MAGNUS LINDBERG: “EXPO” = Piano Concerto No. 2; Al largo – Yefim Bronfman, piano /New York Philharmonic /Alan Gilbert – Dacapo 8.226076 [Distr. by Naxos], 62:32 *****:
“FREDERIC KAUFMAN: Guernica Piano Concerto and Other Orchestral Works” = “Guernica” Piano Concerto; “Kaddish” Concerto for cello and string orch.; Seascape – Kemal Gekić, piano /Mark Dobrinsky, cello /Czech National Sym. Orch. (Guernica) / Czech Radio Sym. Orch. (Kaddish) /Czech Sym. Orch. (Seascape) / Marcello Rota, Carlos Piantini, and Richard Hein – Navona NV5924, 45:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
Here we have two programs by contemporary composers, one very famous and the other not so well known, that prove the traditional solo concerto is alive and kicking. First, there’s a trio of works that Magnus Lindberg produced as the first Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-Residence for the New York Philharmonic. Lindberg’s two-year tenure was extended to three years, resulting in the pieces on this program, written between 2009 and 2012.
I’ve read comments from critics and Lindberg fans alike to the effect that the Finnish composer may be accused of selling out in recent years. His earlier work such as Kraft (1985) was on the cusp of the Scandinavian avant-garde, but recent compositions seem to find him softening his uncompromising modernity for a more crowd-pleasing diatonicism. This probably helped garner his commission from New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert who, after all, has to answer to a board like of directors and doesn’t want to explain why seats are empty in the hall. I can certainly believe that concertgoers didn’t stay away because of Lindberg’s offerings and can accept, despite a possible bit of hyperbole, Gilbert’s claim (about the debut of EXPO in 2009) that “With the crack of a whip and a blast of fresh air, a new era has begun for the nation’s oldest orchestra.” For those who think Boulez and Stockhausen are the ne plus ultra of contemporary music, there may be little here to admire here. For the rest of us, the current disc should restore some of our faith in the contemporary music scene and provide an hour of gripping music-making from all involved.
If Lindberg’s big (almost thirty minutes) Second Piano Concerto doesn’t enter the repertoire of many big-name pianists, well, I miss my guess, which wouldn’t be the first time. But for me, this is an exciting, almost nonstop display of sheer virtuosity for both the pianist and the orchestra. It’s not entirely easy music to listen to, having the usual thundering dissonances associated with new music, but there are also traditional virtuoso flourishes at the keyboard and even identifiable themes and rich harmonies, some, in the finale at least, almost Rachmaninoff-like. Well, that might be going a little far since any such tendencies in that direction quickly “resolve into a dew” in typical post-modernist fashion. But one thing was obvious to me before I read the liner notes, and that is Lindberg’s references to the Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. As it turns out, both of Lindberg’s piano concertos “may be characterized as crypto-Ravelian, the first attached to Ravel’s G-major Concerto. . . .” If you’re going to pay tribute to a composer of concertos, you could certainly do worse!
So perhaps I’m not merely imagining that EXPO, the first work Lindberg wrote for the New York Phil, has some Respighian overtones. I hear definite echoes of Respighi’s Fountains of Rome in this work that “refers to exposition as a musical term. . . .” EXPO is concerned with the exposition of two dramatically contrasted musical ideas, one slow and one fast. However, the chief character of the piece is one of driving energy and orchestral color in the manner of the later Impressionists.
Like some of Respighi, I find the brief EXPO a little too brash, maybe even garish, and think there’s more to admire in Al largo, which Lindberg translates as “being at sea.” The work is propelled by a series of fanfares that erupt here and there throughout its length. Like the finale of Debussy’s La mer—Dialogue du vent et de la mer—it presents the sea as protean, constantly on the go, gorgeous and dangerous at the same time. While Al largo supposedly ends with a “quotation from the final bars of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (1899)”—I’m not sure if there’s a subtle message in that—again, comparison with musical Impressionists makes more sense to me, given the wealth of orchestral color, plus harmonic and rhythmic variety Lindberg brings to his work.
The partnership between the New York Philharmonic and Dacapo, which began with an exciting version of Nielsen’s Second and Third Symphonies, seems likely to produce some really treasurable recordings if the current one is any indication. The performances are brilliant throughout—Bronfman is a wonder of stamina and control—and the live recordings (I noted just one fairly disruptive cough from the audience) are both bright and sumptuous.
Lindberg’s essential focus on technical matters of harmony, rhythm, and color separate his music from that of American composer Frederick Kaufman (b. 1936), who seems more sensibly placed in the category of neo-Romantics. Especially his “Guernica” Concerto, based on the 1936 bombing raid on the Spanish town of that name, has the drama and pictorial detail I associate with neo-Romantics like Christopher Rouse. Picasso’s famous painting depicts the horror of the attack itself, but Kaufman takes us beyond, to the peace of the region before the attack and to a hope for the future, in the finale titled “Resurrection.” Unfortunately, this is the weakest of the three movements, in part because it seems too brief and in part because it gives mostly pat musical answers, with its references to flamenco and jazz. The finale seems like a pretty short-winded apotheosis, if that’s what it’s meant to be. The first two movements, on the other hand, are powerful. Movement 1 is an abstract meditation on the tragedy that is unrelentingly dramatic. Calm comes with the second movement, but it’s the calm before the storm, which Kaufman very effectively portrays. This is as representative as the music becomes, and the droning of airplane engines, the explosions, the screaming of sirens are captured pretty tellingly. That Kaufman manages to write idiomatically and interestingly for the keyboard, as well as supply a colorful orchestral backdrop, is something of a feat, given the levels of emotion and drama that he’s built into the work.
While the “Kaddish” Concerto is less immediately appealing, this brief work (fourteen minutes) better accomplishes the goal that Kaufman set himself in the “Guernica” Concerto. The concerto for cello also deals with death—Kaddish is the Hebrew prayer for the dead—and is dedicated to the composer’s parents. It’s certainly a less programmatic work, concentrating musically on the personalities of Kaufman’s parents, his father “a devout and intelligent man with untapped musical talent, a passionately erratic personality that reflected his strong Romanian/Moldavian background. . . .” His mother had a greater sense of fun and a “nervous energy that manifested itself into overt loquaciousness.” As is usually the case, the portraits are presented very abstractly, but the emotional differences between these personalities seems, indeed, to influence the emotional content of the work. For me, the nervous, jazz-inflected finale better conveys the idea of apotheosis than Kaufman did in his “Guernica” Concerto.
Finally, we have a work that bears direct comparison with Lindberg’s Al largo. But whereas Lindberg’s seascape is as variegated as Debussy’s, Kaufman’s seems more circumscribed, without the color and expressive range of Al largo. Kaufman’s Seascape is all about contrast, contrast between the sea at calm and the sea in storm. It’s a much more dissonant work as well, highly chromatic if not atonal. The work has its appeals, especially if you take it as a musical abstraction rather than try to read any pictorial detail into it.
The performances from the Czech forces—including no fewer than three different orchestras—are polished and professional. Pianist and cellist both play with power and seeming affection for the music and clearly have it unfailingly under their skillful fingers. The recordings, all of which derive from Czech sound studios (three different ones, in fact) are all high level, very close up, and this contributes to a sense of airlessness as well as relentlessness. I had to cut the volume considerably to get a sense of proportion, but it was still a challenge to get the right balance between atmosphere and impact. However, instrumental detail, including the wealth of percussion Kaufman uses, is rendered very realistically. I think that like me, you’ll be willing to tinker a bit with your sound controls in order to experience Kaufman’s dramatically compelling music.