July 19, 2018


Mozart: Der Schauspieldirektor; Salieri: Prima la musica e poi le parole. Eva Mei, Patricia Petibon, Markus Schäfer, Oliver Widmer, Werner Schneyder, Manfred Hemm, Melba Ramos; Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Belvedere. $20.99 (2 CDs).

Holst: The Planets; Elgar: Serenade for String Orchestra. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. SWR Music. $8.99.

Dvořák: Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 and Op. 72 (complete).SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserslautern conducted by Jiří Stárek. SWR Music. $8.99.

Ragtime in Washington—Music of Scott Joplin, Henry Lodge, George Gershwin/Will Donaldson, Thomas Benjamin, William Albright, William Bolcom, John Musto, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bob Zurke. Michael Adcock, piano. Centaur. $16.

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet—excerpts; Schumann/Liszt: Widmung; Gershwin/Wild: Seven Virtuoso Etudes; Bizet/Horowitz: Variations on a Theme from “Carmen”; Saint-Saëns/Godowsky: The Swan from “Carnival of the Animals.” Michael Adcock, piano. Centaur. $16.
     Classical music is sometimes referred to as “serious” music, and certainly a great deal of it is very serious indeed; and virtually everything identifiable as “classical” tends to be more serious than works of pop culture. But the “serious” label has the unfortunate side effect of making people who are not entirely familiar with classical music reluctant to listen to it – there is enough seriousness in the world and in life, the argument goes, and who needs more of it when seeking entertainment? Something mindless, frothy and altogether unimportant is a far better alternative! Well, classical music is scarcely mindless, but the fact that it is carefully constructed should not and does not prevent much of it from being outright fun. Yes, there may be a serious subtext (although not always!); but there are many works to which it is possible, even preferable, to listen simply for the out-and-out pleasure they bring. And that brings us to the non-contest between Salieri and Mozart in the year 1786, when each wrote a piece for a musical extravaganza staged (by imperial order, no less) at Schönbrunn palace. The underlying seriousness here had to do with comparisons between Italian opera (Salieri’s venue) and the German Singspiel (Mozart’s field for the purpose of this engagement). The result was two witty and frequently hilarious one-act works – originally performed by orchestras stationed at opposite ends of the same very large room. Both works were parodies of the theatrical and operatic practices of their time: Salieri drew heavily on a then-popular opera seria by Giuseppe Sarti, while Mozart focused on the inevitable competition between two would-be prima donna singers. These two short theatrical pieces are rarely heard nowadays – their parodistic nature, unfortunately, makes them captives of their own time to a great degree, preventing modern audiences from getting many of the jokes and references. And they are almost never performed together. But they were in 2002 at the Salzburg Festival, by Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and that performance is now available as a for-fun-only Belvedere release. It really is just for fun, although German speakers get all the words in the enclosed booklet (English speakers get only a translation of Mozart’s material, while Salieri’s is translated only into Italian). What is heard here is not exactly what audiences heard in1786: Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (that is, The Impresario) was almost all talk and was larded throughout with specific contemporary references that have almost all been excised and replaced here by ones more comprehensible to a modern audience. And so what? The music of both these works is absolutely delightful, and that is the point of this release. Salieri’s underlying topic, whether “First the music and then the words” makes sense in operatic composition, is a serious one that Richard Strauss contemplated in much the same way more than a century and a half later – in his final opera, Capriccio. And Mozart’s foundational concern, that artists should do their best at all times but should not hog the limelight or diminish their compatriots, is equally timeless and seems, if anything, even more apt today. But the character interplay and music used to explore and elucidate these matters is joyous, intelligent, witty and thoroughly delightful – and the singing and playing are simply wonderful to sit back and bask in. From a serious standpoint, this is a welcome chance to hear some less-known music that tackles topics of continuing interest and importance. But a serious standpoint is scarcely necessary for the pure enjoyment that this release provides.

     There is also pure enjoyment in some of the super-bargain-priced releases from Southwest German Radio on the recently created SWR Music label. This is not to diminish the underlying care and seriousness of the interpretations but to point out that some of the music being made available on these discs is of a type that invites listeners to sit back and enjoy, not to engage their critical faculties or mental energy to the extent that so much classical music does. The exceptionally fine Roger Norrington-led performance of Holst’s The Planets is a perfect case in point. The reading really is outstanding and can be analyzed, if one wishes, to figure out why: for instance, “Venus, the Bringer of Piece” here is beautifully done and is not the comedown that it usually is after the drama of “Mars, the Bringer of War,” and the handling of “Uranus, the Magician” is superb. But for most listeners, it will be enough simply to relax and delight in the wonderful playing of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR and the excellent orchestration by Holst (to which Norrington is especially sensitive). It helps to remember that this massive suite is all about astrology, not astronomy, and that it is thus an invitation to suspend one’s disbelief and simply luxuriate in the sound of it all. And the pairing of The Planets with Elgar’s short, warm and thoroughly lovely Serenade for String Orchestra is a highly effective one: the Elgar has the effect of a post-prandial period of pure relaxation, its strings-only instrumentation a pronounced and very pleasant contrast to Holst’s use of a very large orchestra.

     Pure pleasures abound as well in Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances as played by the SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserslautern under Jiří Stárek. Like the Holst/Elgar CD, whose performances date to 2001, this one dates back a few years, to 2000 and 2001. But here too the enjoyment is scarcely time-bound. The ebullience of the faster dances, the homey folksiness of the slower ones, and the wonderful contrasts among the eight dances within each set and between the Op. 46 and Op. 72 sets as a whole are among the matters to enjoy here. Yes, it is possible to examine and listen to the dances, individually and collectively, in a serious way; in particular, the Op. 72 ones look to forms well beyond the purely Czech ones of the Op. 46 dances. But what Stárek’s performances communicate so well is that this is dance music, certainly brought into the concert hall by the composer but retaining throughout (even more in Op. 46 than in Op 72) the flavor of the outdoors, of the countryside, of 19th-century rural life in general. There is no reason to do anything but enjoy this music. Exploring its provenance is certainly an option for those who wish to do so, and studying its place within Dvořák’s oeuvre is certainly possible (and interesting); but the sheer delight of the dances is what comes through most clearly in these performances, and experiencing that enjoyment is more than enough reason to own the CD and listen to it – repeatedly.

     Sheer delight is also the primary reason to hear two new Centaur discs featuring pianist Michael Adcock. Yes, Adcock is a serious and seriously talented performer, and yes, that is abundantly clear in the music he plays on these CDs. But he is also clearly a pianist who revels in what he is doing and enjoys the chance to present music with exuberance as well as sensitivity. The CD called “Ragtime in Washington” (actually recorded outside the nation’s capital, in Frederick, Maryland, but why quibble?) offers a generous hour-and-a-quarter of fast and slow, original and imitative, ragtime and almost-ragtime pieces that range from the 100% authentic (Scott Joplin’s Bethena, The Easy Winners, Palm Leaf Rag and Solace) to the interpretative (Scott Joplin’s Victory by William Albright) to the amusingly, gently sarcastic (Thomas Benjamin’s That Old Second-Viennese-School Rag). The Joplin pieces and the one here by Jelly Roll Morton, Grandpa’s Spells, have inherent character quite different from that of the other pieces on the disc, although Red Pepper Rag by Henry Lodge (1885-1933) and Old Tom-Cat on the Keys by Bob Zurke (1912-1944) share somewhat similar sensibilities. Anyone who thinks “ragtime” (however defined) refers to music that all sounds essentially the same need only compare the works by Joplin, Lodge and Zurke to the four here by William Bolcom: Incinerator Rag, The Brooklyn Dodge, Last Rag and Fields of Flowers. The different handling of rhythm and harmony is fascinating – but it is also something more serious to consider than is really necessary when hearing these pieces. The ultimate point of “Ragtime in Washington” is out-and-out enjoyment, and that is what the CD provides, thanks to Adcock’s abundant skill with and involvement in the material. In addition to the pieces already mentioned, the disc contains Rialto Ripples by George Gershwin and Will Donaldson (1891-1954); Albright’s Sleepwalker’s Shuffle; and John Musto’s Recollections and In Stride. Listeners will have their favorites, and should: the pieces, most of them quite short, are very different in sense and sound. But every one of them has its pleasures, and that is just what listeners can and should notice above all: it is fun to hear this material.

     The fun is somewhat more rarefied, although not more attenuated, on Adcock’s other new CD, which features keyboard transcriptions of two extended works and three much shorter ones. Here Adcock has a chance, which he happily accepts, to showcase his sheer virtuosity while also displaying considerable sensitivity of tone, phrasing and emotional connection. The longest piece here, a set of 10 excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, is the most variegated and the most challenging in terms of requiring the pianist to convey multiple contrasting but complementary moods. Adcock handles it with warmth mixed with piquancy, contrasting the dramatic portions with the emotive ones to fine effect. And listeners need not know Prokofiev’s ballet to enjoy the performance: Adcock pulls the audience into the music and lets the shifting moods of the material speak for themselves. Things are lighter and brighter in Seven Virtuoso Etudes, in which pianist Earl Wild develops and then strings together a series of George Gershwin’s wonderful melodies, among them “The Man I Love,” “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm.” Adcock has just the right touch for this material: light and swinging and thoroughly in command of the complexities that Wild brings to melodies that are essentially simple and straightforward – indeed, almost pop-music-like, making them all the easier for listeners to accept and enjoy at face value. The remaining pieces here are short, one of them (the Schumann/Liszt Widmung) functioning as an interlude between the two extended works, the other two offered at the CD’s conclusion. Interestingly, Adcock places the Bizet/Horowitz Carmen variations, which would seem an ideal encore, before the Saint-Saëns/Godowsky The Swan, thereby ending the recital – and it does feel like an intimate-venue recital – on a quieter, softer note than might be expected. It is an intriguing decision, one that nicely complements Adcock’s performing skill and his sensitivity to the many moods of the works he plays and the many forms of pleasure they deliver to those who hear them.

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