January 04, 2018


Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Dance Suite; Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Orchestra. James Ehnes, violin; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Carl Zeller: Der Vogelhändler. Elena Puszta, Dagmar Schellenberger, Rupert Bergmann, Maximilian Mayer, Wolfgang Dosch, Gerhard Ernst, Bernhard Berchtold, Martina Fender, Raimund Stangl; Mörbisch Festival Choir and Orchestra conducted by Gerrit Prießnitz. Oehms. $16.99.

Contemporaries of the Strauss Family, Volume 3: Paul Lincke, Robert Vollstedt, Philipp Fahrbach Jr., Richard Eilenberg, Jakob Pazeller, Josef Franz Wagner, Joseph Labitzky, Julius Fučík, Béla Kéler, Alphons Czibulka, Carl Millöcker, Richard Heuberger. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.

     We tend to see the grand gestures of musical connectivity as being exceptionally moving as well as unusual, a prime example being Leonard Bernstein’s conducting of Beethoven’s Ninth after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the word Freude (“joy”) in the final movement replaced by the word Freiheit (“freedom”). But music looks for ways to bring people together, to arrange or celebrate rapprochement, more frequently than in times of great events and in far more modest and little-appreciated ways. Bartók, for example, directly celebrated the unification of Buda and Pest as Budapest in 1923, on the 50th anniversary of the joining of the cities on opposite sides of the Danube, with his Dance Suite – which includes rhythms and melodies very deliberately drawn from multiple cultures and united in the work. The Hungarian folk material is scarcely a surprise, but here Bartók adds to it Romanian and Slovak elements as well as some from North African Arabs. The result, as is abundantly clear in the performance by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner on a new Chandos SACD, is a blending of what could sound like disparate exoticism but that actually, thanks to Bartók’s skill, sounds like music that belongs together and unites seamlessly. That was exactly the composer’s intent, and the well-unified and well-paced reading by Gardner makes it abundantly clear. So too does the performance here of the Concerto for Orchestra, which was also designed as a celebration of unity in difference. The very title of the work is significant here: it does not just mean that all the orchestral instruments must play virtuosically, although that is certainly true – it also means that the diverse structure of the orchestra must be celebrated and brought out within a work that unites potentially disjointed elements for the common (and greater) good. Again, this approach informs Gardner’s reading of the work, which certainly retains display-piece elements but also has the feeling of well-integrated, nearly symphonic structure: this is a carefully crafted piece of music in which individual voices stand out again and again but gain far greater meaning when viewed against the canvas of the whole orchestra and the whole work. Concerto for Orchestra, it should be remembered, is a wartime work, written in 1943 and revised in 1945, and it is not stretching things to suggest that it is intended to demonstrate that the world is stronger to the extent that different nations cooperate for the greater good while never losing their individual identity. Certainly that is how the piece sounds in this interpretation. Also on this disc are two Bartók works that come at music in a different way: the two Rhapsodies, written as showpieces for two Hungarian violin virtuosi (Joseph Szigeti and Zoltán Székely, respectively). The “Hungarianness” of these pieces is accordingly brought to the fore, and their virtuosity is different in character (and rather more superficial) than is that of the Concerto for Orchestra. They are also quite delightful to hear, and James Ehnes plays them both with great style and flair and apparent enjoyment. A bonus on the CD is the inclusion of an alternative to the second (Friss) part of Rhapsody No. 1, giving the material somewhat different pacing and an alternative conclusion. The disc as a whole is satisfying both musically and in terms of understanding the social cohesiveness that Bartók hoped to develop from some of this material.

     Lesser works can be uniters, too, sometimes to a surprising degree. Der Vogelhändler by Carl Zeller (1842-1898) is, on the face of it, just one of the innumerable minor Viennese operettas of the 19th century, packed with stock characters and a typical plot filled with identity confusion, lovers’ quarrels, a touch of class warfare (or at least class misunderstanding), and the inevitable eventual happy ending. But Der Vogelhändler is more than this. The libretto by Moritz West and Ludwig Held (based on a French play called Ce que deviennent les roses) is largely about the acceptance of different people and different customs within the context of a welcoming empire intended to mirror, in a positive way, the Austro-Hungarian one in which the work was created (and which was far less amenable to the integration of its different populaces than is the fictionalized land where Der Vogelhändler takes place). Yes, the operetta is full of the usual scheming and disguises and uncertainty about who loves whom and who will end up in what couple, but all this occurs within the context of the urban and sophisticated Court (represented by Electress Marie, sung on a new CPO release by Elena Puszta) visiting a rural area whose postmistress, Christel (Martina Fender) is betrothed to Adam, the bird seller (Bernhard Berchtold) – who is Tyrolean, which means he speaks differently from the other characters and has different customs. It is those customs on which much of the plot turns, as Adam mistakenly believes Christel has become betrothed to someone else and then, for honor’s sake, insists that she go through with that marriage. By the end of the operetta, members of the Court join the Tyroleans in a rural-style ländler and Adam, who speaks throughout in Tyrolean dialect, talks with and is accepted by the non-Tyrol characters. The conclusion is therefore an affirmation of the idea of aristocrats and country folk coexisting, and of multiple groups within a single overarching empire living together with understanding and respect. This is a lot of freight for an operetta to carry, and Der Vogelhändler is in fact almost impossible to accept in the 21st century except for German speakers with a good sense of history and familiarity with the dialects of their native language. It is nevertheless a work with some very charming music through which it makes its societal points, and it is the music alone – with no dialogue or, indeed, any explanatory material – that is offered in the performance by the Mörbisch Festival Choir and Orchestra conducted by Gerrit Prießnitz. Since the booklet does not even present an intelligible synopsis, much less a complete one, listeners interested in Der Vogelhändler will have to learn about the operetta before listening to this release for the material to make any sense whatsoever. Indeed, when taken as significantly out of context as it is here, the work’s intent is almost unable to follow and comprehend; and it is not as if a libretto with translation is readily available. The result of the poor packaging and presentation is a (+++) recording that, however, includes some delightful singing by the principals and chorus and that is nicely paced under Prießnitz’s direction. This could have been a much better release than it in fact is, but at least the recording gives listeners a chance to hear the music with which Zeller sought, in Der Vogelhändler, to put across his message of tolerance and mutual acceptance.

     For a better sense of the environment into which Zeller introduced the concepts of Der Vogelhändler, listeners can explore the third entry in the (++++) Marco Polo series called “Contemporaries of the Strauss Family.” This is a wide-ranging look at composers who were popular, often immensely so, in 19th-century Vienna and its environs, but who faded quickly into obscurity even as the fame of the Strauss clan continued to grow. There are no household names among the composers on this CD, some of whose works here receive their first recordings ever and some of which have been orchestrated by conductor John Georgiadis, who is clearly steeped in the music of Old Vienna and puts it across with a great deal of enjoyment. A few of the people whose works the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice plays with consummate skill are slightly better-known than others. That group would include Paul Lincke (1866-1946), the only composer who is heard more than once on the disc, represented by his Frau Luna overture and an amusing polka-mazurka called Im Omnibus; Philipp Fahrbach Jr. (1843-1894), whose waltz Verlobungs-Feierklänge is played; Richard Eilenberg (1848-1927), whose Storch-Polka appears here; Carl Millöcker (1842-1899), heard in the Freicorps-Marsch from Der Feldprediger; and Richard Heuberger (1850-1914), whose overture to Ihr Excellenz concludes the CD. The remaining seven of the 12 composers are even more obscure than these five, to the point that some of them are barely known at all. Georgiadis offers Schneidig March by Robert Vollstedt (1854-1919), Tropenzauber Waltz by Jakob Pazeller (1869-1957), Dynamit Polka Schnell by Josef Franz Wagner (1856-1908), Albert Waltz by Joseph Labitzky (1802-1881), the waltz Vom Danauufer by Julius Fučík (1872-1916), the stylish and unusual Kimo Kaimo Galop by Béla Kéler (1820-1882), and a waltz called Weana Frücht’ln by Alphons Czibulka (1842-1894). The Czibulka waltz shows some of the reality of the “melting pot” notion explored by Zeller, since its title is given in Viennese dialect and the composer himself was Hungarian. Indeed, this entire collection, despite the interchangeability of many of the pieces, shows through the very similarity of the material that composers from many regions and many time periods could all come together within the environs of Vienna and make fine, well-constructed music. Indeed, it is remarkable to consider the fact that the earliest-born of these composers, Labitzky, was alive when Haydn was still composing, while the last of them to die, Pazeller, survived the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and two 20th-century world wars. This CD produces the impression of great continuity in Viennese light music: this was material with a very distinct style that could be handled with considerable aplomb by a wide variety of composers of varying provenance and predilections. It is true that none of the music heard on this CD really pushes the boundaries of the forms in which it was created, as Johann Strauss Jr. and Josef Strauss, in particular, altered and expanded the forms handed down to them by Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss Sr., bringing symphonic sensibility and much-expanded emotional range to their creations. Still, if nothing presented here can be considered especially innovative, all these works are enormously enjoyable to hear, filled with warmth and Gemütlichkeit that comes through vividly in these fine, idiomatic performances, bringing together composers of many backgrounds and also uniting the listeners of today with a musical time that passed long ago.

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