Monday, October 26, 2020

"Buried Alive" unearths Roaring 20s classics

This release presents three works from the late 1920s. It was a time of reinvention. The First World War swept away the conventions of the Edwardian Age. 

Composers (and other artists) developed new forms of expression, that incorporated various elements of prewar aesthetics. Arthur Honegger, Othmar Schoeck, and Dmitri Mtropoulous were among them -- each choosing to take a slightly different way forward.

Honneger's "Rugby, (Mouvement symphonique) is the most familiar of the three works (being part of a trilogy that includes "Pacific 321." The music, though not specifically programmatic, effectively depicts the conflict of sport. Motifs move back and forth, clashing with increasing energy until one remains to finish the piece in triumph.

Dmitri Mitropoulos is best remembered as a conductor, but he also composed early in his career. His Concerto Grosso isn't a neo-classical work. Mitropoulos was an admirer of Arnold Schoenberg. The Concerto Grosso is a study in atonality and expressionism, framed in Baroque forms, such as the French overture, and treatments, such as fugues and canons. 

The eponymous composition, "Buried Alive" is the longest piece in the program. Othmar Schoeck greatly admired Hugo Wolf, and the bulk of his catalog is lieder. "Lebendig begraben" (Buried Alive), is a mature work, with Schoeck pushing against convention with exotic harmonies and obscured key centers. 

The song cycle for baritone and orchestra sets a series of poems by Swiss poet Gottfried Keller. The poet is literally buried alive. The poems are contemplations of his situation and events from his life, which ebbs away at the conclusion of the poem. 

Baritone Michael Nagy delivers what seems like a stream of consciousness monologue. Schoeck knew how to write for the voice -- and Nagy knows how to bring Schoeck's music to life. "Buried Alive' isn't operatic in gestures, but it is in emotional content. 

Leon Botstein conducts the Orchestra Now in some fine performances. "Rugby" has the necessary energy, and the Concerto Grosso the required precision. But it's "Buried Alive" where the superb musicianship of the conductor and orchestra come together (along with the soloist). Schoeck's score provides context for the voice. And it also wraps around the voice in a way that continually evokes claustrophobia.

Highly recommended.

Buried Alive
Honegger, Schoek, Mitropoulos
Michael Nagy, baritone
The Orchestra Now; Leon Botstein, conductor
Bridge Records 9540

Friday, October 23, 2020

#ClassicsaDay #ClassicalTimeMachine Week 3

For the month of October, the Classics a Day team turned nostalgic. Classical musicians have been making recordings since the 1890s. So we all have over 130 years of documented performance practices. And we can judge first-hand the artistry of legendary performers. 

The challenge is to post classical recordings made before 1949 (pre-LP era). Here are my posts for the third week of the #ClassicsaDay theme #ClassicalTimeMachine.

10/19/20 Richard Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra (1944)

Strauss recorded this and other works with the Vienna Philharmonic as part of his eightieth birthday

10/20/20 Elgar - Cello Concerto (1920)

Edward Elgar finished this work in 1919. He recorded it a year later, chopping it down from 29 minutes to 15. Elgar conducted a reduced orcehstra for the acoustic recording, with Beatrice Harrison soloist.

10/21/20 Mahler Second Symphony (1934)

This is a transcribed recording of a concert bpradcast in 1934. Arnold Schoenberg, Mahler's friend and early champion of his music, conducts the Cadillac Symphony.

10/22/20 Elgar - Cello Concerto (1920)

Elgar finished this in 1919. He recorded it a year later, chopping it down from 29 minutes to 15. Elgar conducted a reduced orchestra for the acoustic recording, with Beatrice Harrison.

10/23/20 Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

George Gershwin premiered the work with Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra Feb. 12, 1924, and they recorded it four months later. The score was reduced by 1/3 to fit unto the 12-inch discs.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Sarah Connolly shines in Arthur Bliss cantatas

This outstanding release presents three relatively late works by Arthur Bliss. At the time, they were considered a little old-fashioned. Heard now, though, I think they show the originality of Bliss' vision -- and his skill at orchestral writing. 

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly shines in "The Enchantress" and "Mary of Magdala." Her voice can sound warm, with rich honeyed tones. Or it can have a steely edge to it, projecting a menacing strength. 

That wide range of technique is put to the test with "The Enchantress." Bliss wrote the work for Kathleen Ferrier, "in admiration of her singing." It played to all of Ferrier's vocal and dramatic strengths. And from the sound of this performance, Connolly's as well. 

"Mary of Magdala" is also dramatic, but of a more subtle nature. Mary Magdalene is grieving at Jesus' open tomb when the gardener talks to her. As she converses with him, she slowly realizes that it's actually Jesus, and her grief turns to overwhelming joy. 

Connolly presents the initial emotions of Mary with restraint (compared with those in "The Enchantress"). And while that loosens as the work progresses, Connolly remains focused. She presents Mary's joy as spiritual rather than visceral.

Also included is Bliss' commission for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, "Meditations on a Theme by John Blow." The theme was a setting of Psalm 23. Each meditation uses a different passage, making this work a study in contrasts. 

Andrew Davis leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in some fine performances. This is an SACD release. If you choose to purchase a digital version, opt for the highest resolution you can. The fine details of Sarah Connolly's singing --especially in "The Enchantress" should not be missed. 

Arthur Bliss: Mary of Magdala
The Enchantress; Meditations on a Theme by John Blow
Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; James Platt, bass
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Andrew Davis, conductor
Chandos CHSA 5242

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Joan Manén - a composer worth knowing

At one time, Joan Manén was as famous as his contemporary (and fellow Catalan) Pablo Casals. Manén rose to fame as a violin virtuoso and composer. During his career, he rubbed shoulders and performed with Antonin Dvorak, Max Bruch, and Richard Strauss.

By the late 1930s, Manén's attraction as a performer was in decline. Although he had composed throughout his career, he turned now exclusively to composition. The works in this release are from that time.

The 1940 Violin Concerto No. 3 is subtitled "Ibérico." it's not as overtly Spanish as a Rodrigo works. Rather, the concerto seems to take inspiration from the fire and passion of Iberian music.

Spanish violinist Ana Maria Valderrama is incredible. She seems to "get" Manén's subtext, drawing out his long, lyrical melodies. And she is more than a match for Manén's technical challenges. Manén wrote the violin part based on his own abilities. They were -- and Valderrama's are -- formidable.

Symphony No. 2 "Ibérica" comes much later. In 1953 Manén was 70 years old, and still composing music on his own terms. The work is a sprawling post-Romantic edifice. The Spanish elements are more prominent in this work, but ethnicity isn't really the point.

Manén lays out his material and takes the listener on a journey through his sonic construction. It's quite a trip.

Darrel Ang conducts different orchestras for each of these works. His conducting provides consistency of interpretation, making this release a cohesive whole.

I was not at all familiar with Joan Manén before. I definitely want to hear more.

Joan Manén
Violin Concerto No. 3 "Ibérico" (sin tono) Op. A-37
Symphony No. 2 "Ibérica"Op. A-47
Ana Maria Valderrama, violin
Barcelona Symphony Orchestra; National Orchestra of Catalonia; Darrell Ang, conductor
Naxos 8.574274-75   2 CD Set

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Cantica Symphonia masterfully perform Josquin Desprez

This is the fourth volume of music by Josquin Desprez that Cantica Symphonia has released on Glossa. 

Giuseppe Maletto and the ensemble released two volumes of Josquin's motets, plus one of chansons. Their next release was a collection of Marian motets (compositions in praise of the Virgin Mary) by various Renaissance composers. 

 This recording seems the next logical step -- a collection of Marian motets by Josquin Desprez. It's actually a little broader than that. The program also includes instrumental songs and a Stabat Mater (also about the Virgin Mary). 

The Cantica Symphonia knows Josquin well, and their performances show it. Their vocal blend is almost seamless. There's enough separation to hear how each line fits together, created harmonies solely through interaction. 

These were motets written to inspire contemplation, and they do. Maletto's direction shapes the music in subtle ways. The ensemble performs calmly, invoking a feeling of serenity. Closer listening reveals subtle phrasing that gives these performances their expressive power. 

This is a wonderful collection of Josquin's music. He was considered the greatest composer of his age. As this release shows. even within this tightly focused grouping, Josquin's imagination was limitless. 

Josquin Desprez: Stabat Mater 
Marian motets and instrumental songs 
Cantica Symphonia; Giuseppe Maletto 
Glossa GCD P31909