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 the July edition, Anderson looks at a 2015 recording from Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal featuring a piece by composer Sam Moussa, which the Dallas Symphony will perform in September; the second volume of Alexandre Tansman piano music played by Danny Zelibor (we reviewed the first volume in May), and the much-talked about The Lost Songs of St. Kilda.
If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at email@example.com.
Saint-Saëns - Moussa - Saariaho: Symphony and New Works for Organ and Orchestra
Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, Kent Nagano conducting, Olivier Latry, Jean-Willy Kunz, organ
Released: October 23, 2015
Early in the 2017-’18 Season—on the Sept. 21-24 program, so it's coming up—the Dallas Symphony will present what may well be the U.S. premiere of Samy Moussa's A Globe Itself Infolding, for organ and orchestra. It's the Dallas premiere, anyway. On the same concert, Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu and the DSO will present Dvořák's Violin Concerto (Hilary Hahn, soloist), Sibelius' Finlandia (and I'm disappointed that Lintu, a Nordic music specialist, will not be conducting something by Sibelius that I might find more interesting) and Shostakovich's First Symphony.
I was unfamiliar with the work of the Canadian-born Samy Moussa until recently. To be honest, I still am: prior to listening to A Globe Itself Infolding, courtesy of a recording (available here) which Analekta graciously provided for the purpose of this review, I had only heard his Rondeau, a work that seems to originate in a different universe from the organ work. Since then, I have located a several of his works on YouTube, and I'm gradually working my way through them (some, like his Symphony No. 1, are of substantial scale).
Analekta has included Globe on a recording by l'Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, conducted by Kent Nagano, and featuring organ/orchestra works by Camille Saint-Saëns, and Kaija Saariaho, Musical America's 2008 composer of the year. The Saint-Saëns Third Symphony, a big, fun work, is so well-known, there's an impulse to forego a review of it entirely unless something goes wrong. In this instance, not only does nothing go wrong, everything seems to go right. Saariaho's Maan Virsot (Earth Shadows), while likewise big but, at first listening, not as much fun as the Saint-Saëns, is definitely worth listening to if for no other reason than to see what this important composer has been up to recently.
A Globe Itself Infolding was an OSM commission for Moussa, a composer whose works are being snapped up by ensembles all over the place; everyone seems eager to introduce audiences to him, and that's a nice position for a composer to be in.
This work seems like a perfect introduction. Accessible both in its modest length (11 minutes) and tonal language, it commences with the feeling of following something big (indeed, composer says it could become part of a multi-movement organ concerto). It's not your average virtuoso organ work, even though there's plenty for the organ to do. What it does is often not the kind of thing I envisioned, which, admittedly, is kind of a silly thing for me to be saying at this stage.
I haven't seen a score. But going by the recording, it sounds as if the piece cycles through an expanse of material several times, possibly at varying rates. At times, I felt I knew what was coming next. Sometimes I was right, sometimes not, but I invariably liked (and usually recognized the logic of) where it went. I have the impression of an oscillation between stasis and rather deliberate movement in the work, and there were times during its course where I thought it sounded like it could go on indefinitely, a prospect I did not find distressing. These factors point to a composer who knows how to lead an audience around without spoon-feeding, and one who knows how to say "trust me" musically.
Alexandre Tansman: Piano Music, Volume 2
Danny Zelibor, piano
Toccata Classics TOCC0265
Released: June 16, 2017
I asked for it: another installment in Toccata Classics' and Danny Zelibor's Alexandre Tansman project. Again, it's locally recorded (UNT's Murchison Hall), again it features Zelibor's solid technique, as well as his ability to manage Tansman's protean catalogue, and again it features an accompanying booklet with an essay by Zelibor, a versatile performer who is as articulate as he is talented.
For no good reason, I was expecting an album containing some of Tansman's sonatas—you know, weighty, abstract stuff. What I got was an album (available here) full of miniatures, and I do mean full: 37 tracks on the disc, 60 minutes of music. The command "do the math" has you figuring around 1.5 minutes per track, right? It's more interesting than that: with one track at nearly seven minutes, two at around four minutes each, and six in the two-minute range, that leaves 26 tracks with barely 30 minutes left.
Thus, the album constitutes a box full of Tansman jewelry, miniatures that put their money where their mouth is. I love the idea of a piece that can show up and leave in less time than it takes to talk about it and still leave you with the impression of having heard something complete. Much of the responsibility for assuring coherence rests with the composer, true; but much of it rests with the performer. Don't underestimate the challenge facing a pianist charged with making a six-measure—six-measure!—movement sound like a coherent whole. Such is the kind of challenge that shows up over and over in Tansman's Vingt pièces faciles sur des mélodies populaires polonaises (20 Easy Pieces on Popular Polish Tunes, from 1917-24). "Easy" doesn't mean kid stuff, though. And while we're correcting impressions, "popular" doesn't mean it's based on actual folk music. As Zelibor relates, the composer—familiar as he is with the characteristics of the music of his native country—has written his own popular tunes.
Several of these little works are so naive, you'll find it hard to believe they come from the same composer responsible for some of the more sophisticated tracks on the disc. His 1937 Trois Préludes en forme de Blues (tracks 9-11) might qualify as one of the sophisticated ones. This set shares more than a title with Gershwin's famous three from ten years before. The adjective "jazzy" is inescapable, but Tansman's thirties jazz dialect is considerably different from Gershwin's. I doubt that you could mistake one for the other. Tansman's harmonies are generally fuller and more complex, and formal subtleties also distinguish his preludes. Yet it's difficult not to hear Gershwin's second prelude in the second of the Tansman set.
The set that begins the disc, the Huit novelettes (Eight Novelettes) from 1936—a careening tour through a frighteningly wide range of styles—and the set that closes it, the Suite dans le style ancien (Suite in Ancient Style from 1929), give Zelibor plenty of opportunities to show off his wizardry with complex textures in which virtually every voice is interesting and could easily distract from the whole. In these performances, though, I get the sense that I'm familiar with the work sooner than I might have been, had the work been entrusted to other hands.
The final track, the Suite's Toccata (molto vivace), is a case in point. Less than a quarter of the way through the movement, Zelibor has conveyed its rhythmic profile, which comes at us like a few blocks of material viewed in funhouse distorting mirrors; subdivisions seem to expand and contract unpredictably. All the while, we hear individual voices in the texture with a clarity that helps us understand what's going on without distracting us unduly from other voices. And the open-ended impression created by the closing bars is simply exhilarating.
Danny Zelibor clearly has a deep connection to this composer's technical and structural language, and the result is inspiring. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of that Toccata and start taking it apart to see how it works. And I can't wait for the next volume in this set. It's music I wouldn't have bothered with a year ago. Now I can't get enough of it.
The Lost Songs of St. Kilda
Trevor Morrison, James MacMillan, Craig Armstrong, et al.
Release date: September 9, 2016
How can you not love folk music hailing from islands that look like moss-covered shipwrecks, music rescued from an impending oblivion by an old Scottish fellow nearing the end of his life? Okay, I love the music, although you may doubt I do if you read further.
This is music from a locale to die for, and it comes with a story. I'm referring to The Lost Songs of St. Kilda, a recording that features some folk songs of St. Kilda, remote Outer Hebridean islands that occasionally acquire a Mediterranean look, if the disc's booklet is reliable.
Reliable: aye, there's the rub. Beautiful in nearly every way—and worth every penny they charge for it—this recording is packaged to sell. I would never fault Decca or anyone else for that, but I certainly have reservations about other aspects of the marketing. The photos of the islands alone might sell it, but in case they don't, there's the story. According to the CD’s website, it's an incredible story—and, as Tom Landry once said, "it's so incredible, it's unbelievable."
The story’s hero is the late Trevor Morrison, an old man in an Edinburgh care home. With the help of a friendly volunteer working there, he records piano renditions of folk songs taught to him as a boy during World War II by a piano teacher, a native of St. Kilda. The recordings, made under less than professional circumstances, nevertheless find their way into the hands of "the ears of Decca Records."
The songs themselves are beautiful. They don't sound much like folk melodies to me, but I'm probably not the best judge of that. There are nine of them, and although one sounds like a pastiche (of The Lord’s Prayer, Cavalleria Rusticana, and Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”), all nine certainly sound like they come from the same source.
Included on the disc are several of the tunes "reimagined" (promise me that's the last time we’ll use this word for any purpose) by composers Craig Armstrong, Rebecca Dale, Francis MacDonald, Christopher Duncan and James MacMillan. I find Armstrong’s arrangements to be the most interesting and engaging on the album, even if they baffle me somewhat: I found myself wishing they’d go on for hours, but it’s hard to tell how they relate to Morrison’s own arrangements.
Yes, Morrison’s arrangements. Trevor Morrison was a composer. I’m not saying he composed the Lost Songs of St. Kilda, but despite what we’re encouraged to think by the disc’s accompanying booklet, these songs weren’t sleeping inside him for over sixty years only to come out just for this disc. He worked on these arrangements—maybe not on paper, but he’s more of a musician than we’re led to believe. He’s a composer, and he’s a performer who had plenty of time to polish his artistry. Even if the songs all proceed with the same solemn, nearly lugubrious disposition, Morrison knows what he’s doing at every step. When he’s playing, I mean.
I’m not charging Morrison or anyone else with dishonesty. I am charging someone, however—I’m not sure whom, and it’s not really important—with mistrust of their material. I’m talking about the kind of mistrust that could prompt a composer to put someone else's name on her or his music, or that might lead a record company to say, “100 percent true isn’t good enough—we need 120 percent true. We need compelling.” And what’s more compelling than overdressed prose? “…a thin sun shone its feeble rays upon an old upright piano." Sorry, that sentence has just too many adjectives to be true.
I'm not saying Morrison's story isn't genuine. I’m not saying we don’t have some real folk songs here that were very nearly lost. And I'm certainly not saying that they're original compositions that someone is trying to pass off as folk material so they can duck criticism. I am saying, however, that all the trappings of this recording—including a website that badly needs an editor and a booklet that I would call awful, were it not for those gorgeous pictures—make it look as if someone is afraid I won't buy the whole thing.
I did buy it. Must I swallow it as well?
» 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 appears on the third Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.
PREVIOUSLY IN AUXILIARY INPUT
- February 2017: A recording by composer Adam Schoenberg; and a Fort Worth Symphony recording from 2016 of works by Lutoslawski and Brahms, the latter arranged by the other Schoenberg
- March 2017: Two volumes of a set of Wagner music transcribed for solo piano by Peruvian pianist Juan Guillermo Vizcarra; and two albums of songs by Fauré and Flegíer, both featuring bass Jared Schwartz
- April 2017: Releases from pianist/composer Marc-André Hamelin
- May 2017: Jaap van Zweden with the Hong Kong Philharmonic; and the DVD release of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach
- June 2017: Houston Symphony's March release of works by Dvořák; the Fort Worth Symphony's 2016 recording with pianist Vadym Kholodenko on Prokofiev's Concerto Nos. 2 and 5; and two 2015 recordings of pianist Alessandro Deljavan on works by Chopin