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Classical Music - Part 20 - November, 2000


Jason Serinus

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IRENE JOACHIM  •  LIEDER ET MELODIES  •  INA MEMOIRE VIVE IMV038

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In 1942, while still in her twenties, soprano Irene Joachim recorded the leading role of Melisande in the famous Roger Desormiere recording of Debussy’s opera, Pelleas et Melisande. This classic recording, featuring Jacques Jansen as Pelleas, Henri Etcheverry as Golaud, Germaine Cernay as Genevieve, Paul Cabanel as Arkiel, and Leila Ben Sedira as Yniold, is to this day considered “the” classic recording of the work", with Joachim’s voice receiving exceptional praise for its perfect embodiment of Melisande’s ephemeral character.

Nine years later, Irene Joachim was captured in two live recitals, both accompanied by Jane Bathori, a then-retired soprano whose prized interpretations of French melodie were recently celebrated in a recorded homage by Dawn Upshaw. One of these recitals, an homage to Charles Koechlin, features six melodies by this rarely encountered composer; the other offers melodies by Satie, Ravel, and Auric, plus a single melodie by Delage featuring the composer as accompanist. A third, 23-selection 1959 radio concert, accompanied Nadine Desouches, offers lieder and melodies by Schubert, von Weber, Schumann, Brahms, Berg, Faure, Debussy, Jaubert, and Poulenc. Put together, we get over 79 minutes of 36 selections, offered in 24-bit, mostly okay sound, with notes in French and English, but texts only in French.

Joachim’s voice is like no other. There is an essential aloneness to it, a sense of a solitary being suspended in time. Her diction is impeccable, the production lacking all pretense and artifice. Every note and syllable is uttered with care, as though it were something precious, as though every moment might be the last. Hers is an essentially indefinable artistry, as ungraspable as the soul of the fragile Melisande. To encounter such a rare gift is a privilege. 

THE BBC "BRITTEN THE PERFORMER" SERIES

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Celebrated as the greatest British composer of the Twentieth century, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was also a superb conductor and pianist. Together with his life partner, Peter Pears, for whose unique gifts he composed many vocal works and roles, Britten founded the annual Aldeburgh Festival, where he, Pears, and some of the most distinguished artists of the period performed.

Over the past two years, the BBC has released 15 invaluable Britten the Performer discs from its archives. Most feature live performances, never before released, re-mastered in 20-bit sound. Four of these discs, offering orchestral and vocal music by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Purcell, Schubert, Schumann, Faure, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Haydn and Beethoven, are now offered as two mid-price two-disc sets (BBC CD 8801 and 8802). Artists collaborating with Britten thereon include singers Janet Baker, Peter Pears, and Elly Ameling, plus pianists Claudio Arrau and Sviatoslav Richter. Of the remaining 11 single discs in the series, highlights include BBCB 8011-2, featuring Britten accompanying Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Heather Harper, John Shirley-Quirk and Peter Pears in lieder (songs) by Schubert and Wolf; and BBCB 8014-2, an all-Britten disc containing three priceless performances in which Britten accompanies Pears. Although no texts are provided with these full-price discs – the BBC is certainly not attempting to reach out to the uncommitted – extremely literate notes by Graham Johnson, Roger Vignoles and others offer considerable insight into the performances.

Pears is a wonder. Even at age 62, his performance of Britten’s early cycle, "Our Hunting Fathers, Op. 8", originally written for soprano, chills with its power. Britten often wrote about the dark underbelly of humanity, and Pears’ most unconventional tenor eerily conveys the depravity and decay Britten sought to expose. To text by W. H. Auden, Pears gets beneath one’s skin as he sings “Rats Away!”, his elongated “Rs” rolling like rats scurrying across the floor.

Another superb singer, Ian Bostridge, was 30 years younger than Pears when he recorded the same cycle with Daniel Harding (EMI 7243 5 56534 2 0). Bostridge offers far more welcoming tone and nuance, but cannot equal Pears’ searing intensity. (My extensive interview with Bostridge, as well as a review of his recent Berkeley recital of Schubert and Wolf, may be found herein at http://www.hometheaterhifi.com/volume_7_4/feature-article-bostridge-interview-11-2000.html).

In vocal music, the Fischer-Dieskau/Britten recital of ten Schubert lieder is equally arresting. Britten’s anything but self-effacing accompaniment serves as full partner in these commanding presentations. The “Fischerwise” seems much too fast, devoid of the charm that the beloved Elisabeth Schumann brought to it, but the bigger songs such as “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” and “Prometheus” are extraordinary.

I am less enamored of Elly Ameling’s rendition of Mozart’s great motet, Exsultate, jubilate, finding her gifts better displayed in more intimate works. Nor can Richter’s Larghetto in Mozart’s great final Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K. 595 approach the subtlety, serenity, and intimacy of the newly-released, better recorded performance by Richard Goode and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Nonesuch 79608-2). But there are enough extraordinary performances in this series to please the most discriminating of listeners. The 20-bit restoration sound is not always ideal, but the performances are priceless.

LEONARD BERNSTEIN  •  A WHITE HOUSE CANTATA    LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA  •  KENT NAGANO  DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON  289 463 448-2

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BERNSTEIN CONDUCTS BERNSTEIN •  SERENADE SONGFEST •  DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON  447957 2

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As I write this review, the results of the American Presidential election have yet to be determined. It is extremely rare in American history that a presidential election passes without being over. At a time when so many ponder internally and protest externally, these new and reissued recordings of works by that outspoken composer/conductor advocate for minority rights, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), seem particularly relevant.

It was Lenny who performed a celebratory concert when the Berlin Wall fell; Lenny who persisted in reintroducing the music of his friend Gustav Mahler to German orchestras despite their resistance; Lenny who fought openly and passionately for integration and equal rights for all.

Bernstein’s genius and quirkiness sings out with renewed vitality ten years after his death from a combination of cigarette and other drug abuse. Newly recorded is A White House Cantata: Scenes from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Drawn from Bernstein’s lengthy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner, the initial incarnations of this “musical about the problems of housekeeping,” composed and revised between 1972 and 1976, were not a success. An uneven work, it attempted to expose sexism and racism in various presidencies by alternating episodes from earlier days in the White House with a story about slavery in America.

This is the first recording of the substantially cut concert version of the work. Singers Thomas Hampson, June Anderson, Barbara Hendricks and Kenneth Tarver, the first three of whom sang and recorded with Lenny, have been assigned leading roles, and the original orchestration by Bernstein, Hershy Kay and Sid Ramin is preserved.

While some of Lerner’s lyrics are witty, biting, and damningly direct, musical inspiration lags at times. June Anderson sings admirably, but neither Hampson nor Hendricks is in best voice. Nagano and his forces do the best they can with the material, but West Side Story this is not.

Much better, in fact quite wonderful music graces a reissue combining Bernstein's beautiful, consistently engaging 1954 Serenade for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion after Plato's “Symposium” paean to love in all its forms, with the remarkable 1977 Songfest, a gorgeous 12-song setting of 13 American poems for six singers and orchestra.

Serenade is a live 1979 recording, featuring violinist Gidon Kremer, with Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Songfest, recorded two years earlier, features Bernstein conducting the National Symphony Orchestra, with vocal soloists Clamma Dale, Rosalind Elias, Nancy Williams, Neil Rosenshein, John Reardon and Donald Gramm.

Bernstein is his openly defiant, bad boy best in Songfest. Originally commissioned for the 1976 American bicentennial, but not completed in time, it was meant to present a comprehensive picture of America’s artistic past as seen by a contemporary artist. Poems by Frank O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Gregory Corso, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Allan Poe and others touch on such goodies as racism, patriotism, sexual frustration, women’s liberation, impossible marriages, bereaved love, heartbreak, the Moslem angel of music, opium, kief and hashish.

The music is wonderful, the singing superb. One highlight is Walt Whitman's "To What You Said," in which, after a beautiful and touching orchestral introduction, bass Donald Gramm sings in most beautiful voice:

I am that rough and simple person

I am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips

at parting, and I am one who is kissed in return

I introduce the new American salute

Another highlight is a ground-breaking duet in which mezzo Rosalind Elias and baritone John Reardon together and separately sing Langston Hughes' "I, Too, Sing America"

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes…

and June Jordan's "Okay, 'Negroes'"

Of a male white mammy . . .

The lyrics are at times sensational, but the music is consistently stunning and involving. This is a great and indispensable recording. In times of political uncertainty, Bernstein’s gifts seem greater than ever.

LEONARD BERNSTEIN    THE AGE OF ANXIETY (SYMPHONY NO. 2)  •  WILLIAM BOLCOM  PIANO CONCERTO MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN, PIANO  •  THE ULSTER ORCHESTRA  •  DMITRY SITKOVETSKY     HYPERION CA 67170

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In 1948, five years after Leonard Bernstein became instantly famous by standing in for Bruno Walter to conduct the New York Philharmonic, the 30-year old composer wrote his Symphony No. 2. Bernstein, inspired by W. H. Auden’s long poem, “The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue,” composed a major-length work, calling upon the forces of a consummate pianist to express the human quest to make sense of one’s own destiny. (Benjamin Britten, also influenced by Auden, set many of the poet’s verses to music. One such setting is discussed above).

Despite a fine performance by Hamelin, and a superior recording by famed engineer Tony Faulkner, this ruminative work does not consistently engage. Indeed, its most attractive section, a 4:29 very fast, jazz-derived “Masque,” points to the Bernstein of Broadway far more than the Bernstein of deep meaning. In fact, some listeners will find themselves searching for meaning as much as the fictional characters of Auden’s poem. While I have not heard Bernstein’s performance of the work, this one does not convince me that “The Age of Anxiety” is prime Lenny. 

Far more involving is the 1976 Concerto for Piano and Large Orchestra by American William Bolcom (b. 1938). Since I listened to this work for the first time without reading the liner notes, I had the opportunity to experience it without any preconceptions. If you wish to do the same, let me simply tell you that, while this 18-minute piece had me variously confused and amused at first, it had me laughing and cheering by the time it reached its Finale. Now, stop reading here, go buy the disc, don’t read the liner notes, listen on the finest system you can get your hands on, see what it does to you, and then come back to read the rest of this review. 

Bolcom’s music starts out quite simply. Then it gets a bit blue, then kind of tinkly, then decisively dissonant. There are hints at dance forms. What in the world is going on here, you might ask? (I certainly did.)

The second movement (if you pay attention to the transition) becomes quite lovely and introspective. All of a sudden come various patriotic tunes, marches and anthems, truncated, mixed up and rearranged in a manner far more ironic than anything Charles Ives composed. The effect is both hilarious and biting. The whole thing sounds like an American pastiche gone awry, as if someone tried to mix red, white, and blue in a paint can and pretend that the result was something worth painting the town with. It’s the aural equivalent of all those mindless flag-wavers at political rallies, rooting for candidates about whom some know nothing more than that concealed by craftily conceived TV commercials and selected 10-second sound bites.

It turns out that Bolcom wrote this 1976 commission as a reaction to the American Bicentennial celebrations. Finishing the work on time (something that Bernstein failed to do with his 1976 Songfest commission), Bolcom called it “one of the bitterest pieces” he had yet written. Even the second movement was meant as criticism, a commentary on the classically American Gershwin F major Concerto. If Bolcom’s work strikes me as more amusing than sardonic, it nonetheless succeeds in mocking that which others choose to celebrate. Highly recommended.

 

 - Jason Serinus -

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