July 20, 2017


Strauss in St. Petersburg. Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99.

Wagner: Parsifal. Christopher Ventris, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Mikhail Petrenko, Falk Struckmann, Petra Lang; Chorus of Dutch National Opera and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer. Challenge Classics. $44.99 (Blu-ray Disc+DVD).

Richard Strauss: Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra; Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments; Sonatina No. 2 for 16 Wind Instruments. Alexei Ogrintchouk, oboe; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons (Concerto); Alexei Ogrintchouk, oboe and conducting Winds of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Serenade, Sonatina). BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Eugène Ysaÿe: Six Sonatas for Solo Violin. Sharon Park, violin. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Many composers have written works dubbed Pieces Caracteristiques, usually indicating miniatures expressive of a particular time, place or emotion. But in a different sense, there are certain works, sometimes very extended ones, that come across as especially characteristic of composers’ thoughts, styles, experiences and beliefs. Those created by Johann Strauss Jr. for his orchestra’s many visits to St. Petersburg, Russia, fall into this category, most notably Abschied von St. Petersburg of 1858, a wistful and sad farewell not only to the city but also to Olga Smirnitskaya (1837-1920), with whom Strauss had fallen in love there – and whose own memento of that time, called Erste Liebe and written 20 years after she and Strauss parted, is intriguingly included on a new Chandos disc featuring the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. The CD offers a very generous helping of 20 pieces written for or about St. Petersburg by Strauss: nearly 83 minutes of music, an exceptional amount for a single disc, especially one as well-recorded as this. Aside from Smirnitskaya’s sweet memoir (nicely sung by soprano Olga Zaitseva) and the Pizzicato Polka written jointly by Johann Jr. and Joseph, everything here is by Johann himself – the works ranging from the highly familiar (Wein, Weib und Gesang! and Vergnügungszug, for example) to the very infrequently played (An der Wolga, Alexander-Quadrille and many others). Järvi occasionally pushes the music too quickly and ungently, but in the main keeps things lively without rushing them, and the orchestra plays with considerable verve and spirit. An unusually well-done set of booklet notes discusses each work briefly and lays them out sensibly in chronological order – which makes the decision to present the pieces themselves, on the CD, as a hodgepodge in no understandable order whatsoever, a highly peculiar one. It would have been much better to follow the progress of the Strauss orchestra through its years of St. Petersburg travel on a musical basis as well as with the booklet’s words. Nevertheless, having so much of this material all in one place – works redolent of the Strauss style and also “characteristic” of the city that is their focus – is a great pleasure; and the disc, with its generous helping of less-known material, makes an excellent addition to the library of any Strauss fancier.

     Pretty much everything Richard Wagner wrote for the stage qualifies as a characteristic piece, for all that he largely disavowed his first three operas, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi. But if there is one opera that sums up virtually all Wagner’s themes and concerns – indeed, including within its vast span references to a number of his earlier works, as if to make the summing-up explicit – that opera is his last one, Parsifal. Clad in traditional Christian guise, it is not really a Christian opera, instead using the setting of the Grail knights as a way to get at themes of power and energy, renunciation and acceptance, worldly pleasures and joys that transcend them. The fact that these are essentially the same themes explored in Der Ring des Nibelungen is no accident – that four-opera series is no more about Wotan’s downfall than Parsifal is about Klingsor’s, and indeed, the underlying concerns in these late operas were already present in Wagner’s earliest ones. A new Challenge Classics release, packaging a Blu-ray Disc and DVD together, provides an unusually trenchant view of Parsifal. This is a 2016 revival of a Pierre Audi production for Dutch National Opera from 2012, and – traditionalists be warned – it is an abstract spectacle, nothing like what one would expect at Bayreuth, the only opera house where Wagner believed Parsifal could be adequately presented. For those who do not insist on standard visual approaches to the opera, Audi’s direction and Anish Kapoor’s set design (with sensitive lighting by Jean Kalman and intriguing costume design by Christof Hetzer) will come across exceptionally well. A giant concave mirror suspended above the stage is a crucial feature here, literally reflecting the on-stage action and encouraging the audience to reflect on what is occurring. The mirror’s presence in some but not all scenes lends this reflective surface an unusual participatory role in the action. Yet there is in fact very little action in Parsifal, and Audi uses that fact to advantage: the stage is nearly bare during long stretches of dialogue, a minimalist approach that forces the audience’s attention onto what is being said and heard, yet offers far more visual impact than a concert performance can. The marvelous role of Kundry (Petra Lang), the last of Wagner’s woman saviors, is especially compelling here, the staging making it clear that Kundry – the most complex character in the opera – must be responsible for connecting Parsifal (Christopher Ventris, who is excellent) to his past and putting him fully in touch with a type of innocence through which he can claim both kingship and healing powers. The overt seductiveness (under duress) of Kundry and the purity and innocence (by heritage) of Parsifal come through particularly clearly in this production, and it is interesting to note that the Parsifal legend is in origin the story of an infertile ruler, a trait shared in Wagner’s opera by the suffering Amfortas (Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester) and the supposedly potent but physically self-castrated Klingsor (Mikhail Petrenko, who also sings Titurel – a genuinely fascinating pairing of parts). All the singers are excellent in the roles, presenting first-rate vocal acting that ranges from Amfortas’ wobbly vibrato to the strength and surety of Gurnemanz (Falk Struckmann). Iván Fischer meticulously follows Wagner’s many tempo indications and changes throughout the score, leading the Chorus of Dutch National Opera and the smooth-as-silk, perfectly balanced Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with consummate skill. References to Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde and the Ring cycle appear in the score as thematic resonances that complement and extend the leitmotif concept, and Fischer weaves them in skillfully but not over-obviously. There is much to be said for listening to Parsifal at home without any visual encumbrances, calling up its scenes within one’s own mind as the music flows through with studied inevitability. But, after all, the work was conceived by Wagner as a visual one; and even though watching a Blu-ray Disc or DVD at home can never be as involving or overwhelming an experience as attending a Parsifal performance in person, this Dutch staging captures so much of the spirit and spirituality of the music and story that it will truly enchant (yes, that is the right word) Wagner lovers seeking an exceptionally satisfying visual and aural experience.

     Operas are also what would be considered “characteristic pieces” for Richard Strauss, but some very different performances by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra show that this composer also had a characteristic (and firmly in-character) approach to non-vocal music. Late Strauss has a sound very different from the sumptuous, huge-orchestra one of earlier Strauss, and the 1945 Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra, one of the composer’s final works, shows this quite clearly. In the Classical tradition of three-movement concertos and scored only for two flutes, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and strings, the work is strictly tonal (in D) and deliberately recalls the famous rhythm of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It also refers back to Strauss’s own recently completed Metamorphosen, much as Wagner in Parsifal refers back to his own earlier works with similar concerns. The live recording of the concerto for BIS by Alexei Ogrintchouk is a very fine, well-played one, and the conducting by Andris Nelsons is sensitive and nicely paced. Ogrintchouk is both oboist and conductor in the other works on the SACD, which are studio recordings. The short Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments is from the opposite, earliest part of Strauss’ career, dating to 1881, a full 64 years before the concerto. Modeled on Mozart’s Gran Partita, the work is charming, lively and quite self-assured in construction. The serenade gave Strauss an interesting connection with Wagner: its première, in Dresden, was conducted by Franz Wullner, who had conducted the first performances of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and would later present the premières of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote. The final work on this disc is much more substantial – longer than the other two put together. The label Sonatina therefore seems something of a misnomer, and in fact the work is sometimes referred to as a symphony. Its subtitle, Fröhliche Werkstatt (“Happy Workshop”) reflects its generally jovial and upbeat tone – a surprise for a work that, like the oboe concerto, dates to the closing years of World War II. The reason for the subtitle was to contrast this work with the Sonatina No. 1, which was written when Strauss was ill and was called “From the Workshop of an Invalid.”  The second Sonatina features very skillful wind writing – a Strauss characteristic that does not always get adequate attention – and an overall warm and mellow sound somewhat reminiscent of that of Brahms. Strauss’s days of musical radicalism are nowhere apparent here, and the work makes a fascinating juxtaposition with the early Serenade – because there is simply not much greater structural or instrumental skill in one than in the other. Strauss was something of a natural in wind writing, as the excellent playing on this recording makes abundantly clear.

     Sometimes composers seek to write music that will characterize and encapsulate other people, but what results may in fact show as much about the composer as about the people being musically portrayed. That is the case with the six Op. 27 solo-violin sonatas by Eugène Ysaÿe, which receive first-rate performances from Sharon Park on a new MSR Classics release. Park offers passionate readings of all six works, the first being dedicated to Joseph Szigeti, the second (“Obsession”) to Jacques Thibaud, the third (“Ballade”) to Georges Enescu, the fourth to Fritz Kreisler, the fifth to Mathieu Crickboom, and the sixth to Manuel Quiroga. Ysaÿe was inspired to write these sonatas after hearing a Bach solo-violin sonata played by Szigeti, and Bach’s spirit permeates the works: No. 2, for example, directly quotes the start of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin in the first movement and then moves on to a siciliano, a sarabande and a finale quoting the Dies Irae from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. Yet the sonatas are generally written in the style of the time when Ysaÿe composed them (1923), and as such are filled with dissonance and use techniques such as quarter tones and whole-tone scales. Furthermore, as the dedications to Ysaÿe’s contemporary virtuosi make clear, the works are technically difficult and designed in some ways to highlight the particular strengths of the performers whose names they bear. All this is historically interesting, but what ultimately matters – as Park clearly realizes – is how well the sonatas work as pure music, not as mere technical displays or dedicatory pieces. And it is in bringing forth the sonatas’ musicality that Park shines. The warmth of the Lento molto sostenuto that opens the Enescu sonata is as well-handled here as the tone painting of the two movements of the Crickboom work and the intense middle section of the one-movement habanera dedicated to Quiroga. Park manages to display and at the same time transcend the sonatas’ formidable technical difficulties, in so doing producing readings that absorb compositional demands and then subsume them into an expressive whole. And that is – characteristically – exactly what Ysaÿe said violinists need to do in order to perform effectively.

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