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 October edition, Anderson looks at a recording of Liszt songs featuring Jared Schwartz, bass, and Mary Dibbern, piano; an astonishing recording of harp music by Emily Levin of the Dallas Symphony; and a Finnish recording of works by Sibelius, featuring conductor Hannu Lintu, who recently conducted in Dallas.
If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at email@example.com.
Franz Liszt: Songs for Bass Voice and Piano
Jared Schwartz, Bass, and Mary Dibbern, Piano
Toccata Classics TOCC0441
Release date: Oct. 1, 2017
It's unusual to come across a recent recording of music by a composer as well-known as Franz Liszt that deserves to be called overdue. It seems as if all the good stuff would have been taken care of by now, and whatever remains would just as well be left alone ("saved from the trashcan" collections often make you wonder why anyone would bother).
Long overdue is the word, though, for Toccata Classics' recent issue of a recording of a selection of Liszt's solo vocal works (available here). On its 12 tracks, we have several firsts: first recordings of these works by a bass voice, a first recording by a male voice in any register, and one first recording, period. It's not the first time we've heard bass Jared Schwartz and accompanist Mary Dibbern on the Toccata label, though. Come to think of it, it's not even their first first.
This Schwartz and Dibbern collaboration is long on variety any way you look at it. They give us Liszt working in several languages (English, French, German, Italian) and in a variety of forms (accompanied recitative, strophic, nearly strophic, not-at-all strophic). They show us Liszt's songwriting skills early in his career, at the height of his popularity, and late in life. They also provide a bunch of things we've never heard, plus a few that we know from somewhere but aren't sure where.
All that variety leaves me asking, “Is there anything these performers can't do?” Maybe so, but I think they've got the sense to avoid whatever that might be. But I think I'd be glad to hear Jared Schwartz sing just about anything. His voice just keeps getting stronger: with each new recording—and here, each successive track—he shows us some new aspect of his technical skill, expressive range or interpretive talent. And he appears to be looking for challenges that aren't occurring to anyone else.
One such challenge is the inclusion of “Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher” ("Joan of Arc at the stake"), a song that presents the French martyr's thoughts and prayers immediately prior to her immolation. This selection might seem unusual for an album devoted to renditions in male voice but, thanks to a booklet that features Mary Dibbern’s excellent and well-researched writing, we're allowed to see that having a man sing the part of St. Joan may well be considered a stroke of genius, or at least a twist that is long overdue (there's that word again). I see an interesting parallel between this duo's inclusion of this work and Joan's martyrdom—one gender taking the place of another for the sake of a high calling, or something like that. Joan was canonized. I wonder: can a singer and pianist can share sainthood, like a Nobel prize?
Borderline irreverent philosophical matters aside, Mary Dibbern is a superb accompanist, and when she writes that one selection requires “minutely flexible teamwork” to pull it off, she shies away from telling us that she and Mr. Schwartz provide just that. Furthermore, she's far too modest to say that every track on this disc shows it off, but again—just that. And if the selections don't always require traditional displays of agility, on the part of accompanist or vocalist, they all require intellectual agility and flexible technique. That's a lot to ask of one performer; it's more than twice as much to ask it of two.
The St. Joan question probably won't be considered quite the controversial move today that it would have been 50 years ago. By a similar token, transposition of these works into different keys to accommodate the bass voice may once have constituted a risky strategy, but I doubt that it still does. In any case, I’m with Will—he was talking about the operatic literature, but I think what he says applies to both. Of this recording's 12 tracks, all but one (“Des Tages laute Stimmen schweigen”; “The day’s loud voices have fallen silent”) have been transposed, not just to accommodate "the bass voice," but to accommodate Jared Schwartz. For this we should all be glad.
And two of the tracks (the second, "Pace non trovo," and the ninth, "O lieb!") are better known as solo piano works. The Italian selection is more famous as the fifth piece, "Sonetto 104 del Petrarca" in the piano cycle Années de pèlerinage II. And "O lieb!" formed the basis—the "piece behind the piece," so to speak—for one of Liszt's greatest hits, the Liebestraum No. 3. It's exhilarating to hear this super-familiar work in a new way, even if we didn't know we've been listening to a sort of a piano "cover version" all along. It's surely not the first recording of this work ever, but it's the first time I've heard it.
It's a real delight to have this disc to listen to alongside Mr. Schwartz's and Ms. Dibbern's Flégier recording and Mr. Schwartz's Fauré album (I guess the only reason not to consider them a kind of "soft trilogy" is that in, the picture on the cover, Liszt is clean shaven). I'm excited at the prospect of hearing this duo early next month in recital. I hope they perform some of these selections, but I'd like to remind them that there's a lot of Liszt vocal music waiting for their touch (or their transposition). Volume two, anyone?
Emily Levin, Harp
Release date: Sept. 1, 2017
With the release of harpist Emily Levin's CD, Something Borrowed (available here), we have a themed album that presents something old, something new and...well, like the title says. We don't really have anything blue (except for the dress Ms. Levin is wearing in the cover photo), and that's kind of a relief—wedding-related doggerel strikes me as a flimsy basis for assembling a program.
There's nothing flimsy about this album, though. There's new new music, but the old stuff is new, too; stick around and I'll explain that. There's music by unfamiliar French composers, not-yet-familiar emerging composers (Levin is well known as a new-music pusher), and composers you've known forever.
Ms. Levin should be familiar to Dallasites as the principal harpist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and she was recently named 2017 Young Artist of the Year by the Classical Recording Foundation. In fact, she received that honor for the recording under review here. It's an album that exploits many performance techniques unique to the harp, including harmonics (I know that other instruments produce harmonics, but there's no sound on earth like harmonics from a harp), pedal slurs, and something that sounds like a burst from a weed whacker.
The recording is bookended by two works by French composers. Marcel Tournier (1879-1951) is represented by his three-movement Sonatine, Op. 30, and André Caplet (1878-1925), by his Divertissements from 1924. Both of these works were composed originally for harp, and the Tournier at times sounds so much like the Ravel Sonatine for piano that it seems almost criminal.
Between these two French works, we have works by Franz Liszt—a transcription of his Le Rossignol, which itself was an arrangement for solo piano of a song for solo voice by the Russian Alexander Alyabyev—and by Johann Sebastian Bach, the complete French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816. The Liszt arrangement will probably be new to everyone except the Russians—it seems to have a status in that country almost like that of Brahms' “Lullaby” in that it has almost attained folksong status. It isn't one, but that's neither here nor there; this recording is a lovely introduction to it, and I really don't even care if I hear the piano version of it.
In contrast, the Bach is a different kind of revelation: here's a keyboard work that is ultra-familiar (some of the movements, anyhow), so that seeing it on the track list hardly even provokes an "Ah, yes," which is not to say it's unwelcome. But performing it on the harp, especially when the extraordinarily talented Ms. Levin is the performer, transforms the work. It's like hearing the piece for the first time. Even the final movement, the Gigue—probably the most familiar of the suite's seven parts—sounds so radically different that, had I heard it in isolation, I might not have recognized it. Don't misunderstand, it's a wonderful performance, and it's perfectly gorgeous; but I'm not sure if the unavoidable cloudiness that the harp induces in some passages—many of the notes must be allowed to continue to vibrate well past their written duration—will be universally embraced. I love it.
The wild card on the album is the four-part, four-composer suite, R.S.V.P. to Shel. Levin commissioned four composers (Jonathan Cziner, Max Grafe, Will Healy and Nina C. Young)—whose combined age barely tops one hundred—to use characters in Shel Silverstein's poem "Invitation" as reference points for a collection of four character pieces. It's a great idea, and it's a real treat to hear music from four composers who are all new to me. Furthermore, it's great to hear a harp, an instrument so often associated with delicacy, producing some of the most violent sounds I've ever heard, such as the closing notes of the fourth movement (Young's if you are a...liar) and the aforementioned yard-tool sound in the second movement (Grafe's The Magic-Bean Buyer). It's nice that the four movements, though coming from different sources, form such a remarkable unity: each certainly has its own inner coherence, but the four also share a similar harmonic language—a factor that may have been premeditated in the choice of composers, or it may have been fortuitous.
Throughout the album, we're witness to Ms. Levin's technical skill, musicality and good taste. Occasionally, we're witness to her daring, if that's not too strong a word. I trust she'll exhibit some of these qualities when the Fine Arts Chamber Players present her and Colin Davin in the Nov. 11 Bancroft Family Concert at the Dallas Museum of Art. And you can also catch her on Oct. 21 with the Dallas Harp Quartet at the...hey, at the Dallas Public Library's J. Erik Jonsson Central Library! I guess I should start cleaning the place up. If you'll excuse me...
Sibelius: Tapiola, En Saga, 8 Songs
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu conducting; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Ondine Records ODE 1289-5
Release date: Oct. 13, 2017
Whenever a prominent conductor announces that she or he is taking a gig elsewhere, I start looking at every guest conductor and wondering: Are you auditioning, or just passing through? With Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu's recent visit to Dallas, I certainly wondered that, with perhaps a little extra stress on the first half of the question. Lintu is well-known as a specialist in music by Scandinavians, and some of my favorite composers are that very thing.
That specialization of his also accounts for my disappointment in what he conducted, because the one Scandinavian composer on the program was presented via one of his least characteristic compositions. Finlandia isn't a particularly early work, but it sure sounds like it, probably because it was composed as part of a program protesting censorship. One of the least challenging (for listener and performer) of his best-known pieces, it has weaknesses that are distinctly unrepresentative of the hand that composed them. Nevertheless, even if the rest of the piece stunk, its opening 75 measures would save it forever.
But now, with a recent release (available here) on the Ondine label, we have a chance to evaluate Lintu's work on some of the Sibelius' best stuff: one early and one exceedingly late masterpiece, and several arrangements of his solo songs for voice and orchestra.
The early work, En Saga (Sibelius' Op. 9) had me betting with myself; I was sure this recording was going to have an uncommonly long running time compared to others. I would have sworn that these were the slowest tempos I had ever heard on this work. Even so, I lost the bet. It's not appreciably longer than any other recording that I have immediate access to, including some that I remembered as being almost frantic.
This led me to wonder, Why? For one thing Lintu's version of En Saga (and for those of you who don't speak Finnish, that means "a saga") is more deliberate in a way that makes me think of the work as a verbal story being performed by a narrator. For example, a couple of the work's big tunes have repeated notes—anywhere from four to eight in succession—as a distinctive feature, and this makes the melodies sound as if they're perhaps transcriptions of a line that originally had words. There's no real reason to think they ever did, but Lintu's interpretation of the work seems to attach special importance to each tone, as if the conductor (vicariously, I suppose, via the instruments) wants to ensure that every word is intelligible. And that ends up helping to create one of the most distinctive interpretations of this work I've ever heard, one that might well become my favorite.
Tapiola, Op. 112, was Sibelius' last major work. A depiction of the spirit of the Finnish forests, it has been called "inscrutable" (somewhat irresponsibly, I think), but in Lintu's hands it seems plenty scrutable. That doesn't mean there's no mystery, just that it sounds as if Lintu knows that there's mystery already in the music—you don't have to put it there. For example—and I haven't done my own study of it, you understand—word has it that there's only one clean, stable major chord in the whole piece, and it's the last sound we hear. That fact alone could put it in a class by itself. Add to that the lo-o-ong sections in which little, if anything, changes, creating unearthly, beautiful stasis; they certainly work best, I think, if you don't "try to do things" with them. Furthermore, Lintu underplays some climactic moments like I've never heard before, and they end up working better than I've ever heard before.
The eight vocal works, originally for voice and piano, are presented here in their arrangements by composer Aulis Sallinen, and I might stick my neck out and say that Sallinen really has a feeling for Sibelius' music as it comes out in an orchestral setting. In other words, Sallinen has made it sound like Sibelius himself orchestrated them. And Anne Sofie von Otter has a perfect voice for this literature: her characteristic restraint is just what these songs need. We all know she could yell these songs to death if she wanted to, but I'm glad she doesn't want to. My only gripe is that there are only eight on this disc.
Come to think of it, Lintu has a reputation for at least looking like he's tearing the music apart when he's conducting; on this recording, though, everyone seems restrained, or at least on their best behavior. And, with granite-faced Sibelius watching your every move, who wouldn't be?
» 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
- July 2017: 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; and the much-talked about The Lost Songs of St. Kilda.
- August 2017: Cliburn Gold Medalist Yekwon Sunwoo; pianist Marc-André Hamelin performing Feldman's For Bunita Marcus; and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra on Strauss's Ein Heldenleben.
- September 2017: A release by local outfit Ensemble75; a 2015 release of early music called Love & Lust; and a new recording by the North Texas Wind Ensemble of the University of North Texas in Denton.