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Dreams of Fancy, Tales of Loss
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
1. Il tramonto (version for mezzo and string quartet) (1914) [15:48]
Leos Janáček (1854-1928)
2. Pohádka for cello and piano, JW VII/5 (1910, rev.1923) [12:29]
William Bolcom (b.1938)
3. Dream Music No.2 for Harpsichord and Percussion (1967) [10:09]
John Corigliano (b.1938)
4. Fancy on a Bach Air for Cello Solo [5:19]
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
5. Arianna a Naxos - Cantata, Hob.XXVIb/2 (arr. Peter Jaffe)[20:36]
Ewa Podleś (contralto: 1,5); Kenneth Cooper (harpsichord: 3,5); Wu Han (piano: 2); Ani Kavafian, Erin Keefe (violins: 1,5); Paul Neubauer (viola: 1,5); Julie Albers (cello: 1,5), David Finckel (cello: 2,4); Kurt Muroki (double bass: 5); John Ferrari, Ayano Kataoka, Tom Kolor (percussion: 3)
rec. live, concert hall, New York Society for Ethical Culture, 26 October 2008. DDD.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Concerts 477 8149 [64:21]
Experience Classicsonline

The theme which rather loosely holds together the music in this concert is Dreams of Fancy, Tales of Loss.  To quote the publicity material, the opening and closing works are “connected by the theme of women left behind by the men they love.”
 
The second item, Janáček’s Pohádka, was inspired by a Russian folk-tale and is performed by Lincoln Center CMS Co-Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han, while the concept of dream and fancy (fantasy) features in the titles of the Bolcom and Corigliano works respectively.
 
Like Respighi’s better-known Roman Trilogy (Pines, Fountains and Feste Romane), Il Tramonto is colourful and evocative, in this case of the ‘sunset’ which follows death and the parting of lovers, employing the words of a poem by Shelley.  It isn’t one of Shelley’s greatest works – it doesn’t feature in either the Norton or Everyman, both substantial anthologies – but Respighi does wonders with it and it makes an excellent opening for this concert.  Actually, I believe that there has been a degree of logical reorganisation for the recording – the concert originally opened with the Corigliano Fancy.
 
At first I thought Ewa Podleś a little too dramatic and declamatory; the power of her voice might have been better suited to the version with string orchestra.  I’ve seen that voice compared to a powerful ocean wave; here it’s almost a tsunami.  As she settled into the part, however, I began to warm to what I was hearing.  She certainly brings out the sense of loss and despair as effectively as in any other version which I have heard of this piece, in either chamber or orchestral version, with one exception: the sheer power of her voice inevitably brings with it a degree of fruitiness absent from the singing of Janet Baker (see below). 
 
Perhaps one needed to be present at the concert or to see it on DVD, fully to appreciate this performance of the Respighi and the closing Haydn cantata. The photograph which accompanies the New York Times review of the concert suggests that there were some grand dramatic gestures.  It may have been a Sunday afternoon concert, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have been a sleepy affair. Podleś’ electric-blue dress alone would have seen to that.
 
Il Tramonto is the star item on a CD of String Quartets by Opera Composers which I reviewed last year (Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, MDG Gold 307 1495-2), where it is performed by Ruth Ziesack and the Leipziger Streichquartett.  Ziesack sings well but, as a soprano singing a piece for which a mezzo is specified, occasionally sounds uncomfortable. The performance now sounds a little perfunctory and slightly hurried by comparison with the Podleś.  Ultimately I found that neither performance effaced memories of Janet Baker on a Collins recording which went down with the whole of that label; I repeat the plea which I made last year for someone to reissue it.
 
Otherwise, the version by Linda Finnie on Chandos has received general acclaim. Her time of 15:44 is a mere four seconds shorter than Podleś. Both give the music that little extra space to breathe by contrast with Ziesack on MDG.  Finnie’s performance with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta and Tamas Vasáry is coupled with an all-Respighi programme: Gli Uccelli, the Adagio for cello and orchestra and Trittico Boticelliano on CHAN8913.   I recommended the download equivalent of this recording in my November 2008 Download Roundup.  Podleś herself has recorded the work with the Wrocław Chamber Orchestra/Michal Nesterowicz on Dux 0489, a recommendable performance coupled with good but not ideal versions of Gli Uccelli and Trittico Boticelliano (see review).
 
If anything, Podleś is even more dramatic in the concluding Haydn cantata, presented here in a chamber version midway in size between the versions with keyboard and orchestral accompaniment – and the performance was apparently quite something to watch.  Normally I feel DVDs of non-operatic music to be superfluous, but I’d very much have liked to have seen this performance.  Nevertheless, what we have gives us a pretty good impression of an impassioned performance, with the mood of each of the different parts of the cantata effectively evoked.
 
For an alternative version of Arianna a Naxos, if Podleś  sounds a little too histrionic for your taste, look no further than Janet Baker on BBC Legends (BBCL4049-2: ‘simply one of the finest recital discs on the market today’ – see review).  For an orchestral performance in the lowest price bracket, Arleen Augér on Decca Eloquence (476 2519: ‘a recording that should be in the collection of every Haydn-lover’ – see review).  Much as I admire both these artists, however, especially Janet Baker who can sound powerful without being plummy, I remain perfectly content with the Podleś version.  The chamber-size arrangement works well.  I rather think Podleś would have sounded really overpowering with the simple keyboard accompaniment.
 
I’m pleased that DG have retained shortened versions of the applause after each item.  I know that many of my colleagues prefer the LSO Live policy of removing the applause, but I find that this leaves me with a sense of anti-climax after what I know to have been a concert performance.  I’m only surprised that the applause wasn’t even more enthusiastic, especially after the two vocal items.
 
If the non-vocal items seem rather small beer by comparison, I was nevertheless pleased to hear this very competent account of the Janáček work and that of the Corigliano.  I’m afraid that William Bolcom’s music in general and the work contained here in particular do very little for me.  I can’t imagine that many who came to the concert or who buy the recording for the sake of the Respighi and Haydn will be very much in tune with it, or vice versa
 
I enjoyed the performance of Pohádka, which is effectively a short cello sonata, though the tempi for all three movements are rather slower, especially in the Finale, than those of Mikail Ericsson and Jana Vlachová.  Their performance, on Naxos 8.553895, couples Pohádka with very worthwhile performances of the two string quartets and the violin sonata on a very well-filled CD.  Herein lies the snag with recordings of all concert programmes – you may well already have several of the items, coupled with other works by the same composer.
 
The recording is generally good, though the bass sometimes sounds over-resonant; the cover is bright and cheerful.  When – if - it is released in the UK, I presume that, like other downloads of DG Concerts, the new concert will come with a pdf booklet
 
This download has been available in the USA since 20 January 2009, but, as I write, it seems not to have been issued in the UK yet by any of the usual outlets which offer DG Concerts programmes, though earlier Lincoln Center CMS concerts are available, including the 1907/8 performance of Bach’s Art of Fugue (477 7631), American Voices (477 7824) and Mozart Piano Quartet No.2 with Schubert ‘Trout’ Quintet (477 7826).  iTunes, the DG webshop and Universal Classics and jazz download site offer these earlier concerts for their usual single-CD price of £7.99, €10.99 and £7.90 respectively.
 
Brian Wilson
 

 


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