April 05, 2018
(++++) ROMANTICS, MORE OR LESS
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $27.99 (2 CDs).
Korngold: Violin Concerto; Bernstein: Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium.” Liza Ferschtman, violin; Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Malát (Korngold); Het Gelders Orkest conducted by Christian Vásquez (Bernstein). Challenge Classics. $19.99 (SACD).
Verdi, Puccini and Massenet: Opera Scenes and Arias. Marie-Josée Lord, soprano; Orchestre symphonique de Laval conducted by Alain Trudel. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Ricky Ian Gordon: Too Few the Mornings Be (Eleven Songs for Soprano and Piano); Jake Heggie: Eve-Song. Emily Sternfeld-Dunn, soprano; Amanda Pfenninger, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Haydn: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Zuill Bailey, cello; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robin O’Neill. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Even when music of the Romantic era is as familiar as Brahms’ symphonies, there is room for a conductor to find something new to explore, something new to express through the music. And Robin Ticciati finds quite a few new things to say in his Brahms cycle on Linn Records. His Symphony No. 1, in particular, is a triumph, with the 50-odd members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra producing a sound of heft without heaviness, giving Brahms a clarity of expression – especially in the middle voices – that is genuinely revelatory. Ticciati chooses quick tempos, but does not hesitate to let the music breathe and expand when that is appropriate: his introduction to the finale is truly exceptional. And the use of small-bore trombones and 19th-century trumpets results in absolutely first-rate balance of brass against strings, again adding to the clarity of the musical lines and the effectiveness of the work’s overall expressiveness. Were it not for a touch too much rubato in the main portion of the finale, this would be a genuinely superb performance – in fact, it very nearly is one despite the occasional excesses. The other three symphonies are also packed with excellent moments, despite some less-than-excellent decision-making. Ticciati makes an egregious mistake – in sports it would be called an unforced error – in No. 2, by omitting the repeat of the exposition in the first movement, resulting in a movement that is not the longest in Brahms’ symphonies, as it should be. It is possible this was done to ensure that Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 would fit on a single disc, but if so, that was a poor decision, since the timings of Ticciati’s readings mean the repeat could have been accommodated by pairing No. 1 with No. 4 and No. 2 with No. 3. More than that, though, this omission is a significant one in terms of the scope and balance of the symphony, apart from the esthetic harm done by depriving audiences of re-hearing the wonderful first few minutes of the symphony’s opening movement. The rest of No. 2 is excellent, with the second movement warm and sensitive and the finale particularly perky – rendering the first-movement problem all the more stark. Symphony No. 3 is the only one in which the comparatively small string section seems to work against the music: the warmth that pervades this work is insufficiently evident in this quick and rather cool performance, and the touches of rubato are on the intrusive side – although the finale is an effective capstone. Rubato also does little good in the first movement of No. 4, although here the rest of the symphony is at a very high interpretative level: the second movement is simply lovely, the third has all the liveliness one would hope for from Brahms’ sole symphonic scherzo, and the variations in the finale are pointed, elegant and beautifully balanced. This is, in totality, a very, very good Brahms cycle, and one in which niceties and insights of all sorts percolate through continually – although, unfortunately, so do touches of fussiness and excess.
The spirit of the Romantic era remains very much in evidence in the violin concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which is a bit surprising for such a late work: Korngold (1897-1957) had moved somewhat beyond this style by 1945, when he created this piece, although it certainly reflects the way his earlier music sounded. It also reflects his many film scores: the concerto is riddled with quotations from them, and they fit into the musical flow quite naturally and without drawing attention to themselves in the way that, say, the quotations in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 do. The pacing of the concerto’s first two movements is relaxed, while the third is bright, upbeat and makes quite delightful use of pizzicato passages. Liza Ferschtman plays the work very well, with considerable flair in the finale, on a new Challenge Classics SACD that also includes an interesting Leonard Bernstein piece from 1954: Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium.” This is a five-movement set of character pieces exploring various participants in Plato’s gathering: first Phaedrus and Pausanias, then Aristophanes, followed by Eryximachus, then Agathon, and finally Socrates and Alcibiades. The serenade is scarcely as accessible as Bernstein’s works for more-popular audiences, and a full appreciation of the music does require knowing something of the underlying impetus for the music. Even without that knowledge, though, listeners can readily appreciate the ebullience of the third-movement Presto, the beauty of the fourth-movement Adagio, and the many felicitous instrumental touches in a score that uses only strings, harp and percussion along with the solo violin. Bernstein’s lyricism is different from Korngold’s and seems less directly tied to the Romantic era, but both these works are attractively expressive and provide Ferschtman with plenty of opportunities for both virtuosity and warmth. The two orchestras and conductors offer able if rather bland backup, with the more-polished sound of the Prague Symphony Orchestra being more engaging.
The orchestral backup is actually one of the positive distinguishing features on a new ATMA Classique recording mostly featuring opera excerpts sung by soprano Marie-Josée Lord. Bernstein makes an appearance here, too: Lord’s encore is Somewhere from West Side Story, and this piece gives the singer a chance to delve further into the pop-music scene in which she has been focused for several years. In opera, Lord has been best-known for her Puccini, and the excerpts here from La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and Suor Angelica (a Lord specialty) justify the high regard in which she was held when she first emerged as a classical soprano. The three Puccini arias are placed between four works by Verdi and four by Massenet, with the CD’s overall theme encapsulated in its one-word title, “Femmes.” It is indeed a disc focusing on important female characters in opera, although scarcely unique in that regard – indeed, sopranos (and mezzos) produce material of this sort all the time. Lord does a more-than-respectable job with the oversize emotions of her heroines, and there are a few surprises here, notably the fact that O patria mia from Aida is more affecting and altogether more convincing than the more-familiar Ritorna vincitor. The other Verdi works are from La Traviata: the opera’s prelude, in which the Orchestre symphonique de Laval shines under Alain Trudel, and the rather odd combination of E strano with the vivacious Sempre libera – which could use a touch more abandonment and, ideally, an underlying sense of desperation, rather than the rather too-happy treatment it gets in Lord’s enthusiastic rendition. The Massenet excerpts include two from Hérodiade and one each from Le Cid and Thaïs, and Lord handles everything with suitable emotional heft and understanding. This is, on balance, a (+++) disc that will primarily be of interest to existing fans of the soprano – especially ones interested in seeing how she has returned to a level of classical focus after appearing for a while to be more comfortable in the popular-music field.
Another soprano-focused CD with a very distinct feminine slant is a new (+++) Navona release featuring works by Ricky Ian Gordon and Jake Heggie: the disc’s title is, very simply and directly, “She.” Although both composers are men, both pieces here focus on women and are performed by women. Gordon’s Too Few the Mornings Be is a set of 11 settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, most of them quite short and all of them reaching out in Dickinson’s inimitable epigrammatic and inquisitive tone. “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” is especially impressive, particularly in this context, but all the settings are nicely done, with pianist Amanda Pfenninger having a sure sense of when to fade into the background so soprano Emily Sternfeld-Dunn can dominate the vocal-instrumental conversation, and when to move more forward to reinforce the poems’ emotional messages. As for Heggie’s Eve-Song, to words by Philip Littell, it shows a composer best known for his operas producing a dramatic and complex portrait of a single person – the biblical Eve – through music so variegated that the eight movements collectively reinforce the notion of Eve as the mother of the entire human race. Like Dickinson, Littell’s Eve has more questions than answers; but beyond that, she has strong viewpoints, considerable enthusiasm and a refreshing sense of humor that goes well beyond anything biblical. She also shows a level of kindness that gives this musical portrait a distinctly modern sensibility: Eve is as multifaceted as Heggie’s music (which draws on everything from chant to jazz) can make her. There is an underlying sense of advocacy in Eve-Song, a kind of “cause” mentality to the work in a quasi-sociopolitical sense, asserting an Eve quite different from the “first sinner” found in Genesis. Stripped of this somewhat overdone gloss, though, Eve-Song is an interesting interpretation (or reinterpretation) of the character and a work in which both Heggie as composer and Sternfeld-Dunn and Pfenninger as performers are able to explore both femininity and feminism.
If the Gordon/Heggie CD has largely moved beyond musical Romanticism, Zuill Bailey’s new Steinway & Sons recording of Haydn’s Cello Concertos in C and D has fastened onto the Romantic sensibility and applied some of it to music written before the Romantic era existed. Bailey favors a big sound, and his Matteo Goffriller cello is quite capable of producing it – but the sound tends to overawe some of Haydn’s music in these concertos, as if the notes are not quite up to the declamatory quality that Bailey brings to them. This is scarcely a full-blown Romantic interpretation: Robin O’Neill leads the Philharmonia Orchestra with some sensitivity to period style, although this is not describable as a historically informed performance. And Bailey’s always-formidable technique is as impressive here as it is in the sorts of Romantic works for which it is better fitted. Haydn was not a cellist and, indeed, not especially adept at composing concertos, certainly not when compared with Mozart: Haydn’s are pleasant, nicely balanced and extremely well-constructed, but generally lack the flair that Mozart brought to his. What Bailey does in this (+++) recording is supply some of that flair – but whether he does so appropriately in terms of the scores will be a matter of opinion. This is quite a short CD, only 48 minutes: it contains the two concertos and nothing else. It thus comes across as something of a “souvenir” disc, the kind of thing that Bailey’s fans might pick up on their way out the door after a satisfying concert. That is perfectly fine, and certainly the actual cello playing here is refined, tonally beautiful and carefully balanced against and matched to the first-rate support of the orchestra. But there is a bit of an underlying mismatch between the way Bailey approaches this music and the way Haydn wrote it: this is Classical-era material, and even though Bailey shows some restraint in handling it, his performances leave the impression that he is keeping a desire for full-blown Romanticism in check only by force of will.