July 18, 2019


Dvořák, Elgar and Schumann: Cello Concertos; Strauss: Don Quixote. Kim Cook, cello; St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arkady Shteinlucht (Elgar, Schumann) and Gerardo Edelstein (Strauss); Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gerardo Edelstein (Dvořák). MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).

Richard Danielpour: Talking to Aphrodite; Symphony for Strings; Kaddish for Violin and Strings. Sarah Shafer, soprano; Maxim Semonov, French horn; Evgeny Pravilov, violin; Russian String Orchestra conducted by Misha Rachlevsky. Naxos. $12.99.

Martinů: Memorial to Lidice; Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima; Karel Husa: Music for Prague 1968; Philip Koplow: For the Peace of Cities; How Sweet the Sound. Ravello. $14.99.

     Performances of great warmth and sensitivity make a well-priced MSR Classics two-CD set featuring cellist Kim Cook into an almost unalloyed pleasure. The works of Dvořák, Elgar, and Richard Strauss spring, in some ways, from similar sensibilities, and Schumann’s Cello Concerto can be seen to an extent as a precursor of the others not just temporally but also in terms of the relationship it establishes between cello and orchestra. Yet these pieces, all of them technically trenchant and emotionally exploratory, require cellist and conductor to handle the balance between solo and ensemble in different ways and to use the wide range and mellow tone of the cello to elicit differing responses in an audience. These recordings come from very different times and places – the Dvořák dates to 2001 in the Czech Republic, the three others to 2016 in Russia – but Cook’s sumptuous tone, adept fingering and unending display of sonic beauty are the same throughout. The Schumann concerto (written in 1850, the year after he created five short pieces for cello and piano) is a work of considerable intimacy, with almost chamber-music-like handling of the cello among the larger ensemble in its slow movement. Cook’s careful pacing and willingness to share the spotlight with the orchestra make this a winning performance. The Dvořák is altogether grander in scale and is structured uniquely: no composer before or since has created a cello concerto that sounds at all like this one. It was Dvořák’s last solo concerto, dating to 1894-95. And it shares with Schumann’s work sections of intimacy (especially between cello and winds) that, in the case of the Dvořák, stand in stark contrast to the work’s impressive full-orchestra segments. The highly unusual finale, a rondo that is distinctly marchlike, finds its progress interrupted for an extended and very beautiful slower section in which Cook’s lovely lyricism is on full display – after which the big orchestral wrapup sounds forth to fine effect. The orchestra-solo balance is also crucial and also well-handled in Don Quixote (1897), in which Cook (representing the mad would-be knight-errant) shares the spotlight with violist Anna Vainschtein (playing the main instrument representing down-to-earth Sancho Panza). Cook and Vainschtein communicate their respective roles quite well, and hearing them in the context of Strauss’ lush orchestration is a particular pleasure. But here as elsewhere in this release, it is often the quieter rather than the more-monumental sections that stay with a listener: Don Quixote’s return to a clear mind just before death, always a touching moment, is especially well-done here. And the satire-plus-nostalgia of Strauss seemingly paves the way for the mood of Elgar’s concerto (1919: his last major work). This is dark and often distressing music, especially so in the first two movements, and it is only with the consolatory Adagio that Elgar conveys a feeling that, despite the horrors of the recently ended Great War, it is worth going on with life. That feeling is underlined in the finale, which is certainly not celebratory but which does produce a feeling of encouragement regarding the future. This is a difficult and subtle piece, and the way Cook works through its many moods is a measure of her very considerable skill. She works equally well with the two orchestras and two conductors here – although the St. Petersburg ensemble is a cut or two above the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic. The presentation of the recording, though, has more rough spots than are usual in MSR Classics releases. Its back cover lists both orchestras as playing the Dvořák and omits saying which plays the Strauss, and credits are given for tracks 1-16 on the first CD even though the disc actually has 17 tracks. The information is correct in the included booklet, but this sloppiness contrasts starkly with the care and concern that Cook brings to all the music here – and is readily enough forgivable in light of the quality of the performances.

     Nothing on a new Naxos CD of the music of Richard Danielpour (born 1956) is even close to being as sumptuous as the cello-focused works played by Cook, but Danielpour has one important thing in common with the composers who get Cook’s attentive playing: he genuinely wants to communicate with an audience. This is by no means the case for all contemporary composers, and Danielpour deserves considerable credit for producing music that, even when not wholly engaging, nearly always shows an effort to reach out to listeners. The three works on this new CD express themselves in different ways – in two cases through the use of soloists, in one just through a small string orchestra (fewer than 20 players). Talking to Aphrodite is the most recent piece here, dating to 2016, and the most interestingly scored, being for soprano, solo French horn and chamber orchestra. The text consists of poems by Erica Jong – kudos to Naxos for including them in the booklet as well as making them available online – in which a woman who has given up on life decides, after a dream in which she meets the goddess Aphrodite, not to surrender to death after all. The dreamer does not exactly start out as a fan of the goddess of love: “My lady, Aphrodite, Venus,/ fairest of goddesses,/ you cover the world/ with your mischief,/ making populations burgeon/ beyond our poor earth’s power/ to bear.” But by the end of the song cycle, she sees Aphrodite – and herself – in a different way: “She is the goddess for whom/ the earth continues to spin –/ in her turning/ all endings end/ and all beginnings/ begin.” The poetry is on the facile side and the introspection is nothing special – there is no explanation of what has brought the dreamer so low, so it is difficult to empathize with her. But Danielpour, moving through music that mostly forces both the soprano and the horn player to the extremes of their range, eventually allows both to achieve something approaching a state of grace, or at least much-reduced anxiety. Sarah Shafer enunciates very well and sings the words feelingly, and is very well partnered by Maxim Semyonov – who in turn gets fine backing from the Russian String Orchestra under Misha Rachlevsky. The mood of Talking to Aphrodite continues in the Symphony for Strings, which bears the title “…For Love Is Strong as Death” and which is in origin a 2014 transcription of Danielpour’s 2009 String Quartet No. 6. Both this version and the original are much concerned with saying goodbye, not only to individuals and circumstances but also to life itself – hence the connection with the Aphrodite texts. But the almost unrelentingly dark mood of the Symphony for Strings becomes wearing, and it is only in the central Presto giocoso, a mere seven-minute movement in a three-movement, 34-minute piece, that Danielpour conveys any sense of value to going on (and even this movement, although fleet in pacing, is scarcely bright). To complete the mood of what is on the whole a dark and gloomy disc, there is Kaddish, referring to the Jewish prayer for the dead. This is heard in a 2011 version for violin (Evgeny Pravilov) and string orchestra, adapted by Danielpour from its original appearance in his Sextet for Strings. The whole score is supposed to encourage contemplation of death and life and, eventually, eternal peace; but it takes quite some time to attain what peacefulness it possesses, and many listeners will likely find this nearly-80-minute-long CD quite difficult to listen to straight through. Of course, the three pieces here, all being given world première recordings, were not written to be played back-to-back, and do not much benefit from being heard that way. Listeners who can tune into Danielpour’s earnest desire to bring them meaning through distinctly modern but eminently listenable music will give this release a (++++) rating, although its thematically dour outlook and somewhat over-extended handling of the material will make it a (+++) CD for others.

     The mood is no less dark – indeed, in many ways it is darker – on a new (+++) Ravello CD that intends, like the Danielpour recording, to provide uplift, but that succeeds mainly in showcasing just how many awful things have happened to just how many people over just how many years. The actual arrangement of the CD is almost completely reverse chronological, with a focus on the two works by Philip Koplow (1943-2018). But the effectiveness of the music and of the disc’s overall theme is clearer if the CD is heard in pretty much the reverse of the order in which it is presented. That means starting with Martinů’s Memorial to Lidice (1943), offered in a splendid 2005 recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach. The orchestra’s exceptionally warm sound, its first-rate brass, its beautifully massed strings, combine to make this memorial for the victims of the wartime massacre at Lidice, Czechoslovakia, in 1942, a deeply moving experience. Penderecki’s still-terrifying Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), heard in a 1998 performance by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit, makes it impossible to forget that the war-ending nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, even if deemed necessary and even if it prevented far greater casualties anticipated under other scenarios, a human tragedy of monumental scope. Next chronologically is Music for Prague 1968 by Karel Husa (1921-2016), a four-movement suite written in the same year that the Soviet Union crushed an uprising against its domination – a rebellion still commemorated as the Prague Spring, but one whose wintry memory is kept very much alive by Husa’s music. This is a very fine 2008 performance by the Rutgers Wind Ensemble under William Berz. And then, after hearing these commemorations of terror and tragedy, it makes sense to listen to Koplow’s two pieces at the start of the CD. For the Peace of Cities (1998), heard in a 1999 performance by the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra under Paul Nadler, features violinists Jorja Fleezanis and James Braid. It commemorates the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 that ended the Bosnian War, and it has more lyrical and even pastoral elements than do the works of Martinů, Penderecki and Husa – yet there is plentiful dissonance here, and the brass fanfares and other triumphal elements seem to hint at the fact that the Dayton Accord was, and to some extent remains, controversial. Koplow’s other work here is How Sweet the Sound, heard in its 2001 world première performance by the Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul John Stanbery. This is an interestingly conceived work, based on the hymn “Amazing Grace” and featuring a number of variations on that music, each in a different key. The idea is to indicate musically that grace, and by extension peace, can be found in all keys – that is, in all circumstances, by all people. The message of hope and uplift is a welcome contrast to just about everything else on a CD that is otherwise downbeat and at times out-and-out depressing. How Sweet the Sound does not actually communicate its intended meaning particularly well, but in this context of memories of horror and turmoil, it is welcome – and is best heard by listeners as the last of these pieces rather than in its placement second on the disc.

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