Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928) has never been the most-popular writer on the musical stage, but there are several of his works firmly established in the basic repertoire. Among these are his Sinfonietta as well as the subject of this disc, his "rhapsody for orchestra" as he called it, Taras Bulba, a piece in three movements he premiered in 1918 and which he based on sections of a novel by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. The three movements are small tone poems describing various episodes in the life of the seventeenth-century Cossack leader and warrior Taras Bulba and his vision of liberation for his people.
While one can find any number of fine recordings of the work on CD, for example those by Charles Mackerras and the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca) and Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic (Supraphon), this new release from Maestro Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic is almost as compelling, and one may safely mention it in the same breath.
The music opens with the "Death of Andrij," Taras Bulba's youngest son, who has fallen in love with the daughter of his enemy and fights against his father, only to have his father kill him. Wit takes the opening very gently, building the love theme carefully. As he does with the rest of the Rhapsody, Wit adopts a broadly lyrical approach, letting the musical pictures unfold gracefully and deliberately. Nevertheless, when the high drama arrives, Wit is ready for it and creates a heady forward momentum. In other words, you'll get both Romance and excitement from the conductor.
The central movement, "Death of Ostap," deals with the grief of Taras Bulba's eldest son, Ostap, for his brother, Ostap subsequently captured by the enemy Poles and taken to Warsaw for execution. Bulba the elder follows in disguise and calls out in anguish at his son's death. Wit recreates the pain of Bulba fairly effectively, the music gliding effortlessly along under his guidance. Mackerras probably adds a degree more passion to the atmosphere, but it's close.
The final movement, "Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba," concerns the capture and death of Taras Bulba, and his final prophecy that "A Tsar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to him!" Here, Wit clearly expounds upon the importance of Bulba's final exclamation and ends the work on a tragically melancholy yet triumphant note.
Coupled with the rhapsody we find two dance suites by Janacek, the Lachian Dances (1889-90) and the Moravian Dances (1891). Janacek based the suites largely on Czech folk music of his day and well before, the songs describing a countryside and traditions quickly fading. They exhibit a much lighter, more joyous tone than the Taras Bulba music, as we might expect, and hint of Dvorak. Wit appears to be enjoying himself, and so do we.
Naxos recorded the music at Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, Poland, in 2010-2011, obtaining generally good results. The sound is very smooth and natural, with a wider dynamic range and transient impact than we usually find on a Naxos release. Although the sonic picture is a tad lacking in overall transparency, bit heavy, and a slightly close-up, there is a decent sense of depth and space to the acoustic. Along with a strong bass accompaniment, the organ pedals sounding quite deep and authoritative, the result is pleasing, if not entirely "audiophile."
Since 1957, all recordings of Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky (or "Moussorgsky" as it's spelled here) have pretty much fallen under the shadow of Fritz Reiner's famous RCA performance, which today continues to stand up as the most colorful, most descriptive, most exciting realization of the work available. However, in 1979 Lorin Maazel and Telarc Records were the first people to release a digital version of the music, remastered here by LIM (Lasting Impression Music), an affiliate label of FIM (First Impression Music). Because Maazel did such a credible job with the musical interpretation and Telarc did such a good job with the sonics, we must consider their collaboration though not superior to Reiner's at least in the same breath as the older man's. This LIM remastering simply makes a good thing better.
The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote his vivid collection of tone poems (or "sound pictures," as he called them), Pictures at an Exhibition, as a piano suite in 1874. Afterwards, several people orchestrated it, the most famous and most often recorded version being the one we have here, arranged by French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922. Indeed, it really wasn't until Ravel orchestrated it that it became the basic-repertoire piece we know today. Anyway, because the Mussorgsky/Ravel work became so popular, almost every conductor and orchestra in the world have now performed it, most of them recording it, too. So competition is understandably fierce, with Reiner (RCA), Muti (EMI), and Maazel among the standout contenders.
The album starts out, though, with Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain (1867), perhaps as famous as Pictures or more so thanks to Disney's Fantasia and Leopold Stokowski. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrated the one that Maazel plays. Maazel's realization is not as thrilling as Georg Solti's rendering (on Decca, and, coincidentally, also remastered by LIM as a part of the album Romantic Russia), which still sets the bar higher than anyone for ultimate exhilaration. And the old Stokowski arrangement (remarkably, also available on a Telarc from Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra) will hold an affectionately nostalgic place in the hearts of many fans. Still, Maazel offers up a good, sturdy performance, and one cannot fault the Telarc/LIM sound.
It is in the Pictures at an Exhibition, though, where Maazel shines. Mussorgsky based the various sections of the suite on his musical impressions of paintings by his friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. The idea of the work is that the listener is wandering through a picture gallery viewing the paintings, which the composer recreates in music, going so far as to give us a musical number, the Promenade, to accompany our stroll from time to time.
The Cleveland horns shine forth brilliantly from the very beginning, and command much weight. The Gnome and the Old Castle that follow carry solid characterizations, if not quite as vivid as Reiner or Muti brought to them, nor with quite the sheer orchestral virtuosity of the Chicago Symphony for Reiner.
It's really in the second half of the suite, however, that Maazel comes into his own. The Catacombs, the Hut of Baba Yaga the witch, and the gloriously expansive finale at the Great Gate of Kiev show Maazel at his best. Of course, a part of this impression derives from the excellent Telarc/LIM sonics, which really knock you out at the end.
Telarc recorded the two works at the Masonic Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1978, and while it's one of Telarc's earliest digital releases, it remains one of their best. Although there was always a good sense of orchestral depth in the Telarc recording, the LIM remastering refines the smoothness of the sound, its warmth, and its naturalness. Dynamics are splendid, with taut, solid impact, and bass and treble show up well extended. The ultraquiet backgrounds ensure a lifelike response, and a light hall resonance adds to the realism.
Given its attractive, high-gloss, hardcover packaging, its twenty-page bound booklet, and its static-proof inner sleeve, the LIM product is a class product all the way. Just don't expect it to come cheap. For a complete listing of FIM/LIM products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.firstimpressionmusic.com/.
Music Director Emeritus of Chanicleer Joins DCINY's Program Development Team.
Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) is delighted to welcome Matthew Oltman to the company’s Program Development team.
Young People's Chorus of News York City Closes Its 2011-2012 Season with "A New Beginning" at Manhattan's Church of the Holy Trinity, Friday, June 29, at 7 p.m.
YPC Introduces TRANSMUSICA with Guest Artists from Indonesia - Manado State University Choir
The Young People's Chorus of New York City and its artistic director/founder Francisco J. Núñez introduce TRANSMUSICA, their new music series, with a free concert on Friday, June 29, at 7 p.m. at Church of the Holy Trinity (316 East 88th Street). The first concert in the series, created to encompass cross-cultural and transformative musical ideas, will feature the award-winning Manado State University Choir, an a cappella choir from North Sulawesi, Indonesia, under the direction of conductor and professor of music at Boston University, André de Quadros. The Manado State University Choir is known for its internationally diverse programming, designed to build bridges to other cultures and communities of the world.
Each of the two choirs will sing a set of music individually and then come together to sing songs from three different lands: Janger, from Bali, I himmelen, from Sweden, and Vela! Asambeni Siyekhaya, a traditional Zulu piece. The choirs re-imagine choral music as a contemporary convergence of cultures expressed in drama, dance, and song.
Admission is free for TRANSMUSICA, and no reservations are required. For any additional information, call 212-289-7779, Ext. 10.
--Angela Duryea, Young People's Chorus of New York
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) was one of Spain's most important composers of the twentieth century, and this disc brings together two of his most popular pieces of music, the ballets El Amor Brujo (Love, the Magician) and El Sombrero de Tres Picos (The Three-Cornered Hat); plus "Danza" from La Vida Breve.
Maestro Maximiano Valdes and his Spanish orchestra, the Asturias Symphony, present the music well enough, and the Naxos engineers do a reasonably good job capturing most of it realistically. The first piece on the disc, El Amor Brujo, is a rather grim work, about twenty-four minutes long depicting a jealous dead lover haunting his former girlfriend. Valdes performs it in an appropriately dark and foreboding manner. Conversely, El Sombrero de Tres Pico is a lighthearted tale of attempted seduction, the music lasting almost forty minutes. Together, we get quite an ample amount of music, when for a fill-up we have the "Danza."
I would not say, however, that Valdes is more colorful in his music making than Charles Dutoit or Ernest Ansermet were in this repertoire (both on Decca). Indeed, by comparison it is still Dutoit and Ansermet who offer up more vitality, especially evident in The Three-Cornered Hat. Yet listeners may find themselves divided on the merits of the sound of the discs, the newer Naxos issue being a bit more subdued, the Deccas brighter or more natural, depending, and definitely more sparkling. It's hardly a moot point, either, as one can find the original Deccas in various configurations on regular CD's and even remastered on audiophile (albeit costly) discs from LIM.
Anyway, the folks at Naxos offer the recordings on both a regular compact disc at mid price and a Super Audio Compact Disc at regular, full price. The SACD offers not only the standard stereo layer but a two-channel DSD layer and a 5.1 surround layer. The Naxos sound, particularly in SACD, is wide, deep, and extended, a tad fat in the upper bass, but fairly lifelike. While this may not be absolute audiophile sound even in its SACD format, it is more than adequate for the occasion.
As so often happens in the world of classical recording, it's damned if you do and damned if you don't. I mean, when a conductor and orchestra have to decide on what piece to record, should they go with a relatively unknown commodity and lose potential buyers who have never heard of the work, or should they go with a popular piece and risk losing potential buyers who already have multiple favorite recordings of it? In the case of Marin Alsop and her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, they have chosen in Bartok to go head-to-head with Fritz Reiner's celebrated RCA recording and both of Georg Solti's high-powered Decca performances. That Ms. Alsop and her team acquit themselves reasonably well on this low-priced Naxos disc is a testament to their talents, which do justice to the composer.
The disc begins with probably the most celebrated music of Hungarian Bela Bartok (1881-1945), the Concerto for Orchestra, the composer's last completed orchestral work, premiered just a year before his death. It's somewhat ironic that after a lifetime of writing music, his final composition would be his most-lasting contribution to the classical library. Bartok said that he titled the piece a "concerto" because of its "tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner." He also noted that the work transitions from the stark grimness of the opening movements, to a "death song" in the third movement, and to a "life-assertion" theme in the last.
Anyway, Ms. Alsop treats this death-to-life progression as well as almost anyone, although there are times when one wishes she had made the contrasts even more pointed. Best of all, she never sentimentalizes or glamorizes the music in the style of, say, a Karajan. She keeps it spare.
The second-movement Allegretto moves along at a graceful, if fairly leisurely, pace. It lightens the mood considerably. In the third-movement Bartok turns to dark yet lyrical material, which the composer described as a "misty texture of rudimentary motifs." Like the description, the music seems rather generalized, and Alsop handles it in a kind of wispy, dreamlike way, building in mysterious, almost spooky intensity as it goes along, a "lugubrious deathsong," as Bartok called it.
Next, we find a brief Intermezzo borrowing (or parodying) Shostakovich that sets up the dance rhythms of the Finale: Presto, where Bartok went all out to show the vibrancy of life. Alsop treats it gently, yet with much joy. It's a worthy realization of the score.
I wasn't quite as taken by Ms. Alsop's interpretation of the coupling, though, Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, written in 1936. The composer had by that time been experimenting with "arch" forms, mirrorlike sequences of ideas building in one direction to an arch and then reversing in the second half. While she keeps the shape intact, Ms. Alsop's actual rendition of the piece seems just a tad wanting in atmosphere, impetus, and drive. Incidentally, if you don't actually know the music yet it sounds vaguely familiar to you, it may be because Stanley Kubrick used it in The Shining, sort of eerie music for an eerie film.
Naxos recorded the performances at Meyerhoff Hall, Baltimore, in 2009-2010. In the tradition of so many Naxos recordings, the sound is slightly warm and soft. There is a nice room resonance that lends verisimilitude to the listening experience, so one does feel involved with the actual event. Reasonably good dynamics and frequency range help, too. Midrange clarity is adequate for the occasion, as is a strong mid bass and a moderately good sense of orchestral depth.
Meet the Staff
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.