A Little Traveling Music 

Slip on the headphones; take a trip

Slip on the headphones; take a trip

Some things should not be allowed—mosquitoes at the campground, sunburn at the beach, and the bumper sticker on the Winnebago I followed during a recent weekend vacation: “I think you left the stove on.” Appliance obsession is as much a part of my summer vacations as the music I choose to take with me. When I think about the lazy, hazy, crazy days, music invariably comes to mind.

Being one of the Australian-Crawl challenged—when I was 35, I was still taking beginning swimmers’ classes in the wading pool—I much prefer to rusticate where the terra is firmer. I do, however, understand the attraction of the sea, and if the beach is your chosen site for estivation, those dead white European male composers have provided a fair amount of background music. First on the list has to be Claude Debussy’s three-part tone poem La Mer, the perfect mood piece for the seashore at almost any time of day. While La Mer is no Four Seasons, its warhorse credentials are sturdy enough to admit of several fine performances. Top of the digital list goes to the performance by André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra. This release on EMI Classics is paired with Debussy’s Nocturnes for Orchestra and is a standout for its dynamically balanced and transparent performance as well as for good sonics. It was an early CD, and some find the crispness of its sound harsh.

If that’s a problem for you, head for the performance on Chandos with Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Its pairings—music of Roussel and Milhaud—keep it from being great traveling music, but the sound has the characteristic Chandos gush. Another standout performance features Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony on London. It is a superior performance of La Mer, but its discmates,Jeux and Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, are not summertime fare.

My favorite performances of La Mer are all oldies—Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic on Sony Classics, Boulez and the New Philharmonia on CBS, and the classic recording with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on RCA Red Seal. This last has the very attractive Escales by Ibert as one of its pairings. If you’re flying tourist class to Florida this summer, you might consider the La Mer on Vox with the Luxembourg Radio Symphony.

Other oceanic music includes the Vaughan Williams first symphony, the Sea Symphony—the Adrian Boult performance is still highly recommended—and a delightful disc of sea pieces on Chandos featuring the works of Bridge, Bax and Britten. A final suggestion, not to be overlooked, is Alexander Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau. A check of the latest Opus catalog brings the bad news that the RIAS Orchestra/Chailly performance has been deleted, but look for this gorgeous music to be rereleased in the future.

There is something about fresh mountain air in the heat of the summer, and one of the pieces that best conveys the pellucid quality of the mountaintop experience is Vincent D’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air. There are no really good recent performances of this overlooked French masterpiece, but the performance with Charles Munch and the BSO on RCA is so fine that competition has been scared away. One more recent competitor, however, is the ever industrious Naxos label, whose performance on a disc of French music for piano and orchestra can be had at an outlet mall price.

Another great mountain piece, and I continually listened to this on a trip through the Rockies a few years ago, is the “Alpine Symphony” of Richard Strauss. The title is a lie—there is no relationship between this massive tone poem and even the loosest Romantic Period interpretation of symphonic form—but the music is glorious and rich and picturesque and, well, Straussian. Most of the big-name orchestras have recorded this, but my choice remains the Philips recording with Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. It’s sort of pricey—after all these years, Philips still has it on its first-line label. Long as it is, it’s still 60 minutes of music on a disc capable of holding much more material, but the performance, the sheer volume of orchestral sound, the unusual clarity in a performance of a Strauss tone poem, and the superb recorded sound all make this a disc for the serious collector as well as the vacationer.

You will, no doubt, manage to add other items to this musical rockface—Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Liszt’s Ce qu’on entend sur la montaigne, Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, or even some of those recordings of Andean flute music come to mind. But you get the picture.

For me, the epitome of summer is the music of Frederic Delius. “Summer Night on the River,” “Song of the High Hills,” “Summer Evening,” even his “Appalachia” and “Florida Suite” are inescapable. Most of these selections can be found on a two-disc set of Delius’ works conducted by Adrian Boult, but other good performances have been turned in by the London Philharmonic with Vernon Handley conducting and Norman del Mar conducting the Bournemouth Sinfonietta.

My vote for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons still goes to I Soloisti Veniti under Claudio Scimone on Erato—although this is no longer listed as available, I see it for sale everywhere. Samuel Barber’s Summer Music has a fine performance by the Westwood Wind Quintet on Crystal. And, while we are mentioning Barber and summer, you may not already have Dawn Upshaw’s performance of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, but, with this summer of the state’s bicentennial coming up, you should.

Have fun, drive safely, wait an hour after eating before you go in the water, and remember to turn the stove off.


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