14 September 2015

CD REVIEW: Spanning millennia – Naxos recordings of music by ROMAN BERGER (The Berger Trio; Naxos 8.573406) and JOHN JOUBERT (H. Herford, English String Orchestra; Naxos 8.571368)

CD REVIEWS: Naxos recording of music by ROMAN BERGER (Naxos 8.573406) and JOHN JOUBERT (Naxos 8.571368)[1] ROMAN BERGER (born 1930): Pathetique (2006), Sonata No. 3 ‘da camera’ (1971), Allegro frenetico con reminiscenza (2006), Impromptu (2013), and Epilogue (Omaggio a L. v. B.) (2010)—The Berger Trio [Recorded at the Empire Theatre, Hlohovec, Slovakia, 29 – 30 August 2013; Naxos 8.573406; 1 CD, 78:33; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] JOHN JOUBERT (born 1927): Temps Perdu: Variations for String Orchestra, Op. 99 (1984), Sinfonietta, Op. 38 (1962), and The Instant Moment: Song-cycle for Baritone and String Orchestra to words by D.H. Lawrence, Op. 110 (1987)—Henry Herford, baritone; Christopher Hirons and Pierre Joubert, violin; Paul Arden-Taylor and Anna Evans, oboe; Keith Rubach and Christine Predota, bassoon; Stephen Roberts and James Buck, French horn; English String Orchestra; William Boughton, conductor [Recorded at Warwick Arts Center, Warwick University, England, 23 – 25 April 1987 (previously released by British Music Society); Naxos 8.571368; 1 CD, 63:09; Available from ClassicsOnline HD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

As celebration of the concept of diversity has taken root throughout the world in recent years, it has often seemed that, in tangible realms of daily life, understanding and acceptable of actual, practical difference have vanished. The tide of political correctness sometimes seems to have swept away true cooperation among peoples of varying ways of life as if the perceived progress of mankind has uprooted practicality and pragmatism among men. It is often said that Art is a reflection of life, and the prejudice that afflicts modern society is sadly omnipresent in Classical Music, which should be the 'blindest' of the Performing Arts. Were the inexcusable biases that performers face based upon race, age, weight, appearance, and countless other inconsequentialities not contemptible enough, living composers encounter dismissal of their work because precisely because they are living. Embarrassing as it is to admit, there are individuals posing as advocates for the perpetual survival of Classical Music for whom that concept solely means preservation of the works of long-dead composers. Inspiring music continues to be composed, however, and the endeavors of the Naxos label to encourage, document, and disseminate new music are among the most valuable initiatives in Classical Music. These discs devoted to music by Roman Berger and John Joubert, both expertly recorded and presented with care that proves that economy need not be synonymous with poor quality, restore to celebration of the diversity of Classical Music an appreciation of the different channels through which the tide of musical creativity has surged from the Twentieth Century into the Twenty-First. Even in the context of a musical banquet like the one prepared by Naxos, the proof of recordings’ lasting value is in the proverbial pudding: Berger’s and Joubert’s music provides the flavors needed for an unforgettable feast.

Born in 1930 on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, Roman Berger fell victim in the early years of his life and musical career to the oppression of Stalinist Soviet politics, vestiges of which continued to haunt him in the aftermath of his involvement with the Prague Spring movement of 1968. Despite the crippling difficulties to which he was subjected, Berger obtained through the force of his own determination a rewardingly cosmopolitan education that granted him access to the artistic philosophies that redefined—and continue to redefine—music in the years after World War II. Berger's music is in many ways a compelling statement of triumph over the successive regimes and small-minded ideologies by which his youthful creative impulses were stymied. As performed by The Berger Trio, the pieces on this disc are representative of a highly individual aesthetic, an artistic identity both rooted in the traditions of Western Classical Music extending back two centuries and unmistakably modern. Like Mahler's Symphonies, Berger's music is a crossroads at which the Nineteenth, Twentieth, and Twenty-First Centuries intersect, assimilating without sacrificing their singular musical sensibilities.

Written in 2006 and dedicated to the composer's beloved wife Rút, Pathetique for piano and cello is at once a reflection on Berger's marriage and a tribute to one of his artistic idols, Ludwig van Beethoven. Musically, it is a work of great imagination, undoubtedly spurred by the specific emotional context that shaped the music's genesis. Cellist Ján Slávik and pianist Ladislav Fanzowitz exchange melodic phrases with the eloquence of Shakespearean actors enacting a scene from one of the Bard's best plays, creating a dialogue not only with one another but also with Berger's music that illuminates the subtleties of the composer's writing for both instruments. Emotionally, this is complicated music and thus a far more honest tribute to the composer's marriage, an institution as complex as any wrought by men, than a sappier piece might have been. In a sense, Pathetique is a marriage of past and future, and Slávik and Fanzowitz play with commitment and eloquence that honor Beethoven, Berger, and the latter's lamented wife.

The Sonata No. 3 'da camera' for piano was composed in 1971 and is played on this disc by Fanzowitz with boundless involvement and technical prowess. He devotes an understated but deeply affecting element of sadness to his interpretation of the opening Andante con tristezza movement, heightening the expressive significance of the composer's elegiac rhythmic figures by sharply contrasting the expansiveness of his playing with the precision of his execution of rhythms. This contrast also characterizes Fanzowitz's performance of the Allegro deciso movement, in which his comfort with Berger's idiom is apparent in his nimble negotiations of passages of great intricacy. Command of fingering and wrist flexibility are critical in the Veloce movement, which Fanzowitz delivers with a frenetic electricity that ignites the music with an almost erotic charge. An insinuation of sensuality also lurks beneath the imposing, slightly self-conscious façade of the final movement, marked Allegro inquieto. Here, the pianist's unbridled, rhapsodic execution is tempered by a gossamer elegance that softens the music's sharp edges. As its 'da camera' epithet suggests, the Sonata is a perceptibly personal if not a noticeably introverted work, virtually a rejuvenation of a Baroque form that intriguingly manages to simultaneously challenge concepts of conventional tonality. Fanzowitz plays the Sonata with the technique demanded by the keyboard music of Händel and the interpretive ambiguity required for playing Satie.

Slávik's impeccable bowing technique permits him to make his performance of Berger's 2006 Allegro frenetico con reminiscenza a veritable masterclass in the arts of playing the cello and insightfully interpreting modern music for the instrument. Amidst the vigorous flow of the music there is a lode of wistfulness that Slávik mines tellingly, drawing out the darker colorations in the music without overshadowing the dominant impetuosity of the piece. Berger's work explores the tonal and expressive capabilities of the cello as compellingly as Bach's familiar Suites for the instrument, and Slávik devotes his virtuosity to fully revealing the depths of Berger's ingenuity.

Composed in 2013, Impromptu for clarinet is the most recent music recorded here, and it finds Berger still very much in command of his gifts. Clarinetist Branislav Dugovič, the third member of The Berger Trio, plays the piece with expansiveness and effortless authority. Delving into the relationships among each note and those that precede and follow it, Dugovič uncovers countless instances of sly wit. Berger's carefully-crafted score maintains an air of spontaneity befitting an impromptu, and Dugovič's performance seems both meticulously prepared and wholly improvisational. Above all, the clarinetist's innate musicality is evident throughout his interpretation of the piece.

Epilogue (Omaggio a L. v. B.), dating from 2010, is essentially a sequence of boldly-conceived variations on the principal theme of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 (Opus 13). The gentlemen of The Berger Trio respond to every unexpected harmonic progression in the music with attention to the cumulative course of the piece. Like Pathetique, Epilogue carves a path from past to future that embraces traditions without capitulating to them, and the performance that the music receives from The Berger Trio elucidates both Berger’s unique style and his affectionate homage to Beethoven. Dugovič, Slávik, and Fanzowitz play with fluidity, cooperation, and tenacity that constitute an homage to Berger himself. The performances on this disc disclose to the listener that this composer’s music merits exploration by the finest artists—and, it is to be hoped, further recordings of this quality.

The excellent Naxos release devoted to music by South African-born composer John Joubert is a reissue of a 1987 recording sponsored by the British Music Society, one of many titles in the catalogues of this and similar organizations richly deserving of revitalization. A skilled practitioner in many musical forms, Joubert shares with Roman Berger an artistic worldview that encompasses vistas of compositional trends past and present. Also like Berger, Joubert remains far too little-known by his own and subsequent generations. The Instant Moment should be in the repertory of every lyric baritone with fluency in English, and the instrumental works on this disc exhibit a naturalness of orchestration and management of blending timbres from which performers and aspiring composers alike can learn much. The lesson proffered by the outstanding performances by the English String Orchestra and conductor William Boughton on this disc is that John Joubert’s music equals the best works of the Twentieth Century.

Joubert's Proust-inspired Temps Perdu: Variations for String Orchestra (Op. 99), completed in 1984, is as enjoyable and daunting a piece composed for strings since the death of Benjamin Britten. Joubert's compositional voice in entirely his own, but there are in Temps Perdu echoes of the sound worlds of Tippett, Bax, Holst, and even Purcell. Violinists Christopher Hirons and Pierre Joubert, the composer's son, play solo lines with complementary dash and delicacy that spotlight Joubert's affinity for writing exquisite melodies that emerge from the textures of the music as if by chance. Variation of the memorable Thème, phrased by the players with the sophisticated air of a Parisian salon, first yields a fantastically inventive Espièglerie, in their playing of which the musicians establish a standard of excellence that they uphold in each of the variations. The Elégie is profoundly, perfectly beautiful, and its unaffected expressivity carries over into the urbane but vigorous Valse. The fourth and final variation, Envoi, develops the theme in stunningly innovative ways, and the performance unfolds in kind, every musician’s instrument singing in a chorus that gives voice to the composer’s erudition.

Joubert's 1962 Sinfonietta (Op. 38) is a work of contrasting grace and raw energy that richly rewards the efforts of musicians who approach it studiously and with the concentration required to comprehend and properly execute the composer’s part-writing. Oboists Paul Arden-Taylor and Anna Evans, bassoonists Keith Rubach and Christine Predota, and French horn players Stephen Roberts and James Buck individually and collectively spin and intertwine their lines with the flair of master tapestry makers. The exhilaration of their playing of the opening Allegro con spirito movement is infectious, but even this cannot compare with the resounding grandeur with which the Molto moderato is performed. The closing Allegro movement blossoms with novelty that the musicians translate into sounds of surpassing beauty.

Completed in 1987, The Instant Moment (Op. 110) is a cycle of settings of evocative, imagery-rich texts by D. H. Lawrence. Under Boughton's direction, the five songs are tellingly contrasted, but a prevailing view of the larger construction of the cycle of the whole also pervades the performance. The singing of Edinburgh-born baritone Henry Herford is a tremendous asset. From his opening phrase in 'Bei Hennef,' Herford sings strongly and with audible comfort with Joubert's style. He infuses his voicing of 'You are the call and I am the answer' with a magnetically mysterious aura, and the straightforward awe of his enunciation of 'Strange, how we suffer in spite of this!' is disquieting. The haunting expressive power of Herford's singing of the second song, 'Loggerheads,' surges to the baritone's chillingly direct delivery of the final stanza, 'If despair is our option / Then let us despair. / Let us make for the weeping willow. / I don't care.' The strings' playing and Boughton's conducting aid Herford in creating a preponderantly oppressive atmosphere in 'And oh - That the man I am might cease to be - ,' the vibrant ring of the singer's voice deadened in the wonderful lines, 'I wish it would be completely dark everywhere, / inside me, and out, heavily dark utterly.' The intimate, almost claustrophobic world of 'December Night' is filled with vocal inflections that glimmer like reflections in icy windows, highlighting the core meaning of a line like 'The flickers come and go.' The final song, 'Moonrise,' is approached by both baritone and conductor as a sort of cathartic apotheosis, the sentimental dénouement of the cycle. Herford voices the words 'Flushed and grand and naked, as from the chamber / Of finished bridegroom' with the essence of finality, crowning his interpretation of the cycle with a muted but emotive resignation that touches the heart.

There is an old adage that extols variety as the spice of life, but it often seems that we prefer for our lives to be spiced only by those varieties with which we are comfortable. These Naxos discs stimulate the palate with piquant new flavors extracted from the music of two modern composers whose works deserve to be esteemed alongside the acknowledged masterpieces of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. The enterprising Naxos label again reminds listeners that some of the greatest pleasures to be had from music await us beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones. Today’s listeners’ pantries are far richer for these additions of the zesty spices of the music of Roman Berger and John Joubert.