Classical CD Reviews
Classical CD Reviews, Part 1 of 2
Published on February 1, 2004
Part 1 of 2 [Part 2]
JOSÉ LUIS GRECO: Triptych: Perfume/Ardor/Forbidden Tonic; Pastel; I’m Superman! – Mariana Todorova, violin/Philharmonic Orchestra of Gran Canaria/Adrian Leaper – ASV DCA 1153:
What is it with the Canary Islands? Suddenly we get two terrific albums simultaneously from different orchestras there; didn’t even know they had any orchestras. Jose Luis is the son of the famous flamenco dancer Jose Greco. He danced with the New York City Ballet as well as with his father’s troupe, and one of his later teachers of composition was John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. His music is tonal, with concern for the past, and often mixes vital Spanish rhythms with exotic Eastern melodies. The last two works on this fascinating disc were written for the dance and for younger audiences. Pastel has an almost New Age serenity about it, but I’m Superman! is a wild expressionist musical foray that reminds me of Michael Daugherty’s Superman-centered works. The l994 work’s search for Spanish roots is uprooted by the interruption of TV superheros and cartoon music. The strictly orchestral Triptych is more introspective. The first section has a fairytale-like feeling, the second is an elegant violin concerto, and the third part sizzles and roars, but not without a touch of humor. Sonics are first-rate for 44.1. This is great new music that should be getting more attention.
- John Sunier
Klezmer Concertos & Encores = ROBERT STARER: K’li Zemer; PAUL SCHOENFIELD: Klezmer Rondos; JACOB WEINBERG: The Maypole, Canzonetta; ABRAHAM ELLSTEIN: Hassidic Dance; OSVALDO GOLIJOV: Rocketekya – David Karkauer, clarinet & bass clarinet/other soloists/Barcelona Sym./Seattle Sym./Berlin Radio Sym./Gerard Schwarz – Naxos Milkin Archive 8.559403:
This lively collection from the American Jewish Music series presents works by five American Jewish composers of the last century which reflect the celebratory tradition of the klezmer band. The nature of these secular instrumental groups that began in the 19th century playing for weddings in Jewish communities has always been influenced by the culture around it. This has included quasi-Hassidic music, Gypsy and Romanian music and Yiddish folksong. More recently jazz, electronic and new music have come into the mix with some avant klezmer groups.
The clarinet is usually the lead instrument in klezmer and Starer’s piece is clearly a four-movement clarinet concerto. The moods of the movements are given by their titles: Prayers, Dances, Melodies & Dedications. The Klezmer Rondos of Schoenfield was one of the first works to put the klezmer idiom within a classical art music piece. The band here is up to date with other clarinets, saxes, brass, percussion, piano and strings. There are also prominent parts for a flutist and a tenor who represents the vocal merrymaker and entertainer at Jewish weddings. The work Rocketekya is described as a shofar blasting off on a fantastical space voyage, in the middle of which it meets a Latin band in orbit. This romp is score for clarinet, violin, electric viola and bass without the orchestras of the earlier works on the disc.
- John Sunier
Let’s pretend the next disc is a song cycle. Yes, it’s not classical but neither is it jazz and it’s on a label which mixes many genres anyway…
The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1 – Nonesuch 79689-2:
The highly original singer/songwriter/film music composer has taken a break from the successful film scores for family films and in his first disc for Nonesuch Records returns to some of his most lucid/compelling/ironic/touching lieder. He performs them himself at the piano without any further instruments. In the notes he explains that his voice has improved over the years and he actually sounds better than he did when he originally recorded most of these songs. With only the simple accompaniment the intelligent/socially aware details of his lyrics really come to the fore. It’s like the most exciting sort of cabaret performance, except that the songs aren’t all about love found, lost or mislaid. Instead, many deal with subjects that just aren’t dealt with in pop songs: witness God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind), Sail Away, The Great Nations of Europe, or In Germany Before the War. There are a couple film score items: a piano solo from Toy Story and the theme for the film Ragtime. One of Newman’s abilities is to conjure up good ol’ boys that are sort of musical Archie Bunkers – allowing him to lay on the irony with a shovel and still keep our rapt interest. This is a powerful musical statement that should be heard by anyone, no matter what their musical taste.
- John Sunier
ERNST MIELCK: Symphony in F Minor, Op. 4; Concert Piece for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 8 – John Storgards, violin/Finnish Radio Sym. Orch./Sakari Oramo – Ondine ODE 1019-2:
Finnish composer Mielck had a tragically short life (1877-99). He studied with Max Bruch and was influenced by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. He began a career as a concert pianist. His symphony came out two years before Sibelius complete his first symphony and for a time he was predicted to be a possible challenger for the Finnish national composer position. But tuberculosis brought him down at age 21. Mielck’s symphony was compared to Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote which had just been premiered. It is an expansive 41-minute structure with a longest first movement which begins with a military march. The lovely Andante cantabile slow movement balances major and minor modes to fascinating effect. Ondine’s sound is above par. This is a very worthwhile discovery in off-the-beaten-track Late Romantic symphonies.
- John Sunier
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 34 = GABRIEL PIERNÉ: Piano Concerto in C Minor; Poeme symphonique in D Minor; Fantaisie Ballet in B flat major; Scherzo-Caprice in D Major – Stephen Coombs, piano/BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./Ronald Corp – Hyperion CDA67348:
Hyperion continues to dig up these rare piano concertos, and most of them are a perfect delight. They should be dropped in at random to replace the endless Tchaikovsky Firsts and Rachmaninoff Seconds on so many concert programs. All are recorded with excellent fidelity and the performances nearly always sound like a great deal of rehearsal and thought went into the recordings to present these concertos in the best possible musical light. Pierne succeeded Franck as organist at St. Clotilde, and he composed extensively – oratorios, ballets, operas, piano pieces. His Concerto dates from 1887 and has some similarities to St.-Saens’ Second Piano Concerto. The piano dominates the imposing introduction to the first movement, and the final movement is a dazzling rondo. The three other works all also feature the piano and orchestra. The Poeme symphonique is in a single movement and its dark chromatic harmonies show an affinity with Franck.
- John Sunier
Two recent entries in Naxos’ American Classics series…
NED ROREM: Symphonies Nos. 3, 1 & 2 – Bournemouth Sym. Orch./José Serebrier – Naxos 8.559149:
Rorem may be more famous for his candid diaries reporting on the private lives of famous composers and artists than for his music. He was Virgil Thomson’s copyist in return for lessons and spent time with Paul Bowles in Morocco. His three symphonies all date from the l950s and both the first and second here are recording premieres. The composer says the First is really just a suite. One melody comes from an Arab wedding tune. The Second has some nice themes and the one in the second movement has an unmistakable “American sound” due to open intervals. The Third’s premiere performance was conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It is tonal and has five movements – one of which is a brisk and jazzy dance. Serebrier is to be commended for bringing this re-discovered music (Nos. 1 & 2 haven’t been heard anywhere for years) to collectors’ attention.
PAUL CRESTON: Symphony No. 5; Partita Op. 12; Toccata; Out of the Cradle; Invocation and Dance – Scott Goff, flute/Ilkka Talvi, violin/Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz – Naxos 8.559153:
Creston, who died in l985, was self-taught and wrote in traditional tonal forms with an impressionistic style and unusual rhythmic techniques. His music is so tonal that during the swing to serialism he fell into disfavor, but now is the time to rediscover his very accessible and enjoyable works. His 25-minute symphony holds one’s attention the entire time with a feeling of urgency and often anxiety which is dispelled in the finale by some very rhythmic figurations, extra percussion, and a sense of manic celebration. The Parita has a Baroque feeling akin to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Its five short sections are: Preamble, Sarabande, Burlesk, Air, Tarantella. Creston’s Invocation and Dance has long been a favorite of mine; it pays homage to The Rite of Spring with its primitive energy but has a distinctly American sound.
- John Sunier
STEVE MARGOSHES: Violin Suite from “Fame;” Neapolitan Serenade; Variations on the Tango; Fatima’s Theme; A New Hungarian Rhapsody – Barnabas Kelemen, violin/Budapest Sym. Orch./Laszlo Kovacs – Albany TROY592:
The composer of the hit musical and film Fame has produced a new body of work in the “American Light” classical vein or symphonic pop. The Suite is extremely light and tuneful; an enjoyable piece whether or not you are familiar with the tunes from Fame quoted in it. The longest work here is the New Hungarian Rhapsody, inspired by the city of Budapest. Gypsy music and the blues are mixed with the classical themes in this boundary breaking orchestral fantasy. My favorite of the disc was Margoshes’ Variations on the Tango for violin and orchestra. His original tango theme mixes it up with several styles of Latin music, achieving a mood of exhilaration.
- John Sunier
We always can use an extra pair of Philip Glasses, right?…
PHILIP GLASS: A Descent Into The Maelstrom – The Philip Glass Ensemble/Michael Riesman – Orange Mountain Music 0005:
The work resulted from a commission from the Australian Dance Theatre. Glass chose a piece based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story about a ship being swept by a hurricane into a huge and terrible whirlpool. Poe’s text, Glass’ music, plus the dancers’ movement, props and images all became part of the approach. A 24-track live recording was made of the performance so the dance company could tour with it, but when the tapes were sent to New York to be made into a CD they were found to be distorted, noisy and unusable, so an entirely new version was recorded for this CD. By the appearance of the stills from the ballet in the note booklet, this would be great to view as a DVD video, but meanwhile we have the 18 cues from the score – whose titles give a good outline of Poe’s tale: Vertigo, On My Watch, They Enter the Stream, etc.
PHILIP GLASS: Saxophone = Concerto for Saxophone (Quartet Version); Melodies for Saxophone; The Windcatcher – The Rascher Saxophone Quartet/Andrew Sterman, sax/The Philip Glass Ensemble Woodwinds – Orange Mountain Music 0006:
These are recordings from Glass’ archives which show that the composer has long been a fan of the saxophone. He has always had three soprano saxes in his woodwind ensemble, and the Rascher Sax Quartet commissioned his Saxophone Concerto which they perform on this CD without the orchestra. Glass himself was a flutist, and the fingering is similar on the sax. The Melodies for Solo Sax were originally created for a stage production of a play by Jean Genet. The 13 short pieces also functioned as a sort of sketch pad for the Saxophone Concerto, but they stand on their own as mysteriously beautiful solo pieces. They rotate around the various sax voices, changing for each piece: soprano, alto tenor, baritone sax.The Windcatcher began life as a flute and piano piece. It was transcribed for sax sextet and fellow saxist/composers Jon Gibson and Richard Peck joined Andrew Sterman in this version.
- John Sunier
TYZEN HSIAO: 1947 Overture; Piano Concerto in C Minor; Symphony “Formosa;” Cello Concerto in C; An Angel from Formosa; Violin Concerto in D – Russian Federal Orchestra/Vakhtang Jordania (with Moscow State Chorus in Overture; Kirill Rodin, cello in Cello Concerto; Alexander Trostiansky, violin in Violin Concerto) – Angelok1 CD9912/13 (2 discs):
Sometimes referred to as the “Taiwanese Rachmaninoff,” Tyzen Hsiao studied music in the U.S. and strove to raise American awareness of the music of Taiwan and its musicians. The note booklet has interesting details on the history of Taiwan in the 20th century, which not many people in the U.S. know about. The opening 1947 Overture honors the losses of life in a riot which occurred in February of that year in opposition to the rule of Chiang Kia-shek. Complete with a Russian chorus, it sounds very much like the state-approved classical works of the Soviet Era. But I happen to like the broad naivitee of much of that music and you certainly can’t say it’s not accessible. The piano concerto is indeed very Rachmaninoffy but still a most enjoyable virtuoso work on its own. The Formosa symphony attempts to tell the story of the painful struggles of the country. It uses clashing inharmonious and atonal elements in the first two movements to accomplish this, making listening difficult. The last movement becomes more harmonious to celebrate the triumph of a new Taiwanese spirit. The cello and violin concertos are both tonal and lovely works which make occasional use of Taiwanese melodies. Recorded quality is generally good though not audiophile level.
- John Sunier
JOSÉ SEREBRIER: Symphony No. 3 (Symphonie mystique); Passacaglia and Perpetuum Mobile; Variations on a Theme from Childhood; Elegy for Strings; Memento psicologico; Fantasia; Dorothy and Carmine!; George and Muriel – Soloists/Toulouse National Chamber Orchestra/Jose Serebrier – Naxos America Classics 8.559183:
Composer-conductor Serebrier got to not only conduct his own works in this survey of his music over a 50-year span, but also to write all the liner and note booklet notes. Plus he wrote the new Symphony No. 3 at the last minute especially for this disc, ostensibly to replace one of the works for which the soloist was ill. But then he was able to make it and so both works are here (the Passacaglia and Perpetuum Mobile features a solo part for accordion). The Symphony which he wrote in a week is in four movements but otherwise entirely non-traditional. The third movement has a sad waltz which keeps trying to return, and the symphony’s poetic nickname comes mainly from the disembodied sound in the final movement, provided by a soprano vocalese. The first four works on this CD are all World Premiere Recordings.
- John Sunier
Speaking of accordion, here’s another disc which doesn’t fit either our classical or jazz sections. It’s from a classical label so lets deal with it here…
The Complete Works of GUIDO DEIRO “Vaudeville Accordion Classics” – Henry Doktorski, accordion – Bridge 9138A/B (2 CDs):
This is an absolutely fascinating musical and literary document, and let me point out right away that the recordings are newly-made – not of a historical nature. Count Guido Deiro lived from l886 to 1950 and was a main figure in popularizing the accordion in the early 20th century. He was performing in vaudeville by l910 (I’ll bet my father, who was a touring autoharp virtuoso at about this same time, must have run into Deiro.) He was the first piano accordionist to make recordings and to do solo radio broadcasts. In l913 Deiro met the young vaudeville performer Mae West; they had a passionate romance and married secretly. Doktorski details their torrid relationship in his liner notes and there are items from Deiro’s own scrapbooks. The Italian count evidently kept careful track of his compositions, and Doktorski has been able to record all 47 of his rags, marches, polkas, waltzes, novelty tunes and other music which he wrote. They are fairly simple light music of the period and of course sound quite dated now, but the virtuosity of some of them is quite unexpected. For nearly two decades Deiro was one of the most popular musicians of the vaudeville stage. He had an opulent lifestyle with women who attended his concerts attracted to him; his life was not unlike that of a modern rock star. Deiro had a studio in the heart of San Francisco’s North Beach and inside the back of the jewelbox is a photo of it, though uncredited.
- John Sunier
JANACEK: Violin-Piano Sonata; LUTOSLAWSKI; Subito; Partita; SZYMANOWSKI: Mythes – Isabelle Faust, violin/Ewa Kupiec, piano – Harmonia mundi HMC 901793:
These Moravian and Polish composers have a great deal in common. Janacek and Szymanowski are contemporaries and the Janacek Sonata and the Lutoslawski Partita are quite similar in sound – rugged and rough hewn in their approach, using blocks of sound with different textures. All these are also works of the three composer’s maturity, showing their strong personal styles. In fact, all three represent (to quote the notes) “a point of equilibrium in their composers’ search for idiosyncrasy – that is, for what allows one immediately to recognise a style and an identity.” The three Szymanowski Mythes are all based on Greek myth and touch on impressionism though with a Slavic angle. The Partita is the least tonal of the works, but it provides a suitable balance to the similar Sonata which began the program. The violin tone is so clean and unaffected by digititus that it almost sounds like an SACD though it’s a Red Book CD.
- John Sunier
[Continue on to Part 2 of Classical CD Reviews]