Friday, January 12, 2007

Dufay, Charpentier, Mozart And Others

Last evening, during dinner at my parents' house, Joshua decided that he would stay with my parents' while I am in Texas on business.

I am glad, because I did not want him to be alone, all by himself, in our apartment for two weeks. Staying with my parents, at least Josh will be able to see my mother in the morning before he goes to work, and he will be able to see both of my parents in the evening and on the weekend.

My parents will be pleased as punch to have him there--and so will the dog. It will work out better for everyone, I believe.

Josh and I have been listening to a new set of discs this week.

Dufay's Mass For Saint Anthony Of Padua, performed by Pomerium under Alexander Blachly, on the Archiv label

Charpentier's one-act opera, "Acteon", performed by Les Arts Florrisants under William Christie, on the Harmonia Mundi label

Mozart's Serenade Number 6 ("Serenata Notturna") and Serenade No. 7 ("Haffner"), performed by the Prague Chamber Orchestra under Charles Mackerras, on the Telarc label

"The American Virtuoso", a disc of 19th-Century American piano music, performed by Alan Feinberg, on the Argo label

A disc of 20th-Century wind concertos, performed by the Deutsches-Sinfonie-Orchester-Berlin under Hans Zimmer and Stefan Soltesz, on the Capriccio label

The Original Broadway Cast recording of "Hairspray", on the Sony label

I listened to the Mass For Saint Anthony Of Padua on this same disc two or three years ago, and I did not especially like it then, even after half-a-dozen listenings. I decided to give it another try this week, because Josh was curious to hear some Medieval music.

I still do not care for it, at least in this performance. I like, very much, Guillaume Dufay's motets and his Missa L'Homme Arme, but this particular mass does not strike me as an inspired one, which very well may be the fault of the performers. I own several Pomerium discs, and I have listened to them all, and it always seems to me that there is something missing in a Pomerium performance--and I think that what is missing is musical imagination. The singers seem to be intent on singing the notes as written, without investing the music with color or drama or expression. Knowing the Missa L'Homme Arme, as I do, I cannot believe that Dufay wrote anything as colorless and expressionless and lacking in drama as the composition Pomerium performs here. According to the disc notes, fifteen singers are used in the recording.

For some reason, British musicians seem to be able to perform early music at a much higher level than American musicians, probably because British music conservatories devote more attention to training musicians in original-instrument performance than their American counterparts.

"Acteon" is a charming opera, and I am surprised that American opera companies so assiduously avoid staging works from the French Baroque, which produced so very many masterpieces. "Acteon", it seems to me, would make an ideal introduction to opera of the French Baroque for American opera companies and for American audiences, and Rameau's one-act "Anacreon" would seem to be the ideal companion piece. Both "Acteon" and "Anacreon" are at least as stageworthy as anything Handel wrote for the stage, if not more so.

I like the Christie performance, which does not try to layer Italian expression onto the "objective" French music, always the greatest danger in performing French operatic music from any era. How many performances of "Carmen" have been destroyed by treating it as an Italian opera? Probably every single performance ever given outside of France, from 1875 to the present day.

I also like the individuality of the French singers on the Charpentier disc--they are not afraid to color their voices, and they all realize the importance of reciting the text so that the words may be heard. This is an enjoyable disc, and Josh likes it very much.

I love Mozart serenades, and I especially love the "Serenta Notturna" and the "Haffner", along with the "Posthorn". The Telarc performances are quite good without being magical. Mackerras is a competent but limited conductor of Mozart, as his Mozart lacks the subtext of great sadness that always lies just beneath the surface of almost everything Mozart wrote. A million different emotions flow through both of these compositions, especially the "Haffner", but, listening to Mackerras, one would never know it. Still, the playing is energetic, and the disc provides much pleasure, even if it represents what is essentially a very limited view of Mozart.

The Alan Feinberg disc offers compositions by Edward MacDowell, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Amy Beach and George Gershwin, as well as several arrangements by Percy Grainger, a native of Australia but long a resident in the U.S.

Much of the music on this disc is not very good--the Amy Beach pieces, for instance, are pure muck--but it is a very intriguing disc to listen to. The Gottschalk pieces are all barnstormers, and the Grainger arrangements are fascinating (but not very faithful--and, ultimately, not very good) reworkings of the music of other composers.

There are two tracks on the disc that are stunning. One is the first track, a Concert Etude by Edward MacDowell. The piece is of frightening difficulty, and the music is dramatic, wistful, noble and sentimental by turn. It receives a performance of commanding bravura by Feinberg, and Josh and I had to listen to it over and over. The piece should be in the active repertory.

The other truly striking track is Gottschalk's "The Union--A Concert Paraphrase On The National Airs Star-Spangled Banner, Yankee Doodle and Hail Columbia". This pot-pourri is as good as any of the similar pieces Liszt cranked out, and I can fully understand why "The Union" drove 19th-Century American audiences wild both before and during the Civil War. It is quite a show-stopper!

The disc of 20th-Century wind concertos also is a very intriguing disc, even though many of these pieces, too, are not particularly good.

Frank Martin's "Ballade For Flute And Orchestra", Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Ciranda Des Sete Notas For Bassoon And Strings", Jean Francaix's "Quadruple Concerto For Flute, Oboe, Bassoon, Clarinet And Orchestra" and Walter Piston's "Fantasy For English Horn, Harp And Strings" are all fun pieces, but all four compositions lack a distinctive melodic profile, a genuinely interesting musical argument and, most of all, individuality and personality. Martin and Villa-Lobos showed themselves capable of individuality and personality elsewhere, but not here.

The "Tuba Concerto" of Ralph Vaughan Williams is a fine piece, but the performance on this disc, by German musicians, lacks jollity and "Englishness".

That leaves the two best works on the disc, both of which are for trumpet, Josh's instrument in high school.

One is Franz Waxman's "Athanel The Trumpeter", a concise, effective, even brilliant concert overture, written in the 1960's. It is a marvelous piece, and I am surprised that it is never programmed. The Waxman work for trumpet and orchestra opens the disc beautifully.

The other is the "Trumpet Concerto" of Alexander Arutiunian, a 1949 work that closes the disc. The Arutiunian is a marvelous concerto of great beauty, drama and bravura, despite the fact that it is a fully derivative work. The composer, truly, should be listed in the published score as Arutiunian/Shostakovich.

Nonetheless, it is a great piece to listen to, and I cannot understand why this piece, too, is never programmed. Philip Smith, principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic, apparently keeps the work in his active repertory, but I have never heard the concerto programmed. I hope to some day.

The cast recording of "Hairspray" was a Christmas gift from my middle brother to Josh. We all saw the show in New York in May, and we all enjoyed it very much. It is not an enduring masterpiece, of course, but it is a fun show.

The cast album is fun, too. The score is not especially distinguished--in fact, it is not distinguished in the least--but it captures the pop flavor of the time in which the show is set, and it has sort of a pink-bubble-gum quality to it. The singing of the original cast is not good, except for the young lady who portrayed the lead. HER singing is quite joyous, and quite committed, too. She obviously had a lot of fun playing her role, and I wish that I could have seen her in the part instead of the young lady we saw in the show, who did not seem to have quite the same spunk and elan.

Proceeding from Dufay to "Hairspray" is quite an unusual musical journey!

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