CLASSICAL CDs Pt. 1 - July-August 2001
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ENESCU: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2. Quatuor Ad Libitum. Naxos 8.554721:
Georges Enescu (1881-1955) was the Leonard Bernstein of his native Roumania, a multi-talented musician. He was one of the great violinists of his day, but also a superb conductor (the art he loved even more than playing the violin) and a composer whose gifts this CD brilliantly brings to light. One of his famous students, Yehudi Menuhin, called him "the greatest all-round musician I ever met in my entire life." His concert partner Pable Casals called him 'the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart.' And if those of you who still collect records ever finds a mint copy of the three record set of Enescu's version of Bach's Sonatas and Partitias on the Continental label in mint condition, you've found one of the rarest and most valuable black discs ever made.
Enescu's Quartet No. 1 was written in the period 1916-20 and premiered by the Flonzelay Quartet in 1921. The 46 minute work is filled with thematic snippets of Roumanian origin. It's mood varies between the tranquil Andante pensurioso and a more energetic theme and variations of the final movement. Bartok and Kodaly come to mind, but Enescu is an original and sophisticated composer. It's a work with much beauty, a complexity that is solvable and worth hearing more than once.
The Second Quartet was finished in 1951, only four years before Enescu's death. It's a more profound composition, subtle in it's emotion. Its motivic Roumanian roots reveals itself in more fragmented, less obvious ways than its predecessor. The heart of the work is the slightly disturbed and mysterious Andante, its mood effectively portrayed by muted instruments. There is a nostalgic, longing violin solo at the conclusion that could only be written by someone at the end of life. The last movement is a marvellous pastiche of warmly sardonic statements that mock Roumanian musical history. If Ives had ever written a Roumanian quartet, it might have sounded like this.
The Quatuor Ad Libitum give brilliant, committed and idiomatic performances of these two quartets. The recorded sound is ideal: clear with a great sense of space and depth. These quartets are sure to raise the compositional stock of a great violinist. Don't miss them.
- Robert Moon
SAMUEL BARBER: Cello Concerto; Medea (Suite); Adagio for Strings. Wendy Warner, cello. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor. Naxos 8.559088:
It's amazing that an accessible, lyrical yet thoroughly modern mid-twentieth century cello concerto had only two recordings before 1983. The last nineteen years has seen the situation remedied with several recordings, yet the work hasn't enjoyed the popularity of it's sister Violin Concerto, which is played and recorded often by today's violinists, knowing that today's audiences will love it. The Cello Concerto was written in 1945 and first performed by Raya Garbousova in 1946 with Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony. It is structurally traditional (three movements Allegro, Andante, Molto Allegro), with the emotional center of the work is the Andante, lyrical and touching in the best Barber tradition. The outer movements are written with vigor and just enough lyrical astringency to make it challenging and interesting. Wendy Warner, winner of the Fourth International Rostropovich Competition in Paris in 1990, plays competently, but I wanted more passion and intensity, especially in the middle movement. Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra accompany her with a spirited performance. The balance of the recording favors the orchestra, but otherwise the sound is adequate if not exceptional.
Barber's ballet Medea was originally written for Martha Graham in 1946 under the title "The Serpent Heart," later changed to "Cave of the Heart," and then back again to the original title. Barber orchestrated the work in at least two versions, including a one movement piece called "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance." The version recorded here is a seven movement suite that uses ancient mythological figures "to project psychological states of jealously and vengeance which are timeless," in Barber's own words. Alsop's performance lacks the bite and manic extremes of Hanson's classic Mercury recording (aesthetically matched by the 42 year old, close, astringent recording). Her vision is more expansive, with a distant sonic picture that, ironically, reveals more orchestral detail. The performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is excellent. Barber's most popular work, the Adagio for Strings, completes the disc a well paced but rather tepid interpretation. This is a good place to start for those unfamiliar with Barber and especially those not familiar with the wonderful Cello Concerto.
- Robert Moon
"Elegies" - Romances and Elegies for Viola and Piano. Kim Kashkashian, viola. Robert Levin, piano. Britten: Lachrymae, Op. 48; Vaughan Williams: Romance; Elliot Carter: Elegy; Glazunov: Elegie, op. 44; Liszt: Romance Oubliee; Kodaly: Adagio; Vieuxtemps: Elegie, op. 30. ECM New Series ECM 1316:
This contemplative and beautiful disc is ideal for those in a nostalgic, romantic, sad or meditative space. The viola is the perfect instrument to convey these feelings and the superb violist Kim Kashkashian's ripe, burnished, almost smoky sound is the right one to communicate them. Britten's Lachrymae was written in 1950 for the great violist William Primrose "to reward him for coming to the (Aldeburgh) Festival." It is a sad and fierce elegy based on a song by Dowland. Elliot Carter's 1908 Elegy is simple and beautifully touching, something that is hardly representative of this composer's works. Vaughan William's Romance, Glazunov's Elegie and Liszt's Romance oubliee are all more expressive and tender than heavyhearted. Kodaly's Adagio is a reflectively sad lamentation that aches of lost love (my interpretation). It's an exquisite and beautiful composition. Henri Vieuxtemp's Elegy ends the disc in a lyrical, affectionate, and upbeat mood.
The compositions flow seamlessly from one work to the next. I recently heard a very moving and profound concert by Kim Kashkashian and although this disc was made fifteen years ago, her playing in this CD has those special qualities. Sometimes I wished for more contrast between the works in a program that essentially is a concert of adagios. Yet I was never tired of her luminous, ardent and soothing sound. The recording supervisors on this disc are the legendary Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz of Nonesuch fame. It's a beautiful sounding record, free of early digital glare. The one drawback is a lack of program notes.
- Robert Moon
VICTOR De SABATA: Symphonic Poems. La Notte di Platon (The Night of Plato); Gethsemani (Gethsemane); Juventus (Youth). London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Aldo Ceccato. Hyperion CDA 67209:
Italian conductor Victor de Sabata (1892-1967) is primarily remembered as an opera conductor, often compared to Arturo Toscanini, with whom he shared the podium with at the La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy. He was the conductor of the most famous recording of Puccini's Tosca made in 1950s with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano. What is forgotten is that his compositions were well regarded and performed by Toscanini, Walter Damrosch and Jean Martinon early in his career.
This CD revives the interest in De Sabata as a composer of romantic tone poems that deserve to be heard today, especially given our current love affair with neo romantic and tonal compositions. The Night of Plato, in the composer's words, "seeks to represent in music the eternal conflict of the two contesting forces in man: on the one hand, that of the flesh and the reckless pursuit of pleasure; on the other that of the spirit, with its call for detachment and self-denial." Plato throws a huge feast/party and then announces his intention to "renounce life'pleasures to dedicate myself to wisdom and to follow the teachings of Socrates." The 21 minute work is colorfully orchestrated and not without significant melodic content. It reminded me of Respighi's descriptive tone poems, with less bombast and much more heart. Gethsemani, a Poema contemplativo, is a musical painting of the prevalent mood in the evening when Christ rested in the Garden of Gethsemane from his trials in Jerusalem. The first section creates a quiet space with much spiritual beauty as we "are suddenly aware of God's promise to us all. This, surely is the hour for reflection and prayer." The middle section becomes agitated but that subsides and the work concludes with a gorgeous, tender ending.
Juventus is a tone poem about youth it's endless rambunctious energy and optimism; the confrontation with the reality of the repetiveness of life's ordinary moments and the rejuventation of the inner spirit "made stronger by past adversity." It brings to mind Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, abeit on a smaller scale.
The works on this disc are all examples of sumptuous, lavishly orchestrated romantic works forgotten in the wake of the radical changes wrought by Schoenberg and Stravinsky that forever changed the landscape of twentieth century art music. Aldo Ceccato squeezes every romantic drop out of these scores and the London Philharmonic Orchestra delivers the goods. The recording, made in the legendary Walthamstow Assembly Hall in London, lacks some hall ambience and deep bass but otherwise is excellent. If you are longing for this genre of music, indulge!
- Robert Moon
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Phantasy Quintet; String Quartet No. 1 in G minor; String Quartet No. 2 in A minor. Maggini Quartet; Garfield Jackson, viola. Naxos 8.555300:
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) made two significant contributions to English art music in the twentieth century: the research and discovery of English folk songs and his use of madrigals and polyphonic proficiency of Tudor and Elizabethan composers (as documented in his editing of The English Hymnal in 1904-06). The chamber works on this disc represent both of these aspects of his oeurve. He also believed deeply in the concept that music was for all to enjoy and perform, as evidenced by the depth and variety of his compositions for amateurs and professionals. His music has gained acceptance beyond his homeland as its durability and universality has become known.
The Phantasy Quintet (1912) is a pastoral work, much in the vein of his Third Symphony. It was motivated and dedicated to William Wilson Cobett who had offered money to composers who wrote "phantasies" referring to the traditional viol consort fantasies in an earlier period of English music. The First String Quartet was written just after the composer had studied with Ravel and the French master's influence is obvious, particularily in the first movement. The lighthearted Minuet and Trio is followed by the emotional centerpiece of the work, a yearningly beautiful Romance. The finale is rollicking and optimistic, with a clever ending.
The String Quartet No. 2 (1942-43) is a much more mature and somber work. The viola is featured in the beginning of each of its movements. The first movement is emotionally reminiscent of the Fourth Symphony, disturbed and dark. The second movement begins with a subdued, tranquil reflection of the previous movement but concludes with a beautiful chorale that rises to a moving climax. A mood of mystery and tension returns in the third movement, the musical source taken from the composers film score The 49th Parallel. The last movement is the highlight of this disc: a folk song inspired statement of visionary serenity reminiscent of the great last movement of his Fifth Symphony. It is music of transcendent beauty and spirituality.
The Maggini Quartet continues its mastery of British chamber music with this disc and the sound is the perfect balance between immediacy and resonance. Another valuable addition to Naxos' brilliant British music series.
- Robert Moon
HAYDN: String Quartets. Op. 77, No. 1; Op. 77, No. 2; Op. 103. Kocian Quartet. Praga PRD 250 157:
"Haydn alone has the secret of making me smile, and touching me to the bottom
of my soul." - Mozart
My drive to work about 30 minutes invariable leads off with a work by Haydn. Why? Because this underrated composer always throws a welcome splash of water on my drowsy face that is the perfect happy wake up call. And, of course, there are 104 Symphonies, 83+ String Quartets and 46+ Piano Trios, a never ending source of morning delight.
The last quartets of Haydn on this disc represent the apotheosis of a body of work that defined the string quartet as a serious compositional medium and paved the way for Beethoven's revolutionary efforts in this most intimate of musical forms. Op. 103, the last work Haydn wrote, contains two movements, a sadly reverential andante that contains a last whiff of Haydn's inexhaustible optimism and a minuet that's his last dance, one tinged with a heavy heart. Attached to the minuet was a statement he often used in later life: "All my strength is gone. I am old and tired." Yet the last lines of the song read "Thanks to Heaven, my life flowed to a harmonious song."
The Op. 77 quartets were commissioned by Prince Franz Joseph Maximilian Lobkowitz as a set of six quartets which Haydn never finished. The Prince also commissioned the Op. 18 quartets of Beethoven and some believed Haydn never finished his six because he felt he couldn't eclipse the brilliance of Beethoven's Op. 18, published in 1801. Op. 77, No. 1, as program annotator Pierre Barbier points out, is extroverted with a scherzo that foreshadows Beethoven. Op. 77, No. 2 contains one of the most sublime slow movements Haydn ever wrote. Indeed, the whole work is a masterful conclusion to his quartet output.
The Kocian Quartet of Prague, founded in 1972, plays these works with great verve, rhythms sprightly sprung, in an effusive, extroverted manner. The recording, close and brightly lit, reflects the interpretation admirably. This disc is a wonderful introduction to the brilliance of Haydn's quartets.
- Robert Moon
RACHMANINOFF: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 19; SHOSTAKOVICH: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 40; PROKOFIEV: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 119. David Finckel, cello. Wu Han, piano. Artist Led 19901. Available on line at www.ArtistLed.com:
This all Russian disc is a salute to the music of a country whose music, when allowed to be fully expressed, represent felt emotions at the deepest level. Although Rachmaninoff wrote his Cello Sonata immediately after an emotional depression, it contains elements of nostalgia, haunting beauty and acceptance of regret that are hallmarks of his compositions. The gorgeous cello melody in the fourth movement is all the more heartrending juxtaposed next to the nostalgic melancholy of the first three movements. Shostakovich's Cello Sonata, an early work written in 1934 when he was 27 years old, is representative the composer's chamber music: direct expression of a variety of deeply felt emotions. The allegro's manic anxiety, the somber, angst filled largo and the whimsical allegro are all states of being common in the emotional tapestry of the century just completed. In that sense, Shostakovich mirrors the variety of rapidly changing moods that is one characteristic of twentieth century music. On the other hand, the Prokofiev Cello Sonata is a late work that displays the confidence of a composer who loved the cello-piano medium. The gorgeous theme in the first movement is a mature expression of the lyrical, melancholy Prokofiev. This sonata is the equivalent of sipping a rich, aged after dinner wine.
Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han play these works brilliantly, capturing their wide emotional range in performances that will move you emotionally. Wu Han's piano playing has a unique bell-like quality in the upper range that results in clearly articulated sounds that are never lost when the cello has a more dominant part. She also can produce pianissimos that will break your heart. Finckel's teacher was Rostropovich and he combines the emotional fluency of the great Russian cellist with the brilliance of the Emerson Quartet (of which he is the cellist) to produce performances of musical intelligence and affective sensitivity. Listen to the depth of sadness these artists reach in the third movement of the Shostakovich only to be followed by the wonderful whimsy of the last movement. They capture the wide range of feelings and dynamics of the first movement of the Prokofiev perfectly, especially the quiet ending. This disc is filled with magical moments that make this husband and wife duo one of the best cello-piano teams in music today.
Recording engineer Da-Hong Seetoo has done a superb job in recording these performances. The soundstage is wide and deep; the musicians are closely miked but robed in enough reverberation to produce a lifelike sound. Balance between piano and cello is excellent. I can't think of a better disc that captures the essence of the Russian soul.
- Robert Moon
TRAETTA: Antigone--Maria Bayo, sop/Anna Maria Manzarella, mezzo/Laura Polverelli, cont/Gilles Ragon, ten/Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, bar/Christoph Rousset, cond/Chambre Accentus Choir/Les Talens Lyriques--Decca 460204 (2CDs):
The Neapolitan composer Tomasso Traetta (1727-79), almost forgotten now, was an important figure in the operatic reform movement epitomized by Gluck. Antigone, his masterpiece, was written during a stay in St. Petersburg in 1772, and unites French tragédie lyrique with Italian aria opera in what one critic described as the culmination of opera seria. In some ways it's conventional, with formulaic da capo arias and little character development, but in others it opens the way to complex scene-building through the use of recurrent motifs and tonalities. The libretto by Marco Coltellini closely follows Sophocles's play about the tragic fate of the offspring of Oedipus, but he substitutes a happy ending--presumably to please the Russian court--in which Creon, tyrant of Thebes, forgives Antigone and her lover, his son Hemon, for saving the ashes of Antigone's slain brother in spite of his ban, followed by a divertissement in the best French manner. The music lacks the inspiration of Gluck, but it has considerable dramatic force and a succession of pleasing arias, ensembles and choruses, with the orchestral parts especially well-written and effective.
This production is by a team with a lot of experience in the music of this period and is generally quite good. The soloists take some time to warm up but are singing well by the end. Mario Bayo in the title role is a bit weak at the bottom and shrill at the top, but her middle register is lovely, and she manages the coloratura arias skillfully (as do the others); Manzarelli as Antigone's sister Ismene and Polvarelli as Hemon are particularly impressive, both producing smooth tones and as much individual characterization as the score allows. Rousset and his Talens Lyriques ensemble know their way around this kind of material and offer quick-paced and rich-toned support. The sound in Act I is somewhat unbalanced, with rather distant soloists, but improves as it goes along. I can't say I'm likely to listen to this opera often, but it's certainly worth hearing at least once.
DANIELPOUR: Elegies; Sonnets to Orpheus--Frederica Von Stade, mezzo/Thomas Hampson, bar/Ying Huang, sop/Roger Nierenberg, cond/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Perspectives Ensemble--Sony MK 60850:
Richard Danielpour is one of the most prominent and popular of contemporary American composers, with many commissions from major soloists and orchestras. His work is firmly rooted in the American vernacular; he writes mainstream music, traditional in form and consonance and always approachable. Elegies is a song cycle commissioned by Von Stade, a setting of four poems by Kim Vaeth based on love letters written to her mother by her father, who was killed in World War II shortly before the singer's birth. The texts and the music are deeply felt and very moving, and Von Stade and Hampson sing them beautifully, with tenderness, sensitivity and great affection. Sonnets to Orpheus is a setting of six wonderful poems by Rilke; written in 1991, Danielpour's matching of music to text is less assured here than in Elegies. The score (for small ensemble) is wind-dominated with a prominent piano part, and the jagged and often jazzy rhythms don't seem entirely appropriate to the poetry. Even so, they're very effective, and Ying Huang responds brilliantly to the evocative words and music with her sweet and pure soprano. Both cycles are lovely and well worth hearing, especially since they're so well performed.
NIGHT SONGS: Songs by Fauré, Debussy, Marx, Strauss, Rachmaninoff--Renée Fleming, sop/Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano-EMI 289 447697:
Fleming is among the finest of today's singers, and perhaps the most versatile, excelling in everything from grand opera to the intimacy of the recital hall. Thibaudet is an outstanding pianist and his sensitive accompaniments deserve equal billing with the singer. Together, they bring us outstanding performances of 26 songs, all reflecting the musical ferment of the turn of the last century and all dealing with night; as you would expect, most of them are dreamy nocturnes. I have often said in my reviews that I think only native singers can fully master the idiom of French mélodies, but Fleming's excellent diction and awareness of the weight and colors of words bring her very close to the mark; note, for example, the contrast between the two settings of Verlaine's "Mandoline" by Fauré and Debussy. The four songs by Joseph Marx and the five by Rachmaninoff are in the same vein as the rest of these nocturnal reveries, and the five Strauss songs are simply gorgeous; I don't think I've ever heard a more rapturous "Cäcilie". Fleming is occasionally a little shrill at the top, but that's the only fault I can find with this outstanding recital; it will give you great pleasure.
GLUCK: Iphigénie en Tauride--Mireille Delunsch, sop/Alexia Cousin, sop/Simon Keenlyside, bar/Yann Beuron, ten/Laurent Naouri, bar/Marc Minkowski, cond/Les Musiciens du Louvre--Archiv 471133 (2 CDs):
Iphigénie en Tauride was Gluck's last major opera, written in Paris in 1779, and in its deliberately simple lines and combination of dramatic intensity and broad appeal it represents the summation of his efforts to reform the operatic scene. Along with Orfeo ed Euridice, it's the greatest of his works, filled with powerful musical effects and memorable melodies. None of the previous recordings have been entirely satisfactory, but this one is stunning from beginning to end. Minkowski leads an idiomatically authoritative performance, taut and propulsive, with splendid contributions from everyone involved. The cast has no weaknesses: Delunsch is warm and rich-voiced as Iphigénie, Keenlyside is bold and noble as Oreste, Beuron is touching as Pylade, Naouri is suitably nasty as Thoas, and all of them display good French diction and provide expressive characterizations. Les Musiciens du Louvre (including their chorus) are among the best of our period groups, playing and singing with intensity and rich, well-blended sound. This is beautiful music, brilliantly performed, and worth your close attention.
A pair of very brassy aluminum CDs =
Russian Carnival - Music of MUSSORGSKY, PROKOFIEV, SHOSTAKOVICH, DI LORENZO - Burning River Brass - Dorian xCD-90293:
This isn't your usual brass quintet but an 11-piece brass band plus tympani and percussion. In their second CD for Dorian these top virtuosi on trumpets, trombones, Fr. Horns and tuba give us another transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition but a very workable one since the brass section is prominent in the symphonic version and this larger ensemble entails less compromises than the usual brass quintet. DiLorenzo may not sound like a Russian composer, but his A Little Russian Circus gives us portraits in sound of four circus attractions, all with a dramatic Russian flavor. The Shostakovich Concertino in A Minor was arranged from a work for two pianos highly influenced by the music of Haydn.
- John Sunier
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble Greatest Hits - Decca 289 467 746-2 (2 CDs):
Again a larger-than-a-quintet brass ensemble; ten strong this time - plus a longer-than-normal album. Such a deal! The repertory of the group - formed in 1951 - runs from Renaissance brass music to 20th century music and arrangements of popular tunes. Many noted players have members of the ensemble over the years. A dizzying variety of selections are found on the 57 tracks over these two CDs - early brass music of Susato, Scheidt, Bull and Byrd, brass quintets by Ewald and Arnold, Walton's Prelude & Fugue from Spitfire, short encores of Mozart, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Joplin and others, and the second disc closes out with yet another Pictures at an Exhibition transcription. Seems like brass groups just can't keep away from that chestnut...
- John Sunier
BEETHOVEN: The 32 Piano Sonatas - Robert Silverman, p. - Orpheum Masters KSP830 (10 CDs box set):
Vancouver-based concert pianist Silverman had played the complete sonata cycle many times in public concerts, growing out of a lifelong study of the works. Of course there is some competition in the complete 32 sonatas out there, starting with the EMI reissues of the early Schnabel set. The primary point of this new one is in the technical details. Silverman performed originally on the Bosendorfer 290SE Reproducing Piano. It measures all the activity of the hammers and pedals and records that data accurately on a computer. Then after editing the process is reversed and the computer controls an internal mechanism in the piano and plays back the final performance.
The recording engineer was John Atkinson, Editor of Stereophile, and a pair for omni mikes were used close to the piano and a pair of omnis further away. The four channels were mixed to stereo for these CDs. Splicing in large sections is impractical with this process, but the performer himself can easily correct a wrong or inelegant note here and there before the final playback. The famous extended low end notes of the Bosendorfer are not actually heard here since Beethoven not only didn't have a Bosendorfer but probably had a few less notes than standard pianos have today. But the special richness of the Bosendorfer - especially in the treble - is still a major asset here.
What to say of the performances? It has been some time since I had listened to all 32 Beethoven sonatas, probably when I owned the Schnabel LP set. I parcelled out the Richard Goode complete set on Nonesuch and perhaps as a result enjoyed it more. Silverman is very accurate and achieves a great deal of variety in the various sonatas. I especially enjoyed a couple of the earlier ones which I once struggled through in college. The order on the CDs is somewhat consecutive, but to be efficient of space demands they jump around a bit - such as 1, 2 & 6 on the first disc. If you're in the market for the complete sonatas by all means compare this one with some of the others if you can, but I have to say I preferred the more emotional range conveyed by Goode as well as his closer and gutsier piano sound (though he's not playing a Bosendorfer). The piano is often miked far too closely and with too many mikes, but I felt Atkinson erred in the other direction. The piano tone also seemed to my ears a bit cold and wooden; whether or not this is a result of the additional processes of the Reproducing Piano I couldn't say.
- John Sunier
A Pair of Superb Classical Concept Albums =
COMPASSION - A Tribute to Sir Yehudi Menuhin - Edna Michell, violin, solo & with various ensembles - Angel 7243 5 57179 2 4:
Michell was a long-time protegee of the late violinist/conductor. While on one of their concert tours Menuhin, the great humanitarian, was talking about the human suffering around the world. Michell hatched the idea of commissioning composers around the world to write short pieces on the theme of universal compassion. Now, after her teacher's death in l998, this is the touching collection of pieces submitted. The instrumentation runs from one to three violins, sometimes solo and sometimes with string orchestra or piano and in a couple cases with soprano soloists.
Some gems among the 15 tracks are Somei Satoh's Innocence, for violin, soprano and the cello section of the Czech Philharmonic; Gyorgy Kurtag's Ligatura for two violins, which creates a mystical/magical effect; and Shulamit Ran's Yearning, which conveys that emotional quality using the solo violin accompanied by the string section. All the pieces have a strongly calming and spiritual quality about them and those with lyrics are very moving - - including Philip Glass' entry with a narration read by Allen Ginsberg.
- John Sunier
CALM - Inspired 20th Century Classics by Messiaen, Paart, Satie, Adams, Macmillian, Curiale & Honey - Various Artists - Black Box BBM1057:
Another great concept CD - 17 tracks of some of the most "inspirational" music of the past century. Not only spiritual enlightenment but anguish, pain, solace, emotional trauma and serenity have stimulated some of these works. Paul Honey is a new composer of very atmospheric works, and is represented by two excerpts from his Two Days, Nine Lives. Erik Satie has the most tracks: his 6 Gnossiennes and Le Fils des etoiles. Messiaen's contribution is two tracks from his highly-charged Quartet for the End of Time. Arvo Paart achieves some of the most ethereal sounds with his Spiegel im Spiegel. Among the performers are The Artemis Sinfonia, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Caroline Dearnley, cello; John Lenehan, piano; and Simon Haram, saxophone, with Liz Burley, keyboards. The only thing not calming about this CD was the very thorough search required to locate any information at all about the album's concept and how it came about. There is nothing on the exterior of the jewel box, at the beginning of the note booklet or even at the center-fold of the booklet - it is hidden further on in the second half of the notes.
- John Sunier
Two new ECM albums that constitute a pair only in their color schemes =
HAYDN: The Seven Last Words of our Savior on the Cross - Rosamunde Quartet - ECM New Series 1756:
The original of this meditative work was for full orchestra with kettledrums and trumpets, but Haydn himself also arranged it for string quartet as well as an oratorio with chorus and soloists. The instrumental version has been recorded in versions for organ, piano, and sax quartet. In a way this could also be considered a concept album in that all seven ten-minute-length movements are adagios. The composer himself commented on the difficulty in succeeding at that without boring listeners. If he ever had the impassioned playing of the Rosamunde Quartet I would venture that he did succeed. There is also an Introduction and a two-minute concluding Presto movement, Il Terremoto, which is a prime and very effective snippet of program music (the earthquake following the crucifixion) similar to Haydn's work in his oratorio The Creation. One critic has argued that solely on the strength of The Seven Words, Haydn may be ranked alongside Schoenberg as the boldest pioneer of music since the Baroque.
- John Sunier
LEOS JANACEK: A Recollection - Andras Schiff, piano - ECM New Series 1736:
Janacek was a highly individualistic composer whose quirky harmonic and rhythmic style is quite easily recognized. He wrote mostly orchestral music and his few piano works display a highly crafted compression of ideas in agreement with his love of musical miniatures. A critic referred to them as representing "the world in a grain of sand." The influence of Czech folk music is much more subtle here than with Bartok but his music is still grounded in the land of his birth. Previous recordings of this music left me rather disinterested, but Schiff brings out the constantly changing moods and emotions and makes the works absolutely captivating. The three sections of On An Overgrown Path constitute the main part of the recital. The Piano Sonata of l905 has two movements: The Presentiment & The Death. Janacek's In the Mist (not to be confused with Bix Beiderbeck's equally atmospheric tune) opens the CD. ECM's clean and detailed piano sound aids in the aural appreciation of these gems.
- John Sunier
Cows are the only connection between these next two albums =
BRAHMS: Serenade in D Major Op. 11 (orig. Chamber version); FRANCK: Pieces Breves - New York Chamber Ensemble/Stephen Rogers Radcliffe - Romeo Records 7209 (Distr. By Qualiton):
What is it about cow images proliferating everywhere lately? I don't get the connection of Swiss cows with Brahms and Franck chamber works - well, perhaps they're Austrian cows. Anyway, let's moove to the music: the folk-music-influenced Franck work was new to me and actually sounded more like Brahms - perhaps that's why it was paired up here. The original was for pipe organ, as with so much of his output. The Brahms Serenade is usually heard in a full orchestra version but the original was for a nonet and that's the one heard here. While a good performance of the former can be exciting (such as Stokowski's, for example) the chamber version has a transparency and lightness that is captivating and most enjoyable on its own terms.
- John Sunier
Piano Music of CONLON NANCARROW & GEORGE ANTHEIL - Herbert Henck, p. - ECM New Series 1726:
Another cow. Since there's something funny about cows, it could be the connection here is the sense of humor of both of these maverick American composers. Also, their pairing could have something to do with both composers having been involved with player pianos and things mechanical to varying degrees. However, these works are all for standard piano, and played with the gusto they require by Henck. The Nancarrow pieces are so fast and complex with different voices that they sound almost like his multi-player-piano compositions. His Blues really swings it. Musical bad-boy Antheil is also represented among his eight works by not only his jazzy Little Shimmy but his Jazz Sonata too. His fascination with machines seems to have two sides, since this CD includes his Airplane Sonata but also a Sonatina subtitled "Death of the Machines." The notes go into the fascinating story of the WWII coding invention (using punched strips similar to the player piano) on which Antheil collaborated with his friend Heddy Lamarr. My only grouse about this collection is its rather short length of 38 minutes; could have had a couple other Nancarrow works - he didn't write everything for his player pianos after all.
- John Sunier
The saxophone provides the theme of the next pair of CDs =
Branford Marsalis, soprano and alto saxophones - Creation - with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - Sony Classical SK89251:
Just as with his brother Wynton, this Marsalis excels in both the jazz and classical worlds. And what a collaboration - the Orpheus seemingly can do no wrong no matter what they tackle. The concept in this collection is the cross-fertilization between French classical music and jazz. There are patently jazzy contributions from Debussy (Golliwogg's Cake-Walk), Milhaud (among several his wonderful Scaramouche Suite as well as his pre-Rhapsody in Blue jazz symphonic work The Creation of the World). But there are also French works with little or no jazz stimulus: Pavane to a Dead Princess, a Satie Gynopedie, and an Ibert Concertino for Sax and Orchestra. In some of these cases the classical work got into the jazz world, such as the tune of Ravel's familiar Pavane becoming the jazz standard The Lamp is Low. Tout of this CD est délicieux.
- John Sunier
Mixed Company - Concertos and Concertinos for sax and concert band - Michael Jacobson, sax/Baylor University Faculty and Student Ensembles - Equilibrium EQ 30:
A fine idea - a solo sax backed by mostly brass quintets seems to work better than a chamber orchestra or strings. Also, these are probably first recordings of all six works, and they're all quite accessible, so it's nice to avoid the umpteenth recording of Glazunov or Jean Absil sax quartets/quintets. Jacobson plays both soprano and alto sax and his cohorts are top flight. Some of these works were dedicated to him. Walter Hartley has composed six works involved the saxophone and his Concertino da Camera which opens the CD is for soprano sax and features four short and sweet movements. The jazz influence comes strongly to the fore in Bill Holcombe's Blues Concerto, and the Concertato of Richard Willis - for alto sax and wind ensemble - closes out the album with its colorful, more dense orchestration and its division of the ensemble into various groupings pitted against one another.
- John Sunier
Two more recent entries in Naxos' commendable American Classics Series =
JOHN ALDEN CARPENTER: Adventures in a Perambulator; Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 - National Sym. Orch. Of Ukraine/John McLaughlin Williams - Naxos 8.559065:
Though nearly forgotten today, Carpenter (who lived until l951) was once considered one of the foremost American composers. Like Ives, he was a successful businessman first and a composer second. His jazzy pre-Rhapsody in Blue Skyscrapers made an early mark. Adventures is an extremely programmatic work, depicting the experiences of a baby in its carriage from the baby's point of view. In six movements the baby encounters the Policeman, the Hurdy Gurdy man, and Dogs and others along the way. The performance is not quite as snappy as that of Howard Hanson on Mercury Living Presence but it's interested to hear a quite different interpretation of this classic. Both symphonies exhibit Carpenter's positive and extroverted style, though with a more serious bent than the Adventures. Both are 19 minutes long, were re-worked from earlier compositions, and are full of good melodies with skillful orchestrations in a strong Romantic vein.
- John Sunier
GEORGE FREDERICK McKAY: From a Moonlit Ceremony; Harbor Narrative; Symphony for Seattle - Nat. Sym. Orch. Of Ukraine/John McLaughlin Williams - Naxos 8.559052:
McKay, who lived until l970, might almost be classified in the "light music" classical category. His very accessible works often used folk tunes and natural sounds and featured unusual auxiliary instruments. He was Professor of Music at the University of Washington and many of his compositions were inspired by aspects of the Pacific Northwest. His early Harbor Narrative has nine movements depicting a boating trip around Puget Sound. Ceremony employs actual songs and dances of the Muckleshoot tribe, collected while visiting their reservation. The Symphony for Seattle was commissioned for that city's centennial and is also titled Evocation Symphony, but there is no particular program for its three movements. This is not the first foray into obscure American composers by the Ukrainian forces, and they do a bang-up job of it. Some of the credit undoubtedly goes to guest conductor Williams.
- John Sunier
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