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17.6.06

Recent Naxos Offerings

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A. Dorman, Piano Sonatas

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H. Willan, Choral Works

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J. M. Kraus, German Songs

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L. Spohr, StQ5t v.4

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L. Berio, Sequenzas I-XIV

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R. Sessions, StQ4t et al.

From this month’s new releases by Naxos – by some count the largest classical record label – I aimed for mostly eclectic and obscure items to come across my desk. Interest, curiosity, and the desire to always prick my musical tastes guards against complacency of appreciation and desire. While Roger Sessions and Ned Rorem might at least be at the fringe of American music lovers’ consciousness (Rorem, at least, should be better known still, as one of this country’s most important contemporary composers), I don’t expect anyone to nod appreciatively upon the mention of Avner Dorman (b. 1975, Israeli-American) or Healey Willan (1880-1968, English émigré to Canada). Luciano Berio is a known quantity even to those who have never heard a note of his or, for that matter, plan on never hearing a note of his. A recording of his monumental miniatures Sequenzas I-XIV rounds out the batch of 20th/21st-century music.

First to Avner Dorman’s solo piano works performed by Eliran Avni. À la bonheur! This is good music – of the kind that, if it were by a prominent, preferably dead, composer, would be called “eminently pleasing” and “utterly delightful.” Since it is a new face, however, that shows his “Classical” Sonata No. 1, Moments Musicaux (some competition he’s got with other works that go by that title), Prelude No. 1 (written as an 18-year-old), Sonata No. 2 and the 2005 Dance Suite: Sonata No. 3, one is tempted to be more reserved and say things like “charming, if harmless” or “quaint and unchallenging listening.” Probably a bit of both is true, but more importantly there are some ‘damn good’ moments, too – and that these works make for very enjoyable listening. Repeat listening is even more rewarding: the playful way that the “classical” first sonata mimics anything from Beethoven to Liszt (“Romantic” would have been just as good a nickname) to popular music and has all the youthful quirks of unburdened composing. Dorman has an ear for a good tune but avoids cheapness. Come to think of it, this is “damn good.”

Healey Willan, born in 1880 and “dominat[ing] the field of sacred music” in Canada, is quite a change-up from the variously enjoyable modern fare. This is easy listening with the scent of frankincense; it sounds absolutely lovely and reverently joyful. Like that beautiful anonymous church music that is anonymous not because the composers can’t be found out, but because no one bothers to find them out. It is prettiness that leaves no questions to ask or answers to probe for. Although I have one question, come to think of it: how can a composer turn 4:35 of simple beauty into something that sounds simply unending. Not even a minute in, I thought that the four minutes must just about be up. Once “Hymn – Anthem on ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’” creeps across the 4 minute mark, it feels like a movement of a Bruckner symphony could have passed. Repetitively glacial.

Willan does not offend with debased schlock in the way John Rutter does (at least to these anti-Rutterite ears), that vapid candy-cane composer of one piece of choral kitsch after another. Willan is beautiful throughout and deserves no ire. He does, however, deserve a certain anonymity. His music is of the kind that will lift your spirit and calm your soul if you should step into a dark cathedral and hear the choristers from the rafters. A little tasteful organ is employed here and there… and the beautiful Missa Brevis No. XI “Missa Sancti Johannis Baptistae” strikes me as more successful than most of this disc’s other works set in English. I know people who will lap this kind of music up and I don’t blame them for it; in future I myself will turn to this disc for the purposes of mood only; not the compositions themselves. It should be said that elsewhere this disc received highest praise; David Vernier, ClassicaToday.com’s editor, would have Ontario's Elora Festival Singers declared national treasures of Canada for their (indeed) excellent singing.

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J. M. Kraus, Symphonies v. 1

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J. M. Kraus, Symphonies v. 2

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J. M. Kraus, Symphonies v. 3
The Swede Joseph Martin Kraus (1756 – 1792) is a composer of symphonies that I cherish very much as adding spice to the diet of Mozart/Haydn in classical works. I might prefer Onslow over Kraus in that category, but either composer’s works in that genre are rewarding. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about Kraus’s songs, all the German ones of which are collected on a recording with soprano Birgid Steinberger and baritone Martin Hummel, accompanied by Glen Wilson. Steinberger and Hummel have light voices, appropriate for light songs; ditties, even. If it is said of Schubert to have picked his texts indiscriminately and with occasional lapse in taste, Kraus redeems him by some measure. Surely few examples of the Lied have such asinine, portentously funny, farm-animal humdrum lyrics as Die Henne. (The chicken cackles too loudly whenever laying an egg, her neighbor, the turkey, complains. The chicken retorts dourly. It’s a turkey alright, even if the chicken noises of Martin Hummel almost make its two minutes worthwhile.) Were it not for such superior art songs available in abundance (even Franz Xaver Mozart did better), I might not find these songs so sordid… alas, there are far too few pearls in this collections. While Ms. Steinberger is pleasant if unremarkable, I don’t particularly take to Mr. Hummel’s thin, brittle voice; a little too much taste of the dilettante reality of these songs, no matter how it suits the nature the works. Diction and pronunciation are just about perfect, making the lack of texts in the booklet (for economic reasons available only at www.naxos.com/libretti/krauslieder.html) unnecessary for the German speaker. It would be silly to blame Mr. Wilson for the lackluster accompaniment – there is only so much music he can work with. This is not likely how you’ll want to encounter this composer: try the symphonies instead!

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L. Spohr, Clarinet Concertos

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L. Spohr, Faust

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L. Spohr, StQ5t v. 3
Spohr is a composer I very much like – I’ve fallen in love with his music mainly because of his opera Faust which I’ve always found sounds like Mozart might have, in his 50s, had Beethoven not existed. Clarinet lovers probably know his concertos for that instrument; if they don’t, they should. The violin concertos are lovely, if not quite on the same level. His numerous string quartets and string quintets, too, are more than worth listening to and have been served well on Marco Polo’s complete survey. Now these discs are being re-released by Naxos at a price that is much more inviting to explore his works. I’ve very much enjoyed volume 3 on the Marco Polo label, and volume 4 with the Quintet No. 7 in G minor, op. 144, and the Sextet in C major, op. 140, is similarly enjoyable. This is accomplished chamber music between Mozart and Brahms – which ought to tempt you, even if you noticed the ‘soft put-down’ “accomplished” in this sentence. I can’t earnestly recommend all of Spohr to any less-than-obsessed collector, but apart from the clarinet concertos and Faust, a disc with quartets and one with quintets ought to be listened to. This recording, offering the much earlier Potpourri (not the same as the clarinet Potpourri) and the Sextet is one of the better places to start, even if I might give the nod to volume 3 if it must only be one of the quintet CDs. The New Haydn Quartet plays more then adequately. Here might be the place to say: “…plays as well as can be imagined”; which is a favorite short cut for reviewing a CD of repertory one has never heard in a different version and saying something nice without saying anything of substance. I will refrain from that phrase, for one because I actually can imagine these works played with more zest yet, with a fuller tone, and in a slightly more rewarding acoustic. Alas, given distinct lack of competition, “good” is actually “good enough.”

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Berio, Sequenzas I-XIV (Mode)

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Berio, Sequenzas I-XIII (DG)
Berio’s Sequenza now has two three (Mode's -full price- recording came on the market a week ago; I have not listened to it) complete recordings: the complete DG 20/21 recording with the Ensemble Intercontemporain and stunning soloists (Teodoro Anzellotti on the accordion, Christophe Desjardins on the viola, Alain Damiens on the clarinet) and now the complete-complete Naxos recording that comes with the 2002 addition “Sequenza XIV for cello” and not only has the alternative alto-sax version Sequenza IXb (present on the DG recording) but also the alternative soprano-sax version Sequenza VIIb (oboe and clarinet being the instruments of original intent). That Naxos’s three-disc set is half the price might make a purchase for the curious more likely – but it would be for naught if the performances were stale or sub-par. There is only so much I can meaningfully say about the performances of some of the wilder pieces in this collection – and I did not bother to compare the performances side by side. Listening to the impressive solo contributions of the Sequenzas disaffirms all worry: these are very fine performances indeed, whether it be Jasper Wood in Sequenza VIII for violin or Joaquin Valdepeñas' stand-out offering of Sequenza IXa for clarinet where his full tone contains virtually no ‘air’. He’s worth listening to just for the mastery over his instrument.

Not all the sequenzas are equally accessible or even equally intriguing – but generally this is one of the best points to start exposing oneself to high modernist music: the variety among the sequenzas and their individual focus make for fascinating and interesting listening, even when you are not necessarily enjoying what you hear (I’ve never much taken to Sequenza X for trumpet in C and pianoresonance, no matter how well Guy Few may play it here). Sequenza III for female voice, “a zoo of vocal and acting exhibitions,” is given to Tony Arnold, who hiccups and musico-stutters her way through this amusing, shifty work, although I liked it better when performed live by Phyllis Bryn-Julson with the Left Bank Concert Society a year ago. An excellent entry into the world of Berio – probably some of Berio’s best work – but only for those who know what they are getting into. If Carter’s piano sonata – for example – does not delight at all, Berio won’t likely yield more pleasure.

Roger Sessions’ Quintet for 2 violins, 2 violas, and cello from 1958 is significantly more dissonant than chamber music of contemporaries Bloch, Shostakovich, Hindemith – even Bartók… but compared to modernists, he still falls down squarely on the side of the latters' style. Second and third listening help his string quartet immensely: these are very good works indeed - and all those who would not want to live without the above mentioned (although I can see how living without the Hindemith could be possible) should probably wrap their ears around the work of Roger Sessions (1896-1985).

2 comments:

george pieler said...

Thanks for giving a plug to Sessions, too often forgotten among the 'greatest generation' of American composers. I don't think though anyone who likes this would let Hindemith's chamber works go, especially if you include the Kammermusiks.

jfl said...

I was thinking Hindemith String Quartets... which I personally like, but I think that Sessions, Bloch, Bartok, DSCH and - yes - Reger are of greater interest at first.