January 05, 2017


Liszt: Songs for Tenor and Piano. Benjamin Brecher, tenor; Robert Koenig, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Ginastera: Piano Concerto No. 2; Panambí. Xiayin Wang, piano; Manchester Chamber Choir and BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena. Chandos. $18.99.

Bernstein: Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah”; Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety.” Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.

Kenji Bunch: Four Flashbacks; Anthony Constantino: Ritual Songs; Dana Wilson: A Thousand Whirling Dreams; Michael Kimber: Vanishing Woods; Libby Larsen: Ferlinghetti. Waldland Ensemble (Jeremy Reynolds, clarinet; Hillary Herndon, viola; Wei-Chun Bernadette Lo, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Justly famed for his exceptional piano prowess, Franz Liszt nevertheless knew when it was appropriate to create music in which the piano was an accompaniment rather than the primary focus. But perhaps because of the intense identification between Liszt and the piano, his piano-using but not piano-dominant works have never attained the popularity of his other music. This is especially evident in his songs, of which he wrote more than 120. It is certainly true that Liszt’s melodies do not have the easy flow of, say, Schubert’s, nor do many of his songs have the naïve but immediately affecting Romantic concerns of that pre-eminent composer of Lieder. But Liszt’s songs nevertheless have considerable power and a willingness – shown also in his other music – to tackle some more-complex subjects than those that attracted other composers of the time. All this is abundantly clear on a fascinating MSR Classics release of a dozen Liszt songs for tenor and piano – songs so infrequently heard that half of these are world première recordings. Liszt’s songs are not completely unknown – the three collected as Sonetto del Petrarca, for instance, are comparatively familiar. Even to these, tenor Benjamin Brecher and pianist Robert Koenig bring a sense of freshness and emotional involvement that is striking and thoroughly apt. Other songs that listeners may recognize are La Loreley, actually the third version of this work, to words by Heinrich Heine; Elégie, to words by Etienne Monnier;  and Die tote Nachtigall, with words by Philipp Kaufmann. The remaining songs, however, are wholly unfamiliar, including the longest and in many ways most dramatic, the first version of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, to words by Alexandre Dumas. Here in particular, Liszt delves beneath the words’ surface to extract the feelings and emotions of the scene, and Brecher brings out the underlying pathos and implicit triumph to fine effect. Also intriguing are the first version of the song titled, in German in this version, Die Lorelei, and the first version of another Heine song, Vergiftet sind meine Lieder. Liszt, it turns out, did have a way with comparatively simple, straightforward material, such as Angiolin dal biondo crin, to words by Cesare Bocella. And he could also bring forth the full flavor of Victor Hugo’s Quand tu chantes bercée. The author of the words to the remaining song, Wenn die letzten Sterne, is unknown, and the work is slight, but it is intriguing because it was not published until 2007. Indeed, many of these songs are true rarities, and if they certainly do not represent Liszt at his compositional pinnacle, neither do they deserve their near-total obscurity. Brecher and Koenig deliver wholehearted performances that fans of Lieder in general and Liszt in particular will surely welcome.

     The piano plays a role that, if not exactly subsidiary, is also not entirely as expected in Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No. 2. By 1972, when he wrote this work, Ginastera was working heavily under the influence of Alban Berg; and although he did eventually integrate Berg’s approach and the Second Viennese School as a whole into his music, in this piece Ginastera sees the piano more as a percussive noisemaker than as an instrument with emotive or communicative power. This is a spare work, and one that seeks to interpret and reinterpret a wide variety of influences: the first movement is a set of Beethoven-based variations (in which Beethoven’s presence is in large part undetectable); the second is a scherzo for the left hand, reminiscent of the works famously written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein after his right arm was amputated; the third is a quasi-fantasia with none of the Romantic characteristics that the term tends to call up; and then there is an extended cadenza section, marked Maestoso e drammatico, followed by a concluding Prestissimo that is not so much a perpetuum mobile as a chance for the pianist to prove just how quickly fingers can leap around the keyboard. Xiayin Wang tackles this very difficult work with aplomb and no apparent strain on a new Chandos release, and she is quite effectively backed up and abetted by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. This concerto is scarcely an endearing work and not one that listeners are likely to take to heart, but it is filled with unusual twists and turns and makes for more-satisfactory intellectual than emotional enjoyment. What makes this disc – the second in a series featuring Ginastera’s orchestral works – really worthwhile is the excellent complete recording of the ballet Panambí. This is really complete, even including the choral portion at the end that is almost never heard. Panambí is Ginastera’s Op. 1 but is scarcely a student work: the composer destroyed 50 or more earlier pieces that he did not consider worthy of preservation, and this is simply the first that he allowed to be published. It was written from 1934 to 1937, long before the Berg influence took over, and in many places sounds remarkably like Stravinsky’s works of several decades earlier. The section called Invocación a los espíritus poderosos (“Invocation to the Powerful Spirits”) is remarkably reminiscent of The Rite of Spring, for example, while the final depiction of dawn sounds like a transmutation of The Firebird to the Argentine pampas. The more-tender sections of the ballet have something of Debussy about them, but the orchestration and rhythms mark Panambí with a style of its own, and the work as a whole comes through remarkably effectively and with considerable beauty in this well-wrought performance.

     As in the Ginastera concerto, the piano is a key component, but not the leading element, in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, called “The Age of Anxiety” and modeled on the W.H. Auden poem of that name. The poem won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 but now seems rather thematically dated in its exploration of the quest for substance and identity in an increasingly industrialized world. It remains interesting for being written in the form of ancient bucolic poetry while being set in an anti-pastoral landscape – specifically, an urban bar during World War II. Bernstein finished the symphony in 1949, when the topic surely seemed fresher, and then revised it in 1965 to make the ending into a strong and clear affirmation of faith. Today that uplift seems rather forced, but Marin Alsop, who has long given herself the mantle of an heir to Bernstein, takes it and the whole symphony at face value, resulting in an unironic performance that seems a bit of a throwback – like the ones that used to deem the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony a movement of sheer, unalloyed triumph. Certainly the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plays the work well, and the section called “The Masque,” in which the piano is front-and-center with syncopated percussion until the keyboard drops out altogether in a symbol of emotional and spiritual exhaustion, comes through especially effectively. Jean-Yves Thibaudet handles his part quite well throughout. Similarly, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano does a fine job in Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” a deep plunge into Old Testament doom-laden prophecy and into the composer’s Jewish roots. Written in 1942 and containing three sections labeled “Prophecy,” “Profanation,” and “Lamentation,” the programmatic work uses biblical Hebrew texts to lament the fall of Jerusalem and, by extension in the middle of a devastating war, of all the positive things for which ancient Jerusalem stood. The work is dour and, unlike Symphony No. 2, offers no respite from lamenting and no bright statement of faith at the end. Alsop’s reading is on the cool side: she seems to stand at a distance from the material, trying to handle it as pure music when it is in fact very explicit storytelling. Again, the orchestra plays very well, but again, the conductor seems to be trying hard to put her personal stamp rather than Bernstein’s on the material. This (+++) Naxos CD certainly has some attractive elements, primarily in the playing of orchestra and the playing and singing of the solo performers; but the depth of feeling that these symphonies can evoke – and did evoke when Bernstein himself conducted them – is largely absent here.

     The piano is simply one part – one-third part, to be accurate – of the instrumental complement on a new MSR Classics CD containing world première recordings of works by five contemporary composers. Like most anthologies, this one is a mixed bag, held together by the use of the same instruments in all the works but otherwise offering music that comes at its topics in very different ways. Three of the five pieces here seem to wish they were vocal rather than purely instrumental: Ritual Songs by Anthony Constantino (born 1995) is a set of three short, mood-evoking movements that seem a bit like modern versions of Songs without Words, although this material is scarcely reminiscent of Mendelssohn. A Thousand Whirling Dreams by Dana Wilson (born 1946), another three-movement piece, offers poetic titles, the first two ending in ellipses, that the music itself does not really reflect and that seem to call out for verbiage to expand on and explain them: “To smash the night…,” “To break this shadow…,” and “Into a thousand lights of sun.” Indeed, the titles are more interestingly expressive than the music itself. And Ferlinghetti by Libby Larsen (born 1960) is a well-constructed six-movement work in which some of the music does effectively bring forth and interpret the lines of poetry that head each section, but the poetic material is so interesting that listeners may be forgiven for wishing there could be more here than the instrumental movements. One of those, for example, is called (with ellipses) “…a man with a mirror for a head…,” and the last is titled (again with ellipses) “…fifty-one clowns in back all wearing nothing but Stars and Stripes…” Music is certainly able to go beyond words and elicit expressiveness in ways that words cannot – but sometimes, as in these three works, matters are the other way around, and there is a feeling that the illustrative musical material is somehow less than the verbiage that inspired it. The other two pieces here depend less on anything verbal for their effects. Vanishing Woods by Michael Kimber (born 1945) is pleasantly evocative and well-constructed, and the viola part is, not surprisingly, especially well handled – Kimber is himself a violist. The single-movement work is a bit over-extended for what it has to say, but is all in all a nicely made and well-balanced piece. Four Flashbacks by Kenji Bunch (born 1973) is a bit of a mixed bag in and of itself. The four pieces’ designations are clear, and the music clearly fits them: “”With bustling energy,” “Gentle,” “Driving,” and “Quiet, calm.” But the material, except for being rather forthrightly illustrative of the titles, does not seem to have much reason for being. What the works flash back to is not apparent from the music, and there is a certain level of superficiality about the movements that results in a suite (which is essentially what this is) on the mild side. The Waldland Ensemble plays all the music with considerable skill and a particularly fine sense of ensemble. This (+++) CD will be of interest primarily to listeners interested in the contemporary use of this particular instrumental combination and to those who already know and like other music by one or more of these composers.

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