February 05, 2015


Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments; Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra; Movements; Pétrouchka. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Together: Music of Máximo Diego Pujol, Xavier Montsalvatge, Gary Schocker, Alan Hovhaness and Keith Fitch. Yolanda Kondonassis, harp; Jason Vieaux, guitar. Azica. $16.99.

Mohammed Fairouz: Audenesque (2012); Sadat (2013). Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano; Paul Muldoon, speaker; Mike Truesdell, percussionist; Ensemble LPR conducted by Evan Rogister. Deutsche Grammophon. $19.99.

Fryderyk Chopin—A Documentary by Angelo Bozzolini. EuroArts DVD. $29.99.

     Music is, in effect, discussion without words, especially so in forms such as chamber music and the concerto. Just what is being discussed may be heard differently by various listeners, but there is no doubt that communication between (or among) instruments is a great deal of what music is all about. In the case of Stravinsky’s piano-and-orchestra music – of which he did not write a great deal – some discussions were simply of the typical give-and-take type inherent in works for soloist and ensemble, while others were designed to express particular viewpoints or emotions. Both the Concerto of 1923-24 (revised 1950) and the Capriccio of 1928-29 (revised 1949) were written for Stravinsky to perform himself, but what they seek to talk about is quite different. The Concerto is a compressed musical talk about music itself, incorporating elements from the Baroque onwards, and it often seems not to be about the piano at all (the soloist is entirely absent at the work’s beginning). Rather, it is about ways in which piano and winds can showcase complex rhythms and multiple forms both old and new (even a tango). The Capriccio is capricious only in its finale, which indeed has a wonderfully cartoon-like feeling reminiscent of some of the composer’s ballet music. Before that, the work is generally upbeat and lighter in what it is saying than the Concerto, even though the very opening of the Capriccio belies the work’s title by being dramatic and serious. Stravinsky’s only other piano-and-ensemble piece, Movements (1958-59), has something to say about twelve-tone techniques, which it uses throughout with skill – with the result, though, that it does not seem to be saying much that other composers using the same system had not said already, much earlier in the century. A great deal of music like this seems to speak mainly to itself, and Stravinsky’s work, despite some attractive instrumentation, is one example. And that is it for the composer’s works for piano and instrumental grouping – leading to the interesting decision, on a new Chandos SACD featuring Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier, to include Pétrouchka (1910-11, revised 1946). This well-known piece turns out to have a great deal to communicate. Here the piano is integral to the ensemble and only rarely in its forefront, but it scarcely matters: the whole work is energetic, wonderfully orchestrated, rhythmically attractive, and (in its story) just eerie enough to make listeners familiar with the ballet’s events wonder what it is all about. The answer is ambiguity: not the tonal ambiguity of later Stravinsky or its absence in Movements, but ambiguous action reflected in music whose constantly changing rhythms, emphases and instrumental use keep the work propulsive from start to finish. Bavouzet manages to fit unobtrusively (or only as obtrusively as is appropriate) into the orchestra here, and Tortelier leads an exceptionally well-rounded and well-balanced performance that makes this familiar music sound fresh and surprising again and again. In the works where the piano assumes a solo role, Bavouzet shows a strong sense of style and understanding of the music, and Tortelier and the orchestra provide backup that is very well balanced and exceptionally well recorded. This is a recording that should appeal as much to lovers of Pétrouchka as to listeners interested in hearing all of Stravinsky’s modest output of works for solo piano and orchestra.

     The conversational elements are more pronounced in a new Azica CD featuring Yolanda Kondonassis and Jason Vieaux, but the music itself is less interesting, so although this will be a (++++) recording for those interested in the performers and the way the sounds of their instruments interact, it merits a (+++) rating for anyone else. Two of the works here were commissioned by Kondonassis and Vieaux: Hypnotized by Gary Schocker (born 1959) and Knock on Wood by Keith Fitch (born 1966). Both these pieces, which here receive their world première recordings, neatly fulfill their “commission” status, since they balance the harp and guitar well, give each player a chance to show off a bit some of the time while blending with the other the rest of the time, and are written with a fine understanding of the sonic differences between the instruments and the range and communicative ability of both harp and guitar. That said, neither piece seems especially distinctive stylistically, and both go on rather too long, although the division of Schocker’s work into five movements helps the pacing of the music. It is easy to get pulled into the sound world of Kondonassis and Vieaux in these new pieces, but once out of that world, it is hard to recall just what the composers seemed to be trying to say with their music. The three other works on the CD are generally more effective, albeit in different ways. The music of Alan Hovhaness (1922-2000) is an acquired taste, but even those who have not acquired it may find themselves interested and involved in his Sonata for Harp and Guitar, “Spirit of Trees,” a five-movement philosophical and exploratory work from 1983 that is rather monochromatic at times but that successfully uses the sonorities of the two instruments to explore a sound world that looks ahead to New Age music in its stylistic and sonic orientation. The four movements of the Suite mágica by Máximo Diego Pujol (born 1957) are more varied, giving the performers opportunities to discuss similar musical ideas and also some in which there is greater contrast than in Hovhaness’ work. And the three-part Fantasia by Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002), written the same year as Hovhaness’ sonata, is also very effective in the way it blends and contrasts the music of these instruments. Indeed, it is the sound world of harp and guitar, an unusual one in classical music, that is the most attractive thing about this release: even if not all the works are particularly profound or communicative, they all offer a chance to hear excellent playing of two instruments that are rarely heard together and that turn out to blend as well as contrast in aurally pleasing ways.

     The conversational elements of two Mohammed Fairouz pieces on a new Deutsche Grammophon release are clear as well, since here there is much made of voices telling listeners just what is going on and what should engage people’s attention. Indeed, there is rather too much leading of the listener in this (+++) CD, which launches a series called “Return to Language.” It is not entirely clear in what way language needs to be returned to, but it is clear that Fairouz (born 1985) sees communication through the spoken word as a crucial element of music. Indeed, both the pieces here are about language, using music to support and exalt words. Both are also about death – and to some extent about martyrdom, a rather overstated notion given a kind of in-your-face (or in-your-ear) treatment here. Fairouz does not seem to see music as its own purpose but as serving that of language, at least in these works. Audenesque, sung by mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, includes four parts, the first three drawn from W.H. Auden’s elegy In Memory of W.B Yeats, the fourth a setting of Seamus Heaney’s poem, itself called Audenesque, that was written after the death of Joseph Brodsky, who in turn had written a poem on the death of T.S. Eliot. All that interrelated death lends the work an overall lugubrious character as it strives to create, quite directly, a musical as well as verbal conversation involving Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Brodsky and Heaney. The ambition of this plan is admirable, but its execution is not particularly noteworthy: the song cycle seems self-important as well as self-referential. Sadat is a ballet, well played by the chamber orchestra Ensemble LPR conducted by Evan Rogister and featuring percussionist Mike Truesdell, whose five scenes pay tribute to the assassinated Egyptian leader by presenting five scenes integral to his life – from the Egyptian revolution of 1952, to his meeting the woman who would become his wife, to his own death. The music follows largely predictable lines here and is well-crafted, but the sequence of movements is not especially evocative – unlike a work such as Pétrouchka, this may be a ballet that shines only in a staged presentation. The CD is filled out with a series of items intended to deepen and enlarge upon its theme: two brief remarks made by John F. Kennedy the month before he was killed and Paul Muldoon’s narrative delivery of Heaney’s poem Audenesque and Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats. The whole production oozes seriousness and high purpose, but the conversation it seeks to start seems rather contrived; and the music here, although well-constructed and well-performed, is not especially compelling.

     Discussion involving both words and music is integral to the design of all films about musicians, and the Chopin documentary by Angelo Bozzolini is no exception. Using the Polish form of the composer’s first name rather than the more-familiar Frédéric, Fryderyk Chopin focuses on the composer’s letters as a structural device to explore his life and interests. It also includes the expected elements of this sort of film: interviews with performers including Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Charles Rosen and others, performances of various works, and a voice-over by performers portraying the composer (Fabrizio Bentvoglio) and George Sand (Margherita Buy). Written by Bozzolini and Roberto Prosseda, the film suggests that a key to understanding the development of Chopin’s music can be found in the geographical localities where he matured and later lived: rural areas of Poland as well as the capital, Warsaw, and of course Paris, where he spent half his life. The approach is somewhat forced and not altogether convincing, given that the external circumstances of most composers’ lives correlate at best imperfectly with the internal dynamics that lead them to produce their music. But the use of letters to tie the film’s narrative together is an attractive device, and the interspersing of the composer’s own words, and Sand’s, with those of modern interpreters of his music, makes the documentary engaging – if scarcely revelatory. This EuroArts DVD is a (+++) production designed primarily for listeners who just cannot get enough of Chopin’s generally well-known biography and are looking for a somewhat different approach to it. The performances are fine, but they serve mainly to whet one’s appetite for more of the music and less of the conversation about the man who made it. As interesting as Chopin’s life was, his music is more intriguing still – and more involving.

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