Classical CD Reviews: “Visions and Variations,” “Songs From Chicago,” and Giuseppe Sinopoli conducts Beethoven and Ravel

A triumphant disc from A Far Cry, some fresh thinking from Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Israel Philharmonic, and Thomas Hampson, a great purveyor of American song, focuses on Chicago.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The most endearing qualities of the string orchestra A Far Cry have to do with the creative ways it follows the beat of its own, special inner drummer. Its programs, for instance, are never predictable – sometimes a little bonkers, actually – nearly always engaging and often thought-provoking. The ensemble’s latest album, Visions and Variations (on Criers Records), pays spirited homage to those traits.

It’s built around a pair of piano pieces in arrangements for strings: Mozart’s variations on Ah! Vous dirais-je, Maman and Prokofiev’s set of twenty Visions Fugitives.

The former is arranged by Ethan Wood. Actually it’s transformed – or, better, recomposed – by Wood to sit, stylistically, firmly in the 21st century: the writing is idiomatic for strings, of course, and includes plenty of Mozart. But it also showcases all sorts of added dissonant textures (some of which resemble leaving the sustain pedal on the piano down a bit too long), reharmonizations, and allusions to other musical styles and works (echoes of Bach crop up in the penultimate slow variation).

In all, the setting is a riot, full of character and, like the original, brightly humorous but not lacking moments of warm introspection. The Criers dig into its array of “wrong-note” harmonies, exaggerated portamentos, and the like with verve.

Their account of the Prokofiev (fifteen of the movements are in Rudolf Barshai’s arrangements; the remaining five are done by members of the group) is similarly zesty. This is a piece that doesn’t lend itself quite as naturally to transcription as the Mozart, though the Criers tease out its best moments – the glassy harmonics in the third movement, the spiky playfulness of the fourth, and the many intimations of Prokofiev works to come (especially Romeo and Juliet) that appear throughout – with alacrity.

To open the disc, the ensemble turns in an altogether brilliant account of Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. In it, rhythms are taut and the score’s articulations impressively matched across the group. Highlights of the interpretation include a spitfire “Marcia”; a serene, breezy account of the “Romance”; some playfully-exaggerated drama in the “Aria Italiana”; a bitingly energetic “Bourrée Classique”; frenetic “Moto Perpetuo”; and searing “Funeral March.” The concluding “Fugue and Finale” begins with jaunty energy before eliding into a moving final hymn.

In all, then, we’ve got another triumphant entry into the Criers’ already impressive discography.

Thomas Hampson, that great purveyor of American song, turns his focus to composers born and based in Chicago for his aptly-named latest album, Songs from Chicago. His repertoire in it is a conspicuously thoughtful and varied.

The disc (on Cedille) begins with Ernst Bacon’s settings of seven Walt Whitman poems. These range from the vaguely jazzy (“World Take Good Notice”) to the devotional (“The Last Invocation”) to the noble (“The Divine Ship”) and the epic (“Grand is the Seen”). Throughout, Bacon’s writing is notable for its expressive directness, uncluttered textures, and natural text settings.

A similar expressive clarity marks Florence Price’s “Songs to the Dark Virgin” and “My Dream,” both settings of poems by Langston Hughes. Price was one of the country’s first significant female, African-American composers, though these songs’ richly diatonic settings seem to owe more to the style of Debussy than anyone else.

Ironically, it’s three of John Alden Carpenter’s Four Negro Songs (all on poems by Hughes) that more strongly evoke black musical styles. Derivations of jazz and the blues they may be, but all of ‘em snap. Carpenter’s setting of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali is the album’s most substantial offering, a sweeping, meditative, deeply affecting adaptations of six of the Nobel Prize-winner’s poems.

Margaret Bonds’ Three Dream Portraits hew more to the Impressionistic language of the Price selections (Price was her teacher), though the last (“I, Too, Sing America”) is, appropriately, more assertive in character. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” offers a profound, weighty argument, part art-song, part spiritual, part blues lament.

And Louis Campbell-Tipton’s setting of Whitman’s “Elegy” provides a moment of sweet, lyrical repose.

Throughout, Hampson sings with his trademark warmth and intelligence. While he’s particularly fine in the Carpenter settings (Gitanjali fits his voice to a T), Hampson’s a fine Hughes interpreter, generally: indeed, it’s notable that this album so seriously acknowledges the African-American experience through Hughes’s poetry (set by black and white composers). He’s aided in the whole endeavor by Kuang-Hao Huang, who executes the piano accompaniments with color and character.

Helicon’s series of releases from two or three decades past continues with Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Israel Philharmonic (IPO) playing Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 and Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentale. Sinopoli was one of those artists who comes along once or twice in a lifetime: a refined musician who, at his best, rarely got in the way of the music he conducted and a brilliant intellectual whose extra-musical curiosities seem to have offered the conductor fresh ways of approaching the standard canon.

You get some sense of that, mostly in the second half, in the performance of the Eroica Symphony he leads on this album. The third movement never lacks for energy or direction; indeed, its quarter-note pulse drives with almost mechanical precision. And the finale’s variations are played with style and character.

In the Eroica’s first half, though, Sinopoli opts for a stately tempo that isn’t exactly slow but doesn’t manage to maintain the music’s intensity for a full quarter hour. Then there’s an even more spacious (seventeen-plus minute) funeral march that’s marred by episodes of sour intonation. Perhaps a more technically secure orchestra could have better pulled Sinopoli’s vision of the piece. The result here is a tale of two Eroicas: one triumphant, the other flat.

The Ravel that follows is rather more successful. Sinopoli’s interpretation is focused and straightforward, steeped in melancholy and aimed towards a culminating “Epilogue” that sounds beautifully sad. The IPO responds in kind, vigorously executing the music’s more driving sections while shaping the score’s delicate moments – like the solos for flute in the second waltz, and the ones for oboe, English horn, and clarinet in the fifth – with gentle colors. And Ravel’s writing for harps and celesta, too, often shines.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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