December 20, 2012


Ravel: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Alborada del gracioso; Pavane pour une infante défunte; Rapsodie espagnole; Pièce en forme de habanera; Shéhérazade—Ouverture de féerie; Menuet antique; Boléro. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.

Casella: Introduzione, aria e toccata; Partita for piano and small orchestra; La donna serpente—orchestral fragments. Sun Hee You, piano; Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

Ries: Piano Concertos in E-flat, Op. 42, and G minor, Op. 177; Introduction et Rondeau brillant, Op. 144. Christopher Hinterhuber, piano; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uwe Grodd. Naxos. $9.99.

      Naxos is the most remarkable producer of series in the CD business. Some other companies present highly impressive series from time to time – Naïve’s Vivaldi Edition and PentaTone’s current survey of Wagner’s 10 major operas conducted by Marek Janowksi, for example. But Naxos has produced engaging, often fascinating series for decades and is constantly creating new ones or adding to existing ones.  The sheer amount of music that springs from the company in series form is astonishing.  And the quality of the performances, which is almost always very high, makes the series consistently worthwhile.  Take the new Ravel series featuring Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The first volume is a kind of “greatest hits” compilation, containing Alborada del gracioso, Pavane pour une infante défunte, Rapsodie espagnole, and the inevitable Boléro, as well as other works. But because of the way Naxos pulls the CD together, what listeners get is mostly an intriguing compilation of pieces that Ravel originally wrote for piano and then orchestrated. Four of the seven works here (not including Boléro, Shéhérazade or Pièce en forme de habanera) originated as compositions for piano, dual pianos or piano duet, a fact that makes the composer’s inventive and evocative orchestrations all the more impressive.  These are all colorful works, redolent of exotic times or places, looking to the past or to Europe outside the borders of France or to the Arabia of legend.  The orchestra plays all of them with sensitivity and skill, and Slatkin does a particularly fine job with the seemingly ubiquitous Boléro by emphasizing Ravel’s subtle and gradual additions of orchestral instruments to the ever-growing crescendo that is the distinguishing feature of the piece.  This is an outstanding start to what is sure to be another top-notch Naxos series.

      The Naxos series of the music of Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) is an ongoing one, with Franceso La Vecchia and Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma offering idiomatic interpretations of music that is very little known and often presented as world première recordings – on the latest disc, only Partita for piano and small orchestra has been recorded before.  It is the earliest work here, dating to 1924-25 and cast in a mode, typical for Casella, that pays close attention to the past (the movements are labeled “Sinfonia,” “Passacaglia” and “Burlesca”) while interpreting the forms in Casella’s own style.  Sun Hee You plays the piece with sure-handed skill and without trying to expand it into a full-fledged concerto, which it is not – it is long enough for one, running half an hour, but its neoclassical aspirations are more modest, and they are nicely fulfilled here.  The “orchestral fragments” from Casella’s first opera, La donna serpente (“The Snake-Woman,” 1928-1931, not composed until Casella was in his 40s) point to a work with both tragic and comic elements, including a march and battle scene but also an attractive “Tempo di berceuse” and a slow and deeply felt Prelude to Act III.  The third work on the CD is another one paying its respects to the Baroque: Introduzione, aria e toccata, which dates to 1933 and, like the Partita, adapts old forms into a more-modern harmonic and tonal language, through which the formal structure nevertheless shows quite clearly.  La Vecchia continues to display great understanding of and sensitivity to Casella’s style, and this continuing series shows the composer to have wider range and greater compositional ability than his comparative obscurity would indicate.

      Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) is obscure nowadays, too, except for his relationship with Beethoven, but he was a significant composer and pianist in his day, and the fifth and final volume in Naxos’ survey of Ries’ 14 works for piano and orchestra (eight concertos and six independent, large-scale concert rondos) shows just how strong Ries was in both roles – as well as what limitations he had on the composing side.  Ries’ piano concertos have opus numbers but no sequential numbers, because the way they were published was, frankly, a mess: the first of them was designated No. 2, because Ries gave No. 1 to his very first concerto, which was for violin; and because Ries (unlike Beethoven) was a performer for his whole career, he delayed publishing his concertos to prevent others from performing them.  Thus, the opus numbers generally have nothing to do with the dates of composition.  The very last concerto, though, is known to be Op. 177 of 1833, and it has particularly felicitous wind and brass scoring, along with a well-turned piano part that is filled with virtuosic and elegant touches – although it is not really more advanced than the solo parts in the earlier concertos.  Op. 42 dates to 1812 and has noticeably Romantic elements in its use of multiple tempos within movements – and cadenzas in the middle of movements rather than just before the end.  Ries’ concertos are a sometimes uneasy blend of Classical-era orchestration with Romantic-era pianism, but Christopher Hinterhuber and Uwe Grodd make them sound about as cohesive as they can, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra plays them with spirit and enthusiasm.  As for the Introduction et Rondeau brillant, Op. 144, which dates to 1825, it is a display piece with equal parts virtuosity and balance, thematically strong and structurally carefully constructed – a large-scale work that is not quite a fantasia but has elements of free-flowing melody.  This fifth volume of Ries’ piano-and-orchestra compositions closes this particular Naxos sequence at the same high level it has had since it started – and will whet listeners’ appetites for future series rediscovering works by other now-neglected composers.

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