May 02, 2019

(++++) ON STAGE

Copland: Billy the Kid; Grohg. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.

Ibert: Les Amours de Jupiter; Henri Sauguet: Les Forains; Massenet: Ballet Suite from “Hérodiade.” Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99.

Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 18. Trinity Laban Wind Orchestra conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $12.99.

Beethoven: Egmont—Incidental Music. Matthias Brandt, narrator; Olga Bezsmertna, soprano; Beethoven Orchester Bonn conducted by Dirk Kaftan. MDG Gold. $18.99 (SACD).

     Copland’s Billy the Kid (1938) marked the start of his “American” period, in which he deliberately reached out to wider audiences than he had previously sought by simplifying much of his musical writing, using folklike tunes and sometimes actual folk music, and working in a tonal medium to which audiences could easily relate. He was scarcely the first American composer to incorporate common and even commonplace music into broader classical structures: the endlessly innovative Charles Ives had done so nearly half a century earlier. But Copland was the first to reach out so deliberately beyond traditional classical-performance attendees, and Billy the Kid was so successful that Copland later produced two more ballet scores, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, in much the same manner. Again, these were ballet scores, a fact to which modern audiences – accustomed to hearing them only in the concert hall and usually only as suites – tend to give short shrift. Leonard Slatkin, however, is well aware of the intended danceability of Billy the Kid, and his excellent new reading with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is both balletic and highly satisfying when heard strictly as music. The suite from this ballet incorporates almost all of its elements, so it is surprising that the full ballet is not heard more often. The missing pieces create a full “story arc” for a tale that Copland begins and ends in “once upon a time” mode by starting and concluding with a section called “The Open Prairie.” Slatkin has a firm grasp of the modern elements that Copland did include here, notably involving rhythm and considerable (although tamed) dissonance. The score sounds fresh and bright, and the orchestra responds strongly and effectively to its longtime music director (now music director laureate). And this Naxos recording also includes a second complete ballet, a genuine rarity that shows Copland in highly innovative as well as exploratory mode. This is Grohg, which dates to 1925, when Copland was in his mid-20s and immersed in the Parisian musical scene – which at the time was obsessed both with ballet and with film. Grohg has elements of both, being based loosely on the famous silent film Nosferatu, which in turn was based loosely on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The half-hour of music in Grohg proceeds without a break, effectively drawing the audience into a bizarre world in which a necromancer animates corpses, returns them to their coffins, and at the end fades into nothingness. The plot vaguely resembles that of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, which dates to almost the same time (1924), but the music is quite different and is evocative of the lurid scenes in only a general way. Copland treats Grohg as a grim fairy tale, much as he was later to treat Billy the Kid as a legend of the American West rather than the factual recounting of the life and death of a young outlaw. Slatkin clearly relishes the chance to present Grohg in recorded form, focusing on the elements that make it very much of its time and place while never losing sight of the fact that this work, like Billy the Kid, was intended to be danced. This is an exceptional pairing of Copland ballets in performances that explore them fully and to fine effect.

     Copland left Paris and the Parisian ballet scene behind, but other composers remained immersed in both for many decades. A new Chandos CD offers two infrequently heard and very tuneful ballets from 1945 by the moderately well-known Jacques Ibert and the little-known Henri Sauguet. Ibert’s Les Amours de Jupiter, which loosely parallels and expands on a hilarious scene in Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers, in which the gods confront the supposedly morally upright Jupiter with stories of his many affairs, offers a delightful set of five tableaux representing dalliances with Europa, Leda, Danae and Ganymede, followed by a reconciliation with Juno. Ibert’s catholic style serves the ballet very well, sometimes echoing Chabrier and Delibes while at other times indulging in the rhythmic variety, syncopation and wry humor in which his own works abound. The ballet gets a first-rate reading from the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi: everything moves along enthusiastically, the smooth orchestration is highlighted by fine sectional balance, and the overall feeling of amusement and wry humor is pervasive. Järvi and his ensemble do an equally fine job with Les Forains (“The Show Folk”), which is essentially a set of danceable circus-focused character pieces for orchestra rather than a fully plotted ballet. Sauguet (1901-1989) dedicated the ballet to the memory of Erik Satie, who had introduced Sauguet to Diaghilev in 1924, in the midst of the postwar Parisian ballet obsession, and thus started Sauguet down a compositional road that eventually led him to create more than 20 ballets. Les Forains is neatly written, its music doing a fine job of identifying the various “show folk” who appear with the circus, from the marchlike opening scene-setter to the melodic entry of the troupe and the aptly chosen musical and dance forms for individual performers. A brilliant galop that pays homage to Offenbach is the work’s climax, after which the entry music reappears and becomes exit material. Les Forains might be more effective on stage than in concert form: it seems rather obvious, although pleasant, as heard here. But because it is unfamiliar and is so well presented by Järvi and the orchestra, it offers considerable enjoyment. Between these two mid-20th-century works is a short offering from the 19th: the brief ballet suite from Massenet’s Hérodiade (1881/1884). Like Sauguet’s ballet, this is a set of character pieces, in this case representing four national types: Egyptians, Babylonians, Gauls, and Phoenicians. The first three groups are portrayed in pieces lasting less than two minutes each, the fourth in a three-minute entry; everything is pleasant and energetic if not particularly consequential, and the whole suite is, like everything on this CD, very well played.

     It is often forgotten that “March King” John Philip Sousa was also a stage composer – indeed, many of his 200-plus compositions were stage works. Operetta was his specialty, and he not only gave the form uniquely American twists but also found plenty of ways to reuse his stage tunes in works for his band. The 18th volume in Naxos’ excellent series of Sousa’s music for wind band shows Sousa’s relationship to the stage unusually clearly – and not only where his own music was concerned. Five of the six works on this CD are world première recordings: only Stag Party (1885), a compendium of songs that students might sing during a night on the town, has been recorded before. Of the five debut recordings, three have a stage focus. The Merry-Merry Chorus (1923) arranges a series of opera choruses for band performance, the inclusion of one from HMS Pinafore and, at the end, of the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore being particularly enjoyable. An incidental suite assembled by conductor Keith Brion from arrangements of music to Sousa’s The Charlatan (1898) offers four excerpts from this once-popular operetta. And the portrayal of Fanny from Chris and the Wonderful Lamp (1899) – a thoroughly Americanized version of the Aladdin story – also draws on the world of operetta. Also on this disc is Among My Souvenirs (1928), a nostalgic piece based on a popular song of the time; and the CD concludes with the second part of the very lengthy March of the Pan Americans (1915), a compendium of national anthems whose first half was heard on Volume 17 of this series. The totality of this work (which is not a march, despite its title) runs 40 minutes, so splitting it makes sense. The second portion includes the anthems of Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, El Salvador, Uruguay and Venezuela, presented in alphabetical order. It concludes with Sousa’s arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner – even though that was not yet, in 1915, the official national anthem of the United States – in a rather strange double setting, the first time familiarly and the second distinctly reminiscent of Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture. Sousa’s band was famous for its world tours, and Brion is on a world tour of his own with this Sousa series, conducting a wide variety of bands in a wide variety of places. This volume features a very fine ensemble from Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London, and the students play this American music as if it belongs firmly on the world stage – which is just where Sousa himself placed it.

     Like Sousa, Beethoven is not generally thought of as a stage composer, with his sole opera, Fidelio, being seen as exceptional. But he did write music for various other forms of performance – including the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and the incidental music to the play The Ruins of Athens. And then there is Egmont. In 1809-10, Beethoven created music to accompany the staging of Goethe’s 1787 drama of people yearning for freedom and heroically standing up against tyranny – a plot quite similar to that of Fidelio. Only the overture is frequently heard today, and it encapsulates the drama as thoroughly as Leonore Overtures Nos. 2 and 3 sum up the plot of Fidelio. The full music for Egmont, though, contains nine numbers in addition to the overture, and all nine are heard on a new MDG Gold release featuring Dirk Kaftan conducting the Beethoven Orchester Bonn. There are two songs among the nine pieces, both given to Egmont’s doomed lover, Klärchen, and both offered with suitable strength and determination by soprano Olga Bezsmertna. Most of what happens in the play, however, is traced by narration in this recording – and while Matthias Brandt speaks and emotes well, he is recorded at a substantially and irritatingly lower level than the music, for no apparent reason. Taken as a whole, this release is a real disappointment for English speakers who are not also fluent in German, with the result that it gets a (+++) rating despite the fine orchestral playing and overall high quality of the presentation. The problem is that the narration has been created specifically for this presentation, using various words by Goethe, but the narration is not presented with the recording – not even in German – and listeners are not given anywhere to find it online. The words to Klärchen’s two songs are provided, but in German only, leaving English speakers without knowledge of the songs’ content – although translation of the lyrics is available online for people who search for it on their own. On top of everything else, this is a short disc, lasting less than 46 minutes. So it really is a recording strictly for German-speaking Egmont enthusiasts – a group that deserves to be a large one, given the quality of Goethe’s writing and Beethoven’s music, but is scarcely a general audience. Beethoven’s full music for Egmont deserves to be heard more often, and even if Goethe’s entire play is not performed, a version providing connective tissue among the nine intra-play pieces is worth hearing. But a recording that tantalizes by promising a full Egmont and then makes itself intelligible only to a subset of people potentially intrigued by the material is, by definition if not necessarily by intent, an offering of limited interest.

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