March 27, 2014


Suppé: Boccaccio. Hermann Prey, Anneliese Rothenberger, Adolf Dallapozza, Edda Moser, Willi Brokmeier, Kurt Böhme, Walter Berry; Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper München and Bayerisches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Willi Boskovsky. Warner. $16.99 (2 CDs).

Mark Abel: Song Cycles—The Dark-Eyed Chameleon; Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke; Rainbow Songs. Jamie Chamberlin and Ariel Pisturino, sopranos; Victoria Kirsch, piano. Delos. $16.99.

Ravel: La Valse; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Menuet antique; Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn; Prélude; Scriabin: Valse in A-flat; Piano Sonatas Nos. 4 and 5. Sean Chen, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120. Gabriel Chodos, piano. Fleur de Son. $9.99.

     Warner Classics is providing a major service to opera lovers by re-releasing works recorded in the 1960s and 1970s as the “Cologne Collection.” This is wonderful even though the performances and recordings are not necessarily unalloyed successes. The Cologne series is making it possible to hear some real rarities, such as Humperdinck’s Königskinder and Lortzing’s Undine, as well as some unjustly neglected works of considerable interest, such as Boccaccio’s 1879 sort-of-operetta, sort-of-comic-opera, Boccaccio, oder Der Prinz von Palermo. This is an ensemble piece in which only the title character (elegantly sung by Hermann Prey) really has any personality at all; everyone else pales into insignificance, even the prince of the subtitle (Willi Brokmeier). Suppé’s works have wit and sparkle aplenty, but they often do not fit neatly into the operetta mold pioneered by Offenbach and refined by Johann Strauss Jr. and others. For example, Boccaccio is not filled with waltzes or other dance tunes, and ensemble pieces play a greater role in the work than might be expected. Besides, one of the best-known traditions of operetta, the two-couple love story (one high-born pair and one low-born), is entirely absent here. Boccaccio is essentially a personality piece about the notorious 14th-century Florentine author and rake, showing him trying to win the approbation of the prince of Palermo as well as the favor of the ruler’s illegitimate daughter, Fiametta (Anneliese Rothenberger) – and eventually succeeding, to the discomfiture of the townsfolk, who fear his effect on their wives and do not much care for his literary endeavors. The 1975 recording of Boccaccio is superbly conducted by Willi Boskovsky, one of the best advocates of lighter opera and operetta during this time period, and the singing ranges from very fine to excellent, with top-notch performers such as Adolf Dallapozza, Kurt Böhme and Walter Berry making sure that even smaller roles are handled adeptly. The analog sound is quite good, and the remastering has been done well. But the performance shows its age in certain ways – for example, three numbers, including an attractive sextet, are omitted altogether. And the release not only lacks a libretto or any link to one online (a very unfortunate absence, since the plot of Boccaccio is not straightforward, and an understanding of the dialogue is crucial to follow it) but also fails even to provide a summary of the action. The result is a recording that sounds delightful but makes no sense to anyone who is not fluent in German – a real shame, since the libretto by Friedrich Zell (pen name of Camillo Walzel) and Richard Genée is witty and well-crafted. Warner’s Boccaccio is delightful in many ways, but could easily have been delightful in more.

     The vocal enjoyment is more personal and intense on a Delos CD called Terrain of the Heart, featuring three song cycles by Mark Abel (born 1948). The deepest and most affecting of these is The Dark-Eyed Chameleon, which traces the end of a love relationship in forthright and emotionally fraught words by Abel himself. The final song title, “Cataclysm,” is a major overstatement objectively but accurately reflects the emotional devastation experienced when love self-destructs. Abel’s vocal writing is essentially tonal and basically in the art-song tradition, but his piano accompaniment is not, partaking of jazz and rock elements and generally requiring the pianist to be far more a participant in the drama and emotion of the songs than is usual in classical lieder. Soprano Jamie Chamberlin and pianist Victoria Kirsch make an excellent pair in The Dark-Eyed Chameleon, their voices (the piano does often sound like a second voice) intermingling at times, contrasting at others, singer and pianist heightening the emotional turmoil effectively as the cycle progresses and eventually bringing matters to a point of acceptance, however unsatisfactory that may be for those who have loved and lost. Chamberlin and Kirsch also do a first-rate job with the four Rainbow Songs, which are more loosely connected and more lyrical than dramatic. Brighter and more optimistic than The Dark-Eyed Chameleon, the Rainbow Songs cycle is also more ordinary in expression, pleasant enough in this world première recording but not especially revelatory or emotionally forthcoming. In the third cycle here, Kirsch is again the pianist, but the soprano is Ariel Pisturino, and that is not the only difference between this cycle and the others: Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke is the only music here for which Abel did not himself write the words. The dreamlike, surrealistic, enigmatic poetry of Rilke (1875-1926) has fascinated many composers, and all have struggled to find musical ways to reflect images that are sometimes religious, sometimes mystical, sometimes entirely inward in focus, and often strange and difficult to interpret. Abel’s settings attempt to balance the delicacy and ambiguity of Rilke’s work, with modest but not unqualified success – this cycle is somewhat more distancing and less involving than the other two on this CD, although it is certainly well sung, and Kirsch’s pianism fits it with a sure understanding and uncompromising technique.

     Technique is also a major attraction in Sean Chen’s Steinway & Sons recording of works by Ravel and Scriabin – essentially a disc focusing on piano music from the turn of the 20th century to the start of World War I. The 26-year-old Chen certainly has more than enough technical ability to handle all this music, even Scriabin’s notoriously difficult Sonata No. 5, but whether he has sufficient understanding to distinguish among the works – between that Scriabin sonata and No. 4, for example – is another matter. These two sonatas were written before and after Le Poème de l'Extase, and there is a significant break between them in other ways, with No. 4 being in two movements and No. 5 being the first of Scriabin’s one-movement sonatas (the single-movement form is used in all the rest of them, through the final No. 10). The works’ emotional content is quite different, but Chen’s readings seem more focused on getting the complexities of the works right – which he does – than on exploring the sonatas’ differing emotional landscapes. The other Scriabin piece here, the Op. 38 Valse, was written between these two sonatas and is an altogether lighter work, and Chen handles it effectively. The intermingling of Scriabin and Ravel, though, is managed rather strangely. The CD starts with Scriabin’s Valse, continues with Ravel’s Menuet antique, then offers Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4, then three Ravel works, then Scriabin’s No. 5, and finally Ravel’s La valse in Chen’s own arrangement. Although of course it is possible to listen to tracks in any order, some thought presumably went into arranging them this way, but the underlying notion is difficult to fathom. There is no particular flow to the disc; indeed, it is distinctly odd to follow Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4 with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, which Chen plays very well but which is rather jarring in this context. The next two Ravel works are very short – Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn and the Prélude of 1913 – and then comes the extreme complexity of Scriabin’s No. 5, which, again, is rather jarring as a result. Perhaps this intensity of contrast is the intention, but if so, it is rather overdone. It has to be said that the concluding La valse is really excellent, Chen’s arrangement being very well done and his comfort with the work’s virtuosic requirements evident. Even here, though, there is a certain underlying sadness that is missing, a mourning for the vanished world seen mistily through Ravel’s lens. Chen has complete command of his instrument already; hopefully, over time, he will develop a stronger mastery of the nuances and emotional resonance of the music written for it.

     Gabriel Chodos has such mastery already, as is shown in his splendid Fleur de Son recording of Beethoven’s monumental and ever-puzzling Diabelli Variations. These 33 astonishing alterations and expansions of a rather trivial waltz tune by publisher Anton Diabelli never cease to amaze performers and audiences alike. But Chodos seeks more than astonishment here, and finds it in this (++++) recording. A faculty member of the New England Conservatory for more than a quarter of a century and chairman of its piano department for 25 years, Chodos takes an approach to these variations that is anything but academic. He sees this hour-long sampling of late Beethoven as a world-spanning piece, akin in its own way to the inclusiveness of a Mahler symphony, the extremely short variations (often lasting a minute or less) every bit as consequential in the overall architecture as the profundity of the lengthy Grave e maestoso Variation XIV and Largo, molto espressivo Variation XXXI. There is a quicksilver lightness to the playing of the Presto Variations X and XIX – coupled with an understanding of the differences between these two speedy little pieces – as well as close attention to the lyricism and sweetness of the Fughetta: Andante Variation XXIV. And that little fugal passage stands in the strongest possible contrast to the stately and intense Fuga: Allegro Variation XXXII, which almost but not quite caps the entire work. It is in fact only the penultimate variation, and it is up to the transformational final one, the Tempo di Minuetto Variation XXXIII, to bring Diabelli’s little tune transcendently into an age of poise and elegance through a minuet structure past which, ironically, Beethoven himself had already moved: true, he had used the Tempo di Menuetto designation as late as his Symphony No. 8, but that had been in 1812, a full 11 years before he composed the Diabelli Variations. What Chodos does in this performance is to see the Diabelli Variations as a totality greater than the sum of its elements – a clichéd expression, perhaps, but one that is quite apt here, as the pianist traces the theme carefully throughout the entire hour of his playing while still showcasing the highly distinctive elements of each individual component of the music. The Diabelli Variations are among Beethoven’s most variegated compositions, all-encompassing in their emotional and technical reach and something of a wonder in the way they take a fairly simple structural form and very simple tune and use them to reach for vastness and profundity. Chodos understands exactly what this remarkable work tries to do, and his mature and highly sensitive performance helps it attain the heights for which Beethoven strove.

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