November 15, 2018


Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony No. 13; Serenade for Orchestra. Siberian State Symphony Orchestra (Krasnoyarsk) conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos. $12.99.

J.A. Kawarsky: Orchestration of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52; Fastidious Notes; And We All Waited…; Episodes. Arizona Choir and chamber musicians conducted by Bruce Chamberlain; Jonathan Helton, alto saxophone; Chicago Arts Orchestra conducted by Javier Mendoza; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský; Peter Laul, piano; Saint Petersburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $14.99.

Brahms: Hungarian Dances; 16 Waltzes, Op. 39. Hélène Mercier and Charles Katsaris, piano. Warner Classics. $17.99.

Ching-Chu Hu: Pulse; Gabriela Lena Frank: Sonata Andina No. 1; Philip Lasser: Sonata for Piano “Les Hiboux Blancs” (“The White Owls”). Minju Choi, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     The fascinating, if capriciously sequenced, Naxos survey of the symphonies of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) continues to uncover surprises and unexpected delights in its latest volume, featuring world première recordings of the dense Symphony No. 13 (1976) and the much lighter Serenade for Orchestra (1952). The symphony dates to the year after the death of Shostakovich, who was friend and sometime mentor to Weinberg, and sounds quite a bit like the older composer’s work as it begins. But it soon moves in its own direction, spinning a 35-minute, single-movement, fantasy-like texture in which a large orchestra is for the most part used only in chamber-music-like bits and pieces, in somewhat Mahlerian fashion. Dedicated to the memory of Weinberg’s mother, the symphony has little in the way of sweeping lines about it, the composer instead constructing the piece from small motifs that emerge, subside, combine and develop as the work progresses. Structurally interesting, it is not as emotionally affecting as Weinberg surely intended it to be: the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra (Krasnoyarsk) plays it very well under Vladimir Lande’s direction, but the work itself comes across as rather directionless and meandering. It is unsettling rather than heartfelt. How it fits among Weinberg’s 22 symphonies is difficult to determine because of the way in which these releases have been appearing: there is no apparent sequence or logic to them, with No. 13 being added to a series that so far includes Nos. 6, 8, 12, 17, 18 and 19. Some of the other symphonies have been paired, as No. 13 is, with lighter material by Weinberg. Here the matchup is with a work from the time of the notorious Zhdanov decree, which affected Soviet music from 1948 until Stalin’s death in 1953. To adhere to the decree, composers had to produce music that was not overly complex or difficult for people to understand and follow; this was to be true whether or not the material was overtly celebratory of socialist realism. Weinberg’s Serenade for Orchestra fills the bill of its time nicely, with touches of wistfulness – nothing deeper – amid what is generally an upbeat, sometimes even playful four-movement construction that is pleasant to hear if, on the whole, rather vapid.

     Lande is also the conductor of one work on a new Navona release featuring music by J.A. Kawarsky: he leads the Saint Petersburg Symphony Orchestra in Episodes, a piano-and-orchestra piece that dates to 2001 and shows some distinct Russian influence through parts that are reminiscent of Prokofiev and Mussorgsky. The work does not have anything like what would be considered a Russian sound, however: it is a generally upbeat piece, reflecting Offenbach as well as the Russian composers. Percussion plays a large role in the music, and the piano part is written to display the instrument’s percussive rather than melodic side. Light, even frothy at times, Episodes is as episodic as its title indicates. It successfully fulfills the role for which it was commissioned, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Kawarsky is fond of borrowings and episodic structure, as is shown as well on this disc in Fastidious Notes for alto saxophone and chamber orchestra: bits of Britten, Copland and even sort-of-Shostakovich sneak into a piece in which the main effect is of contrasting sections of quietness (if not exactly lyricism) and upbeat brightness. These two works are quite different in intent from And We All Waited… (the ellipsis is part of the title), in which Kawarsky strives to be completely serious in expressing concern about the horrific nature of school shootings – but despite this plan, he drops again and again into his preferred quotation-of-others form, with Nielsen and Shostakovich elements especially clear here, neither earlier composer providing whatever sort of answer to perceived political inaction Kawarsky is seeking. This sort of overtly political piece rarely conveys the seriousness of its composer; certainly this one does not. Indeed, it seems insufficiently grave for its topic, with the instruments at one point (about four minutes from the beginning) almost giving out with a laugh. Much more interesting, and indeed the most intriguing piece on the CD, is Kawarsky’s handling of Brahms’ Op. 52 Liebeslieder Waltzes. The 18 pieces date to 1868-69 and were originally written for vocal quartet and piano four hands. But they have appeared in many other arrangements – including, in the case of eight of them, with orchestral accompaniment by Brahms himself. In this piece, Kawarsky’s familiarity with the music of other composers is put to very good use as he scores the work for voices and 10 performers playing flute/piccolo, oboe/English horn, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, harp, piano, violin, cello, double bass and percussion. The Liebeslieder Waltzes are thoroughly charming – hence their longstanding popularity – and it is precisely this charm that Kawarsky emphasizes and brings forth in his delicately intriguing arrangement. The texts are not provided, but can be found through an online search. However, they are not really needed to enjoy the music: these miniatures, several lasting less than a minute and none as long as three, are actually cute – a word one scarcely hears often in connection with Brahms, but one that is quite appropriate to Brahms as handled by Kawarsky in this rather puckish fashion.

     Other Brahms dance music is played in the original form, and with exceptional clarity and skill, on a new Warner Records release featuring pianists Hélène Mercier and Cyprien Katsaris. But what a disappointment is overlaid on the excellence here! The capriciousness of the releasing of the Weinberg symphonies is nothing compared to what has been done here: the Op. 39 waltzes and the full set of 21 Hungarian Dances are given out of order and commingled with each other. The motivation for this is surely a good one – musicians of this quality and caliber cannot possibly intend to mock what they perform so well – but what listeners get here is 70 minutes of individually wonderful tracks that collectively are frustrating in the extreme. Mercier is primo in the waltzes, Katsaris in the Hungarian Dances, but the two perform so well together that this scarcely matters. What does is that the first three tracks on the disc are waltzes Nos. 3, 5 and 6 – followed by Hungarian Dances Nos. 3-8, then waltzes 7, 8, 14 and 4, then dance No. 9, waltzes 9 and 10, dance No. 10, waltzes 15 and 1, dances 1 and 2, waltz 16, dances 11-18, waltzes 11-13, dance 19, waltz 2, and dances 20-21. The dipping into the correct order in several locations means listeners who know the music will just get used to hearing it so well presented when, after a partial sequence, they will be jerked into awareness that something else has suddenly appeared. The sense of dislocation is substantial, and the mixing-up of the waltzes is so extensive that even reprogramming the disc’s play sequence to restore the pieces’ correct order is a chore. It is tremendously hard to fathom the thinking behind this presentation – which is so well-played, so beautifully handled in its individual elements, that it attains a (+++) rating despite the very serious miscalculation around which it is built.

     The musical elements are more carefully calibrated on a new Navona CD featuring pianist Minju Choi, but the music itself is of highly variable interest, resulting in a (+++) rating for this disc as well. The three contemporary pieces here are all by composers from dual cultures, all of whom seek to unite and explore elements of both parts of their background without allowing one to overcome and subsume the other. These are thus works intended, in a sense, to cement and affirm their composers’ identity – and while they may in fact do that for the composers themselves, they do not connect in any particularly deep or emotionally resonant way with an audience outside their creators. The four-movement work Pulse by Asian-American Ching-Chu Hu (born 1969), commissioned for Choi, combines overtly Asian musical elements with obeisance to Western composers including Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Ravel. The start-and-stop dancing of the second movement, “Anticipation,” is the most stylish element here. Sonata Andina No. 1 by Gabriela Lena Frank (born 1972) offers a different cultural mixture, combining Western classical material with Andean folk music. Here the fourth movement, “Finale Saqsampillo,” is the most effective: it is a homage to Alberto Ginastera as well as an attempt to imitate two kinds of guitars, flutes and marimba, all in the context of a strongly rhythmic dance. The third work on the disc, Sonata for Piano “Les Hiboux Blancs” (“The White Owls”) by Philip Lasser (born 1963), has nothing in particular to do with white owls, but is intended as a blend of Lasser’s American and French roots and influences. The work’s traditional three-movement structure belies the rather mixed-up way in which themes and harmonies are assembled and reassembled throughout. The finale, marked “Fast, in the Style of a Toccata,” is the most engaging movement in its technical complexity and free-spirited lightness. It demands a lot of the pianist but does not require significant intellectualizing by listeners. For that very reason, it provides more pleasure than some of the more-freighted elements of this disc in their attempts to be culturally aware and inter-culturally sensitive and significant. Choi, who herself has a dual-culture background (she is Korean-American), plays all the works with verve and obviously believes in the messages they try to convey. Not all the music works particularly well, but all the pieces get as strong a commitment from Choi as they are likely to receive.

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