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Well kick off this section with a pair of unusual vocal music discs...
Opera Babes - Karen England, mezzo/Rebecca Knight, soprano (with Millennia Strings, London Symphony, London Session Orch., City Strings Orch. and various choirs and guest soloists) - Sony Classical SK89916:
Well heres a new twist on classical crossover that pulls out all the stops of sexy performers, lavish arrangements, production and presentation. Is it part of the current dumbing-down of classical music or is it musically valid? I say the latter. Primarily because these lovely ladies actually were studying to be operatic vocalists, are seriously committed to the music, and have fine trained voices. Sure, they model sexy outfits on the cover and all over the booklet and you have to hunt to even find their name credits inside but I believe even a sightless music lover would enjoy their disc greatly. (Their visuals are certainly less revealing than Sarah Brightmans recent album. The babes are quoted as insisting, No wet T shirts for us.) They were discovered singing arias as buskers on a London street, and when a prospective talent agent phoned them initially he inquired Are you the opera babes? So they adopted the name.
Theyve chosen (or somebody has for them) familiar tunes that would appeal to a wide audience of listeners. Several have been re-named with more accessible titles for the musically illiterate: Theres a Place (Dvoraks Going Home), Beyond Imagination (theme from A Midsummer Nights Dream), Lakmé H20 (Flower Duet from Lakmé). Among the surprises are an arrangement of the main theme of the Grieg Piano Concerto with lyrics by soprano Knight, and the amazing opening track, One Fine Day from Madame Butterfly, in an arrangement utilizing the Japanese giant-drum ensemble Kodo! Tracks: One Fine Day, Sempre Ricordo, Theres a Place, Beyond Imagination, O Fortuna, Lakme H20, Ebben? Ne andro lontana, You Live On In My Heart, Chanson Boheme, Remember Me, Stranger in Paradise, Ode II Joy, 1001 Nights, Barcarolle, Lakme Mix.
Toby Twining Music - Chrysalid Requiem - Cantaloupe CA21007:
Twining has re-defined a capella choral performance much as Bobby McFerrin has re-defined jazz scat singing and improvisation. His unconventional approach (as is everything on this NYC label that grew out of the citys Bang On A Can new music festival) is difficult to describe but completely accessible to hear. Even to someone like myself, who is not especially drawn to vocal polyphony. The fascinating choral singing is so unusual as to require a note on the booklet stating All sounds were created by the human voice without being mechanically re-tuned or electronically processed. The words are all from the standard Latin requiem liturgy and are handily printed in the note booklet. The only thing that would make this an even more involving musical experience would be surround sound.
- John Sunier
A bunch of unusual concertos on this next pair of CDs...
Paul Freeman Introduces Exotic Concertos = JAN BACH: Concerto For Steelpan and Orchestra; MORTON GOULD: Concerto for Tap Dancer and Orchestra; GUSTAVO LEONE: Harp Concerto; RICARDO LORENZ: Concerto for Maracas and Orchestra - Soloists/Czech Nat. Sym. Orch./Paul Freeman - Albany Troy 521:
Exotic, I guess! This is a delight of a concerto collection. Bravo to conductor Freeman for putting it together. The steel drum concerto was written for a young virtuoso from Trinidad known as the Paganini of the Pan, Liam Teague. In two sections, it moves from a lyrical movement, Reflection, thru an extended solo cadenza to the breakneck tempo of the second movement Toccata. Gould wrote frequently for dance, from ballet to Broadway, and used the tap dancer as a percussion soloist in his concerto - a fascinating sound. (The booklet writer evidently is unaware that Gould died a couple years ago.) Lorenz is a Venezuelan composer and in that country the playing of the maracas has developed into a sophisticated and highly virtuoso art form. So dont laugh at the idea of a Maracas concerto; the patterns of sound kicked up by these little noisemakers during its quarter-hour duration are quite ear-stretching. The CD was recorded in Prague and sonic quality is first rate.
American Landscapes = JOHN CORIGLIANO: Troubadours - Variations for Guitar and Orchestra; JOSEPH SCHWANTNER: From Afar - Fantasy for Guitar and Orchestra; LUKAS FOSS: American Landscapes for Guitar and Orchestra - Sharon Isbin, guitar/St. Paul Chamber Orch./Hugh Wolff - Angel 67672-2:
Isbin is one of the worlds leading classical guitarists, and has been praised by Joaquin Rodrigo for her recording of his guitar concertos. Like Segovia and Julian Bream she is continuing and expanding the guitar repertory by commissioning new works such as these three. All three American composers had different approaches to the assignment. Corigliano created innocent harmonies and lines in keeping with the natural innocence he felt the guitar possesses. Some of the work as a Moorish flavor, reflecting the crossover between Arabic music and the troubadours of the Middle Ages. Schwantner, with a background in jazz and rock guitar, feels the guitar influences all his music. One critic called his guitar concerto sexy and savage. Foss was asked by Isbin to base his concerto on American folk and bluegrass, since no classical guitar concerto had yet done that. The work quotes several folk songs along the way and concludes in a Charles Ivesian musical joke.
- John Sunier
Some chamber music recordings of note from Quebec...
MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trio in C Minor; LALO: Piano Trio in A Minor - The Gryphon Trio - Analekta FL 2 3127 (Distr. Naxos):
The Gryphon Trio has made many recordings for this French Canadian label and is considered one of Canadas premiere chamber music groups. Both of these works are from the special area of Romantic period chamber music wherein the piano-centered trio form began to eclipse the familiar string quartet. The Mendelssohn is a very demanding work, especially the piano part, beautifully interpreted by Jamie Parker. The middle movement borrows a theme from the composers Songs Without Words. Lalos third trio was written late in life as a welcome change from composing works for larger instrumental forces. It abounds in spirited rhythms and fine melodies. Both performance and recorded quality are beyond criticism here.
CHRISTOPHE GRAUPNER: Partitas No. 10 in A Minor, No. 1 in C Major, Partita in A Major GWV 149 - Genevieve Soly, harpsichord - Analekta FL 2 3109 (Distr. Naxos):
Must admit I have never heard of this 18th century composer, who was a contemporary of J.S. Bach, Handel and Telemann. He was, in fact, turned down for the post of cantor at St. Thomas, where Bach then stepped in to take the job. Busy CBC harpsichordist and musicologist Soly is responsible for bringing him to light with this CD. She had to use original manuscripts because his music is not available in modern editions. Graupner was a prolific composer (over 2000 works) and also a prolific copyist of works by his contemporaries - manuscripts of works by Vivaldi, Telemann, Stamitz and others have come down to us from Graupners own careful and legible hand. While the organ was the composers preferred instrument for improvisation, he wrote 40 partitas for the harpsichord. Most are in the French style, with some Italian references. The German influence is primarily seen in the resourceful use of counterpoint. All the movements of each partita are in the same key, and a variety of dance forms are used, including some Graupner seems to have made up himself - i.e. the Sommeille (Dancing while asleep?). The double-manual harpsichord used is based on designs of H.A. Hass dating from the 1730s, and is beautifully recorded - not too close.
- John Sunier
A Mini-Rubinstein Festival next...
ANTON RUBINSTEIN: Symphony No. 3; Eroica Fantasia - Slovak Radio Sym. Orch./Robert Stankovsky - Naxos 8.555590:
Rubinstein was a Russian Jew of the mid-19th century and lived both in Russia and Berlin. His own complaint prefigured that of Mahlers later on: In Russia he seemed a German, in Germany a Russian. He ended up founding the St. Petersburg Conservatory and being at the center of musical life in that city. His earlier career as a piano virtuoso rivaled that of Liszt. While rehearsing the Third Symphony for a memorial concert for Rubinstein, Rimsky-Korsakoff made the infamous judgement of the composers Euro centric style that goes: If when you listen to something you dont know and have the feeling it is either bad Beethoven or Mendelssohn, and if at the same time it never seems absolutely tasteless...but on the other hand there is nothing daring about it - all seems proper and decent, even if hopelessly monotonous - then you may be sure you are listening to Rubinstein.
Want to find out if RK was right? Heres your chance at a bargain price. The symphony does sound a bit like Mendelssohn - with occasional hints of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky - but there is much to admire in its fine craftsmanship. The Eroica Fantasia, with its enlarged orchestra and heroic Russian-sounding themes, is actually even more interesting. And if this taste of Rubinstein even leaves you wanting more, pick up his fine Piano Concerto with Raymond Lowenthal.
RUBINSTEIN: Quintet in F Major for piano, flute, clarinet, horn & bassoon; TCHEREPNIN: Wind Quintet; IPPOLITOV-IVANOV: An Evening in Georgia; TANSMAN: La Danse De La Sorciere for piano and wind quintet - Wind Quintet of the Prague National Theatre/Giorgio Koukl, piano - Dynamic CDS 296:
Brahms seems to be the closest cousin to the style of Rubinsteins quintet for piano and winds. An autumnal sound pervades the work. The Tcherepnin quintet is short and sweet, without the piano and with lots of counterpoint. Tansmans five-minute dance is part of a longer choreographic work and makes a lighter and more active encore to this well-recorded and pleasurable program of works mostly for winds and piano. This Italian label is based in Genoa.
- John Sunier
The French horn in the aural spotlight twice...
The Majesty of the Horn - Works for French horn and piano by DOUGLAS ALLANBROOK: 25 Building Blocks; Night Music - John Allanbrook, Fr. Horn/Douglas Allanbrook, piano - Mapleshade Classical 07682:
The senior Allanbrook is a composer with teacher with an extensive catalog of works - some available on CDs from CRI and Crystal Records. His young son John is based in San Francisco. Allanbrooks style has been described as have the melodic appeal of Copland and the harmonic discipline of Stravinsky. The 32-minute 25 Building Blocks makes the horn and piano into true musical partners, fusing their wide range of sonorities into an almost orchestral whole. Both works are presented with very natural sonics of great presence, as is Mapleshades wont. (Compare this horn recording to, say, any of Dennis Brains on EMI and youll hear what I mean.) The disc was recorded with the same procedure as the labels line of jazz recordings: Live to two-track analog reel tape at 15ips with purist miking, no mixer or processing, and minimum-length cabling. Then converted to PCM with Mapleshades custom A/D processor. This is a gem of an addition to the labels new classical sub-label.
Lyrical Gems for the Horn - Works of FAURE, SCRIABIN, REINECKE, FRANCAIX, GLIERE, MARAIS, KRUFFT and others - Gregory Hustis, horn/Steven Harlos, piano - Crystal Records CD770:
The soloist has been principal horn in the Dallas Symphony for many years. He also co-owns a company that makes mutes for brass instruments. There may be connection therein, but then the French horn is not known for blasting out sounds but for making rich and lovely music - that was the only criterion for selecting these pieces according to Hustis. He observes that instead of trying so hard with promotional tactics such as the crossover craze, we should be just presenting music that more listeners might enjoy. Everything in this program certainly fits that goal.
It starts off with lovely transcriptions of five Faure songs, followed by a three-movement sonata by early 19th composer Nicolas Von Krufft, written - as were Mozarts horn concertos - for the natural horn, without valves. Four little character pieces by Gliere are a highlight of the program, and the penultimate work is the virtuosic In the Forest by Bozza, which demands trills, glissandi and an over three-octave range of the player.
- John Sunier
Here are three opportunities to discover a delightful Portuguese composer..
JOLY BRAGA SANTOS: Symphonies 1 & 5 - Portuguese Sym. Orch./Alvaro Cassuto - Marco Polo 8.223879:
JOLY BRAGA SANTOS: Symphonies 3 & 6 - Ana Ester Neves, sop./Chorus of the Nat. Theatre of San Carlos/Portuguese Sym. Orch./Alvaro Cassuto - Marco Polo 8.225087:
JOLY BRAGA SANTOS: Concerto for Strings in D; Sinfonietta for Strings; Variations Concertantes for Strings & Harp; Concerto for Violin, Cello, Strings & Harp - soloists/Northern Sinfonia/Alvaro Cassuto - Marco Polo 8.225186:
Braga Santos, who lived until l988, composed many works for orchestra and smaller ensembles - all with a strong architectural sense and plenty of generous melodies. His orchestration skills are superb, and he himself said that he opposed the tendency of his generation to reject monumentalism in music. This trio of CDs is just part of Braga Santos recorded legacy on the Marco Polo label.
The First Symphony was dedicated to heroes of the Second World War. The thematic cell from which the entire symphony is derived is stated in the cellos right at the beginning of the work. It is glorious and highly moving piece. The Fifth Symphony of l966 is more rhythmic than the First and employs a 12-person percussion section, in the second movement evoking the marimba players of a region of Moizambique, which the composer had visited while it was still a Portuguese colony. The last movement has a grandiose ending, thus upholding the composers penchant for monumentalism.
The Third Symphony is almost 40 minutes length, with a rhythmic country dance Scherzo movement and a massive double fugue at the center of the extremely contrapuntal final movement. The Sixth Symphony won a UNESCO award and includes vocal and choral settings of the 16th century Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes. It has only a single movement that is divided into six parts. The first half of the work is atonal with wild tempo changes, but the second (vocal) half has modal harmonies, a stable tempo and sounds almost like liturgical choral music.
The modal model continues in Braga Santos Concerto for Strings, which has a most attractive harmonic idiom and traditional form, making it a work I would recommend as a great place to start your appreciation of this composer. The later Sinfonietta shows in its second movement some influence of Schoenberg and the serial school but Braga Santos doesnt buy into it completely and the work ends with a taste of Portuguese folk music, which was the way it began. The closing Double Concerto is an attractive three-movement work with interesting solos from both violin and cello. All three of these CDs illustrate the rich variety of individualistic and constantly evolving works penned by this important composer of Portugal. All have been recently recorded in 24-bit state of the art 44.1K sonics.
- John Sunier
Heres a pair of fresh new music offerings that wont curdle your ears...
MICHAEL NYMAN: String Quartets 2, 3 & 4; Miserere Paraphrase; In Re Don Giovanni; IF, WHY - The Lyric Quartet/Simon Haram, saxophone/Members of the Michael Nyman Band - Black Box BBM1020:
Nyman is a minimalist in the Philips Glass mold who has also contributed to a number of film scores, as has Glass. A close relationship with the Romanian violinist Alex Balanescu resulted in Nyman writing the three string quartets that are the main works here. The Quartet 2 original accompanied a solo dance work, and No. 3 was transcribed from music for a BBC documentary on the earthquake in Armenia in l988. It uses material from traditional Romanian folk music. The sound of the quartets has more impact than usually heard because all of the composers quartets are written with amplification in mind for performance. The two simple yet haunting closing pieces were originally heard as part of Nymans score for The Diary of Anne Frank. Saxist Simon Haram has arranged them for sax and the Nyman Band.
Logos Works - Moniek Darge & Godfried-Willem Raes - XI Records 117:
Darge and Raes are active avantgarde composers and performers who have played all over the world. About a decade ago they founded a very special performance gallery in the medieval city of Ghent, Belgium. The Tetrahedron Hall is designed to have the best possible acoustics for both amplified electro-acoustic performances as well as musicians who dont use any electronics at all. Performing as the Logos Duo, Darge and Raes play on musical instruments designed and built by Raes which use a variety of acoustic and digital/electro-mechanical means to generate sounds. The tools to realize a particular piece are developed on the spot. Much of the duos musical input comes from their performances with native musicians of such cultures as China, Australia, Japan and Africa.
Many of the eight selections here employ computer music or synthesizers together with standard instruments such as piano. Others are simply for standard instruments, among them a lovely fugue for flute and piano. One piece includes ethnic instruments together with actual sounds of the Australian outback. Two selections grew out of Raes design of a fugue composing computer program which he based on early Flemish polyphony. One of these is Fuga Otto Nove (New Car Fugue) for piano four hands and synth. It is a meditative work in spite of the witty title, written in the whole-tone scale. I found this one of the most accessible collections of experimental music Ive heard in a long time; it will not be gathering dust on my shelf. With the percussive nature of many of the works and the envelopmental fun of the Blue Man Group DVD-A I had just auditioned, I only wished this disc were hi-res multichannel.
- John Sunier
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