May 04, 2017


Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7. Beethoven Orchester Bonn conducted by Stefan Blunier. MDG Gold. $18.99 (SACD).

Vítězslav Novák: In the Tatra Mountains—Symphonic Poem; Lady Godiva—Overture; Eternal Longings. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.

Ástor Piazzolla: Tangazo; La Muerte del Angel; Adiós Nonino; Oblivion; Libertango; Lalo Schifrin: Concerto No. 2 for Guitar and Orchestra (“Concierto de la Amistad”); Alberto Ginastera: Four Dances from “Estancia.” Ángel Romero, guitar; Seth Asarnow, bandoneon; Tango Buenos Aires and Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. C Major DVD. $24.99.

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet. San Francisco Ballet. C Major DVD. $24.99.

     The flowing lyricism of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 is the work’s most salient characteristic in a beautifully played and recorded new version by the Beethoven Orchester Bonn conducted by Stefan Blunier. Still comparatively neglected among Beethoven’s symphonies, the Fourth is filled with charm and beauty, and the subtleties of its orchestration are quite wonderful. Indeed, “subtle” is a good word for this unusually upbeat work, which many conductors seem to forget was written after the heaven-storming “Eroica” and which is thus not a step backward but one forward into new territory. The mysterious where-is-this-going opening of the first movement, the constant contrasts of the second, the expansion of minuet-style material in the third movement, the scurrying of the finale – all these and more are the pleasures of the work, and are clearly ones that Blunier delights in bringing out. The pacing here is just right, with a sufficiently expansive first movement to give the whole symphony the gravitas it deserves, followed by polished second, third and fourth movements that flow naturally from one to the next and culminate in a final Allegro ma non troppo that is Haydnesque in a very different way from the earlier First and still-to-come Eighth Symphony. The loving warmth of the orchestra permeates a performance that is well-balanced and well-proportioned throughout, and that sounds truly excellent thanks to the engineering for the MDG Gold label. The Seventh is equally intriguing and differently lyrical. Here the first movement is solid and broadly paced, although it never drags, and the second has more weight than usual, true to its origin as a funeral march. The third and fourth manage to be both quick and substantial, with Blunier highlighting the dancelike elements of the finale without in any way trivializing the music or making the themes seem insubstantial. There are many other fine performances of these symphonies available, of course, each with its own pleasures. This disc is distinguished, first, by attentiveness to detail, made even clearer by the exceptional sound; and, second, by the easy flow of the music in the hands of a conductor and orchestra that clearly know the works’ intricacies in depth and are expert at showcasing them.

     The music of Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949) is as little known, at least outside his native Bohemia, as the music of Beethoven is familiar. But on the basis of a new Naxos CD featuring three substantial Novák symphonic poems played by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta, whose programming is consistently interesting and innovative, Novák surely deserves at least an occasional place in the concert hall. It is true that his music is reminiscent of that of many other composers, but it has folklike touches and a sense of spreading warmth that mark it as produced by a composer who was a substantial craftsman, if not perhaps a highly talented tunesmith. In the Tatra Mountains (1902) sounds somewhat like Richard Strauss’s later, much longer and much-more-involved Alpine Symphony (1915), with similar broad expressiveness and scene-painting involving a storm in the mountains. If Novák’s music is less vivid than that of Strauss, it is also less monumental – and does not feel stretched-out or padded, as Strauss’s sometimes does. And Novák’s themes here are impressively representational of the grandeur of the scenes he depicts. Novák wrote this work, and the others heard here, when movies were in their infancy, but there is a cinematic quality to his music, with its grand, sweeping themes, strongly Romantic harmonies, and intense contrasts between sections. This is especially true in the concert overture Lady Godiva (1907), in which Godiva’s theme and that of her hard-hearted husband are very strongly contrasted and delineated. There is something rather superficial about the handling of the material – somehow the ringing bells at the end come as no surprise – but the work is undeniably effective, even if it does not immediately invite repeated hearings. Eternal Longing (1905), based on material by Hans Christian Andersen, has similar strengths and weaknesses. It is the longest work here, running more than 20 minutes, but also the most episodic, moving in and out of emotional contrasts effectively and with a fine sense of orchestration. The orchestra, which always plays exceptionally well for Falletta, outdoes itself on this disc: Novák demands dynamic as well as emotional extremes, and the Buffalo Philharmonic delivers them so well that the start of In the Tatra Mountains is nearly inaudible, while the climaxes of all three works are sonically overwhelming. The Novák works heard here have some of the sensibility of Dvořák, Smetana and even Debussy, as well as that of Richard Strauss; but they also possess enough individuality to make this CD a fascinating foray into music that is well-known in one specific region but not elsewhere.

     Regionalism was long a defining factor for the tango, but the dance form has now become an international rather than purely Argentinian one, in large part thanks to Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992). A modern master of the form, Piazzolla brought the tango out of the dance hall and into the concert hall, writing music more melodic and rhythmic than traditional tangos and with greater attention to 20th-century harmonic developments. It is the combination of elements of traditional tango with jazz and classical music that makes Piazzolla’s works in the form so interesting, and Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic do several of them to a fine turn on a new C Major DVD. There is enough actual dancing shown on the video to make it somewhat more appealing than traditional DVDs of classical music, although it is still a (+++) release because much of it consists of the usual visuals of the conductor conducting and the orchestra members playing orchestral instruments – all without the visceral excitement experienced by attendees at an actual outdoor concert, like the one at the Hollywood Bowl recorded here. At 83 minutes, this is not a particularly long concert, and at 19 minutes, the bonus material –interviews with Dudamel, composer Lalo Schifrin and guitarist Ángel Romero – is not substantial, either. But those who like visuals with some lighter classical music will enjoy this offering. The Piazzolla material is fairly substantial in its way, but the major work here is the world première of Schifrin’s second guitar concerto, which he calls Concierto de la Amistad. The piece was written for Romero, who performs it with gusto, and it is a nicely made work that gives Romero plenty of opportunities to show off his virtuosity and does not require much depth of perception or involvement on the part of the audience. Therefore, it fits rather well with the overt dance elements both of Piazzolla and of Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), whose Estancia was written to show off Argentine country life in somewhat the way that Copland at the same time (1941) was writing ballets redolent of American folk tunes and frontier events. The four dances heard here are those of field hands, a wheat field, cattlemen and gauchos – Argentinian frontier types not all that different from American Western ones, although the music itself certainly has a different form and flair. Essentially the souvenir of a light-music concert, this DVD mixes appealing if not terribly significant music with some pleasant visuals (especially in the tangos, in which Tango Buenos Aires does a fine job) and an overall feeling of relaxation and enjoyment.

     The enjoyment is of a different sort on another C Major DVD, this one of the San Francisco Ballet’s 2015 staging of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The focus here is largely on the troupe’s founder, artistic director and principal choreographer, Helgi Tomasson: listeners and viewers must appreciate her handling of the story and the dancing in order to enjoy the recording – the fine conducting by Martin West and good (if not exceptional) orchestral playing are not enough. Classical ballet always has something of spectacle about it, which means the production and costume design of Jens-Jacob Worsaae and the lighting design of Thomas R. Skelton are as important in their way as the music and choreography. And of course the quality of the dancing is crucial. Here the primary roles are danced by Maria Kochetkova (Juliet), Davit Karapetyan (Romeo), Pascal Molet (Mercutio), Joseph Walsh (Benvolio), and Luke Ingham (Tybalt). The production is actually a modification of one that Tomasson created 20 years earlier, and it is improved in several ways – for instance, Tybalt is still intense and a rabble-rouser, but no longer comes across as a sadist. Prokofiev’s music is as wonderful as always, but it is somewhat beside the point in a production that is constantly moving and changing, as if in deference to an audience whose attention span is perhaps limited (or thought by Tomasson to be limited). Kochetkova and Karapetyan dance well together, although they act together less well – this is, after all, Shakespeare’s story of young and doomed love, and body language and facial expressiveness count for a great deal, beyond the requirements of ballet movements (which, however, are often wonderful, especially when Kochetkova is reveling in the exuberance of love). As in any DVD, the at-home audience must look at the scenes and angles selected by the video director – a distinct disadvantage when a production has as many elements as this one does. In some cases, of course, the place to look is obvious, as in a fight scene wonderfully choreographed by Martino Pistone in collaboration with Tomasson. But at other times, the in-theater audience has the option to examine the settings and the minor characters as well as the central ones, ending up with a fuller sense of scene-setting and drama than ever comes through on the DVD. This limitation, and the somewhat rarefied nature of the material, make this a (+++) release. But those who are enamored of the San Francisco Ballet (America’s oldest professional ballet company, even though it was founded as recently as 1994), and those who know Prokofiev’s marvelous score only as a concert piece and would like to see it interpreted as a stage work, will find a great deal here to enjoy and appreciate.

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