James Horner: Pas de Deux
Disillusionment with atonal contemporary music then being written drove the young James Horner to film scoring. In November 2014, after years of movie successes, the 61-year-old film composer (Titanic, Avatar, The Amazing Spider-Man) returned to the concert hall with a triumph, his Double Concerto for violin and cello. The work was premiered by its dedicatees, the Norwegian Samuelsen siblings Mari and Hakon.
How did the composer and soloists meet? Horner was late for a private concert to be given by the Samuelsens in the California home of film director Harald Zwart. The reason: “A qualified pilot, he’d had trouble landing his private plane.” These words, from the CD booklet, are chillingly prophetic. On June 22nd, less than two weeks after the release of this world premiere recording of his concerto, Horner died in a crash of his small plane.
The concerto, subtitled Pas de Deux, is a haunting work, tinged with nostalgia. It lives up to its name. The two soloists weave and dance around each other throughout the piece like ballet dancers. The music is yearning and plaintive within its neo-Romantic setting. Big, sweeping, percussion-laden gestures, heard in much of Horner’s film music, are here, too. The American cellist Alisa Weilerstein also joins the Samuelsens on this CD in mesmerizing, sometimes virtuosic, minimalist-based works by three celebrated contemporary European composers.
Polyphony: American Polyphony
The English choir Polyphony does supreme justice to the finely crafted a cappella music of four American giants of the 20th century: Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Randall Thompson. The CD mixes secular and sacred, including Leonard Bernstein’s seldom-heard Missa Brevis, a late work based on incidental music he had written decades earlier for the play The Lark. It juxtaposes chant and rhythmic dance-like episodes and employing an ethereal solo countertenor. Added percussion includes chimes evoking the sound of church bells.
But it’s the music of Samuel Barber that best showcases the skills of this talented choir. Barber was a master of shading and color, and Polyphony’s precision voices are able to quickly make even the subtlest shifts to render Barber’s ever-changing colorations and wondrous resolutions. This is a beautifully sung disc that choral music aficionados will treasure.
Lincoln Trio: Turina
The brilliant Chicago-based Lincoln Trio brings to life the compelling music of an early 20th-century composer yet to receive his due outside his native Spain. Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) was a child piano prodigy who at age 20 went to Paris to study at Vincent d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum. The F major Piano Trio and the Piano Quintet, which he composed at this time, are written in a conservative late-Romantic style. They make much use of counterpoint, but brim with tuneful, majestically stated melodies and bold, dramatic contrasts.
In 1914 Turina returned to Madrid, where he would spend the rest of his life as a composer, conductor, composition professor, and General Commissioner of Music for the Spanish regime. It was in Paris, however, that Turina had met Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, and where he met and befriended his fellow countrymen Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albéniz. Turina’s post-Schola works recorded here reflect both the influences of the impressionist composers and the atmosphere and musical landscape of Andalucía.
The music has a relaxed, breezy feel, evocative of a windswept summer day. Lush harmonies and swaying Spanish dance rhythms abound in these works, too. The overall effect is intoxicating. Discover this music for yourself, and just try to resist falling in love with it!
Pavel Kolesnikov: Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky’s works for solo piano are among his most overlooked. Young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov makes a good case for these charming character pieces, which show the influences of some of the great Romantic piano composers. Chopinesque delicacy alternates with Schumannesque bravura, and every so often a hint of Russian folk song manifests itself.
The “June Barcarolle” has the most memorable and exquisite melody and is the best-known section of The Seasons. Kolesnikov teases out their melodies with a judicious use of the sustain pedal and a keen and clear projection of the dramatic arc. His sensitive performances make this a rewarding listening experience.
Kansas City Symphony: Saint-Saëns
Soloists and orchestra play very nicely together in this impressive high-def recording of two well-known works (and one not-so) of Camille Saint-Saëns. After a decade at the helm as music director, Michael Stern has made sure everything is up to date with this Kansas City orchestra, particularly with those occupying the first chairs.
Concertmaster Noah Geller (acting assistant concertmaster with the Philadelphia Orchestra several seasons back) displays his chops and a sweet tone in a performance of the Introduction and rondo capriccioso that is playful but not rushed. Principal cellist Mark Gibbs, with a light, lyrical touch, plays the flighty, impetuous poet to the sweet, tender inspiration of Geller’s violin muse in the infrequently heard La muse et le poete, written by the 75-year-old Saint-Saëns. The cello writing eventually warms and becomes less animated, and the two soloists feed off each other in elegant unison and harmonizing melody.
Finally, the “Organ” Symphony shows off the still-new organ in the orchestra’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Played here by Jan Kraybill, the organ possesses a robust, brightly-hued sound. In performance the symphony can often take on the semblance of an organ concerto, which it is not. Here, the organ is so perfectly balanced with the orchestra that it practically becomes another member of the ensemble. It’s a muscular performance overall. But it’s also one that offers the listener a different perspective on this popular music, one I think that is truer to the composer’s original intention.