For those who savour variety, this pair of recordings provide a vast array of music, performers and ideas.
Clearly living up to its title, English Suite is a conventionally crafted step back in time brought to life by Gerard Schwarz and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (2006). The opening darkly hued contrapuntal lines evoke memories of Holst. Schwartz manages a finely balanced, dynamically aware string tone and is especially blessed (as is the writing) with a first-rate viola section that revels in its frequent chances to shine. The succeeding dance movements are a rehearsal away from precision perfection but are played with strong conviction and an urge to get up and dance (notably “Country Dance I”). If only we knew the steps!
Snake in the Garden is a truly fantastic tale of the devil’s first disciple being exiled from Paradise. It’s one of the finest soundscapes heard in decades and should find its way onto the programs of orchestras everywhere. Richard Stoltzman devours the challenging solo part with customary skill and surety but then digs far beneath the emotional surface—especially in the closing lament where the term “quietude” is definitively defined. Kirk Trevor and the Slovak Radio Orchestra are the perfect foil, easily keeping up with their “snake in the jazz” as the music bounces from scene to scene. God’s orchestration combines power and obedience to heavenly affect. Merci mille fois.
Not nearly as successful is Trip Hammer, a mechanical Danse Macabre that in conductor Vit Micka’s hands comes across much more frenetic than the composer intended. Too frequently, Micka fails to rein himself and his energetic charges into a unity of pulse and purpose. Settle down, please.
Music and mathematics have been constant companions since the first pitch was purposely made and tribal drums sent rhythmic communication wordlessly. Crafting art based on complex formulas or “simple” proportions is also nothing new. In Fenner’s intriguingly titled Neat Proportions (presumably denoting coolness; Micka delivers a “neater” result than Trip Hammer; a straight-up scotch is not required to savour the orchestration; no references to cattle could be heard—unlike a recent recording from the Andes, cross-reference below) the music engages at every shift. Blocks of sound, punctuated by hand-beaten snares-off drum then large swaths of unison melody make a strong link to Bartók’s mighty Concerto for Orchestra. Later, the clarinets-over-tympani hue knocks knowingly at the door of Sibelius. The bold brazen brass score highly with the notable section of the Mahler-like trumpet calls. It’s a work not out of proportion but most certainly mindful of those who’ve paved the way for colour as an end in itself.
The Moyzes String Quartet digs into Lombardi’s score with obvious commitment, much bite and a beautifully well-rounded cello. The brief work contains much dissonance, busy bits and refreshing unisons. The occasional pizzicato offers punch and signals change. The first and last high tones seem a tad nervous and uncertain, but perhaps that, too, was an illusion. [Note: Try reading the program note after the first hearing; you may then hear more than you think.]
Get ye to Hollywood! Here are ten minutes of clean, clearly sectioned writing that cry out for the big screen. From the punchy launch with triplets flying everywhere (as they frequently do whether hogging the spotlight themselves or accompanying the dreamy melodic lines) the chase scene morphs wondrously into trap-set jazz somewhere in Manhattan. After the BIG BRASS have their glorious say, the quiet mid-section gives way to ethereal strings and the requisite woodblock before a wondrous push down to the depths of love. The Mahler-7-like cello tune deftly cues the horns. Soon the poignant oboe brings its private thoughts above plucked basses; bells add to the calmo effect before rumbling tympani (and first-cousin from the “kitchen”) “snap” us out of our reverie and then build to the BIG FINISH (with a moment or two of Rachmaninov colourization) lifts this easily editable (film, that is) soundscape to a triumphant conclusion. The unnamed piano soloists were more than up to the tasks at hand. Conductor Vladmir Valek and the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra were equally in their element.
Edward P. Mascari
Young minds will come away with precious few insights into the world’s most complex and magnificent musical ensemble. Ruth Ray Kelleher’s narration is patronizing, so much so that the stop button seems very appealing. The text by Ann Hayes does little to educate; content to enumerate, start a link of instruments to colours that is dropped after purple and blue and fails to explain several important items: What is the concertmaster’s role? What is a variation? Musically, Mascari’s masking of Tchaikovsky’s shopping-mall-known march may impress the players but leave the kids saying “Mom, that’s not the way it goes” when the “finale” offers the tune in full bloom. Benjamin Britten has nothing to fear.
Marvellous. Gerard Schwarz truly leads a totally committed performance of Walczyk’s single-cell embryo that grows steadily into our consciousness and plants the seeds for future re-hearings. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra rallies to the cause—particularly the low brass, the concertmaster’s solo intervention and fluttering muted trumpets—, painting the wide-ranging canvas with real emotion and understanding. Even the frequently pejorative wind chimes don’t sound cheesy and add to the effect. Pure music such as this can’t help but find an audience of those who choose to open their ears, minds and then truly listen.
This pair of “Odes to Scott Joplin” are well-intentioned but can’t find their groove both aurally and musically. “Terrifying yet Marvellous” kicks off with appropriate menace only to have the clarinet-to-orchestra balance sound more like a decades-old live radio broadcast. Uncharacteristically, Stoltzman’s svelte, flexible tone becomes a tad tight (recovering nicely in the wee cadenza). Pann’s structure seems disjointed although the bookend “wah wahs” nicely frame the ragged action.
The brushes to train ride mid-section transition brings a smile in “Fresh, Innocent” but requires razor-sharp ensemble to get all toes a tappin’.
What a difference a track makes! In Yes!, Meira Warshauer hits a musical homerun out of the field of exuberance and into the hearts of all of those lucky enough to hear it. Conductor Jerzy Swoboda gets things going with a firecracker start and—immediately: no “first few getting-to-know-you measures” required—Stoltzman and the Warsaw National Philharmonic start to swing and never let go. The nimble clarinetist wails with happy abandon and scrambles through a zillion notes with the greatest of ease. Following an engaging drum solo, a melodic two-note anchor is all that’s required to rev up the next section, filled with very conversational repartee and slippery ‘bones. Got the blues? Wash them away here!
A quartet of arias taken out of context from an opera seem like strange bedfellows to the instrumental music that preceded. Joel Mandelbaum’s romantic score verges on melodrama but has some moments of passion (“The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising”) and glimmer of hope (the the flute and solo cello in “The Cities Will Be Ovens”) in Susan Fox’s libretto based on real-life experiences in war-torn Normandy (1942-44). Soprano Anda Luisa Bogza declaims the mother’s point of view with vigour, but has a slight tendency to force rather than support her way into the music’s climaxes.
The twin CD set concludes with the self-confessional word painting from Elaine Erickson (both music and text). Once again Gerard Schwarz guides the Seattle Symphony Orchestra strings which are brooding, brash or bereft as required (the group excursions to the stratosphere being the only weak link). Soprano Isabel Ganz sings, shrieks and word-speaks with commendable energy and spirit (much of the diction leaves the thoughtful listener wishing a copy of the printed text had been included in the otherwise informative program notes and bios). Recorded in 1994 (the earliest, along with The Village of the dozen works), the style seems tiresome and dated in the present-day world of music that breaks down borders rather than eardrums. JWR