May 31, 2008
Spending three of the last four months on American music has meant that I have become derelict in bringing a flood of superb new releases to your attention this spring. I also failed to fulfill my promise to cover other American composers whose works are also part of the good news, like Peter Lieberson, Jon Bauman, Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, and Morten Lauridsen. However, if you jibed with my general orientation in the three-part American music series, trust me on these.
Even if you do not, take comfort from the recently reported rehabilitative powers of listening to music. As cited in the May 2008 Gramophone magazine, the BBC News has reported on a Finnish study of 60 stroke victims. Those "who listened to music for a few hours every day showed ‘better recovery of memory and attention skills, and more positive frame of mind,’" than those who did not. The difference is huge. "Verbal memory improves by 60 percent in the music group, compared with 18 percent in the audio book group, and 29 percent in non-listeners." (What books could these people have been listening to?) Even if you have not had a stroke, let me help you get into the 60 percent group.
On these first two CDs, you can also trust the Grammy winners. Joan Tower’s Naxos CD (8.559328) won the Triple Crown — Best Orchestral Performance, Best Classical Contemporary Composition, and Best Classical Album. The Made in America composition, which leads the album, is the result of a neat idea: Sixty-five of the smaller-budget orchestras in the United States banded together, with help from the NEA (thank you, Dana Gioia), to commission this piece.
It is a wonderful reward — a challenging fantasy on America the Beautiful. You may not think anyone has anything new to say on this theme, but Tower does. It is a tour de force, a dizzying dynamo of a piece. The big Concerto for Orchestra that fills most of the CD is like listening to a spring being coiled. The tension keeps ratcheting up, with all the attendant suspense. It is a high-wire act. Huzzahs for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, under Leonard Slatkin!
Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs on Nonesuch (79954-2) won Best Classical Vocal Performance. These love songs, set to Pablo Neruda’s poetry, are sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Peter’s wife, as she was dying from cancer. What can one say here? These luscious orchestral settings, with soaring vocal lines, retain a marvelous sense of intimacy and a reflective quality. One cannot help but be struck by the valedictory aspect of these songs, as the last of them ends with Hunt’s exquisite voice fading pianissimo, on the word amor. Knowing that she would not sing it again makes it a heart-stopping moment. Lieberson studied 12-tone composition with Milton Babbitt and other icons of the avant-garde. This work proves George Rochberg’s contention that dodecaphony cannot express love, or grief. So, despite his background, Lieberson did it the right way.
Who is Jon Ward Bauman? Apparently, he is a neighbor in Frostburg, Maryland. Almost by accident, I picked up a CD (DK-0078-2) with his Second Symphony, two versions of a work called Horizons (one for orchestra, the other for strings), and a Divertimento for String Orchestra. In the popular Copland/Barber/Harris mainstream, these works are so attractive and immediately ingratiating that I was floored. There is nothing terribly complicated here, just well-crafted music infused with beautiful melodies and an uplifting, open-hearted spirit. I have listened to this CD many times and it never fails to please and inspire. If you like Copland, you’ll like this. You can find it at ArkivMusic.com and other Internet sites. There is more, and the composer has graciously sent me CDs of his other symphonies and some chamber music, which I will report back on. Meanwhile, enjoy this very pleasant surprise.
Speaking of beautiful melodies, you probably thought that you would never hear another great Puccini opera (because he is dead), right? Wrong. Wait till you hear Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, premiered in 1998, and available on Albany Records (Troy 531/32) from a live Houston Grand Opera performance in 2001. With masterful understatement, Catán has said, "In my work . . . perhaps, the greatest of my debts is having learnt that the originality of an opera need not involve the rejection of our tradition . . . but rather the profound assimilation of it." I’ll say. How else could he have gotten the nerve to write such impossibly beautiful, ecstatic music?
Catán believes that "what opera is really about is those expressions which are the foundation of our humanity: love, death, passion, happiness and that kind of basic emotion. There is really very little else in life that is as powerful as that which makes two people’s destiny into one — that, and death. That’s where the great tradition lies. That is what opera is great at doing: It touches on those things and takes you through them. It’s something that has been absent from modern works for a long time and we need to get back to that."
Catán has succeeded supremely in that effort in Florencia. If this opera does not take your breath away, you have not had a stroke; you are dead. But this might actually bring you back. Everyone and everything in this recording are wonderful. If you have even a faint interest in opera, this purchase is de rigueur.
If Ravel or Poulenc had been American, they might have written Ned Rorem’s scintillating Piano Concerto No. 2, offered by Naxos (8.559315), with conducting magician José Serebrier, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and pianist Simon Mulligan. Whimsy, charm, wit, and melody, as conveyed to and by an American in Paris. This is simply delightful. What a disgrace this concerto was set aside for half a century. Welcome back, along with the more recent Cello Concerto (2002) accompanying it.
I recommended a CD with Daniel Godfrey’s string quartets on Koch some time ago. Now Koch has released a recording of seven compositions under the title Wrinkled Moon (KIC-CD-7679), played by members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in various combinations, but also including piano solo in Festoons. As I detected in his fine quartets, Godfrey is also a musical Francophile, all to good effect. Even when the source of his inspiration is Russian, as in the folk material in From a Dream of Russia, the accent remains French. This is finely jeweled, attractively subtle, reflective music.
Morten Lauridsen has written some of the most beautiful religious choral music of our time. You simply must hear his Lux Aeterna and Ave Maria (on Hyperion). He also has a secular side, on exhibit on a new Hyperion CD (CDA 67580), which contains his Mid-Winter Songs (Robert Graves), Les Chansons des Roses (Rainer Maria Rilke), and Nocturnes, along with a few shorter religious pieces. In these secular works, Lauridsen writes spirited, dramatic music, tinged with the influence of Benjamin Britten’s brilliant choral music and song settings.Things simply do not get lovelier than the last two songs of Les Chansons — La rose complete and Dirait-on — except perhaps on the less secular side, with the exquisite Ave, dulcissima Maria, which is redolent of Lauridsen’s sublime Ave Maria. (Clearly, this man is in love with Mary.) Polyphony sings brilliantly with the Britten Sinfonia, under Stephen Layton. I know the composer was thrilled with this performance, because he told me so from London. You will be, too.
Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is one of the greatest orchestral utterances ever composed. It is the cathedral in sound. Günter Wand is my lodestar conductor in this work, in any one of his three available live performances. Now, however, I must add another sublime interpretation: BBC has issued a stunning release of a 1981 live performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Klaus Tennstedt (LPO-0032). Listening to another Bruckner recording recently, I thought: This conductor is simply playing it as music, instead of using music as a language to express something else — something inexpressible — which is why, in the greatest performances, there is always felt a sense of strain, if not desperation, in reaching for the infinite through the finite.
That is what Tennstedt achieves in this entirely gripping performance. His is a very different and faster approach than Wand’s, but not so fast that it seems rushed — as does Otto Klemperer’s 1957 Eighth, just reissued on WDR (MM021-2). Tennstedt’s performance is less magisterial than Wand’s, but more spontaneous and viscerally exciting in its inexorable drive. I think it is one of the great ones.
I will open the sluice gates in June with many more recommendations for the summer.
Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.