November 12, 2015


Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Lélio ou le Retour à la Vie. Gérard Depardieu, narrator; Mario Zeffiri, tenor; Kyle Ketelsen, bass-baritone; Chicago Symphony Chorus and Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti. CSO Resound. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Walter Saul: A Christmas Symphony; Kiev 2014—Rhapsody for Oboe and Orchestra; Violin Concerto; Overture for the Jubilee; From Life to Greater Life; Metamorphosis. Rong-Huey Liu, oboe; James Buswell, violin; Walter Saul, piano; National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Theodore Kuchar. Naxos. $12.99.

Fredrick Kaufman: Symphony No. 2 for strings & percussion; Stars & Distances; Seven Sisters; Seascape; Concerto for Clarinet & Strings. Navona. $16.99.

David Arend: Voyager—Three Sheets to the Wind; Sequoia Sempervirens. David Arend, double bass; Salim Washington, tenor saxophone; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský and Jiří Petrdlík. Navona. $14.99.

     Thinking of the Symphonie Fantastique as Berlioz’ First Symphony, which it was, makes the composer’s astounding creativity and willingness to experiment with forms all the more amazing. No First Symphony that had come before had represented so radical a break with those of earlier times, nor would any that would come later in the 19th century, except perhaps Mahler’s. Yet Berlioz himself considered this astonishingly innovative symphony to be only half of a grandiose evening-long work known as Episode in the Life of an Artist. The other half was a work whose form Berlioz, in yet another burst of extreme creativity, essentially invented: part melodrama (words spoken through music) and part stage soliloquy (monologue), it was a mélologue known as Lélio ou le Retour à la Vie. The pieces were not conceived together or for the same purpose: the first dates to 1827 and the second to 1831. But once Berlioz decided to write Lélio, which he assembled in only a little more than a week, he also decided that the two pieces belonged together, and he structured Lélio as a followup to Symphonie Fantastique. Yet the two works are very rarely heard together – that occurred only twice in Berlioz’ lifetime. So the 2010 Chicago Symphony performance led by Riccardo Muti and recorded live for the orchestra’s own label is a genuine rarity, perhaps not a once-in-a-lifetime experience but surely an extremely uncommon one. Muti is not particularly associated with Berlioz, but the chance to lead the entire Episode in the Life of an Artist appears to have inspired him, because the performance of both works (or the two parts of the one large work, depending on how you look at things) is absolutely first-rate. In the Symphonie Fantastique, Muti nudges the music from the start into an ever-growing tone poem to lost or unobtainable love, bringing out, again and again, Berlioz’ numerous felicities of orchestration and his structural brilliance. The second-movement waltz flows gorgeously, the Scène aux champs is one of pastoral charm rather than a still life, the march to the scaffold (in which Muti, thank goodness, takes the repeat) is intense and chilling, and the finale is as grotesque as Night on Bald Mountain and features especially clear bells.

     All on its own, this is a first-class performance, but there is more to come on the second CD of the set, with the sonorous-voiced Gérard Depardieu declaiming the narrative, which the composer wrote himself. Here Lélio (representing the traumatized lover of the earlier symphony and, thus, Berlioz) returns to the pain of the everyday world from his drug-induced fantasies and gradually decides to live, if not for his unattainable love object, then for his art. Episode in the Life of an Artist would stand as the most Romantic of Romantic-era musical productions even if it were not the case that Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, who inspired Berlioz, met him for the first time after the first performance and did indeed become his lover and then his wife (although, unfortunately for the Romantic temperament, the relationship degenerated and then disintegrated in later years). Lélio is a disconnected work – the music Berlioz incorporated into it included material he had already written – so the believability of the narrator is all-important. Depardieu is suitably passionate, although not nearly as close to an emotional breakdown as Berlioz seems to have intended Lélio to be. Some transitions, notably that to Chanson des brigands, seem forced, and the emotions expressed by Depardieu are at times arguable: at the very end, for instance, when Lélio proclaims, “Encore, et pour toujours,” Depardieu speaks more in resignation than in hard-won triumph. Still, the sonorousness of Depardieu’s voice serves the material well, and in the always-amusing section before the final musical element, in which Lélio tells the musicians the right and wrong ways to perform, Depardieu shows a pleasantly puckish sense of humor. The musical elements within Lélio are all handled beautifully by soloists, chorus and orchestra, with Muti giving the whole production an operatic quality that fits the material exceedingly well. CSO Resound gets points for including the complete words for Lélio, without which the work would be quite unintelligible, but loses points for presenting those words and the rest of its booklet in type so tiny and so lightly printed that a strong magnifying glass ought to be packaged with the CD set. Still, the chance to hear the entirety of Episode in the Life of an Artist makes the packaging irritations of small moment; and the chance to appreciate, again and again, the extraordinary creativity that Berlioz brought to the symphony, is one that any lover of classical music will delight in having.

     Later composers may not have anything approaching Berlioz’ symphonic creativity in their symphonies – never mind in their first ones! – but many have looked and continue to look for new things to say in symphonic form, often redefining the form itself along the way, although not to the extent that Berlioz did. Walter Saul (born 1954) uses A Christmas Symphony (1992) as a sort of extended tone painting – in the Berlioz mode – but for the specific purpose of exploring four aspects of the season: “Gabriel,” “Star,” “Simeon” and “Gloria.” Saul creates music primarily for sacred purposes, trying to use musical forms to further his notions of Christian spirituality, and A Christmas Symphony makes perfect sense on that basis, although the music itself is not sufficiently distinctive to paint more than a very general picture of reverence. Like the other works on a new Naxos CD, the symphony is a world première recording; all the pieces get well-played and sensitive readings from the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine under Theodore Kuchar. The most-intense reading is reserved for Kiev 2014—Rhapsody for Oboe and Orchestra (2014), a short and strongly felt work that follows a fairly standard arc from despair (caused by the Russian presence in Ukraine) to hoped-for victory, and that is less overtly religious than the other music here. The Violin Concerto (1980) is more traditional in length and structure and uses numeric symbolism, favored by some Biblical interpreters, in its construction. Overture for the Jubilee (1997) has a primarily secular purpose: the celebration of John Quincy Adams and the eventual abolition of slavery in the United States. From Life to Greater Life (1978), on the other hand, is avowedly religious in content, equating immortality with the profoundest state of peace. Metamorphosis (1974) is about peace, too, in a personal context: here Saul, as pianist as well as composer, celebrates the inner peace he says he has attained through his own faith. Throughout the pieces on this disc, the music’s nearly unremitting focus on Christian themes and a certain similarity of approach and orchestration over the decades mean this CD will be of somewhat limited appeal, so it gets a (+++) rating – but those as committed to orthodox Christianity as Saul is will certainly find a kindred spirit here.

     Symphony No. 2 by Fredrick Kaufman (born 1936) has a strictly secular purpose, and one right in line with many symphonic creations: it was written on commission. In 1971, composer/conductor Lukas Foss had Kaufman write it as homage to Foss’s onetime teacher, Paul Hindemith. Although not a long work – it runs just over 13 minutes as performed by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra under Carlos Piantini on a new Navona CD – it is a packed one that, like much of Hindemith’s music, is filled with material that communicates more strongly on an intellectual level than on an emotional one. The third and last movement, featuring especially prominent percussion, is the most effective. Kaufman’s Concerto for Clarinet and Strings, featuring Richard Stolzman on clarinet and the same orchestra and conductor as the symphony, is a more straightforward contemporary work, inviting the clarinet to a series of interjections and occasional melodious passages and including some jazz-inspired inflections. Also here is Seascape, played by the Czech Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hein. It is a work in which the sea flickers rather than flows, with many percussive touches – Kaufman does a great deal with percussion – beneath a kind of shimmering sound generated primarily by strings. The CD also contains two works focused away from Earth. Seven Sisters, featuring musicians from the Czech Philharmonic and the Czech Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Bisantz, is a representation of the Pleiades star cluster, using three separate but interacting groups of instruments impressionistically. And Stars & Distances, in which Bisantz leads Florida Grand Opera, is a choral piece for 16 voices that is intended to re-create the experience of stargazing. It tends to sound like warmed-over Ligeti in its mixture of vocalise and almost-discernible spoken elements. This is a (+++) recording for existing fans of Kaufman – many people were impressed by his Holocaust composition, Kaddish – but the disc is somewhat too thematically scattered to be generally appealing.

     Another new (+++) CD from Navona also has a focus on outer space – or half a focus. One of the two pieces featuring music by David Arend and performed by him on double bass is Voyager—Three Sheets to the Wind (2013-14), which celebrates deep-space probes Voyager 1 and 2 through the form of a double concerto for tenor saxophone and double bass. That unusual instrumental combination is the most interesting thing here. The music itself is a fairly typical combination of jazz and traditional classical elements – not as involving as the subject matter it is intended to illustrate. It often sounds like middle-of-the-road film music, mildly emotional at times and traditionally celebratory at others. The second section, Escape Velocity, which sounds like a combination of Lumbye’s Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop and a TV commercial for children’s toys, is just silly, and although later sections are devoted to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, there is nothing in particular in the music to associate with one planet rather than another. The final section, Interstellar Space, partakes somewhat of the conclusion of Holst’s The Planets, but without anything very distinctive in the instrumentation. The other work on this short CD (only 43 minutes) is far more Earthbound: Sequoia Sempervirens (2010) is a tribute to or portrayal of California redwood trees. The first and longest of its three movements predictably paints a picture of majesty, the second movement offers a largely static nighttime scene, and the very short finale proves to be the most interesting part of the work in its percussive use of the double bass, which is set against upward-striving orchestral sounds. Arend’s own playing is quite good, as is that of Salim Washington in Voyager, and the orchestral support is fine if not particularly distinguished. Both works here have some interesting moments, but neither really sustains throughout its entire length or communicates its professed subject matter convincingly, and there is nothing particularly new or unusual in Arend’s interweaving of jazz and classical structural elements.

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