August 31, 2017
(+++) CLASSICS WITH A TWIST
Mozart: Requiem; Miserere; Ave verum corpus; Handel: “The Ways of Zion Do Mourn.” Genia Kühmeier, soprano; Elisabeth Kulman, alto; Julien Behr, tenor; Charles Dekeyser, bass; Salzburger Bachchor and Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski; Académie équestre de Versailles with stage direction and horse dressage by Bartabas (Clément Marty). C Major DVD. $24.99.
Elegia: Music for Clarinet and Piano by John Cage, Aurelio Magnani, Camille Saint-Saëns, Henri Ribaud, Kevin J. Cope, Giuseppe Verdi, and Ernesto Cavallini. Christopher Nichols, clarinet; Julie Nishimura, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Kodály: Duo for Violin and Cello; Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Cello; Paul Desenne: “Envoyage.” Soh-Hyun Park Altino, violin; Leonardo Altino, cello. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Portraits: Works for Flute, Clarinet and Piano by Chris Rogerson, Valerie Coleman, Guillaume Connesson, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Paul Schoenfield, and Philip Hammond. McGill/McHale Trio (Demarre McGill, flute; Anthony McGill, clarinet; Michael McHale, piano). Cedille. $12.
Sometimes the music itself does not seem to be enough. Even with a transcendent (although unfinished) work such as Mozart’s Requiem, some performers have an urge to dress things up, adding elements that were never part of the composer’s concept or intention, in a bid either to attract a new audience to the music or simply to show off what sort of multimedia presentation can be done when highly skilled people get together. The latter reason seems to be the rationale underlying what was done at Mozartwoche Salzburg in January 2017, when fine musicians and singers under a fine conductor collaborated with a fine equestrian ensemble to produce a performance that, in its totality, is something less than fine. The primary focus of this rendition of the Requiem and the other, complementary works that are now available on a C Major DVD is an equestrian one. The whole display takes place in a summer-opera venue called the Felsenreitschule, which dates to 1693 and whose name, “Stone Riding School,” points both to the way it is carved into a cliff and to its original purpose. Given the venue’s origin, the equestrian displays organized by Bartabas (the performing name of horse trainer and impresario Clément Marty) make sense. But only in that regard. Mozart’s Requiem, Miserere and Ave verum corpus, and Handel’s excerpt from Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, have nothing to do with horses – they might as well be staged as miniature ballets. In fact, the prancing and trotting of the horses is somewhat balletic here, but none of it fits with the music in any meaningful way – just as was the case when these same forces got together to offer the cantata Davide Penitente in 2015. It is true that horses as guiding spirits of the departed exist in some cultures, and in that sense there is a tenuous connection of the equestrian displays with Mozart’s Requiem. But it is a tenuous one. In this performance, the attempt is to make the horses and the music a singular, unified and unifying force. This simply does not work. The production is based on the brilliance of the riders and their horses rather than on the music, and although it is easy to see why the visual splendor of the horses and riders can and did please the attending crowd, it is easy to hear that the music was given short shrift by the visual attention lavished on the equestrianism. Minkowski sees Mozart’s unfinished masterpiece as focusing more on belief in a future life than on a farewell to the earthly one, but this intriguing (if arguable) approach never gels here: the musicians simply do not get the attention (auditory or visual) lavished on the horses and riders, and the result is an interesting curiosity of a performance without the emotional depth that the Requiem conveys entirely on its own, unencumbered by the sort of display seen here.
The music is offered in straightforward, well-played fashion on a new Navona CD featuring clarinetist Christopher Nichols and pianist Julie Nishimura, but here too there is a twist of sorts. It comes in the selection of the repertoire, which covers two centuries and three nationalities (Italian, French and American), and also in the rather odd sequence of pieces on the disc – the reasons for presenting this material in this order are scarcely apparent. A short early work by John Cage, Sonata for Clarinet of 1933, appears first, sounding quite tame compared with his later music, which it foreshadows in a few ways. Next is Aurelio Magnani’s Elegia, which is well-known to clarinetists but will not be particularly familiar to most listeners. Saint-Saëns’ Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, on the other hand, is familiar music, and the give-and-take in this recording makes for a particularly effective performance of it. Then comes Henri Rabaud’s 1901 Solo de concours, an effective display piece for clarinet that is another reasonably well-known one, especially among clarinetists. Next is a solo-clarinet piece from as recently as 2012, Sirocco by Kevin J. Cope (born 1981) – and the contrast between its multiple musical styles and Rabaud’s melodious, tonal and very French piece is a pronounced one. Yet this is not the end of the CD. The final two pieces here reach back to the 19th century and to the time of clarinetist/composer Ernesto Cavallini (1807-1874). First of the two is Verdi’s Andante from La forza del destino, composed specifically for Cavallini after Verdi heard the clarinetist’s technique and was impressed by its beautiful lyricism as well as the performer’s virtuosity. And then, at the end of the disc, is a work by Cavallini himself, Adagio and Tarantella. This amply displays both warmth and intensity, and if it is music of little emotional consequence, it offers considerable opportunities for the clarinetist to engage with and impress the audience. Nichols certainly does that, and Nishimura handles her almost entirely subsidiary role effectively throughout the disc. But there is no sense here of continuity from piece to piece, no progress chronologically, no comparison and contrast of composers or styles of making music or national heritages or, really, anything else. The CD comes across as an anthology of better-known and lesser-known clarinet works arranged in helter-skelter style – well-played, to be sure, but ultimately communicating little beyond the technical abilities of the performers.
The twist to a new MSR Classics disc featuring Soh-Hyun Park Altino and Leonardo Altino is somewhat clearer, lying in the inclusion of two works by very-well-known composers followed by one that is highly unlikely to be familiar to most listeners. Actually, despite the frequency with which the works of Kodály and Ravel are performed, the particular pieces heard here are not at all well-known, because they use the rather unusual combination of violin and cello – no piano here, and only half of a string quartet. The resulting sound is rather unusual and somewhat unexpected, with both instruments often sounding as if they are being handled by solo performers – the conversational camaraderie of so many string quartets is largely absent here. Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello, which dates to 1914, has a generally dark tone and a considerable degree of acerbity, with tempo markings in which Kodály is particularly concerned with underlining the emotional elements of the music that he wants brought forth: Allegro serioso in the first movement and Maestoso e largamente at the start of the third. The first movement has an overall rhapsodic tone and folklike melodies played by the instruments in alternating form. The second movement is passionate, the opening solo cello soon joined by the violin. And the finale, after that Maestoso e largamente beginning, becomes a sparkling Presto that gives both players plenty of chances to show off their technique. This Kodály work was not actually heard until a decade after its composition, in 1924, which means that although Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello was written somewhat later (1920-22), it was performed first – in the year of its completion. Ravel dedicated the piece to Debussy (who had died in 1918); it is comparatively straightforward and fairly typical of Ravel’s music of this period, with considerable if nonspecific Impressionist elements. The violin-and-cello literature is sparse, and it is easy to see why the performers here would reach for something like “Envoyage” (the quotation marks are part of the title) to expand their repertoire. Paul Desenne (born 1959) is a Venezuelan cellist/composer whose works mix European and Latin American elements, somewhat in the manner of Villa-Lobos. Subtitled Trois Mouvements pour Violin et Violoncello and written in 2012, “Envoyage” has three movements of distinctly folklike character and a structure that somewhat favors the cello but still allows the violin plenty of opportunities to shine. It is a pleasant piece with a smattering of Latin American character and enough tunefulness to be worth hearing, but does not have very much to say to nonperformers – it is more of an étude for the two players. It does, however, provide a pleasant complement to the earlier and better-known pieces on this well-recorded CD.
There is a musical twist of some interest – just one – on a new Cedille disc containing modern chamber music, mostly in world première recordings. The twist is in a contemporary reimagining of Rachmaninoff’s famous Vocalise. Pianist Michael McHale has arranged it quite unusually, retaining the composer’s original piano line while splitting the vocal sections between flute (whose register is not much like that of the human voice) and clarinet (which does have a distinctly human-vocal character). This offering takes up only five minutes of a 66-minute recording, but it is the most intriguing musical approach on the CD. Among the remaining works, the longest and most interesting is Portraits of Langston (2007) by Valerie Coleman. This is a six-movement suite reflecting poet Langston Hughes’ works focusing on the Harlem Renaissance and jazz-age Paris, lengthened to 12 sections by readings of Hughes poems by Mahershala Ali. The work’s well-individualized movements build nicely toward a finale called “Harlem’s Summer Night,” in which flute, clarinet and piano go off in apparently different directions that turn out to be well-unified. The other pieces here are less substantial, although the 1994 Sonatina by Paul Schoenfield has a good deal to recommend it: each of its three movements seems to be a straightforward dance (“Charleston,” “Hunter Rag” and “Jig”), but unusual harmonies and some technical flights of fancy extend the basic forms in some pleasantly unexpected ways. Also here is A Fish Will Rise, re-scored for the McGill/McHale Trio by the composer from his piano-trio version of 2014; this is a pleasing but rather predictable work that includes both calm and energetic passages. Techno — Parade (2002) by Guillaume Connesson is also fairly forthright in its replication of the sound of electronic pop music. The CD concludes with two pleasant and rather straightforward arrangements of old Irish tunes: Philip Hammond’s The Lamentation of Owen O’Neil (2011/2016) and McHale’s The Lark in the Clear Air (2016). These bring the CD to an attractively soft-pedaled close, although they are not in themselves especially notable musically – certainly not when compared to McHale’s approach to the Rachmaninoff. The McGill/McHale Trio is an effervescent group whose members sound as if they take joy as well as pride in the rather unconventional instrumentation of their ensemble. The music here is not all of equally high quality, but the performances are, and even listeners who may not be moved by every track on the CD can still enjoy the high level of skill that the performers bring to each piece.