July 11, 2013


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3; Sleeping Beauty Suite. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 5—Volume XII, “Quelques riens pour album.” Alessandro Marangoni, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volume 6: Schumann—Bunte Blätter; Fantasiestücke. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Strike Up the Band—Overture; Promenade; Catfish Row—Suite from “Porgy and Bess.” Orion Weiss, piano; John Fullam, clarinet; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.

Copland: Rodeo (complete ballet); Dance Panels—A Ballet in Seven Sections; El Salón México; Danzón Cubano. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.

     Extended series of releases that produce the same high quality time after time are always a joy to discover. Dmitrij Kitajenko’s Tchaikovsky sequence for Oehms is one such. With the appearance of Symphony No. 3, this series is almost complete – only No. 4 remains to be released – and Kitajenko has shown himself to be a thoughtful and intelligent interpreter of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic output. The Third is the problem child among the symphonies: the only one in a major key (D), the only one in five movements, and the most balletic of the symphonies (which makes its pairing here with the Sleeping Beauty Suite particularly apt), this symphony is not as tightly knit or as emotionally compelling as the others. It can all too easily sound more like a suite than a symphony, its movements disconnected rather than carefully related to each other. But Kitajenko sees the underlying unity of the work and makes each movement a carefully crafted part of a larger whole. The funereal opening of the first movement – the darkest part of the whole symphony – is quickly swept away when the main Allegro appears, and from then on Kitajenko produces an elegantly tuneful and tasteful reading marred only by occasional tempo pullbacks intended for extra emphasis but resulting in a temporary damming of the musical flow. There are few of these, however, and when the music needs to be fleet, as in the charming Scherzo, it is light and almost airy. An intriguing element here is the somewhat slower-than-usual finale, which Tchaikovsky marked Allegro con fuoco and which certainly gets the forceful treatment from the excellent Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. As for the Sleeping Beauty Suite, it has all the charm and poise of the ballet from which it is drawn, and its concluding Valse is as lovely in this performance as it can be.

     “Lovely” would be a bit of an overstatement for Rossini’s  Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”), those remarkable not-really-trifles that the composer created late in life after he stopped writing operas at the age of 37 (he would live an additional 39 years). Some of these short works do have considerable beauty, and some are in fact quite operatic, but by and large, the pieces have something of a helter-skelter quality – and some of the 13 volumes in which Rossini organized them also contain works for other instruments and for voice, and have about them a general sense of confusion. It is delightful confusion, though, and in the more tightly knit albums, such as Volume XII, “Quelques riens pour album,” the effect of these works can be more substantial than would be expected from the individual pieces themselves. Alessandro Marangoni is doing a simply wonderful job presenting these pieces on Naxos: he is attuned to their subtleties and equally comfortable with their periodic and quite deliberate habit of cocking a snook at the musical establishment. Volume 12 of Péchés de vieillesse contains 24 pieces that run between one and six minutes and are as variegated as can be. From an F minor work rife with an air of operatic tragedy to a C major piece that belongs in a music hall, from two theme-and-variations works (one in the major, one in the minor) to an E-flat waltz that echoes Chopin, these little pieces capture a very wide variety of moods and require considerable attention both to technique and to expressiveness – which Marangoni has in abundance. There are no large or “great” works here, but collectively, this album and the Péchés de vieillesse as a whole add up to something far more substantial than listeners unfamiliar with this music might expect.

     One of the Péchés de vieillesse in Volume 12 is a cradle song in F that sounds distinctly Schumannesque, and it is interesting to hear it in juxtaposition with some short piano works by Schumann himself – of which there are 22 on the latest Idil Biret Archives release in the Idil Biret Solo Edition series. This is the third consecutive all-Schumann disc in this particular series showcasing Biret’s fine pianism, and like the two immediately preceding it, it is excellent. The Turkish pianist is a wonderful interpreter of Schumann, sensitive to the moods and nuances of every bar of every piece and using her technical prowess not to showcase virtuosity for its own sake but to draw out the meaning and emotional power of the music. The eight movements of Fantasiestücke are simply splendid here, from the single mood of Des Abends to the multiple ones of Fabel, from the delicate In der Nacht to the good-humored final piece. Everything fits together into an overall musical story arc, even as each piece shines forth with its own characteristics. Bunte Blätter is more of a mixed bag, its 14 pieces being a collection of disparate works rather than a unified whole. Here too, however, Biret’s skill and sensitivity are everywhere evident, whether in the three brief vignettes that open the sequence, in the sad mood pieces that emerge within it, or in the brighter scherzo and march elements of the series. Biret finds beauty and even profundity in Schumann’s short works, and her mixture of technical prowess and emotional expressiveness serves the music very well indeed.

     The piano has a very different role in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which Orion Weiss handles with considerable flair in a new Naxos recording featuring the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta. This is part of an ongoing series only in a very general sense: Falletta is a strong advocate of American music and is particularly adept at conducting it, and this Gershwin disc is another in her continuing skillful explorations of works by American composers. The ebullience and sheer joy of Rhapsody in Blue are the highlights of this bouncy, upbeat performance – and “bouncy” and “upbeat” are also the words to describe the overture to the flashy satire Strike Up the Band, a spoof of big business and international military adventures whose topic is as timely in the 21st century as it was in 1929. Promenade is a lesser, short work, heard here in a version for clarinet and orchestra – it is pleasant and catchy and sounds like film music, which in fact it is: Gershwin wrote the soundtracks for two Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, and this piece comes from one of them. Catfish Row is a different Porgy and Bess suite from the familiar one arranged by Robert Russell Bennett. Its five movements include several of the opera’s best-known tunes, and the suite ends with music from the stage work’s finale. Falletta leads this suite and all the music here with a sure hand and genuine enthusiasm, the quality of her musicianship and the playing of the orchestra continuing at the same very high level displayed in their many other American-music recordings that deserve to be called noteworthy.

     Of course, Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic are scarcely the only American forces that pay special attention to American music. They are not even the only ones that do so for Naxos. Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra pay regular attention to prominent American composers, too, and Slatkin does a particularly good job when he unearths or rediscovers a piece that other conductors have passed over or neglected. The latest Slatkin CD is fascinating in its juxtaposition of two equal-length Copland ballet scores, one that is super-familiar and one that is very rarely heard. Slatkin offers a very fine version of Rodeo, with well-chosen tempos and plenty of rhythmic snap, the orchestra playing with enthusiasm throughout. He follows that with Dance Panels—A Ballet in Seven Sections, a considerably later ballet (written in 1959 and revised in 1962, while Rodeo dates to 1942). The plot of Rodeo is thin, but that of Dance Pieces is nonexistent – by design. The work was intended simply as a presentation of dance in many forms, with waltzes (slow, quiet ones, as it turned out) dominating music whose aim was to showcase American dancers’ techniques. This was a rather abstruse plan, and is likely one among several reasons for the work’s theatrical failure. But Slatkin ably demonstrates that the piece works quite well in a concert presentation: conceived without story, it does not need one in order to involve the audience in its rhythms and its sure-handed orchestration. This CD also includes a second pair of complementary and contrasting Copland pieces, El Salón México (1932, revised 1936) and Danzón Cubano (1942, revised 1945). In this case, both works are well-known and popular, appropriately colored for their titles and filled with atmosphere and – especially in the case of Danzón Cubano – considerable rhythmic complexity, all of which Slatkin and the orchestra handle with aplomb and a considerable helping of American, or Latin American, spirit.

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