Editor's note: Another monthly column debuts today. In Auxiliary Input, Andrew Anderson, a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library, will review classical and opera recordings, including by local organizations. We hope to tie them to local performances by guest artists with various orchestras and chamber music organizations.
For this first edition, we have reviews of a recording by rising composer Adam Schoenberg, who will have a concert with the Fort Worth Symphony in April; and a Fort Worth Symphony recording from 2016 of works by Lutoslawski and Brahms, the latter arranged by the other Schoenberg.
If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra; Brahms (orch. Schoenberg): Piano Quartet in G minor, op. 25
Conductor: Miguel Harth-Bedoya
Released April 2016
Although there are several recordings of Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra around, another is always welcome—each new one seems to bring out something new in the work.
In that respect, the Fort Worth Symphony’s recording of the work under the direction of its Music Director, Miguel Harth-Bedoya (Harmonia Mundi HMU807668) is no exception. The tempo of the opening Intrada seems a little more deliberate than I’m used to, but it’s almost the same tempo (to the second, even) as others, and I think I like it better because it just seems a little slower. But it’s so much cleaner than others in, say, the scurrying string passages in the second movement, and so much scarier than others in, for example, the third movement—such as in the way the passacaglia theme seems to come to life, zombie-like—that to say the recording is no exception does it a disservice. Indeed, this rendition of the Lutosławski is in many ways exceptional.
If it seems weird to pair the 20th-century Polish master’s concerto with a chamber work by Brahms, there are reasons why it makes sense here. The Brahms G-minor Piano Quartet is one of many works that another 20th-century master, Schoenberg (Arnold—you know, the other one) transcribed. So yes, we have here a work originally written for piano quartet (violin, viola, cello and piano) being performed by full orchestra, and we effectively have Brahms and Schoenberg sharing the stage. Many of Schoenberg’s choices would probably not have pleased Brahms, such as the xylophone in the final movement that sounds, even in the best performances, like it’s trying to learn the main theme.
And this is indeed one of the best performances, better by a longshot than the Baltimore Symphony recording from 20 years ago—deeper, for one thing, and Bass Hall can help with that even in recordings. But Maestro Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth Symphony know how to make this music kick, as in the final Gypsy-esque rondo, or flow with the troubled serenity of the original chamber setting, as in the gorgeous ending of the first movement. One of the best performances? Perhaps I should say several of the best performances, since this is a live album which uses several concerts from October of 2015. I was there for two of them, and I liked them very much then. I like them even more now.
Kansas City Symphony
Adam Schoenberg: American Symphony, Finding Rothko, Picture Studies
Conductor: Michael Stern
Released Jan. 20, 2017
Adam Schoenberg, the self-titled album of orchestral works released Jan. 20, 2017 on the Reference Recordings label (RR-139 SACD, available here), constitutes my reintroduction to the music of Adam Schoenberg, the widely performed young composer whose La Luna Azul will be performed in Fort Worth in April. The release of this disc of large-scale orchestral works realizes one of the composer’s personal dreams, and all indications are that he should be more than happy with it.
And so should we. Here we have a disc that covers Schoenberg’s development from his student days until now which, granted, is scarcely 10 years, but there’s a lot of water under the compositional bridge for him in that span. The disc presents Finding Rothko (2006), a student work that takes four paintings by artist Mark Rothko for inspiration; Picture Studies (2012), a work also inspired by artworks; and American Symphony (2011), which—despite the title—the composer describes as “not a patriotic work.”
At the risk of seeming to miss the point, I want to start off by praising the CD’s liner notes, which consist mostly of the composer’s own words. It’s refreshing to have the composer telling us what he thinks is going on in his music, rather than have some third party handing us something that gets to stand in as fact when he or she may just be blowing smoke. I appreciate having Schoenberg himself as mediator, telling me, for instance, the relations between the artworks and the music inspired by them. And I especially appreciate the complete absence of condescension of his discussion of his compositional process, even if some of the technical points (both musico-tech and techno-tech) might not reach all readers. Indeed, his conversational tone is so disarming that none of that will matter. The notes create the impression of a gracious, generous and outgoing composer whose music, we hope, will exhibit similar qualities.
Before saying “and that it does,” though, let’s note one of the composer’s musical gifts more apt to be underrated than envied: conciseness. Rarely does a track on this disc stray past the five-minute mark; and, while that is not a measure of value in itself, it might indicate a musical sensibility that takes its audience into account—and that may be a better measure of quality.
So: And that it does. The music turns out to be charming and agreeable, but self-confident enough not to beg us to like it. The first work on the recording, Finding Rothko, is inspired by the artist’s famous great slabs of color, and it seems almost too sure-footed to date from the composer’s student days. It’s invigorating, impeccably paced music, and shows the composer’s sure hand with orchestral forces.
The second work, American Symphony, is cast in five movements: “Fanfare,” “White on Blue,” “Rondo,” “Prayer,” and “Stars, Stripes and Celebration.” It’s another testimony to Schoenberg’s compositional gifts that what he tells us was improvised in this computer program or composed entirely in that one doesn’t sound at all like it contains the kind of cutting/pasting or facile repetition that such programs sometimes encourage.
The 10-movement Picture Studies, was—in a transcription for the U. S. Marine Band—my introduction to Schoenberg, and I liked the work in that form. But it turns out that—surprise!—it’s even better in its original form, which we have as the last composition on the disc. The composer’s notes on the work reveal a lot, not least that he sees things in some of these artworks that I never saw, and perhaps still don’t see, as if that mattered. What does matter is that, from the bravura E-flat Clarinet solo in “Miró” to the loud, stark blocks of sound in “Kandinsky”—and the even louder silences—what he sees comes out beautifully in the music.
That’s Adam Schoenberg, I guess; but that’s also the quality of the recording. Reference Recordings is justifiably proud of the recording’s engineer, Keith O. Johnson, even to the extent of putting his name on the cover of the disc and giving him his own page in the notes; he evidently patented 24-bit HDCD encoding. I have yet to play the disc on equipment that will take advantage of the extra information encoded on the disc, but that this is a superb recording is clear, even on regular CD equipment.
Likewise, the Kansas City Symphony, which has been championing Schoenberg’s music for some time now, sounds superb under Michael Stern’s direction. Schoenberg warns us, though, that some sections of the music—such as the first movement of American Symphony—require multiple hearings to discern all the layers in the music. Well, between Stern, the KC Symphony, and “Prof” Johnson, we should be able to hear them all clearly, eventually. Multiple hearings will be our pleasure.
» Andrew Anderson is a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. He holds a bachelor's degree in music composition from Baylor University, a Master's degree in music composition, and a Ph. D in music theory from the University of North Texas, and an MLS from Texas Woman's University.
» Auxiliary Input will appear on the third Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.