Amajor problem of American classical music in the 20th century was academicism. Composers who could not earn a living with their music supported themselves by taking teaching positions, and too often their environment affected their work. Instead of addressing their music to a general audience, many tended to seek the approval of fellow academics. This could lead to a view of music as a matter of structure (particularly 12-tone structure) rather than emotional communication.
In contrast, those whom we might call theatrical composers -- Copland, Stravinsky, Menotti, Bernstein and others -- wrote music that communicated emotion to enthusiastic audiences.
There were exceptions to this general rule, of course, composers in academic positions who managed to avoid academicism. Two of them are represented on recently issued CDs: Charles Jones: New and Historic Performances (Albany) and Howard Hanson (Telarc).
Jones taught at several institutions, notably Mills College (where he began a lifelong friendship with composer Darius Milhaud), the Juilliard School and the Mannes College of Music. Hanson was for 40 years director of the Eastman School of Music. And both of them rose spectacularly above the limitations of their environment.
On the evidence of these discs, Jones was the more versatile of the two. The music includes five violin miniatures adapted from orchestral works, a brilliantly imaginative piano sonata (played for all it's worth by William Masselos in a long-ago National Gallery program), and a pensive, exciting symphony dedicated to Milhaud on his 70th birthday.
All will appeal immediately to music lovers and all are well performed.
Hanson was a master of big-sound orchestration and a dedicated romantic whose music should impress anyone who enjoys 19th-century orchestral works. Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra exult in the lush sounds of his Symphony No. 2 ("Romantic") and the "Bold Island" and "Merry Mount" Suites.
Beethoven: Fidelio (TDK DVD).
Beethoven's only opera, in a production by the Zurich Opera House, brings out the musical and emotional power generated in the composer's long struggle to give this work its definitive form. Nikolaus Harnoncourt sensitively leads the small, excellent cast.
Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 3 ( Kaddish); Chichester Psalms (Naxos, with texts and translations).
Gerard Schwarz, the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and choirs give impressive accounts of Bernstein's two most important religious works. "Kaddish" is essentially an argument with God about the persistence of evil in the world. "The Chichester Psalms" are beautifully reverent settings of Hebrew texts.
Claudio Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea (Opus Arte, 2 DVDs).
The first opera to deal with actual historical figures has a variety of musical appeals, all well presented in this Netherlands Opera production, but the staging (abstract sets and a costume designer gone mad) leaves a lot to be desired. Cynthia Hayman, Brigitte Baileys and Michael Chance perform well in leading roles, and the period instruments of Les Talens Lyriques provide idiomatic accompaniment.
Anamer Castrello: Latin American Hits
This month, mezzo-soprano Castrello, one of Washington's most distinctive singers, is intensely involved (for the In Series) in torch songs by Harold Arlen.
She also performs in Mozart operas and tours nationwide with her program "Soul of Latin America." That program, devoted to song classics from south of the border, is the inspiration of this, her first CD, a provocative and beautifully sung mixture of many Latin American flavors, from the bouncy "Cachita," with chorus and dance band, to the nostalgic "En Mi Viejo San Juan" and the sultry "Besame Mucho." There is even "It's Impossible," sung in perfectly phrased English. More information on the singer is available at www.acastrello.org.
Biber: Missa Christi Resurgentis (Harmonia Mundi, with text and translation).
This is an Easter celebration in high baroque style, with two choruses and festive brass -- well performed by Andrew Manze and the English Consort.
The Waltz: Ecstasy and Mysticism (Archiv, with texts and translations).
An interesting mixture of familiar and exotic sounds. Concerto Koln and Sarband, European and Middle Eastern early music groups collaborate on a survey of interactions between European and Turkish music in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: Mozart's German dances with "Turkish" percussion, as well as music by Beethoven and others in a similar style. There are also examples of Turkish music inspired by European waltzes.
De Temps et de L'instant (Harmonia Mundi).
Jordi Savall and members of his family perform an eclectic program rooted in medieval music but drawing on many other stylistically compatible sources. The performances are highly effective.
Shall I Compare Thee? Choral Songs on Shakespeare Texts (Cedille).
The emphasis in this charming, beautifully sung collection is on living composers, some of whom choose texts not usually set to music.
The Chicago a cappella chorus sings with clarity, well-balanced tone and deep emotional involvement.
A Mass for a Sacred Place, by Stephen Paulus (Arsis, with texts and translations).
The Cathedral Choral Society and its music director, J. Reilly Lewis, sing this Mass, composed for Washington National Cathedral, with precision, reverence and exemplary clarity -- virtues heard also in seven shorter works that fill out the disc.
Beethoven and Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos (RCA).
Violinist Nikolaj Znaider, who soloed last week with the National Symphony, has been widely acclaimed as one of the leading violinists of the younger generation. His Mendelssohn and Beethoven are exemplary: sweet in tone, fluent in technique, eloquent in expression.
All My Heart: Deborah Voigt Sings American Songs (EMI, with texts).
The leading dramatic soprano of our time, particularly acclaimed for her work in the heroic roles of Wagner and Verdi, is also a leading vocal recitalist. In this recording she turns her attention to some unjustly neglected repertoire: songs by American composers, with sensitive piano accompaniment by Brian Zager. There are 25 songs by Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, Ben Moore, Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Amy Beach, chosen with a discerning eye and performed by a voice outstanding not only for tone and power but for interpretive subtlety and emotional nuance.
Chanticleer: Sound in Spirit (Warner, with texts and translations).
In this collection, the excellent San Francisco male chorus explores vocal music (sometimes accompanied by exotic instruments) as a means of contacting the inner world of the spirit. Sources of the music include medieval and Renaissance composers, but emphasis is on living composers, including the group's music director, Joseph Jennings.