Mahan Esfahani via
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, like most institutions, and most people, has a checkered past—from the highs of Koussevitzky and Munch to the lows of some others. Its latest music director is Andris Nelsons, from Latvia. He began in 2014, and, after one season, his contract was immediately extended—to 2022. The BSO hopes to have a long, fruitful relationship with Nelsons.
He and his orchestra have a new CD, from Deutsche Grammophon. It’s called Shostakovich: Under Stalin’s Shadow. That subtitle is a bit gimmicky, for who wasn’t composing, or living, “under Stalin’s shadow” until the old monster kicked off in 1953? In any event, Nelsons feels close to Shostakovich, and he is an estimable exponent of him.
The main work on this CD is the Symphony No. 10. Nelsons and the BSO recorded it last April, live. Shostakovich’s first movement is long and brooding—and the playing is brooding indeed. There is both good solo playing and good group playing. On the podium, Nelsons makes some choices that you or I perhaps would not: little surges, for example. But all of those choices are reasonable, and Nelsons does something extremely important in this movement: sustain tension.
The second movement should sound like cut glass. It has to be skillfully and ruthlessly carved. Here, it pretty much is. The third movement is duly clear, graceful, and grand. It also has its streaks of lunacy and fear. The finale, at the beginning, is sad and profound. We also hear some of that Russian growl. Later, we hear Shostakovich’s squirmy, squirrelly humor. Overall, the movement is clean and exciting.
In short, this is a first-rate performance of a first-rate symphony from a conductor who understands the music, and can convey his understanding to an orchestra.
When the symphony ends, we hear the audience’s applause, reminding us—or telling us—that this was a live performance. I can understand the temptation to leave the applause in. But I also thought that the applause detracted from the performance. I wanted to linger in the atmosphere of the piece. What’s more, applause gives a performance a kind of finitude—and this recording, like the Shostakovich Tenth, should enjoy a timelessness.
Henryk Górecki, the Polish composer, died in 2010. But some new works are dribbling out, for Górecki left some pieces incomplete or unpublished. This includes a big one, the Symphony No. 4. Górecki left it essentially complete, and it was then finished by his composer son, Mikolaj. The Symphony No. 4 follows a blockbuster of a symphony, No. 3, known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” I say “a blockbuster” because a recording of the work sold more than a million copies—a record for a modern piece of classical music.
Like the Symphony No. 3, the Symphony No. 4 has a nickname: “Tansman Episodes.” That name refers to Górecki’s countryman and colleague, the composer Alexandre Tansman (who spent most of his life in France). Górecki fashioned a theme out of Tansman’s name. The symphony is now on compact disc (from Nonesuch), performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under Andrey Boreyko. It is in four movements, though those movements are played without pause. In all four of them, you find the instruction marcatissimo, i.e., super-marked, super-defined.
Górecki was a minimalist, and he did not stop being one in this final symphony. The first movement is, of course, repetitive, and martial. It could be the soundtrack of a medieval battle epic. There’s a touch of Prokofiev’s Nevsky in it. Soon there is a calming, and a tinkling. Chimes come in at seemingly random times. As the symphony unfolds, the music is big and small, loud and soft. Sometimes it is holy—and I’m reminded that Górecki was grouped with the “holy minimalists,” along with Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. The music is by turns upbeat, mystical, simple, martial again—thumpingly martial. There is a striking solo piano part (unusual to hear in a symphony). The work is mainly in A minor, but there’s a surprise at the end. Timpani rise into a thunderous crescendo, and then the music breaks into A major.
A question to ask about all minimalist music, I think, is, Does it mesmerize? Does it hook? I believe this symphony does, depending on the listener’s mood. It is nice and earnest music. It will probably get nowhere near the Symphony No. 3’s record, but it’s good to have one last Górecki symphony (if it is the last).
Back to Shostakovich already. From the Decca label, we have three of that composer’s string quartets, played by the Borodin Quartet. The composer wrote fifteen string quartets, same as he did symphonies. This new CD offers Nos. 1, 8, and 14. The middle of those is the most beloved and honored of the fifteen. But all are worthy, and No. 1 should not be overlooked: it is a mature work, for Shostakovich did not start writing string quartets until he was over thirty. Then again, even his youthful works are mature.
“The Borodin Quartet has perhaps the closest relationship of any ensemble to Shostakovich’s music,” say the liner notes. “Formed in Moscow in 1945, the Borodin forged a close relationship with Shostakovich himself, who personally supervised their study of his quartets.” Etc. Does that mean anything, given the changing personnel of this ensemble? Pedigree can only get you so far. In any case, the Borodin plays very, very well, and their recording is outstanding. They are musical, accurate, and deep. While deep, they are never pretentious or self-important. The String Quartet No. 1, I must say, is compulsively listenable. The credit goes to Shostakovich, of course, but also to these players.
In addition to the three works I have named, this album has a bonus—a pair of little pieces, an Elegy and a Polka. The first is Shostakovich’s string-quartet rendering of an aria from his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The second is the well-known number from his Golden Age ballet, one of the wackiest, cuckooest, charmingest pieces in a corpus full of them.
From a label called American Modern Recordings comes an album of choral music by Robert Paterson. He is an American, hailing from Buffalo. His music on this album is performed by Music Sacra, a chorus in New York City, directed by Kent Tritle. Among the offerings is a choral suite from A New Eaarth (which is for orchestra). That spelling is intentional: for it mimics the title of a book by Bill McKibben, the American environmentalist. Says Paterson in liner notes, “I am deeply concerned about environmental issues, particularly climate change.” The composer cites McKibben’s belief that the planet is so different, because of climate change, we might as well spell its name differently. “I feel strongly that he is correct, and wanted to express this in a musical way.”
So, the choral suite belongs to the genre that I once dubbed “greenpieces.” A prime specimen of this genre is CO2, an opera by Giorgio Battistelli, which premiered at La Scala last May. It is based on Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. A sample of the libretto: “The Earth is sick!/ Gaia, the Earth is sick!/ From the fever of poisoned air,/ From the effect of greenhouse gases;/ She suffers from ‘desertification,’/ As if her vegetable skin has dried up.”
There are four choruses in Paterson’s suite, and his texts are by Shelley, Joyce, Berry, and Wordsworth. The third of those is Wendell Berry, our Kentucky philosopher and environmentalist. The choruses are accompanied by piano, not orchestra. And they are effectively written, too.
The first is “Rough Wind,” and it is importunate, wailing. In fact, the text includes that word—“wail” (“for the world’s wrong!”). The score includes some quasi-Oriental chromaticism. Next comes “The Noise of Waters,” and it is, appropriately, watery. Also, it gives us some more importuning and wailing. “A Timbered Choir” is music to be sad by, or to make sad—music with a frowny face, if you will. The final chorus, “There Was a Time,” begins with some downhome unison humming. Then some harmony emerges, followed by more humming. Paterson takes his Wordsworth poem and makes something like an old American song out of it. It has a hint of Stephen Foster about it. Like the set as a whole, this chorus is pleasant and earnest.
Later in this disc is a track called Life Is But a Dream. (Actually, the composer writes “Life is But a Dream.” Why no one will capitalize “is,” in titles, is beyond me. It’s a verb, like “amazes” or “discombobulates.”) This chorus is Paterson’s take on, or taking off from, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” It is clever and delightful. If he is going to write in so different a vein from A New Eaarth, should we spell his name differently? Say, “Patterson”?
Mahan Esfahani is an Iranian harpsichordist. Not every day do you get to write the words “is an Iranian harpsichordist.” Esfahani studied in the West, and his new album is Time Present and Time Past (Archiv Produktion). The title may be a little trite, but it’s apt. Esfahani’s contents are Scarlatti (Alessandro), Bach (J. S.), Bach (C. P. E.), and Geminiani, plus our old friend Górecki and another minimalist, Steve Reich.
Esfahani begins with Scarlatti’s Variations on “La Follia.” The player is learned, stylish, and bold. Virtuosic, too (although anything can be made pristine and slick in a studio). From Esfahani’s playing comes tremendous life or flash. The Górecki piece is a Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra. It is in two movements, both of them fast: Allegro molto and Vivace. But the movements have completely different characters. The first is driving and virile; the second is lighter, peppier. Reich’s piece is Piano Phase for two pianos. Come again? It has been arranged for harpsichord—just one of them—by Esfahani. It’s hard to know whether he is playing all those repeated notes or indulging in some studio doctoring. (Studio doctoring is kosher, practically de rigueur, in Reichian minimalism.) Either way, this performance is a feat of concentration and dexterity, and Es-fahani’s arrangement is impressive.
Time Present and Time Past is an appealing disc, and it’s interesting to know that, even in the twenty-first century, people are falling in love with the harpsichord and its possibilities, and expanding those possibilities.
Terry Riley is a minimalist from the Bay Area. For decades, he has been working with the Kronos Quartet, that epitome of progressive cool. The quartet has a new disc (Nonesuch), devoted to the works of Riley. The titles of the first two tracks will suggest the general vibe: Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector and One Earth, One People, One Love. Later on, there is a track called March of the Old Timers Reefer Division.
Once you hear the opening pages of Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, you realize how well titled the piece is: it gives you hazy waking-up music. This music circles out, minimalistically. I myself find it rather hypnotic. And Riley has that gift, crucial in minimalism, of rescuing the music in the nick of time. That is, he alters it just before it becomes too boring. Riley’s roots are in Indian music—mother of minimalism—but Sunrise is American, even rustic, with an aspect of fiddlin’. The piece is Indian, Californian, and bluegrassy, all three.
One Earth, One People, One Love is found in a larger work, Sun Rings. This is a series of ten “spacescapes,” Riley calls them. It is spacey music indeed. Riley uses sound clips from NASA, and, in the “spacescape” I have mentioned, he uses a clip of Alice Walker. On Berkeley radio, in the days after 9/11, she spoke of “one earth, one people, one love.” If you find the origins of this piece—Walker in particular—distasteful, divorce the music from the origins. I am probably second to none in dismay over Walker. But this piece is interesting, intelligent, Romantic, and beautiful. And a good idea.
Bryan Hymel is a tenor from New Orleans. True to the French origins of that city, perhaps, he has concentrated on French opera. His new disc, Héroïque (Warner Classics), is a collection of French arias. That title “Héroïque” made me smile a bit. At the Metropolitan Opera a few seasons ago, Hymel sang Aeneas in Berlioz’s Troyens. I wrote, “He sang freshly and accurately. He is not a heroic tenor, and Aeneas is maybe a size or two too big for him. But that mattered little. Hymel sang with great ease, as though he were falling out of bed, and enjoying it.”
On his new album, he has arias from operas by unknown composers—Ernest Reyer, Alfred Bruneau, Henri Rabaud. And he has arias from unknown operas by well-known composers—Gounod’s Reine de Saba (“Queen of Sheba”), for example. He also has an aria from an opera known for its overture: William Tell, or, in this French atmosphere, Guillaume Tell. (Rossini composed it for the Paris Opera.)
Hymel has a good voice, a capable technique, and clear affinity for the music at hand. Singers of this repertoire are self-selecting, in a way: if you’re interested in it, you sing it, and almost surely do it well.
When we last spoke—i.e., in the June issue of this journal—I mentioned Jonny Greenwood, a member of the rock band Radiohead. In Zankel Hall, the Australian Chamber Orchestra had played a piece of his, Water. “This is a good piece,” I wrote, “better, probably, than most of the fare that comes along, from the full-time classical composers.” More Greenwood can be heard in his score for Inherent Vice, a 2014 movie on Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name. The soundtrack is available on a disc from Nonesuch.
Not all of it is by Greenwood. For instance, there is a Neil Young song. But most of it is, and most of that music is orchestral. Greenwood is adaptable, as film composers must be. He is writing to the cinematic needs of the moment, surely. Some of the music is classical-leaning, and some of it is popular-leaning. There is some minimalism here. Some of the music is psychedelic, some of it is gritty. The score is unpredictable, but not self-consciously or obnoxiously so. You keep your ears on the music, in part because you’re not sure what’s coming next.
Can the music be enjoyed without a film, merely as music? I think so. And if a good deal of contemporary classical music is going to sound like film scores anyway, we might as well listen to a bona fide film score.
Greenwood has a musical mind. And he composes like someone who has drunk in a lot of music—classical music—of various types. I bet he knows a lot of Debussy and Ravel, for example. Some people make a choice to write music: it’s an intellectual decision. Greenwood, by contrast, gives the impression of writing music because he must.
For thirty-six years, Philip Smith played in the New York Philharmonic. He is one of the outstanding trumpeters of our age. The son of a Salvation Army cornetist, he went on to study at Juilliard, and later came under the wing of Adolph “Bud” Herseth in Chicago. Smith has now retired from the Philharmonic, and the orchestra has honored him by issuing a three-album set: The Philip Smith Collection.
The first album is of trumpet highlights in the orchestral repertoire: solo playing from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and so on. The second two albums are of concertos. These are available, not on CD, but in downloads only (very modern). The Haydn Concerto is there, sure. But the Fasch is not. And we get rarities such as concertos by Jacques Hétu, Alexander Arutiunian, and Eino Tamberg. This is an opportunity to get acquainted with a repertoire worth knowing.
In the liner notes, we read something we don’t often read in liner notes, or program notes, or any notes: “Smith is an exemplary musician whose humble personality has been shaped by his musical upbringing and whose religious belief is likewise reflected in his hymn-like trumpet playing.” Smith himself is quoted as saying, “What’s always impressed me coming out of my experience as a Christian is the one simple thing that I would say to any young kid: ‘Sing, sing!’ Let song be the guide, because all the technical things will be fixed if it all comes out sounding songful.”
I did not hear Smith for his full thirty-six years with the New York Philharmonic. I heard him for about fifteen, regularly, and it was always something to look forward to, and to count on.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 1, on page 53
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