August 23, 2018
(++++) TOUCHES OF THE EXOTIC
Mozart: L’Oca del Cairo; Lo Sposo Deluso; Aria in C, “Chi sà, qual sia”; Quartet in E-flat, “Dite almeno.” Ensemble and Orchestra of the Kameropera Antwerpen TRANSPARANT conducted by Hans Rotman. CPO. $16.99.
Andreas Romberg: Symphony No. 4, “Alla turca”; Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5, “Turkish”; Haydn: Overture to “L’Incontro improvviso.” Julia Schröder, violin; Collegium Musicum Basel conducted by Kevin Griffiths. CPO. $16.99.
Khachaturian: Piano Concerto; Concerto-Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra. Stepan Simonian, piano; Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie conducted by Daniel Raiskin. CPO. $16.99.
Joseph Sheehan: Songs of Lake Volta—Ghanaian Traditional Music Reimagined. Kinetic (Anqwenique Wingfield, voice; Anthony Ambroso, guitar; Joseph Sheehan, piano; Jason Rafalak, bass; Ryan Socrates, drums) and Kassia Ensemble (Dawn Posey, Ashley Freeburn and Maureen Conlon, violins; Si Yu, viola; Katya Janpoladyan, cello). Ansonica. $14.99.
Mozart aficionados and scholars are well aware that the composer left a number of works incomplete and contributed his music to material written primarily by others, as was the custom in his time. This is why the Mozart symphonic canon skips from No. 36 to No. 38: Symphony No. 37, K. 444, is actually by Mozart’s friend Michael Haydn, with just a bit of Mozart’s own music in it. On the operatic front, Mozart’s contributions to works by others are even more common, and can be very enjoyable to hear both as rarities and as worthy pieces in their own right. Furthermore, Mozart’s own incomplete musical projects can be delightful even if, in the case of stage works, they are too fragmentary to be visually performable on their own. That is the case with two Italian opera fragments from 1783-84, L’Oca del Cairo and Lo Sposo Deluso. There is an hour of Mozart between them – an hour of Mozartiana that many listeners have never heard – and some of the material is quite delightful. Add a couple of items created by Mozart for inclusion in stage works by other composers and you have, in the totality of a CPO release of material recorded back in 1991, exotic pleasures that nevertheless have a familiar ring to them. Essentially the complete libretto of L’Oca del Cairo (“The Cairo Goose”) has survived, and it shows why Mozart abandoned the project: the material is by Giovanni Battista Varesco, librettist of Idomeneo, whose work Mozart did not like – justifiably, in this case, since the comedy has a silly ending that parodies the Trojan Horse by having a man winning his bride by being smuggled to her inside a mechanical goose. About 40 minutes of Mozart’s music for the project survives. It is performed stylishly under Hans Rotman’s direction, and there are actually a couple of items worth more-frequent hearing, notably an aria-plus-terzetto, Siano pronte alle gran nozze. For Lo sposo deluso (“The Deluded Bridegroom”), even less music has survived: about 20 minutes, all from Act I. Here the libretto is just possibly by Lorenzo da Ponte, but is more likely by the undistinguished Giuseppe Petrosellini, who is also thought to have written the libretto for La finta giardiniera. The words were apparently originally written for Domenico Cimarosa. In this case, Mozart wrote for seven very specific singers, tailoring his music to their strengths. The reason Mozart abandoned this project is uncertain; the extant music includes a well-balanced overture with peppy elements contrasting with pensive ones, plus a particularly nice quartet, Ah, ah che ridere! The remaining Mozart material on this CD is a pair of inserts for other composers’ operas. Chi sà, qual sia is an aria for Il bubero di buon cuore by Vicente Martin y Soler (1754-1806), and Dite al meno is a quartet for La villanella rapita by Francesco Bianchi (1752-1810). They are slight pieces written for specific singers and are intended to supplement the other composers’ material, not to distract from their work – but it is notable that the text for the Martin y Soler insert is certainly by da Ponte, the greatest of Mozart’s librettists. CPO provides plot summaries for the two fragmentary Mozart operas and explanatory contextual information for the two inserts – and, wonder of wonders, gives all the texts, a huge help for material as little-known as this even though nothing is translated from the original Italian. Anyone fascinated by Mozart’s operatic productions or simply interested in hearing some of his very-little-known music will find this disc a distinct pleasure, if a rather rarefied one.
Mozart’s own sense of the exotic, and that of other composers of his time, tended toward the Turkish. Beethoven was so enamored of Turkish-style sounds that he produced a Turkish march for The Ruins of Athens that remains very often heard, and also famously (and rather incongruously) included a Turkish march in the middle of the finale of his Symphony No. 9. Gluck and Haydn were fond of the exoticism of Turkish-style rhythms and instruments, too – and an example of Haydn’s use of them, in the overture to L’Incontro improvviso, appears on a new CPO release conducted by Kevin Griffiths. The work’s plot revolves around a Persian princess and an Ottoman prince, so the sounds Haydn includes flow naturally from the narrative. But the Turkish influence is more apparent in Mozart’s music than in that of Haydn or Beethoven. From the famous concluding Rondo alla turca of his Piano Sonata No. 11, K. 331, to the entirety of The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart employed elements that were considered traditionally Turkish (as they sounded to Viennese ears), and did so to exceptionally fine effect. His final violin concerto, No. 5 in A, K. 219, shows another of his uses of Turkish rhythms: here they interrupt an otherwise delicate finale just as surprisingly as, 50 years later, Beethoven’s Turkish material interrupts (or, rather, changes) the flow of the conclusion of his last symphony. Julia Schröder does a fine job of placing the Mozart concerto’s Turkish elements in context: the concerto is actually filled with clever and surprising twists of various types. But the most interesting use of Turkish-style material on this disc comes in the fourth and last symphony published during the lifetime of the very-little-known Andreas Romberg (1767-1821), who wrote 10 symphonies in all. The Sinfonia alla turca – that is its formal title – was written in 1798. It is highly unusual for its time in incorporating Turkish elements (through use of piccolo as well as cymbal, triangle and bass drum) throughout, not just to produce a touch of color in a specific movement or section. Romberg, in his time a distinguished violinist, treats the strings particularly well in the not-very-slow slow movement, Andante quasi Allegretto, but elsewhere the “Turkish-ness” of the instrumentation is juxtaposed with Classical-era thematic material again and again. The finale, in particular, is simply overflowing with percussion, and it features the same contrasts of loud and soft sections – and the same brief rather than extended themes – as Mozart presents in The Abduction from the Seraglio, in a movement whose structure and sound are distinctly Haydnesque. The symphony is a treat for the ears, and this disc as a whole is fascinating for showing, to a greater extent than usual, just how popular the “Turkish sound” was as an attention-getting device in the Classical era.
Another new CPO recording offers exoticism of a different sort in two piano-and-orchestra works by Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). Although Khachaturian moved to Moscow at the age of 19, he retained his Armenian roots and expressed them effectively throughout his musical life. Thus, for example, the second movement of his Piano Concerto is based on a well-known-in-the-region folk song that Khachaturian said he once heard in Tiflis. But Khachaturian so manipulates and varies the simple tune that he produces an elaborate 10-minute movement that feels only vaguely folklike. At other times, Khachaturian creates tunes that sound as if they are folk melodies, when in fact they are not: he is simply channeling his perceptions of the Trans-Caucasus area in a way that produces material that sounds as if it could have come from there, even though it did not. The concerto dates to 1937, years before the ballets Gayane and Spartacus, for which Khachaturian is nowadays best known. The Concerto-Rhapsody is much later, composed in 1967, and tends to be tarred in the West with its avowed purpose of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, however, this work – the last of a trio of rhapsodies for solo instruments and orchestra, the first two being for violin and for cello – is easier to hear on its own merits, which turn out to be considerable. The writing also proves to be surprisingly avant-garde for a piece avowedly expressing the triumph of Leninism and the “socialist realism” that Soviet rulers and their musical enforcers expected and demanded. A four-note motif of the Concerto-Rhapsody duplicates one in the Piano Concerto, and both pieces end in essentially the same way. But otherwise the later work is exotic in an entirely different manner – for example, through its level of dissonance and the way in which Khachaturian drops markedly and unexpectedly from a highly percussion-laden section marked ffff (!) to one where delicacy prevails and the vibraphone dominates. The confluence and contrast of the extremely martial with the delicately lyrical give this work, whatever its political intentions and designs may have been, a sound and style that transcend the time and circumstances under which Khachaturian created it. Stepan Simonian’s intense devotion to the piano parts of both works is evident throughout, and the performances by the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie under Daniel Raiskin sound assured, idiomatic and as intense and colorful as the music demands – which is to say, very much so.
The composers of the 21st century often find their exotic touches not in places from which they came but in ones where they are foreigners, as Joseph Sheehan shows on a new (+++) release from Ansonica. Sheehan, like many other composers today, mixes jazz and classical elements in much of his music, and also draws heavily on non-Western musical traditions. Songs of Lake Volta specifically reaches out to, and from, the music of Ghana, a nation where Sheehan says he had a life-changing experience in 2008 and a place that he has since visited several times. Sheehan’s own performing ensemble, Kinetic, is joined on the CD by the Kassia Ensemble, and both groups pay tribute in their performances to many of the “cause” elements of which contemporary composers are fond. Vocalist Anqwenique Wingfield sings in indigenous languages of Ghana and in multiple styles, the idea being to emphasize Ghana’s ethnic variety and diversity and hold the nation and its music up as worthy of emulation as well as admiration. There are tracks here of mainly quiet dissonance, such as Akoo Kofi and Oye; ones with a distinctly chant-like, declamatory basis, such as Damba Suite; and ones where jazziness comes to the fore, such as Subo and Dusime. Each of the nine tracks – the others are called Nyento, Confornoche, Kekele and Dama Dama – creates its own little sound world and explores it with the resources of the performing ensembles. Texts for the songs are provided, along with translations, giving listeners a chance to follow the unfamiliar verbalizing and sense the extent to which the music enhances, parallels or comments on the words. The sense of the exotic is palpable here, as is the determination to treat the material in a highly respectful manner and pay tribute to the culture that produced the underlying music – while interpreting the foundational melodies through a primarily Western and heavily jazz-influenced sound palette. A clear example of genre mixing, Songs of Lake Volta will appeal to listeners with a strong interest in the merging of cultures for the sake of enhancing artistic expression and, hopefully, increased mutual understanding and respect.