CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Higdon, Tchaikovsky, Orff and Gershwin

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 Higdon, Tchaikovsky, Orff and Gershwin.

JENNIFER HIGDON: Violin Concerto (dedicated to Hilary Hahn). TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D, op. 35. Hilary Hahn, violin; with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Deutsche Grammophon B0014698-02.

Jennifer Higdon’s violin concerto begins with the sounds of high-pitched bells, finger cymbals and high violin harmonics and settles into a lyrical vein. Along the way, in the first movement, there is much violinistic and orchestral “busy-ness” before the original idea is revisited. There is a great deal of imaginative use of the orchestra and resourceful and knowing use of the violin in all three movements; without doubt, this is a major work of our time by a composer who has already shown her ability to create very accessible though challenging (for performers and listeners alike) music. There are new orchestral colors and an ingenious melding of many ideas. While Higdon’s music is generally accessible to most audiences, she is not afraid of dissonance. This is part of any good composer’s wish to make music which does not resemble anything that has gone before.

Higdon was a classroom teacher and met Hilary Hahn during the violinist’s time as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music at Philadelphia. The three movements are entitled 1726 (probably an allusion to the instrument’s date of manufacture), Chaconni (as the name implies, an extended set of variations) and Fly Forward. Hilary Hahn performs stupendously, and the Liverpool musicians under Petrenko are sensitive and sympathetic collaborators.

This sympathetic collaboration is also very pronounced in the Tchaikovsky Concerto, which has plenty of forward thrust and energy throughout. Both soloist and conductor are not afraid of assertiveness. Both the introspective side and the virtuoso side of Tchaikovsky’s writing are clearly brought out.


CARL ORFF: Carmina Burana (scenic cantata on Medieval Latin and German texts, secular songs from the Monastery of Buran, Germany). Patricia Petibon, soprano; Hans-Werner Bunz, tenor and Christian Gerhaher, baritone; with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the Tölzer Knabenchor conducted by Daniel Harding. Deutsche Grammophon 4778778.

Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, conducted by Daniel HardingBritish-born maestro Daniel Harding does himself proud with this new recording of one of the most recorded pieces in the symphonic repertory. Carl Orff created Carmina Burana from at times risqué texts supposedly authored by priests and nuns in 1938, and it became a perennial—warmly accepted into the repertory, never discarded since—going nearly the way of, say, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Harding’s stand-out soloist, though all three of them are outstanding, is baritone Christian Gerhaher, who is quoted in the liner notes as characterizing the thrice-familiar cantata as “magisterially meretricious”. Gerhaher certainly “hams it up” and shows to the full his prowess as a singing actor wherever and whenever appropriate—particularly in Ego sum abbas (which he makes more than just a secco recitative: in his hands, it is a true recitation by a consummate actor), the give-and-take with the male chorus in Si puer cum puella, the recitative Omnia Sol temperat (for which Harding and the Munich strings provide a magically shimmering accompaniment, of a subtlety of the kind I have heard on no other recording of this work) and the patter-song-like Estuans interius (Burning inside). Gerhaher is consistently very good throughout, a singer-actor of who has an extraordinary range of expression and characterization and, what is more, a first-rate, all-round musician.

Hans-Werner Bunz, the tenor soloist, acquits himself similarly in the Song of the Roasting Swan (Olim lacus colueram), which Leopold Stokowski described as “at once fantastic and ironic”. Coloratura Patricia Petibon, who shone brilliantly for Deutsche Grammophon in a notable all-Handel disc not long ago, is a marvelous choice for the soprano soloist. The choral singing is glorious throughout, with impeccable diction in both the Medieval German and Latin numbers.

Daniel Harding is demonstrably sensitive to the needs of balancing orchestra and vocal forces ranging from a single soloist to various combinations of solo and ensemble voices; it would be impossible to list all instances of how he soars where other conductors merely give a good presentation of this music. His sense of orchestral color and balance and pacing contribute mightily toward the success of this recorded performance.


GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess (complete). Jonathan Lemalu, Porgy; Isabelle Kabatu, Bess; Bibiana Nwobilo, Clara; Michael Forest, Sportin’ Life; Rodney Clarke, Jake; Angela Renée Simpson, Serena; Roberta Alexander, Maria; Gregg Baker, Crown; Previn Moore, Mingo, Robbins, Peter and Crab Man; and others; the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Arnold Schoenberg Choir conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. RCA Red Seal (Sony/BMG) 88697591762: three CDs, with libretto and extensive notes.

Gershwin's Porgy and BessIn an interview almost half a century ago, Arthur Fiedler lamented that once a performing musician—particularly a conductor—is found able to do something well, he is “pigeonholed” and is practically not allowed to do anything else. “You’re a Gershwin specialist, a Mozart specialist, a specialist in musical Impressionism, or you’re a Baroque man”, Fiedler complained. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, founder and director of the Vienna Concentus Musicus, famed more than a generation ago for the painstakingly “authentic” reading of Monteverdi’s Orfeo and, somewhat later, for a searching and very “different” reading of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in which Harnoncourt’s wife Alice played solo violin, branched out about 25 years ago by recording some highly individualistic but convincing performances of Haydn and Mozart symphonies, mostly with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. At about the same time, he appeared on disc as a conductor of Johann Strauss waltzes—seemingly incongruous to some of those who had typed him as “a Baroque man”. In more recent years, he appeared on RCA — now a thoroughly German label — in a stupendous version of Smetana’s Ma Vlast and in an arresting version of Bruckner’s ninth symphony, including a recorded-in-concert lecture (two versions: one for English-speaking audiences and another for German-speaking ones) on attempts by various people to reconstruct the fourth movement of this incomplete masterwork. For those who cared to listen and not to typecast, Harnoncourt showed himself as a musician who had a knack for getting the most out of any piece of music, whether a set of Renaissance dances or the Verdi Requiem.

Now he has turned his attention to George Gershwin’s greatest and perhaps most misunderstood and misplayed work, the opera Porgy and Bess. Until the superb recording by Lorin Maazel and The Cleveland Orchestra some thirty-four years ago, with an all-black cast and a fierce dedication to presenting Porgy as what it was—a grand opera, not a musical, most of us were in the dark about the opera originally produced in 1935. Gershwin himself, who died just two years later at 39 (he did not survive a risky operation, which was not successful, to remove a brain tumor), was as much a victim of typecasting as anybody. The opera, which had gone through several revisions (including many excisions and additions), probably became a victim of its composer’s premature demise: Harnoncourt himself, in an interview (originally in German) transcribed in the book that accompanies the three compact discs, originally set out to present the opera much as Maazel had done, adhering to a published version. Harnoncourt decided to stick to what he felt were the composer’s last thoughts on Porgy, adhering to some of his cuts and including the additional material. One of the most remarkable of these additions is the four-minute Symphony of Noise, inspired by a 1927 stage version of Porgy as a pure play. It begins with the sounds of a typical urban black neighborhood waking up: an egg being dropped into a frying pan, the swish-swish of a broom sweeping the steps to a tenement apartment, a man snoring, a police siren in the distance and so on. This leads in smoothly to the choral/ensemble scene “Good mornin’, sistuh!” Apart from all of this newly-rediscovered dramatic genius, gone for some seventy-five years, there comes a vivid contrast of two points of view: a look back at the way Porgy was presented between the time Gershwin died and Maazel’s catalytic 1976 recording.

Harnoncourt, who cites Maazel’s recording as a singular inspiration, also cited a 1952 German recording of Porgy conducted by the man who led the première—probably Alexander Smallens—in which Gershwin’s tempo markings and many other expressive indications were thrown to the winds; recitatives and anything that smacked of “operaticism” was either cut out entirely or modified, and the orchestration was reduced to the sound of a theater band. In short, this was a performance—like many others, chiefly on records and on at least one filmed version—in which Gershwin’s masterpiece was made to sound like a pop piece. Some years before the reversal of thinking about the opera, Leonard Bernstein cited Porgy and Bess as the place where Gershwin’s destiny as a creative artist, really for the first time, becomes unmistakably clear.

Gershwin, like many musicians of his generation, was transfixed by Alban Berg’s great tragic opera Wozzeck. While Gershwin’s musical and tonal language is quite different from Berg’s, he realized in Porgy his own role as a musical tragedian. Porgy and Bess was rather freely based, in its earliest incarnation in the mid-1920s as a novel by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, on the true story of a crippled black man who attacked a woman in a drunken rage and then tried to flee from the police in his crude goat-cart. Gershwin read the novel in the course of an insomniac night and was very much taken with it. Heyward and his wife turned the novel into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1927. This, and an aborted Broadway musical project involving the composer Jerome Kern and the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, blocked Gershwin’s plan to write an opera on the subject. In late 1932, the New York Theatre Guild officially commissioned Gershwin to do just that.

Harnoncourt draws some excitingly vital playing from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. His singers, possibly with the exception of Roberta Alexander, are virtually unknown; each is a supremely gifted singing actor with a superb sense of the English language and a deft handling of the Southern dialect introduced by co-librettist and author Heyward. The performance is a studio one with stage realism and seems to involve very little editing. It has a wonderful dramatic pacing throughout and is superbly recorded. A major achievement for all concerned, and highly recommended.