June 23, 2022


Bruckner: Symphony No. 2, transcribed for organ by Erwin Horn; Psalm 150, transcribed for organ by Erwin Horn; David Matthews: Bruckner Window III. Hansjörg Albrecht, organ. Oehms. $14.99.

Bach: Cello Suites (complete). Marina Tarasova, cello. Divine Art. $24.98 (2 CDs).

Florence Price: Piano Music. Josh Tatsuo Cullen, piano. Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

     Undeniably quixotic and undeniably fascinating, Hansjörg Albrecht’s project to record Erwin Horn’s arrangements of the Bruckner symphonies for organ continues in very fine form with the Oehms release of Symphony No. 2 (in the 1877 version, although version discussions are scarcely central for an interpretative/reinterpretative project such as this). The Second is a somewhat neglected Bruckner symphony, but Horn and Albrecht treat it with as much respect and attention as any other. It is actually a symphony that sounds quite good as an organ work: although it is a simplification to say that Bruckner’s symphonies in general have an “organ sound” about them, the Second really does, and the sensitive transcription and carefully considered tempos and registrations employed by Albrecht emphasize this. This is a well-balanced symphony, its first and fourth movements being of nearly equal length, and it is one (like Mahler’s Sixth) in regard to which one can argue about the better sequence of the inner movements: the 1877 version places the slow movement before the Scherzo, while the original 1872 version has the Scherzo second. In any case, the attraction here is the chance to listen to a kind of alternative-universe Bruckner: an exceptional improviser at the organ, Bruckner had little interest in composing for that instrument, so these Horn transcriptions not only elucidate elements of the symphonic scores but also offer a way to reimagine Bruckner’s entire compositional orientation. As in other volumes of this fascinating series, there is additional material to supplement and complement the symphony. Psalm 150 is a late work (1892) that was written for soprano, chorus and orchestra, and its concluding fugue fits the Horn organ transcription particularly well. The symphonies have been accused of sprawl, but Psalm 150 shows clearly that Bruckner could write concisely when he wanted to and that, therefore, the symphonies’ lengths and complexities are carefully thought-through. The 150th Psalm is one of pure praise (“Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord”), and the celebratory nature of Bruckner’s setting comes through very well indeed in this version for organ. What also comes through well is the third of the 10 newly created contemporary compositions collectively called “Bruckner Windows,” each by a different 21st-century composer and each planned to accompany the symphony with which it is paired. David Matthews calls his work Meditation and builds it around the slow movement of Symphony No. 2, which Matthews’ piece quotes briefly. Meditation has some interesting harmonies and a structure that builds to an impressive climax before the piece eventually ends quietly, the result being a kind of “Bruckner tribute” that fits well into a series of releases that, individually and collectively, are themselves tributes to a composer who continues to fascinate organists as well as orchestral conductors.

     The continued fascination of Bach for listeners and instrumentalists of all kinds is scarcely a surprise, and the constant attempts to get to the heart of his music show no sign of letting up anytime. Bach’s solo-instrument pieces, in particular, are endlessly challenging and pleasurable for performers and audiences alike, and the remarkably high quality of playing that they elicit from musicians fully justifies the frequency with which new recordings are released. The latest recorded version of the cello suites, a two-CD release on the Divine Art label, is a case in point. Marina Tarasova is an absolutely first-rate cellist, sensitive to the dance forms underlying these remarkable compositions but equally aware of the extent to which Bach built upon and enlarged those forms rather than simply following them slavishly. It is clear from the very beginning – the opening Prelude of the first suite – that this will be a very personal interpretation: Tarasova plays this well-known movement quickly and with almost a “fiddling” quality, seeking to elicit a level of emotional connection that she looks for throughout all six of the suites. These are not historically informed performances, but ones that delve into the underlying emotive nature of the suites and use the capabilities of a modern instrument to bring them out. This means Tarasova sometimes downplays rhythmic precision – as in the minuets of the first suite – in favor of greater expressiveness. In some of the most forward-looking music of the suites, such as the Sarabande of the fifth suite, this approach works particularly well. In more-straightforward movements, such as the Gigue movements that conclude all the suites, it is less winning, although Tarasova deserves praise for the consistency with which she applies her concepts. The sixth and longest suite, always a major challenge for a performer using a modern instrument because it was written for a five-string cello, is the high point of this release: everything in this suite is expanded (the Allemande is the longest movement in any of the suites), and Tarasova allows both the notes and their foundational heartfelt communication to flow with considerable beauty and an impressive level of technical precision. The contrast between the lively Courante and very emotional Sarabande in this suite is particularly well-handled. There is no “best” recording of these Bach solo-cello works, and there are so many good ones that it is hard to imagine music lovers settling for a single rendition. Tarasova’s approach, with its unapologetic willingness to downplay traditional form and rhythmic precision in favor of interpretative license, is emotionally satisfying in a way that more-straitlaced performances are not, although it is less sensitive than some other readings to the time period in which Bach actually wrote the suites. It is convincing on its own terms – which is really the most that anyone can hope for in performances of these endlessly fascinating solo-cello creations.

     The works of Florence Price (1887-1953) are as unfamiliar as those of Bach are familiar. Josh Tatsuo Cullen hopes to change that with a recording of seven Price piano works for Blue Griffin Records. Written from the mid-1920s to the early 1940s, the Price works heard here are on the slight side, pleasant enough without being especially distinguished – they have clear ties to jazz and ragtime, and worthily make their points without belaboring them, but they are not especially memorable. Three suites on the disc follow what is essentially the same arc, from brighter and more-upbeat material to quieter and somewhat more-thoughtful conclusions. The most interestingly contrasted movements are in Scenes in Tin Can Alley (1928), which opens appealingly with “The Huckster,” continues on the light side with “Children at Play,” and concludes with “Night,” which is longer than the other two movements combined and more evocative. The brightest part of the four-movement Thumbnail Sketches of a Day in the Life of a Washerwoman (1938-1942) is the 40-second “A Gay Moment,” which has a pleasant sense of swing to it. The most intriguing concept is found in Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned (1932-1941). Each of the three under-two-minute movements portrays a different age – 17, 27, and 70 – although there is nothing unexpected in the type of music associated with any of those ages. Also on the CD are the pleasantly Impressionistic Clouds and the bouncy Cotton Dance (both from the 1940s), and the three-movement Village Scenes (1942), which is wistful and nostalgic throughout. The most-substantial work on the disc is the one least tied to specific scenes and places: Preludes (1926-1932). These five short pieces have considerable rhythmic interest and show more thematic variety than the more-illustrative material elsewhere on the CD. The second of them, Andantino cantabile, is genuinely affecting, while the concluding Allegro requires some pianistic prowess and packs several interesting contrasts into less than two minutes. This collection of mostly lightweight music is a (+++) release that shines a welcome light on a little-known composer while at the same time making it clear that, at least on the basis of the works heard here, Price crafted music well but not in any particularly innovative or imaginative way – these pieces are enjoyable to hear once, but for most listeners will likely have little staying power.

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