November 06, 2014


Vivaldi: Concertos for Two Cellos; Piazzolla: Milonga. Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber, cellos; European Union Chamber Orchestra conducted by Hans-Peter Hofmann. Naxos. $9.99.

Barber: Violin Concerto; John Corigliano: Lullaby for Natalie; Mason Bates: Violin Concerto. Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. eOne. $17.98.

Copland: Violin Sonata; Eric Zeisl: Violin Sonata “Brandeis”; Menuchim’s Song; Bloch: Abodah; Robert Dauber: Serenata. Zina Schiff, violin; Cameron Grant, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Byron Bellows: Music for Saxophone and Orchestra. Javier Oviedo, saxophone; St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble conducted by Jean-Pierre Schmitt. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     The traditional repertoire is often not enough for solo performers these days – they want to look outside the standards of classical music and, in some cases, create their own works to showcase themselves. Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber, for example, give a fine performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor for Two Cellos, RV 531, on a new Naxos CD. But that 10-minute work is scarcely enough to fill a disc – and Vivaldi, although he wrote hundreds of concertos for many single and double instruments, wrote only that single one for two cellos. So Julian Lloyd Webber has arranged Vivaldi works for other instruments, from mandolin to horn, for two cellos, and thus this CD features world première recordings of the two-cello versions of the concertos in G, RV 532 and RV 545; E minor, RV 409; F, RV 539; and G minor, RV 812. The pieces sound fine in these arrangements – Vivaldi’s concertos are formulaic enough to sound “right” on pretty much any instrument that can handle their technical requirements, which means they work nicely when rearranged. The disc is a showcase for the soloists and something of a curiosity, though, made more so by the final piece on it: a world première recording of Julian Lloyd Webber’s two-cello arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga, from the Concerto for Bandoneon and Guitar. This last item is a peculiar conclusion for a Vivaldi-focused CD, and the arrangement, while perfectly acceptable, loses the flavor of the original in a way that the Vivaldi arrangements do not. The soloists get able backing from the European Union Chamber Orchestra under Hans-Peter Hofmann, and the disc will be of interest to listeners who want to hear some fine cello performances, even of works whose composers never intended them for this instrumental combination.

     Anne Akiko Meyers plays three violin pieces that certainly were intended for her instrument, but their juxtaposition on a new eOne disc is rather unusual, and two of the three will likely be unfamiliar to most listeners. Samuel Barber’s 1939 Violin Concerto has been controversial from its creation because of the third movement, a perpetuum mobile that was rejected by Iso Briselli, the performer for whom the work was written, as being too light in character to fit well with the grander and deeper first two movements. A performer’s challenge in this concerto is to choose whether to try to integrate the finale with what has come before, or simply decide to take it for what it is and let it have its own impact – the latter being Meyers’ approach. The result is a performance that feels deep and committed for two movements and then lighter and brilliant at the end – a bit disconnected, but certainly very effective. Meyers takes an analogous approach to the 2012 concerto by Mason Bates (born 1977), whose three movement titles give it an evolutionary and avian feeling: “Archaeopteryx,” “Lakebed memories” and “The rise of the birds.” The music, which here receives its world première recording, is a hybrid of sorts (parallel in this way to the dinosaur/proto-bird Archaeopteryx), mixing inspirations from Bach with what the composer calls “sparkling electronica.” The movement from ground and water to sky is particularly clear between the second movement and the third, and if the work seems a touch on the too-clever side, it certainly has some telling virtuosic moments. The CD also includes John Corigliano’s 2010 Lullaby for Natalie, written for Meyers’ not-yet-born daughter and given her name after her birth. Corigliano wrote the piece for violin and piano; the orchestration heard here is by Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, and the music sounds fine this way – and is played by Meyers, not surprisingly, with real tenderness. The London Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin supports Meyers well throughout. The disc does have one bizarre presentation element: it gives no timings for any of the music, either on the packaging or in the enclosed booklet – a very peculiar circumstance.

     There are two world première recordings on a new MSR Classics CD featuring violinist Zina Schiff and pianist Cameron Grant: Eric Zeisl’s Violin Sonata “Brandeis” (1949-50) and Menuchim’s Song (1939). Zeisl (1905-1959) is best known, to the extent that he is known at all, as a film composer – an unhappy one, who disliked the demands Hollywood made of him for movies such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. Zeisl was Jewish, born in Vienna, and fled after the Anschluss in 1938. He sought to incorporate Jewish elements into essentially secular music, as in his moving and emotive writing in Menuchim’s Song. His sonata is larger-scale, its first movement especially extensive and expressive, and reflects his time at Brandeis Summer camp between 1948 and 1950, where Zeisl (who became a teacher after leaving Hollywood) both taught and promoted Jewish secular and folk music. The Zeisl sonata makes a very interesting comparison with that of Copland, who was also Jewish but less inclined to incorporate elements of Jewish music into his own except in such works as Study on a Jewish Theme (1929). The Copland sonata, only two-thirds the length of Zeisl’s, dates to 1942-43 and shares some of the serenity and wistfulness of Appalachian Spring (1944), coupled with a piano part somewhat reminiscent of the composer’s piano sonata of 1939-41. The Jewish musical focus of this CD is completed by the inclusion of Ernest Bloch’s Abodah: A Yom Kippur Melody, which dates to 1928, and the 1942 Serenata by Robert Dauber (1922-1945) – this last being the only Dauber composition that survived World War II, during which Dauber was imprisoned in Theresienstadt and died in Dachau. Schiff and Grant play all the works feelingly and with particular attentiveness to their emotional elements. The relentless focus on this as Jewish music may somewhat limit the CD’s appeal, but in fact these pieces have musical value beyond the religion and culture that they reflect to varying degrees.

     It should not be thought that only string players are reaching out these days beyond traditional repertoire. Classical saxophone players, for whom little enough has been written that deserves to be deemed in the standard repertoire, are among other soloists exploring new composers and compositions. Javier Oviedo offers a whole disc of world première recordings – nine of them – aptly labeled “Salon Music for Classical Saxophone” and written by Canadian composer Byron Bellows. There is nothing profound here, no attempt to explore deep emotions or to use the saxophone in anything other than a pleasingly mellow way: the CD’s title, Lazy Afternoon, is quite apt. That is also the title of one work here, the others being called In This House, J’attends le Printemps, Simone—C’est Ma Folie, The Magic Chair, The Merry Go Round, Mein Trauer fur Bluma (sic, rather than Mein Trauer für Blumen), Three O’Clock, and Good Night. Everything is mellifluous, nicely paced, and well balanced between soloist and orchestra: the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble is a very fine group, and Jean-Pierre Schmitt conducts it with sensitivity and style. The MSR Classics CD is a short one, running less than 49 minutes, but there is enough similarity among the pieces so that it seems longer – not to the point of boredom, but to a point at which one has heard enough of these particular sonic beauties and is ready to move on to others, if not with the saxophone then with different instruments.

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