Classical CD Reviews

Classical CD Reviews, Part 2 of 3


Published on June 1, 2004

June 2004 Pt. 2 of 3   [Pt. 1] [Pt. 3]

Vivaldi for viola da gamba - Savall Debussy for Harp Klami & Collins CDs
Berlin Sax & French/Japanese Flute Eric Stokes' quirky chamber pieces Beth Anderson's Swales
Simon Rattle - Americana works for ocarina quartet! Symphonies of Erwin Schulhoff


VIVALDI: Le Viola da gamba in Concerto – 7 concertos: for violin, gamba, strings & continuo; 2 concertos for 2 violins, gamba, strings & continuo; concerto for 4 violins, cello, strings & continuo; “Concerto Funebre” for oboe, muted tenor viol, soprano viola da gamba & muted violins; Concerto “Protean…” for strings & continuo with obligatto violin and cellos; and Concerto with Multi-Instruments – 2 flutes, oboe, multed tenor viol, principal violin, 2 treble viols, 2 trombe marina (viols with special bridge to sound trumpet-like), 2 clavicembalos, strings and continuo – Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall, viola de gamba and director – AliaVox AV 9835:

The spectacular packaging of all the AliaVox issues indicates well the treasures usually found within. In this case the theme of Vivaldi and the viol acts to raise the collection of concertos well above the expected offering of yet more Vivaldi. But even without that interesting ploy this would be a winner for the committed and gutsy (but not overmuch) playing and the unusual instrumental combinations which afford plenty of variety of sound. And this sound is lovingly captured by AliaVox SOTA recording. The viol family was not any more popular in Italy at this time but had a sort of cult status, and Vivaldi wrote a number of works specifying the instruments. The blending of the different timbres of the violins and viols – both muted and not – provides a fascinating variation on the usual string sound in many of these works. The final Allegro movement of the Molti Istromenti concerto brings the collection to a close with some wildly unexpected and very gutsy sounds gauranteed to captivate any audiophile – even those not especially atuned to early music.

- John Sunier

DEBUSSY’S HARP: En Bateau, Dances Sacred & Profane for harp & strings, Clair de lune, Reverie, Arabesque No. 1, Valse romantique, Le fille aux cheveau de lin, Bruyéres, The Sunken Cathedral, The Little Shepherd, Sarabande – Yolanda Kondonassis, harp – Telarc CD-80622:

Kondonassis has at least ten previous Telarc CDs behind her and in this latest effort matches up the impressionistic musical world of Debussy with the perfectly appropriate timbre of her concert harp. The Sacred and Profane Dances is the only work originally for the harp, and around which the collection is arrayed. The rest are skillful transcriptions of the originals for piano or orchestra. Even those verging on the annoying – such as Clair de lune and Girl with the Golden Hair – sound absolutely fresh and captivating on the harp. One of the more difficult instruments to properly record, it of course receives its full due from Telarc’s engineering department. My favorite of the bunch was the programmatic Sunken Cathedral, which has been transcribed for many different instruments (including electronic) but seems to fit the chromatic harp just as effecitvely as its original spectacular piano version. This will probably eventually also be released on SACD with a resultant improvement in clarity and frequency extension, but without a direct comparison at hand I would say the CD version doesn’t have to make any excuses whatever.

- John Sunier

Don’t fear contemporary music! Here is some gorgeous, accessible music from Finland and America…

UUNO KLAMI: Intermezzo, Incidental Music to the play The Prodigal Son, Symphonie enfantine; EERO KESTI: Fantasia for Orchestra “Spring;” TOIVO KUULA: South Ostrobothnian Folk Songs II – Kymi Sinfonietta/Juha Nikkola; Jorma Hynninen, baritone (in Folk Songs) – Alba ABCD 171 (Distr. by Albany):

Klami was a major influence on the Finnish music scene until his death in l961. The sea was important to him in all its guises, and he tried to capture its moods in much of his music. His six preludes and other incidental music for The Prodigal Son are unusually light in mood for the composer. The Intermezzo is actually a concerto for English horn and orchestra, again having to do with the sea in its depiction of Neptune’s nether kingdom. Kesti is a member of the Kymi Sinfonietta, and his work is a sunny and airy work inspired by the wonders of nature. Kuula was a native of Ostrobothnia and his wife was a singer, which helps to explain his representative work in this collection. The composer had studied with Sibelius but his promising career was cut short in a shooting incident when he was only 35. The ten songs deal with expected village folk concerns and have compelling melodies of great beauty. Translations of all are provided, thankfully.

- John Sunier

EDWARD JOSEPH COLLINS (1886-1951): Concerto No. 3 in B Minor for Piano and Orchestra; Symphony in B Minor “Nos habebit humus” – William Wolfram, piano/Royal Scottish Nat. Orch./Marin Alsop – Albany TROY625:

These are both first recordings of both works from the composer who hailed from Ilinois and was an assistant conductor at the Bayreuth Festival prior to WW I, later teaching, performing and composing in Chicago. He began his musical studies with pianist Rudolf Ganz and had his debut in Berlin in 1912. He often conducted the Chicago Symphony, which also performed some of his works. Collins wrote three piano concertos. Though having received the usual-for-the-time German training, Collins displayed originality in his musical structures and often incorporated American idioms into his music. The most extensive of his three piano concertos is in four movements and nearly 40 minutes length. The work keeps the soloist very busy throughout, in the style of Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky, but is freer in form than those concertos. The second movement mixes a 7/8 meter with 5/8 for a very modern rhythmic feeling. The last movement is a wild tarantella. The entire work is most accessible. The symphony – in spite of its qoute translating as “all return to dust” – is quite sunny in demeanor and has a rich and flowing bucolic feeling in much of its length. It is scored for very large orchestra. Collins is a delightful discovery who bears more attention, so this disc is most welcome.

- John Sunier

Two different woodwind instruments in duos with piano and harp…
Saxophone Music of Berlin, Vol. 1 – SCHULHOFF: Hot Sonata; WOLFGANG JACOBI: Sonate; ERNST-LOTHAT VON KNORR: Sonata Op. Post.; ERWIIN DRESSEL: Sonata in E Flat Major – Frank Lunte, alto sax/Tatjana Blome, piano – EDA 021-2 (Distr. Albany):

Although from its invention in the mid-19th century composers such as Berlioz had occasionally used the new saxophone in their music, it was in the 1930s that many composers in Europe began to explore the saxophone in serious classical works. WW II interrupted this, and in the 80s new works for the sax began to appear and many sax quartets and quintets were formed. This enterprising small label plans a three-volume series covering just chamber works for alto sax with piano, from Berlin-based composers in the 20th century. The Lunte/Blome Duo was formed to expose this repertory and will be heard in all three volumes.

Erwin Schulhoff will easily be the one composer here familiar to most. As one of the most interesting of the Jewish composers who lost their lives in the Holocaust, he is known for the frequent strains of syncopated hot jazz of the 20s which appears in some of his works. His Hot Sonata obviously fits the bill. Written in 1930, it was the first German work for classical saxophone and was premiered with Schulhoff accompanying an American saxophonist. The other three Berlin composers all studied with Gustav Bumcke, who knew Adophe Sax’s son and brought back to Berlin eight saxophones of all sizes. Jacobi’s sonata is in a neo-classical style. Von Knorr was of a very avant nature – he experimented in electronic sound generation at the Berlin Radio, and in his Sonata used special techniques such as slap-tongue and very high register playing. Dressel’s Sonata is one of several works for the instrument, including two concertos. It is full of catchy melodies and was dedicated to sax pioneer performer Sigurd Rascher.

Beau Soir – French and Japanese Melodies for Flute and Harp – Emmanuel Pahud, flute/Mariko Anraku, harp – Works of DEBUSSY, IBERT, RAVEL, MONTI, SATIE, TAKEMITSU, MIYAGI – EMI CLASSICS 577402 6:

Young Swiss flutist Pahud is first flute with the Berlin Philharmonic and has performed and recorded most of the important repertory for his instrument. He even broke genre borders with a collaboration with jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson on Blue Note called Into the Blue.The combination of flute and harp has been a popular one since Mozart’s time, with many parlors once adorned by the pleasant sight and sound of a young man playing the flute with a young lady playing harp. Rather than the salon music often heard then, this program tends toward solid repertory such as Debussy’s lovely First Arabesque and En Bateau from his Petite Suite. The notes point out a certain sonority which French and Japanese classical music seem to have in common. Takemitsu even rearranged the Satie piano piece for flute and harp heard here because he was so attracted to it. Takemitsu’s original piece on the disc is a three-movement suite titled Toward the Sea III – its movements are The Night, Moby Dick & Cape Cod. Easily the most enjoyable flute & harp disc I’ve heard in years.

- John Sunier

Two highly individual American composers’ quirky but accessible music…
ERIC STOKES (1930-1999): Susquehannas; The Pickpocket is Lyrical Two; Tintinnabulary; Whittlings – Zeitgeist: Jay Johnson & Heather Barringer, percussion; Carl Witt, keyboards; Michael Lowenstern, reeds; David Milne, alto sax – New World Records 80596-2:

Stokes centered most of his career at the University of Minnesota. His unique voice in American music has placed him in comparison with Ives, Cage and Henry Brant. Nicolas Slonimsky described him as a crusty, eccentric, humorous composer of gentle, witty and accessible music – with a taste for folkloric Americana. The wonderful essay on the composer was written by his fellow composer and friend Homer Lambrecht, who says he admired Stokes’ ability to marry fantasy and reality – to smudge the line between what has been and what could be.

Susquehannas refers to the name of the early peoples who lived along the banks of the streams in the Eastern mountains of the U.S. The Pickpocket was my favorite of these works – it goes back to some of the composer’s favorite folk songs combined with his own original tunes. His notes say the work celebrates “our time-spun being – the ineluctable dance of sound-spelled Life.” The five sections are: Bull ‘Gine ‘n’ Tarriers, Breath Can Blow Both Ways, Pop the Whip, Go Way From My Window, & Over the Deep Blue Moon. The combination of reeds, piano and percussion is central to the special sonorities of this music, and the inclusion of steel drums among the percussion adds a delightful unexpected touch. The percussionists have it all to themselves in Tintinnabulary. Stokes reports his foal was “to ring some few of the sound world’s most multitudinous tintinnabularies.”

BETH ANDERSON: Swales and Angels = March Swale, Pennyroyal Swale, New Mexico Swale, The Angel, January Swale, Rosemary Swale, Piano Concerto – Rubio String Quartet and various performers cond. by Gary M. Schneider – New World Records 80610-2:

While there is a refreshing simplicity about Stokes’ music, Anderson takes it much further. She began her music studies with Cage, worked in conceptualism, and for awhile was known as one of the leading text-sound composers. She eventually moved into creating chamber music of simple and direct tonality and luminous textures. She created the swale form, which in music is a work with many diverse musical styles which are heard side by side as in the dictionary definition of swale as a marshy area where many different kinds of plants grow together. As with Stokes, the works are full of unexpected things, but they still seem to flow naturally and without abrupt junctions. A skillful collage technique would be a good summary of Anderson’s approach. The Angel is the one vocal work here, with the soprano soloist singing a Hans Christian Andersen story plus some childlike poetry. If you don’t listen closely many of the pieces sound like they could be 19th century works, but there is a sophistication apparent among closer examination. The Piano Concerto is the highlight of the collection. For only six players plus soloist it achieves an amazing emotional impact in its brief single movement. It’s like no other piano concerto you have ever heard – full of terrific tunes and communicating a freeing sense of great joy.

- John Sunier

Simon Rattle/London Sinfonietta, London Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Sym. – Americana = Works of BERNSTEIN, GERSHWIN, STRAVINSKY, ELLINGTON, JOHN ADAMS etc. – EMI Classics 5 57691-2-1:

Some good thought went into the assembling of this compilation from earlier EMI recordings by Rattle – several of them from 1987. They certainly have the right names, although it’s strange to have an Americana theme without a single work by Copland. Some of the selections are also expected: Rhapsody in Blue, Take the “A” Train, etc. but others are not – such as the last movement of Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto which he wrote for the Woody Herman Band. A big nine-minute production is given Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing…, involving Clark Terry, Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano and Regina Carter, and titled “That Doo-wah Thing.” The jazzy element is definitely a theme in this collection of 13 tracks; great fun all around.

The Classic Ocarina – Works of BEETHOVEN, SCHUBERT, WAGNER, VERDI, SULLIVAN & Others – The Chuckerbutty Ocarina Quartet/Michael Copley dir. with an octet of other performers – Dorian Recordings DOR-93260:

Talk about unexpected. Copley, one half of the Cambridge Buskers of yore, mentions that although the ocarina has been around since pre-history it has been pretty much ignored by composers both great and otherwise. He also explains how the instrument is different from other members of the flute family: Instead of its pitch being determined by the length of a tube, it is controlled by the combined surface area of the holes – which can be placed anywhere on the instrument. Also, it should be pointed out that the name of the group comes from the actual name of a real person – an Indian composer and organist who lived in the UK: Oliphant Chuckerbutty. The ocarina sound is probably closest to the recorder but more earthy-sounding. It’s a kick! The arrangements are clever and prevent any boredom from hearing just the four unadorned ocarinas holding forth. Among my favs of the 23 very short tracks were the long exception – Variations on Carnival of Venice, Offenbach’s Can-Can, Satie’s 2nd Gymnopedie, and believe it or not the Prelude to Act 3 of Wagner’s Lohengrin! Perfect source material for Dorian’s clean and transparent sonics too.

- John Sunier

ERWIN SCHULHOFF: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5; Suite for Chamber Orchestra – Bavarian Radio Sym. Orch./James Conlon – Capriccio 67 080:

To my ears Schulhoff is the most musically interesting of all the neglected “Entarte” composers who lost their lives in the Holocaust. Along with Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein and others he was ignored in the post-WW II standoff between the Second Viennese School and the Classicism of Stravinsky because his musical path didn’t coincide with either. He had dabbled in Dadaist philosophy, and his early works were influenced by Debussy (with whom he briefly studied), Richard Strauss and Mahler. He loved jazz and incorporated popular dance music of the 20s into many of his works. The Second Symphony of 1932 is a rather light work originally created for radio broadcast. Jazz idioms, even played on the banjo, are part of the work, as is a qoute from Beethoven’s Niinth. The Fifth Symphony shows the composer haunted by the approaching dark clouds of war in l938 and his activity in the Communist Party. Some sections seem to depict battles and victory, and the finale suggests a possibly positive conclusion – which was not to be for either Schulhoff or Europe in general. I believe these works have been recorded before but both the gripping performances and excellent sonics move this one to the fore against the earlier competition.

- John Sunier




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