Friday, April 18, 2014

Anna Bon di Venezia: Harpsichord Sonatas a welcome rediscovery

Anna Bon di Venezia
Six Sonatas for Harpsichord, Op. 2
Barbara Harbach, harpsichord
MSR Classics

Anna Bon di Venezia is a somewhat mysterious figure -- very little is known about her, save that she, along with her parents (a stage manager and an opera singer) were hired by Count Esterhazy, where (presumably) they worked under his Kappellmeister, Franz Joseph Haydn.

Anna Bon published a set of flute sonatas, a set of keyboard sonatas, a set of trio sonatas before marrying and apparently retired from music.

The harpsichord sonatas, published in 1757, are fascinating. To my ears, they sound similar in style to the ones Haydn wrote around the same time. These are short, straight-forward works that are charming in their simplicity. Barbara Harbach performs them with delicacy and authority, bringing out the beauty and elegance of Bon's carefully crafted melodies.

These works, I think, compare favorably to contemporaneous sonatas by more famous composers. Recommended to anyone interested in early classical music.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Primosch Sacred Songs Blends Old and New

Sacred Songs
James Primosch 
Susan Narucki, soprano
William Sharp, baritone
21st Century Consort
Christopher Kendall, conductor
Bridge Records

"Sacred Songs" these are, but they're not the comfortable platitudes of ordinary church music. James Primrosch draws from many sources to create works that are indeed deeply spiritual, often thought-provoking, and always demanding the listener's full attention.

From a Book of Hours, for example, is angular and aggressive, but with an almost retro-sounding atonality in some movements. The music matches the unsettled and conflicted musings of the narrator's relationship with God. By contrast, Four Sacred Songs is a more elegiac work, drawing on sacred music traditions of the past to create music that sounds both contemporary and timeless.

Dark the Star has a somewhat mysterious air about it, especially as sung by William Sharp. Sharp seems to be holding back his dark, baritone voice, as if refraining from revealing too much. But his performance fits the dark, nocturnal nature of the work. The program concludes with Holy the Firm, a beautiful and lyrical solo cantata. The work's spacious sound and wide-open intervals remind me a little of Copland or Barber in spots.

Soprano Susan Narucki has very expressive voice. It can have a rich, creamy sound in the lyrical passages, yet still develop a steely edge when necessary for the more dissonant sections.

Christopher Kendall and the 21st Century consort are in top form. Of the four works on this album, only one was originally scored for chamber orchestra, and it's the only one whose chamber orchestra version wasn't premiered by the Consort. This ensemble knows these works intimately -- and it's apparent in their performances.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Barabara Harbach: Orchestral Music -- an appealing collection

Barbara Harbach :Orchestral Music
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kirk Trevor, conductor
Frantisek Novotny, violin
Cynthia Green Libby, oboe
MSR Classics

Barabara Harbach is perhaps better known as a pianist and harpsichordist (and a champion of women composers), but this new release shows she's equally accomplished as a composer -- and not just as a composer for the keyboard.

Venerations for Orchestra, is, according to Harbach, is a three-movement symphony celebrating "love, beauty, attractiveness and desire" -- and the veneration of those themes. So it seems. Overall, this is a pleasant work, orchestrated with a soft focus that keeps it a little removed emotionally. Harbach has a gift for evocative melody, and there were some imaginative orchestral touches that made this an attractive work.

As the name suggests, Frontier Fancies for Violin and Orchestra has a vaguely American cast to it. But don't expect distilled Copland. Harbach has her own ideas about what Americana music sounds like. The violin and orchestra maneuver about each other like to protagonists -- or two lovers. Solo violinist Frantisek Novotny makes the most of the gorgeous material Harbach gives him -- especially in the slow movement, "Twilight Dream."

One of Ours - A Cather Symphony was inspired by Willa Cathar's book of the same name. The work conjures up the sprawling plains of Nebraska in its opening movement with the orchestra's wide-open harmonies and soaring melodies. The second and third movements skip to the end of the novel, set on the battlefields of the First World War. But don't expect an overt depiction of war a la Shostakovitch's "Leningrad" symphony. Harbach, like Carther, is more concerned about the emotional effect of the conflict. The symphony ends, not triumphantly, but in an elegiac and life-affirming fashion.

The Rhapsody Jardine for Oboe and String Orchestra is the most adventurous score on the album. The oboist, Cynthia Green Libby, has worked with Harbach before, and is able to bring substantial insight to the score. The melody goes through several transformations, but Libby never lets us lose sight of the thread. Her performance really brings this work to life.

And it also highlights the one flaw with this recording. As good as the Slovak Radio symphony Orchestra is, their performance overall sounds flat, as if they were sight-reading. Using Eastern European orchestras to make a contemporary music recording is common practice these days -- without these relatively inexpensive and competent ensembles, a lot of deserving American music simply wouldn't get recorded. Conductor Kirk Trevor does what he can, but he can't fully compensate lack of adequate rehearsal. I'd love to hear these works done by an American orchestra after playing them in concert.