July 16, 2015


Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphonies, Op. 2, Nos. 1-6. Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $12.99.

Sibelius: Belshazzar’s Feast; Overture in E; Scène de Ballet; Die Sprache der Vögel—Wedding March; Cortège; Menuetto; Processional. Pia Pajala, soprano; Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam. Naxos. $12.99.

Bartók: Works for Violin and Piano, Volume 1. Sarah Plum, violin; Timothy Lovelace, piano. Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

1939: Music by Joseph Jongen, Viktor Ullmann, Paul Hindemith, Yanjun Hua, and Gideon Klein. Teng Li, viola; Meng-Chieh Liu, piano; Benjamin Bowman, violin. Azica. $16.99.

     The things expressed in music, as well as the way in which they are expressed, vary and develop significantly over time. Franz Ignaz Beck, whose dates of 1734-1809 are almost identical to those of Haydn (1732-1809), brought very different sensibilities and expressiveness to his symphonies. While Haydn changed symphonic form throughout his career and continued writing symphonies of ever-increasing performance and emotional complexity into the 1790s, Beck wrote much-smaller-scale symphonic works and did so only in the 1750s and 1760s. The subtleties of change that Beck brought to the symphonic form are far less evident to listeners today, since we have moved so far past the experimentation of the Mannheim school (whose most-famous symphonist, Johann Stamitz, was Beck’s teacher). But listeners immersed in 18th-century symphonic works, including those of Haydn, will hear some distinctive and intriguing elements in Beck’s symphonies – even the early set of six three-movement ones making up his Op. 2. These are works of very modest scale, running from 10 to 14 minutes, and all are cast in the familiar fast-slow-fast mode. They contain some unexpected pleasures, however, in addition to the anticipated ones associated with well-made music of this time period. Although all the works are written for a chamber-size string ensemble, two of them, Nos. 1 and 5, use horns in their outer movements. One, No. 6, ends with an unusual exchange between two violins on the one hand and a viola and basso on the other. And the musical texture of all six works is intriguing, varying from chamber-music-like delicacy to a surprisingly full instrumental sound from the small complement of instruments. These are works showing Beck’s interest in experimentation within the limits of his time period, and if they are scarcely at the level of Haydn’s symphonies – which regularly transcended those limits – they are very fine examples of the extent of expressiveness available in the years when the symphony was just coalescing into the more-familiar form that we know from Mozart onward. On this new Naxos CD, Kevin Mallon leads the Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra with real pep and sure understanding of these works, producing performances that are as vivid and expressive as they can be within Beck’s chosen, limited sound world.

     Sibelius, more than a century later, delved into very different sounds, using them in very different ways that straddled the symphonic and theatrical realms. Sibelius’ first attempt at a symphony dates to 1891 and includes two pieces: Overture in E and Scène de Ballet, intended as the uncompleted symphony’s first and second movements. Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra perform them with strength and grandeur, and although they are not as high-quality as what Sibelius was to produce later in the decade when he did complete his Symphony No. 1, they are well-constructed and emotionally trenchant pieces on their own. And they have a certain theatrical flair about them: Sibelius was a frequent composer of theater music, although he is less known for it than for his symphonies and tone poems. Belshazzar’s Feast (1906) is a particularly good example of Sibelius’s skill with stage works, incorporating various moods and reusing elements of itself in skillful as well as dramatically appropriate ways – for instance, a doomed character tries unsuccessfully to repeat a “Dance of Life,” but can manage only to dance the same music in slower tempo. Belshazzar’s Feast is mostly a work of instrumental music, but it does incorporate an evocative Song of the Jewish Girl, well performed by Pia Pajala, in which the singer expresses her strong desire to find a way back to lost Jerusalem. The remaining pieces on this Naxos release show other aspects of Sibelius’ theatricality: Menuetto (1894), which was first a piano piece, then orchestrated as heard here, then included in a different version in King Christian II (1898); Cortège (1905), a good-humored work from which the composer later took themes that appeared in Scènes historiques II and The Tempest; and a not-very-march-like Wedding March (1911) that is the only piece Sibelius composed for a play called Die Sprache der Vögel. The final work on this CD is a real curiosity: it dates to 1938, by which time it is commonly thought that Sibelius had long since stopped composing. But in fact he only stopped creating major works after Tapiola (1926): he wrote smaller ones and revised earlier pieces throughout the ensuing decades. Processional (1938) is an orchestral version of one of the curious pieces that Sibelius wrote in 1927 after becoming a member of Finland’s Masonic Lodge. It is an intriguing if not exceptionally noteworthy piece that will likely make listeners hope that Segerstam – who is exploring various less-known works by Sibelius – will venture further into the composer’s late and infrequently performed compositions.

     The Bartók works for violin and piano on a new CD from Blue Griffin Recording are, unlike the Sibelius pieces, all from roughly the same time in the composer’s life: the 1920s, more or less. Actually, the Romanian Folk Dances, which Sarah Plum and Timothy Lovelace perform with a fine sense of rhythm and excellent ensemble work, were written by Bartók in 1915, for solo piano; and the Hungarian Folk Tunes were written in 1908-10, also for solo piano. Plum and Lovelace play a transcription of the Romanian set made in 1925-26 by Zoltán Székely, and one of the Hungarian tunes made in 1926-27 by Bartók  and Joseph Szigeti. And very fine transcriptions these are, preserving the rhythms and folklike elements of the dances while giving both violinist and pianist plenty of chances to show off their techniques. Székely is the dedicatee of the Rhapsody No. 2, also included on this disc, which dates to 1928 and was revised in the last year of Bartók’s life, 1945; Rhapsody No. 1, also written in 1928, revised in 1929, and dedicated to Szigeti, is here as well. Both rhapsodies are filled with folk melodies, strong rhythms, and the notable presence of the sorts of fiddle dances long associated with the Romany (gypsy) people. The rhapsodies contrast in their free flow with the two sets of folk dances, but are clearly related on multiple levels. For one thing, the involvement of Székely and Szigeti in the transcriptions provides some interesting insight into how Bartók’s compositions developed and were transformed over time. For another, the ways in which folk material permeates the two rhapsodies show clearly how foundational these dances were to Bartók’s creations in this time period. Throughout all these works, Plum and Lovelace do a fine job of treading the line between Bartók’s serious purpose and the more-modest circumstances in which the thematic material developed and flourished in the countryside. The playing is strong, the interaction between the performers effective, and the overall impression of the music is winning. All these factors come together in the Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, which dates to 1922. The piano part here is exceptionally demanding, often leading performers – but, happily, not Lovelace – into a kind of percussive brutality that makes the work as a whole seem overdone. Also in this sonata, the violin goes through so many tempo, rhythm and dynamic changes that it can be a real challenge to put forth the sort of village fiddling and Romany-derived playing for which the work calls. Plum rises to this challenge as to all the others on this CD – with the result that listeners will surely look forward to the next entry in the Plum/Lovelace survey of all Bartók’s works for violin and piano.

     Written later than any of the works by Bartók or Sibelius, the five pieces performed by Teng Li on a new Azica release are intended to provide a musical portrait of a momentous year in the 20th century: the CD is simply entitled 1939. Li is a sensitive, careful performer whose sound practically glows at times, and she is clearly committed to the very different works on this recording. She is especially effective in Yanqiao Wang’s solo-viola arrangement of The Moon Reflected in Er-Quan by Yanjun Hua (1893-1950). Unfortunately, while the individual pieces here all have moments of interest, sometimes considerable ones, the theme of 1939 does not hold up particularly well and does not provide any significant unity to the disc. Because the five works are distinct in so many ways, what Li shows is that composers wrote in very different styles, expressing very different emotions and feelings, during this particular year. But that is true of any year: there is nothing here that ties with particular clarity to one year or another. Certainly there are extramusical messages intended here, notably through the inclusion of the Duo for Violin and Viola by Gideon Klein (1919-1945), who organized cultural life in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and died in another camp, Fürstengrube, at age 25. But aside from the fact that this duo appears to date to 1940, the reality is that there is no reflection in it of World War II, much less of the horrors visited upon Jews such as Klein under Nazism. This is simply a well-made piece that uses quarter-tones in some effective ways and that reflects some elements of musical thinking from the first half of the 20th century. Also here are two works in fairly traditional classical format, with the Sonata for Viola and Piano by Hindemith (1895-1963) coming across somewhat more effectively than does the Concertino for Viola and Piano by Joseph Jongen (1873-1953). The 1939 Hindemith sonata is the largest of his three for viola and piano, and the last work he wrote for himself to play as viola soloist. The work’s emotional warmth comes through especially clearly in Li’s performance, which also takes the measure of the sonata’s pervasive polyphony. Jongen’s piece is well-made but comparatively slight. The fifth work on this CD, Meng-Chieh Liu’s viola-and-piano arrangement of Five Love Songs by Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), is another piece written by a composer who was sent to Theresienstadt (in 1942); Ullmann was killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Little of Ullmann’s work survives, and this affecting arrangement makes that regrettable. But the fact remains that the concept of 1939 is fundamentally flawed: these pieces do not shed any special light on that particular year, and to the extent that the music is intended to reflect the horrors of World War II, which began in 1939 but reached its peak in later years, it does not do so. Not exactly a look at prewar music, not exactly a tribute to composers killed by the Nazis, not exactly a history lesson in musical notes, 1939 is simply a collection of well-played but ultimately only minimally connected works. That makes it a (+++) CD that is attractive for the quality of the performances and for some elements of the pieces but that does not hold together from the perspective of its nonmusical thematic structure.

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