January 15, 2015
(+++) FOR FANS OF THE SOLOISTS
Bloch: Schelomo; Four Jewish Poems; Nico Muhly: Cello Concerto. Zuill Bailey, cello; Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Anderson & Roe Piano Duo: The Art of Bach. Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, pianists. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Sometimes excellent playing is enough. Listeners enamored of the artists on two new Steinway & Sons releases will have many chances to hear the poise, elegance and virtuosic skill of the performers, and for them, that will be reason enough to own the CDs. Those less familiar with the performers will find the discs less intriguing, though, because the fine music-making is not always in the service of especially interesting musical materials. Thus, the featured work on a new disc focusing on cellist Zuill Bailey is the Cello Concerto by Nico Muhly (born 1981), and Bailey certainly brings all his considerable skill and expressiveness to this world première recording of the music. The music, however, does not fully repay Bailey’s involvement. Muhly knows the tricks of the compositional trade, but that is just how they tend to come across – as tricks, for instance when, in the first movement, the cello is set against muted trumpet for no discernible reason, and when, in the second movement, the harp becomes a kind of solo competitor for the cello. Like many other contemporary composers, Muhly is strongly influenced by non-classical musical forms, notably pop and rock, in which he also works; and this concerto wears those influences clearly. But Muhly does not seem entirely sure what to do with those influences within a classical form. The final movement shows this particularly clearly: after setting up the orchestra and cello in opposition – the cello with a sustained soft note against a busily bouncy ensemble – he has the orchestra accept the cello’s offer of something approaching peace or resignation, but then the music simply ends inconclusively. No matter how well Bailey plays here, and that is very well indeed, he cannot make the music mean more than it does, and that is not very much. And although the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under Jun Märkl does a good enough job with this work, it does not do much more than that: the players seem to lack conviction, as indeed does the composer. The remaining pieces on this CD are better and fare better, although the orchestra never really matches the quality of the soloist. Bloch’s Jewish-focused works have considerable resonance for those of any religion or no religion. Completed in 1916 and first performed in 1917, Schelomo, which the composer called a “Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra,” was the last work in Bloch’s “Jewish Cycle,” and Three Jewish Poems (1913) was the first. In Schelomo, the solo cello represents King Solomon, with the orchestra standing sometimes for his world and sometimes for his inner thoughts. A piece of textural complexity and variability, weaving multiple themes into a convincing musical narrative based on the king’s eventual conclusion that “all is vanity,” Schelomo has great sweep and beauty – and requires a kind of brooding quality in the cello that Bailey finds there and uses well. Three Jewish Poems is less popular than Schelomo and less overtly Jewish in its thematic material, but the three-movement work springs from the same philosophical impulse. Some themes of this earlier work reappear in Schelomo, but Three Jewish Poems stands perfectly well on its own. The opening Danse has a mystical feeling, the second-movement Rite mixes solemnity with emotional expression, and the concluding Cortège funèbre carries forth the second movement’s emotions until grief eventually overcomes any sense of stability through ritual – although at the very end of the work, there is a sense of acceptance, if not quite serenity. Bailey moves through the elements of Three Jewish Poems feelingly, with the orchestra supporting him adequately if not with the same level of involvement. Taken as a whole, this CD is all about Bailey, both in the greater works by Bloch and in the lesser one by Muhly.
All the Bach music on a new CD featuring duo-pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe is wonderful, but because of the way the disc is set up and the way the performances are managed, this too is a recording primarily for fans of the performers rather than for Bach lovers. The basic issue is whether or not it works to play Bach in a highly emotional way on modern pianos. This may be an unresolvable philosophical argument between entrenched positions, but it is one that matters more to this CD than to many others involving Bach on the piano, because Anderson and Roe so clearly want the modern piano’s expressive and emotive abilities to be in the forefront of listeners’ minds. The result is indeed an emotionally involving experience, but it is not an emotionally involving Bach experience – even though Bach provides the basic sonic canvas on which the performers paint their evocative readings. Anderson and Roe themselves made two of the arrangements here: Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen from the cantata BWV 127, in which they are joined by violinist Augustin Hadelich for a particularly warm performance; and a suite from the St. Matthew Passion, which for all its cleverness is about as far from the effect of that grand work as it is possible to be. The two-piano version of the C major dual-harpsichord concerto BWV 1061 fares somewhat better, since the performers restrain their emotionalism to a degree. But their playing of Max Reger’s four-hand version of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is simply odd, especially in the improvised middle movement – which Anderson and Roe seem to regard, quixotically, as being somehow the most important part of the work. The reality is that enjoyment of this disc is tied completely to a listener’s interest in the players. Their warmth serves Mary Howe’s version of Sheep May Safely Graze from the cantata BWV 208 well, but their handling of Contrapunctus IX, XIIIA and XIIIB from The Art of Fugue is much less appealing, since they actually play down the contrapuntal elements that are crucial to the music’s structure. The two remaining works on the disc are short ones: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106, and 5 Canons on the Goldberg Ground. Both in these pieces and in the more-extended ones, Anderson and Roe are at pains to make the music emotionally trenchant – meditative here, piquant there, flighty in one place, intricate in another. Bach’s music can shine through this sort of treatment, just as it can emerge with beauty and subtlety no matter on what instrument or instruments it may be played. But there is a point at which it ceases to be “Bachian” and becomes more a reflection of the players than an interpretation of (or even a tribute to) the composer. That is the point at which this Anderson and Roe disc lies. It is by no means “bad” in any meaningful way, and the playing itself is sure-handed throughout and often quite enjoyable. But the relentless focus on the performers rather than on what they are playing turns this into a specialty “fan” item rather than a recording to be considered for the sake of the music on it.