• 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.

  • Dancing With the Park Avenue Symphony


    Symphonic Dances: Copland, Ravel, Stravinsky
    Park Avenue Chamber Symphony/David Bernard
    Recursive Classics 2061415
    Total Time:  64:28
    Recording:   (*)**/****
    Performance: ****/****

    If you are in New York City and have had the opportunity to hear the Park Avenue Symphony, you already know that this particular release is going to be an exciting exploration of three very popular 20th-Century works.  Conductor David Bernard has received many accolades for his recordings with the ensemble willing to tackle mainstream repertoire that has been the recorded realm of far more well-known orchestras.  For this recording, the orchestra is using a newly-edited version of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919) that Bernard had a hand in editing.  The orchestra and label released an earlier album that had the extended Copland ballet and a different version of the Firebird Suite back in 2016.  Of course, audiophiles will have their favorite performances of all these pieces so this album becomes an important way more for the orchestra to have product for sale at their concerts, but it really also allows for a wider appreciation of their performances.  To that end, this recording will certainly be treasured by those who support the rise of such orchestras in America.

    Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite opens up the album.  Bernard’s performance manages to keep the music flowing well here.  The recording sometimes creates a more ambience than one might want though.  This works against some of the crystal clear delineations of Copland’s lines.  The orchestra though moves through this work with some excellent solo playing, especially in the winds and brass.  Strings cut through this texture warming it as needed in Copland’s orchestration though one wishes it was a bit larger.  That said, with just a few places where the attacks might be more precise, one gets a sense more of what a live performance might entail.  It may not be the “best” of the versions of this available, but it has a tremendous amount of joy and energy that captures the spirit of the work.

    The second suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe is among one of his more popular concert pieces.  One wants a bit more string sound in the opening “Lever du jour” to help create the sheen of sound here, but Bernard still manages to pull from the ensemble a sense of the blurred edges while primary thematic statements waft out of the texture.  All the beauty one comes to expect from the piece is certainly there.  The flute solos are certainly among the best captured for this work.  Perhaps on another level, we have here a closer sense of the chamber ballet orchestra that creates a different intimacy within Ravel’s textures that can get lost when it is performed as a big orchestral showpiece.  That makes this a more attractive performance which is capped by a thrilling “Danse generale”.

    Another attractive addition will be the new edition of the Firebird Suite (1919).  Here the delicate colors and rhythmic precision are equally important and handled well by the orchestra.  One wonders if the decision to record this was intended to improve upon their earlier exploration of the piece as well as wanting to explore the smaller details of the new edition.  Regardless, the ensemble seems to really own this work much more than the other two no doubt aided by Bernard’s quite intimate knowledge of the score.  This makes for a thrilling conclusion to this release.

    While one can find a few minor things along the way in the performances, the real issue for some will be the sound quality which can sometimes seem “thuddy” and other times has an odder balance that pops out.  The Stravinsky seems to be somewhat better served here sonically though sometimes the levels seem to fluctuate at times.  That said, it is perhaps closer to what one might experience in the concert hall and from a live performance.  Here, the Park Avenue Orchestra is on some of its finest ground yet and this release will likely be a treasure for its fans.