November 13, 2014
(++++) MEETINGS OF THE MINDS
Josef Strauss: Quadrilles on Opera Themes. Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and Razumovsky Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Dittrich, Christian Pollack, Alfred Eschwé and Manfred Müssauer. Naxos. $9.99.
The King’s Singers: Postcards. Signum Records. $17.99.
Turtle Island Quartet: Confetti Man and other works. Turtle Island Quartet (Mateusz Smoczyński and David Balakrishnan, violins; Benjamin von Gutzeit, viola; Mark Summer, cello). Azica. $16.99.
Gian Francesco Malipiero: Fantasie di ogni giorno; Passacaglie; Concerti. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.
Cross-pollination among composers, musical forms and types of music can lead to some fascinating outcomes, as is quite clear in a Naxos release extracted from the company’s 26-volume Josef Strauss Edition on its Marco Polo “exploration” label. This CD offers 10 examples of quadrilles – a highly stylized musical form that, in its Viennese version, contains six parts, four in 2/4 time, one in 6/8 time and one in either 2/4 or 6/8. Extremely popular when the Strauss family was in its heyday, the formulaic quadrille later fell out of favor both as music and as dance (although it is considered an ancestor of traditional square dancing). When it was all the rage, though, Josef Strauss – whose music has elegance and flair that often even exceeds that of the music of his brother, Johann Jr. – wrote quite a few quadrilles using tunes from operas and operettas of the time. Josef was particularly drawn to Offenbach, whose music has eloquence, beauty and tremendous tunefulness. Seven of the quadrilles on this CD are based on Offenbach stage works, some of them at least moderately familiar (Bluebeard, La Périchole, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein) and others very little known (The Georgian Women, Geneviève de Brabant, Le Château à Toto). In one case, Strauss could not find enough suitable tunes in Fortunio, so he plucked some from two other works and produced what is called the Fortunio-Magellone-Daphnis Quadrille. Strauss’ music flows so naturally and delightfully that even listeners unfamiliar with the original stage works will revel in this recording – but ones who do know the original operas and operettas will enjoy the performances even more, as Strauss successfully strings unrelated pieces together and changes rhythms and emphases according to the requirements of the quadrille form. In addition to the Offenbach-based quadrilles, there is one here based on Gounod’s Faust, one taken from Le Caïd by Ambroise Thomas, and one created from an opera called Crispino e la Comare by Luigi and Federico Ricci (a work that has long since disappeared from the stage despite having a book by famed Verdi librettist Francesco Maria Piave). There is a certain sameness to all quadrilles, however skillfully they may be assembled, because the quadrille form is a rigid one in ways that the waltz, for example, is not. Josef Strauss, however, made everything of quadrilles that could be made of them, and the sampling of his works in this form is a delight from start to finish.
Fans of the ever-smooth vocal blending of The King’s Singers will enjoy the kind of cross-pollination offered on their new Signum Classics CD, whose 22 tracks pay tribute to places the singers have visited on their various tours. Since all the music here is short, listeners who find a particular piece uncongenial have only to wait a couple of minutes to encounter the next one. The order of the works, though, is not progressive in any particular way: the disc is really a collection of encores designed for fans of the singing group – not a recording of particularly involving music. Most of the pieces are traditional folk tunes, coming from Canada, France, Korea, New Zealand, England, Finland, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Andalusia, China, Wales and the United States. Pretty much everything else is a popular song. The arrangements, by various people, are well-designed to take advantage of the unusual vocal makeup of this sextet: two countertenors (David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright), one tenor (Paul Phoenix), two baritones (Christopher Bruerton and Christopher Gabbitas), and one bass (Jonathan Howard). This does mean that many of the songs sound somewhat alike, however; and since the music itself is less than compelling, this (+++) disc will really be of interest only to committed fans of the ensemble. Those fans, though, will relish the chance to hear so many languages and so many folk traditions receive the King’s Singers treatment.
There are arrangements as well on the new Turtle Island Quartet CD on the Azica label – plus some original compositions. As with the King’s Singers disc, this is a recording for fans already familiar with what the ensemble does and interested in exploring its approach further. Violinist David Balakrishnan is the biggest presence here, not only as performer (on both violin and baritone violin) but also as composer of Confetti Man, Guruvayoor and Alex in A Major, arranger of John Carisi’s Israel, and co-arranger with Nellie McKay of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David Send Me No Flowers. The other works here are Windspan by Bob Mintzer, Infant Eyes by Wayne Shorter, La Jicotea by Paquito D’Rivera, Pattern Language by Turtle Island Quartet cellist Mark Summer, and Bouncin’ with Bud by Bud Powell. These pieces are artistically all over the map, drawing on roots in classical, folk, rock, jazz and minimalist music. Collectively, the pieces are a showcase for the versatility of the performers – but the music itself is not especially unusual or gripping. The works are often designed to tell specific stories; for example, Confetti Man was inspired by a painting by Balakrishnan’s wife and is supposed to encompass elements of the creative process itself, but it simply sounds like one of many works contrasting quieter and more-thoughtful sections with more-intense, faster-paced ones. The result of the mixture here is a (+++) CD that is very well played but unlikely to reach out beyond listeners already familiar with and enamored of the Turtle Island Quartet’s form of music-making.
The interestingly imaginative elements of a new Naxos CD of the music of Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973) show the composer drawing on sources in a more-abstract way than does Josef Strauss in his opera-focused quadrilles. The longest work here, a piece from 1931 simply entitled Concerti, is an intriguing assemblage of nine short movements designed, aside from its introduction and epilogue, to create concerto-like miniatures for specific instruments: flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, drums and double basses. The musical material itself is rather thin, and the work as a whole is something of a one-note wonder – show this instrument’s virtuosity for a couple of minutes, then that instrument’s, and so forth. But the overall effect is attractive nonetheless. The fine rendition by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia is a world première recording. So is the performance of a piece from 1952 called Passacaglie, whose derivation from Bach’s passacaglias is evident throughout and whose comparatively strict structural design harks back to the Baroque even though Malipiero does not follow his models slavishly. The third work here, and the only one previously recorded, is Fantasie di ogni giorno (“Everyday Fantasies”), a piece from 1953 that Malipiero said he constructed simply by writing down musical ideas he had over a period of time, without changing their sequence. There is a certain cleverness to this explanation and to the music itself, although here as with Concerti, the conception is more attractive than the final musical product. Malipiero’s music has some imaginative and attractive elements, but most listeners are likely to find this (+++) CD has little staying power after an initial hearing: the music is well-crafted and sounds good, but it does not wear particularly well.