December 14, 2023


Bernard Herrmann: Symphony; Concerto Macabre from “Hangover Square”; For the Fallen; The Devil and Daniel Webster—Suite. The Phoenix Symphony and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Sedares. Alto. $10.98.

Stuart MacRae: Kingdoms; Bernard Hughes: Metropolis. Nick Pritchard, tenor; Isabelle Haile, soprano; Christopher Glynn, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Villa-Lobos: String Quartet No. 6; Cair da tarde; Antônio Carlos Jobim: Estrada do sol; Chovendo na roseira; Quebra-pedra; Retrato em branco e preto; Clarice Assad: Glitch. Delgani String Quartet (Anthea Kreston and Jannie Wei, violins; Kimberlee Uwate, viola; Eric Alterman, cello); Clarice Assad, vocals and piano. AVIE. $17.99.

     Best known by far for his film music, Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) was a classically trained composer who was quite capable of writing for the concert hall as well as the movie theater. However, despite his occasional protestations about the limitations of doing illustrative music all the time, Herrmann appears – at least on the basis of an Alto re-release of recordings made from 1992 to 1995 – to have been more inspired by theatricality than by potential concert performances. Herrmann wrote only one symphony, in 1941, and it is a work most distinguished for the skill of its orchestration – that is, the assignment of themes and their development to different sections, as would be required in composing film music. Structurally, though, the work is far from innovative, and thematically it is less than memorable – as if Herrmann, absent a script from which to work, could not quite figure out what he wanted to say musically and how to say it. Conducting the Phoenix Symphony, James Sedares gamely advocates for the symphony with a forward-driven, propulsive approach that eventually leads to a triumphal final movement. But the overall feeling is of a work that goes through the motions of symphonic style and development, not one that had to be written or that had very much emotional heft. Three other of Herrmann’s works from the same time period, in which Sedares conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, come across to much better effect. The 1941 film The Devil and Daniel Webster, based on a once-famous story by Stephen Vincent Benet, won Herrmann his only Academy Award, and the suite from it shows why: the five movements are so clearly illustrative in nature that they call up a wide variety of images independent of the actual movie scenes they were written to accompany. The portrayal of the Devil, both in the suite’s first movement and in lurking form in the fifth, is especially well-done. Also impressive is Herrmann’s Concerto Macabre, written for a 1944 melodrama called Hangover Square. The plot involves a deranged composer committing murders during periods of memory loss – and dying in a fire that he himself sets as he performs the premiѐre of his concerto. The work – the piano played here by Sara Davis Buechner – sounds a bit like Liszt mixed with Rachmaninoff, but the point is its intensity and darkness rather than any significant stylistic originality. Again, Herrmann rises to the occasion of a visual medium in a way that he never really does when it comes to his sole symphony. But he could, when sufficiently moved, produce genuinely emotional music without needing external stimulus. That is what he did with For the Fallen (1943), a berceuse (lullaby) for the dead of a war that was still raging when the work was written. Modest in scale and expressive, but without overdone sentimentality, this seven-minute piece is evocative not of war or even of peace, but of sadness and, at the end, some faint hope – through a quotation of “He shall feed his flock” from Handel’s Messiah. Herrmann’s symphony, his most-substantial non-theatrical work, is ultimately less convincing than this much shorter and gentler piece that lacks any specific visual reference but still evokes emotions effectively.

     The evocations on a new Divine Art recording flow from the words of Chine D. John, a Nigerian-American lyricist whose writing forms the basis of works by both Stuart MacRae (born 1976) and Bernard Hughes (born 1974). MacRae’s Kingdoms features tenor Nick Pritchard; Hughes’ Metropolis is sung by soprano Isabelle Haile. The words are basically quotidian, expressing contemporary feelings about everyday events but using the sort of declamatory delivery that is longstanding in art songs. Pianist Christopher Glynn is very much a factor in both these song cycles, providing coloration and harmonic presence that go beyond simple accompaniment. John’s words tend to reach for meaning and try somewhat too hard to attain it: “The grass was cool, each rose a wonder” in Kingdoms, for example. But the underlying emotionalism of the verbiage is brought forth and accentuated through Glynn’s playing. The four-movement Kingdoms is somewhat more intensely emphatic than the six-movement Metropolis, and Pritchard’s delivery is stronger and more portentous than Haile’s, which is straightforward in a way that helps John’s underlying feelings come through to good effect. “The heroes and villains seem one and the same,” for example – a not-very-revelatory comment in Metropolis – gains in import both from Haile’s matter-of-fact delivery and from Glynn’s evocative accompaniment. The piano opening of Hughes’ second song, whose title is given to the whole work, is a particularly well-done bit of mood-setting that continues to underline the entirety of the piece. The broken chords of the third song, Call Home, are also an important contributor to the piece’s communication. There is a foundational disconnect in both these works between language that is often overly simple (“Did I wake you? Sorry… The phone signal isn’t very strong”) and music that at least aspires to greater depth. This is a very short disc (less than 45 minutes) that seems longer because so many of the lyrics are similar in tone, even though set by different composers. Listeners interested in art-song treatment of everyday modern matters are the ones who will find this (+++) CD affecting.

     There are theatrical, expressive elements communicated both through voice and through instruments alone on a (+++) AVIE disc focusing on Brazilian music, both as originally composed and in arrangements. Four pieces by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Cair da tarde by Heitor Villa-Lobos are heard here in voice-and-string-quartet arrangements by Clarice Assad, whose voice easily switches from the dramatic (Estrada do sol) to the breathy (Chovendo na roseira) as the Delgani String Quartet plays with strength, a fine sense of rhythm, plenty of dancelike swing when called for, and a welcome overall sensitivity to both the ethnic and pop-music-like elements of the material. The quartet’s gentle handling of Jobim’s Retrato em branco e preto and Villa-Lobos’ Cair da tarde (which features Assad both vocalizing and playing piano) is a strength of the disc. Less convincing is their handling of a piece by Assad herself: Glitch contains all the usual contemporary dissonance and instrumental gestures, plus an altogether too common stop-and-go approach to its material, but it has few points to make and no really distinctive way of making them. The longest work on the CD, Villa-Lobos’ String Quartet No. 6, does not quite fit with Glitch (which it follows on the recording) or, for that matter, with many of the other pieces heard here. Yet it is at once the most accessible and the most distinguished piece on the disc, using the differing string ranges with care, exploring multiple harmonies and rhythms to excellent effect, and interestingly contrasting specific techniques, such as a broad legato coupled with pizzicato in the second movement. This quartet dates to 1938 – it is the sixth of the composer’s 17 string quartets – and manages to combine an almost Haydnesque transparency and delicacy with deliberately introduced elements of Brazilian popular music. It stands out from the other pieces here for the sure way the composer incorporates nationalistic material into classical traditions while mixing in everything from atonality to a fugato section. The audience for this CD is a bit difficult to determine: the quartet takes up almost half the disc but is not really its focus, while the shorter works are something of a hodgepodge of styles and sounds whose connections with Brazil are apparent but not always germane. Still, aficionados of both Villa-Lobos and Jobim may enjoy hearing the comparisons and contrasts between them that are on display here.

No comments:

Post a Comment