March 14, 2013


Berlioz: Overtures—Le Corsaire, “Béatrice et Benedict,” “Les Francs-juges,” Le Carnival romain, Waverley, Le Roi Lear, “Benvenuto Cellini.” Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Alkan: Recueils de Chants Nos. 1-3; Une fusée—Introduction et Impromptu. Stephanie McCallum, piano. Toccata Classics. $12.99.

James Adler & Friends: Music of Leo Ornstein, James Adler, Paul Turok, Seth Bedford and Franz Liszt. James Adler, piano. Ravello. $15.99

Hope Wechkin: Music for Voice and Violin. Hope Wechkin, voice and violin. Ravello. $13.99.

Richard Cornell: New Fantasias; Tracer; Images; Acqua Alta. Boston Musica Viva conducted by Richard Pittman; Peter Zazofsky, solo violin. Ravello. $16.99.

     Berlioz’ music is so mainstream nowadays that it is easy to forget just how much it stretched listeners’ ears when he wrote it. One of classical music’s most-skilled orchestrators, Berlioz was perhaps the most Romantic of the Romantics, and his approach to form and style was so different from others’ that few listeners today even realize that he wrote four symphonies – none of which bears a number. The four are the Symphonie Fantastique of 1830, Harold in Italy (essentially a symphony with viola obbligato) of 1834, the choral Roméo et Juliette of 1839, and the ceremonial and rather backward-looking Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale of 1840 (written originally for 200 winds – talk about innovation!).  Listening to seven Berlioz overtures, both concert and pre-opera, in the splendid performances by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis, is an effective reminder of just how unusual Berlioz’ approach to musical structure and sound was.  Like Rossini’s, Berlioz’ overtures often – but not always – fall into the same pattern: in Berlioz’ case, a strong and quick opening followed by a broad, yearning and very beautiful theme, and then expansion and development coupled with the introduction and use of other thematic material.  Davis manages to make the similarities of several of these overtures a strength, because one thing Berlioz did not do was orchestrate them the same way – allowing Davis, thanks in part to Chandos’ superb SACD sound, to bring out some wonderful touches, from a delicate emergence of flutes in Le Corsaire to some really remarkable use of timpani in Les Francs-juges, which also contains one of the most meltingly beautiful melodies that Berlioz ever wrote.  Whether portraying an idealized Roman carnival, plumbing the emotional depths of Shakespeare’s King Lear (which Berlioz never saw on stage), or introducing operas such as Béatrice et Benedict and Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz unerringly combined melodiousness with emotional impact and packaged the result in apt and frequently stunning instrumental garb.  Later excellent orchestrators, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, owe a great deal to the effects that Berlioz thought of first.

     Charles-Valentin Alkan is now acknowledged as a major innovator in piano music, but his reputation lay fallow for nearly a century after his death in 1888 and is only now flowering again – as more pianists attempt to scale the technical heights of his exceptionally difficult music.  Alkan’s best-known works are stunningly original, but even his pieces that are not among his most innovative are remarkable in many ways. The five books called Recueils de Chants (“Collections of Songs”), which Stephanie McCallum is in the process of recording, are a perfect example. These are “songs without words” in the Mendelssohn mode, and are in fact based very directly and unapologetically on Mendelssohn’s first book of such pieces (his Op. 19b).  Alkan’s Recueils de Chants contain six pieces each, using the same key sequence: E, A minor, A, A again, F-sharp minor, and G minor – the last piece always being a gentle and simple Barcarolle.  But within this self-selected set of constraints (probably a deliberate homage to Mendelssohn, who was just four years older than Alkan), Alkan’s inventiveness flows freely and often quite astonishingly.  McCallum is a marvelous interpreter of this music, sensitive to its nuances and comfortable with its very considerable difficulties.  She brings out the “dog barks” in the third piece of Book I, the very difficult whirling left-hand accompaniment in the fifth piece of that book, the insistent dissonance of the second piece in Book II and the swaggering of the third, the amazing perpetual-pianissimo second piece of Book III, and much more.  And she fully understands the care with which Alkan produced an occasional programmatic miniature in these collections, as in the remarkable fifth piece of Book III, Horace et Lydie, a syllabic setting of an ode by Horace – with, remember, no words.  In addition to the first three Recueils de Chants, McCallum’s Toccata Classics CD includes the first-ever recording of Une fusée—Introduction et Impromptu, a kind of spinning song gone mad and a very impressive piece in its own right. Alkan was one of the great piano virtuosi in an era packed with them. Thanks to modern virtuosi such as McCallum, his tremendous inventiveness is now being appreciated once again.

     All 19th-century virtuosi do tend to take a back seat to Franz Liszt, though, and James Adler’s performance of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 on a new Ravello CD shows why. Unlike Berlioz, Liszt was no master orchestrator – in fact, he often turned to Joachim Raff for help – but in piano works, Liszt made his instrument encompass and sound like an orchestra, and Adler plays this piece for all it is worth (which, in strictly virtuosic terms, is quite a lot).  The Liszt is an interesting counterbalance to the two pieces on the CD immediately preceding it, both by Adler himself: Fantasy Grotesque on a Medieval Theme and Piano Fantasy on “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” both dating to 2011 (the Liszt dates to 1859-62). The Adler pieces are very much of the 21st century, but in spirit they hark back to the 19th and the celebration of pianistic splendor as much for its own sake as for any other reason.  The remaining works on this CD, though, are not at this same high-interest level. Adler’s Passacaglia for Piano (1974) certainly shows an understanding of the form, and two “piano-plus” pieces by him are nicely put together if not entirely convincing: Reverie, Interrupted (2009) for tenor saxophone and piano, with Jordan P. Smith, and A Song of the Road (2010) for lyric baritone and piano, based on a poem by James Whitcomb Riley and featuring Malcolm J. Merriweather. These are well-made works but not especially memorable ones. So are the remaining pieces on this disc: the straightforward Scherzino (1918) by Leo Ornstein, a very long-lived composer (1893 or 1894-2002) and the earliest significant exponent of tone clusters – yes, before Henry Cowell; Tango for James Adler (2011) and Passacaglia (1977) by Paul Turok; and Christopher Street Rag (2011) by Seth Bedford. The music is interesting in varying degrees and is all very well performed, but the CD, although it certainly has some top-notch elements, is not particularly consistent either in sequence or musical quality, so it gets a (+++) rating – although a high one.

     The (+++) rating is on the lower side for Hope Wechkin’s debut Ravello disc, where the solo instrument, the violin, is not quite a solo instrument, because Wechkin sings along with it – hence the “music for voice and violin” subtitle of a CD called “Leaning Toward the Fiddler.”  The innovation here seems more deliberate and self-conscious than that of James Adler or Leo Ornstein, with Wechkin taking a combinatorial musical approach – as many modern composers do – that involves her original pieces, arrangements of traditional Balkan folk songs, the voice-and-violin mixture, a blended-genres approach that is common nowadays, and a deliberate “world music” orientation that is perfectly all right but not really very different from the explorations of many other modern composers. Wechkin essays a number of different styles and themes in the 11 short works on this CD, from warmth and longing to a lover’s feud to responses to nature; and while her performance, both vocally and on the violin, is fine, the emotional connectivity that she clearly wants somehow does not quite come off as clearly as she wishes – as if she is trying so hard to make a connection that a certain level of wished-for genuineness never quite emerges.

     The solo violin work by Peter Zazofsky is more impressive in Acqua Alta, the concluding piece on a Ravello CD of music by Richard Cornell. Computer-mediated music is Cornell’s forte, but his innovative approach lies not so much in that area – which has been thoroughly explored by many composers since the mid-20th century – as in his interest in the way performers and musical creator interact, consciously or not, in bringing music to an audience. The pieces on this CD were all recorded live, and the disc’s enhanced content – an unusual feature of many Ravello and Navona releases and in this case a particularly welcome one – provides a visual version of Tracer that gives a good sense of how Cornell sees his creations as being not only re-created but also created in the first place by the way performers handle them and put them across to an audience.  (For that matter, the audience’s own participation influences or even creates a work, as composers have clearly understood since John Cage’s 4’33” – which dates to 1952.)  The (+++) CD itself, strictly on an audio basis, does not come across as well as does the visual Tracer. Yes, Zazofsky’s playing is quite good, but Acqua Alta does not seem particularly tied to Venice, to which it is supposed to be a tribute. Images is based on birds’ quarrels and is certainly dense enough in scoring and performance, but it is not particularly interesting to hear. And New Fantasias, a four-movement chamber-orchestra piece, has expressive movement titles (“Travels in the Landscape,” “In Dark Night,” “Dance” and “Playing with Fire”) that are at best imperfectly reflected in the music itself. It is certainly true that modern composers continue to look for ways to go beyond what has been done before in music, and certainly their reaching out to computers, non-Western musical traditions, and in other directions represents innovation of a sort. But the ultimate test of music remains whether it communicates effectively to an audience beyond the composer himself or herself, and beyond the composer’s friends – a level of reaching out to which most composers aspire, but one that their often-elaborate productions frequently fail to attain.

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