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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Braunfels, Chihara and Petrassi

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews more of Walter Braunfels, new music by Paul Chihara and a rediscovery of Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi.

PAUL CHIHARA: Concerto piccolo for four Violas. Paul Coletti, Ben Ullery, Gina Coletti and Zach Dellinger, violists. Viola Concerto, in one movement.  Paul Coletti, viola; with The Colburn Orchestra conducted by Yehuda Gilad.  Redwood, for viola and percussion. Coletti, viola; with Jack Van Geem, percussion. Sonata for Viola and Piano.  Coletti; with Vivian Fan, piano.  Bridge 9365.

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Paul Seiko Chihara, who turns 75 this year, is an original in every respect.  One critic presciently remarked that “it is easier to think of [him] as several different composers”, since he describes himself as someone who originally set out as a pop musician — in the brief conversation with David Starobin included on this disc, he remembers appearing as a singer to entertain fellow-prisoners at an internment camp for Americans of Japanese descent in Iowa.  He was a little boy, “dressed in a cap like that worn by Douglas MacArthur”, and singing pop songs of the 1930s and early ‘40s—contemporary songs then—for which he has retained an affection.  (His recent catalogue includes a wonderful free arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train for string quartet.)  He has worked in several musical genres, and his written atonal as well as tonal music. 

Chihara is a native of Seattle.  He calls himself essentially self-taught—he has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature, and a doctor of musical arts degree in composition and is on the faculty of U.C.L.A.—though he studied with Nadia Boulanger and Ernst Pepping, among others.  He was a violinist as a young man, and was pretty much oriented toward pop and jazz music when he had the golden opportunity to play in an orchestral performance.  The main work of the evening was a Dvorák symphony, most likely the one now known as No. 8.  It was a revelation for the young composer-to-be—”I had never heard such gorgeous music”, he recalls. 

Redwood, one of several musical tributes to trees he has turned out over the years, is atonal and full of longing.  The Viola Sonata is a lyric flood, at once neoclassical and neo-Romantic, but it is not derivative music in any sense.  It is a marvelous union of simplicity and adventurousness, and even one of his sly allusions to music of other composers (in this case, the e minor Violin Sonata, K. 304, of Mozart, which is recurrent; and a reference to Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto, which also dots the Viola Concerto in places).  The Viola Concerto, a one-movement work that feels like a three-movement piece—he describes it as “a kind of Poème for viola”.  It was written for Robert Vernon, who at the time was principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra. There are echoes of Scriabin—a use, at the beginning, of the Russian composer’s “mystic chord”, to Berg, to Debussy (Afternoon of a Faun) and to Korngold (again).  It is very much a tonal piece, scored for very large orchestra and pretty much a by-product of Chihara’s lifelong love of the sonorities of lower strings.  There is much color in the orchestration, and it is full of the sense of wonder which this composer must have felt when first playing Dvorák.  The Korngold motif, which must be an obsession for Mr. Chihara, also turns up in the concise Concerto Piccolo for four violas. 


WALTER BRAUNFELS: Te Deum, op. 32.  Günter Wand conducting the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Gürzenich Choir; with Leonie Rysanek, soprano; Helmut Melchert, tenor and Hermann Werner, organ. Acanta 233670.

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Te Deum, Walter BraunfelsBraunfels’ Te Deum, while it can be impressive in places—the prolonged vocal duets in the opening twenty-plus-minute section, the use of organ and tubular bells at strategic climaxes in that same movement—is in many ways a disappointment:  rhetorical in a bad sense, repetitious and lacking in focus and structure.  It is without any doubt the work of a highly skilled composer,  but the second movement (Judex crederis) seems to be a slavish imitation of Berlioz’ finer and much more succinct setting of the same text.  There is an excess of choral speaking, mainly in the first two movements, which in Braunfels’ hands becomes a cliché and an empty gesture. 

Judging from the opus number, the Te Deum probably belongs to the 1920s or ‘30s.  The style is completely romantic, and there are passages that sound reminiscent of Berlioz, Bruckner, Liszt or even Mahler.  The soprano solo and chorus in the third movement (Aeterna fac) are positively Lisztian.  At times, the music goes inexorably on where one feels there should be a pause or an abrupt ending.  It seems to be a case of too much of a good thing.

It is due to the enthusiastic stewardship of Günter Wand that this music even saw the light of day, and we are fortunate to be able to hear this performance.  This is a radio recording from sixty-one years ago, and the sound is somewhat veiled but eminently listenable.  The young Leonie Rysanek, one of the pre-eminent dramatic sopranos of her time, is absolutely luminous in her frequent contributions.  The same can be said of the lesser-known (undeservedly so) tenor Helmut Melchert.  The Cologne Radio Symphony plays with a similar luminosity for Wand.


GOFFREDO PETRASSI (1904-2003): Divertimento in C (1930).  Partita (1932).  Rome Symphony Orchestra conducted by Francesco La Vecchia.  Quattro inni scari (Four sacred hymns, 1942; revised, 1950). La Vecchia and the Rome Symphony; with Carlo Putelli, tenor and Davide Malvestio, bass. Coro di morti — Madrigale drammatico (Chorus of the Dead – Dramatic Madrigal, 1940-1941).. La Vecchia and the Rome Symphony, with Nuovo Coro Lirica Sinfonico Romano. Naxos 8.572411.

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Partita, Goffredo PetrassiIt’s not every day that a work as ingratiating as Goffredo Petrassi’s Divertimento, a real treat (coming as it does from the midpoint of early twentieth-century neoclassicism), comes along; one wonders why this piece, completed nearly 83 years ago, is just now receiving its first recording.  It is certainly well played and well-recorded.  The second movement (whose evocative title, Caccia, is suggested only by repeated horn-calls) and third movement (Pavana) are products of a dream-world, and very imaginatively scored.  The concluding Allegro, like its first-movement counterpart, is something that a modern Haydn might have written.  This is music that’s full of sunshine and full of ideas, and Maestro La Vecchia his orchestra more than do it justice.

The Partita of 1932 is the work that brought Petrassi, then twenty-eight, wide recognition. Is a modern evocation of old dance forms (three movements: Gagliarda, Ciacona and Gigue) and is a “partita” in the sense of the word of being a suite or divertissement rather than a set of variations, as Sir William Walton’s Partita for Orchestra of a quarter-century later.  The Gagliarda has some highly effective writing for saxophone solo and brass choirs.  There is ample use of the piano as part of the orchestral texture, a characteristic of about all orchestral music of the first half of the twentieth century and even beyond that time.  The Ciacona is a set of variations on a ground bass in the true sense of the term, and is born of the sound of lower strings.   Its masterful counterpoint is one of many indications that this is the work of a master craftsman, one who will not let things go until everything is in place: it was a piece some eight years in the making before Petrassi unveiled it.  The Gigue is an essay in orchestral virtuosity, much like the corresponding finale of the later Walton Partita.

The Quattro inni sacri (Four sacred hymns) of 1950 were written, in the composer’s words, “for the faithful of today”, and are generally lyrical and contemplative pieces.  In the first, Jesu dulcis memoria, there is a disturbing imbalance between tenor Carlo Putelli and the orchestra — probably the fault of the recording director: when the tenor sings, the orchestra is almost indistinct.  Some of this may have come out of the problems of recording in an overly resonant hall.  There is a tendency, too, especially in the second of these pieces (Te lucis ante terminum), to think in blocks of sound — a harbinger, perhaps, of Petrassi’s later gravitation toward a more overt form of modernism?  Davide Malvestio, billed as a bass but sounding more like a high baritone, sings the last two hymns.  There are the same balance problems that plagued the first two, but thankfully this does not obscure the composer’s gift for subtlety of coloration.

If the Divertimento and Partita emphasized the sunshine and the brighter colors in Petrassi’s palette, the Coro di morti shows that he was also capable of mixing darker hues.  The balance between the chorus and the orchestra is more successfully handled than in the works for solo voice and orchestra.

It must be emphasized that the selections on this disc give only a limited view of the wide-ranging musical sympathies of Petrassi, who died in 2003 at the age of 98.  His later works show a marked affinity for the Italian avant-garde, along with some use of the twelve-tone technique.  He wrote a long series of Concertos for Orchestra, which cover a period of nearly fifty years from the 1930s to the 1980s.  These works are a graphic illustration of Petrassi’s progress as a creative artist.

Francesco La Vecchia is an able and passionate exponent of twentieth-century Italian music, and it hoped that we will hear more or his excursions into this very special territory.