Due to my recent columns celebrating the Haydn and Mendelssohn anniversaries, I have fallen woefully behind on months of new releases that beg for attention. This is a catch-up effort.
I begin with music of the soufflé from the Classical era. Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) wrote eight keyboard concertos that brim with felicitous melody. Naxos gives us Nos. 1, 3, and 5, with pianist Francesco Nicolosi and the Campania Chamber Orchestra, under Luigi Piovano (8.5772065). These are light works, but what charm! Even a young Mozart would not have been ashamed of them. In fact, Paisiello was one of Mozart’s chief opera rivals. I have known these works for years and never fail to get refreshment from them. That is what they are for, so go ahead and enjoy them with Nicolosi’s deft performances.
More charm comes from the Chandos label’s "Contemporaries of Mozart" series. Chandos (10504) features two symphonies, two ballet suites, and several overtures of Georg Joseph Abbé Vogler (1749-1814), a man of the cloth and a composer, who served as both spiritual counselor and vice-Kapellmeister at the court in Mannheim. Though Mozart had unkind things to say about him, the evidence here, offered in spirited fashion by the London Mozart Players under Matthias Bamert, is that he was not "a dreary musical jester," as Mozart said. Abbé Vogler seems to have been immortalized only by Mozart’s jabs and Robert Browning’s poem Abt Vogler. Chandos helps to set things right. These works are more than respectable representatives of the Classical era.
The real ear-opener in regard to Vogler comes from the new Oehms Classics CD (OC 922) featuring his Requiem in E-flat Major. This hour-long work has some claim to Carl Maria von Weber’s description of it as "divine." Its first movements are gentle and reflective, but Vogler cuts loose with the Dies Irae, punching out each syllable with force, and then reinforcing it with brass declamations and echoes in the Tuba Mirum. The vocal lines are very beautiful and the effects are striking original. Vogler keeps the entire work thematically related. I was captivated by this piece and found it hard to believe that Vogler was unsuccessful in getting it performed while he was alive. He unsuccessfully lobbied to have it played at Haydn’s funeral (instead, Mozart’s Requiem was played). The Neue Hofkapelle Munchen and the Orpheus Chor Munchen, under Gerd Guglhor, do a marvelous job in reinstating Vogler’s Requiem to its rightful place.
A minor luminary from the late Classical period, whose star has risen recently thanks to the CPO and Naxos labels, is Beethoven student Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838). His wonderful symphonies and piano concertos are now available on those labels. CPO has just added to the wealth with a release (777 353-2) of Ries’s Concerto for Two Horns, the Violin Concerto, and two overtures. The Two Horns Concerto is an especial delight, certainly the most delectable example of this rare genre that I have heard. It is played seraphically by Teunis van der Zwart and Erwin Wieringa. The Cologne Academy, under Michael Alexander Willens, performs exuberantly and precisely. You can feel the fabric of the music in these performances. And thanks to the recording, you hear every strand.
I have praised CPO’s previous releases of the chamber music of Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1841-1900), and I have nothing but praise for the new release containing the Piano Quintet, Op. 17, and String Quartet, op. 63, with the Minguet Quartet and pianist Oliver Triendl. Some critics like to condescend to von Herzogenberg as a slavish clone of Brahms, whom von Herzogenberg admittedly fawned over. Brahms may be a useful marker in the sense that, if you like his music, you most likely will enjoy von Hezogenberg’s as well. I find him particularly convincing in his chamber music and enough of his own man that he needs no excuses.
One of my favorite chamber music geniuses is Sergey Taneyev (1856-1915), who seemed less sure of himself in his symphonic works, leaving several of them unfinished. I have always wanted to hear his monumental opera Oresteia, but alas there is no complete recording available. For now, I will settle for the new Naxos CD of Taneyev’s orchestral works, headed by the 20-minute long Overture to Oresteia and music from Act III: Entr’acte: The Temple of Apollo at Delphi (8.570584). The very dramatic Overture begins with double basses digging in as deeply as the deepest Russian basses you have ever heard. This is a thrilling, fantastic piece that easily explains Tchaikovsky’s high praise of Taneyev’s music and increases my eagerness to hear the whole opera. I am not familiar with the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra, but under conductor Thomas Sanderling, they play this music to the hilt. No aficionado of Russian music should miss this.
Another new Naxos release (8.570527) will leave you with no doubt about Taneyev’s ability to write beautiful choral music, as it offers his John of Damascus Cantata, Op. 1, which draws more on Russia’s sacred music tradition than it does on opera. It is accompanied by the Suite de Concert for violin and orchestra, a very engaging and entertaining work. Thomas Sanderling does another superb job, this time with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, the Gnesin Academy Chorus, and the very fine soloist, violinist Ilya Kaler.
I had high praise for the opening salvo, a recording of Symphony No. 1, in Naxos’s new traversal of Franz Schmidt’s four symphonies. If anything, the new release of Symphony No. 2 is even better (8.570589). The Malmo Symphony Orchestra, under Vassily Sinaisky, gets inside this sumptuous music and reveals its late harvest ripeness in all its glory. I love Schmidt because his expression of the overripeness of Viennese culture in the early 20th century is rich but not decadent. He really is the last efflorescence of that extraordinary time before its (audible) decay. Sinaisky and the Malmo forces really know what they are about in this music. If you have never heard Schmidt before, start here.
I must give mention, if only briefly, to a wonderful Naxos CD of French Flute Chamber Music (8.570444), because it contains meltingly lovely works from the early 20th century that capture so perfectly that French specialty in sensuality and languor — the kind that seems to flit over you like a sweet breeze. The Mirage Quintet captures the magic in the works of Marcel Tournier, Florent Schmitt, Gabriel Pierné, Jean Françaix, and Albert Roussel.
It would be a crime if I did not call to your attention, even this belatedly, the Naxos release (8.570435) from more than a year ago of Reinhard Schwarz-Schilling’s Introduction and Fugue, Sinfonia Diatonica, and the Symphony in C. One wonders how music this beautiful could have been written in Germany before and after World War II — simply because it was the heyday of the avant-garde and the apex of Arnold Schoenberg’s influence. Part of the answer came when I learned that he was a student of Walter Braunfels, who composed such gorgeous opera and chamber music and who suffered for having refused to write the Nazi anthem or to join the Nazi party.
Schwarz-Schilling likewise refused to join the party and had to disguise his wife’s Jewish ancestry. His approach to music was traditional in the sense of the credo he expressed in 1938: "For me, music is the audible product of spiritual energy organized according to unalterable laws. In my opinion the primary mission of the creative musician is to strive for pure, living music." The result of his conviction and inspiration is tonal music of deep integrity, beauty, and contrapuntal mastery.
A critic suggested that some may find the music "severe." Well, yes, but only in the sense that Bach and Beethoven are severe. That speaks more to the music’s purity. José Serebrier is the perfect conductor to capture this severe beauty, and he does so sublimely with the Staatskapelle Weimar. I am very touched and moved by this music. It shows that all was not lost — that the "spiritual energy" was still there, not only organized by but expressing "unalterable laws." Please buy this disc (I did) so that Naxos or another company will be motivated to record Schwarz-Schilling’s Missa in Terra Pax, the Laetare cantata, the Violin Concerto, and the Partita for Orchestra.
I am also way behind in introducing you to Anders Eliasson’s Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Orchestra and his luminous Sinfonia per Archi (strings), on CPO (777 334-2), wonderfully well performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Johannes Gustavsson. Like many artists of his age (b. 1947), Eliasson underwent the trial of the avant-garde when it predominated the scene. With Stockholm as "a modernist fortress: dodecaphony, serialism, the music of chance," Eliasson said that "I suddenly lost all contact with the music I had inside myself." His professor demanded that he compose a graphically notated score. When he obliged with some nonsense, it was acclaimed by the professor as "fantastic." Eliasson said, however, "Everything was purely pseudo-philosophical superstructure, no MUSIC!" So, he concludes, "The avant-garde was mostly mischief, a sign of enormous uncertainly and lack of familiarity with tradition."
Eliasson went on to write within the tradition, as is evident from this CD, but the music is not especially conventional. It contains delicious hints of a Bernard Hermann-like mystery mixed in with Samuel Barber’s lyricism. The Sinfonia is a sometimes aching, melancholic mediation that inhabits a dream world. In Svenska Dagbladet (February 20, 2006), Carl-Gunnar Åhlén accurately said, "Only a master can keep a melody going for 40 minutes without lapsing into clichés. And his singing declamation for strings, supported by the leading note, and an almost overwhelming sense of yearning, swept along the conductor and the musicians in a flow that could not be stopped by the double bar line after measure 824." The span of this work requires concentration but offers commensurate rewards. I will be seeking out this composer’s other works.
Look up in the sky! Is it a bird? A plane? No, it’s Michael Daugherty (b. 1954) and his Metropolis Symphony, an evocation of the myth of Superman, on one of two new Naxos releases dedicated to Daugherty’s music (8.559635). He writes fun, brash, American music with a high entertainment quotient. Metropolis is a hoot. This is sort of the musical equivalent of what Warren Beatty tried to do when he made Dick Tracy, only this is more successful for having nothing cartoonish about it.
Daugherty splashes on his music, replete with whistles and sirens, with large daubs of primary colors. The music stomps with syncopated energy and lively rhythms. In its employment of popular idioms, it comes close to crossover in places but does not go over the line, like some of Mark O’Connor’s country hoedown, barn-raising music. Daugherty is a composer with sense of humor. He pulls off the hijinks with aplomb and complete confidence. If he has not written any film scores, it is obvious that he should; they would be terrific. The accompanying piece, Deus ex Machina, is an evocation of trains. I think it is less successful and even a bit trite in its second movement, "Train of Tears." Only in the funky last movement, "Night Stream," does Daugherty seem at his best. The Nashville Symphony, under conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, gives this music everything it needs, and the recording is startlingly good.
The other CD (8.559372) offers MotorCity Triptych, and Fire and Blood for Violin and Orchestra, inspired by Diego Rivera’s monumental fresco of Detroit. If the auto industry had half the energy of Daugherty’s depiction of it here, the government would not now be running it. The piece can be enjoyed simply as a terrific violin concerto without any AAA associations. The MotorCity Triptych is a fun evocation of Detroit, from Motown to cars, to Rosa Parks Boulevard. The only puzzle about this rambunctious CD is that it was recorded in 2003. Why the wait? Neeme Jarvi, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and violinist Ida Kavafian convey this music’s excitement with flair and complete conviction, and are provided with spectacular sound.
Luckily, there is more to come. I have only scratched the surface, and promise many more treats for Halloween.