February 27, 2014
(++++) THE UNEXPECTED
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7. Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. OCO. $18.99.
Steven Mackey: Stumble to Grace; Sneaky March; John Adams: Hallelujah Junction; China Gates. Orli Shaham and Jon Kimura Parker, pianists; Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by David Robertson. Canary Classics. $16.99.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra; Symphony of Psalms. Michel Béroff, piano; English Bach Festival Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.
PentaTone Limited: Creating Timeless Classics. PentaTone. $13.99 (SACD).
Scottish Chamber Orchestra Special Anniversary Edition: Wagner—Siegfried Idyll; Sibelius—The Tempest: Suite No. 2; Mozart—Symphony No. 41. Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati (Wagner), Joseph Swensen (Sibelius) and Sir Charles Mackerras (Mozart). Linn Records. $12.99.
“Ho-hum. Another Beethoven Fifth.” That would be an understandable response to the news of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s performance. But it would be a shame to dismiss this CD so lightly, because the reading here is anything but ho-hum: it is one of the best in years. This first release on the conductorless orchestra’s own label represents some major risk-taking, not only because the repertoire has been recorded innumerable times but also because playing Beethoven symphonies without a conductor’s leadership seems on the face of it to be a fool’s errand – presumption in the highest. That this orchestra not only succeeds but also does so with style, panache and interpretative sensitivity and nuance is testimony to just how finely honed an instrument (singular) this orchestra of virtuoso instrumentalists (plural) really is. This is a Beethoven Fifth that captivates and captures the imagination from start to finish. The small size of the ensemble and near-chamber-like quality of the players’ sensitivity to each other result in a reading that moves along strongly and at just-right tempos from start to finish, highlighting, along the way, subtleties of scoring that Beethoven put into this music but that orchestras do not often put on display. The bassoon line is particularly clear here; the oboe solo midway through the first movement is beautiful, and as surprising when it appears as it no doubt was when the work was first heard; the lilt of the second movement and darkness of the third are beautifully highlighted; and when the trombones and piccolo are used in the finale, their presence there – and nowhere else in the symphony – makes perfect sense. This live performance from October 2012 is capped by a breathtaking fourth-movement coda whose speed it seems impossible for the orchestra to maintain – but it does maintain it, along with the sense of ensemble and excitement, right to the end, which is triumphal for Beethoven and the audience alike. The Fifth is coupled with a December 2010 live performance of Beethoven’s Seventh, which is not quite at the same level but is nevertheless a very fine reading indeed. Here the introduction to the first movement is somewhat more effective than the main section, which flags from time to time. The second and third movements are the best in this rendition: the Allegretto is delicate, beautifully paced, with a just-right hint of sweetness, while the Scherzo is speedy, rhythmically vibrant and offered with truly remarkable ensemble playing. The finale is fine, but does not have quite as great a sense of exuberance as it can. It certainly does not plod, but neither does it soar. The performance as a whole is strong but not quite as outstanding as the reading of the Fifth. That rendition is about as far from ho-hum as it is possible to get.
The piano music on a new (+++) Canary Classics release featuring Orli Shaham is scarcely at Beethoven’s level, but there is much to commend in the clever and well-thought-out pieces here by Steven Mackey (born 1956) and John Adams (born 1947). The featured work is the world première recording of Stumble to Grace, a piano concerto written for Shaham by Mackey and performed by her with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by her husband, David Robertson. This is an amusing piece of program music that seems to trace a child’s musical interests from early consciousness to first piano lessons to, eventually, virtuosity. The conceit is an amusing one, and Mackey illustrates it in some rather obvious but nevertheless effective ways, from the celeste-and-percussion sounds at the start through a series of awkward plunkings at the piano’s first entrance and on to, eventually, a complex triple fugue that certainly does test a pianist’s mettle as a virtuoso. Nevertheless, this is one of those works that brings to mind Leonard Bernstein’s famous statement that music does not mean anything, which is to say that it is rather unfair to require an audience to know exactly what a piece of music is trying to say in order to enjoy it. There are certainly enjoyable moments in Stumble to Grace, but without its overarching “story arc,” the work loses a great deal; and even with it, it comes across as somewhat disconnected and episodic. One of its elements is taken from the solo-piano version of Sneaky March, a short work that Shaham commissioned from Mackey for the Baby Got Bach series and that functions here as a sort of encore – to the concerto, not the whole CD. For the disc also contains two works by Adams, Hallelujah Junction (1996) for two pianos and China Gates (1977) for one. The latter is among Adams’ earliest mature works and is an example of “process music,” one of those curious modernist concepts in which the way in which a piece is made is at least as important as what the piece itself has to say. China Gates is a modal work – using four modes, two in the first movement and two in the third, with all four mixed together in the central one. But it is modal music as used by a modern composer for whom modes are a tool of construction rather than one of communication. Adams fans will enjoy both it and the more-substantial Hallelujah Junction, in which the pianos more or less echo each other for 16 minutes as rhythmic pulses and meters shift again and again. The work is redolent of Adams’ mature style and, like that style, seems designed more for his fellow composers and for the intricacies offered to performers than for any emotional expressiveness intended to involve an audience.
Speaking of Leonard Bernstein, emotional expressiveness – sometimes rather too much of it – was a quality for which he was known as a conductor. He was also famed for his advocacy of the music of composers such as Igor Stravinsky; and as a first-rate pianist himself, he was especially sensitive to works such as Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. This is the least-known and therefore least-expected work on a new (++++) ICA Classics release that is the first DVD release of the memorial concert held in London’s Royal Albert Hall on April 8, 1972, the first anniversary of Stravinsky’s death. These performances have more than historical value, although they certainly have that. Bernstein selected the three works that made up the concert heard here, and the recording – which, happily, is in color – shows him at his best, highly involved in the music and sprawling all over the podium while pulling the pieces together with more intensity and precision than his often-expansive gestures would seem to warrant. Michel Béroff does a very fine job indeed as piano soloist, but in fact the Capriccio, although uncommonly well performed here, is not the highlight of the concert. That distinction falls to The Rite of Spring, whose complexities Bernstein always relished and whose tremendous rhythmic difficulties and propulsiveness brought out the best in his podium manner. Bernstein is particularly intriguing to watch here as he shapes the music both by focusing on details of instrumental balance and by simultaneously providing a big-picture view of the ballet that keeps its disparate sections from becoming disconnected from the underlying narrative – which it is not necessary to know in order to follow and be moved by the flow of the music. The concert concludes, probably inevitably, with Symphony of Psalms, in which the English Bach Festival Chorus delivers a moving and very well-sung performance of a work that nicely balances the angularity and intensity of The Rite of Spring with something altogether warmer but no less redolent of Stravinsky’s personality.
The ICA Classics releases are intended as windows into the musical past – and they are often clearer ones than the self-congratulatory retrospective CDs offered by recording companies on behalf of themselves or of specific ensembles. At some level, the producers of these releases surely understand this, which is why the discs are priced considerably lower than the norm for comparable ones. Two (+++) cases in point are now available from PentaTone and Linn Records. The PentaTone compilation includes 13 works – or rather bits of works – presented by a variety of artists and featuring the outstanding SACD sound for which this label is known. There are symphonic movements here from Tchaikovsky’s Second and Fourth and Shostakovich’s First (all by the Russian National Orchestra), plus one from Saint-Saëns’ Second (Orchestre de la Suisse Romande). There are solo-piano pieces from Schumann’s Waldszenen (Martin Helmchen), Beethoven’s “Waldstein” (Mari Kodama) and Rachmaninoff’s Morceaux de Fantaisie (Nareh Arghamanyan). And there are excerpts from Bach’s Violin-and-Oboe Concerto, BWV 1060; Corelli’s Op. 6, No. 4; Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1; Korngold’s Violin Concerto; Howard Blake’s Clarinet Concerto; and Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A. Why anyone would want this particular compendium of partial pieces is difficult to understand. Certainly the sound is high-quality and the performances uniformly top-notch. But listeners who want the music will want all of it, not a movement or section here and there; and indeed they will likely have the performances already, since this release is drawn from the existing PentaTone catalog. This is a disc in search of an audience – one that it is hard to imagine it finding.
The Linn Records CD commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has more to recommend it, since at least it offers three complete works. But the focus here is clearly on the orchestra and three of its conductors, not on the music in and of itself, since the grouping of these specific works in this way makes no logical sense. Still, listeners intrigued by the notion of a very fine chamber ensemble performing disparate pieces under conductors with differing musical approaches may find this CD attractive. Indeed, all the readings have something to recommend them. Robin Ticciati’s Siegfried Idyll – a brand-new recording – is involving and transparent at the same time, pretty rather than deeply beautiful, heartfelt although a touch on the cool side, its overall emotional effect not quite as intense as it can be but the playing itself thoroughly engaging and very impressive. Joseph Swensen’s Sibelius is highly idiomatic, the nine suite movements emerging as individual, jewel-like miniatures, each of them lovingly shaped and all of them more reflective of Sibelius’ own ethos than of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Sir Charles Mackerras’ “Jupiter” symphony is a standout, stately, beautifully balanced, and handled with just the right mixture of elegance and flair; and here the orchestra seems just as comfortable with Classical-era sound and balance as it does with the very different requirements of the much later Wagner and Sibelius works. This disc is in fact an impressive testament to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, just as it is intended to be. Even though it is unlikely that many listeners will be drawn to it for the particular repertoire mixture that it offers, they may find something unexpected – pleasantly so – in the way this modest-size ensemble effectively tackles works of very different eras and very different sensibilities.