February 11, 2021


Rossini: Overtures arranged for Mandolin Quintet—“L’Italiana in Algeri,” “Il Viaggio a Reims,” “La Cenerentola,” “La Scala di Seta,” “Il Signor Bruschino,” “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” “Tancredi,” “La Gazza Ladra.” Quintetto a Plettro “Giuseppe Anedda” (Emanuele Buzi and Norberto Gonçalves da Cruz, mandolins; Valdimiro Buzi, mandola; Andrea Pace, guitar; Emiliano Piccolini, contrabass). Brilliant Classics. $9.99.

Lowell Liebermann: Gargoyles, Op. 29; Four Apparitions, Op. 17; Nocturne No. 10, Op. 99; Miloslav Kabeláč: Eight Preludes, Op. 30; Liszt: Totentanz; Schubert: Variations on a Theme of Anselm Hüttenbrenner; Busoni: Fantasia Contrappuntistica. Lowell Liebermann, piano. Steinway & Sons. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Visca L’Amor: Catalan Art Songs. Isaí Jess Muñoz, tenor; Oksana Glouchko, piano. Bridge Records. $14.99.

     Genuinely funny instrumental classical music is exceedingly rare. Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals certainly qualifies, along with Ibert’s Divertissement. If you know how works of the Classical era were constructed, Mozart’s Ein Musikalischer Spass is hilarious, but it is too esoteric for most people to find it highly amusing nowadays. And then there is Rossini, a master of extremely funny vocal music – Largo al factotum is pretty much a prototype – whose instrumental works are often almost evocative of laughter, but not quite. Until now, that is. The Rossini overtures arranged for mandolin quintet, played superbly by Quintetto a Plettro “Giuseppe Anedda” on a new Brilliant Records CD, are almost impossible to hear without laughing aloud. They are that silly, that ridiculous, that absurd, that absolutely hilarious – and yet they are quite true to Rossini’s spirit, and are arranged for the mandolin ensemble with high seriousness and considerable dedication to preserving the sound of the music and the balance of the original orchestral parts. These arrangements come across as comic in the extreme – and entirely in a good way. The seriousness of some overtures’ introductory material here sounds vastly overdone, almost tongue-in-cheek. The “Rossini crescendo” occurrences, in which repetitive material gets louder by the addition of new instruments, sound in this recording like an in-joke among musicians who have decided to let the whole audience chuckle with them. The elements that are borderline funny in the original orchestration, such as the use of bows to strike music stands in Il Signor Bruschino, cross over that border with enthusiasm here. The occasional forays into lyricism come across as snickers. The frequent abrupt contrasts between piano and forte simply seem silly. The music on this CD is exceptionally well-known, and that is a big part of the fun: because the works are so familiar, and so close to funny in their original form, listeners who know the music already will spend most of the hour-plus of this disc smiling when they are not laughing out loud. True, the performers are serious musicians, and the arrangements are done with considerable skill; also true, listeners who are not already highly conversant with the music probably will not find it exceptionally funny, although they will surely enjoy the sound of the material. And it is a trifle odd that the overture to Tancredi, the one serious opera represented here, is just as amusing as the openings of the other, comic works. Yet to call this disc an acquired taste is not quite right: it is an unusually seasoned version of music that will be especially delicious to listeners who have already acquired a taste for Rossini and, indeed, may have reached the point of over-familiarity with many of his overtures. It is very, very unlikely that even the most-devoted Rossini fans will know his overtures in the guise in which they appear here. For making this thrice-familiar music sound genuinely new as well as genuinely amusing, Quintetto a Plettro “Giuseppe Anedda” – and the arrangers who created the versions of the overtures heard here – deserve a tremendous amount of credit and applause.

     If the Rossini CD is a specialty item because of its unusual way of handling well-known music, then a new two-CD Steinway & Sons release featuring pianist/composer Lowell Liebermann is a specialty item for the way it handles music that is both familiar and less-known. This is one of those highly personalized releases that have become increasingly common as performers have sought to curate their own recitals in the hope that audiences will share their fascination with specific works presented in specific combinations. The approach is often too self-involved to reach out successfully, becoming a kind of musical navel-gazing. But when it works, it can provide considerable insight into the performer as well as the music on offer. And it works very well indeed in this case – thanks largely to the fact that Liebermann, himself a composer as well as a virtuoso pianist, has assembled pieces that work well in and of themselves, and also work well in the specific environment in which they are proffered here. The key to this is the inclusion of three works by Liebermann himself: Gargoyles to open the two-CD set, Four Apparitions in the middle, and Nocturne No. 10 as the final piece. Gargoyles (1989) clearly shows, in its four movements, Liebermann’s skill at tone-painting and grotesquerie, especially in the opening Presto and concluding Presto feroce. The suite’s sensibility and pianism place it firmly in the line of such masterly 19th-century pianist/composers as Liszt and Alkan. Four Apparitions (1985) shows in other ways how attracted Liebermann is to the offbeat and supernatural, with the music here more spooky and ethereal than overtly grotesque: some descriptive words in the tempo indications are fragile, misterioso and legatissimo. And Nocturne No. 10 (2007) combines elements of the two suites, being a night-picture with more dissonance than one would expect in a nocturne, but not so much as to produce a nightmarish effect. The three Liebermann works are in the Romantic tradition but exist well beyond it harmonically, and they blend and contrast well with four other pieces – three by well-known composers and one by the far-less-familiar Miloslav Kabeláč (1908-1979). A prominent Czech composer whose career was hamstrung by the Communist rule of his nation during his creative life, Kabeláč is best known for his eight symphonies and other orchestral music. But the Eight Preludes (1956) show him to be skillful in piano writing, in which he shares considerable thoughts and feelings with Liebermann: the individual pieces are of the same general length as those in Gargoyles and Four Apparitions, and they explore similarly evocative feelings and impressions – Ostinato, Meditation, Dreams, Chorale, Nocturne, Soaring, Aria, and Impetuosity. Liebermann plays them as if their worldview and his are closely matched – which, indeed, sounds as if it is the case. But Liebermann goes well beyond miniatures when presenting the three other works offered here. Liszt’s Totentanz (1864) gets the usual demonic fury and outstanding playing that it requires, but there is rhythmic subtlety and careful contrast of sections in Liebermann’s rendition that give the work an extra level of heft. Schubert’s Variations on a Theme of Anselm Hüttenbrenner (1817) uses a theme from a string quartet by Hüttenbrenner (1794-1868) that the composer himself made the basis of four variations – but that Schubert expands into 13. The rhythm of this theme, one long note and then two short ones, recalls that of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, and sensitivity to that rhythmic heritage is a key to what Schubert does and what a performer must do to present the piece effectively. Again, Liebermann rises to the occasion, showing here as in his own music how thoroughly he understands the role of rhythmic variation (and other forms of variation) in producing a well-constructed piece that satisfies both in concept and in performance. And then there is the longest piece on this release, by far: Busoni’s amazing Fantasia Contrappuntistica (1910), a vast homage to Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge that can take more than half an hour to play and that requires the pianist not only to show mastery of fugues (the work contains four of them) but also to handle the variation form with care and sensitivity (the work contains three variations). This is a vast canvas and something of a monster to perform, and can be difficult to keep cohesive, since the 12 parts in which it is written can easily seem like individual (if related) works. Liebermann’s demonstrated compositional and performance skill with the forms of suite and variations is put fully to the test here, and serves both the pianist and the music very well. The performance is grand, on the slow side without dragging, and requires Liebermann to delve into Busoni’s musical structure while remaining cognizant of the foundational elements of Bach underlying it. The piece is played with great élan and feels like the climax of this entire release – indeed, it is followed only by Liebermann’s own Nocturne, which comes across less as encore than as peroration. Liebermann gives this two-CD set the overarching title of “Personal Demons,” but it is more than an exploration of the demonic: it is a release that takes listeners through a virtuoso’s musical journey in which his own compositions reflect, build upon and expand – or at least explore – some fascinating works of earlier composers and composer/pianists.

     Even more of a specialty release than the Rossini and Liebermann discs, a new Bridge Records compilation of 20th-century and 21st-century Catalan art songs is so rarefied that the (+++) CD will appeal only to a small subset of music lovers. In and of themselves, classical songs have limited appeal, with a few exceptions here and there (some of Schubert’s, for example). But although the entire genre is a touch obscure, the aim of this recording is to delve into far greater obscurity by offering an entire CD of songs by Catalan composers with whom audiences are almost sure to be wholly unfamiliar: Eduard Toldrà (1895-1962), Ricard Lamote de Grignon I Ribas (1899-1962), Narcís Bonet (born 1933), Frederic Mompou Dencausse (1893-1987, the only slightly familiar name here, generally known simply as Frederic Mompou), Elisenda Fábregas (born 1955), and Joan Comellas (1913-2000). So if neither the genre nor the specific composers will likely reach out to many listeners, how will this recording find an audience? Song lovers in search of new experiences will be interested in it, as will people with family roots in the Catalan region (northeastern Spain and southeastern France). The CD should also appeal on the strength of the performances: Isaí Jess Muñoz has an even, well-modulated lyric-tenor voice that he uses to fine effect to elicit strong expressions of emotion, especially when the subject is love – as it often is in these songs. And pianist Oksana Glouchko makes a fine partner, playing with confidence and engagement throughout the disc. The recording quality is another part of the attraction here: singer and accompanist sound as if they are ideally spaced to maximize the individual and collaborative elements of the performances. The songs themselves are quite good, emotional without being overly sentimental, written to showcase both the expressiveness of the underlying Catalan poetry and that of the singer. All the compositions here are high-quality, although nothing stands significantly above everything else. There are many pleasures to be heard on this CD, but all require some “if” qualification: if you like art songs in general, if you are interested in those of more-recent vintage, if you would like to explore regional music you have probably not heard, if you would like to experience the creations of unfamiliar composers, and if you consider a disc running just 45 minutes to be a reasonable length for purchase, then you will find much to enjoy in Visca L’Amor.

No comments:

Post a Comment