January 25, 2018


Saint-Saëns: Symphonic Poems—Le Rouet d’Omphale, Phaéton, Danse macabre, La Jeunesse d’Hercule; Marche héroïque; Sarabande; Rigaudon. Orchestre National de Lille conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $12.99.

Piazzolla: Las cuatro estaciones porteñas; Escualo; Vardarito; Milonga del ángel; Adiós Nonino; Introducción al ángel; Jeanne y Paul; Balada para un loco; Revirado; Fracanapa. Tomás Cotik, violin; Tao Lin, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

Daniel Crozier: Symphony No. 1—Triptych for Orchestra; Ballade—A Tale after the Brothers Grimm. Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz (Symphony); Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek (Ballade). Navona. $14.99.

Eric Klein: Nettles; The Myth of Tomorrow; Hoboken Suite; Dream Fragments; 1899; Parallels; Four Journeys; Hidden Places. Navona. $14.99.

Steven Kemper: Mythical Spaces; Breath; Lament; In Illo Tempore; The Seven Stars. Ravello. $14.99.

     The four symphonic poems of Saint-Saëns, although all constructed essentially on the model of Liszt’s, are more concerned with the mythic and ancient than those of Liszt, whose 13 such works tend to focus on more-recent history or on philosophical concepts (as in Les préludes). Interestingly, the only one of the Saint-Saëns four that is not on a topic from classical times is the third and best-known, Danse macabre, which is loosely based on a legend in which Death plays his fiddle at Halloween to summon the dead for a dance. Very few listeners know that Danse macabre was originally a vocal work – perhaps the only comparable instance of a vocal original being completely forgotten while its later instrumental version became super-popular is the Blue Danube waltz. In any case, Danse macabre and Saint-Saëns’ other symphonic poems receive well-paced, idiomatic performances on a new Naxos CD featuring Orchestre National de Lille under Jun Märkl. Danse macabre is certainly the eeriest of the four tone poems, but the most dramatic is the second, Phaéton, which traces Helios’ son’s ill-fated attempt to drive the chariot that pulls the sun across the sky. The other symphonic poems focus on Hercules, with the better-known Le Rouet d’Omphale dealing with the hero’s punishment for killing a guest by being forced to dress as a woman and spin wool for three years. La Jeunesse d’Hercule, the longest of the four tone poems, is much less specific, portraying the forthright ebullience of the hero’s youth and his growing maturity. Also on the CD are the strongly accented and effective Marche héroïque and two little-known but very poised and attractive dance movements, Sarabande and Rigaudon, the latest works here (dating to 1892). As good as the performances are, the arrangement of the CD is a bit of a puzzle: the symphonic poems are given in the order 2, 4, 1, 3, and the other music is intermingled with them – there is no apparent order to the disc and no clear reason for arranging it this way. The music itself and the skill with which it is played, however, more than make up for the rather peculiar sequencing.

     The order of pieces on another Naxos CD, in which violinist Tomás Cotik and pianist Tao Lin play arrangements of music by Ástor Piazzolla, also appears pretty much random. But in this case, since all the works except one are short and there is no significant stylistic development to be traced among them, the assembly of the music does not really matter. What does is the excellence of the playing and the unusually creative arrangements and adaptations – this is actually a more-intriguing CD than an earlier Piazzolla disc from Cotik and Lin called Tango Nuevo. On the new release, the one extended work is the familiar Las cuatro estaciones porteñas, adapted in this recording for violin, piano and (in the first movement) percussion. Piazzolla’s original scoring for violin or viola, piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón is itself fascinating, and expressive both of the composer’s reinterpretation of tango and of his musical focus on Buenos Aires. The Cotik/Lin version of the music – Cotik himself made the arrangement – is not as sonically varied as Piazzolla’s original, but it is packed with warmth, verve and rhythmic excitement, and will be especially enjoyable for listeners who already know the music in its original form or in some of the other arrangements that have been made of it. Indeed, it is the reinterpretation-through-arrangement of the music on this disc that, along with the fine playing, makes it so effective. Of the nine shorter pieces here, Cotik did the arrangements of five: the highly virtuosic Escualo (for violin and piano only) and Vardarito (including double bass and percussion), Introducción al ángel (with double bass), Jeanne y Paul (with percussion), and Balada para un loco (with voice and double bass). And there are four arrangements by Osvaldo Calo: Milonga del ángel (with double bass), Adiós Nonino and Revirado (both for violin and piano only), and Fracanapa (with percussion). Cotik and Lin work well and enthusiastically with Jeffrey Kipperman (double bass), Alex Wadner and Bradley Loudis (percussion), and Alfredo Lerida (voice), and the CD as a whole gives the impression of an extended and very enthusiastic “jam session” in which, however, the music and its effects are through-composed and more carefully arranged for effect than they would usually be in jazz. The disc is both fun to hear and insightful into Piazzolla’s sound world – a very successful combination indeed.

     Myths – or fairy tales, which are closely related – come in for reinterpretation in two works by Daniel Crozier on a new Navona CD. The three movements of Crozier’s First Symphony, Triptych for Orchestra, are called “Ceremonies,” “Capriccio,” and “Fairy Tale: East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” and all are sumptuously and attentively orchestrated. The movements’ titles accurately if incompletely describe the music’s sound, with “Capriccio” having an especially pleasant lilt and effective use of percussion highlights. The third and longest movement works best for listeners who are familiar with the fairy tale in its title, a Norwegian “Beauty and the Beast” story that also parallels the tale of Psyche and Cupid but has twists all its own. Listeners who do not know the tale will be able to create a narrative of their own from the alternating somber and lyrical sections of the music, which is quite well played by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz – a conductor who clearly has considerable feeling for this music and handles the material with involvement and skill throughout. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek is equally adept with the other work here, Ballade, whose title refers directly to the Brothers Grimm but does not point to any specific fairy tale in their collection. Crozier’s skillful orchestration is a particular attraction here, luring the listener through a soundscape that seems vaguely fairy-tale-like without pointing to any particular story or in any particular direction. The music sometimes meanders, sometimes bursts out intensely, sometimes subsides into the sound of individual instruments, sometimes flows lyrically – this is a satisfying work on its own terms, independent of any direct connection with the Brothers Grimm. Crozier’s careful use of individual vs. massed instruments is especially attractive and is an integral part of his style, which is essentially tonal but does not hesitate to venture beyond tonality to pull listeners in specific directions. The disc as a whole, although short (46 minutes), has considerably more musical heft than many of those that offer contemporary works at greater length.

     Eric Klein’s music on a (+++) Navona release is also well-written and makes intriguing use of various instrumental sounds. But there is something calculated more for effect than for communication in these works, which Klein creates for instruments ranging from guitars (Four Journeys, with Klein as solo performer) to chamber ensembles large enough to require a conductor. Klein is omnipresent here as performer as well as composer, being credited with playing synth, Taurus pedals, electronics, and PPG Wave 2.3. While this guarantees that the performances accurately reflect the composer’s intentions, those intentions themselves are not always apparent or fully realized in the music. The repetitiveness of Hidden Places and vaguely Ivesian cadences of 1899, for example, are different in kind from the tonal/atonal mixture of sounds in Parallels, but the purpose of the differences beyond sonic exploration for its own sake is never clear. There is supposed to be mythic resonance in The Myth of Tomorrow, and the work’s contrasts between harp and a plethora of keyboards are aurally interesting, but the music sounds like a study of sonic possibilities rather than a piece intended to communicate anything, mythic or otherwise, to listeners. The adjective that seems best to fit Klein’s works here is “studied.” They are carefully put together and skillful in the use of both traditional acoustic instruments and electronic enhancements, as well as such unfamiliar instruments as the free-base accordion (whose keyboard buttons play single notes rather than chords). The music is by and large easy to listen to, although it is scarcely tonal, lyrical or overtly emotional in content. But the material seems to have been created by Klein for himself and other composers with similar interests, or perhaps for performers interested in trying some new instrumental combinations. The music is clever and sophisticated in sound, but its reason for being – in terms of reaching out to a reasonably wide audience – never quite becomes clear.

     Another sonically focused (+++) CD that mixes acoustic with electronic media is a Ravello release featuring five works by Steven Kemper. Here too there is supposed to be a connection with myth, quite explicitly, in Mythical Spaces (2010) for percussion and “fixed media electronics.” But Kemper’s music is even more abstruse than Klein’s. The five movements of Mythical Spaces are called “Underground,” “Water,” “Forest.” “Mountain,” and “Temple,” but rather than seeking to evoke those environments, what they do is electronically amplify and modify sounds emanating from objects associated with each place – a wooden bowl in “Forest,” for example. This may be intriguing to the composer but is scarcely compelling to hear. Breath (2015), also for “fixed media electronics,” proceeds similarly, recording and amplifying the sound of inhalations. Lament (2015) for flute and “interactive electronics” is supposed to relate to the myth of Orpheus but sounds far too aurally intense for anything involving that consummate mythic musician. In Illo Tempore (2012/2017), for saxophone, bassoon and several specific electronic/robotic arrays, uses the title of a Monteverdi work from 1610 as the entry point to buzzing that sounds like an old-fashioned telephone busy signal and to various entirely typical-sounding electronic feedback effects. And The Seven Stars (2012) for prepared piano is mostly concerned with evoking the unusual sounds that appear when objects such as marbles and ping-pong balls are used on piano strings. Aficionados of experimental electronics are the obvious audience for this CD, which – like others of its type – exists in a sound world that blurs the distinction between music and noise.

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