July 09, 2015


Alkan: Complete Transcriptions, Volume 1—Mozart. José Raúl López, piano. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

Weber: Wind Concertos—Clarinet Concerto No. 1; Bassoon Concerto; Horn Concerto; Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra. Maximiliano Martin, clarinet; Peter Whelan, bassoon; Alec Frank-Gemmill, horn; Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Alexander Janiczek. Linn Records. $19.99.

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1-6; Violin Concerto; Flute Concerto; Clarinet Concerto. Nikolaj Znaider, violin; Robert Langevin, flute; Anthony McGill, clarinet; New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. Dacapo. $64.99 (4 SACDs).

     The ability of great music to be twisted, turned, arranged and rearranged in sometimes-surprising ways is frequently deemed a special characteristic of Bach, whose works have been said to be so pure that they somehow transcend the instruments on which they are performed. This is an exaggeration, of course, but it helps explain how and why Bach’s works became and remain so popular even when performed in ways the composer could never have imagined – most prominently, on modern pianos rather than harpsichords, clavichords and organs. What is interesting is to observe ways in which other composers’ music can also have a wonderful effect on instruments for which it was never intended – in particular, again, on piano. When great pianists have adapted orchestral and vocal pieces for keyboard, some genuine insights have resulted – along with a feeling of discovery, for listeners, of elements of the original works of which they may not have been aware. Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies and Wagner’s operatic works are excellent examples of this, but Liszt was in fact only one of the 19th-century composer/performers to produce transcriptions at the pinnacle of the form. Another, and one almost never thought of in this regard, was Charles-Valentin Alkan, whose quirky, even bizarre original works have been slowly making their way into pianists’ and audiences’ awareness but whose transcriptions remain almost totally unknown. José Raúl López has made a commitment to record all the Alkan transcriptions for Toccata Classics, and if the first disc is any indication, the sequence will be absolutely marvelous. Alkan made only five transcriptions of music by Mozart, the most enthralling by far being that of the Piano Concerto No. 20, Op. 466 – the D minor concerto that triumphantly if somewhat jarringly erupts at the very end into an apotheosis in the sunniest D major. Alkan’s transcription, which has never been recorded before, is the highlight of López’s CD. The technical requirements of the music are, it should go without saying, prodigious, and López handles them with unerring skill. But more interesting are the musical requirements of a transcription that very carefully arranges Mozart’s concerto by emphasizing certain lines and de-emphasizing others, by bringing some string parts to the fore pianistically while allowing others to settle in the background, and by producing a gigantic 79-bar first-movement cadenza that is scarcely Mozartean but that fascinatingly explores tonal and harmonic elements of the music while building a Romantic-era edifice upon the Classical-era foundation. This is an utterly fascinating transcription, true in the main to Mozart while unhesitatingly making choices in accord with Alkan’s own thinking in the 1860s. It is accompanied on this disc by two other world première recordings, of the Minuet and Trio from Symphony No. 40 and the chorus Ne pulvis et cinis superbe from Thamos, König in Ägypten, K. 345. Also here are Alkan’s transcriptions of the Minuet and Trio from Symphony No. 39 and the Andante from the String Quartet in A, K. 464. In all these transcriptions, Alkan shows himself particularly adept at bringing forth multiple melodic lines while keeping the harmony secure, largely through highly sophisticated pedal use. Alkan’s textural understanding and very obvious respect for Mozart’s creativity meld beautifully with his full comprehension of the still-developing pianos of his own time – a fact that actually points to the one disappointment of this CD, which is that it is performed on a modern Steinway piano rather than one of the Erards that Alkan favored and that provide very different effects in intonation and, especially, pedal use. That one element aside, López’s handling of this material is at the very highest level, his command of Alkan’s style as superimposed on Mozart is first-rate, and his pianism is very distinguished. This is a revelatory CD, primarily where the concerto is concerned but also in terms of the new and different light the whole disc shines on Alkan and, though him, on Mozart.

     Carl Maria von Weber’s wind concertos are intriguing in a different way, for all that they have their own ties to Mozart (the composer’s father was the uncle of Mozart’s wife, Constanze). Weber created unusually up-to-date works (for their time) for solo clarinet, following in Mozart’s footsteps in giving prominence to the instrument but taking matters considerably further in two concertos and the Concertino. The full, rich tone of the clarinet, an inherent quality of the instrument to modern listeners, was by no means its normal sound in Weber’s time – indeed, it was largely Weber who institutionalized it in writing pieces for clarinetist Heinrich Bärmann, who had followed in the footsteps of Joseph Beer, the performer who developed the mellower approach as a reaction to the more-brilliant, more-piercing French clarinet style. Two of the four works on a new Linn Records CD showcase the clarinet and Weber’s handling of it, which included an operatic approach to the instrumental material and plenty of chances for the soloist to show off his technique. The Concertino was Weber’s first work of this type, with the two concertos – only the first of which, unfortunately, is heard here – following soon after. Weber’s operatic inclinations and Bärmann’s subtlety of style mesh particularly well in some unusual sections, both in the Concertino and in the first concerto, in which the hue of the music significantly darkens and Weber comes up with striking ways of using instruments (for example, the clarinet playing with divisi violas in the Concertino). Maximiliano Martin, first clarinetist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, has a fine tone and nuanced approach to this music, and the accompaniment of the ensemble under Alexander Janiczek is first-rate, with the result that the two clarinet works offered here leave one wishing the other concerto had been included as well. However, the concerto performances by two other of the orchestra’s first-chair players help make up for that lack. Weber’s bassoon concerto puts the instrument through its paces in different ways in each of the three movements, with the usual good humor ascribed to the bassoon evident only in the finale. The first movement shows the instrument in something like military mode, while the second shows it quite capable of lyricism – a capability known to, among others, Vivaldi, who wrote more than three dozen concertos for bassoon and certainly never treated the instrument as the “clown” it was later to sound like. Peter Whelan makes a fine bassoon soloist, with great skill throughout his instrument’s range, and deserves credit for trying to re-create the 1822 edition of the work, which represents Weber’s revision of his 1811 original – instead of using the heavily edited 1865 version preferred by most performers. Matters are not quite as admirable in Alec Frank-Gemmill’s handling of Weber’s horn concerto, however: the playing is quite good for anyone favoring a modern valve horn over the hand horn for which the work was written, but the edition performed is another matter. Frank-Gemmill uses a much-ornamented 1847 version for piano duet as the basis of his performing edition; and he also somewhat overdoes the cadenza between the second and third sections, which he plays in his own version. The playing itself is quite fine, but the instrument’s tone and the relative ease with which Frank-Gemmill is able to play notes that would be quite difficult on a hand horn lend the piece a smoothness and evenness that Weber surely did not expect. Whether he would have preferred it is unknown, of course, but it is a trifle disappointing at a time of heightened sensitivity to historic performance practices to hear this concerto in a version so different from what the composer intended.

     What Carl Nielsen intended as a concerto composer is another matter. Weber wrote just one concerto for bassoon and one for horn; Nielsen, just one apiece for violin, flute and Weber’s favored clarinet. All three of Nielsen’s concertos are late works, dating respectively to 1911-12, 1926 and 1928. The violin concerto moves uneasily on an arc from intensity to frivolity and includes a tribute to Bach through use of the notes of the letters of his name. The flute concerto has what could be called a more serious kind of humor, less rollicking and more controlled, after an opening that is on the verge of sounding hysterical. The bass trombone becomes a distinctly odd partner for the flute part of the time, in one of Nielsen’s more ingenious instrumental pairings. And the clarinet concerto includes atonality, an important snare-drum role, and a contrast between deep melancholy and demonic march passages – Nielsen’s predilection for strong instrumental and thematic contrasts is especially evident here. The concertos are very well played by violinist Nikolaj Znaider  and two first chairs of the New York Philharmonic, Robert Langevin and Anthony McGill.  And the orchestra itself performs with excellent responsiveness and a very warm tone for conductor Alan Gilbert in a four-SACD Dacapo recording that also includes all six Nielsen symphonies. The concerto performances are so good that they lift this entire release of live recordings to, or at least close to, a top rating – one that the symphonies do not really merit on their own. The suppleness of the orchestra as accompanist, and the sensitivity that Gilbert shows in weaving the solo instruments into and through the entire ensemble, are less in evidence in the symphonies. Gilbert’s conducting tends to highlight the similarities among the six, which are really distinguished mostly by their differences: Nielsen had an extraordinary range of thoughts and ideas to pack into symphonic form. The fact that Nielsen repeatedly contrasts near-violent loud and fast passages with quiet ones that seem almost to drift dreamily is clear enough here – but the balancing of the importance of these two stylistic elements is missing: Gilbert generally relishes the intensity but becomes unfocused, even flabby, in the rhythms of the more-thoughtful sections.

     Thus, Symphony No. 1 strides forth tempestuously from its opening notes, but soon calms down to a level of overdone placidity – the music need not subside into quietude and a lack of forward impetus, but it does here. On balance, though, the First is more successful in this recording than the Fourth (“The Inextinguishable”), with which it shares a disc: No. 1’s fundamentally classical balance provides it with a graspable structure that the Fourth – which is essentially a single extended movement – does not inherently possess. The Fourth tosses and turns, pulling the audience hither and yon before eventually reaching the affirmation of its title – that music, like life itself, is ultimately inextinguishable. But the elements of the struggle toward that conclusion are downplayed by Gilbert, so the eventual sense of triumph is lessened and muted. And Gilbert seems, oddly, to hold back a bit when the big climaxes become too big, notably in the “timpani duel” of No. 4, which is simply not as intense and gripping as it needs to be in order to pave the way for the sense of positive completion that succeeds it. On the disc of Nos. 2 (“The Four Temperaments”) and 3 (“Sinfonia espansiva”), the Third is better by far. Here the orchestra plays with outstanding warmth, the rhythms are supple, the first movement sounds truly expansive (its tempo marking, Allegro espansivo, gives the symphony its title), and the vocalise in the slow movement (featuring soprano Erin Morley and baritone Joshua Hopkins) is lovely.  The finale, though, is on the plodding side, with elements of rhythmic flabbiness not heard earlier in the work. And No. 2 is a real disappointment.  There is simply not enough differentiation among these temperaments: the interpretation as a whole, not just the second movement, is phlegmatic – this symphony just does not seem to engage Gilbert and the orchestra as No. 3 does.  The finale, in particular, is far too sedate – very far from sanguine. On the recording of Nos. 5 and 6, Gilbert tends to make the works too bland, smoothing their sharp edges and generally taming their frequently outré orchestrations, rhythms and harmonies. Thus, in the Fifth, where the timpani player is at one point famously instructed to play ad libitum and try to disrupt the rest of the orchestra, Gilbert keeps things under such tight control that this aleatoric, highly provocative section becomes merely noisy, which was not Nielsen’s idea at all. As for the bizarre Sixth (“Sinfonia semplice”), which is deliberately crass, overdone, silly, mocking, sarcastic, and at times just plain weird, this work invites a conductor to pull out all the stops and really show what he or she can get an orchestra to do. Gilbert may be up to the challenge, but if so, he chooses not to rise to it: this Nielsen Sixth is very mild indeed, its jagged edges smoothed to such a degree that even the very end (when the bassoons keep playing after everything is finished, as if the conductor failed to cue them to stop) sounds less surprising and strange than it should. Still, the recordings of all these symphonies deserve recognition for the very fine playing of the ensemble and the excellent sound with which the discs are endowed. And the concerto performances show how much Gilbert is capable of doing with Nielsen’s music when he really sets his mind to it and complements the orchestra’s performance with excellent interpretations by first-rate soloists.

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