• 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.

  • Chamber Music from Edward Smaldone


    Once and Again
    Tony Arnold, soprano. Tara Helen O’Connor, flute. June Han, harp.
    Charles Neidich, clarinet/bass clarinet. Daniel Phillips, violin. Marcy Rosen, cello.
    Susan Narucki, soprano. Judith Mendenhall, flute/piccolo.
    Morey Ritt, piano.
    Brno Philharmonic Strings/Mikel Toms
    New Focus FCR258
    Total Time:  67:14
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Composer Edward Smaldone (b. 1956) explores a number of chamber music expressions in this new collection from New Focus.  From song cycles (Cantare di Amore; Letters From Home) to wind solos (Duke/Monk) and duets (Double Duo) to a concluding string Sinfonia that reveal the composer’s style and approaches in works written between 1986-2009.

    The first work on the album is the song cycle Cantare di Amore (2009) and represents Smaldone’s most recent work.  The texts are borrowed from the fourth and sixth book of Madrigals by Monteverdi.  There are three settings, the first opening with an almost Asian-sounding inflection from the flute and harp.  The voice and flute tend to interweave and feed off one another with the harp providing flourishes to add harmonic signposts.  There are sometimes subtle shifts to more traditional harmony, though these are hints that quickly dissipate.  At the center is a darker love song exploring contemporary effects for the accompanying instruments and a freer rhythmic feel.  The final song has more of these free-flowing soprano lines.  The piece is a bit reminiscent of Dallapiccola (perhaps it is just the way the instruments are applied and the florid vocal writing).  The performance is quite exquisite.  The second song cycle is based on some letters the composer discovered in his home (hence the title, Letters from Home 2000/2007/2014).  The actual letters are interspersed with the composer’s own texts to add context to the material.  Here it is Susan Narucki’s performance that entrances the listener.

    The song cycles are separated by a Double Duo (1987/2006) that pits two woodwind instruments (flute and clarinet) against two string instruments (violin and cello).  This earlier composition, here in a revised form, Smaldone cites as being influenced by George Perle.  It expresses that economy of material with opening ideas being the primary pitch and motivic ideas that form the basis of the tightly-constructed 8-minute work.  There is still a sense of improvisational approaches that allow each instrument to come to the foreground briefly.  An outward-reaching gesture helps further move things along as more angular, and jagged outlines add an additional intensity.  More careful listening helps discern that these ideas are placed within a sonata form.  The more rhythmic material opens the work with a slower, harmonically ambiguous, second idea providing contrast.  A development section further unpacks these ideas before a somewhat interesting recapitulation where these two ideas occur simultaneously.  The penultimate track is a two-movement work, originally for flute, that is performed on clarinet.  Duke/Monk (2011) reveals another of Smaldone’s “influences”, Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk.  The musical material is derived form a work of each of these classic jazz musicians and composers.  The new transcription was made for its soloist here, Charles Niedich.  It piano allows Smaldone to stretch and manipulate jazz harmonies while the soloist has a more improvisational feel exploring the melodic lines of the quotations.

    The final work here is an early piece for strings adapted from the composer’s 1986 second string quartet.  The Sinfonia (2010) features a beautiful viola opening with extended harmonic punctuations before shifting into a dancing scherzo.  The work encapsulates the composer’s exploration of small cells of material and repeated pitch constructions.  After a more reflective opening, the dance-like rhythms of Smaldone’s interests also align.

    The music here is especially marked by some beautiful lyric writing, though couched often in more astringent harmony.  It is almost as if sometimes a line will follow a traditional harmonic arc but the accompaniment pulls into closer intervallic constructions towards dissonance.  That can be quite fascinating to hear and Smaldone is quite fortunate to have secured such fine performances of these pieces.