December 12, 2012


Vissarion Shebalin: Orchestral Music, Volume One—Suites Nos. 1 and 2. Siberian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Vasiliev. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

Weinberg: Symphony No. 19, “Bright May”; The Banners of Peace. St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos. $9.99.

Elgar: The Starlight Express; Suite from “The Starlight Express”; Clive Carey: Three Songs from “The Starlight Express.” Elin Manahan Thomas, soprano; Roderick Williams, baritone; Simon Callow, narrator; Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5; Elgar: Cockaigne (In London Town); Britten: Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from “Peter Grimes.” Oregon Symphony conducted by Carlos Kalmar. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

      It would be facile and unfair to try to encapsulate any nation’s “personality” by means of its music – and even more unfair to do so using the works of just a few composers. Listeners nevertheless tend to do that all the time – for example, considering Tchaikovsky and the five “Mighty Handful” composers to be emblematic of Russia in the 19th century, and Shostakovich and Prokofiev to sum up Soviet times in the 20th.  But there are other composers whose works are just as firmly tied to Russia as are these very well-known ones, and a few of them are finally starting to get some recognition outside their homeland.  Vissarion Shebalin (1902-1963) and Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), both friends and colleagues of Shostakovich, are two of them. Shebalin’s relationship with Shostakovich was particularly close, and Shebalin’s Suite No. 1 is dedicated to Shostakovich’s friend and secretary, Lev Atovmian. On the basis of the recording by the Siberian Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Vasiliev – the first this work has ever received – Shebalin had as sure a sense of theater as did Shostakovich himself.  This suite and its successor are both collections of theatrical pieces, the six-movement Suite No. 1 starting with a suitably mournful funeral march and containing two waltzes (one designated “Slow Waltz”).  This is, of course, not symphonically organized music, so it lacks a certain degree of cohesiveness, but it is very effective in conveying theatrically superficial emotion, and the orchestration, which includes some highly chromatic writing for clarinet and saxophone, is particularly fine.  Suite No. 1 dates to 1934 and No. 2 to a year later, but Shebalin revisited and revised both works as late as 1962.  Suite No. 2, in eight movements, is based on Shebalin’s incidental music for La Dame aux camélias, better known as the inspiration for Verdi’s La Traviata.  Shebalin starts the suite with a waltz and includes two additional ones (one marked “Slow” and one labeled “Romantic”).  The music has a more-international flavor than might be expected from the French story: Italian and Spanish elements (a Tarantella and Bolero) give it considerable character.  Like Suite No. 1, this is a disconnected work rather than a closely integrated one, but also like the first suite, it shows considerable skill in orchestration and close attention to theatrical effectiveness.  This is the first volume of Shebalin’s music from Toccata Classics, and it certainly whets the appetite for more.

      Weinberg is already undergoing something of a rediscovery, with Naxos in the forefront of release of his music.  Weinberg wrote a surprisingly large number of symphonies: 26, compared with 15 for Shostakovich and just eight for Prokofiev (counting the two versions of his No. 4).  So the symphonies are bound to be the centerpiece of any Weinberg series. The reason for their release in Naxos’ order, though, remains obscure: the first to come out was No. 6, and now the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Lande offers No. 19, a work from 1985 that bears the title “Bright May” or “Joyous May.”  Far from a May Day piece celebrating socialist realism, the symphony refers in its title to the end of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is still called in Russia and parts of the former Soviet Union.  Weinberg does not make the work wholly celebratory, however – although he does not cock a snook at the government as Shostakovich did in his postwar Symphony No. 9.  Weinberg mixes the celebratory with the apprehensive, using woodwinds in particular for ominous passages and having the finale, after triumphal elements in its early going, eventually fade away to nothingness – a technique reminiscent of Shostakovich’s.  The symphony is paired on this CD with The Banners of Peace, a celebratory work written just after Symphony No. 19 and dedicated to the 27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party.  Yet the work is not as bland and propagandistic as its provenance might suggest. It is essentially positive and forthright, but it also includes some traditional and revolutionary songs (some of which Shostakovich also used, in his Symphony No. 11) that enrich the texture. It does, however, end in a burst of affirmation that surely pleased the party bosses when the work was first performed in Moscow in 1986.

      If Shebalin and Weinberg are lesser lights in 20th-century Russian music, Elgar and Vaughan Williams are among the brightest in England’s.  But not all their works are familiar, and some are downright obscure. The Starlight Express is one such, and a strange (albeit intriguing and often involving) piece it is.  The title is that of a play by Violet Pearn, based on a novel by Algernon Blackwood called A Prisoner in Fairyland. This is a work of World War I and was a dismal failure at and after its debut in December 1915. Elgar and Blackwood were both dissatisfied with the work’s staging even before the première, but they remained reticent about their unhappiness and the piece closed after only one month.  The music, though, came in for considerable praise at the time, and Elgar was fond enough of it to arrange for it to be recorded in February 1916, just weeks after the play itself shut down.  Elgar incorporated some music from his Wand of Youth and Music Makers into The Starlight Express, and ended the three-act work by including the Christmas carol, The First Nowell.  The composition as a whole is a children’s play with songs, with Elgar providing instrumental music as well as pieces to be sung by such characters as the Organ Grinder and the Laugher.  It is a simple, sweet and rather cloying play that includes a father who is an unsuccessful author, a widow and pension manager whose guests do not pay, an elderly woman searching for her long-lost brother, and similar characters.  This is certainly not great Elgar, but it is quite charming, sometimes in spite of itself, and the recording by Sir Andrew Davis and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is a première on multiple levels: the first recording of the whole play in this version (with the action carried forth through narration written by Davis); the first recording ever of the suite (which Davis arranged); and the first recording of three songs in versions by Clive Carey (1883-1968), who was originally going to be the composer of the play’s incidental music – orchestrated by Davis.  The 45-minute suite, which includes songs and music without narration, is more listenable than the narrated play as a whole, which partakes of some almost-mystical wish fulfillment but really does not have much to recommend it from the standpoint of content.  By focusing on Elgar’s music, Davis’s suite bears more repeated hearings.  In the full version of The Starlight Express, the singing is quite fine, and the very extensive narration is feelingly delivered in a way that is wholly appropriate to the material, but there is an inescapable feeling that if the narrator stopped talking, the music (although always intended to be heard behind dialogue) would be of greater interest.  If the totality of this very well-produced two-SACD set pays perhaps a little too much attention to a work that, while worthy, is scarcely of the first water, it is nevertheless a delight to have a wholly engaging performance of The Starlight Express available to shed some light on aspects of Elgar’s output to which very little attention is ever paid.

      If The Starlight Express is unfamiliar, Elgar’s Cockaigne overture is so well-known as almost to be overplayed, although its portrait of London at the turn of the 20th century remains as robust and attractive as ever.  This work opens a rather curious (+++) PentaTone SACD featuring the Oregon Symphony under Carlos Kalmar performing well-known British works in less-than-idiomatic fashion.  Certainly Kalmar and the orchestra give Cockaigne a go with spirit and enthusiasm, but the flavor of Elgar and London is missing – the performance, despite the excellent sound, is rather bland. The same is true of their rendition of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5, a particularly difficult work to bring off because it is nearly all very quiet (few passages even rise to the level of forte) and marks a return to the style of the composer’s Symphony No. 3 (“Pastoral”) after the extremely hectic and dissonant No. 4.  It is as if Kalmar and his orchestra do not really know the context of this work and are simply playing it as a fairly interesting and (because of its dynamics) fairly unusual symphony, but without significant sensitivity to the nuances of the piece or its primarily modal structure.  There is no specific problem with this performance, but neither is there any specific reason to recommend it. The best readings on the disc are of the excerpts from Britten’s Peter Grimes, which, despite the opera’s very British setting, speak a more universally accessible language than that of the Elgar and Vaughan Williams works heard here.  The scene-painting of “Moonlight” and “Storm” is particularly well handled, and the five excerpts (the other three being “Dawn,” “Sunday morning” and the passacaglia) come across as individual miniature tone poems, impressionistic and structurally effective.  The SACD’s title, This England, is, under the circumstances, a bit of a misnomer, since it is more that England, as viewed from across the pond by very competent musicians who are but slightly attuned to the foundational Englishness of much of the music they perform.

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