March 17, 2022


Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 22. The Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Plymouth conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $13.99.

Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 23. The Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Plymouth conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $13.99.

Vivaldi: L’Estro Armonico—12 Concertos, Op. 3; Bach: Arrangements for Keyboard after L’Estro Armonico. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, arranged for two pianos by Eliane Rodrigues. Nina Smeets and Eliane Rodrigues, pianos. Navona. $14.99.

Music for Flute and Harp by Debussy, Fauré, Piazzolla, and Ravel. Nicole Esposito, flute; Çağatay Akyol, harp. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     The final volumes in Naxos’ never-less-than-excellent series featuring the wind-band music of John Phillip Sousa – the 22nd and 23rd in the series – find conductor Keith Brion leading yet another of the numerous excellent British ensembles that seem to be uniformly in tune with and appreciative of Sousa’s very American music – showing convincingly, yet again, that Sousa really wrote for performers and listeners around the world. He also wrote a great deal of non-march music – another thing that this series continually confirms. And he enjoyed bringing in well-known tunes by other composers and making them his own through orchestration, juxtaposition, or other modifications that often shed new light on the original material. This last Sousa characteristic has been only intermittently present in earlier volumes of this series, but it is front-and-center in the last two CDs in the series. Most of these discs are devoted to fantasies – which, to Sousa, meant compilations for wind of themes that would be well-known to audiences and, as a result, all the more enjoyable to hear in wind-band guise. The four fantasies in Volume 22 date to 1920 or later – that is, late in Sousa’s career, when his style and his band’s were quite well-established. The Highbrows and the Lowbrows, “A Study in Rhythm,” is the earliest of the four (1920) and a wonderful example of the genre: it starts with the famed Largo from Handel’s Xerxes, ends with the enthusiastic conclusion of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, and in between offers – among other things – Stephen Foster’s Swanee River. Popular songs are the sole purview of Music of the Minute (1922), including a couple of Jerome Kern’s and a tango by Sousa himself. On with the Dance (1923) is another classical-and-pop mixture – Sousa saw little difference in entertainment value between the fields, at least in the case of certain “serious” music. This fantasy mixes arrangements ranging from a dance by Meyerbeer to nothing less than Turkey in the Straw. A more-unusual fantasy is Assembly of the Artisans (1924), a work-related compilation of both music and sounds – shades of Varèse! – that helps describe the gathering of convention delegates while showing their form of work through the inclusion of sounds ranging from pots and kettles to the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. The one non-fantasy on the 22nd disc, which sits a bit uneasily amid the more-extended works, is a short “patriotic anthem” called The Messiah of Nations (1902/1924), using the words of four of the five stanzas of James Whitcomb Riley’s poem O Thou, America – Messiah of Nations! The celebratory nature of the material is very much out of favor in the United States nowadays, but Sousa’s straightforward setting of the material – done for the dedication of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Indianapolis – is a window into the past and a musical visit to a time that, if not simpler, certainly seems in retrospect to be prouder and more united than the 21st century.

     In Volume 23, the main offerings are two extended fantasies called Over the Footlights in New York (1897) and The Fancy of the Town (1921). They are cut from the same musical cloth as the fantasies in the 22nd volume, which to modern ears makes them often quite amusing in their juxtaposition of popular and folk tunes (some still well-known today, such as I’ve Been Working on the Railroad and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary in the later fantasy) with classical pieces of which Sousa was particularly fond (such as the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s Il Trovatore in the 1897 work). One thing these fantasies show is that the notion of an unbridgeable gap between pop music and the classical world was far from commonplace in Sousa’s time: the earlier fantasy heard on this disc contains not only Verdi’s opera chorus but also a Paderewski minuet and music from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Sousa liked to include some of his own music in these fantasies as well: the earlier one uses an excerpt from his operetta El Capitan and then ends with his Manhattan Beach march, while the later one concludes with his march known as Comrades of the Legion. The fantasies – really pastiches, since the tunes are presented almost entirely in their original form rather than being varied or otherwise modified – are a great deal of fun to hear, even when their popular-song elements are no longer familiar. Volume 23 of the Sousa series also includes a processional hymn called We March, We March to Victory, created by Sousa in 1914 from a work by British lyricist Gerard Moultrie and British composer Joseph Barnby. Like the choral work in Volume 22, this is a straightforward, affirmative piece, in this case with strong religious ties (“with the banner of Christ before us”). The remaining pieces in this final volume are shorter. They are a Sousa wind-band arrangement of Melody in A (1912) by Charles Dawes (1865-1951); a similar arrangement, from 1889, of a work known in English as Boulanger’s March, by Louis-César Desormes (1840-1898); and a Humoresque – a pastiche, shorter than but akin to the works that Sousa labeled as fantasies – that Sousa wrote in 1924, called What Do You Do Sunday, Mary? This includes no classical pieces but is a mixture of hymn tunes and popular songs, including Stephen Foster’s Oh! Susanna. The performances of all the works in the last two volumes of the Sousa series are exemplary, and the CDs continue to broaden and deepen listeners’ exposure to elements of Sousa’s music that deserve to be heard far more often than they are.

     Sousa was far from the first composer to adapt earlier music – respectfully – for his own purposes. The approach dates back to Bach, among others: Bach’s admiration for the works of Vivaldi is well-known and extends to many arrangements of Vivaldi’s music for different instruments. A new two-CD Naïve release offers a wonderful opportunity to hear first-rate performances of both original Vivaldi material and Bach adaptations, under the auspices of Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano. The cleverness of this release matches its quality. It includes all 12 Vivaldi concertos from the set called L’Estro Armonico, plus all six keyboard (harpsichord or organ) arrangements that Bach made from concertos in the set – the Bach works heard immediately after the Vivaldi ones on which they are based. To keep the entirety of the release on two CDs without running much over 80 minutes per disc, this decision results in the Vivaldi set being played out of numbered order (in the sequence 1, 2, 3, 10, 11, 12, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). Still, the sequencing retains Vivaldi’s grouping of the 12 concertos into four sets of three each, the first of each threesome for four violins, the second for two, and the third for a single one. And the entirety works because of the effectiveness of showcasing the two composers’ approach to the same material – and the excellence of the playing throughout. L’Estro Armonico Concerto No. 3, for solo violin, was adapted by Bach for solo harpsichord; No. 10, for four violins, for four harpsichords; No. 11, for two violins, for organ; No. 12, for solo violin, for harpsichord; No. 8, for two violins, for organ; and No. 9, for solo violin, for harpsichord. Bach did not simply adapt the concertos – he modified them and in many ways deepened their formal construction and communication. Among the many pleasures of this recording are the solo performances (Alessandrini on harpsichord, Lorenzo Ghielmi on organ) and the chance to hear the way the two composers’ key choices affect the impact of their works: Vivaldi’s No. 3 is in G, with Bach’s adaptation in F; No. 10 in B minor is adapted in A minor; No. 11 is kept in D minor; No. 12 in E is adapted in C; No. 8 is kept in A minor; and No. 9 is kept in D. The differing sounds of instruments and home keys make this release a real aural treat for lovers of both composers’ work and of Baroque music in general. Bach’s four-harpsichord concerto (with Alessandrini joined by Andrea Buccarella, Salvatore Carchiolo, and Ignazio Schifani) is a highlight, but in fact the entire release is its own highlight: hearing Vivaldi’s underlying polyphony as adapted by Bach (who was only seven years younger than the Italian master, but generally had a very different approach to composition) is fascinating, and there is a sense of delight in music-making that permeates the entire two-CD set.

     Well-intentioned but somewhat over-earnest in both concept and execution, a new (+++) Navona CD featuring a two-piano version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 gives the daughter-and-mother team of Nina Smeets and Eliane Rodrigues ample opportunity to explore Rodrigues’ approach to the music – an approach actually twice removed from Beethoven, since it is designed as Rodrigues’ response to Liszt’s two-piano arrangement of the symphony (less often heard than his solo-piano version). In other words, while Bach started with Vivaldi’s Op. 3 and adapted the music, it was Liszt who started with Beethoven and adapted the symphony – and now Rodrigues uses Liszt as her starting point. The impetus for the project is a positive one: this is yet another musical attempt to find meaning beyond the dislocations of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet another instance of using music to uplift (or try to uplift) people suffering from all the depredations brought on not only by health issues but also by unceasing dislocations in everyday life. It is not entirely clear why a new arrangement of the music is needed to seek a counterweight to all the trouble and turmoil: the Liszt arrangement itself would have sufficed. But it is Rodrigues’ desire to bring something additional, something of the 21st century, to the symphony. In fact, most listeners will find little to differentiate Rodrigues’ arrangement from Liszt’s: what matters here is the dedication of Smeets and Rodrigues to their performance, the emotional breadth and depth of their communication, and the effectiveness with which they communicate to listeners their desire for music, this music, to provide positive connections among people at a time of enormous disconnection and distancing, both literal and figurative. The first two movements turn out to work better here than the last two. The first and second are driven but emotionally trenchant, well-paced and presented with meaningful emphasis on their feelings as well as their structure. The third movement is somewhat too slow, a bit too flaccid, to be fully effective, as if Smeets and Rodrigues are trying a little too hard to use its warmth and gentle lyricism in the service of the greater good – but this is at heart a movement of simply flowing beauty, one that is not particularly fraught with extramusical meaning. That shows up in the finale, which simply cannot be fully effective in a two-piano version, even Liszt’s. Smeets and Rodrigues open it with suitable drama and strength, but it works less well as it goes on. The affirmation is certainly there, and there is no denying the performers’ sincerity, but it is equally undeniable that during a pandemic or at any other time, this movement’s message is best conveyed through Beethoven’s original scoring. Still, this is a sincere, well-played two-piano version – a very expansive one, running a full 78 minutes – of a foundational piece of music whose capacity for uplift is as important in the 21st century as it was in the 19th.

     The ambition is considerably more modest and the performances considerably smaller-scale on a (+++) MSR Classics CD featuring flute-and-harp arrangements of various Impressionistic works juxtaposed with several by Ástor Piazzolla. The performers, Nicole Esposito and Çağatay Akyol, are also the arrangers or adapters of several of the pieces: Debussy’s Rêverie, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera, and Piazzolla’s Los Sueños, Oblivion and Milonga. All the arrangements, by whatever hand, balance the instruments nicely and provide listeners with an interesting opportunity to hear a number of well-known works sounding quite different from the way they usually do. This does not mean they sound better, of course: this disc really exists primarily as a showcase for the performers and, through them, as a CD that will appeal to other flautists and harpists. Its more-general appeal is less likely: a full hour of this particular instrumental combination wears rather thin, and the longest work here, Piazzolla’s four-movement Histoire du Tango, does not work particularly well as a flute-and-harp piece. The three shorter Piazzolla piece fare better, the dreamy, rhythmically flowing Los Sueños sounding especially lyrical – although Oblivion and Milonga both have their own reverie-like elements that come across well. On balance, though, it is the non-Piazzolla material that sounds best here. The flute-and-harp combination seems especially well-suited to the delicacies of French Impressionism: Debussy’s Rêverie and Clair de lune, Fauré’s Berceuse, Après un rêve and Sicilienne, and Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera and Pavane pour une infante défunte – all of them quite familiar and quite closely related in the way they make their points – are all pleasant and pleasurable here, offering listeners a dreamlike, wavelike, drifting experience in which the instrumental combination is less illustrative than it is smooth and soothing. Indeed, although this is not a pandemic-driven or pandemic-focused release, it is the kind of CD that can easily be used to encourage meditation, quiet escape from the rigors of a difficult time, and a pleasurable immersion in delicacy and beauty before it is necessary to return once again to a harsher and more-demanding reality.

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