June 14, 2018


Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Sergei Gorchakov); Prokofiev: Cinderella—Selections. Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. FWSO Live. $20.

Sergei Bortkiewicz: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. Stefan Doniga, piano; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Porcelijn. Piano Classics. $20.99.

Christopher Keyes: An Inescapable Entanglement; Diego Vega: Red Rock; Ferdinand De Sena: Deciphered Reverence; Willem van Twillert: Branches of Singularity; Andrew Schultz: Symphony No. 2, “Ghosts of Reason.” Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.

Coro del Mundo: Music of L. Peter Deutsch, Conrado Monier, Adalberto Álvarez, Guido López Gavilán, José Antonio Méndez, Electo Rosell, Rafael Hernández, Cynthia Folio, J. A. Kawarsky, Michael Murray, and Meira Warshauer. Ansonica. $14.99.

     Sometimes listeners only think they know what they will be getting when they pick up a new CD. Most people who know orchestral versions of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition are really familiar with one specific such version, the 1923 one made by Ravel. It is justifiably enormously popular, filled with French coloration of the time and cognizant of the many Russian expatriate musicians then working in France. Even though it is based on a score of Pictures that contains some errors, even though it omits one of the reappearances of the Promenade from Mussorgsky’s piano original, even though it changes the composer’s approach to some of the material – for instance, turning Bydlo into a crescendo-and-diminuendo piece, which is not what Mussorgsky intended – it is so firmly established in orchestral repertoire, and so sonically attractive, that it is often thought of as the orchestral Pictures. But it is not: there have been quite a few such versions, and conductor Leonard Slatkin has even made a point of performing a “compiled” Pictures with orchestrations by everyone from Leopold Stokowski to Vladimir Ashkenazy to Sir Henry Wood. And some conductors find qualities in non-Ravel versions of Pictures that justify playing them in their entirety. One such is Miguel Harth-Bedoya, whose new recording with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra highlights the very high quality of an ensemble that is not usually mentioned among the best in the U.S. It may not be at the very, very highest level, but on the basis of the new live recording on the orchestra’s own label, this is a group that is certainly coming into the upper ranks of U.S. orchestras and delivering considerable pleasure to audiences while doing so. The orchestra plays with enthusiasm, follows Harth-Bedoya very well, and has a particularly strong string section – a good thing, since the version of Pictures on this CD, by Sergei Gorchakov (1905-1976), is in large measure quite string-focused and needs first-rate strings to have its full effect. It gets that effect here. Gorchakov, clearly sensitive to the intent of his countryman in the original piano version of Pictures, restores elements that Ravel left out and tries for greater authenticity in the ones that Ravel included, such as the aforementioned Bydlo. Gorchakov follows Ravel’s lead in some ways, but with a twist, as by using a muted trumpet to represent the troubadour in Il vecchio castello, where Ravel chose a saxophone. On the other hand, Gorchakov does use a saxophone in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, where it was Ravel who used a muted trumpet. These and other choices are matters of taste, and it is scarcely possible (or useful) to say that one orchestral version is “better” than another. What is possible to say is that Gorchakov’s approach, although often somewhat bombastic, is quite well-thought-out and performed very well indeed by the Fort Worth musicians. Harth-Bedoya is not only an adept conductor but also a musically thoughtful one, as shown both in the version of Pictures he chooses and in the excerpts from Prokofiev’s Cinderella that fill out the CD. Prokofiev himself made suites of this ballet’s music – no fewer than three of them – but in doing so he was seeking musical coherence and contrast, not narrative consistency. Harth-Bedoya takes a different approach, returning to the original ballet music and choosing selections that, taken as a whole, tell the entire story, so familiar from Charles Perrault’s original tale and its many adaptations. As a result, listeners to this disc hear 13 ballet excerpts that collectively provide the entire story as Prokofiev intended it to be staged. Once again, the question of whether Harth-Bedoya’s approach or that of the composer in his own suites is “better” is not a useful one: Harth-Bedoya simply handles the musical material differently from the way Prokofiev did in the suites, and his excerpts produce a satisfyingly convincing musical narrative that, like his Gorchakov version of Pictures, makes for an interesting and meaningful musical experience that goes beyond what audiences familiar with this material would normally expect.

     Audiences would have no idea of what to expect if told they were going to be hearing music by Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952), since almost nobody nowadays is familiar with his music. But what is really unanticipated in the new Piano Classics recording of Bortkiewicz’ second and third piano concertos is how clearly the music fits into the Russian musical mode of, among other, Mussorgsky and Gorchakov. In fact, to be precise, these concertos are in what might be called the “expansive Russian mode,” specifically represented by Rachmaninoff – of whose concertos they are reminiscent to an exceptional degree. Bortkiewicz wrote three piano concertos, but the first is lost and presumed destroyed. The second, which dates to 1923, is one of the famous concertos for left hand only commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein – who liked this Bortkiewicz work very much. The reasons are immediately apparent in the excellent performance by Stefan Doniga and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under David Porcelijn. The concerto is a wonderful display piece, but it is also a work of substance and even of some formal cleverness: its slow movement is included within its first movement and becomes the emotional linchpin of the movement and of the whole work. And within that slow movement – or, perhaps more accurately, extended slow section – Bortkiewicz takes a page from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2, creating chamber-music-like sections in which the piano interacts with solo instruments from the orchestra. The result is a complex and multifaceted movement (or combination of movements) that Bortkiewicz wisely chooses not to follow with anything else on the same level: he concludes the concerto with a straightforward dance containing folk-music-like elements. The third concerto, first heard in 1927, bears the title Per aspera ad astra, “through adversity to the stars,” possibly reflecting Bortkiewicz’ own very difficult life during and after the Bolshevik Revolution. The title makes the concerto’s structure plain: it starts darkly in C minor and eventually wins its way, after considerable technical and emotional difficulty, to C major. And here as in the second concerto, Bortkiewicz offers themes distinctly reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s: long, fluid melodic lines of great beauty, with a piano part of exceptional difficulty that seems never to stop flowing from one idea to the next. These concertos are so strongly conceived and so well-crafted that listeners will likely wonder why they, and their composer, are so poorly known today. As fine as these performances are, they provide the answer to that question: Bortkiewicz comes across as derivative, working wholly in late-Romantic style and sounding somewhat too much like Rachmaninoff – his work is just not very distinctive. It is, however, very beautiful, and very challenging for a pianist. Even if Bortkiewicz is unlikely to get a full-scale revival, he is certainly deserving of an occasional hearing, and listeners who enjoy Russian music in general, late-Romantic style in particular, and Rachmaninoff-like piano works specifically, will surely take this Bortkiewicz disc to their hearts.

     Contemporary composers often seem to create sound worlds not to reach an audience’s emotions but for shock or surprise value, or at least “differentness,” however defined. The first work on a new Navona CD, Christopher Keyes’ An Inescapable Entanglement, is an example of this approach. This is more or less a piano concerto, although it bears little resemblance to anything by Bortkiewicz or other composers who use the instrument in conventional ways. The key elements here involve spatial orientation and amplification: microphones are placed just above the piano’s strings, eight loudspeakers are placed behind and to the sides of the area where the audience sits, and Keyes uses digital signal processing to expand and enhance the effects of the piano (played by Lucie Kaucká) and orchestra. The work is actually more accessible, jazzy and even Copland-esque than might be expected from its design, which blends minimalism with older concepts of concertos and uses the piano mostly in obbligato fashion rather than as primus inter pares. The piece is, however, more clever than emotionally trenchant. The remaining works on this (+++) anthology disc are generally more conventional in sonic approach. Diego Vega’s Red Rock is an impressionistic symphonic poem using modified sonata form to portray a trip through a scenic canyon landscape. Ferdinando De Sena’s Deciphered Reverence is a more inward-focused symphonic-poem/fantasia whose use of whole-orchestra and instrumental-section color is intended to reflect multiple moods but comes across as rather disjointed and feels over-long (although the piece runs only 10 minutes). Branches of Singularity by Willem van Twillert offers eight very short movements in differing styles that turn the work into a pastiche containing everything from faux Baroque material to film music, resulting in a moderately pleasant concoction without any particular meaning. Andrew Schultz’s Symphony No. 2, “Ghosts of Reason,” is a much more ambitious work, whose single movement includes considerable quiet and spaciousness that turns rather flaccid after a while. There is little forward motion in the music until the last two of its 21 minutes, when it finally seems to strive for affirmation beyond bleakness. It is a long time to wait for a sense of the positive. As for the performances here, the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra is increasingly becoming a go-to ensemble for contemporary music of all types, and acquits itself particularly well on this CD: Petr Vronský handles issues of sectional balance, frequent rhythmic changes and a wide variety of dynamic contrasts very well indeed. The disc is nevertheless one of those that, because the works are essentially unrelated, may appeal in part to listeners with a general interest in contemporary orchestral music, but is unlikely to be attractive as a whole to more than a very small audience.

     The attractions of a new Ansonica CD bearing the title Coro del Mundo (“Choir of the World”) lie primarily in the sheer sonic variety of its 18 tracks. The unexpected blending and contrast of instrumental sounds with vocal performances by the ensembles Vocal Luna and Schola Cantorum Coralina lies at the heart of this (+++) disc, which will appeal in large part to listeners interested in the continuing musical and cultural thaw between the United States and Cuba – all the tracks were recorded in Havana in November 2017. As befits a project of this type, both U.S. and Cuban composers are represented, and the individual pieces – many heard in arrangements rather than their original scoring – include the sounds of dumbek (a goblet-shaped drum), sleigh bells, other percussion, double bass, clarinet, saxophone and piano in various permutations and combinations. Music sung a cappella appears here as well. It is hard not to see some rather self-indulgent political motivation behind some of the works here, such as Dance to the Revolution by L. Peter Deutsch (although the words Deutsch sets are those of Emma Goldman, who was actually an anarchist rather than someone whose revolutionary thoughts would be welcome in Cuba); and Sacred Rights, Sacred Song, by J.A. Kawarsky, and We Are Dreamers by Meira Warshauer, both of them focusing on Israel and Judaism (although, again, parallels with life in Cuba are less than apparent). Shorn of its sociopolitical elements, Coro del Mundo is a celebration of a certain instrumental and vocal sound that carries, in varied form, through the entire CD. Aural surprises emerge enjoyably from time to time, such as the wordless exclamations in Canto del Bongó by Conrado Monier and in Guido López-Gavilán’s Qué Rico É! The disc is essentially an audio sampler of works in a Cuban context, whether created by American or Cuban composers. It is testimony to the lessening of the decades-long chill between Cuba and the U.S., and also indicative of the vibrancy of the current Cuban musical scene, at least insofar as can be determined through the sessions where these works were recorded. Strictly musically, the material is on the thin side, the pieces often being interesting to hear once and in the main short enough to be heard again from time to time. However, nothing here stands out individually as a work of any particular significance: the disc is more a snapshot of a musical working-together at a particular moment in time than it is a CD with significant staying power based on the quality or meaningfulness of its content.

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