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CLASSICAL CDs   
Pt. 1 of 3 • June 2003

MORALES: Mass for the Feast of St. Isidore of Seville - Gabrieli Consort & Players on authentic instruments conducted by PaulMcCreesh.- Archiv Blue 474 228-2 (70 mins.):

Archiv has embarked on an extremely valuable series of reissues from marvelous recordings, some as early as the 1960s and as recent as the late 1990s, among which are a number of otherwise unavailable recordings. Packaged in an attractive aquamarine, the series pays homage not only to the composers but to performers who have played an important role in the discovery of music from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 19th century. The subtitle of this disc, first released in 1995, gives a fuller indication of the concept: Mass for the Feast of St. Isidore of Seville as it might have been celebrated in Toledo Cathedral around 1590. Accordingly, readings, plain chant and instrumental pieces by composers active in Spain at the time alternate with the five proper sections of Cristóbal de Morales's Missa Mille regretz, published in 1544. (Mille regretz, a melancholy chanson about the pain of a lost love attributed to Josquin Desprez, was one of the hit tunes of the 16th century, and its use by the composer as the basis of each movement helps in part to explain the popularity of this passionate outpouring of ecclesiastical spirituality.) The fine Gabrieli Consort, sounding less English than most English groups, matches the warmth of Morales's music, and the recording, made not in the Cathedral at Toledo but in two English churches, adds a touch of opulence without resorting to a surfeit of resonance. Dorothea Schröder's liner notes, "Creative Imagination and Musicological Discovery," chart Paul McCreesh's object of enabling listeners to experience the "full sensuous potential" of Morales's music within an inspiring context. Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

VARIOUS COMPOSERS = The New England String Ensemble - Conducted by Susan Davenny-Winer. NESE (2 CDs):

Among local orchestras, it’s rare to find a jewel amidst the endless renditions of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. This double CD set is a pleasant exception. While it begins with a fairly traditional rendition of Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue, it soon demonstrates a flair for creative interpretation and good choices. Not just a collection of works for string orchestra, the New England String Ensemble includes Benjamin Britten’s languid and evocative song cycle Illuminations, based on Arthur Rimbaud’s 19th Century poems. As sung by Dominique Labelle, this cycle is bold and atmospheric, with a touch of the bizarre.

Also welcome is Ned Rorem’s String Symphony, an unprofound piece so intricate that the listener can discover new things in it with each listening. Mahler’s arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor manages to be room-filling and intimate at the same time. Susan Davenny Wyner’s performance of Liszt’s Malédiction piano concerto is also a welcome inclusion. Pianist Hung-Kuan Chen does an admirable job and may soon develop a truly interpretive style. There are glimmers of it here, particularly toward the final segments. Not as intriguing as the other selections, Nikos Skalkottas’s Five Greek Dances lack the infectious nostalgic spirit of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances or the whirling abandon of Brahm’s Hungarian Dances. This CD set is a fine debut for this orchestra and I’m looking forward to hearing more. (Available at www.nese.net.) or Purchase Here

--Peter Bates

SCHUBERT: Lieder with Orchestra - Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone), Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Claudio Abbado. - Deutsche Grammophon 471586-2 (73 mins.):

Recorded live in May 2002 at the Cité de la musique in Paris, this unusual and quite lovely concert of orchestrations of Schubert songs features an all-star line-up. The performances are more sober and low key than one might have expected and the result is unexpectedly like a reflective philosophical discourse on love, death and the other profound dimensions of the soul that Schubert was attracted to. Assuming he would have welcomed orchestrations of his songs at all (the concert begins with his own orchestration of a song from his Rosamunde incidental music), Schubert would have been pleased to welcome the motley but very distinguished crew assembled for this recording, including Britten, Liszt, Brahms, Reger, Berlioz, Webern and Offenbach. There are two versions of Erlkönig (Berlioz's is sung by Otter, Reger's by Quasthoff - the latter works better because of the singer, but the softer Berlioz is intriguing). Liszt's orchestration of Die junge Nonne provides the most haunting moments on the disc, at its closing "Alleluja!"

The reflective nature of the music making is due less to the orchestrations themselves, which are surprisingly open and carefree, than to Abbado's conducting, which is laid-back and, occasionally, homogenizing. Otter throughout creates beautiful sounds and powerful emotions, but Quasthoff is more variable. Although his voice is unfailingly lovely, his delivery of the meaning behind the words sometimes fails to match the intensity of the music.The sound is some of DG's best, detailed and delicate, lacking just a touch of air and ambience to make it exceptional. Susan Youens' liner notes provide a good guide to the orchestrations, making little attempt to steal the limelight with any elegant flights of prose. Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

ARENSKY: Twenty-Four Pieces, Op. 36 - Anatoly Sheludiakov, piano - Angelok Piano Masters Series ANG-CD-8803 70:50 (Dist. Albany):

Anton Arensky (1861-1906) remains noteworthy for a few key works, his Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky and his Piano Trio No. 1, among the most famous. It seems that in 1894 Arensky was recuperating from illness in the Caucasus and wrote a set of 24 piano pieces in rising tonalities from C Major to correspond to Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier. The forms of the pieces range from preludes in the manner of Bach and Chopin; to etudes and salon works in the manner of Grieg, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky; to occasionally more bravura works in the manner of Balakirev and Liszt. Arensky's harmonic language is conservative, not even on a par with Moussorgsky; once or twice I could hear cascades and open sixths that suggest Rachmaninov. This is not to belittle the charms of this off-beat Russian music collection: The Top (No. 2) in C Minor captures the swirling child's toy in vivid motion; the Nocturne in D-flat clearly rings with Grieg's sentiment; the Apprehension (No. 18) has the bold strokes of Chopin and Rachmaninov. Butterfly (No. 9 in E Major) once again is Grieg; the Barcarolle (No. 11) and Tarantella (No. 22) are Mendelssohn revisited. The largest work is the Andante and Variations in B-flat Major (No. 23), with its obligations to Tchaikovsky's Op. 19, No. 6. We can appreciate Arensky's colors on their own or spend the afternoon chasing their derivations. Moscow virtuoso Sheludiakov plays with fire, abandon and sweetness, as the potpourri demands. Nice piano sound. Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco


FRANÇOIS COUPERIN: Keyboard music, Vol. 1. Angela Hewitt, piano. - Hyperion CDA 67440 (74 mins.):

Combining the sheer beauty of touch (though not the warmth) of a Casadesus with the intellectual control and delight of a Kempff, the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt embarks on what is likely to become one of the great recorded classics: three CDs' worth of pieces, selected from the composer's complete opus of 226 (many of them organized into suites called ordres), which Hewitt feels translate "best to the modern piano" and which she also finds "the most interesting." It is a true audiophile classic, a constant and inseparable joy to listen to for both the intimate musical and the sonic delights.

None of the 25 pieces on the CD are more than six minutes in length; some are shorter than two. But each brings with it a unique character related to the dance and to the time in which Couperin composed. Hewitt quotes a contemporary account of the Sun King, Louis XIV, whom Couperin served as organist and harpsichordist, in order to give an idea of the charm and grace which were requirements of the day: "He would never pass the humblest of bonnets without raising his hat, even to a chambermaid. To the smallest gesture, his walk, his gait, his whole physiognomy, was all measured, fitting, noble, grand, majestic, and more-very natural." And so Couperin's music, as well! Ludger Böckenhoff's sound is as a natural and fresh as a mountain brook, to which Henry Wood Hall in London adds a discreet touch of ambient space. Angela Hewitt's always erudite, sometimes dotty liner notes (she calls, admittedly with reason, Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou les Maillotins "a bit of a finger-twister") are long and loving, and repay reading for the light they shed on the music and her interpretation of it; unlike the music, however, they discourage reading through at one sitting. Purchase Here

- -Laurence Vittes


HOLST: The Planets – London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis, Conductor – LSO Live LSO 0029:

The LSO Live recordings offer much appeal to the classical music buying public; because they’re sold at mid price eases the strain on the wallet, and because they are in fact recorded live, they all seem to possess a great immediacy. And all this with none of the usual nasties associated with live recordings – none of the coughing and so forth that tends to plague most live recordings. Maybe LSO Live edits anything offending out of the finished product. Although the competition is stiff, with numerous versions of this old warhorse out there, Tony Faulkner and company have done a fine job with this one sonically. The orchestra’s tempo may seem a little quick right out of the gate, but everything settles in nicely soon afterward. Orchestral climaxes are nothing short of stunning, but the playing is perhaps not the last word with so many fine versions out there to choose from. At this price, though, you may be well served to give it a listen and decide for yourself. Purchase Here

- Tom Gibbs


JEAN FRANÇAIX: Scuola di Ballo. Ouverture anacréontique. Pavane pour un génie vivante. Sérénade. Symphonie - The Ulster Orchestra conducted by Thierry Fischer - Hyperion CDA 67323 (70 mins):

Jean Françaix, whose life (1912-1997) spanned most of the last century, was an sophisticated composer whose music has been insufficiently explored on disc. The music here ranges from the Boccherini-based pastiche ballet Scuola di Ballo (one movement of which has an uncanny resemblance to the main theme of the Jimmy Stewart movie Harvey) to a gentle tribute to Ravel written on the 50th anniversary of that composer’s death. Françaix’s full-length Symphony No. 3 is a slow starter but provides plenty of enjoyment, while his Ouverture anacréontique recalls both the physical exuberance and the carefree hedonism of Leonard Bernstein. Throughout the orchestral writing is vivid and intense with lots of chances for the recording engineers to show off their skill.

What makes this anthology doubly welcome is the enthusiasm and color of the young Swiss conductor and his Irish orchestra’s performances and the demonstration-quality sound with which they are presented, sound that is reminiscent of those great Argos on which Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin made their reputation: Crackling crisp in the brass, startlingly deep in the bass (both winds and strings), and full of detail. The Ulster Orchestra gets a little dense at full bore, but otherwise this is a sonic gem. Once they get past an unnecessary mention at the beginning of a German writer, Robert Matthew-Walker’s precise and charming liner notes provide an admirable guide to Françaix’s precise and charming music.Audiophiles out for a good time who - like I - find this new CD irresistible, should check out a Wergo release (No. 6014350) of the composer’s music for winds called Musique pour faire plaisir. (If you cannot find it through a U.S. source, Archambault.ca in Canada have it listed.) Purchase Here

-Laurence Vittes


Victorian Concert Overtures = MacFARREN: Chevy Chace; PIERSON: Romeo and Juliet; SULLIVAN: Macbeth; CORDER: Prospero; ELGAR: Froissart; PARRY: Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy - Northern Philharmonia/David Lloyd Jones - Helios CDH55088:

Following Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne music in England began to blossom, and though opera was not a big part of the nation’s musical heritage as it was in Europe, the concert overture became the favorite orchestral musical form for British composers. This survey of seven of them proves a fascinating musical journey, aided by energetic performances and spot-on recording by Tony Faulkner in these l991 originals. And it’s on Hyperion’s budget label Helios to boot. Aside from the familiar Arne tune quoted in Mackenzie’s overture and Elgar’s Froissart, these works will be unknown to most listeners. The Shakespearean angle is naturally strong in three of the works. Pierson’s Romeo and Juliet is pretty wild - the composer almost qualifying as a Victorian avant-gardist. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Join me in discovering two very enjoyable and accessible composers, both now in their 50s, who possess a distinctly American sound...
CRAIG RUSSELL: Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra; Middle Earth; Gate City - A Methodist Hymn - Richard Todd, Fr. Horn/San Luis Obispo Symphony/Michael Nowak - Naxos American Classics 8.559168:

Coplandesque is a term sometimes applied to American composers who struggle to forge an individual American musical expression for themselves. Most seem to find a way to have that optimistic wide -open-spaces feeling without actually imitating Copland. (The main failings are some film music composers who blatantly copy Copland.) Russell creates his own sound by mixing together a variety of influences - including in his delightful horn concerto such jazz performers as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Tito Puente. Russell has been involved with the vocal group Chanticleer, and the subtitle of the hymn in the last selection, while instrumental, is in this area. It is actually the second movement of his Second Symphony which is subtitled American Scenes. It has a back-porch, hymn-singing mood about it, complete with country fiddle. The Lord of the Rings suite came out of a commission to write a piece for the youth string orchestra connected with the San Luis Obispo Symphony. Russell later re-orchestrated it for symphony orchestra and its nine short very descriptive “cues” flow like a good soundtrack to a Readers’ Digest version of Tolkien. Highly recommended. Purchase Here

NANCY GALBRAITH: Atacama Sonata; Inquiet Spirits; Wind Symphony No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 1; Dos Danzas Latinas - Alberto Almarza, flute; Luz Manriquez, piano; Latin-American Quartet; Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble; Patricia P. Jennings, piano; Sinfonietta Ventus/Jesus Medina - Albany Records TROY556:

More bright and “up” music in a very accessible tonal style from the fertile imagination of Ms. Galbraith. She uses bits of modern techniques such as minimalism and polyrhythms, but never loses sight of great melodies and rhythms - showing again that we don’t need to throw out nice diatonic tonality in order to keep writing interested new music today. The opening sonata for flute and piano was written for Chilean performers and its name is that of a desert in their country. The outer movements are almost as jazzy as Russell’s rhapsody reviewed above. Galbraith’s Wind Symphony was composed for a Wisconsin symphonic band and presents a trio of mysterious and haunting musical landscapes. The closing pair of Latin dances are for woodwind octet and were commissioned by the ensemble performing them here to emulate “a Sunday afternoon in the park” where an informal concert is being held. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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