January 14, 2021


The Little Tin Box: A Collection of Childhood Memories. The 5 Browns. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Vivaldi: Argippo. Emőke Baráth and Marie Lys, sopranos; Delphine Galou and Marianna Pizzolato, contraltos; Luigi De Donato, bass; Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi. Naïve. $20.99 (2 CDs).

     Thematically related but somewhat thrown-together musical programs can be a lot of fun to listen to, provided that the audience finds their overall themes congenial. The Little Tin Box is a highly personal presentation by the 5 Browns (Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan) of music remembered from childhood and, in the case of these top-quality pianists, likely performed then: each of the five started studying piano at the age of three. The memories are sanitized, with the Steinway & Sons release calling them “a reclaiming of [childhood’s] sweetness and beauty” involving “finding greater meaning in the light by having survived the dark.” The three female siblings were sexually abused by their father for nearly a decade, so their assertion of positive childhood memories through this music has something that is more than a touch plaintive about it. However, the music itself has little in it that is bittersweet: most of it is familiar encore-like material, either written for solo piano and arranged for the 5 Browns or created for orchestra and heard here in piano arrangements. It is not necessary to know the “through darkness to light” undercurrent of the CD in order to enjoy it – indeed, it may help not to know it, since the music is mostly plain and simple and is played expertly and without apparent chiaroscuro. The 5 Browns are heard individually as well as in two-piano and five-piano arrangements. The works include Smetana’s Vltava (Die Moldau); Grieg’s Anitra’s Dance from Peer Gynt; Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca from the K. 331 solo sonata and Allegro con spirito from the two-piano sonata K. 448; Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum from Debussy’s Children’s Corner; Emile Waldteufel’s Skater’s Waltz; the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5; The Current, a work written and played by Ryan Brown; Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses from the second book of pièces de clavecin; five of the 13 Kinderszenen by Schumann; and a delightful (but, in context, somewhat odd) improvisation by Desirae’s six-year-old daughter, Poppy Luch, called I Wish I Could Turn Back into a Kid. The pleasant pastiche feeling of the recording makes specific comments on its contents somewhat irrelevant. The flowing-water material in the Smetana may not sound particularly convincing when heard on five pianos; the very slow start to Rondo alla Turca and the jazzy improvisations within it are scarcely Mozartean (although the movement from the two-piano sonata is first-rate); Beethoven’s Fifth is delivered with high drama and contrasts nicely with the comparative calm of The Current immediately afterwards; Schumann’s Bittendes Kind (“Pleading Child”) takes on unintended darkness in this context, and the simple beauty of Träumerei (“Dreaming”) comes with more seriousness than the music itself holds; and it is hard to know how to respond to the concluding I Wish I Could Turn Back into a Kid – Poppy’s voice, introducing it, is full of enthusiasm; the music itself is scarcely significant except in context; and the underlying sentiment, again in context, is a trifle puzzling. The title The Little Tin Box speaks to the concept of opening a tinkly little music box and hearing whatever melodies may emerge from it – a sweet notion, and one that fits this mishmash of a musical mixture well enough. The disc, for those who can hear it strictly on the surface level with which the music is delivered, is quite enjoyable. For those who, knowing something of the family history of the 5 Browns, cannot hear it that way, the CD is jarring in ways that neither the composers nor the performers could have intended.

     Pastiche was actually a musical form of its own for a time: it was a common and respected approach to opera in Vivaldi’s era, and a form that Vivaldi himself used. To create pasticcio, an impresario/composer would assemble material from multiple composers, write some connective-tissue music, work from a libretto that could itself have elements of hodgepodge about it, and have the resulting assemblage performed by itinerant opera companies. This is how Vivaldi’s pasticcio opera Argippo (1730) was offered in productions in Vienna and Prague. The original version of the opera is lost, which makes the work fit rather uneasily into Naïve’s long-running and always excellent Vivaldi Edition, which is designed as a set of presentations of Vivaldi music held at the National University Library of Turin. But awkward or not, the Vivaldi Edition has now made a version of Argippo available as the 64th entry in the two-decade-long series – the numbering itself being a trifle odd, since this two-CD set comes out later than the 65th release, Il Tamerlano, which itself has elements of pasticcio through its inclusion of arias by other composers: Geminiano Giacomelli, Johann Adolf Hasse and Riccardo Broschi. Argippo as heard in this recording is a critical edition prepared as recently as 2019 and including in its 19 arias music by Giovanni Battista Pescetti, Johann Adolph Hasse, Nicola Porpora, and others. Bernardo Ticci, who reconstructed the opera from manuscript material, has produced about as coherent a work as can be expected in a Vivaldi-era pasticcio or, for that matter, in some of Vivaldi’s own operas – which is to say, it is not very coherent at all. The libretto by Domenico Lalli overflows with the same elements heard in many operas of the time by Vivaldi and others: political and personal intrigues, family rivalries and conflicts, lovers’ passion and misunderstandings, and outsize emotions that overflow and are by and large over-the-top. This is the stuff of which opera, especially Italian opera, would consist for hundreds of years, so the improbability of Argippo is largely irrelevant to the quality of its music – much of which is very high-quality indeed. Among the high points are the always-reliable Delphine Galou singing an aria di furore in Act I, Se lento ancora il fulmine, and Marie Lys warmly presenting an Act III love tune, Vado a morir per te. Fabio Biondi directs the singers and the ensemble Europa Galante with skill and a determination to keep the music plowing bravely ahead even when the plot thickens or thins for little reason, as it does repeatedly. The result is a recording that will be of considerable interest to Vivaldi fans and to listeners interested in some of the byways of operatic history, even though Argippo is not, in and of itself, particularly noteworthy. It does, however, demonstrate that contemporaries of Vivaldi were as capable as he was of producing effective operatic material – and that Vivaldi could function with considerable skill as a musical assembler and theatrical producer, not just as a composer.

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