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CLASSICAL  CDs
Pt. 2 of 2  July-Aug. 2003

SCHUMANN: The Four Symphonies, Overture to Manfred, Violin Concerto, and Andante and Variations, WoO 10; & Five Songs by Clara Schumann - The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch with violinist Leonidos Kavakos, pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, baritone Thomas Hampson and members of the Orchestra - Philadelphia Orchestra POA2033 (3 CDs, 3 hours, 25 mins.):

These live recordings, made in Verizon Hall and Perelman Theater at the Orchestra's new home, The Kimmel Center for the Performing arts, document remarkable performances of Robert Schumann's magical symphonies by outgoing music director Wolfgang Sawallisch.

From the first bar of the Spring Symphony, these inspired performances capture both the greatness of the Orchestra and the effectiveness of Schumann's supposed clumsy orchestration. By giving full value to the instrumentation, and allowing the music to unfold at moderate speeds, Sawallisch accommodates Schumann's breadth of thought and sense of beauty. And while these performances may lack the driven intensity of a Szell or the cosmic vision of a Furtwängler, they seem to come closer to Schumann's unique personality than any other, for they stop to listen to Schumann the poet and respond with all they have from deep within their collective heart.

Although this is no longer the show band of Stokowski nor the sleek animal of Ormandy, the Orchestra has never sounded so glorious-the winds and brass are spectacular-and the panoramic view of the music they give is unparalleled on disc. It is like hearing an American version of the Vienna Philharmonic, steeped in tradition and committed to the highest standards of music making. Compared to the symphonies however, the music and the performances on the third disc - the Manfred overture and the Violin Concertos, and the songs and Andante and Variations - are ordinary.

Throughout, George Blood's sound has a wonderful strength and richness that signals a new chapter in the Orchestra's recording history, not audiophile in the strict sense perhaps, but eager to sound magnificent at whatever volume is practical. Christopher Gibbs's program notes discuss the music with generic authority, but say regrettably little about the recordings themselves or the Orchestra's recording history with Schumann.

There is a competition to this set from Szell, Bernstein, Masur, Solti and even Sawallisch himself (with the Dresden Staatskapelle) but nothing really like it in terms of musical glory. It is a reminder of what American orchestras can be at their best and why their future, despite a host of adversaries, remains so bright. Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

LIGETI: The Ligeti Project IV - Jacques Zoon, Marie Luise Neunecker; Schoenberg Ensemble/ Reinbert de Leeuw, Berlin Philharmonic/Jonathan Nott. Teldec 8573-88263-2:

More Ligeti! With this volume, Ligeti gets spookier. From the first notes of the Hamburg Concerto for Horn and Chamber Orchestra, he induces Adagio unease, which he punctuates with disruptive Allegro brass figures. This Praeludium is ominously off-key, but doesn’t prepare the listener for the wry rhythmic complexities of Signale, Tanz, Choral. Another one-minute movement of disquiet, then a frenetic Intermezzo on high-register woodwinds and percussion. Ligeti structures his movements like a knock-em-dead borsch-belt comedian, bolts of inspiration coming out of nowhere--except he’s not always funny.

His Double Concerto begins “calmly, with tenderness,” but not the tenderness of a lover’s caress: more like the tenderness of a partially-cooked artichoke. With its fluttering mounting strings, you keep expecting swift discordant arrows to rain down, but they don’t. Ligeti just sustains his odd mixture of anticipation and stunning wit, his piccolo notes sounding like a kinetic Paul Klee painting. The mysteriously titled Ramifications acts like a party attendee whom you suspect about to spring a prank at any moment; but that moment is exquisitely prolonged. It’s an eight minute tease, a technique Ligeti expands to near perfection in his Requiem, the finest entry on the disc. Like the best of twentieth century sacred music—Messiaen, Gubaidulina, Penderecki—this Requiem is hysterical to the core. (Ligeti admits this himself.) The chorus mutters menacingly in the Introitus and launches into celestial fits of terror in the Kyrie. All hell breaks lose in The Day of Judgement (wondrously scary singing by soprano Caroline Stein). Finally the Lacrimosa, instead of offering consolation, makes your hair stand up on the back of your neck. Purchase Here

--Peter Bates

Two highly individual vocalists up next...

B.J. Ward - Syrinx, Voice of the Songbird (Music of OFFENBACH, BACH, FAURE, BIZET, VILLA-LOBOS, HUMPERDINCK, STRAVINSKY, DEBUSSY & Others) - accomp. By piano/guitar/flute - Summit Records DCD 1020:

Ward came to fame as the Girl in the Broadway musical The Fantasticks. She has worked as an actress and with many popular composers as well as doing commercials and voice-over. Her current stage presentation is a one-woman humorous approach to opera appreciation - Stand-Up Opera. The subtitle of this CD is “A Fresh Look at the Classics” and Ward is doing a similar thing to the opera program but for non-operatic music. In fact, for a number of the 13 tracks that are known as instrumental music, such as the title tune, Debussy’s Syrinx. Her choices of lovely melodies that will resonate with a wide range of audiences are clear - items like Faure’s Pavane, Bizet’s Habanera and Villa-Lobos haunting aria from the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (which even Joan Baez sang). Just before the concluding Syrinx - which she does vocalise style - she inserts Nature Boy. I generally prefer instrumental to vocal music but found this pleasing program right up my alley. Purchase Here

Ute Lemper - but one day... (Songs by PIAZZOLLA, BREL, WEILL, EISLER, LEMPER, HEYMANN) with orchestra arranged and led by Peter Scherer - Decca 470 279-2:

A category really doesn’t exist for this CD, as is occurring with more and more album roughly in the “crossover” bailiwick. Being on a classical label is no guide. Let’s just say these are terrific songs, perfectly suited to the amazing talents of the Berlin-born chanteuse. They run to the edgy and highly emotional, but often to heartfelt human connections. Her own songs are in a similar style, and on one in this collection she even has New Music icon Laurie Anderson assisting her. She adapted two Piazzolla tangos with English lyrics because of her attraction to the universe of tango. She excuses herself for not singing them in Spanish because she hasn’t yet spent time with (or found) a hot Argentine lover. Any singer doing entire albums of Kurt Weill songs would naturally have to move into Hans Eisler - he replaced Weill working with Brecht after Weill left Germany. The heart-on-sleeve songs of Jacques Brel are also a good fit for Lemper’s talents. There is also a DVD video of this concert, and considering Lemper’s Deitrich-like stage appeal it’s sure to be well worth watching. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Next are two different Slavic composers who will be unfamiliar to most listeners but well worth hearing...

BORTKIEWICZ: Symphonies Nos. 1 in D & 2 in E Flat - BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins - Hyperion CDA67338:

Hyperion has been doing a bang-up job searching out obscure but worthwhile works for up-to-date recordings, similar to the Marco Polo label and a couple others. (Their continuing Romantic Piano Concerto series is a gem.) Sergei Bortkiewicz - who died in 1952 - was a compatriot of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Liapunov. The Ukraine was his homeland but he was exiled in Constantinople and later Vienna. He had studied in Leipzig and Berlin and was enamored with all things Germanic.

His music, however, was imbued with Russian folklore as well as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and early Scriabin, with a leaning toward Chopin and Liszt. The final movement of his strongly Slavonic and upbeat First Symphony of 1934 quotes the Czar’s National Anthem. It is also a flamboyant picture of a carnival or fair, remembering happier days gone by. Symphony No. 2 is a darker work, reflecting Bortkiewicz’ thoughts as he saw from his base in Berlin the expansion of the Nazis over Europe. Its Scherzo has a sense of sorrow and the third movement is a tragic lament. Glasgow’s City Hall - the site of many fine recordings - was the venue and sonics are up to Hyperion’s usual high standards. While neither symphony breaks any new ground, they do have a unique sound that is superior to most of the symphonists of the 30s who worked under Soviet control. Purchase Here

ANDREI PETROV: The Shore of Hope ballet suite; Creation of the World ballet suite No. 3; The Songs of Our Days (A Symphonic Cycle) - St. Petersburg Philharmonic/Eduard Serov; except in Songs of Our Days = Leningrad Orchestra of Early and Modern Music/Arvid Jansons - Boheme CDBMR 012198:

Whoops, these are 1978 recordings and should be in our Reissues Section, but the fact that I didn’t notice any dated sonics during my auditioning testifies to the great job the remastering engineer in Moscow did on these old Soviet masters. Plus the works - from the label’s “Two Centuries of Russian Music” series merits more attention from listeners in the West, and the composer is still with us. The works date from 1959 thru 1964 and show an engaging eclecticism that can encompass jazz, Bach, musique concrete, the Russian folk song tradition - and what the liner-note writer refers to as “a potent Californian faculty for the romantic and melodramatic.” His style has been likened to the UK’s George Lloyd and John Ireland. The opening Shore of Hope might be the selection which moved the note writer to make the California comparisons. It could easily be the soundtrack of a 1940s Hollywood romance movie. But the closing Creation of the World ballet really attracted me since both Milhaud’s and John Lewis’ efforts on that subject are among my favorite works and just as both of them did, Petrov used jazz elements in his ballet. Plus other styles ranging from Baroque to chance music to children’s songs. What a kick- it’s only four short movements and I wanted it to go on longer. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

ANDREW VIOLETTE; Piano Sonatas1 & 7 - Violette, p. - Innova 587 (3 CD set):

My first thought before even putting the initial disc of this massive three-hour-long sonata (No. 7) into my player was of Sorabji’s huge Opus Clavicembalisticum. A tour de force of pianism, the primary question that seems to be posed by Violette can be stated thus: Are ultimate depths plumbed in music by dissonance or by consonance? His materials of construction are diatonic and white-note heavy but what he builds with them over the course of the three hours is quite remarkably involving. It has 26 sections - some as short as 42 seconds length - and Violette appears to be trying to defeat the expression of time at all, as well as musical development in the usual sense. The note booklet writer opines that the sonata may be psychedelic in the original sense of that word, and that it should be experienced as a musical stream of consciousness.

Most of the sounds are attractively consonant but Violette finds unique ways to achieve dissonant effects within his diatonic strictures. The basic percussive nature of the piano is of course central to some of this. Many of the sections are dance rhythms, sort of like the instrumental music of the Baroque period which used dance forms of the time. Some of them are reprised several times, with II, III etc. after the original titles. To say Violette plays the entire piano goes way beyond others to which that statement has been applied, such as Errol Garner.

One section that keeps reappearing and brings out plenty of fireworks is Rocket Dance. It closes out Disc 2 and just before it is a section titled Stride Piano. So I wasn’t completely baffled when Disc 3 - supposed to be the section Descending Into the Abyss - turned out to be a rocking hillbilly gospel shouter! Trouble was the gospel numbers continued unabated without any piano, and I soon realized that the pressing plant had made a boo-boo. Innova quickly supplied a correct third CD so I could continue my audition. The short closing Sonata 1 is a minimalist work that pales in comparison to the towering No. 7. CD sonics are fully up to the wide dynamics of his very muscular playing style. A tantalizing hint of what Violette is about are the photos on the front of the boxed set of the front page of his score torn on the ground with a damaged music stand on top of it, and the other of the composer/performer on the booklet with a whip in his hand. If you have trouble locating this, try: www.innova.mu

- John Sunier


VALENTIN SILVESTROV: Metamusik (Symphony for piano and orchestra); Postludium (Symphonic poem for piano and orchestra) - Alexei Lubimov, piano/Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies - ECM New Series 1790:

There are many photos of the recording session in the note booklet of this single boxed disc, but what makes it too thick to fit inside the jewel box are the three short articles on the music in several different languages. (Nice to have some notes rather than only the photos provided on some of the ECM jazz CDs.) Silvestrov is another Ukrainian composer, now age 66, who early on distanced himself from the main trends in modern music, saying “the most important lesson of the avantgarde was to be free of all preconceived ideas - particularly those of the avantgarde.” His thinking led eventually to what he calls “meta-music,” of which both of these works are examples.

Eschewing other post-modern approaches such as electronic and musique concrete, Silvestrov views metamusic as a “semantic overtone above music.” In his Metamusik Symphony he follows his feeling that everything we wish to say in this post-modern “postlude” had already been said at some time. Therefore he uses quotations from some of his earlier works - both atonal and tonal - becoming a sort of musical biography off the composer. He compares the use of the piano in both pieces to the more integrated style of Scriabin in his Prometheus rather than to a standard piano concerto. Most of the quotes come from his solo piano music, so less needs to be changed. He also describes both works as “a beautiful ruin.” Postludium is viewed as a prototype for Metamusik but is closer to the Liszt or Schumann-style piano concerto. It has a quite beautiful tonal and long-lined melody. These are works of great density and detail, and in-depth attentive listening on good gear is required to resonate with them. Fortunately both Davies’ skilled interpretation and ECM’s first-rate sound make that effort much less of a struggle. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Sunny music of Spain’s Catalonia area next - both familiar and un...

GRANADOS: Spanish Dances (Orchestrated by Rafael Ferrer) - Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra/Salvador Brotons - Naxos Spanish Classics 8.555956:

Granados claimed he wrote his Danzas espanolas for the piano when only 16, and he won international attention for them. They are among his most nationalist works, but the themes are not actual Spanish folk tunes but originals in that style. Several musicians have transcribed them for orchestra. Since the composer originally premiered them himself in his home town of Barcelona it is more than fitting that this latest recording of the symphonic versions was recorded there. The elegant rhythmic feeling of the dozen dances is beautifully presented by the local musicians, who seem to have a built-in expertise in it. You’ll quickly recognize many of the catchy melodies. Purchase Here

JOAQUIM SERRA: Puigsoliu (Symphonic Poem); Rural Impressions; Variations for Orchestra and Piano; Romantica; Two Symphonic Sketches - Emili Brugalla, piano/El Vallès Symphony Orchestra/Salvador Brotons - Naxos Spanish Classics 8.555871:

Serra was one of the famous composers of the Catalan region of northeast Spain, though not widely known elsewhere. These are premiere recordings of his orchestral works and hopefully will aid in remedying that. Serra’s music is highly lyrical and a fresh Catalan flavor that moves to local dance rhythms. He wrote few symphonic compositions but did create 52 cobla for the 11-member Catalan bands with the loud reed instruments which accompany folk dances such as the sardana. The nearly eight-minute symphonic poem Puigsoliu was orchestrated by conductor Brotons from one of the last cobla composed by Serra prior to his death in l957. Rural Impressions is a suite inspired by childhood memories, including those of local festivals. The major work here (and the one I expect to come back to often) is the Variations, which follows more standard European compositional style and has five virtuosic variations on the theme for the pianist. This orchestra is also based in Barcelona and was recorded in the same hall as the above disc; orchestras seem to be proliferating in Barcelona. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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