July 25, 2013


Massimo Giordano: Amore e Tormento—Italian Arias. Massimo Giordano, tenor; Ensemble del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino conducted by Carlo Goldstein. BMG. $19.99.

Lewis Spratlan, Jenny Kallick and John Downey: Architect. Julia Fox, soprano; Jeffrey Lentz, tenor; Richard Lalli, baritone; Mark Lane Swanson, music director. Navona. $19.99 (CD+DVD).

Voices of Earth and Air: Choral Music of Michael G. Cunningham, Alexandra Ottaway, Carol Barnett, David Dickau and Karen A. Tarlow. Navona. $16.99.

Fredrick Kaufman: “Guernica” Piano Concerto; “Kaddish” Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra; Seascape. Kemal Gekic, piano; Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marcello Rota (Guernica); Mark Drobinsky, cello; Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carlos Piantini (Kaddish); Czech Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hein (Seascape). Navona. $16.99.

Sydney Hodkinson: Potpourri—11 Very Short Pieces; Epitaphion; Piano Concerto No. 1—A Shifting Trek. St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande (Potpourri, Epitaphion); Barry Snyder, piano; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský (Concerto). Navona. $16.99.

     There is always a certain joy at encountering the voice of a high-quality operatic tenor on his first solo CD, coupled with a certain frustration at hearing him sing the same standard arias that every other operatic tenor, new and experienced, feels obliged to deliver in order to prove his bona fides. Massimo Giordano goes a bit beyond the utterly standard standards in a new BMG recording, and he certainly does display a voice of warmth and intensity, but it is hard to recommend the disc wholeheartedly except to those seeking a permanent record of Giordano’s voice in the bel canto and related Italian repertoire at this time in his career. Actually, there is more verismo than strict bel canto here, with six of the 14 tracks devoted to Puccini, for whom Giordano clearly has substantial affinity: Non piangere Liù from Turandot is especially heartfelt. There are three tracks here from works by Umberto Giordano (no relation), not only the expected Andrea Chénier but also the less-often-heard Fedora and Marcella. There are only two Verdi tracks, which is a bit of a surprise, especially since they are from Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra rather than, say, La Traviata; and there are two arias from Cilea and one from Ponchielli (not surprisingly, it is Cielo e mar from La Gioconda). Throughout the CD, Giordano (born 1971) shows a voice of fine, even range and considerable emotive capacity, not an exceptionally strong voice but one driven by intelligent musicality as much as by sheer sonic beauty. Existing fans of Giordano will welcome this first solo recording, as will collectors of discs by Italian opera tenors (there must be a cult like that out there somewhere). By and large, though, the music is too familiar for the CD to get an unreserved recommendation.

     There is just about nothing familiar in Architect, an unusual new opera that is highly ambitious but whose story and presentation may both be off-putting, at least to casual listeners. Many things about this effort are off the beaten track. Lewis Spratlan wrote the music that is for conventional instruments; Jenny Kallick and John Downey contributed electroacoustic material, which takes up seven of the recording’s 15 tracks; Kallick did the libretto; and Kallick and Michiko Theurer jointly produced video elements for the production. That this is an ambitious work should be obvious from the sheer amount of talent and the sheer number of elements it contains. On top of that, Architect tackles a highly ambitious subject: architecture in general and the specific architecture of Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974), including Kahn’s ideas and philosophy, and the interaction of sound and space – incoporating recordings made within some of the buildings Kahn designed. The notion of turning architecture and the architect-as-creator into opera is actually a very attractive one, and some famed fictional architects would seem tailor-made for operatic treatment: Halvard Solness of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder and Howard Roark of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead come immediately to mind. Architect, however, seeks not to look at Kahn (or architects in general) in terms of heroic, if often doomed, striving for the heavens – something different moves the plot here. But this is not to say that “the heavens” are absent: the whole libretto is propelled by the trickster god Momus, who has been thrown down to Earth by the other gods and must inspire the creation of buildings to glorify those gods – who will then allow him back into the Olympian realm. Momus accomplishes his aim by pulling the Architect away from his muse, Woman, for a creative journey in which Momus transforms himself into the Guide, the Engineer, and the Healer – providing different elements that the Architect requires. Eventually the Architect is renewed by a return to the experience of Woman and resolves that his created spaces will be filled with peace and love – a conclusion that sounds sappier in prose than in the opera itself. Architect carries too much weight and sags under it, attempting a combination of mythic trappings with modern sensibilities with elements specific to Kahn’s views of the field, all within a musical format that mixes the traditional and electroacoustic, juxtaposing arias and recitatives with sonic canvases created electronically. This is a fascinating experiment in many ways, but it feels like an experiment rather than a cohesive story in which music and narrative complement and supplement each other; and as a result, the whole thing comes across as rather contrived. It’s a fascinating contrivance, though. Navona’s release of Architect as both CD and DVD is an inspired decision, the DVD version of the Architect film being more coherent and cohesive than the purely musical CD. This self-described “chamber opera” may be a victim of its own ambition, but the ambition is quite interesting to observe.

     There is nothing particularly poetic in Architect, whose eventual resolution is on the pat side. But there is poetry aplenty in the music of the five contemporary composers heard on a Navona CD entitled Voices of Earth and Air. The disc has the usual pluses and minuses of an anthology: the chance to hear a number of different pieces by multiple composers, but a relative lack of cohesion in the presentation – exacerbated in this case by the multiplicity of ensembles delivering the performances: there are 10 works in all, performed by six different groups. Michael G. Cunningham’s music is the most prominent, his nine-short-section Yeats Madrigals being a particularly well-constructed set of brief poetic explorations. Other pieces by Cunningham are Come, Holy Spirit; The Nightingale; and the four-section Posies, all pleasant works that handle their texts nicely if not in any particularly surprising ways. Also here are two brief, contrasting works by Carol Barnett, Song of Perfect Propriety and Winter, Snow; two similar-theme pieces by Karen A. Tarlow, Hope Burns a Flame and Be My Love; and one piece each by Alexandra Ottaway (the affecting Elegy on the L.C.) and David Dickau (the Shakespeare-derived If Music Be the Food of Love). The composers handle their vocal forces well, and the works are generally effective, although in most cases only moderately so. This is primarily a disc for those interested in the state of modern choral composition.

     There is poetic intent in some of the music of Fredrick Kaufman on another new Navona CD, although this is strictly a disc of instrumental music. The featured work here is the “Guernica” Piano Concerto, inspired both by Picasso’s iconic painting and by the bombing of the town that led Picasso to create his masterpiece. This work is in the traditional three movements, which prove to fit the Guernica story rather well: “The Tragedy of Guernica” in the expansive opening movement, “Mourning” for the slow movement, and “Resurrection” as the finale. The arc of the story is a traditional one as well – from tragedy through sadness to triumph – and is often found in wartime works (think of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony). Kaufman follows the emotions of the subject well and not too slavishly, although without any particular insight that would make this seem some sort of definitive musical treatment of the Luftwaffe’s 1937 Guernica bombing and its aftermath. This is a solid piece, not especially innovative but true to its subject matter and effective within its fairly constrained bounds. The CD also features Kaufman’s “Kaddish” Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra, a work that stands on the one hand in the same line as Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” symphony (No. 3) and on the other in the tradition of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra. Kaufman’s piece does not draw directly on either of these earlier works, but it shares some of their sentiments and some of the long-drawn cello lines of the Bruch. Again, this is a well-made work, a single-movement concerto that progresses through a variety of emotions and different degrees of virtuosity – with its devotional elements predominating (the piece was written in honor of the composer’s parents). Seascape, the final work on the CD, will make some listeners think inevitably of Debussy’s La Mer, with which it shares impressionistic contrasts between the calm and turbulence of the ocean – even though Kaufman is not at all like Debussy stylistically. The fact that Kaufman’s works seem tied to those of a number of other composers without directly imitating their styles points to a certain lack of strong individuality in Kaufman’s music, for all that it is intelligently constructed and well scored.

     Sydney Hodkinson, on the other hand, does have a recognizable style of his own. Like many modern classical composers, Hodkinson has been strongly influenced by jazz; but beyond that, his works evince a genuine desire to connect with audiences both in their scoring and in the cleverness and sometimes ingenuity of their structure. A piano concerto dominates this Navona disc as it does the one of Kaufman’s music. Hodkinson’s is a four-movement work bearing the title “A Shifting Trek” – typical of his tantalizing hints about the music that, however, stop short of insisting on a specific program. A rather extended piece, running more than half an hour, the concerto uses traditional tempo markings for its movements and gives no hint of exactly what its overall title may mean – but the differentiation of its movements does indeed showcase a variety of musical approaches and a sense of meandering progress that eventually achieves a satisfying conclusion. More focused on a single mood is Epitaphion, a lament for orchestra whose title is a reflection of multiple meanings, from the Epitaphios icon for Good Friday and Holy Saturday in the Eastern Orthodox religion to the notion of a lamentation upon the grave (note the included word “epitaph”). This is a serious piece of largely uniform mood, but with enough variety in orchestration, structure and rhythm to sustain listeners’ interest. It is not, however, as accessible as the delightful Potpourri, whose 11 segments run from less than one minute to just over three, their moods flitting by in quicksilver fashion, listeners having just enough time to grasp what one piece is doing before it ends and is replaced by the next. The pieces’ generally whimsical titles reflect their content well and lead to some amusing juxtapositions: “Stuck” followed by “Spasm” and then by “Gruff,” for example, or “Cirrus” followed by “Hopscotch.” It is altogether fitting that the final, fleet miniature here is called “Scoot.” Hodkinson is not really a miniaturist – he actually seems quite comfortable in more-extended forms – but in terms of reaching out to an audience, the little bits that he collectively calls Potpourri are very effective indeed.

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