Ives Charles Ives: An American Journey. Thomas Hampson...

CD REVIEWS

March 07, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Ives

Charles Ives: An American Journey. Thomas Hampson, baritone; San Francisco Symphony and Chorus; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. (BMG 09026-63703)

Charles Ives is to music what Robin Williams is (or was, before fatherhood tamed him) to comedy - unpredictable, unstructured, unafraid. Ives was not just far ahead of his own time almost a century ago, experimenting with non-traditional harmonies and forms long before the European atonalists got going. This American giant sounds as far ahead of our own time, too; his ferocious originality has lost none of its ability to astound.

Ives has no more dedicated or insightful advocate today than Michael Tilson Thomas, the invigorating music director of the San Francisco Symphony. The conductor connects directly and deeply to Ives' eclectic sound-world, with its variety of emotions, quirky twists, humor, questioning and quintessential American idioms. This CD offers abundant evidence of that connection.

With his typical flair for programming, Tilson Thomas takes the listener on an informative, compelling journey. There are orchestral pieces, including such masterworks as Three Places in New England and The Unanswered Question, as well as the solemn, almost Mahlerian fugue from Symphony No. 4. Brilliant choral and solo songs complete the disc, each offering a glimpse into some aspect of the composer's intellect and heart.

Highlights include an exquisite account of the nostalgic, bittersweet Tom Sails Away by baritone Thomas Hampson, with Tilson Thomas at the piano. Another gem is Serenity, again sung beautifully by Hampson; the subtle, idiomatic orchestration is by no less than John Adams. Another eminent American composer, David Del Tredici, contributes an effective orchestration for In Flanders Fields.

Throughout this live recording, the sure hand of Tilson Thomas guides soloist, chorus and orchestra in uncommonly vivid, involving performances. Those seeking a broad introduction to Ives will find none better; those already well-acquainted with the man and his music will find much to savor.

****

Williams

Yo-Yo Ma Plays the Music of John Williams. Yo-Yo Ma, cellist; Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles; John Williams, composer and conductor. (Sony Classical SK 89670)

With a truckload of Oscars to his credit, John Williams ranks among the most successful film composers. His classical side may not be as celebrated, but it is far from inconsequential. This cello-centered disc reflects the considerable range of Williams' talent. The brilliant grasp of orchestration may be the most obvious feature of that talent, but there is more to it than that.

Williams writes in a style that is always accessible, but far more adventuresome than his movie music. All sorts of 20th century influences are detectable in the pieces here; harmonies can get pretty spiky. Although the stylistic result is sometimes on the generic side and although ideas are sometimes organized too loosely, a very strong expressive quality is invariably felt.

The four-movement Cello Concerto, written for and superbly played by Yo-Yo Ma, is a worthy addition to the repertoire; the soulful finale, in particular, registers intensely.

Elegy tends to slip in and out of movie-music mode, but its lyricism is appealing. Three Pieces for Solo Cello attempts to "reflect something of the powerful and historic African-American experience." The instrument is given quite a workout (Ma sails through the challenges), but the music doesn't quite add up to a compelling or distinctive statement.

Far more satisfying is Heartwood, inspired by photographs of trees. Much of this work is enveloped by an impressionistic haze and unfolds in leisurely, beguiling fashion. Williams achieves something very poetic and personal here, qualities that Ma responds to with playing of remarkable beauty.

The composer, conducting a fine studio orchestra, provides suave partnering for the cellist.

***

Orff

Carl Orff: `Carmina Burana.' Hei-Kyung Hong, soprano; Stanford Olsen, tenor; Earle Patriarco, baritone; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Donald Runnicles, conductor. (Telarc 80575)

Another recording of Carmina Burana? And from a label that has already recorded it with the same orchestra and chorus? The world may not necessarily be clamoring for it, but this Carmina offers considerable attractions. For one thing, it marks the first collaboration on disc between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its new principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles. For another thing, the sound is high-end. And, to top it off, the performance is quite potent.

Runnicles, music director of the San Francisco Opera for the past decade, can be counted on for dynamic, thoughtful music-making. Here, he disappoints only at the beginning and ending of this perennially popular cantata; there could be a little more weight and drama in O Fortuna. But the rest of the score gets plenty of fire where needed. More impressive still is the lyrical warmth Runnicles gives the gentler moments; the orchestra's Round Dance and ensuing Chume, chum chorus receive wonderfully atmospheric shadings.

Baritone Earle Patriarco has fun with the drunken abbot song and caresses both the high and low notes of Dies, nox et omnia tellingly. Tenor Stanford Olsen gets through the roasting swan song colorfully enough. Hei-Kyung Hong's bright soprano soars vibrantly and endearingly, if not always effortlessly.

Chorus and orchestra are in polished, vibrant form throughout.

*** 1/2

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