Naxos releases of Kodaly and Wagner highlight the Buffalo Philharmonic’s polish
If there’s a busier conductor than JoAnn Falletta in the recording studio these days, please let me know: she has released nearly two dozen CDs since 2015, about half of them with the Buffalo Philharmonic. She has been music director there since 1999, and in the last two decades the orchestra has grown its budget by twenty-five percent, and reached record subscription levels. But as busy as she has been with her home orchestra (and most of their recordings on the Naxos label), she has in all released over 100 titles with at least fifteen ensembles.
And let me say it at the top: I’m a long-time fan of her as a conductor. I first experienced her artistry with the Long Beach Symphony, featuring a particularly memorable West Coast premiere of Joan Tower’s Clarinet Concerto, with David Shiffrin as soloist. I subsequently interviewed at length for my personal “favorite article that never got published,” a profile of several prominent women conductors in southern California in the mid-1990s. Her later success, including many Grammy nominations and a couple of wins, have come as no surprise. I finally caught up with her in person several summers at the Peninsula Music Festival in Wisconsin’s exquisite Door County. She had lost none of her energy or charisma.
The two (relatively) recent releases of Falletta with the Buffalo Philharmonic for Naxos feature colorful and challenging works. The slightly earlier is music of Kodaly, headlined by his Concerto for Orchestra, the Dances of Galanta, Dances of Marosszek and Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song, “The Peacock.” This disc is a solid winner—but not quite in the manner I expected. I’ve loved the “Galanta” set since I first heard it, and at once we are treated to both the solo contributions and teamwork of Falletta’s strong ensemble. I’ve long been curious about Kodaly’s take on a “concerto” for orchestra, and found that, despite the title, this is nothing like Bartok’s famous example. For one thing, it’s much shorter, barely twenty minutes long, and there is less of an emphasis of solo or even sectional contributions than we hear from Kodaly’s more famous countryman. It is a more delicate, atmospheric work, and the Buffalonians are up to the task.
It turns out that the “Peacock” variations are the real star of the disc, nearly a half hour of fascinating variations (sixteen in all, framed by the theme and a finale). This is a kaleidoscopic whirlwind, with ten of the variations under a minute in length. Here Falletta spotlights nearly every special nuance and color. The “Marosszek” dances close this highly satisfying disc. Anyone who has heard and enjoyed Kodaly’s “Hary Janos” but precious little else should add this disc to their collection at once.
The second release is “Orchestral music from Der Ring des Nibelungen.” I suppose that when these types of discs (and concert programs for that matter) first appeared many decades ago, there were certainly plenty of practical reasons: great Wagnerian singers being a scarce breed (if not an endangered species!) almost from the time Wagner penned his epic tetralogy, one could dispense with that problem, not to mention the enormous expense of mounting the music dramas. And after all, not only were there glorious expanses of music, but the orchestra was arguably as much a character as anyone on stage.
As for myself, I feel under the spell of the man who built Bayreuth when I was given my first complete recording of Die Walkure when I was thirteen years old. I was nearly forty before I saw my first complete “Ring” cycle staged—and then managed to see twice in just under a year! While I rarely listen to any Wagner music dramas complete anymore (certainly not at a single sitting), Falletta’s disc revealed something interesting to me that I hadn’t expected: I missed the singing.
There’s nothing seriously amiss in any of her excerpts. The disc opens with the “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” from the close of Das Rheingold. Again, solid playing, but this was never an excerpt that moved outside the context of the full work. Falletta’s orchestra whips up all the requisite energy needed for “Ride of the Valkyries” (that’s one excerpt that scrapes by without the vocals), but it was “Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music” where I just had to hear a sung version as soon as I could (of course, it doesn’t help when you’ve had the sound of Hans Hotter on the groundbreaking Solti recording in your collection since 1973!).
Not surprisingly, the excerpt that has virtually no singing in it anyway fares so well, the “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried, Here Falletta and her mighty band have no trouble exhibiting a lush, warm sound, beautifully nuanced. Three excerpts from Gotterdammerung close the disc, and again it is the essentially voiceless “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music” that makes a lasting impression. Bottom line: well, some people love the music but really don’t care for the Wagnerian strain of vocalism, and it’s true, few of us have time to immerse ourselves in any one of Wagner’s epic creations. But if you need a quick fix, let JoAnn Falletta guide to Valhalla via Buffalo, courtesy of Naxos.