April 16, 2020
Haydn: Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra in F; Hummel: Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra in G. Solomiya Ivakhiv, violin; Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Theodore Kuchar. Centaur. $18.99.
Il Tigrane: Arias from Operas by Hasse, Vivaldi and Gluck. Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano; Kaunas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $14.98.
James Lentini: Sinfonia di Festa (1996); Through Time and Place—Symphony No. 1 (2010); Three Sacred Meditations (2000); The Angel’s Journey (1998); Dreamscape (1994). Navona. $14.99.
Although exceptionally well-known as a symphonist, Haydn is much less familiar as a creator of concertos – which, in truth, were not his primary area of expertise, partially because he was not himself a virtuoso performer. Very few of Haydn’s concertos are heard with any regularity, and certainly his double concerto for violin and piano is even less common than others. That is a real shame, as Solomiya Ivakhiv and Antonio Pompa-Baldi show on a very fine new Centaur CD on which they are accompanied and very ably backed up by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra under Theodore Kuchar. Full appreciation of a concerto such as this one by Haydn requires turning back one’s mental clock a bit, to a time when virtuoso display for its own sake was not the aim of concertos – the idea was something closer to the Baroque notion of primus inter pares, the soloists being first among equals but never placed in competition with or opposition to the ensemble. Like Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, the Haydn dual-instrument concerto is a study in balance: between the two solo instruments and between the soloists and orchestra. It is this characteristic that Ivakhiv and Pompa-Baldi bring out especially clearly in their performance, thanks to the pianist’s willingness to hold back the power of his modern piano, for which this music is not intended. It would be all too easy for the keyboard instrument to overwhelm the violin, but both soloists are at pains to prevent this. The result is an easygoing and altogether pleasant reading of an unassuming and very charming work. Charm abounds in Hummel’s violin-and-piano concerto as well, in a structure that is more Mozartean than Haydnesque. Hummel’s work is more than 50% longer than Haydn’s, although still in the traditional three movements. It is a gallant work, not in the galant style but exuding elegance, poise and balance throughout. Hummel was a famous pianist (and, for a time, Beethoven’s rival in performance), and the instrumental balance of the concerto tends somewhat to favor the keyboard, but not to an inordinate degree. Hummel was an absolute master of careful construction and was highly sensitive to the way his works would sound to an audience – one of the variations making up the middle movement of this concerto, in which horns feature to as great an extent as the solo instruments, shows this clearly. Hummel’s mastery of form and unwillingness to delve deeply into emotions tend to make him under-appreciated as a composer, but hearing a work such as this double concerto without preconceptions about how a concerto “should” sound allows the exceptional qualities of the music to come through clearly: it is, very simply, a delightful listening experience, not so much superficial as designed to please rather than to engage deeper feelings. It would have been nice if Centaur had deigned to provide information on the Haydn and Hummel concertos: the entire brief booklet is solely about Ivakhiv, Pompa-Baldi and Kuchar, and is little more than a listing of the various awards each has won and the venues in which each has performed. That is useless information for listeners who do not know the music, as will usually be the case with unfamiliar works like these. The celebrities here should be Haydn and Hummel, not the people who present their compositions.
Opera-excerpt recitals tend to exist as much to showcase performers as the music they perform, but there is actually a better balance than usual between composers and singer on a new Delos CD featuring soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and the Kaunas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian. The reason is that this is not a disc filled with well-known arias, but one focusing on three different operas called La Tigrane, all from the 18th century and all telling the same story of King Tigranes II of Armenia and his eventual consort, Cleopatra of Pontus (not to be confused with Cleopatra of Egypt). Fascinatingly, all three operas use the same libretto by Abate Francesco Silvani (1660-1728), so the CD offers a chance to hear the different ways in which the same basic material is highlighted by Vivaldi (whose work, actually the second act of a multi-composer three-act opera, dates to 1724) and two composers whose music on this CD has never been recorded before: Gluck (whose Il Tigrane is from 1743) and Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783), whose version is from 1729. Of course, the words of the arias are not identical, but the emotions underlying them pretty much are, so this recital lets Bayrakdarian – a fine vocal actress as well as a skilled singer – hold forth with similar feelings through music that is always recognizably mid-18th-century but sounds quite different in ways reflecting each composer’s vocal and instrumental predilections. Gluck, for example, uses two oboes and two horns in addition to the strings and continuo called for by Hasse and Vivaldi, resulting in more richness to the sound of his material. The greatest amount of music here is by Hasse, including eight vocal excerpts plus his opera’s overture. Hasse was a prolific opera composer and was himself a singer (a tenor), and his familiarity with the stage and with vocal ranges shows clearly here: whether in accompanied recitatives or the strongly emotional arias to which they lead, everything lies well within the compass of the singer’s voice while at the same time displaying her vocal abilities to very fine effect. Instrumental introductions are also handled very skillfully, with the one to Che gran pena, from the finale to Act I, being particularly noteworthy. The four Vivaldi excerpts on the CD reveal a high level of skill in blending voice and instruments, and a willingness to offer vocal display even in the midst of declamatory recitatives, as in Squarciami pure il seno. Gluck is represented here by just three excerpts, all of which are more forward-looking both emotionally and instrumentally than the pieces by Hasse and Vivaldi. Priva del caro bene, from Act II, has an especially warm instrumental introduction and emotionally effective delivery. This disc is a considerable treat for opera fans, thanks to its very fine performances of music that is rarely heard – and to the way the CD shows just how distinctively composers of the same time period have handled similar, even nearly identical, works for the stage.
Some of James Lentini’s music on a new Navona CD is also vocal, while some is expressive in other ways – reflecting not only the different purposes of the five works on the disc but also the different times at which they were written. This (+++) CD will primarily be of interest to listeners who are already familiar with the music of Lentini (born 1958) and would like to hear the different ways he constructed pieces over the 16-year period in which these works were composed (the recordings were made between 1994 and 2012). Three Sacred Meditations is the vocal work here, featuring soprano Diana Lentini and the Wayne State University Symphonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Norah Duncan IV. The three pieces use texts from John 14:27, Psalms 51:10 and Proverbs 3:1-6, respectively, communicating their messages emphatically, sometimes a touch too much so (“Renew a right spirit within me” comes across as a demand, not a plea, in the second piece). The works are effective although not, in the main, especially inward-looking: they move forward with greater intensity than one would expect of meditative works. Quieter and more intimate is The Angel’s Journey, performed by the Wayne State University Wind Symphony under Douglas Bianchi. At times eruptive with percussion, at others flowing with gentleness, this nonvocal work reaches out toward a feeling of peacefulness that it never quite attains, even though a final percussive blast clears the way for a quiet conclusion. Lentini’s predilection for percussion fits better into the celebratory Sinfonia di Festa, which makes a pretty good curtain raiser (it is heard first on the CD) and includes some unexpected instrumental touches for a work of this type, such as a bit of a violin solo and some soulful expressiveness before the work builds to a suitably rousing finale. The performance here is by the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Iannacone. Yet another ensemble, the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ricardo Averbach, performs Lentini’s two-movement Through Time and Place—Symphony No. 1, which starts with “Reflection” and proceeds to “A New Destiny.” The first movement has some of the feeling of an extended chorale, while the second has a propulsive opening and overall bright feeling, and makes considerable use of percussion, of which Lentini is quite obviously fond. The last work on the disc, Dreamscape, is somewhat different in character from the others, with an ebb and flow both in the instrumental combinations and in the pacing. Jerzy Swoboda leads the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra in this piece, which brings to an end a recording that provides an extended opportunity to hear Lentini’s skill in orchestration, his propensity for contrasts both of instrumentation and of rhythm and tempo, and his skillful blending of tonal and dissonant material.