CD & DVD Reviews

Adams, a Romantic pianist, Munch, and a master mezzo

August 7, 2011

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International Contemporary Ensemble, St. Lawrence String Quartet


All modern works called “Chamber Symphony’’ must somehow reckon with the influence of Arnold Schoenberg’s domineering example. John Adams does so with his characteristic California aplomb, taking the inspiration he needed from Schoenberg’s virtuosic writing and leaving most of the rest behind alongside all of his other East Coast musical baggage.

Adams’s second chamber symphony - his first came in 1992, and he calls this more recent piece “Son of Chamber Symphony’’ - has a madcap wit, an infectious rhythmic energy and vitality, and a beautifully wrought slow movement, all of it given an expert reading by the International Contemporary Ensemble under the composer’s direction. The work is paired on this Nonesuch disc with his String Quartet, written in 2008 for the St. Lawrence String Quartet, who perform it here with absolute authority and conviction.

In the quartet, Adams again makes a daunting historical form his own. He writes of approaching this keystone genre of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Bartok with a sense of awe, but that certainly doesn’t translate into tentativeness or circumspection. Instead we get visceral, dark-hued, and fiercely expressive music marked by some of his older characteristic gestures - minimalist memories, if you will - compressed with a kind of febrile Romantic intensity. The St. Lawrence owns the piece for now, but with all the adventurous young ensembles out there hungry for rugged yet accessible fare, this work is clearly destined to take on a life of its own.



Ivan Moravec; Sir Neville Marriner; Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields

Piano Classics

Ivan Moravec made his first big splash in the United States through, of all things, a late-1960s Book-of-the-Month Club offering of the Chopin Préludes, Ballades, and Nocturnes. His limited touring and recording schedule may have kept him from achieving the fame of a Maurizio Pollini or an Alfred Brendel, but his weighted tone and dramatic approach are what you want in Romantic repertoire ranging from Beethoven to Debussy, and he turns out to be the man for late Mozart as well.

He recorded these four piano concertos, which Mozart wrote in 1785 and 1786, for the German Hänssler label in 1995 and 1997; now they have been rereleased by London’s Piano Classics as a less expensive two-disc set. Pairing Moravec with the less dynamic Sir Neville Marriner seemed an odd choice at the time, but Sir Neville matches his soloist’s bold tableaux in works that take their cue from Mozart’s operas. Dark with D-minor lust and menace, No. 20 (K.466) is the “Don Giovanni’’ of the quartet; No. 23 (K.488), with its chastened F-sharp-minor Adagio, could be the “Cosí fan tutte.’’

The C-minor, No. 24 (K.491), suggests “The Marriage of Figaro’’: You can hear Count Almaviva prowling after Susanna in the stealthy 3/4 of the opening, and the Countess’s wistful regret in the mandolin-like Larghetto. Pomp and procession dominate in No. 25 (K.503), which, in C major, starts out like the wedding finale of “Figaro’’ or “Cosí’’ or “The Magic Flute.’’ In the Andante, there’s even room for reservations about marriage (listen to the hesitancy of the piano’s first four notes) before the polka-like high jinks of the concluding Allegretto. Mozart doesn’t get much better than this.



Charles Munch; Boston Symphony Orchestra

ICA Classics DVD

Made in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, these PBS broadcasts from 1958 (Bruckner) and 1960 (Haydn) remind us that the Boston Symphony Orchestra used to play “Cambridge Concerts,’’ and that Charles Munch’s repertoire went well beyond Beethoven, Berlioz, and Brahms. Neither of these works was ever part of his discography (he did record two other Haydn symphonies), but he shows himself to be a master of the territory.

The Haydn, with a pared-down orchestra, is big and full-bodied, with an Adagio Cantabile that is by turns passionate and hymn-like. Yes, the Minuet is a bit of a stompfest, and there are some static moments in the outer movements, but there’s also clarity, wit, and excitement.

In his broadcast introduction (part of the brief bonus material), William Pierce tells us, quoting the BSO program booklet, that the premiere performance of Bruckner’s Seventh, by future BSO music director Arthur Nikisch, was “flaming and revealing.’’ That could describe Munch’s reading as well: He is more interested in penitential hysteria and religious exuberance (so of course he includes the controversial second-movement cymbal clash) than in tempo relationships and the letter of the score.

Call it Bruckner’s dark night of the soul, with a true Scherzo (as opposed to the usual lead-footed ländler) that suggests knights galloping out of their castle in a Hollywood medieval epic. Structure and contemplation get short shrift, but the only real sin here consists of Munch’s cuts in the last movement, which at eight minutes is now more of a dessert than a finale.

Neither picture nor sound is very gratifying, but the camera crew revel in close-ups; longtime BSO fans will enjoy seeing flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer in her Julia Child bob and timpanist Vic Firth back when he could double for Cary Grant. The booklet notes from former Globe music critic Richard Dyer give a fair and informed account of Munch’s idiosyncrasies; too bad there wasn’t room to explain those cuts.



Music of Beethoven, Crumb, Debussy, others

Bridge Records: 2 CDs

Jan DeGaetani was the thinking man’s diva. Over the course of her prolific and groundbreaking career, cut short by her death at 56 from leukemia in 1989, DeGaetani became the go-to mezzo soprano for contemporary music. Assisted by her longtime accompanist Gilbert Kalish, DeGaetani developed close associations with such composers as George Crumb and Elliott Carter, although her repertoire also included vocal works by Mahler, Shostakovich, and Bach. DeGaetani did not have a big voice or produce the kind of luscious sound heard from her student Renée Fleming. What she did have was an infectious stage personality, sharp intelligence, keen musicality, and a legendary capacity for work and learning new scores that earned her a fiercely devoted following among connoisseurs all over the globe.

These two CDs present DeGaetani and Kalish in a 1987 concert, reproduced (in Kalish’s words) from an “ancient cassette’’ recording that “I felt needed to be heard.’’ The characteristically ambitious and eclectic program ranges from Beethoven (“Three Songs of Goethe’’), to Poulenc (five songs), Kenneth Frazelle (the 1985 cycle “Worldly Hopes’’), Crumb (“Three Early Songs’’ and “The Sleeper’’), Claude Debussy (“Fêtes galantes’’ Series II), Richard Strauss (five songs), George Gershwin (“Our Love Is Here to Stay’’), Stanley Walden (the arresting “Three Ladies’’ to poems of Jacques Levy), and Franz Joseph Haydn (“Arianna a Naxos’’).

DeGaetani’s forceful and delicate delivery of the Crumb songs, with Kalish’s superbly atmospheric piano accompaniment (especially in “Wind Elegy’’ and “The Sleeper’’), is perhaps the highlight here. Illuminating the lyrical, nostalgic texts by Robert Southey, Sara Teasdale, and Edgar Allan Poe with beautifully natural diction and rhythmn, DeGaetani creates a spooky emotional universe out of these finely crafted miniatures. In “The Sleeper,’’ set to Poe, she displays the mastery of Sprechstimme (combining speech and song) for which she was famous.

Not everything works, of course. DeGaetani does not sound entirely comfortable in the sensual world of the Strauss songs, and her Gershwin comes across as self-conscious and studied. But this is a welcome addition to the DeGaetani discography, and is sure to bring pleasure to her fans.