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Recent Naxos Offerings - II

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C. Loewe, Passion Oratorio
Carl Loewe (1796-1869) is one of the great Lied composers, even if much less renowned than Wolf (never mind Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann), who is also mainly remembered for his song output. Indeed, Loewe's Lieder – beautifully recorded on the cpo label – ought to be checked out by anyone with an interest in the genre. Now Naxos brings us Das Sühneopfer des neuen Bundes (“The Expiatory Sacrifice of the New Covenant”), which they wisely dub “Passion Oratorio.” Udo Reinemann leads the capable forces of the Ensemble Instrumental & Vocal des Heures Romantiques in a live performance captured on tape on August 2, 2003, at St. John the Baptist in Villedieu-le-Château. Soprano Nathalie Gaudefroy, contralto Christianne Stotjin, tenor Jacky da Cunha, and basses Henk Neven and Edwin Crossley-Mercer are his soloists. The performance quality is such that it pleases or, at the very least, does not deter from listening to this charming, though hardly monumental, piece of curiosità. The recording quality is, well… very “live” and a bit cavernous. Page turning, rustling and bustling, coughing, and occasionally breathing from the artists can all be heard. The sound is on the bright side and a little thin. During the playing, however, the audience is - as one might expect in a church - very well behaved.

But this, too, is not terribly important given that this is the only recording of the work (and likely to remain the only one for a while, I should think). The music is more important – and therein lies the rub. Loewe’s “Passion Oratorio” is basically a Romantically touched-up, second-flush Bach oratorio. It maddeningly veers between absolutely divine touches here and occasional ineptness there; moments that delight and moments where the music gets stuck in a rut, especially during some of the recitatives. Whenever it comes closest to Bach – either by text or style – its shortcomings are obvious. “Mein Reich ist nicht von dieser Welt,” one of the most moving moments in the Johannes Passion, is conjured by Loewe (who also sets Jesus' text for bass/baritone) and marks one of those moments where you wish for echt-Bach. The Passion Oratorio reminds me of an old piece of furniture with scuff marks and worn-out upholstery, but dear to one's heart. You know its flaws and you can see (or hear) them, but you hold onto it just the same. I won’t claim this work is great, but I’d never throw it out. It’s a hundred minutes of the type of music that I could not turn off on a Sunday morning; although I know a few people around me who might try.

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J. Ireland, String Quartets, Holy Boy
Much less controversially beautiful is the recording of string quartets by John Ireland (1879-1962). Played by the (usually) most excellent Maggini Quartet, who specialize in English chamber works from Vaughan Williams to Elgar to Moeran, Britten, Bridge, Walton, and Maxwell-Davies (a Best of 2004 choice), these are again stunningly entertaining works that don’t deserve the neglect they have met. As a continental European, it is very easy to ignore the fact that England has had any composers other than Handel and, perhaps, Elgar. But with Bax, Bliss, Bridge, Delius, Ireland, Stanford, and the like, the fair isle has happy musical surprises in spades up its sleeves.

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Ireland, Piano Concerto
John Ireland’s two quartets in D minor and C minor, student works, stem from 1897. The models of Beethoven and Brahms (as far as the string quartets are concerned, a little more of the former than the latter to my ears) are easily audible – and so, too, is the fact that neither are mature Ireland. But that should not concern anyone who knows the magnificent youthful chamber works of Bridge (or, more famously, Mendelssohn or even Korngold). Charles Villiers Stanford was at the receiving end of the first Ireland quartet (Ireland, so Andrew Burn’s liner notes tell us, was trying to impress Stanford into accepting him as a student) but thought it “Dull as ditchwater, m’bhoy.” That was harsh, to say the least, because even if the development of themes is not the epitome of refined string quartet writing, these are very much worthy pieces, whether from a student or veteran composer! Too bad, indeed, that Ireland never returned to the genre – “The Holy Boy,” a three-minute string quartet arrangement of a piano prelude doesn’t quite count but it’s nice to see it included on the Naxos disc. As far as Ireland is concerned, I’d start with the piano concerto before exploring his other works – but string quartet mavens may go straight to this issue.

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L. Stokowski / "Bach," Transcriptions
Stokowski is gaining back a little of his good reputation as his arrangements and transcriptions have gone out of favor so hard in the last twenty years that now they are almost ‘cool’ again. At the very least they are charming guilty-pleasures and there is, among classical music lovers, no longer the fierce ideological waft of the authentic performance militia present anymore, that would have you instantly condemned upon sighting of a Stokowskiïzed Orchestral Suite. Few, if any, conductors have done more to champion Stokowski’s cause than José Serebrier. For the sake of full disclosure, it might be good to know that Serebrier owns a good deal of his early career to Stokowski, to whom Serebrier was an Associate Conductor at Carnegie, who premiered the young Serebrier’s first symphony, and who sent Serebrier, at 21, into the world of music with the tag of “greatest master of orchestral balance” to live up to.

Stokowski's Bach has been frowned upon, not the least because it combines divine mastery, spiritual purity, and seeming musical perfection with a few ladles of unabashed showmanship and effect. Oomped up and inflated, showy and shiny, self-conscious and even gaudy, this was quick to be discredited in times where the drive towards authenticity was at the front of every serious music lover’s mind. Now we can listen to these works in a more relaxed manner again; we know what HIP Bach is and sounds like, and Stokowski is not a threat to anyone’s image or idea of Bach. They are what they ought to be: alternative approaches that enrich out Bach-fare much like Busoni transcriptions of Bach or even Mahler orchestrations of Beethoven and Schumann do. Which is why the pedal-down, all-stops-pulled “Air” from the third Orchestral Suite is enjoyable and beautiful as can be: instantly seductive, the sound of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Serebrier is as lush as they could possibly muster.

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Musorgksy / Stokowski, "Pictures"
Not all of the treatments work equally well, though. “Sheep may safely graze” (for five-and-a-half minutes) is still overwhelmingly beautiful – but makes the preceding track look downright subtle. The orchestration – dominant flutes, especially – is often more effect-full than effective. Sudden ritardandos and swelling crescendos often feel overly self-conscious, and while one part of me smiles, the other rolls his eyes. The Passacaglia and Fugue that closes the album exposes the point that this album makes to me overall: what a great orchestrator and transcriber was Arnold Schoenberg! There are still - and are again - a good number of Stokowski transcription aficionados who won’t care about such quibbles and they will be pleased to know that the execution - sound, playing - is exemplary, outshining Stokowski's own recordings on either account. I myself prefer to enjoy the Stokowski revival with his splendid Pictures at an Exhibition orchestration (also a Serebrier recording, to be reviewed shortly on Ionarts).

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