June 28, 2018


Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music; Oboe Concerto; Flos Campi; Piano Concerto. Carla Huhtanen, soprano; Emily D’Angelo, mezzo-soprano; Lawrence Wiliford, tenor; Tyler Duncan, baritone; Sarah Jeffrey, oboe; Teng Li, viola; Louis Lortie, piano; Elmer Iseler Singers and Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Paul Reale: Concerto “Dies Irae” for Piano Trio and Wind Ensemble; Piano Sonatas Nos. 7 and 8. Mirecourt Trio (Kenneth Goldsmith, violin; Terry King, cello; John Jensen, piano); California State University Wind Ensemble conducted by David Whitwell (Concerto); Paul Reale, piano (Sonata No. 7); Walter Ponce, piano (Sonata No. 8). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Music for Violin and Harp by Donizetti, Hovhaness, Saint-Saëns, Adrian Shaposhnikov, Angel Lasala, and Murray Boren. Aurora Duo (Donna Fairbanks, violin; Lysa Rytting, harp). MSR Classics. $12.95.

I Play French Horn. Bob Watt, French horn; Todd Cochran, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of the rare composers of whom it is possible to say that he did not have a “typical” style. He explored so many forms, including some he created, and used so many different techniques, that it is not always possible, on hearing an unknown piece, to declare definitively that it is by Vaughan Williams: his works are that varied. And some of them are a pleasure to hear simply because of the way they sound. They may not tie directly to his most-significant pieces, such as his nine symphonies, but they inhabit a sound world into which Vaughan Williams’ skills at orchestration and at evoking emotion inexorably draw an audience. And some of these sonic gems do tie into the composer’s symphonies in one way or another – including three of the four on an excellent new Chandos SACD featuring the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. For example, the Piano Concerto, which receives a first-rate performance featuring Louis Lortie, has some of the drama of the Fourth Symphony, on which the composer began work between the dates of the concerto’s first two movements (1926) and the third (1930-31). The concerto is a three-movements-in-one work with some unusual and even disturbing characteristics that may explain why it has never become a concert staple: the climax of the dramatic first movement suddenly stops and leaves the piano alone for a touch of lyricism, the second movement has some of the sensibilities of Ravel and includes a quotation from Arnold Bax’s Third Symphony, and the finale is both a fugue and a waltz and has an abrupt and unexpected conclusion. The concerto’s sound world makes it worth hearing even if it can be difficult to grasp what it is trying to say. The Oboe Concerto, which also has a fine soloist here (Sarah Jeffrey), is a later work (1943-44), written immediately after the Fifth Symphony, to whose sensibilities it bears a distinct similarity. Although a wartime work, it is essentially pastoral in sound and is unified by having each of its three movements begin and end with the same theme – another of Vaughan William’s many unusual approaches. But neither concerto is as unusual in its sound world as Flos Campi, written in 1925 for solo viola, small wordless chorus, and small orchestra. Despite a title pointing to the later pastoralism of the Fifth Symphony and Oboe Concerto, this is a lush, even sensual work, with six movements played consecutively and drawing on the distinctly sultry Song of Solomon from the Bible. Indeed, this hybrid work – not exactly a concerto, not quite a choral piece – includes six Latin quotations that Vaughan Williams wanted listeners to read to themselves in order to experience the work in its entirety (a kind of early multimedia approach). In its use of these quotations in this way, Flos Campi looks ahead to the Seventh Symphony, Sinfonia antartica, which asks the audience to read material in a similar fashion. The sensitive and lovely sound of the Elmer Iseler Singers beautifully complements the orchestral music in this recording, and violist Teng Li produces just the right blend of beauty and intensity. And the sound of Flos Campi is fascinating to compare with that of Serenade to Music, heard in this recording in the composer’s arrangement for four soloists, chorus and orchestra. Serenade to Music, all by itself, testifies to just how variegated the sound of Vaughan Williams’ music can be. Vaughan Williams originally created the work, which uses slightly modified words from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, for orchestra and 16 specific soloists, with the soloists joining together as a chorus from time to time while at other points having their material split into as many as 12 parts. This first version was written in 1938 and first heard the same year – but Vaughan Williams realized that assembling 16 top-quality soloists on an ongoing basis would be difficult, so he later made no fewer than four alternative versions of the piece, every one of which sounds different but communicates the beauty and subtlety of Shakespeare’s words very well. There is an arrangement for choir and orchestra, one for choir and piano, one for orchestra alone (which still manages to convey Shakespeare’s meaning), and the one heard here, for four soloists plus choir and orchestra. Serenade to Music lasts less than15 minutes but seems to encompass not only a great deal of Vaughan Williams’ own musical thinking but also some of the “music of the spheres,” which in fact is one element explored in Shakespeare’s words. It is a remarkable piece and quite a lovely one, which sounds very beautiful indeed on a disc whose four works collectively provide a highly appealing sonic portrait of Vaughan Williams’ tremendous skill at musico-emotional communication.

     There is some interesting listening to be had as well from a new MSR Classics release featuring music by Paul Reale (born 1943). The longest and most intriguing work here is Concerto “Dies Irae” for Piano Trio and Wind Ensemble, written for and performed here by the Mirecourt Trio. One intriguing element of this work is what is not heard throughout or repeatedly: the Dies Irae chant in its most-recognizable form. It does appear occasionally, but most of the time, Reale takes it apart and juxtaposes it with other material or sets it off against other themes. A lot of what Reale does seems more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one – for example, in the first movement of the concerto, he creates a cello theme that can be analyzed as being based on the Dies Irae but that will not be recognizable as such to the casual listener. Thus, Reale seems not to want casual listening: he expects the audience to work for whatever pleasure or other communication this music provides. By the time the Dies Irae chant does appear recognizably, in a violin cadenza near the end of the first movement, listeners will either be engaged in Reale’s approach or will have decided it is not for them. The Mirecourt Trio and accompanying California State University Wind Ensemble under David Whitwell certainly give this work its due; whether it adequately repays the effort needed to understand it will be a matter for individual listeners to decide. Also on this (+++) CD are two of Reale’s piano sonatas. The composer himself performs No. 7, subtitled Veni Creator Spiritus, a difficult five-movement work that, again, demands a great deal of listeners seeking to absorb what it has to say and comprehend the reference to the same thousand-year-old hymn used by Mahler as the first movement of his Eighth Symphony. Sonata No. 8 is performed by the pianist for whom Reale wrote it, Walter Ponce. It is a single-movement work subtitled Il Trionfo della Folia, the reference being to the famous tune used and varied in a wide variety of ways by Lully, Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel, J.S. and C.P.E. Bach, Salieri, and others. The theme does not appear until near the sonata’s end, somewhat in the same way that the Dies Irae in its familiar form is not revealed until near the conclusion of the concerto’s first movement. Reale seems to enjoy hinting at themes, challenging the audience to figure them out on a first hearing of a work – adding to the impression that his music speaks more to one’s intellect than to one’s emotional responsiveness. Listeners who find this approach congenial will enjoy the fine performances to be found on this disc.

     Two other new (+++) MSR Classics CDs are attractive almost purely for people who gravitate to the very different sonic environments their performers present. Donna Fairbanks and Lysa Rytting offer violin-and-harp music by a variety of composers from a variety of time periods on their CD – including two pieces written for them and heard here in world première recordings. Actually, there are three world premières on the disc, of Poema del Pastor Coya (1942) by Argentinian composer Angel Lasala (1914-2000); Movements from the Liturgical Dance (1995) by Murray Boren (born 1950); and the violin-and-harp version of Sonata in D minor (1925-26) by Adrian Shaposhnikov (1888-1967). All three of these works have a somewhat hypnotic, gentle, meditation-inspiring effect that seems to be the primary raison d’etre for the entire CD. Lasala’s piece has an especially lovely second movement, Boren’s is a kind of mood music filled with serenity, and Shaposhnikov’s is pleasantly lyrical and nostalgic. This is nice music, easy to hear and very easy indeed to use as background for whatever else one may be doing – somewhat the opposite, in that respect, of Reale’s music, which requires full-on attention throughout. The other works played by Fairbanks and Rytting partake of similar sensibilities. Donizetti’s very short Sonata for Violin and Harp has some operatic gestures in its first movement and a bright and very short second, concluding one. Hovhaness’ Sonata offers five brief movements, the last of them running under one minute, with the composer’s typical blend of Western simplicity with Eastern musical sensibilities. The most interesting work on the CD concludes it. This is Saint-Saëns’ late (1907) and rarely heard Fantaisie (spelled without the central “i” on this recording), a piece that gives both instruments some virtuoso opportunities and blends and contrasts them in ways heard nowhere else on the disc. The overall effect of this CD is rather soporific if one tries to pay close attention throughout – but the Saint-Saëns is something of a wakeup call, and the most attractive music offered for listeners preferring attentiveness to a guide to relaxation.

     There is warmth but scarcely anything quiet-inducing on the CD called I Play French Horn, which features Bob Watt, who was Assistant Principal French horn of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1970 until his retirement in 2008. Watt, the first African-American French horn player hired by a major symphony orchestra in the U.S., says the disc reflects his own life journey and pays special attention to his ancestry in the Gullah culture of the southern U.S. As such, the recording is an entirely personal expression that will engage listeners who empathize with Watt’s background and admire the excellent sound he produces from his instrument. It will not be of particular interest for the musical content of the 11 individual tracks, however. Each of them is intended to reflect some aspect of Watt’s personal, musical, emotional and spiritual life journey, mostly through music composed or arranged by pianist Todd Cochran, who performs with Watt on all eight tracks requiring piano: Cochran’s own Missing Miles (in short and long versions), Cochran’s arrangement of Bach’s Lord, I Cry to Thee, the Cochran-composed Laughter and Humor/Satire, the Watt-Cochran arrangement of the traditional Gullah Novella, Cochran’s arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s Rondo à la Turk, and Cochran’s arrangement of the traditional Steal Away/How Great Thou Art. The other three works here are Cochran’s Eternity and Love, for French horn and string quartet; Ravel’s Forlane, arranged by guitarist Barry Finnerty and played by him with Watt; and a Watt-Cochran arrangement of John Newton’s Amazing Grace, for French horn solo. This is as much a Cochran CD as it is a Watt disc, the collaboration clear in the compositions and arrangements as well as in the performances. Fans of either or both of these artists will enjoy the sound that they bring forth in this varied program, as individuals, in duets, and in collaboration with several other musicians. This is above all a tribute disc, not so much a tribute to Watt as a tribute by Watt to his own career, the ancestry through which he came to it, and some of the people whom he met along the way. It is the kind of CD that could easily be sold as a souvenir of a Watt (or, more likely, Watt-Cochran) recital – of primary interest to recital attendees, but offering enough highly skilled playing to be attractive as well to fans of Watt’s chosen instrument.

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