November 17, 2016


Auber: Overtures, Volume 1—La Circassiene, Le Cheval de bronze, Le Domino noir, Fra Diavolo, La Fiancée, Les Diamantes de la couronne, Marco Spada, L’Enfant prodigue. Orchestre de Cannes conducted by Wolfgang Dörner. Naxos. $12.99.

Joseph Lanner: Tarantel-Galopp; Hexentanz Waltz; Elisens und Katinkens Vereinigung; Hofball-Tänze; Huldigungsmarsch; Neujahrs-Galopp; Mitternachts Waltz; Hans-Jörgel-Polka; Steyrische Tänze; Die Schönbrunner. Orchestre de Cannes conducted by Wolfgang Dörner. Naxos. $12.99.

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (complete); Symphony No. 4. Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mariinsky. $25.99 (2 SACDs).

Christmas on Stage and Screen. The United States Air Force Band & Singing Sergeants conducted by Col. Lowell E. Graham. Klavier. $16.99.

Deo Gratias: Music for Brass with Organ and Handbells. GIA Publications. $16.99.

     The Christmas and winter-holiday season always brings with it a plethora of avowedly seasonal musical offerings, some of which can be very fine indeed. But for those who tire of the latest arrangement of familiar carols and wintry music of all sorts, there are other highly enjoyable ways to indulge in music with at least a slight connection to this time of year. True, sometimes listeners may have to stretch a bit to consider works “seasonal,” but doing so can be worthwhile, because it opens the door to a wider variety of listening pleasures. For instance, the first volume of a planned Naxos series featuring the opera overtures of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber includes Auber’s 1850 overture to The Prodigal Son, based on one of the better-known parables of the New Testament – so there is an indirect Christmas connection there. Yes, it is very indirect, but the fine playing of the Orchestre de Cannes under Wolfgang Dörner is really justification enough for listening to this overture and the seven others on this CD. Auber was immensely popular in his time, which extended through many of the major developments in Romantic music: he was born while Mozart was still alive (1782) and lived until 1871, just five years before the first performance of Wagner’s Ring. Auber went his own way in opera, however, being beholden neither to Mozart nor to the Romantics: his music has a very Parisian charm, the overtures invariably pleasant and well-constructed, with a certain sense of self-awareness that the operas are intended as entertainment without any claims of deep meaning. Furthermore, nothing here is louche in an Offenbachian sense, not even in the works focused on brigands and other disreputable sorts, such as Fra Diavolo (1830) and Marco Spada (1852). This is energetic and essentially lighthearted music, just the thing to listen to in a season of joy if one wishes to approach the holidays in a pleasant if somewhat superficial mood. Dörner gets the sense of this music just right, allowing it to flow naturally without trying to force it to display depths that it lacks. Even the latest work here is more than 150 years old (La Circassienne dates to 1861), but the refined charms of these overtures offer many pleasures – in truth, not just for this season but for anytime.

     Dörner and Orchestra de Cannes offer a touch of somewhat more directly seasonal material on another very fine, very well-played Naxos disc, this one featuring the music of Joseph Lanner. Lanner was as Viennese as Auber was Parisian – indeed, it was Lanner’s determination to remain in Vienna rather than bring his music elsewhere that led to the greater success of his much-traveled rival, Johann Strauss Sr. Like the elder Strauss, Lanner lived a short life – he died of typhus at age 42, in 1843 – and also like Strauss, he created many works that were determinedly provincial, in the sense that they bore the names of local places or people, or were occasional pieces intended for a specific purpose. As a result, some of Lanner’s 200-plus works, such as the Neujahrs-Galopp of 1833, fit the winter holiday season perfectly, having been composed specifically for it. This particular piece shows Lanner’s cleverness, which is sometimes underestimated: it not only includes intriguing echo effects but also concludes with a combination accelerando and crescendo that is quite thoroughly celebratory. It is directly followed on this CD by another work that modern listeners will associate with New Year’s celebrations because of its title: Mitternachts Waltz. This 1826 piece was not actually intended for the New Year – the title refers to a 19th-century requirement that all doors be locked at midnight, with late-night revelers admitted only if they knocked on the door and paid a fee to a designated guardian to let them in. Still, the notion of ongoing revels until the wee hours fits the holiday season quite well – and this waltz, with its 12 clearly tolling bells, has another specific holiday association: the traditional Grandfather Dance, known best to modern listeners because of Tchaikovsky’s famous use of it in The Nutcracker, would have been played at the end of a ball marked by use of Lanner’s waltz. Dörner has considerable talent for handling music that is pleasant without being profound: here as in the Auber disc, he and the orchestra show a fine grasp of the melodic richness and rhythmic beauty of the material, but never over-weight it in a fruitless search for deeper meaning. As a result, some of the Lanner works heard here stand up as equal to those of Strauss Sr., if not to those of his even more famous son. The bright and lively Tarantel-Galopp of 1838 and the surprisingly structured and highly effective Huldigungsmarsch of 1836 are undiscovered gems; the better-known Steyrische Tänze of 1841 and very extended waltz, Die Schönbrunner of 1842, also reveal considerable charms in these knowing performances.

     Speaking of The Nutcracker, the ballet itself is of course a longstanding Christmas tradition – and there is also a sub-tradition of sorts, the release at this time of year of at least one new recording of Tchaikovsky’s music. The playing in recent releases of the ballet has almost always been exceptionally fine, and this year’s new entry, featuring Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra on the orchestra’s own label, fits right in. But this is also a release quite unlike others, because it follows the lighthearted, minimally frightening, not-very-intense ballet with Tchaikovsky’s dark, doom-haunted Symphony No. 4. The result is a strange mixture of holiday cheer with an overlay of unwanted worry – a peculiar pairing, to be sure. The release also shows Gergiev, an erratic although highly skilled conductor, at his most maddening. The Nutcracker itself is marvelous, showing that Gergiev is in tune with the Mariinsky’s long ballet history (it used to be the Imperial Russian Ballet) and has fully absorbed the special mixture of elegance, drive, poise and beauty that classical ballet requires. This is in fact a danceable Nutcracker, its connections with the stage made apparent in the delicacy with which Gergiev handles its special orchestral touches (and not just the famous celesta) and in the contrasts he brings to sections intended to be clearly differentiated in the second act. Virtually all the ballet’s drama occurs in Act I, and Gergiev plays this up to a reasonable extent; but this is an altogether frothier confection than Tchaikovsky’s other ballets, and Gergiev never lets matters get too heavy. The sound, both SACD and traditional CD, is exceptionally good: both the fullness of the orchestra and the details of individual sections – and individual instruments within them – come through clearly. This is Gergiev the sensitive, knowledgeable and highly involved interpreter. He appears to be someone other than the conductor of Symphony No. 4, which is largely a mess. The playing is not the issue here – again, it is first-rate. But it is hard to know what Gergiev thinks he is doing with, or to, this symphony. The huge first movement is sometimes handled, wrongly but understandably, as if it is a standalone tone poem, with exaggerated tempo shifts and introduced rubato throughout. That is exactly how Gergiev approaches it, and he makes the technique even more wrong-headed by the highly exaggerated way he s-l-o-o-o-o-w-s down and speeds up, thoroughly undermining the movement’s rhythms and shattering its structural cohesion – which, yes, it does possess. The underlying problem with the tone-poem approach to this movement is that it leaves the symphony nowhere significant to go afterwards. Gergiev takes it to a slow movement that, again, is so exaggerated, so stop-and-start in its progress, that Tchaikovsky’s wonderful emotional and melodic flow is wholly absent. Gergiev tries to drown the listener in syrup and comes up only with something treacly. The third and fourth movements are better, because Gergiev interferes less with Tchaikovsky in them, but the headlong, faster-and-faster rush at the symphony’s very end makes it sound as if the orchestra is in a hurry to get things over with and go home. The symphony is as disappointing as the ballet is delightful. In the spirit of the season, listeners should feel free to ignore it and enjoy this release purely for The Nutcracker.

     Seasonal releases go well beyond those of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, of course. This is a kind of clear-out-the-vaults season for Christmas music of all types, with releases of many sorts, vocal and instrumental, being offered by a large number of labels. The usual compilations mix highly familiar material with some that is less known, and CDs sometimes cross genres to meld classical music with other types. Generally, none of these releases pretends to be particularly profound or to extend beyond seasonal use, but when they are well produced – as are two new ones from Klavier and GIA Publications, respectively – they are fun to listen to for a time and, of course, can make pleasant seasonal gifts. The Klavier recording offers both vocal works and instrumental ones – among the latter being, not surprisingly, Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker. The performers are not ones that listeners will immediately associate with peace on Earth, but they handle this material with warmth, skill and even an apt level of amusement – as in a medley including A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There are other tune mixtures, too, and not necessarily ones that listeners will expect: Pine Cones and Holly Berries with It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, for example, and White Christmas with Somewhere in My Memory. Strictly classical items, in addition to the Tchaikovsky waltz, include Prokofiev’s Troika from Lieutenant Kijé and Menotti’s Introduction, March and Shepherd’s Dance from Amahl and the Night Visitors. Other entries here are Herbert’s March of the Toys from Babes in Toyland and such seasonal standards as Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and a medley of familiar carols. Everything is played and sung nicely, and the whole unpretentious release does a good job of offering seasonal pleasantries.

     The CD called Deo Gratias is more serious in tone. It is a compilation from the recording company’s archives of 16 well-performed works, with as strong an emphasis on the sacred as the Klavier disc has on the secular. There are four Renaissance motets here, two by William Byrd and two by Gregor Aichinger; fantasies on Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott and on the Plainchant; a chorale from Saint-Saëns’ Christmas Oratorio – all sandwiched between the opening Lift High the Cross and the concluding All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name. The strongly religious orientation of the material is accentuated by the arrangements – which, as the CD’s title indicates, combine brass choirs with organ and handbells. GIA Publications, which is affiliated with the Catholic church, publishes hymnals, other sacred music, and music-education materials, so this CD fits right into its raison d’etre. There is considerable reverence here, not only in the music itself but also in the arrangements – for example, the organ’s opening of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, before the brass enters; the “rocking” rhythm for both brass and organ in People, Look East; and the strongly fanfare-like start of This Joyful Eastertide. As that work makes clear, this is not strictly a Christmas-focused release: it offers sacred music for the whole year, in very fine and well-played arrangements. As a result, Deo Gratias, unlike most recordings to which listeners may look at this time of year, has the potential to become a mainstay of listening enjoyment – and elevation of feeling – long after Christmas and the winter holidays have passed and given way to a new year and new seasons.

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