DeGaetani, Prokofiev, Mennin

There is a big pile of CDs stacked on a corner of my desk, items that I’d like to mention on this blog, but rarely get around to writing about. Here’s a first installment, some brief comments on recent and not so recent listening.

Berlioz: Les Nuits d’été, Mahler: Five Wunderhorm Songs, Five Rückert Songs; Jan DeGaetani, The Eastman Chamber Ensemble, David Effrom, conductor. This is a precious document, the last recording by the beloved mezzo for whom Carter, Crumb, Maxwell Davies, and Wernick, among others, all wrote pieces. She made this record in the midst of treatments and surgery for the leukemia that took her life at only 56. DeGaetani’s husband, oboist Philip West, made the chamber ensemble arrangements for these pieces, so elegantly done that you would never think they were anything other than the original version if you didn’t know better. DeGaetani’s voice retains its warmth, flexibility and tremendously affecting expression throughout.

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, Suites 1 and 2; The Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti. The dazzling splendor of the Philadelphia is not well served by this early digital recording (1981) that sounds a bit harsh. I do believe this score is one of the great 20th century masterpieces; I prefer it to any of Prokofiev’s symphonies, and to a lot of Shostakovich’s orchestral music as well.

Peter Mennin: Concertato “Moby Dick”, Symphony No. 5, Fantasia for String Orchestra, Symphony No. 6; Albany Symphony Orchestra, David Alan Miller. Nobody is a more committed advocate for American music past and present than David Alan Miller. Here is a 1997 album featuring music by one of the mid-20th century American symphonists who is so unjustly neglected. Attractive, often polytonal harmonies, and thoroughly contrapuntal textures pre-dominate. The counterpoint can sometimes be a bit boxed in rhythmically, but there is great energy here. The Albany sounds very well, aided by the superb acoustics of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. The album includes intelligent program notes by Walter Simmons, an expert on this repertoire.

Bach, Mahler, Murail, Eastman

Alex Ross recently posted a list of concerts and operas he attended during a recent European trip. I haven’t been to Europe lately, but I did get to a memorable and varied series of concerts in Philadelphia recently. Here are some brief comments.

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I was delighted to see the Church of the Holy Trinity filled for a program of Bach cantatas – it seats about 1100! Very fine performances, with the singers and obbligato players ably commanding Bach’s long lines. The second aria in BWV 170 is a contender for the strangest Bach aria ever, with the organ playing the obbligato while the violins in unison play the bass!

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My favorite pieces here were the Murail works and the Messiaen. The latter was written on the death of his mother, while the former on the death of his teacher Messiaen; good to hear those in succession. The big hall at the Barnes is not ideal for every concert situation, but it worked for the spectralist pieces with their emphasis on resonance, sculpted in sensuous layers in Marilyn’s virtuosic performance. Here’s how the piano was set up, followed by a shot from the Q and A with Marilyn and Robert Whalen, co-artistic director, along with Katharine Skovira, of the concerts at the Barnes.

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  • The Philadelphia Orchestra offered the Mahler 3rd in its last subscription set of the season. I was there for the May 19 performance.

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This was a magnificent performance of a staggering piece. Certainly hearing the orchestra in full cry was thrilling, but I was constantly struck by the intensely eloquent solo playing – trombone in the first movement, offstage “posthorn” (I assume played on trumpet?) in the third, to name just two of many. Karen Cargill’s voice was richly sonorous, and the choirs were splendid. Am I the only person who hears an echo of “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places” in the cello tune of the finale?

  • The last event in my recent bout of concert going was the final concert of the Julius Eastman retrospective presented by Bowerbird at The Rotunda.

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The ensemble pieces were intriguing, but the highlight for me was the a cappella solo performance of Eastman’s Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc by Davóne Tines. He was positioned at the lectern pictured above. His powerful bass-baritone cast an incantatory spell as he repeated the work’s few short musical phrases, a setting of this text:

Saint Michael said
Saint Margaret said
Saint Catherine said
They said
He said
She said
Joan
Speak Boldly
When they question you

The piece served as an invocation, and I sensed an unusual concentration in the audience; it was exceptionally quiet during the pauses between phrases, giving us a chance to attend to the reverberation The Rotunda offers.

Hear Davóne singing music of Caroline Shaw here, and Jerome Kern here.

Summer Reading 1: Mahler, Beethoven

The first of a few posts commenting on my summer reading:

UnknownGustav Mahler by Jens Malte Fischer, translated by Stewart Spencer.  The composer of famously large-scale symphonies has elicited some exceptionally large books, among them the three eccentrically structured volumes by Donald Mitchell and the four insanely comprehensive volumes by Henry Louis de la Grange. Fischer’s book is modest by comparison, being a single volume, but still, it tips the scales at 766 pages. The book is more of a cultural history than a life and works. “It is impossible to say for certain when Mahler was first introduced to the ideas of Gustav Theodor Fechner…”  is not an atypical sentence. The book reminds me a little of Jacques Barzun’s book on Berlioz: a lot of cultural history, but thin on the music. In fact, I’m not too sure how much Fischer likes Mahler’s music, with the short chapters on the pieces overly indebted to Adorno’s compulsive skepticism about anything affirmative in the music. The slaughtered animals mentioned in the text of the Fourth Symphony’s last movement supposedly make the finale of the Fourth “undermine[s] the brief [?] assurance of the Adagio”; “Mahlerians will find it hard to set aside their sense of uncertainty” about the Third; “astonishingly crass contradictions and inconsistencies typify the first three movements of the Fifth”; and so on. While I learned things here that I have not read elsewhere, the best writing about music draws me back to the pieces, and on that count the book fails.

Unknown-1The First Four Notes by Matthew Guerrieri. The central focus here is the Beethoven Fifth, particularly the opening motif .*  But the myriad spokes radiating outward from that hub represent an alarmingly vast array of topics – from Hegel to Saturday Night Fever, from the French resistance to Beecham’s Pills. There is a good bit of heavy lifting here in the sections on philosophers, but Guerrieri does his best to tie helium balloons of clarity to the German ballast, and I understand slightly more about Kant and Hegel than when I picked up the book. Slightly. Guerrieri’s wit and easy erudition about almost anything, familiar from his blog Soho the Dog, make for a book that is a little like the results of a Google search with “Beethoven’s fifth, the first four notes” as the search terms – except that with this search, every one of the multitude of links is worth reading, and the results have been elegantly formed into appealing larger shapes.

Go here for the book’s related website. Linking the two paragraphs above together, check out Guerrieri’s great comics involving Mahler and Strauss – and the movies.

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*) “Tell me Bob, do you think you’d call that four note idea a theme or a motif?”

“Well, Pete, the technical term…” Go here and get set straight on this. (I’m surprised this doesn’t find its way into Guerrieri’s book.)