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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Shulman, Salieri, Stravinsky

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new releases featuring works of Shulman, Salieri and Stravinsky.

STRAVINSKY: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). SILVESTRE REVULETAS: La noche de los mayas (Night of the Maya). Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. (Deutsche Grammophon B0014281-02)

It would be hard to imagine a more gratifying Rite of Spring from among recordings of recent years. The untold story of the ascendancy of podium phenomenon Gustavo Dudamel, now well into his first season as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has to include more than the romantic anecdotes—some supplied by himself—of a little boy arranging his toy soldiers as an imaginary orchestra and wielding a baton over them. Music-making of this kind of clarity and focused intensity does not come as a fairy-tale metamorphosis. Starting young helps, as does a natural aptitude; but a keen sense of purpose and an increased sharpening of skills and a moment of what French philosophers used to call éclaicissement, that magical moment where everything is in sharpest focus and one says with amazed delight, “I can do this!”

Dudamel grew up in the Venezuelan youth orchestra movement, and his enthusiastic stewardship of the large orchestra (with which he has amassed, already, an impressive discography), is his way of giving everything—and more—back. The penetrating excursion into Stravinsky’s now-thrice-familiar score, and the wonderfully exciting brass and percussion playing in the Procession of the Sages in the first part (among many other delights of this performance), are more than gratifying to listen to. Both clarity and sheer excitement always rule, and there is never a dull moment in the thirty-four minutes of this twentieth-century landmark as delivered by Dudamel and the Bolívar Orchestra.

The performance of short-lived Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas La noche de los mayas is even more charged with indescribable but always recognizable kinetic energy and, frankly, rare orchestral exuberance. Deutsche Grammophon wisely chose to retain the wild audience response at the end of the performance. Highly recommended.

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SALIERI: Requiem in c minor. Arianna Zukerman, soprano; Simona Ivas, mezzo-soprano; Adam Zdunikowski, tenor and Luís Rodrigues, baritone; with Alice Caplow-Sparks, cor anglais and António Esteireiro, organ. Chorus and Orchestra of the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon conducted by Lawrence Foster. SCHUBERT: Intende voci (Offerotium) in B-flat, D. 963. Foster and the Gulbenkian Orchestra and Chorus; with Marius Brenciu, tenor and Pedro Ribeiro, oboe. BEETHOVEN: Meerstille und Glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) (after the poem by Goethe), op. 112. Foster and the Gulbenkian Orchestra and Chorus. (PentaTone 5186359)

Salieri's RequiemThere are pieces of music better left to gather dust on the library shelves than recorded, and Antonio Salieri’s determinedly conventional setting of the Ordinary of the Requiem Mass is definitely one of them—at least, in the opinion of this writer. The score dates from 1804, and it is unclear for what occasion he intended it. It was performed twenty-one years later at Salieri’s own final rites in 1825. The music, square and symmetrical, is the man: Salieri’s professional training had been utterly conventional, as the protégé of Bohemian-born Viennese composer Florian Leopold Gassmann. Gassmann’s first act on bringing his fifteen-year-old charge into the Austrian capital in 1766 was to go to a church and to consecrate the boy’s talent and future career to God, an incident of which Salieri often spoke in his later years. Some of this uniquely Catholic piety is reflected in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, largely a fictionalized account of a putative rivalry between Salieri and Mozart first conjured up by Alexander Pushkin in his play Mozart and Salieri. There is an anecdote about Salieri, perhaps apocryphal and perhaps a story he told on himself, that he as a boy was rather severely chastised by his father on his failure to greet a priest with proper reverence and obeisance. Young Antonio said that he did not like the priest’s organ playing, which he considered inappropriately theatrical for the church.

The church was Salieri’s refuge when he lost both parents, sometime in the early 1760s. He was born in Legnano in August 1750, the child of his father’s second wife; when his parents died, he went to live in a monastery in Padua. Later, he became the ward of a well-to-do Venetian nobleman. During that time, his musical instruction — begun at the hands of his elder brother and various clerics—continued under the oversight of Giovanni Battista Pescetti, an opera composer and church musician (not an incongruous combination in those days). When Pescetti suddenly died, young Salieri became a pupil of opera singer Ferdinando Pacini (or Pasini), who introduced him to Gassmann.

Gassmann, once he had installed Salieri in Vienna, had him trained in academic subjects (including the German language) by an Italian émigré priest; he also received rigorous and highly orthodox instruction in theory and thoroughbass. Gassmann did not allow him to compose anything during this journeyman period; when he finally did, his supervision was close and watchful. At nineteen, Salieri had his first opera produced.

The Requiem belongs to a period in Salieri’s life when he was out of royal service (he had resigned as Imperial Court Composer two or three years before the sudden death of Emperor Joseph II of Austria in 1790) and had his own orchestra. It was a period of further ascendancy and ultimate security for him. It has been speculated that Mozart’s last three symphonies, written within only six weeks’ space in the summer of 1788, were intended for Salieri’s orchestra. There is no paper trail to prove or disprove this. By the turn of the nineteenth century, Salieri could count among his pupils Beethoven and (a few years later) Schubert, both of whom he instructed in the setting of Italian texts. The piety and conventionality which colored his life are in the Requiem; there is an arresting moment of fire in the Hosanna appendix to the Sanctus (rapidly descending and then ascending 16th-note violin figurations and trumpet and drum flourishes).

Other things were going on in the life of the 53-year-old composer. He found himself something of a living anachronism. The French occupation of Austria and the virtual worthlessness of the nation’s currency took its toll on him, as it did on everyone else. The public appetite for the style of Italian opera in which he had been systematically trained by Gassmann and in which he himself reveled was waning. His onetime pupil Beethoven, whose career he continued to promote, was in ascendancy. During his heyday as an opera composer, he always found time to produce music for the church, both large- and small-scale. There seemed to be a renewal of interest in liturgical music at the time that the Requiem was written.

Lawrence Foster—a former Houston Symphony music director (at the time, the youngest person to date to have held that post)—and his forces give Salieri’s score a sympathetic, clear and incisive reading. The orchestral playing is first-class and historically informed without letting “authenticity” be the entire focus; the choral diction is impeccable. The soloists do themselves proud, although the Requiem is pre-eminently a choral piece.

More compelling than the Salieri work is Franz Schubert’s rarely-heard Intende voci, from the last year of the Austrian composer’s life. Oboist Pedro Ribeiro is justifiably given solo billing in this aria for tenor, chorus and orchestra. He has a fine feeling for musical line and a clear, unaffected tone. Tenor Marius Benciu’s singing is at times labored, but he eventually gets into the spirit of the piece. The chorus is luminous and clear, and the orchestral playing stellar. Beethoven’s Meerstille is an exemplary performance, with the choral diction admirably clear in the pianissimo opening. Foster, by now a seasoned maestro (now in his eighth year at the helm of the Gulbenkian Orchestra), shows himself a master of choral/orchestral balance—not surprising for a man of his experience.

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ALAN SHULMAN (1915-2002): Suite for Solo Cello (1951). Wesley Baldwin, cello. Homage to Erik Satie (1938). Suite for the Young Cellist (1960). Lament (1939). Serenade (1941). Lament II (1983). Kol Nidre (1970). Baldwin; with Kevin Class, piano. Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (1948). Baldwin; with the Hot Springs Music Festival Orchestra conducted by Jean Reis. (Albany 1187)

Alan Shulman - Works for CelloAlan Shulman is best remembered as a member of Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra for most of its 17-year history, and of its successor group, the Symphony of the Air (the orchestra with which Leonard Bernstein made his television début, an exploration of Beethoven’s sketches for the first movement of his Fifth Symphony, in 1954). He was also active in several quartets and other chamber groups, and for most of his life was active as a composer. He also dabbled in jazz, which doesn’t seem to be evident in any of the works presented on this disc; one colleague, awed by Shulman’s consummate musicianship, said that “he had better than perfect pitch. I’ve simply never met anyone like him.”

The highlight of this disc, of course, is the 1948 Concerto (which did not get its first hearing until 1950,when Leonard Rose — for whom it was written — played it for the first time with the New York Philharmonic under its then-Music Director Dimitri Mitropoulos). The Concerto is dedicated to the People of Israel, which became a state at the time Shulman finished the work. As one might expect, it is expertly written and full of interest, opening with an electrifying multiple-stops passage. Even though there is a discernible influence of Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch (whose rhapsody for cello and orchestra Schelomo, Shulman recorded under the composer’s supervision), it is a highly original work. It received generous plaudits from composer-critic Virgil Thomson and fellow-cellists Raya Garbousova and Pablo Casals.

The liner notes to this disc report only three public performances of this Concerto since its unveiling in 1950: one in Canada by George Ricci in 1962, another by Susan Polacik in Farmington, Maine five years ago and this one, recorded in concert last year.

Baldwin plays with aplomb, entirely appropriate to the work throughout; the orchestra has its moments of unease here and there, notably faulty intonation in the upper strings at several points. Even so, we now have a recording of a worthy piece for cello and orchestra by a highly skilled artist, and that is always an occasion for rejoicing.

Shulman’s 1951 Suite for Solo Cello is another high point, making even heavier demands on the player in some ways. His later Suite for the Young Cellist of 1960 is interesting music, and with a piano part that is interesting. Shulman has provided a service for aspiring players that many composers for the piano — notably Bartók and Kabalevsky — have provided for pianists. The second movement, Latin Serenade, is particularly appealing. In the Kol Nidre of 1970, Shulman goes back to his very deep Jewish roots.

Wesley Baldwin, who teaches primarily at the University of Tennessee, has done a wonderful service for a departed colleague. Shulman, in declining health as he entered his ninth decade, was forced to retire in 1997 and died in a nursing home at Hudson, NY eight years ago. This writer can heartily second Pablo Casals’ postcard greeting to Shulman on his Concerto: “J’aime beaucoup votre oeuvre”.

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