Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bach, Falla, Respighi And French Masters

Since we returned to Boston, Joshua and I have been listening to four discs of music, music we found to be exceptionally fitting for late summer/early autumn listening.

Bach Motets, performed by The Stockholm Bach Choir and Concentus Musicus Wien under Nikolas Harnoncourt, on the Teldec label

“French Clarinet Art”, performed by Paul Meyer and Eric Le Sage, on the Denon label

Falla’s “La Vida Breve”, performed by The Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and Schola Cantorum De Caracas under Eduardo Mata, on the Dorian label

Respighi’s “Ancient Airs And Dances”, performed by Philharmonia Hungarica under Antal Dorati, on the Mercury Living Presence label

The Bach disc promised profound music, providing us with substance (and sustenance), while the other discs offered colorful—even light—repertory, repertory offering significant pleasures of another sort.

It was a delightful listening program.


Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recording of Bach’s Motets, BWV 225-230, was considered to be ne plus ultra in Bach performance in 1979, the year this recording was first issued. The recording was originally published on the old Telefunken label, reissued later on the Teldec label, and more recently remastered and re-released on the Elektra label. The recording is currently out of print, but it is reasonable to expect that it will be issued at some point on the Warner label.

It is believed that Bach’s Motets were composed, upon commission, for funeral services of noted Leipzigers.

The six Motets were never intended to be performed as a unified set. Today’s fairly common practice of performing the Motets in a group is a legacy of the recording medium. The advent of the 60-minute LP allowed all six motets to be accommodated on a single disc, and the Motets have been recorded and performed as a set with some frequency ever since.

The authorship of BWV 230 is a matter of dispute. Some scholars believe that BWV 230 was written, not by Bach, but by another composer familiar with Bach’s style. BWV 230, nevertheless, is generally performed (and recorded) along with the other five Motets.

The Motets contain some of Bach’s most glorious music. They are among Bach’s very finest works. Many lovers of Bach consider the Motets to be Bach’s choral masterpieces.

The Motets are notoriously difficult to perform. The contrapuntal writing is very dense and very complex, and most choruses cannot do the works justice. As a general rule, only the very finest professional choirs can realize the counterpoint effectively while maintaining balance, purity of intonation and purity of tone.

The Harnoncourt recording is cherished primarily because of the singing of the Stockholm Bach Choir, whose work is stupendous on this recording. The singing preempts anything on disc that came before—and much that came after. The Choir offers a textbook example of exemplary Bach choral performance.

Harnoncourt did not prepare the chorus for this recording, and that probably was a good thing—the choral work has a freedom and an expression and a beauty otherwise unknown in Harnoncourt’s work.

Some wags have insisted that this recording is magnificent, not because of Harnoncourt, but in spite of Harnoncourt. They very well may be right. Harnoncourt, in a half-century of toil in the recording studio, never produced anything finer than this disc.

Josh and I have spent more time listening to the Bach disc than to the other three discs combined.


“French Clarinet Art” was issued in 1993. The disc remains in print—and widely available—sixteen years later, a remarkable state of affairs in light of the collapse of the recording industry.

The disc’s widespread availability is made more remarkable still because the original label, Denon, went out of business several years ago. Whatever successor organization now controls the old Denon catalog keeps this disc in print for some reason—and this is one of relatively few original Denon recordings that remain available on the original Denon label (and not outsourced to some budget label such as Brilliant Classics).

That this disc, issued by a now-defunct company, has remained in continuous print for such an extended period of time is testament, I suspect, to the number of copies sold worldwide to clarinet players year after year. I can think of no other reason why this particular Denon recording remains in the active catalog while countless other distinguished Denon releases languish in obscurity, available from no sources other than second-hand markets.

The disc is not bad. Paul Meyer is a fine player, and a favorite of clarinetists throughout Europe, North America and Asia.

The repertory is about what one might expect: clarinet works by Saint-Saens, Chausson, Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc and Honegger.

The Saint-Saens Clarinet Sonata in E-Flat, Opus 167, is not out of place among its 20th-Century counterparts on the disc because it was one of the composer’s very last works, completed in 1921, the year of the composer’s death (at age 86).

The Saint-Saens Sonata is a major work, a masterpiece of the woodwind literature. In four movements, the Sonata is an extraordinary melding of form and content, free of a single superfluous gesture. I have no doubt that the aging composer was inspired by the model of late Brahms, specifically Brahms’s Opus 120, Number 1.

I recognize the work’s undeniable craftsmanship and brilliance—but I dislike the piece intensely.

I know the work well. I’ve played the piano part several times with clarinet students, I’ve studied the composition with a piano teacher of great skill, and I’ve been coached in the work by a notable musician—and nonetheless I detest the Saint-Saens Clarinet Sonata. I cannot explain why; my dislike of the piece is instinctive.

Aside from the Saint-Saens Sonata, the most important works on the disc are the Poulenc Sonata and Debussy’s Rhapsodie (shorn of its familiar orchestral support). The Chausson piece, an Andante Et Allegro, is a mere curiosity (and the only 19th-Century work on the disc). The Honegger composition, a Sonatine (for clarinet or cello), struck me as weak. A wan Debussy piece and three Milhaud works, mildly amusing but of no genuine consequence, rounded out the program.

Meyer is one of the world’s great clarinet virtuosos, and a native Frenchman to boot, but I thought his playing in these quintessential French works to be wanting in Gallic elegance and flair. He ripped through the Saint-Saens like a house afire, and he missed the wit, insouciance and deep melancholy of the Poulenc. His readings of the other works made no impression at all.

Oddly, I have always found Meyer to be more satisfying in Central European repertory than in music of his native land.


“La Vida Breve” receives very few performances.

The opera is too short to constitute a stand-alone work—its two acts take only 60 minutes to perform—and its plot is skeletal, allowing no time for development of character or situation. The opera is, in essence, a potted version of the ballet “Giselle”, transplanted to Granada.

The work’s brevity certainly contributes to the work’s neglect, as does the difficulty of settling upon a suitable companion work. Some persons insist that there is no ideal coupling for the work.

I disagree. Ravel’s “L’Heure Espagnole” or one of the Falla ballets would make ideal pairings for “La Vida Breve”—but those works seldom seem to acquire stage performances, either.

However, I think a stronger reason for the work’s failure to obtain a place in the repertory is that Falla was not a natural opera composer. Simply put, Falla was unable to define character through music, the sine qua non of a stage composer. His characters are given well-crafted, highly-polished music to sing, but the music is impersonal and the characters remain cardboard, lacking individuality, specificity and nuance.

“La Vida Breve” is a very early Falla work. Falla’s first large-scale composition, “La Vida Breve” was written in 1904 and 1905, before the composer had turned thirty. He was to develop significantly over the following ten years, and write much better and much more interesting music.

The most intriguing aspect of the opera is that Falla had already gained a mastery of the orchestra by the time he embarked upon “La Vida Breve”. The orchestra writing sparkles—and is much more interesting than the vocal writing.

The Eduardo Mata recording, made in Venezuela, is a fine one. The orchestra is capable, and Mata’s handling of the score is entitled to nothing but praise. “La Vida Breve” was one of Mata’s specialties. He conducted the piece, in concert form, all over the world.

The cast is the weak link in this recording. None of the singers makes much of an impression.

All but one member of the cast was totally unknown to me. The singer whose name was familiar, Marta Senn, was a minor artist, with a minor but honorable career. She sang in American houses for a few years in the 1980’s. Her Salud, the Giselle figure in the opera, did not come to life in the recording. Senn’s portrayal was not helped by the fact that her voice sounded weathered, lacking freshness and gleam. I suspect Senn may have been too old for the assignment at the time this recording was made.

This disc was recorded in 1993 and issued in 1994. The sound engineering is excellent. The sound has richness, clarity and definition. However, the volume needs to be boosted for the disc to acquire maximum presence, something I have often found to be necessary for other Dorian recordings, too.

The disc remains available through online merchants, but I believe the original Dorian issue is now technically out of print. The performance is now officially available, recently re-published, in a multi-disc compilation on the Brilliant Classics label.

I have heard three other recordings of “La Vida Breve”, none recently. My recollections are that the Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos and Garcia Navarro recordings offered more dramatic readings than the Mata, and offered superior vocalists—but were not necessarily superior overall to the Mata. My recollection is that the Jesus Lopez-Cobos recording, beautifully performed, resolutely failed to come to life.

Of the following, I am certain: all four “La Vida Breve” recordings were definitely worth hearing. All four recordings had much to recommend them. This is an opera that has been very lucky on disc.


Respighi’s “Ancient Airs And Dances” have been lucky on disc, too, but no recording supersedes Antal Dorati’s classic recording with the Philharmonia Hungarica, made in Vienna in 1958.

The performances remain fresh as paint. No other recording of these works offers performances of equal vitality, charm, expression or commitment.

The sound is exceptional, a lasting testament to the work of the Mercury engineering team of the 1950’s.

I can fully understand why this disc is so popular, still available (and still selling) after the passing of more than half a century.

Josh loved “Ancient Airs And Dances”.

Josh had never heard these suites, adopted from Renaissance lute music, before we listened to the Dorati disc. Josh found the music to be entirely captivating.

We shall have to listen to more Respighi.

1 comment:

  1. That old Dorati really is good.

    About 20 years ago, I heard Mata perform the de Falla opera with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It was good, but probably best left to performance in concert.