Various classical and jazz selections by various artists. EMI 50999 9 09305 2 2.
Every record company has its collections discs. Sometimes they're "Best of" albums, sometimes they're selections by a single composer or artist, and sometimes, as here, they're theme programs. You can't fault companies for wanting to market their product in every possible manner; it's their job to sell us stuff. The music they choose to fit the themes occasionally challenges the imagination, however.
Take the case of this new EMI album, Autumn in the Park. Obviously, the theme is autumn, but what exactly is the music of autumn? The jacket blurb talks of music recalling "pumpkins, homemade pies, raking leaves, crackling fires and steamy hot cider," a season of "magic, joy and love." As the folks at EMI say, they intended this album to "transport you to a relaxed state and let you enjoy Autumn in the Park." Fair enough, whatever it means.
Things begin with the opening movement, Moderato, from Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, played by Leif Ove Andsnes, piano, with Antonio Pappano and the Berlin Philharmonic. The particular selection seems a stretch to fit into autumn, but the music remains pleasant. It's just that there isn't enough of it without the following two movements.
Next is "The Lark Ascending" by Ralph Vaughan Williams, played by Hugh Bean, violin, with Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The piece has never received a better treatment than this, and it is clearly the best thing on the entire disc, the violin taking flight as gracefully as the bird of the title as it soars upward on the currents.
Joseph Canteloube's "Bailero" from Chants de Auvergne is a terrific follow-up to the "Lark" not because it has much to do with autumn but because soprano Lesley Garrett's voice floats above the London Session Orchestra in the same way the lark gently drifts through the heavens.
At least there's no mistaking the obvious connection between the album's theme and Vivaldi's "Autumn" from The Four Seasons. Sarah Chang, violin, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra take us through the paces, although I am not overly keen on the mechanics of the presentation or the close-up sound.
After that we get the first of three jazz pieces on the program, this time "One for My Baby" by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, performed by the Bill Carlap Trio. They do a fine job, even if they don't erase memories of Sinatra's famous version.
Two piano solos follow, Felix Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words: No. 1 with Daniel Adni, and Franz Schubert's Impromptu No. 3 with Aldo Ciccolini. Along with "The Lark Ascending," they are the most beautiful works on the disc.
Gareth Morris on flute, with support by Sir David Willcocks and the New Philharmonia handle Gabriel Faure's Pavane with delicacy; and then Chet Baker and company perform Joe Young and Bernice Petkere's "Lullaby of the Leaves." Both works convey that "relaxed state" EMI mentions, although I'm not sure if it reminds one of autumn or leaves despite the title of the latter piece.
Claude Debussy's "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum" from Children's Corner, with Jean-Bernard Pommier, piano, actually comes closer to suggesting the rustling and swirling of autumn leaves than anything before it.
The program ends with Rachmaninov again, this time his Vocalise, adapted for cello and orchestra and performed by Han-Na Chang, with help from Leonard Slatkin and the Philharmonia Orchestra, an appropriate penultimate piece; and the Johnny Mercer/Joseph Kosma/Jacques Prevert song "Autumn Leaves" by Stan Getz and others. 'Nuff said.
EMI England, EMI France, and Blue Note recorded the selections between 1967-2007. Thanks to the miracles of modern disc mastering, the engineers get them all to sound pretty much alike: a little soft, veiled, misty, casual, easygoing, always soothing, and ready to comfort.
If you like your music in bits and pieces, presented in sections lasting from two to ten minutes each, you might find this disc of value. I had mixed feelings. I loved every work on the disc, but I longed afterward to hear more complete selections or more similar items by the same composers. This album doesn't seem to me the kind of thing one just sits down and listens to but rather plays as a sort of background music. I don't much care for background music.
About the Author
Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.
Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.
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