Leon Botstein is “Buried Alive”

cover BCD9540

BURIED ALIVE / HONEGGER: Rugby (Mouvement Symphonique). SCHOECK: Lebendig begraben, Song Cycle on Poems by Gottfried Keller.* MITROPOULOS: Concerto Grosso / *Michael Nagy, bar; *The Bard Festival Chorale; The Orchestra Now; Leon Botstein, cond / Bridge 9540

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and longtime music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, presents here three offbeat works, one of them by a composer (Dmitri Mitropoulos) whose compositions are scarcely known at all.

The first piece is Rugby by Arthur Honegger, a composer remembered primarily for his opera-oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher and his popular tone poem Pacific 231. This piece is sort of in the vein of the latter, using bitonal harmonies and edgy rhythms, though it doesn’t “build up” the way Pacific 231 does. Interestingly, there is a somewhat lyrical middle section that sounds like a template for some of Aaron Copland’s early music. Since Copland studied in France in the 1920s, perhaps some of Honegger rubbed off on him at that time. Rugby is rhythmically strong and relatively fast-paced from first note to last, yet although it makes for interesting listening it is not a piece that leaves a lasting impact on the listener. Two minutes after you’ve finished listening to it, little stays in the mind but a few short motifs and that persistent rhythm, and this is not a knock on Botstein’s conducting. He really does a superb job here, making the most of a piece that is primarily a string of effects.

We then move on to Othmar Schoeck, a superb composer whose work is, if anything, much less well-known than Honegger’s. My favorite piece of his is the very dramatic opera Penthesilea, about an Amazonian warrior-princess who is fooled by a male warrior but exacts her revenge. If anything, Lebendig begraben is just as good; although vocalist Michael Nagy is listed as a baritone, much of the opening song pulls him very deep down into the bass range, which he projects superbly. His problem is that, when he moves up in his range and sings sustained notes, they have a bad wobble, but he is certainly an excellent interpreter and his dark timbre is perfectly suited to the music. Most of the vocal score is strophic rather than melodic, just as in the opera, and the orchestral accompaniment is edgy, often focusing on just the winds and brass (and occasionally, a solo piano or organ playing repeated rhythmic motifs behind the singer). Think of it as a hyper-extended version of a Schoenberg piece and you’ll have the right idea, though despite its atonality it is clearly not serial music. In addition, each succeeding song seems to be darker than the one before; from the perspective of mood, this is a song cycle that sinks into despair and then digs a bit deeper in that vein, at least until the 10th song where things lighten up considerably. But this is a work in which the orchestral accompaniment, though certainly important in setting and sustaining the mood of the music, is much less front and center than the vocal line. This, too, was a trait I noticed in Penthesilea.

Mitropoulos’ Concerto Grosso is one of those pieces that can offend a listener of conventional classical music from the very outset, where it begins with an extended crushed chord of no discernible tonality, yet the music of the first movement moves along legato lines and, except for the tonality, is relatively easy to follow. It is reminiscent, to me, of Artur Schnabel’s First Symphony, which was performed by Mitropoulos himself with the Minnesota Symphony in 1946. Interestingly, there is even within the slow first movement more musical changes and development than in the Schoeck piece, which as I mentioned stays in one specific mood for a long time. The second movement opens with an “Allegro” section, mostly a perpetuum mobile of rapid brass figures (which sound to me as if they are played by muted trumpets) and strings, to which the basses add a counter-line. There is a passage in which the trumpets play double time before resuming their previous pace. Then, after an atonal upward orchestral smear at about 3:00, the music downshifts to a very edgy “Largo.”

The third movement, strangely, begins with a nice little melodic line which is quickly undercut by the dolorous harmony, yet the little melody persists on and off as the movement progresses. As a stand-alone movement, I can see this becoming a somewhat regular concert piece, but the whole Concerto Grosso is clearly too edgy for the majority of audiences.

An interesting album, then, albeit one that may not stay with you when it is over.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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