June 25, 2020
(++++) CULTURAL INCLINATIONS
Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—Symphony No. 3; Šarka—Overture; Bouře (The Tempest)—Act III Overture; Nevěsta messinská (The Bride of Messina)—Act III Funeral March. Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $11.99.
Music for Cello and Piano by Composers of African Descent. Duo Dolce (Kristen Yeon-Ji Yun, cello; Phoenix Park-Kim, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Although it is certainly possible to listen to the music of Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov because it is deeply Russian, to that of Ives or Copland because it is deeply American, or to that of Dvořák or Smetana or Janáček because it is deeply Czech, it is fair to say that this is not the primary reason most people hear and enjoy these composers’ works. Instead, it is because their creations partake of their respective cultures while also transcending them that the works reach out to a wide audience rather than one listening out of a sense of obligatory patriotism or social/political “correctness” of some sort. Even composers who draw deeply on their heritage without being quite as brilliant in turning it into something with wider appeal may create works that effectively incorporate national (or nationalistic) material into pieces that listeners can enjoy, and that can evoke audiences’ emotions, without requiring people to be deeply “in tune” with the music’s roots. This is the situation with Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900), the fifth volume of whose orchestral music has finally been released by Naxos after a five-and-a-half-year gap since the prior release. This concluding CD, which features top-notch and highly idiomatic playing by the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava conducted by Marek Štilec, offers a particularly interesting mixture of material that is redolent of Czech atmosphere and music that pays homage to its ethnic roots but goes well beyond them. Fibich’s third and final symphony has some strongly Czech elements, notably in its third movement (which is just the sort of Scherzo in which Dvořák also brought folklike material to the fore); but its overall impression is only incidentally one of Czech music. Instead, it comes across as a thoughtful and dark work (its home key is E minor) that claws its way somewhat laboriously to a positive resolution. Almost unrelieved intensity, starting with a movement labeled Allegro inquieto, is the chief characteristic here – there is not even a broad or expansive slow movement to relieve the headlong forward motion. Even the start of the Allegro maestoso finale retains the pervasive sense of gloom – but eventually, brighter (and definitely Czech-inflected) material pushes through, somewhat effortfully, and a struggle with the more portentous elements ensues. Brass chords closely resembling those bridging the last two movement of Smetana’s Má Vlast herald a conclusion in which positivity finally wins through to a triumphal major-key resolution.
The remaining works on the disc, all from operas, partake of Czech culture to varying degrees. Šarka is based on the same legend that inspired the third movement of Smetana’s Má Vlast, and this is definitely a folktale of Fibich’s and Smetana’s homeland. But Fibich, to a greater extent than Smetana, does his scene-setting on a broad canvas, emphasizing the tragic elements of the story in grand fashion and only introducing a degree of local coloration in the slower part of the overture, prior to its emphatically dark conclusion. Bouře (The Tempest) draws on an English source – Shakespeare’s play – and the overture to the third act conveys a suitable scene of sylvan placidity and overall gentleness, albeit with a few gestures, especially in the lower winds and strings, that could well be indicative of the strange supernatural beings found on Prospero’s island. The source for The Bride of Messina is German – the play is by Friedrich Schiller – and this is a somewhat overdone tragedy, redolent of revelations in the style of ancient Greek tragic plays. The plot involves two brothers who fall in love with the same woman, who turns out to be their long-lost sister – a revelation that results in both brothers’ death and fulfillment of a prophecy that their sister would be fatal to them both. There is nothing particularly Czech in the story or in Fibich’s handling of it, with the funeral march from the opera’s third act simply functioning as a highly effective mood-enhancer within a tale that is melodramatic in the extreme. Fibich’s music on this disc, and the four prior ones in this series, is very well-crafted, quite aptly structured for its various purposes, and amply flavored with Czech nationalism and feelings – without, however, ever sounding like mere patriotic assertion or a pure affirmation of the individuality of the Czech nation within what was, in Fibich’s time, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Assertion of provenance is, however, the point of a new (+++) MSR Classics CD featuring works by seven African-descended composers from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The dozen works here are of varying quality and varying levels of interest, but the disc’s focus seems to be less on the music than on the background of the composers – as if they deserve to be heard because of where they come from (or where their ancestors came from), not because of the music’s quality. This is unfortunate, since it implies that the music cannot stand worthily on its own. But it can – some of it, anyway. Four of the composers represented here are still living: Richard Thompson (born 1960), Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941), John Wineglass (born 1972), and Michael Abels (born 1962). The other three flourished in the 20th century, although one was born in the 19th: William Grant Still (1895-1978). Of the remaining two, Howard Swanson lived from 1907 to 1978, and Moses Hogan from 1957 to 2003. The CD is not presented chronologically, and while some of the works were written for cello and piano, others are arrangements; again, they appear in no particular order. Presumably Kristen Yeon-Ji Yun and Phoenix Park-Kim simply thought these pieces, in this sequence, would make a pleasing recital. The disc opens with two atmospheric works by Still, Summerland and Mother and Child, both of them slow-paced and moody. Next is Swanson’s four-movement Suite for Cello and Piano, the longest piece on the CD – and one whose mood cleaves rather closely to that of the two Still character pieces, although Swanson’s second movement, “Pantomime,” has a bit more brightness to it. Thompson’s Preludes Nos. 1 and 5 are for solo piano. No. 1 continues in the same vein already established on the disc, of mid-tempo, mostly quiet, mildly emotional music; No. 5 is somewhat more varied in mood and covers a bit more ground even though, at only two minutes, it is quite short. The next work here is Hailstork’s Theme and Variations on “Draw the Sacred Circle Closer,” a solo-cello piece whose African roots are clear from its title – but one whose structure and development are far more European than African, with Hailstork showing considerable command of the variation form and a fine ability to write cello music that lies well on the instrument and communicates effectively. This is followed by Wineglass’s Piano Suite No. 2, “Times of Solitude,” whose three movements are the slow and melancholy “A Midsummer Waltz,” the slow and atmospheric “The Journey,” and the slow and delicate “Distant Memories” – there are nice piano touches throughout, but the generally plodding pacing makes the work seem longer than its 10½ minutes. This is followed by four Hogan arrangements, for cello and piano, of spirituals: “Deep River,” “Let Us Break Bread Together,” “Give Me Jesus,” and “Were You There.” The music is performed with considerable feeling, and the warmth of the cello comes through very well, but by now, listeners may well have tired of the unremittingly slow-to-moderate pace of nearly all the works on the CD. The last piece on the disc, an arrangement of Abels’ Chris and Rose (the love theme from a film called Get Out), is more of the same: a fine opportunity for the performers to bring forth emotion (rather surface-level emotion in this specific case), but once again at a pace that implies there is never anything upbeat, bright, quick or light in music by composers with roots in Africa. In reality, that notion is nonsense: it is simply that the performers’ choice of these works by these composers leads to a recording that offers what is essentially 77 minutes of a single mood. Casting a wider net among the works of these composers, or including pieces by entirely different ones, would give a much better picture of the musical thinking of composers of African descent – and a much stronger reason to listen to this disc than the composers’ ethnicity and ancestry.