is not at the level of the other two works.  Wiprud’s piece is dedicated to the musicians displaced by Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in August 2005, but it is rather too obvious a tribute, from a first movement called “Les Bons Temps” that mixes classical and, of course, jazz elements, to a rather affecting second movement based on an Acadian song, to a finale called “Fly Away” whose vigor and final hopefulness are exactly what one would expect. The piece has its pleasant moments, and Wiprud (born 1958) handles the pervasive jazz influence nicely, but the concerto never quite gels either as an acknowledgment of tragedy or as an assertion of better times to come.

      The emotional expression and musical forms are more varied in the work of Claude Baker (born 1948); indeed, listeners cannot really know what to expect from one of his works to the next. Two of his pieces on a new Naxos CD have literary tie-ins, but their structures are as different as the poems that inspired them. Shadows is a set of four fairly short movements that attempt to tie together musical expression with the pithy elegance of haiku and the short poems’ close focus on intimate details and snippets of particular moods. The Mystic Trumpeter is inspired by Walt Whitman’s poetry and consists of a very brief introductory movement followed immediately by a much longer second one, with elements of tone painting mixing with a variety of musical quotations. Such quotations – or, more accurately, evocations – are present as well in The Glass Bead Game, a kind of collage whose unusual movement titles reflect the music’s dreamlike and evanescent form: “Age of the Feuilleton,” “League of Journeyers to the East” and “The Glass Bead Game.”  The work is more interesting analytically than emotionally, but its subtleties of orchestration are well handled. The fourth work on the CD, Awaking the Winds, is the least programmatic, being a single-movement piece that, aside from its evocative title, comes across simply as a late-20th-century tone poem employing typical composition techniques of its time. The St. Louis Symphony plays the pieces well, with Leonard Slatkin and Hans Vonk (who conducts The Mystic Trumpeter) bringing confidence and a sense of involvement to all the music.

      Francesco La Vecchia is equally committed in conducting three world première recordings of music by Alfredo Casella (1883-1947).  La Vecchia and Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma have been exploring a considerable amount of 20th-century Italian orchestral music recently, and unearthing some gems along the way. The three Casella works on a new Naxos CD are not quite of the first water, but each of them has interesting elements and all are well-constructed. The best of the three is the latest, simply called Concerto, which dates to 1937. Commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, this work was designed to highlight all sections of the ensemble, much as Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra would do in the following decade. Casella’s piece is more ordinary structurally and less involving thematically; nor does it give orchestra or audience a real workout unraveling its formal structure. Nevertheless, it provides a chance – which the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma seizes – to showcase warmth and expressiveness as well as out-and-out virtuosity in the various sections. Two of its movements draw on Baroque and Classical-era forms – a sinfonia and a passacaglia – and Casella’s Suite in C not only draws on such forms but is written in one. This is an early work, dating to 1909-10, featuring a traditionally formed Ouverture, followed by a very extended Sarabande and a lively if perhaps somewhat over-long Bourrée – fewer movements than in a Bach or Telemann suite, but partaking of the spirit of the old composers even though its harmonies are more modern and at times even Mahlerian. The third piece on the CD, War Pages, is essentially a musical interpretation of the mechanized warfare of World War I, dating to 1915-1918 and featuring five short movements set in Belgium, France, Russia, Alsace and the Adriatic. From a Cossack cavalry charge to the contemplation of a ruined cathedral, this is music intended to evoke specific pictures and emotions, which it does with moderate success. The CD as a whole is certainly worthwhile for listeners interested in hearing some 20th-century music that has not been recorded before, by a composer who was very much of his time but also strongly influenced by the forms of earlier centuries.

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