We listened to music all weekend, and my mother selected the discs for us. My mother loves French music, and two of the discs contained music by two of her favorite French composers.
Haydn's "Paris" Symphonies, performed by The Academy Of Saint Martin-In-The-Fields under Neville Marriner, on the Philips label
Faure Chamber Music, performed by Gil Shaham, Akira Eguchi and Brinton Smith, on the Vanguard Classics label
Poulenc Choral Music, performed by The Joyful Company Of Singers under Peter Broadbent, on the ASV label
A recital album featuring Dawn Upshaw, with the Orchestra Of Saint Luke's under David Zinman, on the Nonesuch label
"Ain't Misbehavin'", a disc of music by Fats Waller, arranged for brass quintet, performed by the Canadian Brass, on the RCA label
I love Haydn symphonies, and so does my mother, and so does my father, and so does Josh. They are ceaselessly inventive, and surprising, and bewitching. Each one of the six "Paris" symphonies is individual and unique, and shows Haydn at his very best. I could listen to these works daily, I almost believe. The Marriner performances are very good. They are analogue recordings, from the very late 1970's, and the sound is superb. The playing is superb, too. Marriner gets good results from his players without ever getting in the way, trying to make interpretive points. Recordings of Haydn symphonies are now more-or-less the exclusive province of original-instrument ensembles, but modern orchestras can sound wonderful in Haydn if the conductor knows what he is doing. Marriner knows what he is doing, and these performances are very successful.
Not long after he made this particular set of recordings, Marriner became Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra. His appointment was greeted with great acclaim--it was during the period of his greatest success as a recording artist, before his repertory was taken over by original-instrument ensembles--and his first year or two in Minneapolis featured a warm reception by the public and by the members of the orchestra, who had grown tired of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski after nineteen years. Things soon soured, however, and Marriner left Minneapolis after only six years, accepting a lesser post with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. In Minneapolis, after he settled in, Marriner was viewed--both by the public and by the members of the orchestra--as a master of the orchestral repertory from 1700 to 1800, but not in command of repertory from 1800 onward. Marriner's departure from Minneapolis was hastened by his dislike of some important members of the orchestra's administration and Board. Two Principal Guest Conductors during the Marriner years--Klaus Tennstedt and Charles Dutoit--also cut short their Minneapolis stays because of conflicts with these same individuals. Marriner still returns, on occasion, to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra. Next season, I see from the 2007-2008 brochure, Marriner will return to conduct one week of subscription concerts.
The Faure disc was the first recording made by Gil Shaham after his former label, Deutsche Grammophon, cut him loose in favor of Hilary Hahn. It includes much of the music Faure wrote for violin and piano, as well as arrangments of music for cello and piano adapted for violin, as well as his string trio. The Sonata For Violin And Piano No. 1 is well known, and the Berceuse For Violin and Piano is well known, and the Trio For Piano And Strings is well known, but most of the other compositions on the disc are seldom played. It is a nice disc, and Faure's music has its own unique "cool beauty", as that tired saying goes, but I do not think that these performances are the last word in Faure performance. The performances do not seem to be "internalized" and natural. They are performances in which the musicians can be heard to be striving for the essence of the music, instead of simply realizing it. Faure's music is very difficult to perform well, which is why his music is not often programmed, and Shaham and Eguchi and Smith are clearly not natural Faure musicians.
I love the music of Poulenc, and I especially love the choral music of Poulenc, and the ASV disc contains several of Poulenc's most important and most beloved choral works, including "Figure Humaine", Poulenc's masterpiece, and "Four Motets Pour Le Temps De Noel". The disc also includes "Seven Chansons" and "Salve Regina" and "Un Soir De Neige" and "Four Petites Prieres De Saint Francois D'Assise" and "Ave Verum Corpus" and "Exultate Deo". This is all magnificent music, beautifully written for massed voices, and we enjoyed listening to this disc very much. However, the Poulenc disc paralleled the Faure disc to the extent that both discs contained marvelous music, but not marvelous performances. The Joyful Company Of Singers is a London-based chamber group, and British singers are not as effective in Poulenc as French singers or, in a fairly recent development, German singers. Further, The Joyful Company Of Singers is not a choir on the exalted level of the Westminster Cathedral Choir, surely London's finest, and these performances are under-nourished (perhaps a larger chorus was needed) and under-characterized. I kept longing for a larger sound, as well as for the "tanginess" that French choruses supply in this repertory. This is perhaps the most disappointing Poulenc choral disc I have ever heard.
The Dawn Upshaw recital disc is, I believe, her very first such recital disc for Nonesuch. Many were to follow, and I think that I have heard them all. There are only four works on the disc: Barber's "Knoxville: Summer Of 1915", Harbison's "Mirabai Songs", the great aria "No Word From Tom" that closes Act I of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress", and an aria from Menotti's "The Old Maid And The Thief", "What A Curse For A Woman Is A Timid Man". This is a lovely disc, with lovely performances, and we were captivated by each of the works. The Barber is his masterpiece, or so I have always believed, and this is one of the very greatest pieces of American music, despite the fact that its four sections are cut and pasted together instead of flowing organically from one section to another. The Harbison song cycle is very, very fine, and the Menotti aria is, surprisingly, very effective and even charming. And is not the Stravinsky aria the very greatest 20th-Century opera aria? I have always thought so.
Upshaw is a wonderful singer, and I have always admired her. My admiration is not unqualified, however, because there has always been something slightly "schoolmarmish" about her and her performances. In fact, there is something about her--something indefinable--that absolutely ticks off some people. My father, for instance, loathes her. Myself, I sometimes find Upshaw's performances to be slightly under-characterized and lathered with an all-purpose "sincerity" that is anything but sincere. In the Nonesuch disc, these shortcomings come into play in the Stravinsky--purely sung, but ultimately unmoving--and in the Barber, which seems to be too "fake simple", if not even arch on occasion. Further, in the Barber, while listening to Upshaw, I kept recalling certain phrases from the Leontyne Price recording--and it cannot be a whole-hearted endorsement of a performance if the listener is involuntarily thinking back to a different performance of the same music by a different artist.
Upshaw is now working regularly with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, having assumed a post as one of the orchestra's "guest curators". The word "curator" should never be used outside a museum setting, as it displays both the writer's pretentiousness and a counterfeit learnedness when used in a non-museum context, and I have been dumbfounded as this particular word has seeped into fashionable musical lexicography. Concert programs are "organized" or "devised" or "constructed"; they are not "curated". The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has made a mistake in abandoning the presence of a Music Director in favor of a series of "guest curators". What can Dawn Upshaw possibly have to contribute to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra except her presence as a guest soloist?
The Canadian Brass disc of music by Fats Waller is pure joy. My mother selected this disc, I know, because she knows that Josh loves brass music. The music is delightful, and the arrangements are delightful, and the performances are delightful. Waller was a very skillful composer: his rhythmic inventiveness was endless, and his tunes are original and individual, and they are susceptible to complex and unusal harmonic treatments (which cannot be said, for purposes of comparison, about much of the music of Cole Porter, a contemporary of Waller who also wrote popular music of some sophistication and skill). This disc appears to be out of print, and I cannot imagine why. It should be a constant and considerable seller.