February 06, 2014


Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1, 5 and 9. New York Philharmonic (Nos. 1 and 9) and Wiener Philharmoniker (No. 5) conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Archipel. $22.99 (2 CDs).

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons; Concerto for Three Violins; Arvo Pärt: Passacaglia. Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; English Chamber Orchestra conducted by David Lockington. eOne. $16.99.

Foundations: Modern Works in the Classical Tradition by Andrew Schultz, Sergio Cervetti, David Nisbet Stewart, Joanne D. Carey, Daniel Perttu and Jonathan Sacks. Navona. $16.99.

Abhanden: Music by Chinary Ung, Claude Vivier, Daniel Dehaan, Andrew Greenwald, Marcos Balter and Eliza Brown. Chris Wild, cello; Ensemble Dal Niente. Navona. $14.99.

McCormick Percussion Group: Soli for Soprano with Percussion Orchestra. Jamie Jordan, soprano. Ravello. $12.99.

European Folkscapes. Apollo Chamber Players. Navona. $16.99.

     One of the conductors most responsible for presenting the standard classical-music repertoire with the high quality and attention to detail that audiences have come to expect was Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989). Something of a martinet and a stickler for precision, Karajan, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic for 35 years, was often accused – especially in the years after 1970 – of insisting on Nazi-like precision in performance at the expense of emotional feeling, resulting in technically polished but ultimately vapid readings. The accusation had political elements to it, since Karajan had joined the Nazi Party in the 1930s, apparently for social and professional reasons more than ideological ones. But the critique tended to stick, in part because Karajan made so many recordings – he was one of the best-selling classical musicians of all time, perhaps the best-selling of all – that both proponents and detractors could find at least some works to bolster their beliefs. The Karajan controversy sometimes overshadowed the conductor’s extraordinary musicianship, and a look back at some of his earlier performances is therefore salutary. Listeners willing to forgive the Archipel label for the substandard sound of its new Karajan release will hear some very high-quality music-making from the 1940s and 1950s, featuring Karajan conducting orchestras with which he was not usually associated. The earliest recording here, of Beethoven’s Fifth, dates all the way back to 1948 and features the superb Vienna Philharmonic, an ensemble that Karajan did lead from time to time. Never released before, this performance has all the intensity and dynamism that listeners came to expect from Karajan, and a good deal of the slickness as well, although the comparatively primitive sound makes the orchestra sound less polished than is its wont. These readings of the First and Ninth came 10 years later, and the 1958 sound, while scarcely first-quality, is significantly improved over that of 1948; but the New York Philharmonic – not an orchestra with which Karajan often appeared – is far from being the equal of its Viennese counterpart. These are nevertheless compelling interpretations. The First is fleet enough but somewhat grandiose, lacking any strong sense of the Mozartean elements that made it into a transitional work for classical music in general at the end of the 18th century. The Ninth is grandiose, too, almost operatic in its drama, and here Karajan really comes into his own. Some may find the performance a bit overwrought by modern standards, but there is no doubt that it is carefully put together, very well paced and, in the finale, scrupulously balanced, exciting and affirmative. The quartet of soloists is at the absolute highest level: soprano Leontyne Price, contralto Maureen Forrester, tenor Léopold Simoneau, and bass Norman Scott. Karajan pushes them to excel – he was expert at extracting top-quality performances from singers – and excel they do. This is a memorable performance that helps show why Karajan, despite the controversies about his life and art, remains a seminal figure in the history of 20th-century orchestral conducting.

     Beethoven’s music is some of the best-known in the classical sphere among people who do not normally listen to classical works. But some music by other composers is even more familiar than most by Beethoven – one example being Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the first four of the 12 concertos from his Op. 8 collection. There are innumerable fine recordings of these concertos, but few attempt to connect Vivaldi’s 18th century to the 21st as clearly and explicitly as does the new (++++) one by Anne Akiko Meyers on the eOne label. To begin with, Meyers offers really excellent readings of these concertos from the 1720s, using a violin dating to the 1740s: the “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesù, whose beauty of sound and evenness of tone add considerable warmth to the concertos even as Meyers’ playing proffers virtuosity of the highest order – and is ably accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra under David Lockington. So far, so much in the past. But the remainder of this CD lies firmly in the 21st century. Vivaldi’s F major three-violin concerto, RV 551, gets a very fine and very well balanced performance, the three violins playing off each other with elegance and poise – with all the solo parts played by Meyers, thanks to 21st-century recording technology. The one-player-many-roles performance capability actually dates to the latter part of the 20th century, but technology now allows it to be considerably more refined, and the undoubted attractions of this interpretation are wonderfully juxtaposed for listeners with the knowledge that all three solo lines, so seamlessly interwoven, belong to the same performer. And then there is the other piece on the CD, Passacaglia by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Clearly inspired by a musical form of the Baroque, this work – written in 2003 for violin and piano and arranged by the composer for violin, string orchestra and vibraphone ad libitum in 2007 – brings Vivaldi’s time directly into ours, neatly complementing Vivaldi’s own music. It would be exaggerating the importance of Pärt’s composition to place it on the same level as Vivaldi’s: Pärt’s work, which he wrote for the Hannover International Violin Competition, is an occasional piece lasting just four minutes (eOne unaccountably and irritatingly provides no timings for any of the music on this short CD). But including the Pärt work here certainly showcases the continuing influence of older classical music on the composers of today.

     Four (+++) new releases devoted entirely to contemporary music, three from Navona and one from Ravello, show equally clearly how the works and styles of the past can still exert a strong influence on today’s composers – even a foundational one, which is the point of the title of a new Navona CD called Foundations. The works here are by David Nisbet Stewart  (five pieces), Andrew Schultz (two), Sergio Cervetti, Joanne D. Carey, Daniel Perttu and Jonathan Sacks (one apiece), and they range from Stewart’s firmly tonal toccatas to a Latin choral work by Cervetti to an organ-and-orchestra one by Sacks. The notion here is to use underlying elements of Western classical music to say something new, albeit by frequently using old texts. The pieces bear little relationship to each other, and the overall feeling of the CD is of a pastiche rather than a firmly grounded, interrelated disc. It is essentially a sampler of modern composers who use older classical forms and/or instruments – an interesting presentation, but not really a compelling one.

     In a somewhat analogous vein, a Navona disc called Abhanden (German for “lost”) features cellist Chris Wild exploring six modern chamber works whose sensibilities range from those of traditional Western aesthetics to those of Cambodian folk songs. Wild does manage to show connections among these pieces by Chinary Ung (Spiral), Claude Vivier (Piece pour Violoncelle et Piano), Daniel Dehaan (If It Encounters the Animal, If It Becomes Animalized…), Andrew Greenwald (Jeku [II]), Marcos Balter (Memória), and Eliza Brown (Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen), but listeners may not find those connections particularly persuasive, since so many involve turning the warm, rich tones of the cello into something distinctly screechy and self-consciously modernistic (as is hinted at in the modern-ish titles of several of the works). Brown’s piece, despite its title, has nothing whatsoever to do with Mahler’s of the same name, and although soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett handles the work more than adequately, the music itself has little of the direct emotional communication of its namesake. Indeed, emotional connection is not generally in the forefront of these compositions, wherever their influences come from.

     A soprano is crucial to all three works on the newest Ravello CD from the McCormick Percussion Group: To the Roaring Wind by Matt Barber, Twelve Virtues by Baljinder Singh Sekhon, II, and Chant après Chant by Jean Barraqué. Once again here we have three disparate pieces connected only tenuously, but on this disc the connections are stronger than on Foundations or Abhanden. This is thanks partly to the continuity provided by soprano Jamie Jordan being featured throughout and partly to the fact that the percussion accompaniment in all three works gives them certain auditory parallels despite their very different structures. Barber’s nine-movement work is based on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, while Sekhon’s extended single-movement piece has the Bible as its source – and Barraqué’s even-more-extended offering is a secular one with a focus on opposites. Despite the variation of sound within the percussion ensemble, the use solely of percussion instruments on this disc tends to wear thin after a while, and by the time the hour-plus of music is over, the whole production is somewhat tiring – all the more so because Barraqué’s work is rather over-extended. Fans of percussion writing will be intrigued by the expressiveness of which the McCormick Percussion Group is capable, but for a general audience, Soli is something of a chore to hear from start to finish.

     Many composers on all three of these discs show that they have been influenced by music that goes well beyond Western classical boundaries; indeed, such international and multi-national influences are common in contemporary classical music. Navona’s new CD with the Apollo Chamber Players (violinists Matthew Detrick and Anabel Ramirez, violist Whitney Bullock, and cellist Matthew Dudzik) takes that influence to a different if not necessarily higher level by presenting 13 original arrangements for string quartet of traditional folk melodies from all around Europe: Germany, Greece, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Spain, Russia, Italy and the Basque region.  Two Basque works, one for solo violin and one for violin duo, are highlights here; another is an eight-minute Fantasy on Bulgarian Rhythms that is the longest work on this fairly short (52-minute) CD. The Fantasy, written by Karim Al-Zand, was commissioned by the Apollo Chamber Players, and they themselves transcribed or arranged all the other music heard here. Their playing is assured and well-balanced and their enjoyment of the music palpable, but the music itself is generally rather thin, tending to pleasant and simple tunes and considerable repetition. As a brief survey of some of the many countries and styles of folk music from which composers draw inspiration, European Folkscapes is interesting, and some of the tunes and arrangements are pleasant and involving in their own right. Taken as a whole, this is scarcely a disc with substantial musical value, but it provides pleasant listening and a chance to hear some fine quartet playing in repertoire that may not be classical itself but that certainly has had impact on the classical-music world.

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