December 05, 2019


Eric Coates: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—The Merrymakers; The Jester at the Wedding; Dancing Nights; Ballad; Two Symphonic Rhapsodies; By the Sleepy Lagoon; London (London Everyday). BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $18.99.

Leó Weiner: Hungarian Folkdance Suite; Ildebrando Pizzetti: Rondò veneziano; Franz Schmidt: Intermezzo from “Notre Dame”; Giuseppe Martucci: Notturno; Nikolay Tcherepnin: La Princess Lointaine. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Beau Fleuve. $15.

Classical Gershwin: Solo Piano Arrangements of “Rhapsody in Blue,” Second Rhapsody, and Songs. Katie Mahan, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99 (CD + DVD).

Experimental Vocal Works, 1960-1990, by Giacinto Scelsi, John Cage, Sylvano Bussotti, Luciano Berio, Mauricio Kegel, Luigi Nono, Niccolò Castiglioni, and Morton Feldman. Sara Stowe, soprano, harpsichord, mandolin, and percussion. Métier. $17.

A Very Merry Christmas with the Dallas String Quartet. Eleanor Dunbar and Melissa Priller, violins; Ion Zanca, viola; Young Heo, bass; Anthony Plant, guitar; Efren Guzman, drums. DSQ Music. $12.99.

     It is fun, and sometimes genuinely rewarding, to wander outside the standard repertoire of classical music periodically, seeking small treasures that may have escaped notice for years or even centuries but turn out to be misplaced, if not completely forgotten, pleasantries. Chandos seems to be organizing a tour of sorts of this type of music by planning a set of discs of the music of Eric Coates (1886-1957), featuring the BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. A few of Coates’ pieces are very familiar, especially in Great Britain, where they have been used as “signature tunes” for various BBC productions for decades. But much of Coates’ music remains quite unknown on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is a fair bet – in light of the very skilled craftsmanship that Coates’ music always shows – that there will be some hidden gems uncovered as this series progresses. The first volume is an interesting compendium of very early works (Ballad, Op. 2, from 1904, an unassuming but nicely crafted piece for string orchestra) and ones that are quite well-known in at least some circles (The Merrymakers, an ebullient “miniature overture” from1922-23). The suite called London or London Everyday (1932) is a rousing gem with a thoughtful second movement – the whole three-movement work almost stands as Coates’ own “signature tune,” blending wonderful melodies with well-crafted harmonies and an overall feeling of upbeat “easy listening” that has enough solemnity of underlying purpose to be taken seriously. The most unusual work here, and the longest, is The Jester at the Wedding (1932), described as “suite from the ballet” but unusual precisely because of that description: there was no ballet, and Coates simply created this six-movement musical compendium as if a ballet had existed. The varied musical pieces within the suite certainly sound danceable, and they neatly put across both court music (marches), traditional ballet elements (waltzes), and hints here and there of melancholy (the story of the non-ballet has to do with a princess and jester who realize they love each other but that their love can never be, leading to a melancholy if scarcely tragic ending). The three remaining works on the CD explore varying moods: the Two Symphonic Rhapsodies (1933) are written on popular songs of their time that will scarcely be remembered today on either side of “the pond”; Dancing Nights (1931) is a pleasant if not especially distinguished “concert valse”; and By the Sleepy Lagoon (1930) is a more-interesting sort-of-waltz, described as a “valse-serenade,” which offers some pleasant feelings of nostalgia as it moves at a languorous pace. It is a longtime BBC theme and one of Coates’ best-known works, but other pieces on this very well-played disc are every bit as well-made, colorful and pleasant to hear. Coates wrote quite a bit of music in a variety of styles and for many purposes, so there is much to look forward to in further discs in this series.

     Coates’ music has been largely neglected because so much of it is perceived as “light,” but even music considered highly serious tends to fall by the wayside from time to time – until a conductor such as JoAnn Falletta rediscovers it. In addition to being a fine advocate of standard-repertoire works with the Buffalo Philharmonic and other orchestras, Falletta actively seeks out music that has very rarely been heard in recent years, for any one of a number of reasons. Five such pieces are now available on a CD titled “Forgotten Treasures,” on the Buffalo Philharmonic’s own Beau Fleuve label. The umbrella title is a bit misleading in both words, though, since not all these pieces have really been forgotten, and not all are treasures. Still, the live performances here, from 2013 through 2018, surely gave audiences opportunities to hear works that are worthy of at least occasional revival – even if they are not must-hear material. The intermezzo from the opera Notre Dame by Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) is the one piece on the disc that has not really been forgotten: this five-minute work has been popular since the opera’s first performance in 1914. It mixes a sense of hope with intimations of the tragic conclusion of a work based on Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, and there are some Gypsy elements that are intended to reflect the central character of Esmeralda. There are similar elements, indeed many more of them, in the Hungarian Folkdance Suite by Leó Weiner (1885-1960). This is an extended four-movement work with fine instrumental touches in brass and winds, strongly accented rhythms, but substantially less joie de vivre than Hungarian-themed works by Liszt, which Weiner to some degree emulates. The other extended work on this CD is Rondò veneziano by Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), which is not the sort of bright, variation-like piece that one might expect from a rondo but is instead an extended – indeed, overextended – bit of Impressionism. It meanders slowly through a series of tunes intended to portray elements of Venetian life, but it makes the whole city seem somewhat less enthralling than visitors have traditionally found it to be. The other two works on this disc are much shorter and fare much better. Notturno by Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909) is, with Schmidt’s piece, the music here most deserving of revival. It is a beautifully scored, moving little tone poem – the first of two nocturnes from his Op. 70 – whose warmth and uncloying sweetness are very impressive indeed. Not quite at this level, but still quite interesting, is La Princess Lointaine by Nikolay Tcherepnin (1873-1945), a prelude to a play about a troubadour’s love for a distant princess he has never met, his journey to find her, and his eventual death in her arms. The tone painting is effective as a curtain-raiser, but the work, suitably for a prelude but less so for a concert piece, omits any of the drama of the play for which it was written – resulting in a less-than-compelling piece. Still, it is worth an occasional hearing, and Falletta’s willingness to continue seeking out and performing music of the type on this CD is a particularly gratifying element of her personal style.

     Some performers are so determined to explore byways that they create their own. That is what pianist Katie Mahan does on a (+++) Steinway & Sons CD featuring arrangements of music by George Gershwin. This is certainly not a disc for Gershwin purists, although it is one that showcases Mahan’s pianistic abilities to good effect. The disc is bracketed by Mahan’s arrangements for solo piano of Rhapsody in Blue and Second Rhapsody, the first of those being hyper-familiar and the second much less known and still a source of contention in terms of Gershwin’s plans for it (the alternative title, Rhapsody in Rivets, gives a better sense of what the composer was after). Between the arrangements of the rhapsodies are seven for solo piano, by Mahan or Earl Wild, of Gershwin songs: Embraceable You, Our Love Is Here to Stay, I Got Rhythm, They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Walking the Dog, Fascinating Rhythm, and a blend of ’s Wonderful and Funny Face. All Mahan’s arrangements are skillfully done and all focus very much on the pianist (Wild’s tend to hew somewhat more closely to Gershwin’s original style) – and Mahan plays everything with marvelous panache. Her enthusiasm for I Got Rhythm and Fascinating Rhythm,  and the blend of two numbers from Funny Face, is especially infectious. And she plays the two rhapsodies very skillfully indeed – and is interesting to watch on the included bonus-DVD video of Rhapsody in Blue. The issue with this disc, though, it that it comes across as a tribute to Mahan, not to Gershwin: there is a certain showing-off in taking pieces as skillfully orchestrated as the rhapsodies and arranging them for piano alone, and turning so many songs into concert vignettes showcasing the skill of the performer. To be sure, variations on popular songs are a centuries-long mainstay of pianism, and in fact it would be fascinating to hear Mahan offer something along those lines: what sorts of variations might she create by starting with a piece such as Embraceable You? But that is not what Mahan does here: she simply takes Gershwin’s original songs and makes them into attractive little encore-ish pieces for herself. And the rhapsodies, for all the fine playing Mahan brings to them, always sound as if they have something missing (even though what is missing in Second Rhapsody remains a matter of dispute). This is a first-rate disc for fans of Mahan and for anyone who wants to hear some very familiar tunes (and a few that are perhaps less familiar) performed with aplomb by a fine artist. But it is not the sort of disc that invites repeated listening: Gershwin’s original material reveals something new each time it is heard, while Mahan’s handling of it simply shows once again how good a pianist she is.

     For listeners who want to get really far into musical byways, there are discs that explore music whose experimental nature practically guaranteed its obscurity from the beginning of its existence. The works on a new (+++) Métier CD featuring Sara Stowe certainly qualify. These 11 pieces by eight contemporary composers who intended, again and again, to push the boundaries of music and of audience’s ears farther and farther out, are not for the faint of heart or for anyone unwilling to suspend disbelief in what music really is or can be. All the works are vocal, some for solo singer – but some require instruments in addition to the human voice, and Stowe supplies them all (she studied harpsichord and piano before becoming a professional soprano). One work, the longest on the disc, uses tape: La Fabbrica illuminata by Luigi Nono. The mixture of voice with background noise, experimental in its time, sounds dated now, and there is nothing in this piece to justify listening to it for 16-and-a-half minutes. At half that length, Sylvano Bussotti’s Lachrimae per ogni voce uses the voice itself to create a multiplicity of sounds, with Stowe speaking, shouting, declaiming, and otherwise doing pretty much everything vocal except singing. Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III is, like Bussotti’s work, in the eight-minute range, its primary feature being the alternating sections of fast vocal delivery with periodic single-syllable emissions. The most intriguingly titled work here is Mauricio Kegel’s Recitativerie for Singing Harpsichordist, but the piece itself tends to sound like a strangulation in progress; in contrast, John Cage’s Sonnekus, which at six minutes is about the same length as Kegel’s work, seems almost traditional in the comparative intelligibility of the enunciated syllables. The remaining pieces on the CD are shorter. Così Parlò Baldassare by Niccolò Castiglioni has the now-dated sound of a work written to display alternate forms of syllabification. Morton Feldman’s Only is the shortest work on the disc, lasting less than 90 seconds, but has an outsized effect because the spoken words – which are said rhythmically but not sung – are intelligible and actually communicate some thoughts. The four remaining pieces here are brief ones by Giacinto Scelsi: Taiagaru No. 4, another work in which syllables rather than words are the vocal point and focal point; Canto del Capricorno No. 8, which uses the voice for purposes of aural pointillism; Ogloudoglou, which treats the voice percussively and incorporates some actual percussion; and CKCKC, in which the strumming of a mandolin alternates with a spate of vocal sounds. The disc as a whole is in part a slice of musical history, in part a look at techniques that seemed groundbreaking more than half a century ago but now seem rather passé, and in part an opportunity for listeners interested in contemporary or near-contemporary composers to hear works that are infrequently performed even by the standards of modern experimental music. Nothing here particularly invites repeated listening, but for those who know these composers and what they were trying to do in decades past, the disc will be worth at least a cursory hearing.

     And what could possibly be considered experimental in a CD containing nothing but familiar Christmas tunes? The arrangements, that’s what. The Dallas String Quartet’s self-released (+++) Christmas CD makes this apparently the only quartet with six members – and the guitar and drums are as crucial to the effects and effectiveness of the disc as are the strings. Like seasonal releases in general, this one outwears its welcome fairly quickly and is unlikely to garner much attention from listeners after the Christmas season – at least until the next winter holidays come along. But within its very limited purview, the disc is fun, simply because no one involved with it seems to take the whole project very seriously. Yes, yes, the music itself is played very well and with a high level of professionalism. But the drum solo and jingle bells that open Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the beat that makes the tune sound a bit like something out of a James Bond movie, are typical of the off-the-beaten-track (if not exactly offbeat in a musical sense) arrangements here. This is about as un-Tchaikovskian Tchaikovsky as can be imagined, and as un-delicate an arrangement of this dainty music as anyone has created. This is not the only time the performers like to open with drums and something jangly: they do it as well with Sleigh Ride, for example, although here the basic tune is far more recognizable, if equally dressed (or overdressed) in pop-rock-jazz garb. The players are certainly capable of a degree of pleasurable sensitivity from time to time, as in the genuinely pretty opening of O Holy Night (before the arrangement becomes rather too raucous) and the nicely paced and comparatively understated Mary, Did You Know? All 10 of the basic tunes here are entirely familiar, including It’s the Most Wonderful Night of the Year, My Favorite Things, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, The Christmas Song, Carol of the Bells, and It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas; but they are not always readily recognizable, which is at least part of the point. And the CD is quite short, running only 35 minutes. So if its attraction lies neither in the musical selections per se nor in the quantity of Christmas cheer on offer, it must be intended to lie in the arrangements – and it does, for anyone who is tired of the traditional “takes” on these well-known works and longs for something quite different. In fact, A Very Merry Christmas with the Dallas String Quartet offers a salutary antidote to the more treacly forms of Christmas music that tend to proliferate starting around Halloween. However, it must be said in all fairness that after hearing this disc a couple of times, or even once, many listeners will be only too glad to get back to a dose of the quieter and more-straightforward versions of these familiar holiday tunes. This disc is bracing, like stepping outside into frigid air without a coat after finding the heat indoors enervating. But after a little while, most people will likely opt for a return to greater warmth.

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