The American Masters (CD review)

Music of Barber, Corigliano, and Bates. Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; Leonard Slatkin, London Symphony Orchestra. e-One Music EOM-CD-7791.

It's hard not to like anything Anne Akiko Meyers plays. She has such a gentle touch on the violin, she makes every piece of music a pleasure. And so it is with the three American works on the present album: the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981); the Lullaby for Natalie by John Corigliano (b. 1938); and the Violin Concerto by Mason Bates (b. 1977), Maestro Leonard Slatkin and the London Symphony Orchestra in accompaniment.

Corigliano in his booklet notes points out that there is a bond of friendship among the three composers on the disc: Barber was Corigliano's mentor, and Corigliano was Bates's mentor. Therefore, the music has deeper connections than one might suppose.

First up is Barber's Violin Concerto, which he wrote relatively early in his career (1939) and which subsequently became one of his most-popular works. It later even became the basis for a ballet. The music is exquisitely beautiful, at least its first two movements, with Ms. Meyers emphasizing its long, flowing lines and rhapsodic melodies.

Then comes that famous final movement that seems to have little in common with anything that went before. After the lengthy, relaxed line of the second movement fades out, the Presto finale enters on an agitated note. Barber marks it as "in moto perpetuo" (in constant or perpetual motion). Apparently, he meant it as a virtuosic piece for a young violinist who complained that the first two movements were "too easy." Well, the fact is, for Ms. Meyers the final movement sounds easy, too, she plays with such graceful dexterity. Nothing seems beyond her reach, yet even though the finale is fiery, she integrates it well with the opening movements. Yes, it's fast and furious; no, it's not so disjointed as it can sometimes appear.

Between the program's two violin concertos we find Corigliano's Lullaby for Natalie, a piece Ms. Meyer's husband asked the composer to write for Ms. Meyer's yet-unborn child. The lullaby is also exquisitely beautiful. Corigliano jokes that it put Ms. Meyers's baby to sleep so it must either have bored her or done its job as a lullaby. I doubt that anyone could play it any better than Ms. Meyers does, given its reasons for being.

Anne Akiko Meyers
The album concludes with a world-premiere recording of Mason Bates's Violin Concerto, which the composer says represents the violin as a kind of primeval, ancient animal. Huh? Well, he suggests that the sound of the solo violinist "inhabits two identities: one primal and rhythmic, the other elegant and lyrical. This hybrid musical creature is, in fact, based on a real one. The Archaeopteryx, an animal of the Upper Jurassic famously known as the first dinosaur/bird hybrid, can be heard in the sometimes frenetic, sometimes sweetly singing solo part." So, we go from the Romantically angelic music of Barber to the more-eccentric music of Bates, with Ms. Meyers making the transition so gracefully, you'd hardly know it was happening.

Anyway, the Bates music is all blocks and angles next to the smooth curves of the preceding works. The Bates is like printing compared to cursive writing. Still, despite its eruptive style, when Ms. Meyers enters she brings the music back to earth, straightening some of the corners and underscoring the otherwise latent lyricism of the rhythms. I especially enjoyed the quiet, sometimes eerie, continuously lovely mood of the second movement, "Lakebed memories." Moreover, the sweep of the bird flight in the finale also sounds quite fetching.

Incidentally, with Ms. Meyers so dominant, I almost forgot to mention the conductor and orchestra. Maybe that's because they simply do their job, never overshadowing the soloist, staying in the background for support. But support they do, wonderfully unobtrusive, providing an accompaniment that always keeps the soloist in the forefront and maintains the atmosphere of the music.

Producers Anne Akiko Meyers and Susan Napodano DelGiorno and engineer Silas Brown recorded the album at LSO St. Lukes, London in September 2013. The sound is very smooth, very luxuriant, yet with good definition, range, and impact. It has a soft, natural roundness about it that is quite flattering to most of the music. It's not exactly audiophile material, just comfortable. It's also a little close, with a minimal amount of orchestral depth, but the violin appears well positioned within the instrumental framework, and the frequency response remains well balanced.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

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.

Mission Statement

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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa