Simple Gifts – Chamber pieces of GOTTSCHALK, DVORAK, BARBER, O’CONNOR, COPLAND & FOSTER – The Social Orch. for Ensemble – CMS Live

by | Sep 28, 2016 | Classical CD Reviews

As “authentic” a Shaker experience in the classics as it gets.

Simple Gifts – The Chamber Music of Lincoln Center at Shaker Village = GOTTSCHALK: The Union – Concert Paraphrase on National Airs for Piano, Op. 48; DVORAK: Sonatina in G Major for V. and P., Op. 100; BARBER: Souvenirs for Piano Four Hands, Op. 28; O’CONNOR: F.C.’s Jig for Violin and Viola; COPLAND: Appalachian Spring for Ensemble; FOSTER: Sel. from The Social Orch. for Ensemble – Gilles Vonsattel, p. / Arnaud Sussmann, violin/ Wu Han, p. / Paul Neubauer, viola/ David Shifrin, clarinet/ Brook Speltz and David Finckel, cellos/ Kristen Lee, violin/ Peter Kolkay, bassoon/ Tara Helen O’Connor, flute – CMS Live, 75:00 [Distr. by Naxos] (9/16/16) ****:

The series of concerts and collaborations on this disc were assembled (May 2015) at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, for PBS broadcast for “Live from Lincoln Center” production. David Finckel and Wu Han, artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society, also coordinate the Music@Menlo series in Palo Alto, CA, where many of the featured musicians have been wont to appear. The Shaker melody “Simple Gifts” appears in Copland’s 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring, so it seems appropriate that the 13 musicians who perform – in fact, debut – the chamber version of the ballet score at the Shaker Village enshrine a moment in history as the music returns to its place of origin.

Gilles Vonsattel raises the patriotic temperature with Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s 1862 jingoistic The Union, a truly exhibitionist piece for virtuoso piano, taking off from “The Star Spangled Banner” and then proceeding to become its own fife and drum corps. “Yankee Doodle,” a tune that attracted Henri Vieuxtemps as well, assumes Lisztian proportions, utilizing massive block chords.  Many us recall that Ivan Davis used to exploit these figures, and Vonsattel has the folks cheering.

Arnaud Sussmann joins Wu Han for the lyric 1893 Sonatina of Antonin Dvorak, well imbibing in us the memory that Dvorak spent time in Spillville, Iowa. The last of Dvorak’s chamber works composed during his American sojourn, the piece meant to supply technical and melodic instruction for the composer’s children. The Longfellow poem “The Song of Hiawatha” presumably influenced the writing of the lovely Larghetto movement. Simplicity and charm dominate this rendition, and why not? Dvorak liked to think of this work as a “conversation,” and its easy fluency of expression guarantees its being quoted long into the future.

Samuel Barber conceived his dance-suite for piano four hands, Souvenirs, 1951-1952. Like Leonard Bernstein’s Anniversaries, the Souvenirs tend to light reminiscence character sketches of dance impulses in six movements. The influence of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley remains close. A divertissement modeled after the Palm Court (Hotel Plaza) experience Barber shared affectionately with Charles Turner, the music echoes the sound of pre-Fitzgerald America, c. 1914. Gilles Vonsattel and Wu Han do the honors, solidly punctuating the opening Waltz that soon transforms into easy, brightly-lit sentiment. Some of its swagger suggests Poulenc. The Schottische will remind many of those same “national” efforts by Chopin and Beethoven, except this one ends with fireworks. The Pas de deux seems to harbor balletic aspirations. A lively Two-Step invokes Fred Astaire and Dmitry Shostakovich at the same time. The Hesitation Tango introduces an erotic element into the mix, touched by a color or two from Albeniz. Brassy percussion opens the finale, a Galop much in the French – Poulenc, Chabrier, or Bizet will do – taste. Audience whoops follow the last chord.

A spicy duo follows – Arnaud Sussmann and Paul Neubauer do the honors – Mark O’Connor’s F.C.’s Jig for Violin and Viola (1993), based on O’Connor’s own Fiddle Concerto. This rousing duet provides the kind of electric ensemble that Mozart and his sister Nannerl would have enjoyed. If Appalachia, the movie Deliverance, and Mozart could join hands, it would look – sound – like this.

The two large-ensemble works – calling for respectively 13 and 14 players – begin with the chamber orchestra version of Copland’s Ballet for Martha, essentially a rural celebration of community in the form of a new-barn raising and blessing. Martha Graham chose the title “Appalachian Spring” from a line in Hart Crane. The sheer array and piercing clarity of Copland’s musical effects – rhythmic variation, open intervals, modal harmonies, and plastic instrumental timbres – culminates in the 1848 “Simple Gifts” by composer Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr., first introduced this evening by clarinet David Shifrin.  Helen O’Connor’s flute consistently maintains a striking ambiance in this nuanced, often blissfully intimate rendition. The concert ends with a brief homage to Stephen Foster (1826-1864) in the form of the three festive dances: Village Quadrille No. 1, Jeannie’s Own Schottisch, and Village Quadrille No. 4, selections from Foster’s The Social Orchestra of 1854. A cross of home-entertainment and village-gala music, they capture Foster’s natural affinity for “the people’s music.” Foster received a flat fee of $150 for his arrangement of 73 melodies – popular, operatic, and symphonic – but these renditions suggest he deserved more.

—Gary Lemco


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