December 19, 2019
(++++) PORTRAITS IN SOUND
Eduard Strauss: Waltzes and Polkas, Volume 2. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.
Villa-Lobos: Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra; Concerto for Harmonica; Sexteto Místico; Quinteto Instrumental. Manuel Barrueco, guitar; José Staneck, harmonica; São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.
Peter Greve: The Palace of the Dreamking; Partita for 11 Brass Instruments; Give Us Peace—Invocation for Organ and Mixed Choir; Trio for Clarinet, Violoncello and Piano; Magic Winter—Arctic Saga; Aria pour Trompette et Orgue. Navona. $14.99.
Paul Reale: American Elegy; Hextet; Caldera with Ice Cave—Piano Concerto No. 3; Dancer’s Dream; Concerto Grosso; American Elegy with Chimes. Lynn Philharmonia conducted by Guillermo Figueroa and Jon Robertson. MSR Classics. $12.95.
David Maslanka: O Earth, O Stars—Music for Flute, Cello & Wind Ensemble; Symphony No. 10—The River of Time. Western Illinois University Wind Ensemble conducted by Mike Fansler. Navona. $14.99.
Although it is impossible for a single CD containing 60 to 80 minutes of music to provide a full picture of any composer’s interests, concerns and overall production, some releases do make a concerted effort to showcase enough of an individual’s oeuvre to give listeners a pretty good sense of where a composer’s primary strengths and interests can be found. In the case of Eduard Strauss (1838-1916), this involves a kind of redress-the-balance approach, since “handsome Edi,” as the youngest of the three sons of Johann Strauss Sr. was called, was best-known for his work as a conductor and long thought to have produced music far inferior to that of his brothers, Johann Jr. and Josef. Only one work by Eduard is played fairly regularly nowadays, the Bahn Frei Polka, but it is so marvelously infectious that it seems logical for there to be other works by him of equal quality. And so there are, as it turns out on a new Marco Polo disc – the second the label has offered of Eduard’s music. What emerges here is a composer who thought most effectively in the three-minute range, whose polkas and galops were filled with verve and panache, even though his waltzes, despite being uniformly well-made, operate at a somewhat lower level of inspiration. Every one of Eduard’s short-form pieces, as played by the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis, is convincingly lively or sentimental (depending on its type) and worth hearing and rehearing, and even the titles are especially attractive: Flüchtiger als Wind und Welle (“More Fleeting Than Wind and Wave”), Flottes Leben (“Fast Living”), Froh durch die ganze Welt! (“Merrily Around the World!”), Schmeichelkätzchen (“Little Flatterer”), Flott! (“Snappy and Stylish!”), Witzblitz (“Flashes of Wit”), O schöne Jugendzeit! (“O Beautiful Days of Youth!”), and Sprühfeuer (“Sparkling Fire”). Whether in fast-polka, polka-mazurka or polka Française form, these pieces show Eduard to have a masterful sense of themes, rhythms and orchestration – and with any luck, more works such as these will find their way into Strauss-themed concerts over time. The waltzes, on the other hand, are serviceable and often elegant, but they lack the developmental cleverness of those by Josef and the symphonic style of those by Johann Jr. For dancing, they are more than fine, but as concert pieces, they do pale beside those of Eduard’s brothers. The ones here are Aus der Studienzeit, Freie Gedanken, Bemooste Häupter, Lebende Blumen, Akademische Bürger, Jubelfanfaren, and Heimische Klänge. All get highly satisfying performances, but it is the shorter dance pieces that provide a real showcase for the talents of this under-appreciated member of the Strauss family.
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is best known for his Bachianas Brasileiras, but his talents went well beyond those works, as a new Naxos CD featuring the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra under Giancarlo Guerrero clearly shows. The two concertos here date to late in the composer’s life, the one for guitar to 1951 and that for harmonica to 1955. The guitar concerto, the last piece that Villa-Lobos wrote for this instrument, was composed for Andrés Segovia and is well-known to guitarists – if less so to the general public. Villa-Lobos had a longstanding interest in the guitar, and tried in this concerto – mostly successfully – to find a way to allow the inherent delicacy of the instrument to stand out from an ensemble. Using a string orchestra rather than a full one was part of this; another element was the creation of a rather freewheeling score – Villa-Lobos in fact originally called it a Fantasia Concertante. The work sounds assured, clear and effective here, fully deserving of the respect that it has among guitarists (including Segovia, who gave the first performance – with Villa-Lobos as conductor). The harmonica concerto is much less familiar and quite interesting to hear. Commissioned by John Sebastian, a noted harmonica virtuoso of his time, this work also shows Villa-Lobos’ care in balancing a solo instrument against an orchestra – a full one this time, making matters more complicated. The composer’s solution here often involves having the soloist and ensemble play the same material separately rather than in anything approaching a competitive manner – for instance, the second movement’s theme is first performed by strings and winds, then by the harmonica with only a modest string accompaniment. The concerto is appealing in itself and is also indicative of Villa-Lobos’ interest in musical coloration and balance. In addition to the concertos, this CD offers two chamber works, one late and one early, at least in conception. Quinteto Instrumental dates to 1957 and is written for flute (Cláudia Nascimento), harp (Suélem Sampaio), violin (Adrían Petrutiu), viola (Ederson Fernandes), and cello (Adriana Holtz). It shows effective use of an instrumental combination often favored by 20th-century French composers: the work was commissioned by a French ensemble. The first two movements are meandering and rather pastoral, the finale more intense but always somewhat restrained. The work contrasts interestingly with Sexteto Místico, which dates to 1917 and was certainly conceived then – but not published until 1957, and perhaps not put into its final form until the 1950s. Here the instruments include flute (Nascimento), oboe (Layla Köhler), alto saxophone (Douglas Braga), guitar (Fábio Zanon), celesta (Rogério Zaghi), and harp (Sampaio) – an unusual combination whose coloristic possibilities Villa-Lobos clearly found intriguing. The composer combines the instruments’ sounds in unusual ways, for example by having a theme carried by oboe, flute and saxophone while the strings only provide background. Delicacy and placidity are the main emotional colorations of this work, whose unusual scoring is its most-attractive element – showing, as do all the pieces on this CD, the extent to which Villa-Lobos was interested in exploring the sound both of individual instruments and of groupings of them.
Some less-known composers also engage in effective sonic explorations, as Peter Greve does when illuminating specific scenes and rethinking a variety of forms on a new Navona CD. Greve himself conducts the New Europe Symphony Orchestra in The Palace of the Dreamking, which illustrates a scenario from a book by Dutch author Henriëtte van Eyk. What is interesting about this music is that it tells a story effectively whether or not a listener knows the specific story it is designed to communicate: the music breaks down clearly into sections that have some sort of illustrative purpose, using dissonance and drama, rhythmic changes, lyricism, and other techniques to pull listeners into Greve’s sound world. Simply hearing this work – which is in nine continuous sections but lasts a total of only a bit more than 11 minutes – is satisfying enough so listeners may want to find out what Greve is illustrating. That is the mark of effective musical scene-setting. Partita for 11 Brass Instruments, played by the Zagreb Festival Orchestra Brass Ensemble under Ivan Josip Skender, is not a traditional partita but a short three-section work whose middle segment is said to be “looking back to Giovanni Gabrieli” but can, again, be enjoyed simply for the sonorities of the instruments and the clever ways in which Greve interweaves the sounds. The final section zips by in less than a minute and caps the piece effectively. These two instrumental works contrast strongly with Give Us Peace, which Greve calls an “invocation for organ and mixed choir” and which is performed by organist Karel Martínek and the Kühn Mixed Choir conducted by Marek Vorlíček. This is a work in seven short movements, with an organ-solo introduction and a series of vocal elements that descend into “Devastation” and “Despair” before ending with “Reconciliation.” The text draws on multiple religions’ pleas for peace and uses the organ to especially fine effect for “Devastation” as well as in its more-traditional calming mode. Next on the CD is Greve’s Trio for Clarinet, Violoncello and Piano (played, respectively, by Yhasmin Valenzuela, Leo Eguchi, and Karolina Rojahn). This is an in memoriam work that, like Greve’s other music on this disc, does not go according to expectations. Instead of being deeply sad, it is wistful and lyrical, quiet and thoughtful, with the second of its three movements being the most mournful and contrasting with a surprisingly upbeat, dancelike finale that has some of the positive effect of a wake (in contrast to a funeral). After this comes Magic Winter, here played in a string-orchestra version by the Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore. This is another three-movement work and, like The Palace of the Dreamking, a piece that reflects a specific scenario – in this case, trolls from Scandinavian folklore as they live through the long and deep Arctic chill. This work too is impressively evocative even for listeners who have no idea what it is supposed to be about. The first movement’s contrasts are clear and dramatic, the second movement’s mood of dullness bordering on despair comes through with dismal certainty, and the upbeat finale – which also contains its share of drama, representing the difficulty that springtime has in throwing off the Arctic winter – is a satisfying conclusion even for listeners for whom its specific illustrative purpose is unknown. The disc concludes with Aria pour Trompette et Orgue (played by, respectively, Ondřej Jurčeka and Martínek). This is a tribute to Francis Poulenc that is supposed to reflect Poulenc’s self-description as “half-rascal, half-monk.” It is the one work on the disc that is significantly more effective if its provenance is known and appreciated, since it sounds a bit Poulenc-ish (although there are no direct quotations in it) and the specific nature of the contrast between its two sections is clearer if the Poulenc relationship is known and appreciated. Nevertheless, this piece can be enjoyed simply by listening to the combined and contrasted sonorities of the two instruments and the music’s ever-changing dynamics and tempos. Greve’s communicative skill shines through in all these disparate works, and the CD as a whole offers an interesting portrait of a contemporary composer skilled both in composition and in connecting with an audience.
Not all composers’ explorations come across as effectively as do those of Villa-Lobos and Greve. A (+++) CD from MSR Classics offers six works by Paul Reale (born 1943) that spring from very different inspirations but are not, collectively, especially inspirational. Sometimes Reale makes his sources quite clear: American Elegy (2008), which opens the disc in a version for strings and closes it in one for strings and rather unnecessary (and somewhat intrusive) chimes, is intended to pay homage to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings; but it has little in common musically with that work or with Barber in general. It also does not sound especially American. Elsewhere, Reale says he was inspired by composers including Ravel and Mahler, but without knowing that, listeners will more likely hear some rather warmed-over Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Britten. With the exception of Dancer’s Dream (2018), a nicely paced work with a degree of warmth, the music here, even including the opening-and-closing elegy, seems studied and fairly cold. Somewhat strangely, Reale’s rather angular style is toned down for the one work here that it would seem to fit best: Hextet (2017), whose three movements are supposed to reflect elements of Halloween and horror movies. The titles do just that: Tarantella, Zombies and Walpurgisnacht. But the music itself is not particularly cinematic and, for that matter, not especially chilling – it is, on the whole, rather too gentle to be thematically convincing. The longest work on the disc, a piano concerto (with Christopher Guzman on piano) called Caldera with Ice Cave (2002/2012), also has a specific inspiration, and an imposing one – but the music itself is not very reflective of that inspiration and, indeed, not very impressive in the way that, say, Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica is when it comes to matters of ice. This is more a work with piano obbligato than a full-fledged concerto – pleasant enough, but not particularly distinguished. More interesting is Concerto Grosso (2015), which features Yordan Tenev, violin; Daniel Moore, viola; Sonya Nanos, cello; and Guzman, piano. It is a well-made work and more tightly knit than the piano concerto, and is fairly effective musically – although less so in the representational sense in which Reale created it. As a portrait or partial portrait of Reale, this CD shows a composer who, although he is comfortable writing for a variety of instruments, tends to get somewhat bogged down in trying to communicate specific thoughts or scenes in individual pieces.
There are only two pieces on a new (+++) Navona CD devoted to music of David Maslanka (1943-2017), but the works are sufficiently different so that they show distinct sides of the composer, if not necessarily the totality of his communicative abilities. O Earth, O Stars—Music for Flute, Cello & Wind Ensemble features John McMurtery on flute and Moisés Molina on cello, in a broadly conceived six-movement work whose foundation lies in a whole host of material both musical (Bach’s Jesu, meine Freude, and other pieces) and extramusical (sources as different as Carl Jung, A.A. Milne, Buddhism, and the Latin Mass). The work opens and closes with movements designated Chorale, and its four middle movements all have evocative or programmatic titles: You Are the Image of the Unending World, Sanctus, Dragons and Devils of the Heart, and O Earth, O Stars. Maslanka says the piece does not actually require programmatic understanding to be effective, but the specificity of the titles and the clear religious connotations of Chorale and Sanctus make it difficult to hear the work without striving to figure out what it means or is trying to say. It does not come across as a true double concerto: the solo instruments participate with the wind ensemble but by and large are not out in front, with percussion often more prominent than flute or cello or both combined. The tone painting is often formulaic, for instance in the early part of Sanctus before a pleasant flute solo alters the mood. This can work rather well – Dragons and Devils of the Heart is suitably draconian and devilish, functioning essentially as a scherzo – but the portions of the work that are intended to evoke grandeur and emotional commitment are its least convincing ones, as if the music is trying a bit too hard to convey philosophical depth. The piece is pleasant enough and features some attractive wind sonorities, but is not as trenchant or meaningful as Maslanka apparently wants it to be. Symphony No. 10—The River of Time was unfinished at Maslanka’s death – he finished the first movement and half of the second – and was completed by his son, Matthew. This is an extremely personal work, and not just because it was begun during David Maslanka’s life and finished after his death. Among other things, the first movement deals with the fatal illness of the composer’s wife, Alison, and the third – almost entirely created by Matthew Maslanka – focuses on the deaths of both Alison and David. The work progresses through a not-uncommon trajectory, from rage (tenderly mediated by love) through attempted acceptance, and thence to actual acceptance and the ability to survive loss. There is power in the symphony, and beauty, but it is a very difficult work to hear without knowing and responding to its most-personal elements – for instance, the second movement contains much of a movement from a euphonium sonata that David wrote for Matthew, and Matthew then uses the euphonium in a crucial way in the third movement. Taken simply as a listening experience, the symphony is episodic and structurally unfocused: what pulls it together is its experiential basis, not its musical elements. It is a lovely tribute by Matthew to his parents, and a highly personal one: hearing it almost feels like intruding on a private family matter. Yet the work’s effectiveness is so tightly bound up with knowing how it came into being, and why it was made the way it was, that it ultimately falls a bit short of being a shared experience with listeners who are not Maslanka family members or friends. It is certainly heartfelt, but its heart is in one very specific place.