August 17, 2017
(++++) HANDLING THE ORCHESTRA
Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Triple Concerto; Romances Nos. 1 and 2. Thomas Albertus Irnberger, violin; David Geringas, cello; Michael Korstick, piano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Judd. Gramola. $34.99 (2 SACDs).
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Predrag Gosta. Edition Lilac. $16.99.
John Robertson: Vallarta Suite; Strut In – a March; Symphony No. 2. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.
John A. Carollo: The Rhetoric and Mythos of Belief; The Transfiguration of Giovanni Baudino; Let Freedom Ring; Do You Have an E.R. for Music?; Symphony No. 2, “The Circle of Fire”; Move Towards the Light (Your Destiny Awaits You). Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.
Understandably, it is Beethoven’s treatment of solo instruments that gets the most attention when considering his concertos. But it is worthwhile to think as well about how he uses the orchestra in these works – often quite differently from the way he uses it in his symphonies. This is quite apparent in the Violin Concerto, whose first-movement beginning was something genuinely innovative: five soft opening timpani beats. These heralded an entirely new way of looking at the orchestra in a concerto context, with the timpani setting the mood of the work as well as its rhythmic pulse. Beethoven was clearly aware of the importance of what he did here: in the piano version of the concerto, the first-movement cadenza again gives the timpani a major role, playing their percussive sounds against those of the soloist. Throughout the better-known violin version of Op. 61 (the piano version is Op. 61b), Beethoven weaves the solo violin into and out of the tutti in a way that produces considerable lyricism and a sense of cooperation quite different from the often stormy relationship between piano and orchestra in his five concertos originally written for piano. Thomas Albertus Irnberger brings out the lyrical elements of the concerto particularly well in a new Gramola recording, and James Judd is highly sensitive to them as well, leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at a stately pace that allows the music to unfold with warmth and beauty – and in partnership with Irnberger’s solos rather than deference to them. An interesting result of this collaboration is that the two Romances, heard on the disc after the concerto, genuinely sound like studies for the longer work: their limited scope in both time and mood comes across as a kind of planning phase for the much more extended lyrical flow that will later be brought to bear in the concerto. This is analytical hindsight, of course, but the fact is that Irnberger and Judd invite it through a sensitive treatment of the Romances that parallels their handling of the concerto especially well. This two-SACD set also includes the Triple Concerto, and here too lyricism dominates the performance: Irnberger’s partners, cellist David Geringas and pianist Michael Korstick, fully adhere to the violinist’s fluidity and expressiveness, with the intriguing result that the concerto comes across as an updated version of the Baroque concerto grosso – that is, Irnberger, Geringas and Korstick function as concertino, with Judd and the orchestra taking on the role of ripieno. There is an overall delicacy to the interpretation here that gives the Triple Concerto a more chamber-music-like sound than it usually possesses, although there is plenty of power when needed both in the individually highlighted instruments and in the orchestra. Beethoven’s orchestral prowess is evident throughout this release, despite the fact that the music inevitably draws attention to the solo instruments.
Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 for solo piano, not orchestra, so when performances use the most-common orchestral version of the work – that of Ravel, created in 1922 – any insight into orchestration is a focus on the later composer and a much later musical time period. The best performances of Pictures for orchestra handle the Ravel elements as integral to the score, almost as if the orchestrator had himself been the composer (Ravel did in fact make some changes in Mussorgsky’s original). There have been other orchestrations of Pictures, and some are quite good, but Ravel’s has such attractive instrumental colors and offers such neat instrumental contrasts between sections that it is easy to see why it remains conductors’ favorite. However, it does better with a more-propulsive performance than the one from 2012 featuring the London Symphony Orchestra under Predrag Gosta, newly released on the Edition Lilac label. Gosta belabors matters too much and too often: the opening “Promenade,” for example, seems less a stroll at an art exhibit than a rather reluctant agreement to have a look at some paintings that one is not especially eager to see. The interest level of individual sections of Pictures varies rather widely here, with “Gnomus” making a good impression but the other best parts toward the middle, including “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” and “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.” The two catacomb scenes, however, are less than eerie, “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” lacks the requisite fairy-tale fright, and the concluding “The Great Gate at Kiev,” for which a fairly slow pace can be highly effective, never attains sufficient grandeur to produce a proper peroration based on the initial “Promenade” theme. The performance is all right, a (+++) rendition, but there is nothing special about it. Nor is there anything exceptional about Gosta’s handling of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, aside from the pairing of these two works – which are rarely heard together, but which provide some fascinating insights into the different ways Ravel and Rachmaninoff handled orchestral forces. Gosta’s preference for fairly slow tempos would seem a fine match for the first Rachmaninoff dance, with its unusual tempo marking of Non allegro, but while the speed here is fine, the pounding drama of the dance – the sense that something bizarre, even monstrous, is dancing – is wholly missing. Rachmaninoff’s orchestration calls attention to the grotesqueries of all the dances in this, his final work, but Gosta does not follow through on what the composer indicates. There is no rhythmic “swing” to the Tempo di valse, and while the third dance is the most effective of the three – its many tempo changes handled very well – the Dies Irae of which Rachmaninoff was so enamored barely makes an impression here, and the quotation from All-Night Vigil is also underplayed. The London Symphony plays well for Gosta, and he offers some interesting balance among orchestral sections and some welcome attention to inner voices. But the unique qualities brought to orchestral composition by both Ravel and Rachmaninoff never really come through in this recording – instead, listeners get a kind of homogenized sound.
Through the later 20th century and into the 21st, composers have continued to experiment with orchestral sound and sought ways to put their particular stamp on it – as is shown in two Navona recordings of second symphonies by composers of today, John Robertson and John A. Carollo. Robertson opts for a very big sound in his Symphony No. 2, with sumptuous instrumentation and a strong percussion component; he also makes the work deliberately look back to harmonic and rhythmic times past, to the point of concluding the three-movement piece with a passacaglia. That type of movement was a favorite of Shostakovich, but Robertson’s sensibilities are far more straightforward than those of the Russian master: the first movement here has a bright, upbeat quality that is immensely refreshing for a time (given how dour a great deal of contemporary music sounds), but that after a while sounds like much ado about not very much. The second movement is a pleasant, nicely flowing Andante without much depth, while the finale has some of the disconnected feeling of later Shostakovich, and some of his instrumental touches as well, but without any real sense of irony or uncertainty. There is nothing disturbing in Robertson’s Symphony No. 2, and that makes the work pleasant to hear; but there is nothing especially notable about its musical ideas, either. The other two works on this (+++) CD seem more congenial in terms of Robertson’s ethos. The march called Strut In has a kind of Elgarian forthrightness that goes well with the considerable percussion involvement that is characteristic of Robertson’s handling of the orchestra; the march even contains a broad, somewhat Elgarian string theme that, however, never flowers fully. At more than seven minutes, it is also a bit long. The most colorful work here is the four-movement Vallarta Suite, a musical picture of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It opens with the suitably upbeat El Malecon, referring to a popular boardwalk area; continues with Las Ballenas (The Whales), which flows pleasantly but has no particular grandeur and rather too many cymbal clashes; then offers Excursion para hacer compras (Shopping Trip), the most successful of the four movements, whose rhythms nicely convey the impression of a playful and meandering stroll through a shopping district; and concludes with La Noche en la Zona Romantica (Night in the Romantic Zone), which brings woodwinds rather than percussion to the fore and is suitably nocturnal if never especially romantic. Robertson handles the orchestral forces skillfully, and all the works are very well performed by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Armoré. This is an enjoyable CD, if scarcely a profound one.
Carollo’s works certainly seem to seek profundity, at least based on their titles. And Carollo’s use of the orchestra is more varied from work to work than is Robertson’s – and, once again, all the music gets very fine performances (in this case from the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský). Carollo’s sometimes self-referential titles do not necessarily make it easier to understand what he is trying to say musically. Thus, the first movement of his Symphony No. 2 – within the work’s overall title of “The Circle of Fire” – is labeled “A Recording Is the Antithesis of His Aesthetic.” This is clever, perhaps, but is it meaningful? And how does the rather disjointed movement reflect the title, or become reflected in it? The symphony’s second movement is “Line and Polyphony,” and this at least is a clearly musical reference, but here the movement itself is a rather too-elaborate explication of the words. The symphony concludes with “The Rein Which Resists Allegory Run Riot,” and now we are well into pretentiousness, with an apparent wish for profundity that comes across as trying too hard verbally and not really connecting in any meaningful way musically: the movement is a concatenation of largely disconnected mini-sections. More-modestly orchestrated and more directly communicative than the symphony is an extended five-movement suite, actually lengthier than the symphony, called The Rhetoric and Mythos of Belief. Written for strings and bringing forth, in particular, the sound of the lower ones, this work has a pleasant mellowness that never quite reaches any emotional or philosophical depth – its gestures are on the obvious side – but that is effectively expressive and shows Carollo as a skillful manipulator of string textures. The remaining pieces on this (+++) CD are shorter. The Transfiguration of Giovanni Baudino most thoroughly showcases Carollo’s interests in orchestration, as various themes and fragments skitter through all the sections of the orchestra. Let Freedom Ring, the second-shortest work on the disc at six-and-a-half minutes, nevertheless seems to ramble in a disjointed way. Another work whose title is cleverer than its sound or intended meaning is Do You Have an E.R. for Music? Percussion is in the forefront here, in a work that has some interesting sounds but seems directionless and inconclusive. The disc concludes with yet another piece in which more effort seems to have been lavished on the title than on the music: Move Towards the Light (Your Destiny Awaits You). Its rather Ivesian beginning has promise, but instead of building toward anything, the piece mostly settles into quiet shimmering that simply peters out after six minutes. Carollo does have technical skill in writing for orchestral instruments, especially strings, but seems generally to give more attention to what he calls his works than to the musical communication that the works contain.