Classical CD Reviews

Classical CD Reviews Part 2 of 2


Published on February 1, 2005

January-February 2005 Pt. 2 of 2   [Pt. 1]

Mompou piano music set Continental Britons set - Nimbus Alvin Curran's Maritime Scarlatti sonatas on the fortepiano
Granados plays his piano rolls Messiaen's Visions Eddie Daniels & Larry Combs, clarinets
Chamber music of Canteloube & Breville
Geo. Onslow symphonies George Antheil Sym. No. 3
CD

Mompou: Piano MusicFEDERICO MOMPOU: The Piano Music – Martin Jones – Nimbus Records Ambisonic (4 discs) NI 5724/7, 72:45, 72:05, 64:16, 68:55 ****:

Mompou, who lived until 1987, was born in Barcelona of a Catalan father and a French mother. His material grandfather operated a bell foundary, and the sounds of the clanging bells had a strong effect on the composer’s later compositions. He studied in Paris and divided his time between Paris and Barcelona during his life. Faure was the composer who influenced Mompou’s wish to be a composer. He wrote primarily piano music and although this collection doesn’t state that it is his complete piano works, other sets of four discs with the similar selections do state that.

Both Catalan and Spanish folk elements are strong in Mompou’s piano works but they occupy a special quite modern though tonal harmonic language. The folk elements are not just qouted; in fact one observer compared Mompou’s use of them to creating an imaginary folk style that was more exciting than the original material, which is what Falla often did. Clearly the biggest influence heard in the piano works of Mompou is Erik Satie. Mompou espoused the French eccentric’s technique of getting the most from the least, and he liked to write non-musical comments in his scores as had Satie. He also felt he was close to Poulenc, Chopin, and Debussy. He sometimes approached the wildly ecstatic emotional heights of both Messiaen and Scriabin, although accomplishing them with an amazing economy of notes which would be unthinkable in those two densely-scored composers’ works.

Mompou felt he went around collected impressions of the world around himself and easily translating them into music. In fact one of the suites in the collection is titled Intimate Impressions. Nearly all the movements are very short – often between one and two miinutes. Some have specific titles such as Gypsies, The Boat, Young Girls in the Garden, while others use tempi markings such as Vif, Misterios, Calme, etc. One four-movement suite was a commission describing four exhibits in the l937 Paris Exposition. The theme and 12 variations on a theme of Chopin reveals some of the connections to both that composer and to the early Scriabin who also emulated Chopin. The Cancion y Danza suite of 13 movements is for me the most memorable music of Mompou’s. The melodies are very expressive, affecting and totally original, sounding like no one else.

The set is well performed and recorded. I made some comparisons with a cometing set by pianist Josep Colom on the Mandala label, which I felt had a modicum more feeling and grace, but it probably sells at full price which I don’t believe applies to the Nimbus set. For the most convincing interpretation of just the Cancion y Danzas I highly recommend Alicia de Larrocha’s RCA Red Seal disc 09026-62554-2. I’m sorry but the suspended balls artwork on the Nimbus set only makes me think of Homer Simpson’s desk toy at his nuclear reactor. Being UHJ Ambisonic encoded, you may find the piano sounds a big too distantly miced in standard stereo. (At least it doesn’t sound 40 feet wide!) I found engaging the Pro Logic II decoded entirely took care of moving the piano closer and giving a sense of the space in which it was recorded. I didn’t get around to breaking out my UHJ decoder to try it but anything deriving the L-R information on the disc works quite well.

- John Sunier

Continental Britons setContinental Britons – The Emigré Composers = EGON WELESZ: Octet; Sacred Song for medium voice, violin, viola & piano; Cherry Blossom Songs; LEOPOLD SPINNER: Two Small Pieces for violin & piano; BERTHOLD GOLDSCHMIDT: Fantasy for oboe, cello and harp; The Old Ships; PETER GELLHORN: Intermezzo for violin & piano; VILEM TAUSKY: Coventry A Meditation for string quartet; HANS GAL: Sonata in B flat minor for violin & piano; Five Songs; MATYAS SEIBER: Sonata for viiolin & piano; FRANZ REIZENSTEIN: Quintet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn; KARL RANKL: War (11 Songs) – Nos. IV & V, 7 Songs for baritone & piano – No. VI – Members Ensemble Modern, Frankfurt – Nimbus Records 2-disc set NI 5730/1 76:46, 76:38 ****:

This collection was performed and recorded under license from the International Forum for Suppressed Music, which was founded in l999 to bring together scholars, musicians and others working in music written under conditions of distatorship or exile from it. It is currently in a project which focuses on the composers who fled to Great Britain from Nazi Europe, and that is the makup of this double-disc set. Nearly 70 composers qualify for this grouping in their effort to escape Nazi persecution. Some of them later moved on from the UK to North America. While some, such as Gal and Welesz received prestigious university positions and had an invigorating influence on generations of students, many others were accepted only grudgingly and then ignored.

The selected works are all in the solo or chamber music area. Welesz was one of the leading composers in Austria in the 1930s. His nine symphonies were regarded as the last flowering of the Austrian symphonic tradition. His half-hour-length Octet which opens the collection is one of his most optimistic and bright works. Goldschmidt is primarily known as the collaborator with Deryck Cooke on the completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Towards the end of his life he began composing a series of chamber works and orchestral songs. His style was tonal post-Romantic.

Matyas Seiber was Hungarian and had studied with Kodaly. His works showed influences of Bartok and Schoenberg and the score to the animated film Animal Farm was one of his achievementws. He was also involved in works involving jazz and symphonic instruments. Gal was a Viennese composer whose music received little attention when he first emigrated. His 24-minute violin-piano sonata which opens Disc Two is an extroverted work on a large scale, which has complex melodic and harmonic twists in its seemingly simple themes. Reizenstein used modern techniques but eschewed the Schoenbergian approach and wrote communicative tonal music for films for BBC Radio, and one classic piano concerto parody for The Hoffnung Festival. Rankl’s three songs demonstrate how quickly some of these composers assimilated subtle details of the English language and were writing successful songs.

The various soloists provide convincing performances of all the composers’ works. There are unfortunately no librettos for the German language songs. Notes are provided on the backgrounds of each composer as well as on the individual selections. The discs are not Ambisonic encoded as as most of the Nimbus releases.

- John Sunier

Alvin Curran Maritime RitesALVIN CURRAN: Maritime Rites – Solo improvisations by these composers to sounds of the foghorns and other maritime sounds of the U. S. Eastern Seaboard = LEO SMITH: World Music; PAULINE OLIVEROS: Rattlesnake Mountain; STEVE LACY: Coastline; CLARK COOLIDGE: Mine; JOSEPH CELLI: Improvisation; JON GIBSON: Soft Shoulder; MALCOM GOLDSTEIN: From Center of Rainbow, Sounding; GEORGE LEWIS: Improvisation; JOHN CAGE: Ice, Dew, Food, Crew, Ape; ALVIN CURRAN: Maritime Rites – New World Records 80625-2 (2 discs) ****:

The two CDs contain a series of ten environmental concerts created for radio broadcast by composer Alvin Curran. All are about 11 minutes length except for the final work specifically by Curran, which runs double that length. The natural sounds were recorded along the Eastern seacoast by Curran and serve as a musical counterpoint to the soloists who are some of the biggest names in the New Music in the U.S. The maritime sounds include snippets of interviews with fishermen, foghorn and lighthouse operators, docents of maritime museums and so on.

Some of the pieces are rather straightforward, such as jazzman Steve Lacy’s Coastline, which is basically his soprano sax improvising over tapes of the maritime sounds – although his melodic line supposedly follows the undulations of a section of the Italian coast . Others are so avant they often sound like you have tuned two separate FM stations simultaneously, such as the list of slowly spoken words in John Cage’s work that seem to have no relation to the sound effects being heard. “Chance” processes, I assume. And the frequent silences may sound like one of the stations has gone off the air. One of the sound effects is a broken fog horn on Martha’s Vineyard, which is certainly an unusual sound. You’ll learn a few interesting things about lighthouses and foghorns from the spoken excerpts in the maritime sound tapes. Curran’s long work at the end is of almost symphonic dimensions. The sound mix includes 50 different fog horns and bells, whistles, gongs, ships’ horns etc. At the end of the foghorn concert we hear a sea shanty sung to the accompaniment of a bandoneon. With his work dealing so strongly with spatiality I’m surprised Curran hasn’t produced this album in four-channel surround on SACD or DVD-A. After all, reproductiion of electronic or musique concrete works via four-channel tape has been a standard in the New Music field for decades now. I did find decoding via Pro Logic II and turning up the surrounds a bit added a great deal to appreciation of this most unusual sonic experience.

- John Sunier

The piano in three unusual and contrasting guises in our next CDs…

Scarlatti on fortepianoDOMENICO SCARLATTI: Essercizi K.1-30 – Alain Planes, fortepiano – Harmonia mundi HM 901 838.39 (2 discs), 52:08, 68:16 ***:

The 550-odd harpsichord sonatas of Scarlatti comprise one of the most creative and varied bodies of keyboard music in existence. Following a simple A-B-A single-movement form they constantly surprise performers and listeners with their wild hand-crossings, dissonances, and imitations of the sounds of Spanish folk music, plus flamenco’s guitars and heel-stomping. The original published score called them Excercises, which in a way is more accurate than sonatas since they don’t follow sonata form.

The sonatas have been and still are performed on many different instruments besides the harpsichord. While the grand piano is a completely different sound, a few pianists – Glenn Gould, Horowitz among them – have been able to perform and record Scarlatti sonatas with a touch that while not imitating a harpsichord accurately, does make the listener appreciate the special fleet-footed elegance of these works. They’ve also been played on harp, marimba, even accordion. Planes has made a number of recordings on pianos of today, but for these 30 sonatas he selected a Johann Schantz forte piano built between 1795 and 1810. It looks much like a harpsichord and with a six-octave compass handilly accomodates the extreme high and low notes Scarlatti uses in many of his sonatas. (Performers on smaller 4 1/2 octave instruments must transpose some of these notes up or down in order to play the works.) The fortepiano sound is more polite and with less bass fundamentals than a typical piano. But these first sonatas were published in 1738 and it is not explained why Planes felt performing them on a keyboard instrument made about 60 years later made any logical sense. (Putting on my Mr. Spock ears at this point.) You don’t have to be a stickler about performing the harpsichord sonatas only on a harpsichord (although that is pretty much how I feel). There doesn’t appear to be any reason for recording them on a fortepiano except just to be different. Also, usually a one or two-disc program of Scarlatti sonatas such as this one selects some of the best from the entire opera instead of performing a series in chronological order which may not necessarily be the most exciting programming. The sonics are excellent though the instrument is weak in communicating the music properly. Planes plays very well but all in all it seems he stretched a bit far in order to be unique.

- John Sunier

Granados plays GranadosGranados Plays Granados! – The Welte-Mignon Mystery Vol. 1 = Danzas Espanolas Op. 37; Valses poeticos Op. 10; Piece de Scarlatti; Goyescas, Part 1 – Enrique Granados, piano – Tacet 139, 59:25 *****:

I was hard put to decide if this one belonged here or in our Reissues section. It sounds nothing like any historical reissue even though it was recorded in l913. Yet we are hearing here a gorgeous rich Steinway recorded in stereo with the latest gear. How is such a seeming contradiction possible?

It is due to the very advanced reproducing piano developed by different inventors in the late 19th and early 20th century. The most successful of them was the Welte-Mignon, a Rube Goldbergish assortment of pumps, valves, rubber tubing, inked rollers, and even a keyboard with the action dipping into a bath of liquid mercury! Many famous composers and pianists recorded rolls for this company, including Mahler, Grieg, Richard Strauss and Debussy. The recorded rolls could be edited to be note-perfect and playback was realized using a vorsetzer unit with 88 “fingers” and pedal attachment which rolled up to a grand piano and played the keys.

Several different approaches to bringing playback of these unique piano rolls to CD have been tried. The recent pair of Rachmaninoff releases on Telarc transferred all the original piano roll data to computer language and played back the final edited result on a Yamaha DisKlavier with amazing realistic result. Tacet is using a different approach in having an expert on the Welte restore and meticulously adjust all parameters of an instrument to play back the rolls with the utmost accuracy on a modern Steinway – then recording the playback in digital stereo. Tacet reports that one reason past efforts at presenting the Welte recordings were not perfect was that the company originally sent along very detailed instructions about dynamics and tempo and these have been either lost or were ignored in playback.

Granados’ idol in music was Robert Schumann, and a writer once called him “a little Spanish Grieg.” When he sat down to the Welte recording mechanism in l913 Granados recorded nine rolls in all, which are all presented on this CD. The Danzas are some of his best-known music, and the concluding “The Lady and the Nightingale” is one of the composer’s superb Romantic works, performed here exactly as the composer intended it to be. Domenico Scarlatti was another favorite of Granados, and one of the rolls is a two-minute arrangement of one of the harpsichord sonatas. This disc is a winner in both the technical/historical side and in just plain musical enjoyment listening to the authentic performances by this great composer and interpreter. I find it just as difficult to discern that this music is being reproduced by a mechanical instrument (however technically advanced) as it was with the two Rachmaninoff CDs from Telarc.

- John Sunier

Messiaen: VisionsOLIVIER MESSIAEN: Visions de l’Amen; Piece pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas for solo piano; Rondeau; Fantasisie burlesque – Steven Osborne, piano 1; Martin Roscoe, piano II – Hyperion CDA67366, 60:41 ****:

Messiaen, who died just 14 years ago, was one of the most original composers of the 20th century. He came from a highly cultured family, his mother was a poet and he was strongly influenced in childhood by a collection of mystical poems she dedicated to her yet unborn child. He became a church organist in Paris and his compositions married his mystical bent with a strong Catholic relligious fervor. He was also fascinated in accurately transferring to notated music various types of birdsong, and in the use of unusual instruments such as the electronic Ondes martenot.

The seven-movement Visions was a commission completed in l943, not long after Messiaen had been repatriated to Paris from two years in a German prison camp. The musical frescoes again attempt – as in most of his work – to make a relationship between his highly individual musical concepts and Catholic mysticism. The movement have titles such as Amen of the creation, Amen of the agony of Jesus, or Amen of the Judgement. The longest movement, Amen of Desire, has a tender opening theme followed by a more passionate syncopated rhythmic theme. Messiaen often used Gregorian chant elements and various ancient modal structures. The two-piano setting maximises the impact of his more complex harmonic architecture, but retains a sort of ascetic reticence since the second instrument is the identical timbre to the first. The other three works for solo piano represent the small area of the composer’s opera that doesn’t have a liturgical connection, and are actually much less experimental in nature. The Dukas work was his contribution to to a set commissioned from various composers to comprise a tribute to that French composer. The burlesque is unique in being a deliberate attempt by Messiaen to be comical. He wanted to disprove his friends in Duka’s composition class who thought Messiaen entirely too serious and without a sense of humor.

Recorded quality (the setting was London’s Henry Wood Hall) is beyond criticism and the separation of the two pianos on the soundstage is just right. To my ears two-piano concerts are made to order for stereo and one of my favorite things to listen to.

- John Sunier

Crossing the LineCrossing The Line – Eddie Daniels and Larry Combs, clarinets/The Chicago Quartet plus doublebass/Daniels-Combs Jazz Quintet – Summit Records DCD 1022, *****:

Now this is my kind of album. A delightful boundary-breaking amalgam of classical chamber music and jazz. And it doesn’t just push on the limits of genre, but also of technical virtuosity on the clarinet and improvisation in both genres. The CD opens with a work by, of all people, Ponchelli, for two clarinets and string quintet. Next are four short duos for two clarinets by Pleyel. We get into the modern day groove with Gordon Goodwin’s Leblanc Suite, but then back to the baroque and a movement from Wilhelm F. Bach’s Sonata for Two Flutes, arranged for clarinets. Wm. O. Smith, who played clarinet in Dave Brubeck’s Quartet, composed the Jazz Fantasy heard next. Finally the line is crossed as the two top clarinets bring on their jazz quintet for tunes by Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Monk and Andre Correa. In between some of the suites are a series of very short “Noodles” – total on-the-spot improvisations that are a kick. This CD brings us some old sounds and some new in a glorious mix. Highly recommended!

- John Sunier

De Breville & Canteloube Violin worksPIERRE DE BREVILLE: Violin Sonata No. 1 in C sharp minor; JOSEPH CANTELOUBE : Suite: Dans la montagne – Philippe Graffin, violin/Pascal Devoyon, piano – Hyperion CDA67427, 70:16 ****:

De Breville, who lived until 1949, wrote in the tradition of French Romanticism. His teachers were Dubois and Franck. Most of his focus was on vocal music but he wrote five violin sonatas of which this is the first. It’s opening theme sounds almost like a cabaret song. The second movement switches from a 2/4 time to 3/4. The third movement is based on a song about French soldiers in the the First World War which De Breville had orchestrated. The influence of Faure is heard in this section. The finale alternates dance-like material with more lyrical passages, and recalls at its opening the style of Alkan.

Canteloube is known of course for his wonderful collection of Songs of the Auvergne – popular with audiophiles in the Vanguard-recorded album featuring the evocative voice of Natania Davrath. In the Mountains was his first attempt at serious composition, under the guidance of Vincent d’Indy. His mentor had strong criticisms for parts of Canteloube’s first efforts, but with re-writing according to his teacher’s comments he came up with a lovely four-movement work a couple years later. Revealing the composer’s love of the mountains, the sections are: In the fresh air, The evening, Festival day, and In the woods in Springtime. It’s a great pleasure to find such gratifying music as this so far off the beaten track.

- John Sunier

Rarely-heard symphonies from two composers on our next CDs…

Onslow: Sym. Nos. 1 & 3GEORGES ONSLOW: Symphony No. 1 in A major; Symphony No. 3 in F minor – NDR RadioPhilharmonie/Johannes Goritzki – CPO 999 747-2, 64:23 ****:

Onslow lived in Paris during the first half of the l9th century – contemporary with Von Weber – and was known primarily for his large output of chamber works. He wrote 36 string quartets and 34 quintets. The first of his four symphonies was premiered only four months after Berlioz’ path-breaking Symfonie fantastique, and both works marked the start of a new French tradition of the symphony. The first of its four movement is the longest and plays around with the polarity between major and minor modes, as does the work’s finale. The Third Symphony suffered in its acceptance at the time of composing to being based on a reworking of one of Onslow’s Quintets rather than a wholly new work – even though the symphony is much more symphonic in general character than Onslow’s First Symphony. Again, both works are worth exploring in this well-performed and recorded disc.

George Antheil Orchestral worksGEORGE ANTHEIL: Symphony No. 3 “American;” Tom Sawyer Overture; Hot-Time Dance; McKonkey’s Ferry Overture; Capital of the World ballet suite – Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hugh Wolff – CPO 777 040-2, 61:28 ****:

The self-proclaimed “Bad Boy of Music” Antheil led a chaotic and wild life but was fortunate enough to have a patron who supported him; this is until he became outrageous in his demands to her. The American symphony comes from a trip across the country to Hollywood, where he was to pen two film scores, as well as writing articles for Esquire and doing a lonely hearts column with his wife. An unusually large payment from Esquire for articles set the Antheils off on their journey around the U.S., starting with Florida. It was there he wrote the first movement but soon tore it up, realizing that he need to know more about Brahms, later Beethoven and Mahler to do a better job of it. His new version was an improvement; later in the work he qoutes three times a passage from the Fifth Symphony of Sibelius. The finale is especially Hollywoodish, but the whole symphony has a strong pictorial quality to it.

Two brash little Antheil overtures bracket a jazzy Hot-Time Dance from l948, but the other big work on the disc is the concluding Capital of the World. it was based on Heminway’s short story about a young man from the Spanish countryside who follows his two older sisters to Madrid (the “Capitol of the World”) with a dream of becoming a bullfighter. The music is bright, colorful, balletic and yet full of strong dissonances. Some of the style and even specific melodies of this 1952 effort seem to predict Bernstein’s music for West Side Story, coming a half dozen years later. The only recording of the work I was aware of was an early mono discing on Capitol, so this sparkling new effort is extremely welcome. No apologies need be made for the German orchestra’s grasp of the strongly American Antheil idiom, and the recording quality is fine.

- John Sunier




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