In Auxiliary Input, Andrew Anderson, a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library, reviews 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 March edition, Menahem Pressler plays works by Debussy, Fauré and Ravel; The Dallas Chamber Choir has a new album out; and Dallas Symphony Principal Bassoon Ted Soluri has recorded transcriptions of opera arias, with help from pianist Valerie M. Trujillo.
If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ted Soluri, Bassoon; Valerie M. Trujillo, Piano
Azica Records ACD-71315
Release date: April 21, 2017
Transcriptions of operatic arias for solo instrument and piano: they usually come off like the dog that has been trained to walk on its hind legs for a couple of steps; they're novelties; recital fodder. And that's about it, right?
Wrong. Sure, some arias work better than others, some transcriptions are better than others, some instruments can pull it off better than others. With Ted Soluri's recent release of operatic arias transcribed for bassoon and piano, Sempre Libera, (available here) we've got all three better-than-otherses coming together, plus a fourth: Ted Soluri's a fantastic bassoonist with a heart for solo vocal literature. So I would venture to say he can make this album work better than just about anyone.
Since the 2015 retirement of Wil Roberts as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's long-sitting principal bassoonist, Mr. Soluri has held that position, and we should all try to make him as comfortable as possible so that he'll want to stay a long time. Anyone who heard, for example, last season's performance of Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra knows how he makes his instrument sing throughout its register, up to the high B in the work's closing measures. Now this album of transcriptions gives us a chance to give Soluri's artistry our almost undivided attention.
Almost undivided because he brings with him Valerie M. Trujillo, Professor of Vocal Coaching and Accompanying at Florida State University. She's a sensitive and perceptive accompanist who deserves substantial credit for making this album so delightful (and indeed Soluri thanks her profusely in the page of acknowledgments in the disc's accompanying booklet). In some numbers, she fills in for characters other than that of the soloist whose part Soluri is playing, and she does so in a way that recreates some of the drama present in the original setting. And in "Mon Cœur S'ouvre À Ta Voix" from Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila, she has a chance to really cut loose in what amounts to a mini-concerto moment.
The disc's first track is "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. Even before I received the recording, I knew this work would be included. I can't think of an instrument that could ruin this gem, and I can't think of one that would sound more beautiful or more appropriate than the bassoon. There's something about its tone color that, to my ear, makes it a near perfect substitute for the human voice. It's a great way to start things off.
The title cut, "Sempre libera" from Verdi's La Traviata, holds a special place in my heart: I once worked on an arrangement of this piece for tuba and piano, but I quit the instrument before ever performing it (thus it should probably hold a special place in your heart). I knew it would work well on bassoon, because the embellishments—grace notes, trills and all--are the kind of thing that come naturally to this instrument.
The only track I sneered at was taken from an opera I sneer at. I'm not a Carmen fan. Nevertheless, I have never liked the third act's "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" better. It's a gorgeous aria, darn it, and I have Soluri and Trujillo to blame for that admission.
I may not have sneered at the album's more curious tracks, but I certainly raised an eyebrow at "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's La Bohème, and at Strauss's Op. 29/1, "Traum durch die Dämmerung." The Puccini had me wondering if this scene would work without a true single-timbre duet to carry some of the climactic moments, and I had my doubts about the Strauss because that song, like so many of his others, seems to depend so much on its verbal aspect — particularly the German consonants — to work. Well, the Puccini did have a duet, what with Ms. Trujillo's carefully managed Mimi. And the Strauss gave me an appreciation for how well the bassoon and piano sound together when both are working in their middle register. Who needs those German consonants, anyway?
In fact, everything on the album works. Mozart, Donizetti, Rossini, Catalani (and Lehar? Yes, that staple of silent film scores, "Vilja Lied" from The Merry Widow, is one of the longest tracks on the album, but I wish it were longer). It's all magnificently rendered, and we should thank Mr. Soluri and Ms. Trujillo for bringing us these selections that we already liked — most of them, anyhow — because now we can like them in a new way. And, by the way, your bookie is waiting for your bets on which of these numbers Soluri will feature in his Bancroft Family Concert for the Fine Arts Chamber Players concert next month.
Clair de Lune: Works by Debussy, Fauré and Ravel
Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 8756 7
Release date: March 9, 2018
Menahem Pressler was the first real pianist I ever saw in live performance (real as in "someone who makes a living at it," and I'm not counting faculty members or fellow students). It's to a live performance by him and his associates in the Beaux Arts Trio —Bernard Greenhouse (cello) and Isidore Cohen (violin) — that I owe my taste for chamber music. At that performance, they were already well into maturity, let's say, so you probably understand why I assumed, without taking the trouble to check, that all three had taken their last bows. Greenhouse and Cohen indeed have packed up their instruments for the last time, but not Pressler, and not just because a piano is harder to pack up than a violin.
If you want proof that the 94-year-old Pressler is not only still with us but may be outrunning us, here 'tis: less than a week ago, Deutsche Grammophon released his album of works by Fauré, Ravel, and Debussy (available here).
You've heard most of them before, but not like this. Of course, I could say that in reference to Pressler's performance, but that's not what I mean. Do you know Debussy's Children's Corner Suite? Can you name all the movements? Let's see, there's "Golliwog's Cakewalk," there's "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum," "Jimbo's Lullaby," "Snowflakes are Dancing...." That's all of them, isn't it? No, you left out two, but they're the two little ones that everybody forgets because, in performance, everyone's attention is cooling its heels until another of the big ones shows up.
That's right: from Children's Corner, Pressler includes only "The Little Shepherd." That's the frustrating part of this album, but it's also part of the album's genius. Detached from the other parts of the 1908 suite, "The Little Shepherd" finally gets the attention it has always deserved. It's not a difficult work; heck, I played it as an undergrad, but I'm not sure I ever really listened to it until now. I could play the same game with Ravel's Miroirs, but that one's harder; I'm pretty sure I couldn't name more than two out of that five-movement suite with much confidence. Pressler includes only the second movement, the exquisitely titled "Oiseaux tristes" ("Sad Birds"). We might call this one Miroirs's "Little Shepherd," although it's considerably more challenging than the Debussy.
He also includes five of Debussy's Préludes from Book 1, as well as the most familiar of the Deux Arabesques; there's also "Claire de lune" from Suite Bergamasque, and the almost too-familiar Rêverie. Again, though, I'm betraying my jadedness. It's almost as though Pressler is conducting an all-out assault on jade with this album, often because many selections — and they're all executed with precision and the utmost musicality--receive eccentric interpretation. Pressler's "La cathédrale engloutie," from the Préludes, for example, is hardly the Notre Dame that we usually get (I'm thinking of the big moment during the chorale, when the cathedral rises out of the lake); rather, it's more of a mid-sized rural cathedral with an organ that doesn't roar. It sings.
The biggest surprise for me, however, was Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte. Another selection for which "well-known" is too weak a word, and another that even I played, though not too well. It's another that I thought I knew. Listening to Pressler's performance, my first thought was "Ravel wouldn't care for this." I listened a second time with the score, though, and decided it was probably exactly what the composer had in mind. That judgment was vindicated when I found a recording of Ravel himself playing it.
I've never been much of a fan of "recital" style albums. I like all-[insert composer's name here] recordings. I'm starting to see, however, that the former type, being closer to how we hear works in performance (when was the last time you attended an all-Ravel recital?), has some advantages, chief among them being that the juxtaposition of works from different composers, styles, and eras allows works to be decontextualized from context that were never meant to be. Virtually all the pieces on this album were written for people to play in recitals, or at least in settings where you could expect Debussy to be followed by Scarlatti, to be followed by James P. Johnson.
I owe the Beaux Arts Trio, but that group dissolved a few years ago, so I'm safe. But I owe Menahem Pressler, as well. I didn't think he was conscious of it, but the fact that he made this recording makes me wonder if he is aware and has not yet used the debt as a tax deduction. I think by embarrassing me with this album, he wants me to pay up. And this review doesn't even begin to do that.
Dallas Chamber Choir, Jon L. Culpepper, Artistic Director and Conductor; Jordan Peek, Piano; Marie-Thaïs Levesque Oliver, Cello
Dallas Chamber Choir
Release date: March 2, 2018
My radar is long overdue for replacement. So, even though the Dallas Chamber Choir is not exactly a new group, I'm not surprised that I only just now noticed them. Their Artistic Director and Conductor, Jon L. Culpepper, has experience singing with several of our area's leading ensembles, and he has been conducting for quite a while, as well.
What brought DCC to my attention was their recently released CD, Love Manifested (available here). It's a recording that expresses well their humanitarian mission, and it features 18 of the 19 works that they performed on their most recent concert late last year, works in a variety of genres, many of which aren't mutually exclusive: arrangements of popular songs, sacred music, classical music, world music, and what I'll refer to as "choral literature," although that's a term that applies to all of it.
When I say choral literature, I mean works by composers well-known to vocal ensembles, both professional and academic — and often these are composers that deserve to be better known outside those circles, like Z. Randall Stroope. DCC's performance of his Caritas et amor sounds like it was written for this group, but that's because (a) Stroope writes in ways that emphasize things that let choirs sound their best, and (b) DCC is a talented and sensitive ensemble with a sharp conductor.
Another composer that I'm rather unceremoniously shoving into this general category is Jake Runestad. He's represented by two works that wear their heart on their sleeve on this recording, but not to their detriment — although I do question the way the opening of “Please Stay” sort of yells at me. He's probably banking on my being a little put off at first, though, so that the realization of what he's doing with the rest of the song will make a more vivid impression. Maybe it works — the impression I'm left with is of two heartfelt songs receiving accurate, sensitive and tasteful performances.
No less sensitive are the performances of the works from all over the sacred spectrum, including two — count 'em, two — O magnum mysteriums. But it's the spirituals that really stand out. The Koepke arrangement of “Wade in de Water” has fun special effects and challenging tonal shifts, and “Way Over in Beulah Lan'” is absolutely terrific. Just thinking about it makes the hair on my arm stand up. The sopranos are perfect: toward the arrangement's conclusion, they nail a difficult high-register, high-volume entrance; then they nail it a second time. You'll wish they had an opportunity to do it a third time.
The recording's two arrangements of popular songs show off the group's versatility, as well as Culpepper's talent for shaping his ensemble's sound. For example, the Kirby Shaw arrangement of Simon's “Bridge Over Troubled Water” highlights the song's gospel roots, and the well-coordinated pop stylings are taken just far enough. And the Timothy Takach arrangement of Dave Matthews' “Gravedigger” appropriately tightens up the original song's rhythm (too bad it can't do anything about a few infelicities in the lyrics). But it's John Lackey who really brightens up the piece; his baritone solo makes the song a somber meditation rather than a brooding downer.
The real standout on the disc is Naiman Sharag (The Eight Chestnut Horses). Listen to it once, and it could make you fall for Mongolian music, and fall hard. I don't know whether this adorable, high-energy little work is a setting of a genuine folk song or one that Se Enkhabayar — about whom there's almost no information — composed from the ground up. In any case, DCC's performance features superb interpretive decisions by Culpepper as well as a tour de force of a tenor solo by Anthony McMullen. After an introduction, he takes off and maintains maximum gusto with minimum vibrato, factors that highlight the soloist uniquely in any decent performance of this, the only Mongolian song most of us may ever hear. More's the pity.
I love this album right down to the cover art, with only one reservation: the inclusion of an arrangement (admittedly a good one by Tanner Wilemon) of Rachmaninoff's “Vocalise” (but I'm a “Vocalise”-snob). Sure, it's gorgeous, and I'm delighted that DCC treats us to the entire song (often the repeats are omitted). But of the thousand-odd performances and recordings (some odder than others) I've heard, only one has convinced me.* Of what? That, of the 14 Rachmaninoff Romances, Op. 34, this one can bear the responsibility of eclipsing the other 13 songs in the set. I'll leave the particulars of how I think it should go for some other occasion and just say that, to look at the score of the original version, it appears waaay over-dynamicked; but I maintain that his dynamics are what makes the piece make sense.
The fact that the “Vocalise” arrangement features cellist Marie-Thaïs Levesque Oliver reminds me that her confident presence on several of the tracks — both with and without piano accompaniment — is apt to be underappreciated. Her flawless sense of pitch is at home with both the rigidity of equal temperament and the perhaps trickier world of just intonation. Furthermore, we might also undervalue Jordan Peek's piano accompaniment, which is so good that you sometimes forget it's there.
One warning about this album: if you buy it via any avenue that doesn't pass through DCC's website, you might miss the .pdf with program notes from their winter concert, 95 percent of which applies to this recording. It's a free download, and while you're there, explore the rest of the site to find out what they're all about — and find out when they'll perform next (soon, we hope).
* Rachmaninoff's own interpretation is just the runner-up!
» 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.
- October 2017: A recording of Liszt songs featuring Jared Schwartz, bass, and Mary Dibbern, piano; harp music by Emily Levin of the Dallas Symphony; and a Finnish recording of works by Sibelius, featuring conductor Hannu Lintu
- November 2017: A DVD recording of Mark Adamo's Becoming Santa Claus at the Dallas Opera in 2015; Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's It's a Wonderful Life at Houston Grand Opera in 2016; and the 2016 performance of Du Yun's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angel's Bone.
- December 2017: A Lithuanian recording of Verdi's Rigoletto featuring the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Nadine Sierra; a stellar recording of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring; and pianist Peter Froundjian's Christmas Piano Music.
- January 2018: A themed album from pianist Emanuele Arciuli; recordings of Haydn works for the baryton, and the early orchestral works of Bohuslav Martinů
- February 2018: Anderson listens to the live recording from the Dallas Opera's world premiere of Great Scott, a recording of early orchestral works by Martinů, and Morton Feldman's For John Cage (1982).