CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
9 SEPTEMBER 2009
The albums below are "Classical Releases Of Current Key Significance," or "CROCKS", if you will. To purchase an album, simply click on one of the Web site retail outlets given in the "AVAILABILITY" table under the write-up.
Bacewicz: Vn Concs 1, 3 & 7, Ov (1943); Kurkowicz/Borowicz/Pol RSO [Chandos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
When you hear this release you'll probably agree that Polish composer Graznya Bacewicz (1909-1969) was one of the twentieth century's finest women composers. During her relatively brief lifetime she wrote over two hundred works that include numerous concertos, four symphonies and a substantial amount of chamber music.
An outstanding violinist herself, her seven concertos for that instrument are certainly a high point in her creative output, as you'll discover with the three included here. Written between 1937 and 1965, they're out of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) and headed towards Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994). Bacewicz, like her compatriot Alexander Tansman (1897-1986, see the newsletter of 11 May 2009), spent a considerable amount of time in Paris, where she studied with Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), and the neoclassicism that was so prevalent there finds its way into both of their creations.
The first concerto [tracks-7 through 9] was written in 1937 and had its premičre the following year with the composer as soloist. In three brilliantly orchestrated movements lasting only about twelve minutes, there's a kineticism that's a Bacewicz trademark. Shostakovich (1906-1975) would have loved the opening allegro, which darts and hovers like a dragon fly. The andante provides a comely, mysterious interlude, and then the concerto ends with an energetic vivace that might best be described as chirpily tuneful. It recalls the more animated music of "Les Six" (Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc and Tailleferre).
Szymanowski fans will love the third concerto [tracks-4 through 6] of 1948, which is also in three movements. The first juxtaposes sinuously lyrical passages with excited episodes at times reminiscent of Bohuslav Martinu (1890,-1959, see the newsletters of 30 October 2007, 15 March 2008 and May 2008). When she came to write the last two movements, Bacewicz, like Szymanowski, found inspiration in the folk music from the Tatra Mountain region of Southern Poland (see the newsletter of 16 January 2007). So the middle andante is based on a little-known song, and the lively finale, an oberek (fast mazurka), both from that area.
The three-movement seventh concerto [tracks-1 through 3] of 1965 represents a dramatic stylistic shift towards what was then the Polish avant-garde world of Penderecki (b. 1933, see the newsletter of 7 January 2009) and Henryk Górecki (b. 1933). Right from its Ravelian whip snap start you know this ain't going to be business as usual! Snippets of motifs, trills, glissandi, percussive effects, and chordal outbursts give it a dodecaphonic patina, but there's more than enough tonal cohesion to win over those not enamored of the twelve-tone school.
The slow movement is strikingly orchestrated, and could easily be a musical representation of one of those spectacular cosmic images captured by the Hubble telescope. It may bring to mind French composer Henri Dutilleux's (1916-2013) more ethereal efforts. It's the exact opposite of the twitchy bareboned concluding allegro, which is a neoclassical masterpiece. It ends the concerto with another whip snap just as it began, leaving the listener realizing it will take repeated listening to savor all the subtle nuances present here.
A concert overture [track-10] , which was composed during the height of World War II, and is identified only by the year of its completion (1943), is the final selection. It begins with the timpani beating out an eight-note rhythmic figure based on the familiar four-note "V" motif that opens Beethoven's fifth symphony. Bacewicz may well have been alluding to the BBC's constant use of "V" during the war years to assure listeners victory was on the way.
The strings then scurry feverishly over the drums in Smetana (1824-1884) and Bartok-like (1881-1945) fashion. But the frenzy temporarily subsides into a Scandinavian pastoral sounding episode, only to resume with the overture ending triumphantly. It proves what a master Graznya was when it came to writing for a large orchestra, and makes one want to hear her symphonies, none of which are currently available on disc. How about it Chandos!
Violinst Joanna Kurkowicz does us all a great service by resurrecting these unjustly neglected works. Not only that, but she is a first-class virtuoso with technique to spare, and an obvious love and exceptional feel for this music. Be sure to read her informative performer's note in the album booklet to get a much better appreciation and understanding of a woman composer whose time for rediscovery has hopefully come.
Under conductor Lukasz Borowicz, the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra join her in making a strong case for everything here. With their deft handling of these challenging scores, they prove what an accomplished group of musicians they are.
Like their Australian counterparts (see the newsletter of 20 August 2009), the Polish audio engineers have over the past few years given us an increasing number of superb commercial recordings, and this one is no exception! The sonics are simply spectacular, projecting a spacious soundstage in a nourishing venue.
Ms. Kurkowicz' string tone is silky smooth, and the orchestral timbre, totally natural over the entire frequency spectrum. And that's considerable due to the large number and variety of colorful instruments present. In that regard, the highlighting of the violinist as well as the numerous solo instrumental groups that pop up is immaculate. The only nitpick would be a somewhat blurry bass drum sound. But that shouldn't stop audiophiles from taking this along on their next high-end shopping expedition.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090909)
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Langgaard, R.: Messis, In ténebras...; Dreisig/CopeCath C&Org, Denmark [Dacapo (Hybrid)]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (2 SACDs)
Most modern day classical music collectors know Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) for his thoroughly engaging, idiosyncratic late-romantic symphonies (see the newsletters of 7 February 2007, 11 July 2007 and 16 June 2008). But he began his musical career as a church organist, and wrote a considerable amount of noteworthy music for that instrument. This was particularly true during the 1930s when his orchestral music was considered old-fashioned and rarely performed. One of the two works offered on this new hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.1) Dacapo release is Messis, which dates from those years, and at a little over one hundred minutes ranks as one of the most extensive works in all organ literature. The other, In ténebras exteriores, lasts about twenty and could be considered an afterthought or appendix to the former.
Messis is the Latin word for harvest time, and Langgaard uses it as the title for his magnum organ opus in the sense of music for the end of the world, or Last Judgment, if you will. As with his symphonies, he loved to give his creations arcane subtitles, and they abound here! He called the overall work Messis (Harvest Time), a Drama for Organ in Three Evenings, and wrote it between 1932 and 1939, revising the last Evening in 1951-52 just before he died. Each evening is titled and divided into four or five parts with -- Yes, you guessed it! – more titles in addition to associated Biblical quotations and references (see the informative album notes for specifics).
Evening one also bears the title "Messis" and is in four parts. The first three were inspired by quotations from the Gospel of Matthew dealing with the Second Coming of Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven. They are musically linked to Good Friday with recurring references to the "Bell" motif (BM) introduced in the first act of Wagner's (1813-1883) Parsifal (1882). Although part one begins with that old familiar chorale tune "Wachet auf", it’s not long before the composer ingeniously intertwines it with BM [SACD-1, track-5, beginning at 00:23]. The second part immediately makes a brief reference to Swedish composer Emil Sjögren's (1853-1918) third prelude and fugue for organ (C major, Op. Posth., c. 1910), which starts with a paraphrase of BM. Part three is the most dramatic so far, and closes with chordal allusions to BM.
The best is yet to come in the fourth and final part, which is a tone passion for organ describing the Crucifixion. It begins somewhat optimistically, but gradually turns darker with the music becoming more anguished as a variety of striking stops are added to the mix. Some seismic 16s and 32s remind us of the earthquake following Jesus' death, and then it concludes as the choir with organ accompaniment sings a brief chorale about the glories of heaven. So endeth the first Evening according to Matthew!
The composer tells us the next two Evenings echo Jesus' thoughts. The second is titled "Juan" (Spanish for "John") after the Gospel of John. It's in five parts consisting of a prelude, three inner thought pieces inspired by the sayings of Christ found in John and a postlude. The outer sections are both marked "Man's days are as grass," bringing to mind the second part of the Brahms (1833-1897) German Requiem (1857-68).
The prelude is meditative and prepares the listener for the central trilogy of selections. These take the form of a foreboding sonata representing the Last Judgment, a windswept rondo associated with the life's uncertainties, and a consoling nocturne combined with a powerful fugue related to the hope of salvation. The final postlude is some of the most inspiring organ music you could ever hope to hear with a repeated rhythmic motif [SACD-2, track-5, beginning at 00:20] that's quite hypnotic. So endeth the second Evening according to John.
The third Evening labeled "Buried in Hell" is based on Christ's parable about Dives and Lazarus as related in the Gospel of Luke. It's a programmatic four-part tone poem with an improvisational spontaneity that many may find make it the creative zenith of this work. The three sections following the rather subdued introduction are spectacularly registrated. They contain some decibel levels of sonic boom magnitude that Pierre Cochereau would have loved! And so endeth the third Evening according to Luke.
But that's not all folks! Langgaard now caps everything off with a fabulous final postlude where there are again references to BM [SACD-2, track-10, beginning at 02:51]. The last notes on the pedals are G-A-D-E, which was Rued's way of paying tribute to his predecessor, the great Danish romantic composer Niels Gade (1817-90).
The four-part work filling out this album, In ténebras exteriores (Into outer darkness), dates from 1947. It bears the same subtitle and section labels as the third Evening, and might be regarded as a rethinking of it. The first section of the later piece is almost triple the length of its earlier counterpart, and includes most of its predecessor in an unaltered state. It concludes with an infernal coda whose final notes are B-A-D-Eb, which in German notation (H-A-D-Es) spell out "Hades" (see the newsletter of 20 September 2006). The two middle selections are rousing preludes that were written earlier for church use. The fourth and final part has a ceremonious grandeur that ends things in a much more upbeat manner than was the case with the earlier version.
Our soloist is Flemming Dreisig, who's organist at Copenhagen Cathedral where this recording was made. He's not only one of Denmark's finest and an authority on Langgaard's music, but thoroughly familiar with the French organ tradition, having studied in Paris with Jean Langlais (1907-1991) and Gaston Litaize (1909-1991). Put someone like that at the console of an instrument made by one of Europe's best organ builders and you're guaranteed sensational performances like these.
The Marcussen instrument featured here was installed in 1995, and all of its ranks have that articulate individual character and clarity that typify the organs of Arp Schnitger (1648-1719) and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899). It's perfectly suited to Langgaard's quirky creations, particularly in the hands (and feet) of an organist who's not only a consummate performer, but really knows his instrument, and can registrate anything he plays to best advantage.
The Copenhagen Cathedral Choir should also be acknowledged for their fine singing of the chorale that concludes the first Evening.
As they did with Rued's symphonies referenced above, the Danish recording engineers have once again outdone themselves with this exceptional demonstration quality album. Not only that, but being a hybrid release there are SACD stereo and multichannel tracks for those desiring that little extra touch of realism.
The microphone placement is perfect, creating in the stereo CD and SACD modes a totally convincing cathedral space in front of the listener. Playing the multichannel track you'll find yourself in the center of the nave, experiencing some of the most gorgeous organ sound imaginable. And at one point, as would be the case in many cathedrals, it’s notably from the back [SACD-2, track-10, beginning at 01:26]. This production is also exceptional because unlike most organ discs there are no ballooning bass peaks. Pipe freaks and audiophiles are definitely going to want this one!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090908)
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Naumov: Bulgarian Folk Songs (12) & Dances (3): Soloists/Various Cndctrs, Cs & Os [Gega]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
Many composers add a few dashes of folk music to their creations in hopes of making them more colorful and interesting. But not Bulgarian-born Anastas Naumov (b. 1928) who uses the folk songs and dances of his native country as the very basis of his works, a sampling of which appear on this new release from Gega. Like Janácek (1854-1928) and Bartók (1881-1945) before him, he's spent years collecting folk music, and that combined with his long-standing appointment as head of the Bulgarian National Radio's Folk Division eminently qualifies him as a "folk composer" (see the newsletter of 14 May 2007).
Not too long ago a couple of films created a demand with the record buying public for Bulgarian folk music somewhat like the Chant mania of previous years. Those who bought discs back then will find this one indispensable, while those who didn't are in for a great discovery! The care with which Naumov refines, polishes and harmonizes everything as well as orchestrates some of these numbers, makes him far more than just your everyday arranger. While folk purists may frown on such efforts, for the average listener the results are spectacular!
All twelve songs are for female voices, however the album notes are minimal, so for those of us who don't speak Bulgarian there's no telling what they're singing about. Fortunately the sheer musicality involved greatly outweighs any pressing need to know what's going on.
The concert opens with a gorgeous slow a cappella selection [track-1] that will pique your musical interest with its alternating unisons and dissonances. Those familiar with Moravian folk music may find it similar to some of the songs from that area, but much more Eastern-complected.
Each of the four other slow a cappella numbers included [tracks-4, 8, 10 and 13] has its own rhythmic and harmonic quirks so typical of Bulgarian folk music. One of these [track-10] sounds almost like something you might hear in a Greek Orthodox church, which is not that surprising, considering Greece is just south of the border.
The remaining seven songs [tracks-3, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12 and 14], four of which are also a cappella [tracks-3, 6, 7 and 11], fall into the fast category. One of them [track-5] is right out of the hills and features a soloist with an absolutely infectious voice accompanied by a delightfully squeaky folk ensemble. Another two [tracks-12 and 14] begin with colorful instrumental groups that are soon joined by what might best be described as smiling choruses giving off rays of “sungshine!”
There are three orchestral dance medleys [tracks- 2, 9 and 15] featuring a number of instrumental curiosities, including wheezy Eastern European bagpipes, piercing penny whistles and chugging bucket basses. What could pass for a bouzouki is the star of one number [track-9], again recalling the music of bordering Greece as well as Turkey. The last of these [track-15], and closing selection on the disc, features a wind instrument which may remind those familiar with Slovak folk music of the fujara.
Mention folk music and most people think of simple ditties warbled by rustics. But that's not the case here where there’s an abundance of bizarre harmonies and tempos that make incredible demands on the performers. These are fully met here by a variety of Bulgarian vocal and instrumental folk ensembles under a number of conductors too numerous to mention (see the album notes). They give what must be definitive renditions of these selections with singing so precise it will take your breath away. The instrumental playing is equally impressive with outbursts of virtuosity that know no bounds.
While all of these are studio recordings done in stereo, they're not what you'd call demonstration quality. For some reason the disc is cut at a relatively high level, which probably explains the upper midrange edginess apparent in massed choral selections. Also discriminating listeners will notice a number of "Bernstein Bounces" from the more energetic conductors. But as we've noted in the past, with music this captivating you'll soon forget any sonic shortcomings.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090907)
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Ryu: Sinfa da Requiem, Vn Conc 1; I.-H.Kim/S.-O.Kim/Soloists/Various Pol Cndctrs & Os [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
The two works by South Korean composer Jeajoon Ryu (b. 1970) included here are exceptional! A student of Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933, see the newsletter of 7 January 2009), he's obviously learned his lessons well, producing music that's extremely sincere and deeply moving. We'll undoubtedly be hearing more from this promising young man.
Ryu wrote his Sinfonia da Requiem (no date given) as a tribute to the people who immediately following the Korean War (1950-53) worked so hard to rebuild his country. It's is in four movements and scored for soprano, chorus and a large orchestra with an imposing percussion section. Declared a masterpiece by Penderecki, it received a ten-minute standing ovation after it's 2008 premičre in Warsaw. This is not surprising because just in forces and length alone it surpasses the gold standard of this genre, the 1940 one for orchestra by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).
The opening "Requiem aeternam" is dark and foreboding except for a meditative central episode dominated by the woodwinds. Brilliantly orchestrated, the "Dies Irae" that follows is highly dramatic with stirring fatalistic choral passages and pounding percussion. The feeling of impending tragedy and despair generated extends to the first part of the next section, "Offertorio." Then there's an impassioned plea by the soprano for the deliverance of those in hell followed by a lovely concluding hymn in memory of the departed. The final "Sanctus" builds to a stormy climax involving all the assembled forces, but the skies gradually clear, and it ends with a radiant peroration in the major.
The program closes with Ryu's first violin concerto, which dates from 2006 and is in one extended twenty-minute movement. It's late romantic in spirit with passages that owe a debt to Mahler (1860-1911) while at the same time have an exoticism reminiscent of Karol Szymanowski's (1882-1937) two efforts in this genre (1916 and 1933, see the Bacewicz recommendation above). It opens quietly in the lower strings, and then thematic ideas are introduced that gradually ascend. The violin makes a sudden dramatic appearance, and a beautifully written development section follows in which the composer scripts a fascinating dialogue between the soloist and orchestra.
Ryu's ability to continually introduce pithy new material, while maintaining a sense of structural integrity throughout the work, is extraordinary. As the piece progresses the orchestration becomes increasingly chromogenic and virtuosic displays are frequent, but never dominate. The concerto suddenly ends with a couple of tinkles on the celesta, and some emphatic percussive outbursts from the soloist and tutti.
South Korean soprano In-Hye Kim, the Silesian Camerata Singers Ensemble, and the Polish Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra, all under Lukasz Borowicz, give a superb performance of the Sinfonia da Requiem. Ms. Kim is to be commended for her impassioned singing in the "Dies Irae" and "Offertorio."
Likewise a big round of applause should go to South Korean violinist So-Ock Kim for her outstanding playing of the concerto -- on a 1666 Stradivarius no less! The Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Piotr Borkowski have a real feel for this music, and provide her exceptional support. If these pieces are to your liking and you've not already done so, make sure to investigate the music of Ryu's countryman Isang Yun (1917-1995).
Although two years separate these recordings (2006 and 2008), they were both made in the same venue and are spread across a wide soundstage in a spacious acoustic. With a profusion of percussion the sound is arrestingly robust with spectacular bass transients. The soprano and violin soloists are perfectly highlighted, and an ideal balance is maintained between the chorus and orchestra in the first selection. As is the case with most conventional CDs, some of the massed choral passages become a bit edgy, and would have undoubtedly been more realistic in Super Audio. But at Naxos prices you can't have everything!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090906)
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Schnittke: Film Stes V4 (Adventures…, Sport…, arr Strobel); Strobel/Ber RSO [Capriccio (Hybrid)]
AUDIOPHILE (1 SACD)
When the first three volumes of Capriccio's ongoing hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.1) survey devoted to the film music of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) became difficult to find (71041, 71061, 71127 and see the newsletter of 25 July 2007), there was reason to believe no more would be forthcoming. But here's another, and many may pronounce it the best yet!
As composers go, Schnittke was about as eclectic as you can get in his fondness for borrowing from the past. Consequently there was a "polystylistic" plasticity in his approach to composition that made him an ideal movie composer. As anyone who's seen a film scored by him can tell you, there's something chameleonic about the way the music perfectly adapts to what's on the silver screen. This undoubtedly explains his popularity with the Soviet Union's top directors, which resulted in his scoring over sixty films.
When heard without the benefit of a visual element, even some of the greatest scores ever written become incoherent and fail to hold the listener's attention. Enter Frank Strobel, our conductor here, who's assembled stand-alone suites from each of the movies included in this series. You'll find he's done us a great service by making some of Schnittke's most approachable music more widely available in a condensed concert setting.
The suites on this disc are from two satirical films, The Adventures of a Dentist (1965) and Sport, Sport, Sport (1970), by Russian director Elem Klimov (1933-2003). Both immediately met with Soviet disapproval and were banned, not to reappear until shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev instituted Perestroika in 1986. The movies may have been black and white, but Schnittke's brilliantly orchestrated scores are Technicolor.
The six-part suite from Sport... opens in jazzy fashion [track-1] with a variety of plucked as well as keyboard instruments marching along to a bongo beat. The percussive chaos that introduces the next section [track-2] turns into an elephantine promenade. It bolsters up a tune played on the electric guitar, which could be out of an Ennio Morricone (b. 1928) score for one of those Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. The saxophone then introduces a swaggering idea, and the section ends with a percussively explosive jam session worthy of an "007" adventure.
The mood shifts dramatically in the next part [track-3], which is a delicate minuet of Latin American persuasion. But you ain't heard nothin' yet! The following section [track-4] is a bizarre blend of tidbits from Rimsky Korsakov's (1844-1908) operatic suites, one of the opening themes from Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) fifth symphony (1888), and another popular favorite whose identity is left to you. Part five [track-5] briefly evokes the previous minuet, but then Schnittke regresses stylistically, and taking his cue from J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and Handel (1685-1759), concocts a Dixieland concerto grosso for winds, including saxophone and trumpet. The finale [track-6] is reminiscent of the suite's opening and builds to a chaotic climax that concludes with an interrogatory chord on an Ionika electric organ.
The suite from Adventures... is in nine sections with a relaxed beginning [track-7] that recalls the title music from Maurice Jarre's (1924-2009) score for Dr. Zhivago (1965). Then there's a bouncy Baroque period offering [track-8] that even includes a harpsichord. Listening to the waltz that's next [track-9], it's easy to imagine a ballroom full of swirling hippos. A wistful episode [track-10] with flutes hovering over a walking bass drum follows, providing a contrast to a delightfully catchy "Charleston" number [track-11].
The spirit of the Baroque returns in the restful next part [track-12], while sarcasm reminiscent of that in Prokofiev's (1891-1953) Lieutenant Kijé Suite (1934) seems to fill what follows [track-13]. The penultimate section [tracks-14] alludes to the air from J.S. Bach's third orchestral suite (1717-23), and then this cuspidate caper ends unpretentiously with a lovely serenade for guitar and orchestra [track-15].
Incidentally, in 1972 the composer came up with a Suite in the Old Style for violin and piano whose five movements were drawn respectively from tracks 12, 8, 3, 5 and 10 above. This also exists in an orchestral version transcribed by violinist/conductor Vladimir Spivakov (b. 1944) and cellist Mikhail Milman.
Frank Strobel began arranging Schnittke's film music into concert suites at the request of the composer, and has since been recording them for Capriccio. This, his fourth volume in what's turned out to be an award-winning series featuring him conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, is arguably his finest to date. The performances are superb, and that's saying a great deal, considering the variety of musicians required to play the many exotic instruments (accordion, banjo, electric guitar, harpsichord, Ionika electric organ, mandolin and voice synthesizer among others) called for in these off-the-wall scores.
Recorded in one of the world's finest venues, the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin, the sound is demonstration quality, and the wide assortment of instruments present is guaranteed to test every aspect of your system. In the stereo CD and SACD modes the soundstage is huge, but well-focused with a perfect balance maintained between a parade of soloists and supporting tutti.
The orchestral timbre is natural sounding on the stereo tracks, particularly the SACD one, over the considerably extended frequency range generated by the many plucked as well as percussion instruments. At the same time the bass, which goes extremely low, is quite clean. Those with home theater systems listening to the SACD multichannel track are guaranteed a center seat and a sonic extravaganza of considerable proportions.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090905)
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Taylor, J.D.: Peter Ibbetson (cpte opera); Soloists/Schwarz/Seattle SC&S [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (2 CDs)
Most folks remember Deems Taylor (1885-1996, born Joseph Deems Taylor) as the MC for Walt Disney's groundbreaking Fantasia (1940), which greatly popularized classical music, and was the first movie with a stereophonic soundtrack. Born in New York City and pretty much self-taught, Taylor was not only an influential music critic and radio commentator, but a composer of considerable merit.
He's best remembered for his fanciful orchestral suite Through the Looking Glass (1917-21, not currently available) based on Lewis Caroll's (1832-1898) nonsense fairy tale. But in its day Taylor's Peter Ibbetson (1930-31), with a libretto by the composer in both English and French, was extremely popular. As a matter of fact, following its premičre in 1931 and up through 1936 it was the most frequently staged American opera at the Met (twenty-two performances) until George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess entered the repertoire in 1985. Those who enjoyed Naxos' previous release of Howard Hanson's (1896-1981) Merry Mount (1933, see the newsletter of 1 June 2007) won't want to be without it!
In three acts Taylor's opera is based on an 1891 Victorian era novel of the same name by French-born British author George du Maurier (1834-1896). Basically a tale of two star-crossed lovers, various psychological concepts regarding dreams and the unconscious are also present. Consequently one can't help wondering if Taylor was familiar with Sigmund Freud's (1856-1939) The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), which might have triggered his interest in the novel. Read the detailed plot synopsis in the album booklet, or the complete libretto that's available on-line, and see what you think.
With a few invigorating bars from the orchestra the first act curtain goes up on an imposing room in an English country home where a wealthy young widow, Mrs. Deane, is giving a ball. Each of the main characters is introduced, including the overbearing Colonel Ibbetson and the ill-fated sweethearts of this drama, Peter, who's the Colonel's nephew, and Mary, the Duchess of Towers.
Act highlights include a poem sung in French by the Colonel, and a lovely exchange between Peter and Mrs. Deane in which he tells her about his youthful years in Paris. It was there that he met his childhood sweetheart Mimsey, who taught him "dreaming true" where two people can enter each other's dreams. There's also a soaring aria for the Duchess, shortly after which she sees Peter and comments to one of the other guests that he reminds her of a beloved playmate she once had in Paris named Gogo. The act closes with an engaging waltz that doubles as an ensemble number involving all the main characters.
A bustling prelude opens the second act, which is set in a Paris inn. Peter has come to visit his childhood haunts, and the first scene is for the most part sung in French. It features a delightful exchange between Peter and an old Napoleonic veteran, who knew him as a child, during which he sees Mary the Duchess passing in a carriage. In the second scene he falls asleep and has one of those "true dreams" (see above). It ends dramatically with an orchestral storm, which may bring to mind the one in Janácek's (1854-1928) Kát'a Kabanová (1921), as Peter rushes to defend his mother from the advances of his uncle (see the libretto for details).
The third and final scene opens as the storm gradually abates and Peter awakens to find Mary taking refuge from the elements in the inn. The impassioned duet that follows is one of the highpoints of the opera. In it the two realize they just met in Peter’s recent dream where they’ve discovered that as children they were Gogo and Mimsey. But Mary cautions him they must never see each other again, not even in dreams, and the second act curtain descends.
The third act is in four scenes and opens with Peter having returned from Paris only to be shown a letter from his uncle where the Colonel had claimed Peter's mother was his mistress and he was his son. In a masterfully constructed ensemble number involving Peter, his uncle, Mrs. Deane and her mother, the tension mounts and boils over as he strikes the Colonel with his cane, killing him. A fateful dead-man-walking passacaglia then ushers in the second scene where Peter is in prison and about to be hanged.
At the last moment Mrs. Deane rushes in with the news that his sentence has been commuted to life, which greatly distresses him because he only wants to die. She consoles him with a message from Mary that he should sleep and "dream true." The scene ends as he sits in the prison chaplain's chair and nods off to the strains of a gorgeous French folk song (see the newsletter of 8 December 2007) intoned by the chorus.
The chorus continues with an additional ditty as the third scene, another dream sequence, begins. Peter is back in his childhood surroundings, and Mary joins him in an absolutely stunning duet followed by another folk chorus. They finally kiss and the dream scene darkens and ends.
In the fourth and final scene, an epilogue, Peter is dying with Mrs Deane by his side. She tells him Mary is dead, and as his life ebbs away, an apparition of her becomes visible above his prison cot. The opera then ends with a extremely moving tearjerker of a duet for the lovers, and a final euphoric chorus spiriting them away to a higher existence!
Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and soprano Lauren Flanagan are superb as Peter and Mary with equally fine singing from mezzo-soprano Lori Summers and baritone Richard Zeller in the roles of Mrs. Deane and Colonel Ibbetson. The support provided by the rest of the cast along with the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwartz couldn't be better.
Derived from a pair of critically acclaimed 1999 concert performances that must have been subjected to some intricate editing, what we have here sounds amazingly good. The soundstage as well as the balance between the soloists, chorus and orchestra seems ideal, and there's only an occasional hint of extraneous noise except for the well deserved applause at the very end of the opera. You'll feel like clapping too!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090904)
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