August 12, 2021


Copland: Appalachian Spring—Suite; Clarinet Concerto; Barber: Adagio for Strings; Bernstein: West Side Story—Symphonic Dances. Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $16.99.

Moritz Moszkowski: Piano Music, Volume One. Ian Hobson, piano. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

     There is an entire classical-music subgenre known as “light classics,” a designation that seems driven more by marketing opportunities than by the character of the music. It makes sense sometimes, as in much of the music by Offenbach and Suppé. But at other times the label is at best somewhat forced: Rossini’s William Tell overture opens one of his most-serious and most-dramatic works, for example, while the Dance of the Hours from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is extracted from a highly melodramatic opera filled with corpses and crumbling ruins. And then there are works that may not be officially or semi-officially labeled “light” but that are nevertheless on the lighter side of the classical-music spectrum – such as the four offered by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony under David Bernard on a new Recursive Classics CD. The disc’s title is “Sounds of America,” but it is a trifle misleading, or at least imprecise, since it is fair to ask which America these are the “sounds of.” Certainly not 21st-century America, whose composers have gone off in multiple directions along with the creators of contemporary music in other countries; certainly not 19th- and early-20th-century America, with the forthright optimism of Sousa and the experimentation of Ives on display. Basically, what we have here are four mid-20th-century works reflecting the thinking, or some of the thinking, of three composers. Aaron Copland gets the most play, in two of the “popular” (if not quite “light”) works he wrote during the 1940s – not to be confused with his far-more-experimental music, which to this day is heard considerably less often. Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony previously offered the suite from Appalachian Spring in 2019, on a disc that also featured ballet music by Ravel and Stravinsky. Copland’s ballet dates to 1944 and, in its time, was impressive for the way it merged European classicism with a view of the United States’ past that was on the naïve side even then. Played with considerable dash and a sure sense of rhythm, the suite as heard here clearly justifies its longtime popularity. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto (1949) is highly popular, too, although perhaps more with clarinetists than with general audiences. Jon Manasse is a first-rate soloist in this recording, thoroughly comfortable with the work’s jazz heritage as well as its technical complexities – he previously recorded the concerto as long ago as 2004, and his familiarity with all its ins and outs is palpable as well as audible. Bernard and the ensemble not only accompany Manasse with skill but also help the rather diffuse formal structure of the music come across as more cohesive than it does in less-committed performances. Interestingly, Copland was supposed to arrange the concerto’s first movement as a string elegy – although he backed out of the commission before doing so, concerned that such an arrangement might distract from the totality of the work. That is exactly what happened with Samuel Barber’s 1936 String Quartet, Op. 11, after Barber arranged the second movement as Adagio for Strings. The string-orchestra version of the music became one of Barber’s best-known works, and one that often appears – as it does on this CD – with other music of somewhat lighter weight. But Adagio for Strings thoroughly eclipsed the quartet from which it was extracted, and while Bernard leads it with understated elegance here, there is no escaping the reality that this movement long ago became a part that proved greater than the whole from which it came. Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from his 1960 ballet, West Side Story, also have long had a life of their own – far from the stage. They do tell a story, but it is not the story of the ballet, since their sequence in concert-hall form differs significantly from that of their appearance in the stage work. Still, Bernstein’s colorful orchestration, along with his skillful use of the jazz idiom (which is quite different from Copland’s), lends the dance sequence emotional heft that is all the more effective when played as well as the music is here. Nothing on this disc is particularly profound, and the CD’s reflection of “America” (even mid-20th-century America) is imperfect at best; but these are works that continue to charm and engage audiences looking for material that, if not exactly “light,” is certainly lighter than much of what passes for entertainment in the America of the 21st century.

     What passed for entertainment 60-some years before the earliest work on Bernard’s disc, the Barber Adagio for Strings, was the kind of salon music of which Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925) was something of a master. The mastery here is that of being the proverbial “big fish in a small pond,” since by no stretch of the imagination would any of the entertaining trifles on a new Toccata Classics CD featuring pianist Ian Hobson be deemed a significance work. And nothing here was intended to have a high level of significance – in fact, the earliest opus number (attached to Moszkowski’s second-written piano piece) is “½,” clearly indicating that the very slight polka, which dates to 1875, was not to be taken at all seriously (it was written in connection with a satirical poem by Moszkowski’s older brother, Alexander). This CD is intended as the start of a survey of Moszkowski’s complete music for solo piano, and there will definitely be some more-substantial fare to come in future installments. This particular disc, though, is filled with real “period pieces” – intended for salon performance and enjoyment and not pretending to be more than the small but very well-crafted works that they are. The satirical Conservatoristen-Polka was written in the same year as most of the other works on this disc: Albumblatt, Op. 2; Caprice, Op. 4; Fantaisie (Hommage à Schumann), Op. 5; Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 6; and Trois Moments Musicaux, Op. 7. The earliest-written work on the CD, dating to 1874, is Scherzo, Op. 1. Also here are Skizzen, Vier kleine Stücke, Op. 10 (1876) and Humoreske, Op. 14 (1877). The neglect to which Moszkowski’s music has been subjected over the years is shown by the fact that except for Opp. 2, 5 and 6, every work on the disc is a world première recording. But maybe, on one level, the obscurity of this music is understandable: it was written as a form of entertainment that has long since fallen from favor, and although all the pieces are well-crafted and show a firm understanding of piano technique (of which Moszkowski, as a performer, was an acknowledged master), there is nothing here that stands up particularly well on close examination or repeated hearings. The pieces do, however, require considerable technical skill, and several show glimmers of the creativity that Moszkowski would later exhibit to a much greater extent – for instance, the mild stylistic experimentation of Op. 6 and the effective contrasting sections of Op. 14. Hobson performs all the works with dedication and engagement, never trying to make them out to be more than they are but never minimizing or trivializing them, either. It is always interesting to trace a composer’s musical development over time, and in Moszkowski’s case, this first solo-piano CD lays a solid foundation for the future exploration of more-challenging pieces that, unlike these, would certainly not be deemed “light music” but would deliver aural pleasure of a different and more-serious kind.

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