Wynton Marsalis: Symphony No. 4, ‘The Jungle’
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; Nicholas Buc, conductor (Blue Engine)
Every Wynton Marsalis symphony features ear-catching material. But some have suffered from bloat. His first, “All Rise,” stretched across two CDs in a 2002 release. The third, “Swing Symphony,” had to be truncated by a movement when it received its American premiere in 2010. The same thing happened when the fourth, nicknamed “The Jungle,” landed at Lincoln Center in 2016.
This premiere recording of the full piece, however, shows Marsalis at his considerable best — for all of its 65 minutes. The hurtling, unpredictable writing that launches “The Jungle” may initially seem of a piece with John Adams-style post-Minimalism in its frenetic patterns. But when the rhythm section of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra kicks in on top of it all, there’s a steady swing feel. And not a sagacious orchestral adaptation of swing — as in Adams’s “City Noir” — but the genuine article. The composite style is a marvel.
The lengthy third section works like a cross-section of what you might hear if you attended multiple concerts on the same evening: It riffs on Copland’s pastoral sound, while also deriving succor from the lyricism of Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and the pleasing tartness of Stravinsky’s American-informed, Neo-Classical efforts. A city-in-crisis finale, titled “Struggle in the Digital Market,” is similarly teeming and more aggressive, yet never overstuffed. In the more compact movements, you’ll find tributes to Latin jazz and, as ever, traces of the influence of Marsalis’s native New Orleans.
More than just Marsalis’s best symphony, “The Jungle” also feels like one of his most distinguished works, period — capable of standing with “Citi Movement (Griot New York),” “Blood on the Fields” and his more recent Violin Concerto. I wouldn’t wish it a minute shorter. SETH COLTER WALLS
Paola Prestini: ‘Edward Tulane’
Jack Swanson, tenor; Minnesota Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Lidiya Yankovskaya, conductor (VIA Records)
“The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” by the novelist Kate DiCamillo, is a classic children’s story: direct, unsparing and sometimes gruesome in pursuit of a simple moral truth.
Paola Prestini’s operatic adaptation, which she dedicated to her son, honors that sentiment. From the first measures of this live recording of the premiere at Minnesota Opera, conducted with impressive cohesion by Lidiya Yankovskaya, the swarming strings and piercing winds affirm that there will be no coddling.
Edward Tulane is a rabbit doll made of china — precious, vain, selfish — who passes through hardships and the hands of several owners. They include a fisherman and his wife, a drifter and his dog, and a brother and his ailing sister — all portrayed with conviction by an ensemble cast — and they whisper their deepest feelings into his fluffy ears. Prestini surfaces those messy emotions in music of candid vulnerability, making Edward’s aloof, prim silence all the more glaring.
As a battered and broken Edward who finally allows himself to love back, the tenor Jack Swanson sings with an elegant, emotionally courageous sound. The hope in his voice tilts toward regret for the feelings Edward didn’t reciprocate.
Prestini’s vivid tableaux, fashioned from Mark Campbell’s concise libretto, don’t necessarily proffer catchy melodies. When Edward’s owners gather for the Act I finale, the music could have soared. But instead it welled up from below, bringing comfort in solidity. OUSSAMA ZAHR
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: ‘ARCHORA/AION’
Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Eva Ollikainen, conductor (Sono Luminus)
Among the many wonders of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music — exquisitely honed timbres, an intricate play of shadow and light — perhaps the most mysterious is the way it can sound so static yet be in a state of constant (if sometimes glacial) change. Take “ARCHORA,” the first of two spacious orchestral works on this welcome new release. It opens with a D flat in the low strings, winds and brass, a tenebrous and flatly final sound incapable of being dislodged by the thwacks and thumps surrounding it. Soon, though, a series of downward-sliding melodies in the violins begins to tug the music away; the pedal point returns, but feels slightly less fixed. By the time a long, deeply lyrical line unfolds about halfway through, the music is in a different world, even as you’re not quite sure how it left the old one.
This craftsmanship — a meticulous fusion of pacing, structure and coloring — is also at work in the three-movement “AION,” although the canvas is larger, and the mood less uniform. There is a stronger sense of direction: moments of stillness repeatedly disrupted by violent outbursts, as if the piece were evoking the weather system on some alien planet. The triumphant conclusion, again in D flat, seems both logical and a shock. Both pieces confirm the impression that Thorvaldsdottir is incapable of writing music that doesn’t immediately transfix an open-eared listener. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Eva Ollikainen, its chief conductor, offer glowing performances that have been beautifully captured by Sono Luminus. DAVID WEININGER
Mahler: ‘Das Lied von der Erde’
Piotr Beczala, tenor; Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Gerold Huber, piano (Sony)
You may start to feel for Piotr Beczala a little as this recording, of Mahler’s own piano version of his late song cycle, goes on. It’s not so much that there is anything wrong with how the Polish tenor delivers his three numbers. Far from it: In both of his high-set drinking songs, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” and “Der Trinker im Frühling,” he displays ample power and is able to point out aspects of the text that few of his colleagues have been able to illuminate with a full orchestra behind them.
But even the excellence of a Beczala sounds straightforward compared with the imperial majesty of a lifelong musical partnership between the baritone Christian Gerhaher and his best friend, Gerold Huber. Rarely has what makes them so special been as audible as it is here, as one song gives way to another: Huber may be exemplary in support of Beczala, but he is magical in collaboration with Gerhaher, down to the minutest shade of tone, the last detail of line.
Listen to how they sway in “Am Ufer,” known as “Von der Schönheit” in the orchestral version, as Gerhaher sings of perfume drifting through the air; or consider the bells that Huber seems to summon in his tone at the end of “Der Abschied,” as Gerhaher refines his voice until it becomes almost spectral, floating into eternity. DAVID ALLEN
‘Many Hands: The Piano Music of David Del Tredici, Vols. 2-4’
Marc Peloquin, piano (Albany)
The music of the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici still sounds endearing in its playfulness. For the second time in a year, we have a reminder of this thanks to a release from the Albany label: first, a stellar set of his psychedelic 1970s orchestral pieces, and now, this volume from Marc Peloquin, a longtime Del Tredici champion.
The first disc here is a reissue, but the second and third are new. Particularly touching among those: “Wildwood Etude,” which sets the second movement from Del Tredici’s as-yet-unreleased song cycle “Gay Life.” Particularly playful is the miniature “Opposites Attract,” which references Wagner and Virgil Thomson without forgetting to contribute some melodic invention of its own.
The sequencing is far from chronological. One minute you may be hearing the elegiac and stately 21st-century works that make up “Late in the Game.” Another, you’ll be hearing the atonal student works of “Fantasy Pieces,” from 1959-60. Despite the breadth of the history covered here, Peloquin’s touch is admirably sensitive to the cantabile quality that Del Tredici is apt to bring to any harmonic idiom. As a result, this valuable set does more than hang together well; it also speaks to the sturdiness of its composer’s catalog. SETH COLTER WALLS