July 15, 2021


Mendelssohn: String Symphonies (complete); Violin Concerto in D Minor. Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Henry Raudales. BR Klassik. $29.99 (3 CDs).

Hannah Lash: Leander and Hero; Franco Donatoni: Blow; Esa-Pekka Salonen: Memoria. The City of Tomorrow (Elise Blatchford, flute and piccolo; Stuart Breczinski, oboe and English horn; Rane Moore, clarinet and E-flat clarinet; Nanci Belmont, bassoon and contrabassoon; Leander Star, horn). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Ofer Pelz: Backward inductions; Chinese Whispers; Convergence; marchons, marchons; Blanc sur Blanc. Meitar Ensemble and Quatuor Ardeo. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Felix Mendelssohn was thought of in his own time as another Mozart, and the comparison continued after he died at a similarly young age (38; Mozart lived only to 35). Later generations concluded that Mendelssohn did not fulfill or develop his early genius as Mozart did, and there is some truth to that; but there is little doubt that both composers were youthful geniuses, as is evidenced by Mendelssohn’s earliest forays into the symphonic realm. Those are the 12 String Symphonies and a symphonic movement in C minor that was presumably planned to become part of a 13th symphony that was unfinished. The quality and inventiveness of these works, the first ones composed when Mendelssohn was 11 years old, come through very clearly in brisk, bright and thoroughly attractive performances by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Henry Raudales, released on the BR Klassik label. The very earliest of these works trace to the sinfonias of C.P.E. Bach – indeed, Nos. 1-3 follow the earlier composer’s three-movement form and overall approach very clearly. Nos. 4-6 begin to show Mendelssohn staking out some new territory: although still short (roughly 10 minutes each, although No. 6 runs 12), these pieces include some inventive touches, such as the French overture that opens No. 4. These works were intended for private, at-home performance, not for general audiences, a fact that makes their structural balance and increasingly assured handling of the medium all the more exceptional. By No. 7, Mendelssohn was using the four-movement symphonic form that Haydn perfected; Nos. 8 and 9 are essentially full-scale (although not full-orchestral) symphonies, with considerable scope and emotional variation. Raudales appropriately conducts these works with greater warmth and more emotive elements in the slow movements and third-movement Trios than he presents in the prior pieces. After No. 9, the String Symphonies move in very interesting directions. No. 10 in B minor is a single movement, possibly (like the later C minor movement) intended to open a full-length work. No. 11, in five movements, is the longest of the String Symphonies by far, lasting well over half an hour and incorporating percussion instruments (along the lines of Haydn’s Symphony No. 100, “Military”) in addition to strings. No. 12 then returns to the three-movement C.P.E. Bach model, but this inward-looking G minor piece very clearly shows how far Mendelssohn had developed compositionally and emotionally since the earliest works in the sequence. The Raudales performances, with their generally speedy tempos in faster movements and moderate (rather than truly slow) tempos in the slower ones, are convincingly paced: of the 10 symphonies with designated slow movements, only two have those movements marked Adagio, all the rest being Andante. The string playing, even at its fastest, is clear and beautifully balanced, due not only to the ensemble’s inherent quality but also to Raudales’ own training as a violinist – which shines through as well in the final work offered in this three-CD set, the early Violin Concerto in D minor. This was written around the same time as the later String Symphonies, when Mendelssohn was all of 13. Like some of the proto-symphonic works, the concerto harks back to the past – Baroque elements, notably those of the toccata, are clearly present – but also looks ahead to later Mendelssohn music and already bears the composer’s sound. It is quite different from the later and extremely famous E minor concerto, a work in which Mendelssohn’s early potential certainly was fulfilled. But the D minor concerto not only sounds fine on its own terms but also gives intriguing-in-retrospect hints of some of the high-quality music that Mendelssohn would produce in later years.

     The music is considerably more modern on a New Focus Recordings release featuring the wind quintet The City of Tomorrow. Most of the disc is taken up by Leander and Hero, commissioned by the ensemble. This is a nine-movement suite that requires the audience to know in advance just what the composer is doing and just how the performers are implementing the plan – a common approach in contemporary music that has the unfortunate effect of making the music itself subservient to a set of words or concepts that the notes, on their own, never evoke. Hannah Lash (born 1981) takes the tale of Hero and Leander – one of the simpler and more affecting Greek myths, about lovers who find each other when one follows a light to the other, only to die when the light is extinguished one night – and tries to turn it into a story about birds that somehow reflects climate change. In other words, the named characters are now birds, and their separation has nothing to do with a light but is caused by a storm that, in turn, is supposed to have been worsened by a changing climate. There is nothing particularly compelling about this recasting of the myth – in fact, one would expect audiences to react less strongly to a story of birds than to one of doomed human lovers – and there is also nothing especially innovative in the structure of the suite, whose opening Prelude and concluding Postlude use essentially the same music, although emphasized somewhat differently, in a standard attempt to make it clear that the material between the musical bookends is a self-contained story (as in, say, Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel). Lash’s seventh and longest movement, which is supposed to represent the great storm, is surprisingly ineffective: there are intervallic clashes and extended dissonances in it, but no attempt at a massed sound that an audience would perceive as storm-like. In fact, without knowing the concept, then reading and absorbing the movement titles, there is no way to follow the intended story. Even comprehending the idea does not always make the music more engaging: for example, although Flocking does have the sound of birds gathering and communicating, Courting Dance: Slow and Ancient has no sounds that really reflect its title. The members of The City of Tomorrow handle the music well, but the concept itself is flawed: it is fine for a composer to be inspired by some issue or other, but if the music in and of itself does not communicate the inspiration or concern, then a work falls short, as this one does. The other two pieces on this (+++) CD are more interesting. Each is in a single extended movement. In Blow, Franco Donatoni (1927-2000) displays the winds’ virtuosity both singly and in combination, using irregular rhythms and contrasts between linear and chordal elements to give a general feeling of forward momentum. At more than 13 minutes, the piece goes on a bit too long, but the interplay among instruments and accentuation of their individual sounds is attractive. The final extended, dissonant tutti chord, however, is on the silly side: this sort of thing worked far better in the hands of Ives, who used a similar chord to end his Symphony No. 2 and deliberately made it very short – to discomfit the audience rather than simply produce a blaring sound. And that was in 1902. The CD concludes with Memoria by conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (born 1958), which does a good job of contrasting the timbres of the winds – the opening juxtaposition of alto flute and horn sets the scene convincingly. The work has enough flow, even without discernible themes and with a rather diffuse structure, to be aurally engaging, and alterations of pacing and emphasis pull the ear effectively in different directions as the music progresses. Like Donatoni’s work, Salonen’s persists a bit too long (more than 15 minutes) in light of its repeated use of similar sounds and techniques; but on the whole, it makes effective use of the available sonorities of the winds. And the final, chorale-like texture provides some genuine contrast with what has come before, making for a satisfying conclusion.

     For some contemporary composers, atonality and multitonality and sonic assemblages that go beyond pitch are not enough to put across what they want to communicate. A (+++) New Focus Recordings release featuring five works by Ofer Pelz (born 1978) shows Pelz to be one such creator of music: electronics and much-altered pianos are integral to the sound of the works here. Pelz writes strictly for the cognoscenti, a kind of musical “in crowd” that is devoted to sounds beyond instruments’ comfortable ranges, techniques that strain performers and instruments alike, augmentations and alterations that alter the inherent sound production of instruments, and of course lots of electronics (controlled by Pelz himself in Backward inductions and Convergence). The first-named of those pieces uses an augmented piano, a kind of prepared piano on steroids, with amplification and the implantation of contact microphones that cause other percussion instruments to produce sounds in addition to the piano’s own highly percussive ones. Convergence mixes electronics with alto flute, managing to use the wind instrument in near-percussive ways. Both works are in essence extended sound repetitions with some aural variations produced or induced by their electronic elements. The other three pieces here are for larger groups. Chinese Whispers uses flute, clarinet, violin and cello, as well as prepared piano, in an intellectually intriguing but musically vapid progression that starts with a kind of “overview” and then dissects it into components parts. The same five instruments are used in marchons, marchons. There are no capital letters in the title, whose words come from La Marseillaise; Pelz’s idea here is that France and Israel (to whose national anthem the work also refers) have not lived up to the ideals embodied in their anthems. Pelz communicates this, or tries to, by presenting a kind of sound haze at some length and then introducing a shorter section with more-pointed rhythms and sonic elements. As in other argumentative contemporary works (including Lash’s Leander and Hero and many more), the point is not made by the music itself: the audience needs to know in advance what Pelz is getting at and then hopefully find ways in which the music is suitably illustrative. The recording concludes with the two-movement Blanc sur Blanc, written for flute, clarinet, prepared piano, and amplified string quartet. The clever use of strings at the opening of the first movement (which is called “First movement”) produces a rather bouncy feeling that differs from anything else on the disc, although the basic notion of repetition with augmentation and fragmentation is the same here as in the other works on the CD. The epilogue-like second movement (which is called “Epilogue”) is both quieter and more intense, using sections of sustained sound and a kind of spatial “hovering” to provide a contrast with the earlier material. There is no way that Pelz’s music will reach out effectively to a wide group of listeners, but that does not appear to be its reason for being: there is a certain ready-made audience for material of this sort, and Pelz seems more than content to create for that “in” crowd.

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