From Faust to a Poor Wayfaring Stranger, A May Music Review

Since my meditation on playing LPs in late February, I have been engaged in an even more revanchist activity – listening to live music at concerts and opera houses.  For those interested in my musical autobiography, my reviews of the LA Opera and a number of performances of the National Symphony Orchestra can be found at:  I can tell you that Placido Domingo is still singing well at age 71 in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and that conductor Christoph Eschenbach particularly excels in making the transcendent perceptible in his riveting performances at the Kennedy Center, particularly with the Bruckner Ninth Symphony in February and Dvorak’s Stabat Mater in March.

I was also blessed to hear a supremely beautiful and moving NSO performance of Elgar’s First Symphony, with conductor Andrew Litton, in April. The adagio was heart stopping.  Litton and the NSO pricelessly captured the hushed, almost sacred moments of such great tenderness that a musical friend of Elgar declared it “the greatest slow movement since Beethoven.” This is music to crack open the heart.  It certainly had my eyes watering.  The delicacy of the NSO’s delivery was refined to the point of perfection.

Therefore, I can confidently report that musical standards are very high, and that performances are well attended.  In fact, the classical music life ofAmericais so vigorous and accomplished that one wonders how we have gained such a reputation as cultural Babbitts.  And then one remembers, of course, pop culture, which, unlike classical music, goes everywhere and besmirches everything, including our good name.

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Yet, listen to this.  The League of American Orchestras has a membership of approximately 850 orchestras across North America that runs the gamut from world-renowned symphonies to community groups.  And, according to the Wall Street Journal, “in theUnited States alone, 360 opera houses and concert halls were completed between 1994 and 2008.”  That’s not too shabby.  In fact, it’s an impressive indication of vitality.  There is hope.  And it is not simply that we are performing music well.  It is also that Americans continue to compose very fine music today.  Later, I will briefly review several of the outstanding new releases of contemporary American music.

As much as I love the concert hall – and the experience of live music can never be completely replicated by a recording – I must resume my duties as a CD reviewer.  And here there is also a great amount of good news – so much so that space will not allow me to get through my recommendations in a fell swoop.

Let me start with the pleasures of the pleasant.  Not all music need shake the rafters or plumb the depths. Some is written simply to be enjoyed, and that was never truer than in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when there was still a premium on gracefulness and charm.  Of course, Mozart and Haydn were the pinnacles, but much was written of worth slightly below their level.  No less a person than the great American composer, David Diamond, personally recommended to me the music of Adalbert Gyrowetz (1763-1850).  Gyrowetz was practically overcome by his own modesty and his music nearly forgotten.  This would have been tragic, as his music is terrific.  There is a new recording on the NCA label (order number 60231) that features four of his wonderful piano trios, played by the Trio Fortepiano.  I happen to dislike the clangy, tinkling sound of the fortepiano (the piano’s immediate precursor), but I could not resist this music and the verve with which it is played on original instruments.  The whole thing sparkles.

Like Gyrowetz, Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792) wrote at, or very close to, the level of Mozart.  In fact, Haydn remarked that Kraus was the only other composer he knew who was as great as Mozart.  Though little-known, Kraus’s music, particularly his outstanding symphonies, have been given new life by the Naxos label. The Ondine label (ODE 1193-2) has just released a new CD of two Kraus Concertos for Viola and Orchestra, and another for Viola, Cello, and Orchestra, beautifully played by the Tapiola Sinfonietta, with cellist David Aaron Carpenter.  This is a wonderful addition to the Kraus Canon.  Start with theNaxossymphonies.  If you like them, grab the viola concertos.

Anton Eberl (1765-1807) was another Mozartian.  He was not only a Mozart family friend, but some of his compositions were, without his permission, published under Mozart’s name.  One can see how an unscrupulous publisher got away with this when one listens to his Piano Concertos in E flat and C major, on a new CPO CD (777 354-2), with the  Kolner Akademie.  This is very vivacious, enjoyable music.

I cannot praise the Marco Polo label too highly for its faithful endeavor to record all 36 string quartets of Louis Spohr (1784-1859).  It has now issued the last volume, number 15 (8.225981), containing Quartets Nos. 19 and 22. Spohr was an early romantic of such high repute that his name used to grace the walls of 19th-century concert halls, along with those of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  I have never been entirely convinced by his symphonies, but I find that his chamber music, at its best, approaches the song-like, touching quality of Schubert’s quartets.  Listen most particularly to Quartet No. 22, aptly played by the New Budapest Quartet, and you will see what I mean.

The devil is always a good sell, and he comes across wonderfully well in the music of both Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and Arrigo Boito (1842-1918).  So, I want to briefly mention how good the Naxos recording (8.572430-31) is of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, an entirely convincing performance by the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, under Antoni Witt.  This is a terrific bargain.  I was somewhat hesitant to listen to Boito’s Mefistofele, which is one of my favorite operas, in a Naxos recording (8.66048-49) of a provincial performance by Teatro Massimo, Palermo, under conductor Stefano Ranzani.  But I am glad I did. This is a rip roaring portrayal that leaps to life, with no lack of high drama.  It may be a bit rough around the edges, but it is great fun.

Because of space constraints, I’m going to have to leap directly to our times to keep my promise to cover recent American music.  Do not worry; we are not getting that far removed from the pleasures of the pleasant.

Take, for instance, the new Naxos CD (8.559687) of Peter Schickele’s works for woodwind quintet, played beautifully by the Blair Woodwind Quintet.  I have always enjoyed Schickele’s “serious” music, particularly his enticing chamber music.  His string quartets and piano quintets are quite wonderful.  He, of course, is far better known for his comedy send-ups as PDQ Bach, but I wish he had spent less time clowning around and more on composition.  You will hear why.  The title piece here is A Year in the Catskills, accompanied by Dream Dances, Diversions, and other pieces.  These are sweet, genial musical musings that percolate pleasantly along.  Much of it is gentle and reflective, capturing a poignant nostalgia. I am not damning with faint praise.  These are works of sheer delight and attractive fancy.  There is simply not a mean bone in the body of this music.

James Aikman (b. 1959) has written a Violin Concerto, subtitled Lines in Motion.  Its opening orchestral ostinato is repeated enough times in a minute and a half to begin to annoy, but the work is soon rescued by a highly lyrical and rhapsodic violin line that is extraordinarily long.  It sets up a deeply felt yearning against the somewhat mechanical ostinato. This segues into a very stirring Quasi una Fantasia, which is the heart of the work.  It achieves a Samuel Barber-like beauty.  Music like this is a nail in the heart of the avant-garde.  The Concerto is followed up by an exquisite Pavane for String Orchestra, called Aina’s Song, and a Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra.  This CD (8.559720) is another winner in Naxos’ “American Classics” series, and is done to perfection by the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, under Vladimir Lande, with the excellent violinist Charles Weatherbee.

Daron Hagen (b. 19610 also has a very heartfelt quality in his Piano Trio No. 3, “Wayfaring Stranger” (2006), which is based on the hymn Poor Wayfaring Stranger.  I had not known until I read the Naxos program notes that this work was written in memory of his brother.  It is very touching and directly affecting.  Anyone who thinks that modern American composers do not write music that, without condescending to any sloppy emotions, goes straight to the heart should listen to this work.  The equally attractive Piano Trio No. 4, “Angel Band” (2007), is also based on a hymn and has a strong Appalachian feel to it.  It, too, is very moving and, at times, ecstatic.  The earlier two piano trios on this CD, Nos. 1 and 2, are more angular, acerbic, and “modern” sounding, at least in part, with less direct appeal, though obvious promise.  The Finsterra Trio delivers what sound like definitive performances (Naxos 8.559657).  There is a real joy of discovery here, which is why I write this column.

Stay tuned for my discoveries from the late 19th and early 20th centuries early next month.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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