Sunday, December 03, 2006

Handel-Haydn-Weber-Menotti And Christmas Music

Yesterday Joshua and I selected six discs of festive music to listen to for the next week or so, and we played them for my parents last night and today we brought the discs along with us to my parents' house to listen to while we make Christmas plans and get started on holiday preparations. Three of the discs, specifically, contain seasonal music.

Handel's Water Music, performed by the English Chamber Orchestra under George Malcolm, on the ASV label

Haydn's String Quartets Nos. 61-63, performed by the Eder Quartet, on the Teldec label

Weber's Overtures, performed by The Hanover Band under Roy Goodman, on the Nimbus label

Menotti's One-Act Opera, "Amahl And The Night Visitors", performed by The Orchestra And Chorus Of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under David Syrus, on the Musical Heritage Society label

A disc of contemporary American choral music for Christmas entitled "A Season's Promise", performed by The New York Concert Singers under Judith Clurman, on the New World label

A disc of traditional Christmas music arranged for brass quintet entitled "Carols For Brass", performed by the Galliard Brass Ensemble, on the MusicMasters label

The Handel disc is a good, middle-of-the-road performance on modern instruments of this splendid music. The Haydn disc contains three of his most popular quartets--the ones subtitled "Fifths", "Emperor" and "Sunrise"--performed by one of the many excellent quartets from Hungary that has emerged in recent decades.

The disc of Weber overtures—“Der Freischutz", "Oberon", "Euryanthe", "Peter Schmoll", "Ruler Of The Spirits" and "Abu Hassan", along with Berlioz's orchestration of "Invitation To The Dance"—is the finest disc of Weber overtures I have ever heard, whether on modern or original instruments. Unlike many British musicians who focused their careers on original-instrument performance, Roy Goodman never seemed to get a lot of attention from the U.S. musical press. I have never heard Goodman in person, but I have always found his recorded performances to be much more interesting than those of Hogwood, Pinnock, Gardiner and Norrington. Who was the wag that deemed this group of British musicians "semi-conductors"? That term should not apply to Goodman.

Frankly, I do not know what to make of "Amahl And The Night Visitors". It would not be unfair to describe the music as cheap and meretricious, but it also would not be unfair to describe the music as effective and even, on occasion, charming. I do not think that this performance is necessarily a very good one. Soprano Lorna Haywood as the mother is quite good, but the other vocalists do not make a positive impression, and the chorus and orchestra seem to have their heads buried in their scores, sight-reading.

The disc of contemporary American choral music for Christmas is disappointing. The disc contains four works by Stephen Paulus, a Twin Cities composer who writes very well for chorus, and these are the best works on the disc. It also contains one work by another Twin Cities composer, Libby Larson, whose music I have never responded to. Morten Lauridsen's popular "O Magnum Mysterium" is on the disc, as is one work each by Virgil Thomson, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ned Rorem, William Bolcom, Jennifer Higdon, and a handful of composers totally unknown to me (as well as to my Dad, who is very knowledgeable about even the most marginal composers, American and otherwise). Anyone coming to this disc without a background in contemporary American art music would have to conclude that the state of American art music was depressingly moribund. However, the performances on the disc are not good, and it is possible that a better chorus and a better conductor would reveal more beauties in the music. As it is, the chorus does not have a pleasing sound and the musicmaking seems undernourished, lacking in energy and conviction and focus.

Josh and I selected the disc of carols arranged for brass because Josh was a brass player. The arrangements are quite effective, and not too dressed-up, and the playing is quite good. This is a very fine disc, and we enjoy it very much.

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