CD/DVD Roundup: Haydn, Heggie, Britten & Vivaldi
By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?
Four recently issued recordings in review:
In 1798, Napoleon’s threat to Europe was rapidly increasing, prompting Haydn to name his latest choral piece, “Mass in a Time of Anxiety.” A week before its premiere, Admiral Nelson’s British fleet won a decisive battle against Napoleon causing the work to became more popularly known as “Lord Nelson Mass.”
Boston Baroque, established in 1973 as the first permanent Baroque orchestra in the U.S., was preparing to record the mass on the day the Boston Marathon bombings occurred in April. With an extra incentive to convey the work’s turbulent clouds of despair and sunny rays of hope, the orchestra, chorus and soloists, conducted by Martin Pearlman, give a vivid, incisive account of this ultimately uplifting music.
The original score had strings, trumpet, timpani and organ only (Haydn’s patron having defunded the other instruments), but many later performances have filled in the orchestra and beefed up the chorus, adding a heaviness that blunts its edge. Here, employing the original, Pearlman elicits a bracing sharpness, thrilling in the darker sections, refreshing in the uplifting portions. The clarity of the intimate chorus and the lovely blend of the solo quartet make for an engaging experience that invites repeated listening. The CD includes Haydn’s perky, humor-laced 1794 Symphony No. 102, a perfect finale to this gratifying disc.
Contemporary operas rarely become staples but Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick” is well on its way. After a highly-praised 2010 Dallas premiere, it’s had four additional productions, including one at San Francisco Opera in October 2012, recorded live for this 2-DVD set.
Heggie’s first opera, “Dead Man Walking,” garnered impressive reviews for the composer at age 39. That 2000 opera and his next two in 2004 and 2008 were based on down-to-earth 20th century subjects. But “Moby-Dick, based on Herman Melville’s 1851 epic novel, has a scope and depth well beyond Heggie’s previous operatic efforts.
Gene Scheer’s excellent libretto retains much of Melville’s heightened language and symbolism but condensed within a clear, concise storyline. Heggie uses Scheer’s structure to build distinctive musical pictures, from roiling seas and raging storms to lusty crew outbursts and Captain Ahab’s intense confrontations with his officers. There is dissonance and cacophony appropriate to the action but also many moments of beautiful lyricism and exciting rhythmic thrust. Despite hints of Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass, “Moby-Dick” has a unique sound, often employed to stunning effect.
The first-rate cast includes Jay Hunter Morris’ steely, wild-eyed Ahab, Jonathan Lemalu’s exotic, lovable Queequeg, and Talise Travigne’s perky, innocent Pip. Patrick Summers’ taut conducting, along with Robert Brill’s imaginative sets and Elaine J. McCarthy’s haunting projections, make this a riveting experience.
Benjamin Britten’s 1964 Symphony for Cello and Orchestra is no walk in the park for performer or listener. Written for virtuoso cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the four-movement work tests the limits of its soloist’s technique as well as interpretive skills. Although not programmatic, the music conjures angst, pain, sorrow and doubt, along with a bit of brightening hope at the end. The piece demands a listener’s close attention, rewarded by experiencing the soloist’s herculean efforts in the many difficult passages and the music’s power to bring out extreme emotions.
This performance was recorded live with the North Carolina Symphony during two Raleigh concerts in February 2013 that celebrated the centenary of Britten’s birth. Cellist Zuill Bailey confidently conquers the work’s technical challenges while taking a quietly introspective approach. His firm, warm tone is never flashy or edgy yet full of personal communication. Conductor Grant Llewellyn matches Bailey’s contemplative take, supporting but never dominating.
The sound is open and natural, the cello clearly forward, allowing Bailey great intimacy but the orchestra’s slight distance sometimes reduces the impact of its instrumental outbursts and solos.
This Telarc cd is rounded out with Britten’s 1961 Cello Sonata, performed by Bailey and pianist Natasha Paremski. Bailey’s nimble precision in the cheekily humorous sections is impressive, while his sonorous bowing in the slower passages is richly lyrical. Enhanced with Paremski’s vibrant, crisp playing, this more readily accessible piece serves as a good introduction to the darker mysteries of the cello symphony.
Is there room for another recording of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” when there’s already more than a hundred available? Three specific reasons make this fine new eOne disc a worthy addition to the field.
First, the interpretations by violin soloist, Anne Akiko Meyers, are not exaggerated or over-indulgent but gratifyingly direct, full of crisp precision in the up-tempo sections and ardent character in the lyrical moments. The English Chamber Orchestra and conductor David Lockington provide buoyant support, rhythmically and dynamically matching each mood.
Second, Meyers plays the 1741 Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu, a $10 million violin for which its anonymous owner has given Meyers lifetime use, including this first-ever recording of the instrument. Meyers bring out bright, ringing tone in the blustery third movement of “Summer” and burnished, mellow richness in the “by the fireplace” second movement of “Winter,” examples that confirm this violin’s legendary status.
Third, the recorded sound is impressively spacious and vivid, giving special focus to Vivaldi’s bird chirps, swirling leaves and icy winds. The whole piece sounds refreshingly new.
The CD also includes Vivaldi’s pleasant Concerto in F Major for Three Violins, with Meyers taking all the parts via the magic of overdubbing. As a 21st century palate cleanser between the Vivaldi works, Meyers plays Arvo Pärt’s brief Passacaglia, beautifully evoking its mysterious, ethereal atmosphere.
[These reviews first appeared in the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer]Date posted: March 12, 2014