February 13, 2014


Dvořák: “American” String Quartet; Copland: Two Pieces; Hoe-Down; Barber: String Quartet; Gershwin: Lullaby; Brubeck: Regret. Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland and Ian Belton, violins; Paul Cassidy, viola; Jacqueline Thomas, cello). Chandos. $18.99.

Britten: The Ascent of F6; An American in England; Roman Wall Blues; On the Frontier; Where do we go from here? Samuel West, narrator; Mary Carewe and Jean Rigby, mezzo-sopranos; Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Mervyn Cooke and Lucy Walker, pianists; Ex Cathedra Choir conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore; Hallé conducted by Sir Mark Elder. NMC. $18.99.

Delius: Norwegian Bridal Procession; Paa Vidderne (On the Mountains);Two Songs from the Norwegian; Sleigh Ride (Winter Night); Folkeraadet (The People’s Parliament); On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring; Eventyr (Once upon a Time). Ann-Helen Moen, soprano; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Jason Vieaux: Play. Jason Vieaux, guitar. Azica. $16.99.

     In these times, when many classical composers draw influences from all over the world and from all sorts of music, it is worth remembering that composers of earlier days also sought to capture the sounds of places outside their homeland. There are a few cases in which this is well known: Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony and Mozart’s use of “Turkish” sounds, for example. And of course there is Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” But that symphony is in fact a very Bohemian work that just happens to include various themes that Dvořák picked up in the United States – and this points to the reality that composers who travel bring their own musical conceptions and predilections along as baggage. Dvořák is actually an excellent example of this, as the Brodsky Quartet shows in its very fine performance of the composer’s 1893 work in F, the “American” quartet. There is very little that is overtly American in this, the composer’s 12th quartet, even though Dvořák said he would not have written the piece or his other American compositions quite the same way had he not composed them in the United States. The work has a simple, open, fresh feeling that the Brodsky Quartet communicates clearly, and perhaps it is this refreshing element rather than anything specifically thematic that makes the quartet “American.” The Chandos CD on which it appears is entitled “New World Quartets,” and the remaining works on the disc are by American composers – for whom whatever may be “American” comes naturally rather than through a visit. Samuel Barber actually started writing his only quartet – which is best known for the Adagio for Strings that he created from its second movement – when he was in Austria, but the work is neither especially European nor especially American. It is a lovely piece that flowers in the Brodsky Quartet’s interpretation, in which the famous central movement is clearly part of a larger whole. The remaining works on the CD, all equally well played, are smaller: Gershwin’s rather extended and very pretty 1920 Lullaby, Copland’s Two Pieces (1923-28), and two of the Brodsky Quartet’s own arrangements – of Hoe-Down from Rodeo (1942) and of Dave Brubeck’s Regret (1999). Hoe-Down and Regret here receive their première recordings as quartets, and they work very well in the form; indeed, they are the most consciously, perhaps even a trifle self-consciously, “American-sounding” music here.

     Like Dvořák, Benjamin Britten had a American period, and the NMC disc called “Britten to America” focuses on the radio and theater music he wrote during or in connection with his travels in Canada and the United States from 1939 to 1942. Very little of this music has been heard since its original performances during World War II, although the “Blues” number “Stop All the Clocks” from The Ascent of F6 was later arranged as a cabaret song that enjoyed some popularity. There is no particularly profound music here, but all the works are vigorous and accessible, betraying their origin as incidental music to plays or radio shows and being, for that very reason, attractive in their lack of “serious” ambition and pretension. This is not to say that the music is overly simple: it is in fact both elaborate and dramatic, and looks ahead in some respects to the opera Peter Grimes and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, in the latter case because Britten at this time first met the superb French horn player Dennis Brain, then principal horn of the RAF Orchestra, and wrote the horn parts with him in mind. The specific wartime topics of these works are dated now, but it is interesting to note the high quality of some of the creative teams brought together to produce the plays: W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood wrote the text for The Ascent of F6 and On the Frontier, and Auden’s words provide the text for the short song called Roman Wall Blues. The performances are all sincere and thoughtful, with Samuel West an impressive narrator and Mary Carewe a particularly expressive mezzo-soprano. This is not “major” Britten, but it is affecting and well-crafted music that still has impact even though the occasions for which it was created are long past.

     Another British composer’s travels – in a different direction – are the subject of an SACD from Chandos with the title “Delius in Norway.” This is a generous helping of British music featuring a top British conductor and first-rate Norwegian orchestra – under the circumstances, a particularly happy combination. Norway gained its independence in 1905, and the works here span the period from before that event to a decade after it.  They all have Delius’ immediately recognizable combination of impressionism and delicacy, almost wispiness, of orchestration. A little of Delius tends to go a long way, and non-enthusiasts may find this disc a bit much to sit through from start to finish, especially since the shorter works come off best. Norwegian Bridal Procession (1889) is a gentle rather than raucous celebration; Two Songs from the Norwegian (1889-1908) offer pleasant and forthright folk melodies; and the most-familiar piece here, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912), weaves its usual languorous charm.  Sleigh Ride (1887-89) is effective and pleasant, too, although it exists in a world quite different from Leroy Anderson’s. The three longer pieces are altogether less successful. Paa Vidderne (1888-92) is suitably redolent of mountain air, but goes on rather too long at the same height. And two suites edited by Sir Thomas Beecham – a longtime champion of Delius’ music – are even more tiresome. Eventyr (1915-17) lasts just 15 minutes but seems much longer, and Folkeraadet (1897), a 25-minute suite taken from a play satirizing Norwegian politics, seems pointless as well as long outdated. Delius aficionados will welcome this (+++) CD for the excellent performances and substantial selection of the composer’s works, but other listeners will likely find themselves realizing all too clearly how fine a line there is between Delius at his best and worst – whether in Norway, which the composer considered his spiritual home, or anywhere else.

     Another (+++) CD is also played very well but also offers music of varying quality and interest. This is guitarist Jason Vieaux’ Azica disc simply entitled Play. Not a recording based on a single composer’s travels but one celebrating Vieaux’ own worldwide wanderings and interests, the CD includes 17 short pieces by composers who in most cases are virtually unknown  outside their countries or, in some cases, their regions: Brazil, Argentina, United Kingdom, Spain, Cuba, France, Paraguay, Venezuela, Mexico and the United States. The works here range from Stanley Myers’ Cavatina from The Deer Hunter to Vieaux’ own arrangements of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood and Andrew York’s Sunburst, and from traditional folk music to works redolent of the South American countries where the guitar is deeply embedded in the social fabric. Among the highlights are Andrés Segovia’s Estudio Sin Luz, Manuel Ponce’s arrangement of Por Ti Mi Corazón, Francisco Tárrega’s Capricho Arabe, and Leo Brouwer’s Danza Caracteristica from Cuba. Vieaux is not only a virtuoso but also an artist of considerable expressiveness, bringing his finely honed technique to showpieces and lesser music alike. There is a certain sameness to some of the works, for all that Vieaux does his best to highlight their differences and produce a sound with both clarity and rhythmic vitality. The CD will be a great pleasure, if scarcely a revelatory one, for fans of classical guitar music and of its top performers; for others, it, like the Delius disc, may be more enjoyable if heard in small sections than if listened to from start to finish.

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