June 15, 2017


Ravel: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—Daphnis et Chloé; Une barque sur l’océan. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.

Ravel: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—Antar; Shéhérazade. André Dussolier, narrator; Isabelle Drouet, mezzo-soprano; Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.

Mark Nowakowski: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; Blood, Forgotten; Lullaby—O sleep for me, sleep. Voxare String Quartet (Emily Ondracek-Peterson and Galina Zhdanova, violins; Erik Christian Peterson, viola; Adrian Daurov, cello). Naxos. $12.99.

Georgy Sviridov: Russia Cast Adrift. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone; St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra and Style of Five Ensemble conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $9.99.

     There are certain national characteristics to music – ones that may not always be evident to modern listeners when it comes to Baroque works such as Bach’s English and French suites, but ones that became increasingly pronounced through and after the Romantic era. Thus, while Mozart wrote both German and Italian operas, by the 19th century there were clear distinctions between the instrumental focus of German opera composers, the vocal orientation of Italians, and the middle way of the French. Other forms of music increasingly developed national character as well, often quite deliberately (Russian, Czech). By the 20th century, distinctive musical nationality (if not always nationalism) was so firmly established that the works of, for example, Ravel, are as clearly French as they are clearly impressionistic.  Naxos’ excellent ongoing series of Ravel’s orchestral works, featuring Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin, shows this in every volume, and does so with particular clarity on the two latest discs. The fourth volume in this series includes the full hour-long ballet Daphnis et Chloé, one of the epitomes both of Ravel’s orchestral writing and of Impressionism itself. There is perpetual grace in this music, a kind of languor permeating it even in its more-energetic sections. Ravel’s expert orchestration carries with the ballet a kind of nostalgia, not so much for the legends of ancient Greece as for the gentle flowing of music of an earlier time, perhaps the 18th century. The wordless choruses (sung here by the choral group Spirito) add to the feeling of timelessness that melds with music that is harmonically very much of its time (1909-12) but that retains a feeling of being somehow beyond time itself – much like many of the old myths. The encore here has effective flow of its own: it is Ravel’s own 1906 orchestration of Une barque sur l’océan, the third of his 1904-05 Miroirs for piano, handled with consummate tastefulness and an especially lovely musical portrayal of the sea at its opening.

     The fifth Ravel volume is something very different and is, in fact, dominated by a world première recording. This is of Antar, incidental music to a play on the legend of the sixth-century warrior Antar and his love, Abla. When he was a teenager, Ravel was heavily influenced by Russian music, and although little of characteristically Russian sound carried through into Ravel’s later creative life, certain elements of coloration and orchestration were retained. In the case of Antar, Ravel selected and reorchestrated portions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s highly evocative work based on the legend, using material out of its original order and combining it with an excerpt from the opera Mlada and several short pieces composed by Ravel himself. Remarkably, what could easily have been a pastiche flows naturally and even elegantly in this recording, thanks in large part to the narrative connections forged as recently as 2014 by French-Lebanese writer and opera librettist Amin Maalouf. This connectivity, chosen instead of the use of the original words from the play for which Ravel made this arrangement in 1910, is a rare instance in which modern substitution actually enhances a musical arrangement from the past. Many of the pieces written or orchestrated by Ravel are quite short – five of them run less than a minute apiece – but Maalouf’s words, declaimed sensitively by André Dussolier, help hold the overall sequence of material together to tell a well-paced story. There is some straight narrative here and some old-style melodrama, with the words spoken above the music, and all of it works quite well. The overall presentation has more drama and heft, if less impressionistically muted color, than Daphnis et Chloé, and makes a fascinating counterpart to the ballet. Also on this CD is the three-song cycle from 1903, Shéhérazade, sung with an entirely apt sense of Oriental fascination by Isabelle Druet and neatly complementing the differently evocative music of Antar. The whole disc is redolent both of the Middle East and of the Orient, yet in general the music is recognizably, even strikingly French.

     The works of Mark Nowakowski (born 1978) are intended to be very distinctly Polish, but in this case not so much in their sound as in their topics. Nowakowski does not strive for the subtleties of Chopin or the fierce loyalty of Paderewski – instead, he uses contemporary compositional techniques, including electronic sounds as well as a traditional string quartet stretched sonically beyond the usual compass of the instruments, to reflect on various elements of the Polish experience. Nowakowski, who is Polish-American, intends the music on this Naxos CD to be a tribute to Polish survival through desperately hard times over many centuries, but there is nothing especially Polish in the sound of the music, despite the intent to ring forth the Polish experience. Nowakowski’s first string quartet, “Songs of Forgiveness” (2010), is a two-movement work intended to be at times meditative, at times grief-stricken, and at times angry. The second quartet, “Grandfather Songs (in memoriam Henryk Górecki)” (2011), has elements of a memorial but also some strange, even strident elements, notably the inclusion of a recording of Nowakowski’s family singing a war song. Blood, Forgotten (2005) is for solo violin and electronics, and is intended as yet another of the innumerable memorials for the victims of World War II – with Poland having been victimized both by the Axis (Nazi Germany) and the Allies (the Soviet Union). The electronic elements include the sounds of an instrument found in one of the Nazi concentration camps, but while this may be historically noteworthy, it is not sonically significant. In many ways the most effective piece here in terms of reaching out to an audience beyond that of patriotic Poles is the short final work on the disc, a lullaby based on an old Polish folk song. Written in 2012, it finds a greater sense of peace and of connection with the past than do the more intense, more avowedly expressive and much longer works here. This is a (+++) disc with some very fine playing – the Voxare String Quartet actually gave the première performance of Nowakowski’s first quartet. But the specificity of the topics is handled in such a way that there is little sense of reaching beyond the specifically Polish experience to the kind of shared sorrow and shared reality that would render Nowakowski’s feelings transferable to a wider audience.

     There is much that is quintessentially of his homeland in Russia Cast Adrift by Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998), notably the ways in which his vocal music is based on the traditional chant of the Russian Orthodox Church. Sviridov wrote this work in 1957 for baritone and piano, intending to orchestrate it eventually but never doing so. Now Russia Cast Adrift has been arranged for orchestra, and quite effectively, by Evgeny Stetsyuk, and receives its world première recording on a Delos disc featuring Dmitri Hvorostovsky and conductor Constantine Orbelian. This singer and conductor always work well together, and their handling of this cycle of 13 songs (the last of them actually taken from a different work, the vocal poem Petersburg from 1995) is no exception. The words here are by Sergey Yesenin, a poet who committed suicide at age 30 in 1925 and was, with Alexander Blok, a favorite of Sviridov. Russia Cast Adrift, whose title seems to have contemporary relevance even though it was never intended to, is actually about a poet and poetry – and the poetic elements of life in a badly disturbed  but still-beautiful Russia. The poems all date to 1914-20, and all deal with aspects of life in a highly complex era that saw World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, those events intermingled here with thoughts of Russia’s natural beauty, the Christian faith, and more. The harmonies here are traditional, and the influences of earlier composers, notably Tchaikovsky, are clear, yet Sviridov has his own style, notably because of his religious belief and the music used to express it in Russian Orthodox services. There is plenty of emotional intensity and angst both in the words and in the music of Russia Cast Adrift, but there is eventual affirmation and hope for a better future and fulfillment of what Yesenin – and, apparently, Sviridov – believed would be a more-welcome time to come. In many ways these poems and their settings do reach out beyond the world in which they were created, but in others they are so Russia-specific that they will appeal mainly to those of Russian heritage and those especially moved by other, more-universal Russian music, including that of some of the composers who clearly influenced Sviridov. It is also worth noting that this CD, although offered at a special price, runs less than 37 minutes – a fact that all by itself renders it a specialty item and contributes to its (+++) rating. There is emotional involvement and a certain level of originality in Russia Cast Adrift, and the orchestral version has warmth that clearly complements Hvorostovsky’s rich, sure and evocative baritone voice. The work is somewhat self-limiting by design, as a celebration of Russia by Russians looking for uplift and hoping for a more-congenial future Russia. But even within its self-imposed limitations, it has considerable beauty and considerable strength, much like Russia itself.

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