Month: November 2020

  • World Premiere Herrmann and Exploring Early Documentary Scores


    Herrmann: Whitman
    David Jones, clarinet. Netanel Draiblate, Eva Cappelletti Chao, violins.
    Philippe Chao, viola. Benjamin Capps, cello.
    PostClassical Ensemble/Angel Gil-Ordonez
    Naxos 8.559883
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Over nearly two decades, the Post-Classical Ensemble in Washington, D.C., has engaged audiences with its unique blend of global and folk music with dance, theater, and film for rather adventurous programming.  Under their founding conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez they have made several recordings of film music.  Most of these have been added into remasterings of the films and released on DVD.

    The ensemble’s first exploration of film music came with their recordings of two classic Virgil Thomson scores: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), and The River (1937) [Naxos 8.559291]  Thomson’s essential documentary scores are perfect examples of a distinct Americana style that was emerging in the 1930s.  The music’s more open, often hymn-like writing added to the lifting up of the stark imagery that accompanied director Pare Lorentz’s films.  These early documentary films broke new ground in their depictions of imagery music and language all pointed towards visual representations of FDR’s New Deal.  It is worth tracking down this earlier Naxos disc as there are some restored moments that have been missing from the very few recordings of the suites Thomson put together for the film.  Some music had also been cut, and this was restored as well.  Naxos also released both films along with three interesting featurettes and some audio of the composer discussing his music from 1979 that was conducted by film music reviewer Roger Hall.  [Naxos DVD 2.110521]

    A couple of years later, the ensemble returned to provide an updated recording for an historical release of Aaron Copland’s The City (1939).  This quintessential Copland score was created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and has never been released in its entirety (though suites from the music have come and gone).  The DVD release (Naxos DVD 2.110231) provided a restored original soundtrack under Max Goberman’s direction.  The soundtrack was also then re-recorded and re-created by the Post-Classical Ensemble and that is also available as a brilliant-sounding option.  To date, oddly no CD of the performance has been released though.  This DVD release also includes a couple lengthier featurettes to add additional historical support and information.

    In 2014, the ensemble and Gil-Ordonez recorded a new performance for an important documentary film about the Mexican Revolution, Redes (1935).  The striking film features an exhilarating score by the great Silvestre Revueltas which gets an excellent performance here linked to the film.  Musically, it helps that very little dialogue is tracked in the musical sequences, so things can stay fairly clean sonically with this new release.  The Naxos DVD (2.110372) allows us to hear the original soundtrack as an option.  Again, no standalone CD for this score, though it would certainly be a must for those interested in global film music and this quite excellent 20th-Century composer.

    That brings us to the present CD release of music by Bernard Herrmann.  The album opens with music that he wrote for the radio drama Whitman.  This 1944 work uses a script by Norman Corwin and is based on Walt Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass.  The piece as it is reconstructed here is for narrator (William Sharp in this recording) and small orchestra in this edition by Christopher Husted (2019).  The music has a more decided Americana feel with beautiful, folkish lines and even nods to traditional and familiar tune references (“Perpetual” is a moving adaptation of “America, the Beautiful” whose melodic gestures are part of the fabric).  The music provides the sort of brief swaths of Herrmann-esque dramatic gestures that are familiar from the composer’s film work (especially those delicate, emotional sighs).  It is a bit closer to his scoring for The Twilight Zone series (or even a few hints of Psycho itself when we head into “Battle”).  This is the closest though to a blend of Coland and Harris that Herrmann comes in his music, and that is quite fascinating to hear.  The piece is a perfect example of the blend of theater, poetry, and music that is a part of the ensemble’s programming.  This World Premiere Recording is certainly an exemplary performance.  Now, it would be interesting to hear the music sans narration as well, perhaps as a collection of CBS Workshop music someday.

    Herrmann’s brief clarinet quintet Souvenirs de voyage (1967) is a bit of a palette cleanser before we move into a performance of Psycho: A Narrative.  Herrmann recorded this work back in the 1960s, but a suite of music entered the concert film repertoire instead.  John Mauceri resurrected Herrmann’s original string piece in a new edition in 1999 and has recorded this a couple times and this is what is used here.  This is less a suite and more a dramatic orchestral journey that uses the film’s musical material as the departure point for a more original orchestral work.  The hall is a bit ambient in this recording which may be slightly off-putting at first but the ear settles in well.  The performance manages to stay crisp where it needs to and intonation is also quite good (especially in those very difficult higher registers).  Dynamic shifts are also very well handled with those slow, growing crescendos being quite impressive.  The music is shaped in a way that befits in concert orchestral focus so that the pieces feel better integrated into the whole.    

    For Herrmann completists, there is a lot here to be excited about.  The Whitman piece shows how Herrmann’s subtle musical support perfectly matches the text of this piece with gorgeous writing that rarely draws attention to itself.  That said, there are several quite moving moments throughout the work.  The quintet and Psycho selections area nice addition.  The result is a CD that draws in those in the art world with a possible filmic connection to discover some great music.

  • Orli Shaham Launches Mozart Sonata Cycle


    Mozart: Piano Sonatas, Volume 1
    Orli Shaham, piano
    Canary Classics 19
    Total Time: 77:05
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    In 2019, pianist Orli Shaham began setting down her interpretation of Mozart Sonatas in a complete set that is being slowly released by Canary Classics.  The recordings were made in the historic Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA.  Notably, she also released earlier a recording of two Mozart concertos with the St. Louis Symphony.  Shaham is noted for her impeccable grace and ability to address subtle aspects of the music.  Those are perfect qualities for the likes of Mozart and this first album reveals this in the three Bb Major (Nos. 3, 13, and 17) sonatas chosen to launch the project.  The programming reveals a chance to perhaps better understand the precociousness of Mozart and the rich, varied approaches within a single harmonic area that he explored in these works.

    The third sonata in Bb Major (K.281) is a work of the teenage Mozart.  Written in 1775, the music stays close to the sort of sonatas of Haydn and J.C. Bach.  The first movement seems a bit daring at first with its immediate shift away from the tonic key and interesting motivic focus.  It certainly has that bit of wit and trickery that follows into the development section.  And yet, the recapitulation is very basic and almost underwhelming.  Almost as if the young composer wants to reassure the listener that he is going to stay close to the norm.  The central movement is a lovely sonata-form with some beautiful lyrical writing (perhaps thinking of the young Aloysia Weber he had his eye on).  The final movement is a witty rondo flirting with sonata form.  One unifying element in the piece is a trill figure which appears throughout the work.  There are plenty of moments to smile at the humorous ways that Mozart plays with expectations and musically sticks his tongue out (perhaps that is the trill’s purpose after all?).  This is handled quite beautifully by Shaham who brings out these nuances as the work plays out.

    At almost 28-minutes in length, the thirteenth sonata (K. 333) is one of the more intense and longer Mozart works in this genre.  Unlike the earlier work which may have been more directed as a “teaching” work, this more virtuosic piece suggests it was written for the composer to perform in public himself.  Though dated to 1783, it is possible the piece was written earlier and used for a concert in Linz which also resulted in a symphony which bears its additional designation (K. 425).  There is more a concerto feel to the piece and the movements, especially the length, certainly suggest a grander intent.  The opening has moments that feel almost as if we are hearing a piano reduction of the orchestra with soloists passagework.  These move between elegance and bravura.  The central movement is another of those really gorgeous melodic works that could be a reduction of some operatic love duet.  The finale is a rondo marked “Allegretto grazioso” which again hints at a more elegant sensibility.  There is a cadenza-like section which again points to the grander feel of the piece.  This is a really superb performance of the piece and there is great attention to dynamic shifts as well as the way the music shifts between these extremes of an almost orchestral to a more soloistic quality.

    The final sonata on the album is K. 570.  This is the seventeenth of these works with a more standard 3-movement and comes near the end of his life.  Written in 1789, it came at a time when Mozart’s financial difficulties were perhaps at the beginning of their lowest point and after an abysmal tour that yielded few prospects.  There has always been speculation that this may have been intended as a violin sonata and a rather limpid violin part appeared with its publication in 1796.  Though Mozart himself entered the work as for solo piano.  The opening “Allegro” seems a bit restrained but has some rather interesting contrapuntal work and plays with structure as well.  The central slow movement is a rondo with a charming affect within a rather intriguing formal choice.  The finale returns to humor and wit with delightful surprises that some find parallel the world of opera buffa.

    Shaham’s performances here are quite beguiling.  She manages to lean into the humor of these works where that is needed but also manages to connect with that sort of inner sadness that provides a poignant undercurrent in Mozart’s music.  That is especially apparent in the slow movements with their sense of yearning and grace.  The music’s formal aspects are also well delineated in her performance and there is a fine sense of understanding of where these works are in Mozart’s development.  By placing these three Bb works together, Shaham also manages to help listeners see this growing development in Mozart’s music that touches the heart without becoming too romantic, though one can see that shift on the horizon as Mozart departs from the banal simplicity of others around him.  From what is heard on this release, Mozarteans will certainly want to keep their eye out for the remainder of this traversal of Mozart’s work if this exquisite release is any indication of what is yet to come.