August 15, 2013


Handel: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Maria Keohane and Julia Doyle, sopranos; Benjamin Hulett, tenor; Andreas Wolf, bass; Kölner Kammerchor and Collegium Cartusianum conducted by Peter Neumann. Carus. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Clarinet or Viola and Piano (arranged for violin and piano by the composer); Brahms, Schumann and Albert Dietrich: FAE Sonata for Violin and Piano. Annemarie Åström, violin; Terhi Dostal, piano. NCA. $24.99.

Gregory Hall: Compositional Improvisations from the Mysteria, Vol. 1. Gregory Hall, piano. Ravello. $12.99.

Martin Schlumpf: Mouvements for piano and orchestra; Waves for solo cello, trumpet obbligato, string orchestra and computer; Streams for clarinet, bass trombone and 17 instruments. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vit Micka and Petr Vronský; PARMA Orchestra conducted by John Page. Navona. $16.99.

     Despite the increasing popularity of some of Handel’s operas and the perennial performances of a number of his oratorios – with Messiah being preeminent – there are some of his works in the opera/oratorio sphere that continue to get short shrift. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is one of them – perhaps in part because Handel himself was never quite sure what to call it. It is not really an oratorio and is certainly not an opera, being a two-hour vocal setting that intermingles two wonderful poems by John Milton and concludes with something of a thud with a third section whose poetry is by librettist Charles Jennens. Milton wrote L’Allegro and Il Penseroso as separate but related poems about two of the four “humors,” the sanguine and melancholic, but Jennens – a better librettist than poet (he also did Messiah) – skillfully interlaced the works’ lines, giving Handel plenty of musical opportunities to contrast the brighter sentiments with the darker and more-thoughtful ones. Handel rose to the occasion brilliantly, with arias, recitatives and occasional choruses that not only pick up on Milton’s expressive poetry but also expand it in intriguing and musically very interesting ways – for example, when L’Allegro uses traditional Baroque “grief music” to tell Il Penseroso to begone, while the latter makes the same demand of L’Allegro in a merry gigue. Very well sung by soloists and chorus alike, and performed on original instruments, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is a marvelous experience in the performance led by Peter Neumann. To be sure, the final section, intended to proffer a “golden mean” but in fact presenting something that is closer to bronze, is of less interest both verbally and musically – Handel simply could not do as much with it as with the first two parts. But there are so many pleasures in this non-operatic non-oratorio that it certainly deserves to be heard much more frequently.

     All of Mahler’s symphonies get their due these days, but the Seventh still less so than the others – it remains a difficult work and a tough nut to crack. Even the best Mahler conductors do not always seem to know what to do with this piece, whose two Nachtmusik movements contain both the profound and the ordinary and whose C major finale jumps out with a bright sunniness wholly atypical not only of the rest of the symphony but also of Mahler’s work in general. Because the symphony contains so many elements that do not always fit easily together, every performance of it is an adventure, and Markus Stenz’s is no exception. Stenz makes some unusual decisions here: the first movement is not as depressive as usual, for example, and the second (the first Nachtmusik) is taken more quickly than its Allegro moderato tempo would indicate. The music does not really feel rushed, but it is more propulsive than listeners will likely expect. The scherzo and second Nachtmusik are more conventional – and played very well indeed, with the fourth movement’s guitar and mandolin being pleasantly evocative. The finale, though, is really something, crowning the symphony in a highly unusual way. Some conductors seem almost apologetic about this hectic, insistently positive movement, but not Stenz, who pushes its tempo, lets the almost-vulgar opening timpani solo proclaim celebration from the start, and keeps the pulse of the movement racing so that even the contrasting sections fit neatly and consistently into the whole. This is one of the most effective finales of the Seventh available on CD, really bringing forth the sheer ebullience of this most-positive of Mahler’s conclusions – an even more forthright movement than the rondo finale of the Fifth, which this later rondo resembles in important ways. The rousing conclusion to this exceptionally well-played performance certainly does not answer all the questions about this symphony: the finale seems almost to come from a different world, which in fact was part of Mahler’s point (night music followed by a tremendous burst of sunlight). But this is a thoughtful and very well-structured performance that will leave listeners pleasantly puzzling over some of the self-contradictory aspects of Mahler’s Seventh.

     In Brahms’ chamber music, the two late sonatas for clarinet or viola are performed very frequently indeed, and are gems of both the woodwind and string repertoires. The versions for violin, though, are almost completely unknown, heard so rarely that it is hard to believe that Brahms himself created them – and held back their publication for a time out of concern that they would be far more popular than the works’ clarinet and viola forms. Those two are essentially the same, the ranges of the instruments being similar enough so that few emendations were needed to reorient the music from one to the other. The violin form of the sonatas, though, differs in a number of respects from the clarinet and viola ones, and while the alterations are not in themselves major, they provide a new and different look at these late Brahms works and show them in a different perspective – not merely in an altered register because of the violin’s greater brightness. Annemarie Åström and Terhi Dostal make an excellent case for these sonatas in this form, performing with a fine sense of the works’ structure and great care for their harmonies and rhythms. The violin versions do lack some of the warmth and tonal beauty of those for clarinet or viola, but in return they offer a highly attractive fluidity of line and some very lovely expressiveness that stops short of swooning. And the Åström-Dostal CD also includes another work that is very rarely heard in its entirety: the FAE Sonata, a gift to violinist Joseph Joachim from three composer friends – the title refers to what was then Joachim’s personal motto, Frei, aber einsam (“free, but lonely”). Brahms’ scherzo for this sonata is often played on its own – and is, ironically, the only one of the four movements that does not use the “FAE” melodic theme. But hearing the sonata as a whole is a salutary experience. Schumann wrote the second and fourth movements, of which the second, designated an intermezzo, provides welcome respite from the stormier movements around it. Dietrich produced the opening Allegro, the longest movement by far, and although his compositional prowess was not at the level of Schumann’s or Brahms’, he here shows a fine command of musical form and a considerable gift for melodic beauty. This is a costly CD – a fact that may give some listeners pause – but it is a very special one in its presentation of unusual and intriguing Romantic music that, considering its very high quality, is heard surprisingly seldom.

     The FAE Sonata is too well-integrated to seem like a pastiche or improvisation, but the improvisational approach was a common one for pianists in the 19th century and remains so for some in the 21st. Gregory Hall specifically says he looked back to Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin in creating the works heard on a Ravello CD called Compositional Improvisations from the Mysteria, Vol. 1. But these are contemporary pieces through and through, created as live online concerts in 2011 and 2012 (with a short concluding Apotheosis dating to 2009). The works combine considerable dissonance and contemporary compositional techniques with periodic wanderings into the tonal world. Their titles are evocative but not especially reflective of the musical contents: Reflects dans le soleil, Introduction to “The Mysteria,” Thouros and Phosphoros, Mabou, Appledore, Symbolist Minimal and the aforementioned Apotheosis. The great improvisers of the 19th century based their performances on the popular music of the time – opera tunes or their own readily graspable themes – but Hall offers less for listeners to hold onto aurally and less clarity in the structures with which he develops his material. He is a fine pianist, though, and this (+++) CD shows that he clearly has a vision of how to use improvisation in a modern context and with a modern presentation method.

     The piano also plays an important role in one of the Martin Schlumpf concertos on a (+++) Navona CD. The three works here show some influence of earlier composers, from Ravel to Schubert, but much of the sound is drawn from the sort of “world music” that many contemporary classical composers find attractive: Asian and African sounds, electronic and computer-generated material, minimalist structure, even some improvisation. Mouvements dates to 1994/1999, Waves to 2002, and Streams to 2010, but there is no significant compositional progress observable or audible in Schlumpf’s work over this time period: all the pieces are mixtures of varying effects, and all have movements that are simply labeled as Part A, Part B, Part C, and so forth. The soloists are uniformly fine: pianist Martin Levický, cellist Petr Nouzovský, trumpeter Marek Vajo, clarinetist Matthias Müller, and bass trombonist David Taylor all handle their roles with care and skill. The orchestras are fine, too: the Moravian Philharmonic, which often performs contemporary works for Navona, and the newly formed PARMA Orchestra, heard here in its first recording and named for the company that produces Navona, Ravello and Big Round Records CDs. Like many of the releases on these labels, the one featuring these Schlumpf concertos is well-packaged, well-produced and well-played, but remains more of a limited-interest item than one that is likely to reach out to a new audience of any significant size.

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