February 19, 2015


Nielsen: Songs for Choir. Ars Nova Copenhagen conducted by Michael Bojesen. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

A Billie Holiday Songbook. Lara Downes, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Lee Actor: Piano Concerto; Symphony No. 3; Divertimento for Small Orchestra. Daniel Glover, piano; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. Navona. $14.99.

Pamela J. Marshall: Through the Mist; Communing with Birds; Zoa; Dance of the Hoodoos; Examinate Variations; Waves and Fountains. Ravello. $14.99.

     There is a great deal of very interesting music about, and much of it deserves to be better known; but realistically, certain releases are likely to reach out only to people with highly specialized tastes and interests. In fact, the providing of high-quality musical performances to a relatively small niche audience is testimony to the ability of companies to produce and market new releases that are either sufficiently subsidized or sufficiently low-cost to turn a profit (or at least break even) despite not likely being appealing to a mass audience. For example, Dacapo, which specializes in music by Danish composers, consistently offers high-quality SACD recordings of material that few people outside Denmark have likely ever heard – and that is true even when a composer is as well-known internationally as Carl Nielsen. Although Nielsen’s large-scale instrumental music, in particular his six symphonies, is often recorded and fairly often heard in concert, his vocal works – including his delightful opera Maskarade – are much less familiar outside Scandinavia. So the new recording of 20 of his songs, written between 1895 and 1926, is a welcome addition to the Nielsen discography – but is not likely to have widespread appeal. Although the choir members of Ars Nova Copenhagen sing the songs very well under Michael Bojesen’s direction, these short Danish-language pieces have less musical originality and less inherent interest for non-Danes than other music by Nielsen. Certainly, much of this is by design: the composer used and arranged many Danish folk tunes, and saw these songs as his attempt to preserve and revive the Danish song tradition. In that, they were successful: community singers in Denmark today continue to perform many of these works, which in general have pleasant melodies and are simply harmonized and written well within amateur or semi-professional vocal ranges. To those not fully immersed in Danish traditions, the music is rather bland, and the words – typical in folk songs from many nations – are of no major consequence. Therefore, although the disc is quite well performed and the sound is very good, this remains a specialty item for those focused on Danish music or on Nielsen’s works in particular.

     Somewhat similarly, a new Steinway & Sons release featuring pianist Lara Downes is targeted only at people immersed in the legend and music of Billie Holiday. Downes brings a classical performer’s technique to 20 arrangements of Holiday songs by Jed Distler, one by Teddy Wilson and one by Marian McPartland. The arrangements are all quite well done, and the music will be highly enjoyable for Holiday fans interested in hearing it without vocals: standards such as God Bless the Child and Strange Fruit are here, along with less-known songs whose melodies frequently sound somehow familiar. Distler’s arrangements sound now like ragtime, now like film music, now like gospel, even sometimes like classical piano works; and he tries to bring inflections to the piano music akin to those that Holiday used when she sang. Whether or not he succeeds will not be apparent to anyone except diehard Holiday fans. What many listeners will notice, though, is that the songs collectively, in the order in which they appear, seem almost to trace Holiday’s life, although they are not arranged chronologically. Clearly the arrangers and Downes wanted a disc that would communicate about Holiday in ways that go beyond simply offering piano versions of some songs she made famous. Again, whether they succeed at this will depend on how well listeners know Holiday’s biography and how strongly interested they are in the singer as well as the music. Yes, Downes plays well, and yes, the arrangements of songs Holiday made famous are well done; but just as the Nielsen choral works have a certain sameness about them and seem in large part like pieces for a niche audience, so do the Holiday pieces heard here seem to reach out in only a very limited way.

     Sometimes the “niche-ness” of a recording is caused simply by the potential audience’s lack of familiarity with the music or the composer. Lee Actor (born 1952) writes modern classical works of considerable verve and style, with particularly compelling orchestration and more attention to audience involvement in the music than is evident in the works of many other contemporary composers. The three Actor pieces on a new Navona CD are all appealing. His Piano Concerto uses the solo instrument very differently from the way it is used on the Billie Holiday tribute CD: Actor creates a work with considerable sweep, from the piano’s first cadenza-like entrance through an extended first movement, shorter Adagio and a finale aptly labeled Allegro feroce. Structured in traditional classical-concerto form, the work features particularly attractive orchestration and a number of pianistic challenges – with which Daniel Glover copes admirably. As a whole, the concerto is a workout for both the soloist and the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra under Kirk Trevor – but it does not feel like a stretch for a listener’s ears, despite its clever rhythmic changes and frequent emotional ups and downs. Somewhat similarly, Actor’s Third Symphony appears challenging to play but much less so to hear: its five-movement form is close to that of a traditional symphony, and the composer’s attention to instrumentation and rhythmic detail keeps the work propulsive and involving. Its two short scherzos (the second and fourth movements) are admirably contrasted and offer some Shostakovich-like drive and a certain level of ferocity not unlike that in the finale of the Piano Concerto. On the lighter side of things, Divertimento for Small Orchestra is a pleasant look-back of a piece whose rhythms and harmonies are distinctly modern but whose overall feel remains planted in the 18th century. There is nothing especially profound in any of these works, but there is a great deal that is thoughtful, and all the music is well-crafted and put together by a composer who writes well for all sections of the orchestra. Yet he is not an especially well-known figure, and for that reason, this CD will appeal mainly to listeners already familiar with his music and to those to whom it is carried by word of mouth (or word of ear).

     Along the same lines, the chamber works of Pamela J. Marshall (born 1954) on a new Ravello CD are certainly well-written, but here the lack of familiarity with the composer is only one issue. Another is the attempt to portray various nature scenes through this music – an effort that leads to some earnestness but also to some predictable instrumentation and some sounds that come across more as background music than as material worthy of focused listening. Through the Mist for flute (Danielle Boudrot), violin (Elizabeth Whitfield) and harp (Barbara Poeschl-Edrich) is supposed to evoke scenes ranging from morning fog to sunset, but sounds only like countless other would-be evocative pieces. Communing with Birds for solo flute (Susan Jackson) offers sounds as expected as those used for water in Waves and Fountains for oboe (Jennifer Slowik), horn (Kevin Owen) and piano (Karolina Rojahn). Zoa for two flutes (both played by Peter H. Bloom) and harp (Mary Jane Rupert) is supposed to sound otherworldly but basically seems evanescent in expectable ways. Dance of the Hoodoos for oboe (Audrey Markowitz), violin (Whitfield), cello (Jane Sheena) and piano (Paul Carlson) is more attractive, its syncopations and mysticism (based on scenes at Yellowstone National Park) seeming less self-conscious in its two movements than the techniques in other works here. And Examinate Variations for flute (Ashley Addington) and cello (Rachel Barringer) seems like Marshall’s version of a Baroque suite, its seven short movements including some thematically and rhythmically attractive moments despite the limitations of the scoring. These last two works are the highlights of a disc that otherwise offers music whose nature evocations are certainly heartfelt but musically nothing special or revelatory. Those who know Marshall’s music will enjoy the CD, but it is hard to see it reaching out in any significant way to those not already familiar with the composer.

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