Classical CD Reviews
Classical CD Reviews, Part 2 of 2
Published on July 1, 2004
July-August 2004 Pt. 2 of 2 [Pt. 1]
Re: BACH – Lara St. John, violin – Produced and arranged by Magnus Fiennes – Sony Classical SK 89973:
Something strange about the release of this disc. I first received it about a year ago and was starting to review it when I noticed a warning that it wasn’t to be released officially until February 2004. So I put it aside and forgot about it. This week I received it again, except that now it seems to be issued on the Sony’s Odyssey label. This is the latest in “creating new soundscapes” as they call it (read “classical crossover”). Bach is certainly the music to choose for any sort of “updating” such as this – he’s completely indestructible. The idea here was to select 15 short pieces from Bach’s immense catalog and present them in arrangements featuring St. John’s violin and tapping into the jazz, world music and pop worlds. And the fact that the violinist is beautiful and posed similarly on the front and back of the album to a recent Diana Krall album doesn’t hurt either.
I wouldn’t say Fiennes can take credit for “creating a new context for the Bach selections,” since we have already heard melodies of the master on everything from calliope to synthesizer. The only slant I hadn’t heard before was the Celtic music one, which would probably appeal to fans of that sort of world music. Most of the instruments involved here are certainly not heard normally in music of the Baroque. They include steel guitar, cimbalom, Hammond organ, tabla, accordion, marimba, ney flute, wah clavinet and electric bass. One of the surprising soloists in the ensemble is multi-percussionist Trilok Gurtu, who does a fascinating duo with St. John’s violin on Bombay Minor. Only one of the selections originally involved the violin, and most are in the less-often-heard Bach area, so one won’t be put off by yet another version of the Air for the G String, etc. The titles give one some idea of the types of transcriptions to be heard: Largo, Tocceilidh, Goldberg2, Duetto, Echo, The Sicilian, Bombay Minor, Recit, Aria, Fugue, Double, Gigue, Prelude, Ten Fifty-Two, and BADinerie.
– John Sunier
JOSEPH HAYDN: Concertos for Cello in C Major and D Major; GEORGE MATTHIAS MONN: Concerto for Cello, Strings and Harpsichord – Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello/Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Petra Müllejans – Harmonic mundi HMC 901816:
I recall having one of the earliest stereo discs of Aldo Parisot in these two Haydn works, on the Esoteric label. They are mainstays of any cellist’s repertory – sunny, major-key, beautifully-balanced concertos of the Classical period. I admit to having found them rather a bore previously, even with talents such as Yo-Yo Ma playing. But somehow this superb new recording featuring artists unknown to most of us sounds just right and held my interest. Tonally rich and with great clarity, the cello doesn’t sound inflated to a huge size as on some concerto recordings, and balance with the chamber orchestra is perfect. The Monn concerto is a rarity, his only cello concerto, and harks back closer to the Baroque era. Its central Adagio is in 12/8 time and a gem of a slow movement. Couldn’t recommend this disc more.
– John Sunier
DAG LUNDIN: Sonatina Primavera; Islandsvariationer; From My Travelbag; Glengarrys Ballad Variations – Solveig Wikman, piano – Nosag Records CD 088 (Dist. by Albany):
Don’t let the unfamiliar composer, titles and record label dissuade you from enjoying this Very (with a Capital V) accessible collection of very tonal music for piano. Dag Lundin’s musical style can be said to be a Nordic mix of Late Romanticism and Impressionism with Swedish folk music elements. But that doesn’t describe the delightful melody-spinning and almost pop element in this highly tonal music. The composer is also a reviewer, music journalist and debater, so he obviously wants to communicate with his audiences, and his little suites of pieces efficiently do just that. Some of them sound like Grieg piano music brought somewhat up to date. Even the opening Sonatina has only three and four-minute movements and is as tuneful and short on heavy development as the rest of the two dozen short tracks on this CD. Pianist Wikman presents the pieces with great clarity and elan, and the sound is first rate.
– John Sunier
G. A. BRESCIANELLO: Sinfonia No. 5 in F Major; Concerto in G Minor, Concerto No. 4 in E Minor, Overture in G minor, Sinfonia No. 1 in D Major, Concerto in B Major, Chaconne in A Major – La Cetra Baroque Orchestra of Basel/David Plantier & Vaclav Luks dir. – Harmonia mundi HMC 905262:
Another obscure but worthwhile composer re-discovered and reintroduced to modern audiences via the CD. Brescianello was a slightly younger contemporary of Bach, Handel, Telemann and Rameau. He was Kapellmeister of the Württemberg court in southwest Germany for many years. During this period of great musical activity and productivity he created works which mixed both the French and Italian traditions of the time, as well as newer and older elements. Not much of his music has survived, but these seven works are all appealing and varied. The opening and closing movements show off virtuoso turns by the solo instruments much as heard in Vivaldi or Corelli. The slow movements are full of melodic invention. Brescianello was clearly a master composer of his time. The young-looking Basel chamber orchestra plays with Swiss precision yet with a light and non-stodgy lilt. The church recording venue is extremely reverberant but if you run it thru Pro Logic II or IIx you will get a tremendous multichannel soundfield the equal of most classical 5.1 discs.
– John Sunier
Three discs of very French music coming up…
POULENC: Aubade; Sinfonietta; RAYNALDO HAHN: La Bal de Beatrice d’Este – The New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp – Hyperion Helios CDH55167:
Dating from l989 this should probably be in our Reissue Section this month, but considering it’s from Hyperion, the recording engineer was Tony Faulkner, and in the ensuing 15 years sizable improvements have been made in mastering and pressing of standard CDs, I’ll leave it here. Plus the Helios series is a mid-priced label of Hyperion. All three works are very French and very seldom heard today. The galant Aubade has long been a favorite of mine. It is both a short ballet concerning the chaste huntress Diana, and a concerto for piano and 18 instruments. The work was commissioned by a noble couple for one of their lavish fancy dress parties in l929. In the middle of Aubade Poulenc lifted a tune from a Mozart Divertimento. The even more obscure Hahn piece is a suite for winds, two harps and piano dedicated to his old master St.-Saens. It evokes an evening of dances in the palazzo of an Italian noblewoman, thus fitting well with Poulenc’s Aubade.
– John Sunier
RAYNALDO HAHN Piano Works: Premieres Valses; Portraits of Painters, after the poetry of Marcel Proust; Orient – extract from The Album of a Voyager; Sonatine en Ut Majeur – Laure Favre-Kahn, piano – ProPiano Records PPR 224538:
Speaking of Hahn, we have here an entire program of his piano music which was the rage of Parisian salons during the Belle Epoque. The connection with Proust comes from the fact that the composer and author were lovers; however this work is their only artistic collaboration. Orient shows the interest the French had in things oriental following the International Expositions in Paris in 1889 and 1900. The work has an ethereal exoticism about it. These four collections of pieces are just part of some 120 delicate and diverse piano pieces left by the salon music composer. The disc non-jewelbox packaging is artistically appropriate for the connection with painters.
– John Sunier
French Saxophone – 20th Century Music for Saxophone & Orchestra = TOMASI: Saxophone Concerto; CAPLET: Legende for Saxophone & Orchestra; ABSIL: Fantaisie-Caprice; CONSTANT: Musique de Concert; DEBUSSY: Rapsodie for Orchestra and Saxophone – Dominique Tassott, alto sax/Munich Radio Orchestra/Manfred Neuman – Audite 97.500 (Distr. by Albany):
As a fan of classical saxophone it was surprising to me to see that all the concertos on this new CD were premiere recordings with the exception of the familiar Debussy Rhapsody. Evidently some of them have been recorded, but in transcriptions for sax and piano or smaller ensembles than the original full orchestra heard here. The ascent of the saxophone in American jazz in the 1920s obscured the fact that the instrument was invented by a Frenchman in the early 19th century and in fact was praised by Hector Berlioz and used in some of his works. He appreciated “the flexible beauty of its accent” and that it could be “passionate, dreamy or melancholy.” Many new works for the classical saxophone were commission by a French woman who married a Boston doctor and used the sax as therapy to combat her progressive deafness. The Debussy and Caplet works here both resulted from these commissions. The lovely Tomasi concerto may remind one of Ravel in spots, and the writing in the Ostinato final movement of Constant’s work for sax and 12 instruments sounds like Hindemith. All the works verify the wide range of expression and tone possible in classical music with Adolph Sax’s unique invention. Tres bien.
– John Sunier
DON RAY: Piano Concerto; Suite No. 2 from Family Portrait – Conor Linehan, piano/Philharmonia Bulgarica/Derek Gleeson (Concerto); Dublin Philharmonic/Derek Gleeson (Suite) – Albany Troy662:
Here’s another American composer of tuneful super-accessible music who can come out of the tonal closet now that the international serial-music posse no longer has hegemony. Ray wrote scores for many TV series and had an Emmy nomination for Hawaii Five-O. His concert works have been performed around the world and he currently teaches film scoring at the University of London and UCLA. The piano concerto is a major 40-minute work whose first movement seemed to quote parts of the Yellow River Concerto plus the theme from Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence! I love it! Ray’s Suite is a sort of musical “Our Town,” and again extremely accessible and quintessentially American-sounding. The seven movements have titles such as A Death in the Family, and Remembering Them. The closer – Saturday Night in Town, 1900 – is very Coplandesque. Excellent sound. I highly recommend this one!
– John Sunier
SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82; Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, Op. 104
Sir Colin Davis conducts London Symphony Orchestra
LSO Live LSO 0037 56:53 (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):
Taped 2002-2003, these latest installments of Sir Colin Davis’s new Sibelius symphony-cycle enjoy a luminosity and clarity in the LSO’s wind and string choirs that easily qualify for any audiophile’s special collection. It would appear that conductor Davis intends to highlight the sheer, seamless legato of which the LSO string section is capable, on a par with the velvet moments we associate with the Boston Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic.
The works themselves need little by way of recapitulation of their respective merits. Conductors as disparate as Koussevitzky and Ehrling, Salonen to Celibidache, Hannikainen to Karajan have perceived the E-flat as a rising, resplendent arch-form, whose wind and brass elements allow for virtuoso display. Marked “stretto” at key sections, the piece invites the kind of “layering” a conductor of color can apply with graded nuances and a keen ear to the modulations that erupt form the opening, kernel motif and the sudden evolution of the Scherzo out of the Tempo molto moderato. The 1923 Sixth Symphony is a modal affair, effectively using Dorian elements to evoke swans and other natural allusions mixed in spacious polyphony. The delicacy and syncopated grace of the second movement Allegro moderato has a quiet mystery all its own. Davis and the LSO play these works as lovely paeas to Nature and to Sibelius’ own, iconoclastic aesthetic, a kind of turbulent pantheism. Collectors who appreciate the emphases on seamless purity of sound will liken these renditions to the Karajan model, a powerful, silken effusion of cosmic order. I personally like a few more rough edges, but I could only admire what sound engineers Jonathan Stokes and Tony Faulkner have accomplished for these brilliant readings.
Another pair of off-the-beaten-track recordings from Naxos…
HUGO ALFVEN: Symphony No. 2 in D Major; The Prodigal Son (ballet suite) – National Sym. Orch. of Ireland/Niklas Willén – Naxos 8.555072:
This is the third in a series of Naxos recordings of the five Alfven symphonies, Nos. 1 and 3 having been previously released. The Swedish composer, who lived to 1960, is one of the leading Scandinavian composers and much of his music is colored by his birth in the Dalecarlia area of Sweden – the source of most Swedish folk music tradition. The symphony’s first premiere in 1899 brought acclaim from critics that such an outstanding work came from only a 26-year-old. It is regarded as the first entry of internationalism into Swedish music. While not programmatic in nature, Alfven does explore some emotional depths and even a premonition of death, connected with two incidents (while swimming and boating) that nearly cost him his life. In contrast, the ballet is a very late work that celebrated the composer’s 85th birthday. While based on the biblical legend it is an example of the composer’s lighter style, the seven numbers being filled with Swedish polkas and festive marches.
MARIO CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO = Piano Music – Five Little Waltzes Op. 54 and ten other short piano pieces – Jordi Maso, piano – Naxos 8.555856:
Though best-known for his guitar music, the Italian composer Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote a great deal of piano music in his youth and later contributed scores to many Hollywood films from 1940 to 1956. His unusual name derives from the Spanish district of Castilla Nueva, from which his ancestors had been expelled by the Spanish in the diaspora of the Sephardim Jews in 1492. He was also a concert pianist, and his pieces are evocative little tone-paintings of various activities such as sailing and fishing, and of flora and fauna. He had studied with Pizzetti, who gave him a lyrical voice, and the piano music of Debussy and Ravel also influences these works. Some reminded me of Mompou’s piano pieces, though on the livelier side.
– John Sunier
Isola Romantica = CZERNY: Grande Serenade Concertante for Clarinet, Horn, Cello and Piano; GUSTAV JENNER: Trio in E Flat for Clarinet, Horn and Piano; FREDERIC DUVERNOY: Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 for Horn and Cello – Ensemble Isola – Crystal Records CD772:
One of the most delightful chamber music discs I have had the pleasure of hearing in some time! The members of this unusual quartet are all principal players in the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Canary Islands in Spain. (The recording was made in the rehearsal room of the Gran Canaria Philharmonic.) They have assembled a program of four works which will be new to almost every listener, yet all are of such appeal that one will wonder why they are not chamber music standards. Czerny is known to piano students for his finger-twisting exercises, but he wrote over 860 works of many kinds. His Grand Serenade is in variation form and most of the variations last just over a minute each. Jenner had studied with Brahms and his music was influenced by his famous teacher, which can be heard in his lovely four-movement work here. But it was the Duvernoy duos for the very unusual combination of French horn and cello which really knocked me out. He was the Dennis Brain of his period – the early 19th century. His duos are tuneful, fresh and charming gems.
– John Sunier