Classical CD Reviews

Classical CD Reviews – Part 1 of 2


Published on February 1, 2005

January-February 2005 – Part 1 of 2  [Part 2]
 

Brahms: Serenade - Haitink Philip Glass Cello Concerto
Arriaga Symphonies
Violin works of Biber & Muffat
Robert Kurka works cond. by Carlos Kalmar Zayas plays Schumann Rosenbaum plays Beethoven sonatas Wietheger, cello with piano
Korngold Violin-Piano works Paul Le Flem chamber music Don Gillis Pioneer Symphony Christopher Gunning: Piano Concerto

Arriaga SymphoniesJUAN CRISÓSTOMO ARRIAGA (1806-1826): Symphony in D. Overture, Los esclavos felices. Carlos Seixas Sinfonia in B flat. João de Sousa Carvalho (1745-1798) Overture, L’amore industrioso. António Leal Moreira (1758-1819) Sinfonia. Marcos Portugal (1762-1830) Overture, Il Duca di Foix – Algarve Orchestra conducted by Álvaro Cassuto – Naxos 8.557207 (58 mins.):

The short-lived Arriaga has always exerted a fascination on music lovers, primarily through the occasional recording of his D major symphony, a delightful romp which recalls the sultry Mozart of Figaro’s Barbarina and the high jinks of Bizet’s C major symphony. The other music on this enterprising disc recalls other delights, like Rossini’s overtures and Schubert in his Italian mood. The little overture of Moreira (called a Sinfonia) has an addicting, dopey glee about it, and the presence of clarinets here and there always make for smiles.

While Sérgio Azevedo’s liner notes are way too serious for such light hearted music, the recording – especially in the two Arriaga works – presents a lovely open sound stage on which the woodwinds have their way. If there were just a bit more definition and timbral luster, this would be a demonstration disc. The performances by the orchestra, which is situated on Portugal’s southern coast, its lovely Riviera, proudly show their affection for the music of their country, and feature some felicitous woodwind playing (which, unfortunately, the strings don’t quite match).

- Laurence Vittes

Haitink cond. Brahms Serenade No. 2BRAHMS: Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16; Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90 – Bernard Haitink conductrs London Symphony Orchestra – LSO Live 0056 69:10 (Distrib. Harmonai Mundi)****:

Two staples from Johannes Brahms recorded May and June 2003 and 2004 respectively, played by Bernard Haitink and the LSO in quite disparate styles. The 1859 A Major Serenade, despite its relatively dark colors without upper strings, sails rather breezily under Haitink, the individual lines&Mac226; benefiting from the conductor’s penchant for internal clarity. The twelve violas of the London Symphony sing most effectively, and the high piping of Sharon Williams’ piccolo in the finale puts an exclamation point on a course of outdoor Brahms well served.

The F Major Symphony has more in common with the opening of the Beethoven Fourth than Hans Richter’s designation for the work being kin to Beethoven’s Eroica. Haitink takes a lugubrious, even ponderous tempo at the opening of the symphony’s harmonic ambiguities, and he only opens up for a reticent smile for the recapitulation. The tight-lipped tight-fisted approach is less severe in the Andante and then relaxed for the Poco Allegretto. Here, the soft hues in the cellos and violas are compelling, the flutes yearning with that special Brahms wistfulness. Haitink urges a quiet intimacy that uses degrees of piano that attest to a real sympathy between him and his ensemble; then the French horn returns with the main theme. The finale seems to inherit Haitink’s pent-up momentum, breaking out, still pesant, into a roughly-hewn Allegro. This guarded vivaciousness may well be characteristic of the late Brahms, but it also confirms Hugo Wolf’s criticsm that Brahms was incapable of real exultation in music. A thoughtful performance, exquisitely played, but less Dionysiac than some classic renditions.

–Gary Lemco

Biber: Violin SonatasBIBER/MUFFAT: Der Turken Anmarsch – John Holloway, Violin; Aloysia Assenbaum, Organ; Lars Ulrik Mortensen, Harpsichord – ECM New Series ECM 1837 – 63 minutes *****:

This disc of accompanied violin sonatas from the pen of Biber represents the third and final disc of his works from this talented and virtuosic ensemble. Final, not only because they’ve traversed all of Biber’s accompanied works for the violin – but also, tragically, because violinist John Holloway’s wife, organist Aloysia Assenbaum, died following an extended illness after the recording of these works. This superb disc, which also includes a sonata from Biber’s contemporary Georg Muffat, will stand as a lasting tribute to her work.

The virtuosity displayed in the playing here is as stunningly beautiful as the music is itself – this is a disc to treasure. Biber’s broad appeal lies not only in the extreme level of virtuosity required of the musicians, but also in the ethereal and serene quality of the music they’re playing. The recorded sound is also superb, casting a broad soundstage and capturing a very real sense of the acoustic. Very highly recommended.

– Tom Gibbs

Glass Cello ConcertoGLASS: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra – The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Gerard Schwarz; Julian Lloyd Webber, Evelyn Glennie, and Jonatahn Haas – Orange Mountain Music ****:

How many timpani concertos can you name? Not many, right? There have been noteworthy orchestral pieces featuring percussion, like Bartok’s Music for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra, but a Google search reveals only one world-class composer–Glass–along with a few minor timpani concerto composers like Rolf Wallin and Gordon Jacob. This one is notable not only for the extraordinary Evelyn Glennie, but for its exciting (and non-repetitive) effects–such as what occurs in track 7–ones you’d rarely expect in a minimalist composer. Her sense of variegated rhythm and dynamics knows no bounds. Does she know Ginger Baker, legendary drummer of Cream? She has his spirit of invention. For too long classical music has shortchanged drums and their complex rhythmic possibilities, consigning them to ancillary roles in back of the tubas. No more with this show-stopper. The Concerto for Cello is also noteworthy, but in a different way. With its repeating motives and long lines, it is more of a Glass piece. It also has those plunges into sentimentality in Movement II (track 4), which could be shortened significantly. (Note that this disc is at odds with the program listing, which claims that each of the three Cello Concerto movements has its own track, when it is spread out over five for some curious reason.) Movement III is a tour-de-force and will wake you up with its plangent pseudo-waltz, interludes of public lamentation, sudden snappy rhythms, and striking virtuosity on the part of Julian Lloyd Webber. What next for this “Concerto Project”? Why not a piccolo concerto?

-Peter Bates

Robert Kurka works - Kalmar cond.Robert Kurka: Julius Caesar, Symphonic Epilogue after Shakespeare, Op.28 (1955 ) / Symphony No. 2, Op. 24 (1953) / Music for Orchestra, Op.11 (1949) / Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op.25 College (1954) / Grant Park Orchestra, Carlos Kalmar, conductor/ Cedille Records CDR 90000 077 *****:

I first heard the Symphony No. 2 of Robert Kurka in 1961 via a Louisville Orchestra subscription recording. The music has not left my head since.
This recording of Kurka’s orchestral music is an important new release on the excellent Cedille label, trademark of The Chicago Recording Foundation.
Kurka grew up outside of Chicago and graduated from Columbia University. Largely self schooled in composition, he taught at the City University of New York and Queen’s College and served as composer in residence at Dartmouth College. His opera, The Good Soldier Schweik, was completed just before his death from leukemia on December 12, 1957 at 36.

The music of Robert Kurka is virile,no nonsense, heavily syncopated with long lean soaring melodic lines. If you can conceive of an amalgam of the orchestral music of Prokofiev, William Schuman and Roy Harris with the thrust of Arthur Honegger, then you have an idea of what Kurka is about. There are wonderful dissonances playing against Harris-like uniquely American melodies.The music is classically organized yet fresh and inventive. It is fixating. After more than 60 minutes of this CD you hope for more.

Kurka’s music is beautifully shaped, so that each melodic line is well balanced between the various instrumentral choirs. The listener can hear everything going on in these selections. Much credit for this must go to Carlos Kalmar, Music Director of The Grant Park Orchestra for his masterful readings of the four selections presented.

This recording by the Grant Park Orchestra under the direction of Carlos Kalmar is first rate. The orchestra, comprised of top flight Chicago area musicians, some from the Chicago Symphony, others from The Chicago Lyric Opera, plays elegantly as if it was a permanent long established group, rather than one which only performs together summers. Of course these summers now number 60 for The Grant Park Orchestra, the resident orchestra for the great outdoor venue of the city of Chicago.

The recordings were made in Orchestra Hall, Chicago in 2003. The ambience, the spread of Orchestra Hall is all there. The listener is midway into the auditorium with the depth of the orchestra before him. It is a very lifelike orchestral recording. If you are interested in exciting, beautifully crafted music by a fine American composer whose career was meteoric, this CD is most highly recommended.
- Ronald Legum

Zayas plays SchumannSCHUMANN: Piano Sonata No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22; Romance No. 2 in F# Major, Op. 28, No. 2; Fantasie in C Major , Op. 17; Widmung (arr. Liszt) – Juana Zayas, piano – Music & Arts CD-1148 62:22 (Distrib. Albany)****:

Cuban virtuoso Juana Zayas recorded this warmly responsive “treasury of piano works by Robert Schumann” in New York, November 22-25, 2002. She lulls and caresses the richly textured three-part writing of Schumann with a verve and inwardness requisite to the style. The virtuoso elements in the G Minor Sonata, with its tricky syncopations and impossible demands for acceleration of tempo, daunt Zayas not at all. I must say her Hamburg Steinway D sings magnificently in the Romance, whose three staves suggest the duet of two lovers opposed by a fateful force, perhaps Wieck&Mac226;s antagonism to Robert’s courtship of Clara, for those who like their music programmed. Zayas maintains the delicate balance between legato expressiveness and oratorical declamation in the splendid Liszt transcription of the Op. 25 Widmung. For delicacy of nuance and transparency of filigree, this version is a model realization. Am I wrong, but doesn’t this piece end with Schubert’s Ave Maria?

The big piece, the C Major Fantasie, comes across as an extended, passionate and episodic nocturne in arch form, which I suppose it is. Less stentorian and emotionally aggressive than Horowitz, more introverted than Casadesus, Zayas takes a middle way that lingers over small phrases. She plays the “Legend” indication in the first movement as a flowery march, an adumbration of the militancy in the second movement’s indebtedness to Beethoven&Mac226;s A Major Sonata, Op. 101. The grand finale, a la Eusebius, is all innigkeit and candlelight. A truly satisfying Schumann recital which bears repeated hearing. Kudos to recording engineer Tim Martyn of Phoenix Audio.

–Gary Lemco

Victor Rosenbaum plays Beethoven sonatasBEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major. Op. 109; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110; Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 – Victor Rosenbaum, piano – Bridge 9159 74:27 (Distrib. Albany)****:

Recorded in Jordan Hall, Boston January 8 2004, the last three Beethoven sonatas under Victor Rosenbaum enjoy the authority of the Schnabel tradition, since Rosenbaum studied with both Rosina Lhevinne and Leonard Shure, the latter Artur Schnabel’s only American assistant. Consequently Rosenbaum’s playing on the Steinway D is resolute certainly; some may find his colossal sound a bit lacking in intimacy, a la Serkin. But the thoughtfulness and attention to harmonic detail informs every bar of each work, especially in the labyrinthine variations (and fugue, in the A-flat) that conclude the E Major and C Minor sonatas.

What I find singular in the grouping is the unity of effect Rosenbaum captures, finding consistent thematic and intervallic relationships in the last three sonatas and trying to make their triadic vision apparent to us. Rosenbaum has no trouble with the monster demands made upon his trill, his pedaling, or his having to make arpeggios climb through several registers in a short space. The E Major Sonata invokes the epic journey with a real Vivace, a rarity among tempos to begin any Beethoven sonata. That Rosenbaum can elicit a different character for each of its concluding six variations is worth a study in itself. The astounding diversity of affect that compounds the difficulties in Op. 111 might daunt many pianists, but Rosenbaum appears to have been saving up for this Herculean feat for some time. Majesterial readings by a master on this fine disc.

–Gary Lemco

Works for cello & pianoDirk Wietheger, cello: Music by GUBAIDULINA, JANACEK and GRIEG – Dirk Wietheger, cello. Atsuko Seki, piano – EigenArt 10300 (68 mins.) ****:

This extraordinary cello recital features the 32-year-old Wietheger amidst the dazzling pyrotechnical and emotionally diverse demands of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Ten Preludes for cello solo, a 25-minute tour de force that could, in time, become as much a staple for the ambitious cellist’s solo portfolio as the Bach Suites and Kodaly’s solo cello masterpiece. The preludes were composed in response to a request made in 1966 by a professor of cello at the music conservatory in Novosibirsk who found them too modern for his taste. As a result, they were not premiered until 1977, in Moscow, by Vladimir Tonkha to whom they are dedicated. Each prelude focuses on a specific technical challenge or (in eight of them) a pair of contrasting technical challenges (the first, for example, is marked “staccato-legato”). The result is deeply absorbing, and are performed by Wietheger as if he were exploring seductive new musical dimensions.

Wietheger is less impressive in the Janacek and, particularly, the Grieg (a surprisingly tough nut to crack, with a unique combination of conventional and modernist tendencies), where pianist Atsuko Seki dominates inappropriately if very beautifully because of her imposing musical elegance and the lovely sound she draws from her instrument. When Wietheger is alone in the Gubaidulina, he takes center stage. In the Grieg, he struggles to be heard.

Andreas Günther’s conversational liner notes are useful and enjoyable, and Andreas Spreer’s recording is perfectly judged, blending the unforced accuracy of the parent company, Tacet, with a highly musical sense of space. On balance, this is a must have disc for cellists and audiophiles who believe that this royal member of the string family, when heard alone, is one of the ultimate tests of an aspiring sound system.

- Laurence Vittes

Here are two gems for the fan of the violin-piano duo…

Korngold violin-piano worksKORNGOLD: Violin Sonata; Much Ado About Nothing; Sel. from Die tote Stadt – Joseph Lin, violin/Benjamin Loeb, piano – Naxos Laureate Series – Violin 8.557067, 72:06 ****:

Young violinist Lin has won several awards and performs frequently with Musicians from Marlboro. His Korngold program brings us a full plate of Late Romantic melodic pleasure that one of us have over-assimilated. The Violin Sonata was an early work of the child prodigy Korngold and shows his identification of the instrument with the human voice. He made prominent use of the violin in his operas and orchestral music. The four movement work was premiered in Berlin in l912. The other works were created for orchestra in the case of Much Ado and of course Die tote Stadt was Korngold’s best-known opera. The composer transcribed both of them for violin and piano. The Much Ado Suite is also four movements but only a bit over 12 minutes length. There are three other transcriptions from his other music, plus two transcribed arias from Die tote Stadt, concluding with the ineffablely emotional Mariettas Lied.

Paul Le Flem chamber musicPAUL LE FLEM: Quintet in E minor for piano & strings; Sonata for violin and piano in A minor – Philippe Koch, violin/Alain Jacquon, piano/Louvigny Quartet – Timpani 1C1077, 66 min. ****:

Le Flem, who lived until l984, was born in a small seaport on the coast of Brittany. He went to the Sorbonne for literary studies and at the Conservatoire his teachers were Lavignac and Widor. His Violin Sonatas of 1905 is dedicated to the memory of his parents, who died when he was 12. Its second movement is a lied in five parts and a coda. The feeling of the sea is never far from Le Flem’s music. The Quintet from the same year gives the impression of outdoor music. The rich harmonies of Debussy and the impressionists is tempered with elaborate counterpoint and careful thematic construction. The rhythms and folk influences of Celtic music are also part of Le Flem’s early style. This is often pointed up by pentatonic or modal scale useage. He had to leave composing for awhile to make a living as a music critic and choirmaster. When he began composing again in l938 he adopted a more abrupt and modern style rather different from these works. This is a beautifully-performed, recorded and packaged CD – from a windy day at a beach in Brittany on the cover to the last note of the uptempo Sonata finale.

- John Sunier

An American and a Brit composer bring us tuneful, accessible, previously-unheard music, including two piano concertos…

Don Gillis Sym. 4 & Piano Concerto 2DON GILLIS: Symphony No. 4: The Pioneers; Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra – Ian Hobson, piano/Sinfonia Varsovia/Ian Hobson – Albany TROY729, 64:58 ****:

Gillis, whose dates are 1912-1978, may not be as well known today as other light music composers such as Grofe and Leroy Anderson, but his music seems to possess more of a “fun” component than any of the others. Gillis worked at NBC in New York and with Toscanini, who even conducted one of his works. He had an undefeatable love of the lighthearted and an aversion to the pompous. His music on various American themes strikes me as even more “American-sounding” than Copland’s. This is the first recording of his Pioneers Symphony – it doesn’t have a specific program but its three movements seem to portray the spiritual foundation of the westward-crossing pioneers, the feeling of the wide open spaces they encountered, and in the vigorous finale some energetic spirits summarized by a tune in the woodwinds which sounds like it came out of Copland’s Rodeo.

The Second Piano Concerto dates from 1966 and was dedicated to composer and critic Deems Taylor, who had recently died. This is a serious piano concerto though it may lack a serious tone. The virtuosity required of the soloist is high, and there are both very American touches such as jazz plus European major Romantic piano concerto features. Something close to circus music interrupts a couple times and closes out the concerto with a bang. It’s also a world premiere recording and the work should be on concert programs everywhere – audiences would go nuts for it!

Gunning: Concerto, Sym. No. 1CHRISTOPHER GUNNING: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Symphony No. 1; “Storm!” – Olga Dudnik, piano/Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Gunning – Albany Records TROY686, 65:56 ****:

Gunning spent his childhood in London. He studied with Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett among others. He has composed film and television scores for most of his professional life, and has appeared as conducted with several UK orchestras. He was interested in emphasizing in his concerto the piano’s abilities to sing – balancing the percussion qualities of the instrument with the more lyrical. He reports he had Mozart more in mind during composing than Rachmaninoff, and the orchestra is chamber-sized. The concerto’s last movement is fast and highly virtuosic. The Symphony is in a single movement divided into five sections going thru many emotional moods. Gunning’s Storm! came from being in a violent winter storm on the English coast; he describes it as “noisy and dramatic.”

- John Sunier




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