JoAnn Falletta

  • Rediscovering Schreker


    Schreker: The Birthday of the Infanta Suite
    Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
    Naxos 8.573821
    Total Time:  64:10
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    The music of Austrian composer Franz Schreker (1878-1934) has slowly begun to grown in its reputation again after decades of neglect.  He was coming into his own as a composer at the crossroads of every major musical aesthetic of the early 20th Century and as such one can hear this fascinating blend of “-isms” in his music that also explores color and orchestration in fascinating ways.  As the century opened, he was becoming acknowledged as the most important voice in German opera even overshadowing Richard Strauss.  As the director of the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik his influence would be felt in the music and careers of Berthold Goldschmidt, Jascha Horenstein, Ernst Krenek, Artur Rodzinski, and Stefan Wolpe among many others.  However, as the Nazis gained influence and power, and with growing anti-semitism, he was removed from his positions and his music was labeled as “degenerate” and “progressive”.  By his death, he had been completely marginalized.  Because his music had been underperformed, one might first hear connections to Wagner and Richard Strauss, but one discovers is a singular composer who shaped those styles into a highly individual one with often fascinating results.

    The album opens with a lengthy Prelude to a Drama (1914) which was commissioned by Felix Weingartner in 1913 and premiered in Vienna the following year.  It is crafted from the music for Schreker’s opera Die Gezeichnetsen.  The concert prelude recorded here follows the general narrative of the plot exploring many of the primary themes.  What is most striking though is that this music has the sort of soundworld of Korngold and Zemlinsky and may have many listeners thinking they have managed to discover a long lost film score.  One can hear some of the impassioned Wagnerian style with the expansiveness of Mahler.  It makes for a thrilling introduction to the album.  The variety of color from the orchestration is stunning with excellent expanded percussion adding extra flair.  After all the flurry of sound it ends quietly creating this large wonderful musical arc.

    Among his more popular works at the time was a pantomime of Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infant.  It follows the tale of an ugly dwarf who is taken from his forest home and presented as a gift to the Spanish Infanta.  A variety of scenes with a bull fight and puppet theater add some variety.  At the center of the tale is the dwarf’s belief that the Infanta loves him, which is shattered when he sees his reflection and realizes she has been mocking him the whole time.  Grete Wiesenthal commissioned the work and danced the part of the dwarf opposite her sister Elsa.  The first performance took place June 27, 1908.  Schreker was hoping to rework the piece into a ballet, but decided instead to put together an extended orchestral suite which he began working on in 1922 and completed the following year.  Willem Mengelberg led its premiere at the Concergebouw in October, 1923.

    For the most part the ten-movement work follows the general story of the pantomime with an interlude and a final scene omitted.  “Reigen” opens the work with a sort of light hustle and bustle and a light thematic idea for winds.  The colorful writing moves us into some royal court music, the likes one might expect in a Korngold period drama score.  Throughout the work, one gets to hear the gorgeous sound of the Berlin RSO who is at the top of their game.  Falletta shapes this music beautifully helping us hear the emotional pull of the story and the heartbreaking moments are all the more poignant as a result.  It is simply an amazing performance all around both when different sections get a chance to be more exposed, and when the full orchestra comes to the forefront.  The dynamic shaping and attention to detail helps make this an even more stunning performance.

    The final work on the release is the Romantic Suite, Op. 14 (1903).  The four-movement work has its parallels in composers who used this format to explore and develop their own musical language in this period.  Each of the movements here are representative of the period and a composer’s first foray into orchestral writing.  Removing the formal expectations of a symphony, Schreker opens with an extended lyrical “Idylle” followed by a fun “Scherzo”, tuneful “Intermezzo” and concluding “Dance”.  As an early work, one does not quite hear the sort of musical assuredness in the superb earlier pieces on the album.  It is a work of its time really fitting any of the composers active at the turn of the 20th Century.  However, having it here helps remind us of the greatness that was to come.  Here too the Berlin RSO responds very well to this music making a great case for its preservation.

    Recorded over a few days in June 2017, this is one of Naxos’ finest albums that finds Falletta in great command of an ensemble she appears to be recording with for the first time.  That said, the results here leave one hoping that she will return to explore more of this amazing repertoire.  Highly recommended!

  • Four New Concertos by Fuchs

    Fuchs: Piano Concerto and Other Music
    London Symphony Orch./JoAnn Falletta
    Naxos 8.559824
    Total Time:  77:19
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    In this new release from Naxos, JoAnn Falletta and composer Kenneth Fuchs (b. 1956) celebrate their 15-year recording history in four new works.  Each piece highlights a soloist and orchestra, essentially concertos, and feature evocative titles for these engaging works..

    The album opens with the Piano Concerto ‘Spiritualist’ (2016).  Fuchs has written three earlier pieces that took inspiration from the art of Helen Frankenthaler.  For this concerto, he has used a more traditional three-movement form, with modified sonata-allegro first movement, and rondo forms for the subsequent movements.  The titles of the movements refer to the paintings which inspired the work: Spiritualist, Silent Wish, and Natural Answer.  The first movement has a wonderful sense of play and an opening rhythmical theme that invites the listener in to the soundworld.  A contrasting lyrical idea has some lovely writing as well in a Neo-Romantic swath of beauty.  The style here is in a modern Americana feel with hints of jazz rhythms and syncopations (an update to some of Antheil’s mid-century works).  The central movement opens with sparse string clusters and a piano theme that sets up a reflective Nocturne-like idea.  There is a feel of Satie here in this reduced orchestral accompaniment that requires careful harmonic sway against the piano.  A more energetic burst breaks this with brass glissandi that brings us closer to jazz styles with a dash of serialism.  The music is quite gorgeous though in these reflective moments.  They are interrupted by an almost Stravinskian flurry.  Ideas from the previous movements are revisited in the airy and exciting celebration of the final movement.  Pianist Jeffrey Biegel, for whom the work was written, is an exemplary choice in this engaging concerto.  It has an almost filmic drama with accessible musical language that makes it an excellent entry into this program.

    The poetry of Judith G. Wolf, taken from her collection Otherwise, serves as the narrative for Poems of Life (2017).  Twelve poems are spread across this five-movement work for Countertenor and Orchestra.  Solos for cello and English horn provide additional dramatic connotations for the piece and play off the soloist’s declarations.  Texts are provided in the booklet.  The quality of the voice here is the most striking aspect of the work with Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s pure tone adding an almost ethereal quality to the lines here.    He premiered the work with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and brings that experience fully to bare here in this recording which is a real showcase for his talent.  His phrasing and ability to shape the emotional quality of the text works to bring out the stark writing Fuchs uses here.  Truly, this is really a special work with its sparse orchestral backdrop adding just enough fascinating brushstrokes to Wolf’s thoughtful poetry.

    As there are not a lot of works for countertenor and orchestra, there are likely even fewer solo concert pieces for the Electric guitar.  Fuchs wrote Glacier (2015) for the Bozeman Symphony Orchestra.  The five movement work, with its evocative natural world titles, explores the vistas of Montana.  Here too Fuchs blends jazz harmonies and rhythmic ideas with a sort of Post-Impressionist feel.  The semi-improvisational style of the soloist is placed against the rich orchestral writing that follows along the lines of the nocturne-like qualities one heard in the piano concerto.  It is fascinating to hear these alongside some of the unique riffs and techniques that are applied in the soloist.  Fuchs takes us on a musical journey that the glaciers, and water as it travels in rivulets and vapors, as well as stone.  The final movement has us heading further West into the sun.  The music tends to be generally more reflective and restrained with some bursts of energy in the fourth movement, which has a rock guitar-like style.  D. J. Sparr makes for a fine soloist in this work focusing more on some of the lyrical qualities of the instrument.

    The alto saxophone has been more fortunate when it comes to concert music.  Fuch’s concerto, Rush (2012), is a two-movement piece that is set into “Evening” and “Morning” respectively.  This allows for some of the more rhapsodic style for the beautiful beginning movement which also sets up the primary material for the work.  With excellent virtuosic writing, Fuchs then shifts between the jazz and classical worlds.  Blues injections connect to the former while a later passacaglia blends the two worlds.  Timothy McAllister is matched well for this work and makes it really shine from its gorgeous lyricism to its more exciting technical requirements in the finale.

    Fuchs’ music is instantly engaging with a thread that continues American concert music out of the warmer Romantic tradition with integration of jazz here and there as a tool in the colorful music.  Fuchs studied with Milton Babbit, David Diamond, and Vincent Persichetti.  It is from Diamond’s romantic writing that one can see the connecting thread coupled with the sort of flashes of orchestral color heard in his other teachers here, with perhaps a hint of Leonard Bernstein along the way.  All of this melded into his own compositional voice.  The pieces here are all quite engaging works.  The Poems of Life feels like the stronger of the works with the piano concerto a close second.  Still, it is all a fabulous recording of new music excellently performed by the respective soloists with equally fine support from the London Symphony as one would suspect.