As I was preparing this review, I learned of the passing of Sir Charles Mackerras. I can think of no better tribute to him, indirect though it be, than the first work on this disc. Mackerras was largely responsible for introducing the music of Janácek to the West and he championed it throughout his long career. I don’t know whether Dalbavie gained his appreciation for the Czech master’s work from exposure via Mackerras or not. The notes accompanying this disc do not mention how he came to set Janácek’s music in the case of the Variations or pay homage to him in the case of the Sinfonietta. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Mackerras had a part to play here.
Last year I reviewed a CD featuring pianist Leif Ove Andsnes that included Dalbavie’s Piano Concerto, and I was rather equivocal about the work. I was intrigued enough, however, to want to hear more of his music. When I learned that he had composed a work based on a composition of one of my very favorite composers, I knew I had to hear it. I must say right off that I have found a lot more to like in the Variations than I did in the Piano Concerto and not just because he based his work on Janácek’s. Dalbavie has abandoned some of his pure spectralist roots and brought more interest into his music while still retaining his own special use of orchestral color.
The Variations are based on the fourth, and last movement of Janácek’s piano suite, In the Mist, marked presto. Right from the beginning, Dalbavie sets the mood but a very slow tempo. He uses about a half-dozen notes from the Janácek movement filtered through his own dream-like state. He quotes the themes from the movement in fragments throughout the work and actually performs the whole piece twice in this way. There are several extensive quotations during the work, for example, before 8:50 by the brass and strings playing fortissimo, at 17:30 by the oboe followed by the strings at 17:48, and at 21:10, shortly before the work’s end, by the clarinet. The latter two are played softly. The work in its entirety is very well constructed and holds the listener’s attention throughout its 22 minutes. This is remarkable, as it is based on a movement in the Janácek suite that last slightly more than four minutes. Dalbavie’s work, indeed, leaves a powerful impression and would grace any orchestral program.
The Sinfonietta, which as I mentioned was composed in homage to Janácek, does not remind this listener of Janácek’s work of the same title in any significant way. Perhaps his emphasis on the brass section owes something to the earlier composition, but otherwise, this is pure Dalbavie. The Sinfonietta is divided into the four traditional symphonic movements: Allegro, Scherzo, Largo, and Final, which makes it quite different from the Janácek Sinfonietta. There are no trumpet fanfares, either, and the orchestra seems to be that of a standard symphony orchestra unlike the extra brass employed in the Janácek work. Dalbavie himself describes the piece as “constructed according to my principle of process polyphonies. There are thus several independent layers, somewhat like the tracks on an electronic mixer, and each layer is assigned certain speeds and characteristics.” He calls the work a “multi-track symphony.” I found it more attractive than his Piano Concerto, but not quite at the level of the Variations.
The final work on the disc is the short tone poem, The Rocks under the Water. Dalbavie composed it for the inauguration of the Peter B. Lewis Building in Cleveland, Ohio designed by architect Frank Gehry, who is famous for his abstract and irregular designs, e.g., the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry told the composer that he had Chinese Buddhas in mind when he designed the building, so Dalbavie uses bell sounds and other percussion to evoke the Eastern atmosphere. The work, while basically slow, has a number of dramatic moments featuring the brass, and ends with the “simultaneous effect of immobility and movement, in keeping with the image of rocks seen below and through water”—according to Guy Lelong, in the notes accompanying the CD. This is a fine work, too, and has the stamp of the composer firmly fixed. Dalbavie’s music is individual enough to recognize his sound after a few moments in all of these works.
One can assume that these performances are authoritative because the composer is the conductor for all three. The Monte-Carlo Philharmonic has really advanced since I last heard a recording of them. They sound here like a first-class ensemble and they are recorded very well, too. I am happy that this music has changed my impression of Dalbavie. His work has much that is individual and is very approachable, too. I can think of no better introduction to him than this disc.
A fine introduction to the orchestral music of Marc-André Dalbavie