Listening During Covid Part 8: A Remarkable Black-British Composer, American Master & Salieri’s Award-Winning Premiere


By Ralph P. Locke

CD recordings continue to bring us unexpected treasures, including chamber works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Samuel Adler, and the exquisite and powerful opera (by turns) Armida by Mozart’s contemporary — who was not his murderer — Antonio Salieri.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: chamber music with string quartet. Stewart Goodyear, piano; Anthony McGill, clarinet; Catalyst Quartet. 78 mins. Azica Records (download only). Buy and listen to songs here.

Samuel Adler: chamber and instrumental music. Michelle Ross (violin), Michael Brown (piano), Cassatt Quartet. Toccata Classics 0624. 77 minutes. Buy, download the booklet and listen to the tracks here.

Antonio Salieri: Armida (opera in 3 acts). Lenneke Ruiten (Armida), Florie Valiquette (Rinaldo), Teresa Iervolino (Ismene), Ashley Riches (Ubaldo). Namur Chamber Choir, Les Talens Lyriques, dir. Christophe Rouset. Apartment AP244 [2 CDs] 123 minutes. To purchase and listen to tracks, click here.

Amid this ongoing pandemic, when entertainment organizations have often had to press Pause for months at a time, record labels have scrambled to provide classical music lovers with new experiences we can have in the privacy (oh, admit it: isolation!) of our homes and automobiles.

I am delighted to bring this, my eighth bouquet of three recent CDs of unusual and important musical creations. In this case, all three consist of relatively unknown pieces, superbly interpreted.

First, a bit of news. 1771 opera by Antonio Salieri Armida has just won the award for best “Premiere Recording” at the International Classical Music Awards. The jury, made up of music critics from all over Europe (including England, France, Italy, Russia and Turkey; the eastern part of Turkey is officially part of Europe) described the recording as “an intense love drama involving just four characters” and “perfectly executed.”

Anyone familiar with the marvelous opera recordings of conductor Christophe Rousset (such as the astonishing audacity Tarare, likewise by Salieri – which I have rented here at the The fuse of the arts-where Lully is remarkable isis, which I’ve reviewed here) will be at least somewhat prepared for the remarkable combination of precision, intensity and color it gets from its chamber orchestra and modestly sized choir. I was particularly struck by the flexibility of the tempo, constantly shifting to emphasize this or that point in the dramatic action. The four singers (listed above) are just wonderful and, I guess, quite young. We will know more about each of them!

Salieri Armida (not to be confused with operas on the same basic story by Lully, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Rossini and Dvořák) includes powerful scenes directly inspired by encounters between Orfeo and the spirits of the Underworld in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (first created in the same city – Vienna – nine years earlier).

Like Gluck in Orpheus, Salieri largely eschews the recitative secco (accompanied on the harpsichord), freeing himself to include a wide variety of orchestral accompaniment for the often very dramatic soliloquies and conversational exchanges that separate the many arias, duets and choruses (fresh and appealing) from the work. Salieri makes remarkably effective use of his instrumental strengths (e.g. echoing phrases between a single mournful oboe or a pair of aerial flutes and the violins), reserving the trombones for the remarkable scene at the start of Act 3 in which the Syrian the witch Armida and her servants, in “a vast underground chamber”, implore the spirits of hell to prevent the crusader knight Rinaldo from leaving her and joining the army of the Christian crusaders and fighting against her and his people. (The lavishly informative booklet essays should have said at least a word about the typical 18th-century stereotype here of the Middle Eastern woman as a trap awaiting the reckless Western male hero.)

Jump forward over a century and we meet a most notable black British composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whom his English mother named, confusingly for posterity, after the famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1875- 1912). Coleridge-Taylor’s father was a medical student from Sierra Leone who returned to Africa, apparently never knowing he had fathered a child. The immensely talented boy received a first-class education from Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal Academy of Music. He became particularly known in Britain and North America for three short cantatas based on Longfellow’s epic poem Hiawatha’s Song. (In recent decades, an air of The Hiawatha Wedding Feast was often taught in undergraduate music history classes.) Coleridge-Taylor’s chamber works are no less appealing, including a rather Schumann-like piano quintet written when he was 18, five Brahms’ richly varied and engaging ‘Fantasy Pieces’ for string quartet, from two years later, and a truly masterful clarinet and string quintet, written when he was 31, six years before his death at 37. The clarinet quintet constantly engages the ear with imaginative permutations of the five instruments. All the performances are top-notch, as you’d expect from such renowned masters of their instrument as pianist Stewart Goodyear (who is also a composer) and Anthony McGill (first clarinet, New York Philharmonic; you may recall that he played at Barack Obama’s first inauguration concert).

For more on the recent rediscovery of highly accomplished and touching works by Coleridge-Taylor and other black composers, see my review here of Joseph Horowitz’s latest book: Dvořák’s prophecy and the vexed fate of black classical music. In this regard, I must mention that I picked up part of the radio broadcast of the powerful and, yes, melodious opera by the black American composer Terence Blanchard, The fire locked in my bones, broadcast live from the Met. The work, which was highly praised when first performed by the Opera Theater of St. Louis, is based on the widely acclaimed memoir of New York Times opinion writer Charles Blow. The Met production was shown on live video to cinemas last October. I was captivated by what I heard on the radio, especially the aria “The South is no place for a boy with peculiar grace”, which I think will become a frequent recital number. . The Met always repeats its video shows later in the season on public television, so watch out!

The third and last of my CDs this time is a collection of works for solo piano and for chamber ensembles by Samuel Adler. I had the privilege of being a faculty colleague of Adler for several decades at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. I have therefore heard several of his works along the way and have always been struck by their emotional range and gestural clarity. He wrote in many styles throughout his long career. (He was born in 1928 and is therefore now 93 – and continues to actively compose and have his new works performed by notable soloists and ensembles.) Adler’s latest all-composed CD contains three sonatas for violin and piano, each written at a different stage in their career. The most familiar Sonata is the Second Sonata (1956), which inhabits a sound world shaped by Hindemith and Bartók. But, once one gets used to the relative harmonic roughness of the Third and Fourth Sonatas (1965, 1989), one is quickly drawn to the force of completeness and the dramatic mood swings, all delightfully conveyed here by violinist Michelle Ross (who is a composer herself) and pianist Michael Brown.

Brown alone offers four pieces by Adler for solo piano, three of which were written as tributes to colleagues including Aaron Copland (aged 80; this was composed in 1980, since Copland was born in, yes, 1900) and Milton Babbitt (a commemorative coin, 2012). Copland’s play, titled Your song expands my mind– is particularly endearing. I listened to it several times and felt like I was taken on a fascinating journey through the air. The music bears no resemblance to Copland’s except perhaps in homage to a bold and infinitely influential piece he wrote in his early years: the Variations for piano (published in 1932). What we sense is Adler’s admiration for Copland’s artistic integrity and his determination to make room for serious American composition in a country that has often looked to Europe alone for pleasures. and artistic adventures.

The CD ends with a very recent piece: the String Quarter No. 10 (2014) in four short linked movements. The members of the renowned Cassatt Quartet (four women from quite varied backgrounds, including Japan, China and the United States) deliver it with elegance and commitment. I can’t wait to hear their other recordings.

Ralph P. Locke is Emeritus Professor of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Music Writing. His last two books are Musical exoticism: images and reflections and Music and Exotics from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also in the form of an electronic book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Records Guide and online art magazines New York Arts, opera today, and Boston’s musical intelligence. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary) and in the program books of major opera houses, for example, Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).


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