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Paul MORAVEC (b. 1957)
Vita brevis (2009)1 [14:52]
Characteristics (1996) 2 [22:35]
Useful Knowledge: A Franklin Fantasy3 (2006) [18:51]
Amy Burton (soprano)1; Trio Solisti1; Simon Mulligan (piano)2: Randall Scarlata (baritone)3: La Fenice3: Cecilia Brauer (glass harmonica)3
rec. Performing Arts Centre, Purchase, New York, 23 November 20091, 22 October 20072 and 23 May 20083
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559698 [56:19]

Experience Classicsonline


Those who enjoyed Naxos’s previous issues of music by Moravec including his Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy (see reviews) will need no recommendation to investigate this disc compiling three different pieces scored for different forces. They will not even mind the inconvenience of having to visit the Naxos website to download the essential texts which fit easily onto two pages and could without difficulty have been printed in the booklet. Otherwise this issue can be greeted with only modified rapture.
 
The opening of Vita brevis arouses high and delectable expectations; the music is lucid, and the re-scoring by the composer for piano trio works well. As soon as the voice enters pleasure becomes distinctly diluted. Amy Burton sounds at first like a slightly tremulous child, and one initially thinks this may be characterisation of James Agee’s poem A lullaby - which is not available on the downloaded texts; but as soon as the voice comes under pressure either of volume or pitch it develops a more adult vibrato, and at the end of the third song Mezzo Cammin is decidedly below the correct pitch. One should be grateful, one supposes, in modern music when the listener can identify when the voice is out of tune; but it does not help to ameliorate one’s distress at the discovery. The booklet note tells us that the singer is “renowned for her performances” and investigation of her website would seem to indicate that her stage presence in such roles as the Governess in Britten’s The turn of the screw and the abandoned woman in Poulenc’s Voix humaine have been critically admired. Either she was having a bad off-day at the time of this recording or her dramatic voice is simply not suited to this music. There is an alternative reading available as part of a recital of New American Song Cycles by Paul Sperry on the Albany label but this uses the original (and less effective) accompaniment for piano only. The high tessitura puts a degree of strain on the male voice which brings in its turn a slightly uncomfortable air of Peter Pears at his least ingratiating.
 
After this Simon Mulligan’s performance of Characteristics is refreshingly direct and superbly virtuosic. This is a set of ‘enigma’-type variations for piano solo, giving us a series of portraits of various of the composer’s friends in various styles. The ‘serene’ portrait of counter-tenor Russell Oberlin and the ‘humorous’ one of Sara Davis Buechner (the descriptive adjectives are the composer’s own) are both delightfully expressive. Mulligan gave the world première of these pieces in New York in 2004 – eight years after they were written. He clearly enjoys himself in the stunningly ‘vivacious’ portrait of Maria Bachmann.
 
The final work here is the ‘Franklin fantasy’ Useful Knowledge, a setting of bewilderingly varied texts by the eighteenth century American polymath ranging from ecstatic religious expostulations to practical instructions for the creation of a lightning rod. Although the text from the internet implies that there are seven separate movements, the music is in fact continuous and moves almost instantaneously from one section to another. The music is sublime when required, and even manages to make something out of lines like “fasten about a foot of brass wire the size of a common knitting needle, sharpened to a fine point; the rod may be secured to the house by a few small staples” which must be counted among the least inspirational words that any composer has ever tried to set to music. And Scarlata is a fine singer even if his diction sometimes makes it unclear what he is singing - even with the aid of the downloaded texts. But, but … the recording is disastrously close, with both the singer and the five players of La Fenice all jostling together in the foreground. The result obscures the singer’s words further, and deprives the music of all sense of enchantment. You may manage to add some resonance and echo through the use of a graphic equaliser.
 
In his booklet note the composer draws attention to his use of a glass harmonica in this piece, and the player is given solo credit both in the booklet and on the CD cover. Moravec states that the instrument was the “favourite invention” of Franklin, and that it “attracted the interest of several prominent musicians of the time, including Mozart, who composed for the instrument.” One must take issue with this assertion. According to Norman del Mar’s Anatomy of the Orchestra the ‘instrument’ Mozart wrote for as ‘Harmonika’ in his Adagio and Adagio and Rondo was the well-established Musical Glasses, “quite simply a row of glasses variably filled with … water and rubbed with the moistened fingers.” What Franklin appears to have invented was something quite different, a keyed instrument which did find some favour with later composers such as Donizetti (who appears to have envisioned it originally for what later become the flute solo in the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor) and Glinka (who used it in an elaborate part in Ruslan and Ludmila nowadays played on glockenspiel or celesta). In any event the use of this instrument and Cecilia Bauer’s star billing goes for nothing here, since in the closeness of the recorded focus accorded to all the other instruments her contribution is all but inaudible.
 
Those who enjoy the music of Moravec – and I am one – will welcome the chance to make acquaintance with more of his music. Those who are coming to this composer for the first time should proceed with a degree of caution, not because of the music itself but because of the unsatisfactory quality of some of the performances and recordings here.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Communication received:

Dear Mr. Barnett,

I belatedly discovered the review of Paul Moravec's "Useful Knowledge: A Franklin Fantasy" on your website, and wish to correct an error. I was one of the musicians in the recording, and I would like to inform Paul Corfield Godfrey that he is not correct about the instrument Benjamin Franklin invented, the glass armonica. Pace Norman del Mar, it was indeed the instrument which Mozart wrote for, i.e. comprised of a graduated set of glass bowls on their sides which turn with a foot pedal and are played with moistened fingers held against the bowls as they turn.

Here is a link
to the Benjamin Franklin Museum with photographs of the instrument, which does not have keys.

Cecile Brauer is one of the few people alive who still play this instrument; she was over 80 when we recorded "Useful Knowledge." The armonica is only used at the beginning and the end of the piece, so it is not "inaudible" during the rest of the piece, it has a long rest until the end.


Donizetti composed for it too: here is a video of Cecile Brauer playing the same instrument in "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Metropolitan Opera House.


Sincerely yours,
Diane Walsh
Pianist, La Fenice quintet

Paul Corfield Godfrey replies:

I am grateful to Diane Walsh for raising the vexed question of the nature of the 'glass armonica' invented by Benjamin Franklin - on which the Benjamin Franklin Museum website she recommends is very informative - and the 'Armonika' for which Mozart wrote.

In my necessarily concise discussion of the matter in the course of my review I was certainly guided by Norman del Mar's two-page dissertation on the matter in his Anatomy of the Orchestra, which I have always found to be a most reliable guide to orchestral instruments and which I earnestly recommend to my orchestration students both as a practical guide by an experienced conductor and also as a valuable corrective to the more academic approach to the subject by Walter Piston and the more dated works by authors such as Cecil Forsyth. Norman del Mar does not mention Benjamin Franklin's 'armonica' in his book, but I would hesitate to quarrel with the opinions of one who was an expert on the music of Richard Strauss, probably the last composer (before Moravec, of course) to employ the instrument in an orchestral work - in his case, the final scene of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Percy Scholes (or his later editors) also includes a lengthy discussion on the topic in his Oxford Companion to Music running to nearly one-and-a-half pages in rather smaller type in the tenth edition of 1970. He begins his article with the valuable warning: "Harmonica. This is a word of so many different applications in different countries and periods that precise definition becomes almost impossible." Never was a truer word spoken! However Scholes points out that what Franklin actually did was to improve an already existing instrument (known to Gluck) after he encountered performances on it in England in 1757, and that following this "numerous attempts to modify or improve Franklin's version" were made including the addition of a keyboard by Karl Leopold Rölling in Hamburg who published a treatise on his instrument in 1787. Dussek also apparently was performing on a keyboard version of the instrument in 1785 in Cassel. Scholes informs us that Mozart played the harmonica at a garden concert in Vienna when he was seventeen, but this would almost certainly have been one of the German instruments with a keyboard; and Haydn in 1792 was reported as having played a "newly invented instrument, the Harmonica Celestina."

Scholes reproduces an engraving on Franklin playing his 'armonica' in about 1760 (which is not on the website which Diane Walsh recommends) and we can gain some impression of the method of playing which was involved from this. The instrument involved seems to be somewhat smaller than the example shown on the Benjamin Franklin Museum website, but Franklin is shown playing with both hands and treating the instrument very much like a keyboard instrument; and he is also shown using the foot pedal to which Ms Walsh refers. What however is certain is that this instrument could not have been - how can one put this? - very nimble in response. It could not, for example, have been used to play the flute cadenza at the end of the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor, and in the video from the Met the flute is indeed used in the more florid passages. Similarly it could not have been the instrument for which Glinka wrote the elaborate part in Ruslan and Ludmila, which almost certainly requires a more percussive tone.

The instrument could however be precisely what Strauss requires in the short passage he wrote in Die Frau ohne Schatten, at the point where the Empress receives her shadow; the unearthly sound of the instrument, rather like a very early ondes martenot, would seem to fit the situation perfectly although (as is not uncommon in Strauss) he seems to expect an instrument with a very wide range of two and a half octaves and employing up to eight notes at a time. Norman del Mar, in a footnote, says that "the part is played at Covent Garden on two vibraphones" and this seems to have been the solution adopted by Solti not only in London but in his two recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic. But the initial attack of the vibraphone would appear to be wrong.

Another work involving the 'harmonica' where a version of Franklin's instrument might well sound very good comes in the well-known use of it in the Aquarium movement of Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals, but the use here of glissandi and trills would again seem to anticipate the use of a keyboard mechanism - and most certainly not the mouth organ used by Kostelanetz in his 1950s recording!

Which brings us back to the vexed question of what instrument Mozart had in mind when he wrote his pieces for 'Harmonka'. Bruno Hoffman in his recordings uses, according to del Mar, "simply a row of glasses variably filled with, or immersed in, water and rubbed with the moistened fingers." The use of moistened fingers would seem to be the only connection between Franklin's invention and this sort of procedure. However I would hazard a guess that what Mozart may actually have had in mind was one of the keyboard "improvements" of the original Franklin 'armonica' since this would have been the sort of instrument that Mozart and Haydn might have been expected to play, rather than an instrument with a very different technique using moistened fingertips as is shown in the Franklin engraving.

As will be seen this is indeed an extremely complex web, and I am sorry if my necessarily abridged summary of the argument in my original review may have caused misunderstanding. I am delighted to learn that the instrument, and performers on it, are still to be found even if the player on the Moravec recording is inevitably reaching the end of her career. One can indeed detect the sound of the instrument at the beginning and end of the piece, but I stand by my comments that the smallness of its sound would seem to demand some form of electronic amplification if it is to be employed other than as a solo instrument; and that the recorded balance on the disc does not begin to achieve this. However I am delighted that Moravec has taken up the non-keyboard version of the 'armonica' and (with suitable amplification) the instrument could well be revived in this form.

Paul Corfield Godfrey




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 


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