March 29, 2018
(++++) TALE TELLERS
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen—Orchestral Music. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Michael Daugherty: Trail of Tears; Dreamachine; Reflections on the Mississippi. Amy Porter, flute; Dame Evelyn Glennie, percussion; Carol Jantsch, tuba; Albany Symphony conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
There are so very many ways to tell stories in music – and these three new Naxos releases showcase three very different ones. Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen is the quintessential music drama, a four-opera sequence in which words and music intermingle incessantly and are both equally necessary to give the story its full scope and tremendous impact. There is no theater experience quite like it – but many listeners have neither time nor inclination for full immersion, and conductors have for many years sought and found strictly musical elements that they can extract from the experiential totality and turn into concert pieces. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic offer a mostly excellent version of 64 minutes of music that, while it scarcely encompasses all the elements of 15 operatic hours, certainly gives a strong flavor of Wagner’s skill both in drama and in orchestration (including but not limited to the Wagner tuba, which the composer created specifically for this masterful set of operas). There is something here from each of the four parts. “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” comes from Das Rheingold, the music’s triumphalism total in orchestral form (as arranged by Hermann Zampe) even though, in the opera itself, there is irony aplenty in the gods’ entry into the new home that they have obtained through very human forms of treachery and deceit. From Die Walküre we get, inevitably and extremely effectively, “The Ride of the Valkyries,” followed by the opera’s conclusion, “Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music” (both arranged by Wouter Hutschenruyter). This latter excerpt does not work particularly well in the absence of Wotan’s voice: the scene is a linchpin of the downward spiral of Wotan and thus of all the gods, and the lack of the vocal element leads to a musical presentation that, although well-played, is rather under-communicative. From Siegfried comes the famous “Forest Murmurs” (arranged by Zampe), as effective as ever. And there are three excerpts from Götterdämmerung: “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” (arranged by Engelbert Humperdinck, whose own works are strongly influenced by Wagner); “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music” (arranged by Ludvík Šťastný); and “Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene.” The last of these is the other major place here where the absence of voice is strongly felt: without the enormous emotional pull of Brunnhilde’s farewell to Siegfried and her self-immolation, resulting in flames that consume Valhalla itself, the music, although splendid, is far less cathartic than in the opera. But despite what is missing, what is here is handled with considerable skill by Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic, from the drama of “The Ride of the Valkyries” to the delicacy of “Forest Murmurs” to the intensity of the funeral music for Siegfried, where the orchestra’s brass section really outdoes itself. This CD is far from a suitable substitute for the entirety of Der Ring des Nibelungen, but it is a wonderful way to recall the operatic sequence for those who know it well, and a first-rate introduction to the music for those who have not yet had the tremendous pleasure of encountering Wagner’s tetralogy in its original form.
Prokofiev also chose the theater for telling a number of stories, but unlike Wagner, he created scores both for operas and for ballets. Since ballet does not require speaking or singing, it tends to translate to recordings better than do purely orchestral excerpts from operas – much less tightly integrated music dramas such as Der Ring des Nibelungen. However, the quality of ballet recordings varies widely, and there are some basic issues that conductors of this sort of stage music must make when performing it without staging – notably ones of tempo. In her new recording of the complete Romeo and Juliet with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop opts for pacing that would work quite well for dancers, and that proves to be a significant strength of her performance. Alsop does not control an orchestra quite as tightly as Falletta does, with the result that, for example, the violins are somewhat lacking in precision in the fight scene in Act I. However, Alsop has a great flair for the dramatic – evident in that same scene – and when the strings are not required to produce quite as high a degree of clarity, they acquit themselves very well. Thus, the love scenes come across with exceptional beauty and warmth here; the performance of the lower strings in the love scene that ends Act I is a particular standout. Other sections of the orchestra also shine in their own way, the woodwinds being especially notable, with the orchestra’s principal flute and oboe playing with truly lovely tone. Alsop certainly picks up on and even extends the romantic drama of the score, presenting the music with passion bordering on that of film music (a category at which Prokofiev excelled) while also allowing plenty of solemnity when it is needed – plus third and fourth acts that are beautifully sad (if perhaps not really tragic) and quite tender. Individual numbers from the score that are particular high points include Dance of the Mandolins and Dance of the Girls with Lilies, but these are exceptional only within the larger context: Alsop integrates the score very well, so these highlights are clearly heard as portions of a greater whole, and the entirety of Romeo and Juliet never comes across as episodic. It is also worth mentioning that the sound quality both of Alsop’s recording and of Falletta’s is absolutely top-notch – Naxos has an outstanding producer/engineer in Tim Handley, who handled both of these releases. Alsop’s Romeo and Juliet continues her work on the music of Prokofiev – she has already recorded all the symphonies, most of them to fine effect – and shows her to be a sensitive and strongly engaged conductor of this repertoire.
The sound is not quite as good on a Naxos CD that tells stories and engages the audience in a very different way: one featuring three 21st-century concertos by Michael Daugherty (born 1954). Listeners will have no doubt at any point that these are concertos, since the soloists are placed quite prominently (the producer/engineers here are Silas Brown and Doron Schächter, with Daugherty himself also taking a producer credit). Aside from that, the orchestral accompaniment by David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony is fine, although this ensemble is not quite at the level of either Falletta’s or Alsop’s. The main effect of Daugherty’s music here, however, comes from the stories it illuminates – something that it does through the composer’s careful selection of solo instruments as well as his ability to find new ways to explore what is essentially traditional tonality. Reflections on the Mississippi (2014), for tuba (Carol Jantsch) and orchestra, is especially successful. Its four movements, portraying scenes the composer says he remembers from youthful times spent by the great river, have sounds that genuinely go with their titles: “Mist,” “Fury,” “Prayer” and “Steamboat.” It is thanks to Jantsch’s marvelous playing that the scenes come so vividly alive: she has the great lower heft of the tuba, to be sure, but she also produces sounds of delicacy and intimacy from an instrument that all too often seems unwieldy rather than as expressive as it is here. The other concertos on this CD are both world première recordings. Trail of Tears (2010), for flute and chamber orchestra, is communicatively on the too-obvious side. Its topic is the forced relocation of Native Americans in the 1830s, and its first two movements (“Where the Wind Blew Free” and “Incantation”) are, accordingly, sad to the point of being despairing – but not particularly revelatory and not expressive in any unusual way. The finale, “Sun Dance,” is the best part of the work, representing the intensity of attempts to overcome deep sorrow and move on with life. It is a difficult and highly virtuosic movement that soloist Amy Porter handles with admirable skill. Daugherty’s use of a chamber rather than full orchestra for this concerto is an inspired touch, lending the music more intimacy than it would otherwise possess. Also on the disc is Dreamachine (2014), a rather too cutely titled concerto for solo percussion and orchestra that gives Dame Evelyn Glennie plenty of chances to display her very considerable skill. The basic idea here is to pay tribute to people who create machines of all types, including ones that never quite make it to reality. The four movements are called “Da Vinci’s Wings,” “Rube Goldberg’s Variations,” “Electric Eel,” and “Vulcan’s Forge.” The communicative power here is not quite as strong or direct as in Reflections on the Mississippi, but Dreamachine has more humor and an overall lighter touch with its subject matter than anything else on this CD. The exact machines portrayed or commented upon in the concerto are not obvious beyond the movements’ titles, and not always even then: “Electric Eel” really does sound like the creature, quite engagingly so, rather than like anything it may have inspired someone to create. The highly virtuosic snare-drum cadenza in this concerto’s finale, somewhat reminiscent in its complexity of Nielsen’s use of the instrument in his Symphony No. 5, is a high-water mark of the entire disc, even if its exact intended meaning is elusive. As a whole, the CD shows Daugherty to be a very fine musical tale-teller whose stories may not always be completely clear but whose enthusiasm for conveying them is evident at all times.