August 04, 2016


Bruckner: Symphony No. 7; Wagner: Das Liebesmahl der Apostel. Men of the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno, Dresden State Opera Chorus, Sinfoniechor Dresden, Czech National Choir Prague, MDR Radio Choir Leipzig, Philharmonischer Chor Dresden and Dresden Chamber Choir, and Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Christian Thielemann. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Stravinsky: Petrushka; Debussy: La boîte à joujoux. Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.

Granados: Dante—Symphonic Poem; Goyescas—Intermezzo; Danza de los ojos verdes; Danza gitana; La nit del mort. Gemma Coma-Alabert, mezzo-soprano; Jesús Álvarez Carrión, tenor; Lieder Càmera and Barcelona Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pablo González. Naxos. $12.99.

Vivaldi: Six Violin Sonatas and Trios, Op. 5. L’Arte dell’Arco (Federico Guglielmo and Elisa Imbalzano, violins; Francesco Galligioni, cello; Roberto Loreggian, harpsichord and chamber organ). Brilliant Classics. $7.99.

     The coupling of a familiar work with an unknown one is nothing new in concert programs – it is in fact a standard way of introducing audiences to contemporary or otherwise unfamiliar music, on the basis that they might not pay to hear such music on its own but will listen to it if it is served with more-familiar pieces. Such couplings are less common on recordings, however. But at times they can work very well indeed. For instance, the issuance of a two-CD Profil set of Bruckner and Wagner works makes considerable musical sense: Bruckner’s adoration of Wagner is well-known, and his almost literal obeisance to the man he considered his master is reflected especially well in his Symphony No. 7, whose slow movement Bruckner started composing in anticipation of Wagner’s death and completed afterwards. The live 2012 recording of the symphony by Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann is an exceptionally fine one, statuesque and deeply moving, structurally assured, dramatic and highly emotive throughout. Thielemann uses the 1944 Haas edition of the symphony rather than Nowak’s from a decade later; this is one Bruckner symphony in which arguments can be made either way – neither Haas nor Nowak is fully satisfactory, and unfortunately the 1883 original survives only in one modified copy and is unpublished. What matters most here is a conductor’s ability, in whatever edition is chosen, to achieve both the architectural aims and the emotional impact that Bruckner sought in his Seventh, and Thielemann does a first-rate job on that basis. Climaxes soar, quiet passages whisper, the orchestra plays beautifully throughout, and the work as a whole has sweep and grandeur and some glorious sound, thanks to the acoustics of the Semperoper. The Wagner work here was recorded elsewhere, and the location matters a great deal: this is a live 2013 performance heard at the Frauenkirche, the exact venue for which Wagner wrote the piece. Das Liebesmahl der Apostel, a half-hour-long work for huge male chorus and large orchestra, is almost never heard anymore, and it is inarguably minor Wagner – to the extent that any of his grandly envisioned works can be called “minor.” It takes the men of seven different choruses to make up the 200-plus voices heard in this recording, yet Wagner wanted far more: 1,200 men plus a 100-piece orchestra. The voices’ placement is crucial to the work’s effect, with some of the men placed above the audience in an arrangement made possible by the layout of the Frauenkirche – truly, Wagner’s piece fits this particular venue as carefully as a typical church organ fits the building into which it is built. The piece’s title translates as “The Holy Supper of the Apostles.” Wagner, as was his custom, wrote the words himself, and they have some of the forthright religious character of Parsifal although they lack that opera’s subtlety of expression. Wagner shows himself a theatrical master even in this avowedly religious work: the climax of the piece involves an address to the large chorus of disciples by Christ’s 12 Apostles – all of whom are basses. The sound of a dozen deep male voices, declaiming words of encouragement for the spreading of the Gospel in the sonic environment of the Frauenkirche, is remarkable and, indeed, unmatched anywhere else even in Wagner. How this piece must have resounded and echoed with the full complement of forces for which Wagner created it in 1843! Even without all that heft, though, it is a piece of great historical and lesser but still significant musical interest, a work intimately bound up with the location for which its composer made it and performed there with assurance and stylistic sensitivity by top-notch musicians and a conductor of very considerable sensitivity.

     The conducting is also first-rate on a new recording of Stravinsky and Debussy by Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony, on the orchestra’s own label. This CD offers a chance to hear two somewhat childlike scores, one with strange undercurrents and the other forthright and pleasantly attractive. Morlot is quite cognizant of the balletic elements of Petrushka, and this performance is danceable as well as dramatic, with hint after hint of something slightly otherworldly going on. The realism – surrealism, really – of the Shrovetide Fair as portrayed here comes through to good effect, and there is a definite feeling of playfulness against which the darker tale of Petrushka and the menacing Blackamoor is set. Morlot keeps the music moving at a brisk but unrushed pace, and the orchestra plays for him with subtlety and notable clarity in the inner voices. The well-known Petrushka makes a good contrast with Debussy’s naïve and often cute La boîte à joujoux (“The Toy Box”), which dates to 1913 but was left unfinished at the composer’s death – the orchestration was very skillfully completed by Debussy’s friend André Caplet. This is a work of childhood and of childlike magic and affection – not affectation – and Morlot handles it with an appropriately light touch, keeping its tableaux almost frothy, with plenty of warmth and playfulness. Petrushka, it is worth remembering, dates to 1910-11, just about the same time as La boîte à joujoux (although the Stravinsky is inevitably heard in its 1947 revision). It is especially intriguing to realize how differently the composers portrayed the somewhat unreal worlds of these pieces at a time when it is possible to see, of course only in retrospect, that the great convulsion of World War I was on the horizon.

     One of the many victims of that war was Enrique Granados (1867-1916), whose music – except for Goyescas, both for piano and as a one-act opera – remains so little-known that three of the five works on a new Naxos CD are world première recordings. Balancing them is the Intermezzo from Goyescas, Granados’ most-often-heard composition, which the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra under Pablo González plays with all the warmth and beauty it deserves. There is drama as well as passion in the symphonic poem Dante, which Granados intended as an impressionistic four-movement suite but for which he completed only two parts. The first is attractively orchestrated and suitably intense; the second, which includes a part for mezzo-soprano, is soft and warm and rather on the delicate side, except for one instance of passionate intensity. Many listeners will inevitably compare it with Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, to which it really does not hold a candle either for evocation of physical love or as a portrayal of the endless winds to which Paolo and Francesca’s doomed love condemned them. Still, Granados’ very different treatment of the story has a kind of soft loveliness that is quite effective. The three other pieces on the CD are the ones that have not been recorded before. Two short, well-made dances written for the stage show rhythmic clarity and a firm command of flamenco style. And La nit dl mort, for tenor, chorus and orchestra – the earliest work here (1897) and the one most firmly in Romantic style – is a suitably dark and eerie tone poem in which a girl is warned of the coming death of her lover in battle. Singers and orchestra alike are thoroughly comfortable with all this music, and this CD, the second in a series presenting Granados’ orchestral works, offers listeners a second impressive sampling of the composer’s music.

     But what could possibly be out-of-the-way when it comes to Vivaldi? One answer appears on a new Brilliant Classics CD featuring the superb historically informed playing of Federico Guglielmo and his ensemble, L’Arte dell’Arco. Very few listeners are likely ever to have heard Vivaldi’s Op. 5, an unusual mixture of works that was apparently assembled by a publisher and may not even have been approved by the composer, although there is little doubt that all six pieces here are by him (something that was not always the case in later assemblages attributed to Vivaldi). Op. 5 is further confused by the fact that it was presented as a continuation of the 12 violin sonatas included in Op. 2; thus, the four sonatas and two trio sonatas here are numbered I-VI (Roman numerals) within this set but also 13-18 (Arabic numerals) as follow-ups to Op. 2. The confusion surrounding the numbers and the provenance of the set notwithstanding, there is plenty of delightful and distinctly Vivaldian music to be discovered here – although this is a brief disc by modern recording standards (48 minutes). The playing, here as in other recordings by members of this ensemble, is revelatory and makes the CD a worthwhile addition to the collection of Vivaldi lovers. Guglielmo’s tone, phrasing and dynamics bring this music to life in a way that has rarely been heard before in any recording, and his colleagues in this highly collegial enterprise perform at very nearly the same extremely high level and with very much the same clarity of expression and perfection of intonation. There is nothing in the four violin sonatas and two trio sonatas of Op. 5 that could be called outstanding Vivaldi, but there is nothing here that is unworthy of at least occasional performance – although it is hard to imagine everyday string players bringing as much bounce and brilliance to this music as L’Arte dell’Arco offers here.

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