Classical CD Reviews

Classical CD Reviews, Part 2 of 2


Published on April 1, 2004

April 2004 Pt. 2 of 2   [Pt. 1]


How about starting out this section with a bunch of really tuneful, accessible, easy-on-the-ears music – first from Europe and South America, and then from the U.S.?
SAINT-SAENS: Carnival of the Animals; Septuor in E Flat Major; Fantasie for violin and piano; Romance and Priere for cello and piano; My Heart at They Sweet Voice, From Samson & Dalila (cello & piano) – Renaud and Gautier Capucon and chamber ensemble – Virgin Classics 5 45603 2 3:

Saint-Seans enjoyed writing works for unusual and even unique combinations of instruments. His wonderfully witty Septet here was created for a group of amateur musicians which happened to include strings and a trumpet player. The contrasts between the two instrumental sounds provide for plenty of drama and quirkiness in this very French four-movement work. But the well-known “grande fantasie zoologique” is the main entree on the menu ici. Except that instead of the full orchestra version we have its original chamber music score for only a dozen instruments – what Saint-Saens orginally had to work with. The light-hearted 14-section suite moves along with even more élan that usual, and it seems as if the composer’s efforts to paint realistic pictures of the various animals is more successful and humorous than with the full orchestra version. The players are just perfect, everything sounds completely fresh and sparkling and has been captured in extremely clean sonics. It is like getting to know this delightful work all over again. And the four little pieces featuring violin, cello and harp provide a nice change of pace between the Carnival and the Septet. Plus the packaging of the musicians with the animal heads is great fun. This would be a fine CD to introduce children to some great classical music without compromising anything about it.

- John Sunier

ERIK SATIE & JüRGEN GRöZINGER: Inside the Dream – European Music Project, with Barbara Baier, soprano/Ilya Itin, piano/Girard Rhoden, tenor – Wergo Alcar ALC 5107 2:

The German Wergo label is known for cutting-edge contemporary music projects. A major series on John Cage is one of their efforts. The 22 selections on this disc grew out a live mulimedia performance with a multichannel audio installation; it’s unfortunate it couldn’t be presented using DVD-Audio or DVD-V with DTS 5.1. Composer and vibes-player Grozinger was fascinated by the literature of the surrealists, but especially by the novels and poetry of Robert Desnos, which mixed kitschy horror and detective stories with romance and comedy. The passages chosen for the presentation involve interweaving dreams and reality. Several early songs by Erik Satie are heard, interspersed with original music by Grozinger and some of Satie’s instrumental Gnossiennes. Satie’s position as a close friend of the surrealists fits him into this mileau, and the extremely slow tempi and melancholy of much of this music is a counterpart of the atmosphere of Desno’s poetry. Some photos of pseudo-1920’s cheesecake illustrate the booklet and evidently were part of the media presented. The performances by the seven-piece ensemble plus the three guest performers, are of high quality. There was room in the booklet for the photos and notes in three languages; why wasn’t there room for English translations of the Satie songs? What is this? More and more vocal music recordings seem to be provided recently without any translations of the songs which are in other languages. We’re not asking for a multimedia extravaganza here – just librettos, OK?

- John Sunier

Julia Thornton – Harpistry (Arrangements by Craig Leon, with National Radiio Orchestra and Chorus of the Netherlands and assisting guest artists) – EMI 5 90145 2:

The major labels have their own big-budget ways to going about trying to create successful crossover albums. Often they fall flat on their derrieres but occasionally – as with the Yo-Yo Ma album below and this one – they score handsomely. For this lovely CD Julia Thornton is Harp Babe. The seven glamourous photos of her are not salacious as with Bond or Sarah Brightman, but tasteful, still sexy, and just about what you would expect a beautiful young female harpist to look like. (Notice there’s no closeups of her fingertips.) The music choices for the 13 tracks are superb for this sort of album – some chesnuts, but nothing such as the Pachelbel Canon yet again. And the arrangements – while clearly intended to reach a broader audience than the core classical listener – are imaginative and very attractive listening. There are two Bach themes, a Handel Sarabande, Couperin’s Les Baricades Misterieuses, a Dowland, the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral. The Dutch players are top rate and the sonics are fine. Relaxing and unhackneyed music that would be perfect for either foreground or background listening.

- John Sunier

Yo-Yo Ma and Friends – Obrigado Brazil Live in Concert – Sony Classical SK 90970 (CD & DVD video):

This is a sort of sequel to Ma’s previous studio-recorded album Obrigado Brazil, with some of the same tunes but quite different versions of them. As Cuban clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera – among the guests here – observes in the album notes, Ma has talent, dedication and respect for every musical genre there is. Just as Japan’s Sakamoto can be an integral part of a Brazilian trio, Ma and his cello fit beautifully into the Brazilian/Argentinian genre of this exciting ensemble. The concert took place in Carnegie Hall last fall and featuring 14 tracks from such diverse sources as Jobim, Piazzolla, Jaco do Bandolim, Gismonti, and members of the group D’Rivera and Sergio Assad. The Assad Brothers guitar duo (who also play gypsy music with violinist Nadia Solerna-Sonnenberg) and versatile pianist Kathryn Stott are central to the ensemble. There are also three Brazilian musicians – guitarist Rosa Passos, bassist Nilson Matta and percussionist Cyro Baptista. For my ears the highlight of the album was their terrific version of Barroso’s Aquarela do Brasil – made me think of my favorite movie by Terry Gilliam. The bonus video with the CD (which hasn’t yet arrived for review here) features three selections from the concert, including Ma’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s most famous work, Libertango, which he performed on the soundtrack of the film The Tango Lesson.

- John Sunier

Now for some Very American Music!…

DON GILLIS: Star-Spangled Symphony; Amarillo – A Symphonic Celebration; A Dance Symphony (No. 8) – Sinfonia Varsovia/Ian Hobson – Albany Records TROY618:

Gillis was a Missouri-born composer who lived until 1978 and outdid even Copland in creating music that could be instantly identified by anyone as extremely American-sounding. He was a very straightfoward melodist, had a great sense of humor and light-heartedness about his music, and was genuinely interested in communicating roots American culture via classical music. The spirit of the Southwest was a frequent starting point for his music. It’s a shame that Gillis has been neglected in recent years – he was frequently heard on radio and in concerts in the 40s and 50s. Just a list of the movements of these two symphonies will give a good idea of his musical approach: Star-Spangled: Production Line, Prayer and Hymn for a Solemn Occasion, Bobby Socks, Fourth of July; Sym. No. 8: Jukebox Jive, Deep Blues, Waltz (of sorts), Low Down Hoe-Down. This is the world premiere recording of Gillis’ musical celebration for the 75th birthday of the city of Amarillo, Texas. Excellent sound and performance. Any serious about American concert music should have this CD in their collection.

- John Sunier

DAVID GUNN: Somewhere East of Topeka – The Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble – Albany Records TROY535:

Gunn is a composer of today who obviously follows in the footsteps of Gillis. He is posed (it least it seems to be him) in the note booklet in a striped prison uniform hitching a ride under a sign proclaiming “Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates.” Gunn, like Gillis, is a melodist and uses clearcut rhythms and harmonices, though in a more modern, deconstructionist manner. Klezmer and pop music in general are among his influences. Even the humor involved in these good-natured creations is more modern, more surrealist. Take for example the opening one of these 16 short pieces – Cowbellies. The composer notes say, “Marked Andante with a full udder, this bovine blues follow the multiple-stomached digestive process of man’s best friend.” Another piece in the style of a perpetual motion duo for violin and piano is described as a short-attention-span version of minimalism. Ununsual combinations of instruments show up in Gunn’s chamber compositions – for example the trio Khartoumaraca: for marimba, cello and clarinet.

Not the Right Balloon is a surrealist story-song narrated by the composer, and Do Aliens Wear Sombreros? is sung by a female voice. It’s a hoot, but musically and humorously. Here’s the titles of the selections , not including the title tune and those already mentioned: Katmandon’t, Going Like Sixty, The Help Me Rondo, Dance of the Hasidic Chigger Hecklers, Out of Cahoots, Hunting Tuna, Missing Inn March, Out of the Dark, Fossick, Running Lights

- John Sunier

WM. BOLCOM: Lyric Concerto for Flute and Orchestra; MICHAEL DAUGHERTY: Spaghetti Western for English Horn and Orchestra; LESLIE BASSETT: Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra – Amy Porter, flute/Harold Smollar, Eng. horn/Clifford Leaman, sax/University of Michigan Symphony/Kenneth Kiesler – Equilibrium EQ63 [www.equilibri.com]:

This beautifully performed, recorded and packaged (in jewel box alternative fold-out design) CD appears to be entirely a project of the University of Michigan Music Department. The choice of three fairly well-known contemporary composers and three unusual concertos is a ringer. All three create very American-sounding works. Bolcom is known for his mixing of musical metaphors and wrote his flute concerto originally for James Galway. It’s second movement has American-Irish musical quotes. Iowa-born composer Daugherty is known for his many works inspired by pop culture such as Superman, Elvis and Jackie O. The inspiration for his concerto comes from the music of Enrico Morricone for the Italian spaghetti westerns. The English horn becomes the “man without a name,” wondering thru various cliched western musical landscapes. Basssett’s sax concerto is chromatic but not serial; it focuses strongly on the virtuoso side of what the composer calls the most agile woodwind instrument. This effort is a most commendable presentation of new music that hopefully will find a wide audience.

- John Sunier

Now for another very American composer of a rather different bent…

FRANK ZAPPA: Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions – Ensemble Modern/Jonathan Stockhammer /Omar Ebrahim & David Moss, voices – RCA Red Seal 82876 56061 2:

The Ensemble Modern is an acclaimed, high-precision German chamber ensemble specializing in new music. Just as with similar ensembles in Holland and Sweden, Stockhammer and his players think very highly of the instrumental music created by the late composer/rock star/satirist. Zappa had complained about the difficulties of getting players to properly interpret his larger complex scores and the last years of his life created nearly everything on his Synclavier. Now Stockhammer, with the assistance of some musical computer mavens, have worked with Zappa’s files of this now obsolete synthesizer and printed out the music so that it could be performed live by their very skilled and precise players. This album is a sort of encore to the first Zappa album they did in l998, The Yellow Shark. The composer’s mordant wit is couched in very complex and often atonal musical language that is nevertheless immediately identifiable as “concert hall Zappa.” Here’s the ten works selected for this album: Moggio, What Will Rumi Do?, Night School, Revised Music for Low Budget orchestra, The Beltway Bandits, A Pig With Wings, Put a Motor in Yourself, Peaches En Regalia, Naval Aviation in Art?, The Adventures of Greggery Peccary

VIVALDI: The Four Seasons; Concerto for 2 violins, strings & continuo in A minor; Concerto for 2 violin in D – Nigel Kennedy & Daniel Stabrawa,violins /Members of the Berlin Philharmonic – EMI Classics 5 57666 0 1 (CD + DVD):

Another of an increasing number of DVD and CD combo releases. I’ve decided to include the album here rather than the DVD-V section because the audio portion is the main attraction. I wasn’t excited about auditioning yet another Four Seasons, but Kennedy’s (he seems to be using his first name again) thoughtful interpretation won me over. It is impetuous and sometimes exaggerated in attack on the notes, but not as over the top as, say, Il Gardino Armonico. A nice balance, I’d say. But tempi-wise it must be the fastest Four Seasons on record – the fast movements seem to be almost double-speed .And his Berlin cohorts in this effort are totally up to the challenge, as expected.

As to the DVD, it begins with a highly promotional introduction about what a great artist Kennedy is and how he single-handedly has made Vivaldi a big seller! The shots are of him playing in a highly romantic setting with hundreds of candles burning and Kennedy strolling around playing. However, we never do see the rest of the ensemble – they just seem to be on tape I guess. At one point a beautiful girl walks silently thru the candle-lit scene. That’s it. No explanation.

- John Sunier

We have next a trio of discs featuring the harpsichord…

RAMEAU: Opera & Ballet Transcriptions from Castor et Pollux, Daardanus, Les Indes Galantes, Pygmalion – Kenneth Weiss, harpsichord – Ambroisie SR 031:

Before recordings, transcriptions were the only way for people to become familiar with the music of important operas and ballets. Rameau and a fellow composer named Balbastre did most of the transcriptions in this collection, but the rest come from harpsichordist Weiss. Two of the suites open with an overture. As with Rameau’s original keyboard music, many of the selections are based on various dance forms. In fact these transcriptions sound like newly-discovered clavier works by the composer. Weiss transmits the feeling of the dance very well in his phrasing and tempi. The glorious sound of the two instruments on which he plays surely is a part of this musical experience. Both are authentic original instruments in the Musee de la musique in Paris, dating from around 1749 and 1761. The fold-out alternate packaging is also very tasteful, with photo studies of dancers in period costume.

- John Sunier

BACH: Per cembalo solo… Concerto in G Major BWV 973 after Vivaldi; Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue in D Minor; Concerto in D Major BWV 972 after Vivaldi; Fantasia & Fugue in A Minor BWV 904; Italian Concerto in F Major; Sonata in A Minor after Reincken; Fantasia & Fugue in C Minor BWV 906; Fugue in C Minor BWV 906 (reworked by Richard Egarr) – Richard Egarr, harpsichord – Harmonia mundi HMU 907329:

The same harpsichordist who performed the seven Bach harpsichord concertos with Andrew Manze last year in an award-winning set has now put together an exceptional program of Bach’s works for the solo keyboard. There are examples of his reworkings of pieces by various other composers, of his fantasy & fugue form, and one of his crowning solo keyboard works – the Italian Concerto. It should be noted that his transcriptions of the works for strings by Vivaldi and others were not strictly literal – he enriched and expanded the originals just as Busoni, Liszt and just about everyone else did Bach himself in the years to come! Egarr’s touch is perfect and the recording is perfectly balanced between close detail without emphasizing the mechanism noises, and a futher distance feeling for the sound of the instrument in the room. (It is always said how difficult to record properly the piano is, but the harpsichord is not so easy either!)

- John Sunier

BARTOK: Microcosmos – Huguette Dreyfus, harpsichord – Harmonia mundi Curiosita Series HMX 290791:

Yes, Bartok on the harpsichord – not a typo! And as the note booklet points out, this is not an attempt to do something as a novelty or for the shock value. Bartok himself says in his prefatory note to Microcosmos that some of the pieces may be performed on the harpsichord. In this he seems to be the only modern composer returning to the traditions of early music, in which a piece was often suggested or intended for playing on many different sorts of instruments. The Microcosmos was intended to be a small musical world for children, so most of the pieces are very short and simple – though simple in Bartok’s world is quite a different thing from most composers! The overall structure of some these pieces makes them seem almost more appropriate for the harpsichord with its terraced timbres and dynamics than for the grand piano. Dreyfus has chosen three or four short pieces from each of Volumes three thru six of Microcosmos. I found those with a drone effect, such as the Danse bulgar Nos. 2 & 3 to be most interesting on the harpsichord. As Charles Ives would have said, An ear-stretching experience.

- John Sunier

MARK-ANTHONY TURNAGE & JOHN SCOFIELD: Scorched – Scofield, guitar/John Patitucci, electric bass/Peter Erskine, drums/HR Big Band/Symphony Orchestra of Radio Frankfurt/Hugh Wolff – DGG 20/21 Series B0001416-02:

This live recording made in Frankfurt preserves a major effort in the fusion of classical and jazz genres. British composer Turnage is known for some very wild orchestral works such as his Three Screaming Popes. He played in a jazz group in university and later worked with Third Stream pioneer Gunther Schuller. Scofield is one of the leading jazz guitarists today, known for his many recordings for ECM and other labels. The work – for jazz trio, big band and symphony orchestra – crosses and blends idioms in a manner more advanced than anything heard during the Third Stream movement.

The 14 sections of the piece mix rich orchestral string writing with high voltage loft-jazz-type excursions built around the virtuoso guitar lines of Schofield. There are also some big band/symphonic atonal/chromatic explosions that nearly pin you against the wall. Turnage intended in his writing for the various forces to make them a distinctive amalgam rather than being identified as “now we’re hearing the big band, or now the solo guitar, or now the string section.” And he succeeds mightily. The sections for the jazz trio were not scored by Turnage but became a vital part of the sound – offering a lighter and more energetic sound in contrast to the darker and denser sound of the composed portions. The title of the work is a pun on how it came about: SCofield ORCHestratED. Sound is well up to the challenges of the music, though I’m sure it would be yet more detailed in SACD format.

- John Sunier




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