Before the holiday season vanishes totally from the rear-view mirror, here's a quick recap of our Christmas and New Year's editions of "Catch of the Day." If we're new on your radar and you'd like to know more about what we're up to, please check out our original announcement here.
The Christmas program began with Arvo Pärt's miraculous miniature The Deer's Cry, the title track of an ECM New Series album from the Latvian ensemble Vox Clamantis, directed by Jaan-Eik Tulve, discussed at some length in an earlier post. Next came "December: Christmas," from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, op. 37a, a suite of miniatures from the double album Lang Lang in Paris. The pleasant sketch conjures up a festive whirl amid domestic bourgeois comforts, putting few demands on the Chinese whizbang's fabled technique. If there are specific holiday allusions, they escaped me.
Isabel Bayrakdarian's album Mother of Light: Armenian hymns and chants in praise of Mary (Delos) returned us to a realm of spirit. We heard two selections, both radiant: "Khngi Dzarin" (The Frankincense Tree) and "Zandjareli Looso Mayr" (Mother of Light). This is music the polished Armenian-Canadian soprano came to know in church services even before her mother, who led the choir, thought she was old enough to join. There's no missing the personal connection.
For a splash of Technicolor, we spun the final quarter hour of Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird. Lots happens. The Firebird casts her darting spell. The demon Kastchey parries with an infernal free-for-all executed by his menagerie of Wild Things to gladden the heart of Maurice Sendak. Good triumphs in a blaze of czarist glory. Led by Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony shone like peacocks in every facet of the score. The CD (on the orchestra's house label) also includes Vladimir Nikolaev's recent The Sinewaveland: A Homage to Jimi Hendrix.
To close, we returned to The Deer's Cry, this time in a performance by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christopher (on the Coro label), discovering chivalric romance where Vox Clamantis found monastic austerity. How astonishing, given Pärt's stripped-down idiom, that two realizations could differ so radically, yet both ring so true.
In honor of the New Year, we took another look at Lang Lang's traversal of Tchaikovsky's The Seasons, starting from the top this time. "January: At the Fireside," "February: Carnival," and "March: Song of the Lark" are as easy to listen to as they are easy to forget. I was hoping, honestly, for the kind of melodic felicity and invention Tchaikovsky lavishes so richly on his ballets and symphonies. They're just not there.
For exoticism, the Nimbus Alliance release Hana wa saku ("Flowers will bloom"), which followed, would be hard to beat. Working with the City of London Sinfonia under Michael Collins, the British soprano Charlotte de Rothschild (a new name to me) presents an exquisite bouquet of Japanese art songs, in Japanese, by Japanese composers trained in the classical traditions of the West. A comedy number, entitled "The barber shop," tells of a lobster who hangs out his shingle on the seashore, where he manages to separate his first customer, an unfortunate rabbit, from one of his floppy ears. In a lyrical vein, "Quince flower" exhibited what seems to be the genre at its peak of refinement. I can't vouch for de Rothschild's diction, but her singing is pristine.
On the Nature of Thingness (on the Starkland label), featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble, a/k/a ICE, brought a dose of experiments from the laboratory. One of the two featured composers, Phyllis Chen, took the spotlight with "Chimers," a demolition derby for tuning forks, clarinet, toy glockenspiel, toy piano, and more. Who would have thought a jug band of this description could unleash such a ruckus? It was fun, in its way, but I wonder how many listeners changed the channel. The dreamy, seductive allure of "Vowels," a movement from the title composition by Nathan Davis, was easier to love.
To close, we turned to The Road of Promise (Navona Records), an English-language adaptation of a wildly ambitious theatrical pageant by Kurt Weill and Franz Werfel. Conceived in Germany in reaction to the rising anti-Semitism of the early 1930s, the project dramatizes the persecution of the Jewish people through the ages. It premiered in an English-language abridgment in New York in 1937. This recording, by Masterworks and the Orchestra of St. Luke's conducted by Ted Sperling, memorializes live performances at Carnegie Hall in May 2015.
As Weill had demonstrated in the international smash The Threepenny Opera well before this job came his way, he could slip from style to style with a chameleon's ease, mostly to ironic purposes. The Road of Promise exhibits the same versatility, playing straight this time. Though Weill's sincerity is never in question, the material has a way of turning leaden, particularly each time a child pipes up with predictable, spoken questions all too plainly scripted to prompt didactic answers.
Brecht, Weill's greatest literary collaborator, set great store by theatrical Lehrstücke, playlets designed as vehicles for social and moral improvement. The Road of Promise partakes of the same spirit. Who will deny the urgency of its theme? But based on the sections "Joseph and his brothers" and "A Vision," the intrusive Q-&-A's push the open-ended artistry of the score in the direction of cut-and-dried propaganda. At a guess, a concert version stripped of talk might help a lot. I haven't heard a rival recording from Berlin of highlights—oddly enough also in English—under the alternate title The Eternal Road, conducted by Gerard Schwarz and available on Naxos and online at the Milken Archive of Jewish Music. Now I'm curious.