Ring Out the Old, Bring In the New

As we prepare our farewell to Anno Domini 2008, I reflect back on some things that gave me great pleasure and on some new discoveries from this year. Although my appetite for obscure composers and compositions is insatiable, I want readers to know that I do revisit the classic repertory as often as I can, and with it we shall begin this month’s meditation.
My friend, music critic Jens Laurson of Ionarts and WETA, put me on to the set of Beethoven symphonies by the Berlin Staatskapelle, under Daniel Barenboim, on the Warner label (2564 61890-2). I had no particular opinion of Barenboim as a conductor, but I am completely sold on these old-fashioned, sumptuous, yet powerful and passionate performances. I found it for $30. If it comes your way, grab it. I was so impressed that I also bagged Barenboim’s complete Bruckner symphonies — this time with the Berlin Philharmonic — also on Warner, at a bargain price of only $36 on the Berkshire Record Outlet site. The playing is staggeringly beautiful, but Barenboim does not quite reach the spiritual level of sublimity that my favorite Gunter Wand performances achieve.
My Christmas present to myself was Sir Charles Mackerras’s complete set of Mozart symphonies, with the Prague Chamber Orchestra, in a budget Telarc box for only $30. The adrenaline runs high even in the early works that Mozart penned as a pre-teen. The term energetic would be almost an understatement in describing these jolting performances. It is hard to sit still while listening to them. While I appreciate the verve, I will not discard my Josef Krips recordings, which are more leisurely and bring out the operatic quality of the late symphonies in an especially appealing way.
Reaching back somewhat earlier into the 18th century, we have an intriguing Missa Brevis from Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). If you only know Pergolesi from his exquisite Stabat Mater, you have a treat ahead of you with the Missa Romana, an inventive, highly charged setting of the Kyrie and the Gloria. Playing and singing of great character from the Concerto Italiano, under Rinaldo Alessandrini, bring completely to life a work accounted by Pergolesi’s contemporaries as radiating “the utmost harmony, grandeur and piety.” That a 24-year-old could have written something this original leaves one wondering what other glories Pergolesi might have achieved had he not died at age 26. The Naïve CD (OP 30461) includes a very lovely Christmas Mass, written by Alessandro Scarlatti in 1707.
Another vocal treat comes in the form of the secular cantatas of Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792), an exact contemporary of Mozart, who died at the young age of 36. We already know that Krauss was a genius from earlier Naxos recordings of his symphonies; that he deserved his appellation as the “Swedish Mozart” is made abundantly clear by his glorious coloratura writing in the four cantatas for soprano included in a new CD, La Primavera, issued by Phoenix Edition label (101), with the delicious singing of Simone Kermes and energetic playing of L’Arte del Mondo, under Werner Ehrhardt. Alas, the cantata texts are only in Italian and German.
Mozart’s spirit also imbues the piano concertos of Joseph Wolfl (1773-1812), which is hardly surprising since Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father, was his teacher, along with Michael Haydn. The CPO label has released Concertos 1, 5, and 6, played by Yorck Kronenberg, with the SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra Kaiserslautern, under Johannes Moesus. If you have any affection for this period and genre, you will be charmed and delighted.
My love of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin developed in me a taste for other works for solo violin. Therefore, I was intrigued by CPO’s release of the 40 Etudes ou Caprices pour Violon by Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831). Kreutzer’s name is renowned chiefly because Beethoven dedicated to him his 9th Violin Sonata. Kreutzer’s Etudes are teaching exercises. I do not advise listening to the two CDs (CPO 999 901-2) of etudes non-stop, because their pedagogical intent can overwhelm the musical interest and try your patience. However, some of them are musically engaging and can stand proudly on their own — for instance, the lovely lament, with an almost keening Celtic sound, in the first etude. Elizabeth Wallfisch’s playing makes this a delight for those with an interest in this period, or for fanatics like me.
Perhaps an even greater entertainment quotient can be found in the complete piano concertos of piano virtuoso and composer John Field (1782-1837). Chandos has released its complete survey of the seven concertos, along with a few other works, on four discs in mid-price box (CHAN 10468(4) X), with pianist Miceal O’Rourke and the London Mozart Players. These are display pieces of great charm and little profundity, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying them for what they are, especially in these fine performances in stellar sound.
In the ear-candy department, we have Ottorino Respighi’s La Primavera Cantata (1922), performed by soloists, the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus, and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Adriano. The budget Naxos disc (8.570741) includes Quattro Liriche and La Pentola Magica (The Magic Pot). At 45 minutes long, La Primavera is a luscious, sumptuous, extravagant celebration of spring, with six soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Though its text is cloaked in Christianity, its musical sensibility has an almost pagan feel to it. Just as La Boutique Fantasque was based upon themes by Rossini, Respighi’s Magic Pot ballet uses Russian sources, the music of Alexander Grechaninov, Anton Arensky, Anton Rubinstein, and others for this charming 25-minute confection. This program used to be on the full-price Marco Polo label and has just gravitated to the budget Naxos imprint, making these rare Respighi treats even more accessible to his many fans.
I have been very curious about the attention given to British composer Richard Arnell (b. 1917) by the Dutton label. It has released four of his six symphonies, some ballet music, and a piano concerto. Is this, I wondered, another neglected talent on the artistic level of Edmund Rubbra or William Alwyn, whose well-deserved revivals have preceded Dutton’s recent attention to Arnell? I began by exploring the mammoth, more-than-hour-long Symphony No. 3 (Dutton CDLX 7161), written in 1944-45. My initial impression was of repeated runs at heaving a heavy object into the air, getting it partially aloft, wobbling a bit under its enormous weight, but never relaxing the muscles in the upward lift. The very scale of this work creates a sense of expectancy, as if a great proclamation is about to be made. I was confirmed in my opinion when I read the CD booklet, which quoted Alwyn’s comment that “the composer rarely relaxes the earnestness of his thought or the strength of his muscles.” Also, Rubbra weighed in: “Obviously a work that because of its sheer musical vitality should be performed.”
What does it sound like? I hear little influence from Shostakovich (perhaps a smidgen in the Presto movement), a comparison made in the booklet and a review I read. It has an inimitably English sound, but definitely not from the pastoral school. And I do not think it is beholden to Vaughn Williams. It is most reminiscent of William Walton’s great Symphony No. 1, especially in the Andante and Allegro movements. It is as highly charged and also as distinctly Sibelian in places. It is not as thematically tight as Walton, and has a more cinematic flavor. Regardless, it is a magnificent, even extravagant achievement. It does produce the promised major statement with an almost Elgarian nobility. As it is dedicated “to the political courage of the British people” during World War II, this is as it should be. The more I listen to this symphony, the higher my opinion climbs. How wonderful the composer is still alive to enjoy this belated recognition, delivered in such a stirring performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Martin Yates.
Bargain of the year: the complete works of Stravinsky, mostly conducted by Stravinsky, on 22 CDs from Sony for under $40!
Next year, 2009, begins the centenary commemoration of Franz Joseph Haydn’s death in 1809. So, in January, I shall begin reviewing massive amounts of Haydn recordings released for the celebration of this most human of all musical geniuses, including the new 150-CD box from Brilliant Classics and boxed sets of the symphonies, quartets, and piano sonatas from Naxos. This should make it a very happy New Year!


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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