September 25, 2014


Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4; Dona nobis pacem; The Lark Ascending. David Coucheron, violin; Jessica Rivera, soprano; Brett Polegato, baritone; Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano. ASO Media. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Milhaud: L’Orestie d’Eschyle. Soloists, percussion ensemble, Chamber Choir, University Choir, Orpheus Singers, UMS Choral Union and University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Kiesler. Naxos. $29.99 (3 CDs).

Cécile Chaminade: Piano Music. Joanne Polk, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

     Ralph Vaughan Williams famously said that he was not sure, after the fact, whether he really liked his Symphony No. 4, but it was what he meant to write at the time he wrote it. That was in the mid-1930s – the work was first played in 1935 – and the piece has been a knotty one ever since. Its dissonance is pronounced, its tension and drama almost unrelieved, and it is one of only two Vaughan Williams symphonies to end loudly (No. 8 is the other). The work stands in such strong contrast to the composer’s better-known, more-familiar pastoral music that it sometimes barely seems to be by him at all. Yet its language, in orchestration, harmony and rhythm, is unmistakably his, and even though it stands outside the primary body of his work, it is a symphony that deserves to be heard much more frequently. The new Robert Spano recording with the Atlanta Symphony, on the orchestra’s own label, is broad-scale and a touch on the slow side, but the music’s intensity comes through clearly, and its pronounced overall severity is very well communicated: the concluding fugal epilogue stands here as a true capstone. The symphony contrasts very strongly with The Lark Ascending, which dates to 1914 in its original form for violin and piano and to 1920 in the better-known version heard here, for solo violin and orchestra. Styled a Pastoral Romance, this lovely and delicate work, its solo part feelingly handled by concertmaster David Coucheron, moves onward and upward in a spiral of beauty and warmth, reflecting and going beyond the 1881 George Meredith poem that inspired it. Naïve and forthright in expression, with a solo part that soars higher and higher and draws the audience along with it, The Lark Ascending has long been one of Vaughan Williams’ most-popular works for its uncomplicated approach, its accessible sound, and its carefully crafted orchestration. The performance here is particularly effective because of the contrast between this music and that of the Fourth Symphony. Also on this two-CD set is the 1936 cantata, Dona nobis pacem, and it too contrasts fascinatingly with the symphony. Set to a text consisting of sections of the Mass and the Bible, poems by Walt Whitman, and – of all things – a political speech by John Bright (1811-1889), Dona nobis pacem was written as the clouds of war were again building over Europe, and it constitutes the composer’s heartfelt (if naïve) plea for peace through a reminder of the depredations of wars past. The fact that the work seems apposite to the world today is a measure of Vaughan Williams’ ability to reach well beyond his own time to tap into universal feelings and longings. The phrase Dona nobis pacem ("Give us peace"), set in multiple ways, resounds through the music and knits the work together. In the Spano performance, soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Brett Polegato deliver their lines with feeling, and the chorus sings with warmth and clear diction, with the result that the cantata as a whole offers uplift untouched by irony and seeming, if anything, particularly apt in light of current geopolitical events.

     Neither the Fourth Symphony nor Dona nobis pacem is particularly well-known among Vaughan Williams’ works, but both are vastly more familiar than is L’Orestie d’Eschyle among those of Darius Milhaud. It took Milhaud more than a decade (1913-23) to complete this sprawling, highly ambitious setting of all three Aeschylus Oresteia plays: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Furies. This is an early work by Milhaud (1892-1974) and is quite uneven, not only in the lengths of its parts but also in the composer’s approach to the material, which ranges from the conventional to the genuinely original. Agamemnon emerges as a short and rather ordinary prelude to the rest of the work: the setting of a single scene of the play, for soprano and chorus, is intended as part of a stage performance of the whole drama, and gives little hint of what is to come. There is much more to Les Choéphores (Milhaud’s title for The Libation Bearers, which he used in a Paul Claudel translation): here he employs full orchestra, 15 percussionists, very complex choruses and an odd – and oddly effective – rhythmically notated speech that retains a feeling of considerable modernity even a century later. Even this half-hour portion, though, pales before the 95-minute treatment of Les Euménides (The Furies). Here the orchestra is expanded even further, including saxophone and saxhorn quartets, and the music reaches out in ways comparatively typical of Paris in the 1920s but tending to sound more like Stravinsky of that time than like the Milhaud of Le boeuf sur le toit, which dates to 1920 – three years before Les Euménides. The new Naxos release of the complete L’Orestie d’Eschyle is highly ambitious, being a reading by many of the same forces who so brilliantly handled the equally daunting Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Bolcom – who studied with Milhaud and was the prime mover behind the April 2013 presentation recorded here. This was the first-ever North American performance of L’Orestie d’Eschyle, and this is the first complete recording of the score. And all of that is well and good, but the question for listeners is whether the whole endeavor is worthwhile and the performers as good as they need to be. The answer is a qualified yes: this is complex music, requiring a very large number of participants (120-piece orchestra, 320-voice choir), and it is also uneven music – frequently quite interesting but at times rather pedestrian. The soloists, especially soprano Lori Phillips as Clytemnestra and baritone Dan Kempton as Orestes, are fine, but the combined choruses do not always enunciate clearly enough (although the libretto, available online from Naxos, helps a great deal). The musicians include professionals, amateurs and students, and while everyone clearly approaches the project with considerable enthusiasm, there are ragged edges in both singing and playing here and there – although it must be said that the very large group of percussionists is highly impressive. L’Orestie d’Eschyle does not really hang together very well – it is not a strongly unified work, feeling sometimes like opera, sometimes like oratorio, sometimes like a stage play with music. In parts, it is compelling, but as a whole, it is intriguing for its scoring and intensity rather than emotionally gripping for its story. It is highly unlikely that this work will ever enter the mainstream of musical performance, but the chance to hear it at all – in a very fine, if scarcely flawless, performance – is an extremely welcome one, and kudos are due to Bolcom, Naxos and the University of Michigan performers for making it available.

     The scale is much, much smaller, far more intimate, on a new Steinway & Sons recording of piano music by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944), performed by Joanne Polk. This is a combination of avowed salon music, finger exercises, and one large-scale work designed with considerable seriousness: Sonata in C minor, Op. 21 (1893). In traditional three-movement form, this is an earnest work that indulges in mild chromaticism and fairly typical late-Romantic emotional exaggeration – well-crafted but scarcely riveting. The études performed by Polk, even if intended primarily as developmental tools for performers, are more intriguing, showing that Chaminade had considerable skill as a miniaturist. Four excerpts from Études de Concert, Op. 35 (1886) comprise Scherzo, Automne, Fileuse (Spinner) and Impromptu. Also here are individual pieces: Étude Symphonique, Op. 28 (1884), Étude Mélodique, Op. 118 (1906), Étude Pathétique, Op. 124 (also 1906), and Étude Romantique, Op. 132 (1909). These are all attractive works that can fairly be called pièces caracteristiques, reflecting not only virtuoso requirements but also the stances or emotions their titles are intended to evoke. But they are not avowed salon music, as are the other three pieces here: La Lisonjera (The Flatterer), Op. 50 (1890), Les Sylvains (The Fauns), Op. 60 (1892), and Autrefois (Bygone Days), Op. 87, No. 4 (1897). It is easy to dismiss these short pieces as “lesser” music, but difficult to do so without also dismissing the similar works of, say, Chopin or Field. True, there is not a great deal beyond pleasantries on this CD, not much to stir the soul or invite deep thought or considerable introspection – not even in the sonata. But there is a considerable amount of very well-made music that stands firmly within the French Romantic tradition, played with strong commitment and understanding by Polk and highlighting a voice with enough individualistic qualities to make listeners wonder what other neglected Chaminade pieces may lie out there. There are in fact quite a few: even her works with opus number run to Op. 171 and include not only solo-piano music – in which she, a virtuoso herself, specialized – but also a ballet, a number of songs and even a Konzertstück (although not a full-fledged concerto) for piano and orchestra. Hopefully there will be more Chaminade releases to come.

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