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CLASSICAL CDs   Pt. 2 - May 2001

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SERGE PROKOFIEV: The Seven Symphonies; Lt. Kije Suite - Berlin Philharmonic/Seiji Ozawa - Deutsche Grammophon 463 761-2 (4 Cds):

Perhaps this compact bargain-priced box should be covered in our Reissues section, but the original recording sessions here date back less than a decade, so it doesn't seem to warrant it. The set is part of DGG's Collectors Edition series of boxed sets of some of their outstanding recordings. These may not be for everyone the definitive version of one of the seven symphonies, but with an orchestra like this and the excellent remastering that DGG has given them, you really can't loose - especially if you already only have the First and Fifth or Seventh. The First is of course the Classical Symphony and starts off the set with sparkle and verve. The Second is a hard-edged and complex work, inspired by Honegger's Pacific 231 and other works which glorified machines, iron and steel. The Third employs themes from Prokofiev's intense opera The Fiery Angel and is often cacophonous - Prokofiev was trying to outdo such Parisian avant gardists as Varese, Antheil and Tcherepnin.

Some ideas left over from his ballet The Prodigal Son were used by the composer in his Fourth Symphony - a more relaxed and tuneful work than the Third. The popular Fifth Symphony of 1937 appeals with its straightforward melodies, partly the result of Soviet cultural ministry crackdown on Prokofiev's avant leanings. Some of its themes may also remind the listener of his Romeo and Juliet ballet score. The Sixth is one of the composer's finest symphonies and also the longest. Much of it has a tragic air and it is in the unusual key of E Flat minor. The Seventh returns to a Soviet-style directness and simplicity. An air of innocence comes from his original intent to write a "youth symphony." The music originally written for the film Lieutenant Kije is usually heard as strictly an instrumental suite, but as the filler for this symphony set we heard extensive vocal portions sung by baritone Andreas Schmidt.

- John Sunier


PAUL HINDEMITH: Complete Orchestral Works 2 = In Sturm und Eise (film music); Kammermusik No. 1, 2, 3; 5 Pieces for Strings; Sel. From Plöner Musiktag; Suite of French Dances; Konzertmusik Op. 49; Cello Concertos of l916 & 1940; The Four Temperaments; Piano Concerto (1945); Der Dämon ballet; Herodiade ballet - Siegfried Mauser, p./David Geringas, cello/Radio Symphonie of Frankfurt/Tasmanian Symphony/Queensland Symphony/Werner Andreas Albert - CPO 999 783-2 (5 CD boxed set):

The music of Hindemith has a poor reputation in some circles; music jokes exist about its supposed tediousness. I urge anyone with that idea to listen to his Temptation of St. Anthony Symphony (which is probably in Set No. 1 of this series since it's not in this set). The composer had a wide variety of musical interests and endeavored to write many different sorts of music to match his many interests. As this set demonstrates, that included chamber music, concertos for cello and piano, ballet, works for string orchestra, even film music. Although he passed through a number of compositional periods, his music always was set in a unique tonal idiom - not atonal but certainly not in line with bel canto-type melody. Hindemith made quite a scandalous splash with his l921 Kammermusik No. 1, which used a raucous foxtrot and ended with a siren wail. He enjoyed writing chamber concertos for just about every conceivable solo instrument, including some ignored by most composers. Music for performance by amateurs also was an interest of Hindemith; the Music Day for Plön work is an example of this.

The composer's three cello concertos are found on one of the discs. The first is a student work following the symphonic tradition of the 19th century but speaking in his own tonal language. His second cello concerto comes in l925 and is known as his Kammermusik No. 3 - described on the score as "for obbligato cello and ten solo instruments." This is a brilliantly experimental and colorful work. Hindemith's last cello concerto of 1940 was written after the composer had migrated to the U.S.; it was premiered by Piatigorsky and Koussevitsky. It consolidates much of the composer's previous work and gives the cellist ample virtuoso display.

Space doesn't permit going into all the music on these five CDs, but suffice it to say the set offers a wonderful opportunity to become more familiar with the wide variety of the composer's orchestral music, and both performances and sonics maintain high standards.

- John Sunier


FRANCOIS-JOSEPH GOSSEC: Grande Messe des Morts; Symphonie à 17 parties - Soloists/Gruppo Vocale Cantemus/Orchestra and Choir of the Italian-Swiss Radio/Diego Fasolis (Wolf-Dieter Hauschild cond. in the Symphonie) - Naxos 8.554750-51 (2 Cds):

I recall having this requiem on a Musical Heritage LP set years ago but it made little impression on me. In this new discing it takes on a strong appeal as one of the most interesting works in this genre. It sits squarely between the Mozart Requiem and the later Berlioz Requiem, for which it provided in some ways a model. Gossec was an important developer of the early symphony in France during the time of the Revolution, and his Requiem is quite revolutionary in many ways. His Dies irae section is suitably dramatic and the Agnus Dei section is a lyrical and moving passage for the full chorus. Interesting instrumental effects abound and there are several massive fugues. This is a glorious liturgical work which should have public performances. The Swiss musicians are excellent and the acoustics of a cathedral in Lugano where the work was recorded are conveyed fairly successfully. The 27-minute Symphonie illustrates the composer's earlier instrumental style.

- John Sunier


Anne Sofie Von Otter Meets Elvis Costello - For the Stars - DGG 469 530-2:

Talk about crossover! Didn't know quite what to make of this surprising new CD or in which of our sections to review it. I've finally decided, after a few listenings, to view it as a recital of art songs performed by one of our finest classical vocalists - songs which just happen to be by composers such as Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, Lennon & McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Benny Andersson. The project came about when Costello attended several classical vocal concerts by the Swedish singer and met her. Her voice affected him strongly and he proposed a collaboration. This album is it, and Costello wrote or is involved variously in six of the songs and sings on several more of them.

The backing ensemble is varied greatly from track to track. Among instruments used are sax, electric strings, cello, accordion, vibes and marimba, percussion, synthesizer, guitars, B3 organ, harmonium, French horn, even pedal steel guitar. Some of the standouts are Brian Wilson's Don't Talk, Put Your Head On My Shoulder, Costello's I Want to Vanish, and the Lennon-McCartney song For No One. Von Otter does have a lovely voice and she thankfully doesn't try to use her operatic voice on these songs. The accompaniments are superb, the lyrics often affecting, and it is obvious that a great deal of thought and care went into these 18 songs. A fascinating collaboration that smashes categorization in all directions.

- John Sunier


DVORAK: Vanda--Olga Romanko, sop/Irina Tchistjakova, mezzo/Peter Straka, tenor/Pavel Daniluk, bass/Ivan Kusnjer, bar/Gerd Albrecht, cond/Prague Chamber Choir/WDR Cologne Radio Symphony and Chorus--Orfeo C 149003F (3 Cds):

Dvorak had trouble with opera throughout his life for several reasons: he couldn't find suitable librettos, he didn't have much feeling for the dramatic, and he seemed unsure what kind of operas he wanted to write, nationalistic epics like Smetana or international spectaculars like Meyerbeer. Vanda is in the latter vein, with reminiscences of early Wagner; it was a failure at its 1876 premiere and an 1880 revival, and its score was lost during World War II. Its five acts retell the Polish legend of Vanda, Princess of Cracow, who is torn between her love for a humble Slavic knight and her duty to marry a German Prince; in a final battle between the pagan Poles and the Christian Germans, she pledges her life if the gods allow the Poles to win, and when they do, she throws herself into the river Weichsel. The opera doesn't offer any really memorable solo arias, but the orchestration is wonderfully colorful, the ensemble writing is very skillful, and there are many stirring choruses; however, it doesn't hold together well in the face of the complicated and incoherent libretto.

This production, based on a score reconstructed by Albrecht and others, is quite satisfactory. The international cast is almost entirely acceptable; Olga Romanko as Vanda is sometimes insecure and has a Slavic shrillness and wide vibrato, but her voice is bright and clear, and Peter Straka is a suitably noble hero. Under Gerd Albrecht's knowledgeable leadership, his Prague and Cologne forces provide solid support. A synopsis is offered, but the libretto is in Czech only; the sound is good. Vanda isn't a rediscovered masterpiece, but it contains enough interesting and beautiful music and is well enough performed here to warrant your close attention.

- Alex Morin


A TRIBUTE TO GIUSEPPE VERDI - Inno delle Nazioni, opera arias--Fabio Armiliato, tenor/Marcello Panni, cond/Nice Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus -- Roméo 7207:

Fabio Armiliato was a new name to me, though since his 1986 debut in Italy he has sung a number of leading roles at the Met and elsewhere, receiving mixed reviews. Judging by what I hear on this disc, he is a tenor very much in the Italian tradition, with a bright, clear voice and a ringing top, but also with a good deal of yelling, occasional insecurity in the middle register, some lapses in intonation, and a tendency to aspirate his vowels. Interpretively he is forthright, unsubtle, and somewhat melodramatic, but he also produces a smooth legato, knows how to phrase well, and expresses himself effectively, especially in dramatic arias. Apart from Verdi's rarely-heard potboiler "Hymn to the Nations", that's mostly what's offered here: eleven arias from seven operas, none of them among the staples of the tenor repertory. The choral work and accompaniment are excellent and the sound is good. Verdi's music is always vivid and entertaining even when he's not in top form, and these selections are interesting and well enough sung to make the disc enjoyable.

- Alex Morin


The Eternal Feminine: Songs by Women Composers--Susanne Mentzer, mezzo/Craig Rutenberg, piano--Koch 3-7506:

The 27 songs on this disc are all by women composers and are all concerned with love, loss, and motherhood. The program notes speak at some length about the nature and problems of womanhood as they are reflected in these songs, but you don't need to pay any attention to that to appreciate their beauty. They range in time and style from lieder by Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler through graceful mélodies by Lili Boulanger to the contemporary idiom of Libby Larsson's song cycle Love After 1950, written for this recital. I particularly liked the glowing songs by English composer Rebecca Clarke on texts by Masefield, Campion, and Blake, with their interesting accompaniments, and the delectable songs of childhood by Lisbeth Alexander-Katz, none of which I had heard before, but everything on the disc is worth hearing. Susanne Mentzer is best known for her operatic roles but she's also a distinguished recitalist, and she has musical intelligence coupled with a lovely voice. She occasionally uses a rather wide vibrato in these songs that I don't remember hearing in her recent recital in Washington, but it isn't objectionable and if anything serves to intensify her interpretations, and she sings with more sensitivity and depth of feeling than I've previously heard from her. Craig Rutenberg is a pillar of strength as accompanist, sympathetic and supportive. Most of this material is unfamiliar, and it will be a valuable addition to your vocal collection.

- Alex Morin


KODALY: Music for Cello, Vol. 2. Duo Op. 7 for Violin and Cello; Prelude and Fugue for Cello and Piano (Bach tr. Kodaly); Sonatina for Cello and Piano; Adagio for Cello and Piano; Capriccio for Cello; Hungarian Rondo for Cello and Piano - Maria Kliegel, cello. William Preucil, violin. Jeno Jando, piano. Naxos 8.554039:

This is an exquisitely played feast of Hungarian folk inspired chamber pieces. The longest work on the program, the Duo for Violin and Cello, written at age 32, is a lyrically serious effort whose central movement is a soul searching adagio. The Bach Prelude and Fugue is performed by Ms. Kliegel with searing emotion. The Sonatina is a more optimistic work, with a beautiful Hungarian melody sumptuously performed by Kliegel and Jando. The Adagio for Cello and Piano is a lyrical three part ode, tinged with melancholy in the first and last sections. The Capriccio for Cello is a study in cello technique; the Hungarian Rondo is bursting with Hungarian melodies. It's the high spirited highlight of the disc. The recording of these works is outstandingly clear and focused. Special kudos to cellist Maria Kliegel who invests this disc with superb performances. She infuses the melancholic sections with a sad lyricism that transports them into the realm of the profound. A beautiful disc of affecting music.

- Robert Moon

KURT ATTERBERG: Symphony No. 3 "West Coast Pictures" and Symphony No. 6. Radio Philharmonie Hannover des NDR conducted by Ari Rasilainen. CPO 999 640-2:

Although Kurt Atterberg lived until 1974, his music was firmly rooted in the late 19th century. He was a prolific composer (nine symphonies and five concertos), a cellist and chamber musician, a critic and admired administrator of two Swedish composer organizations. This disc consists of two symphonies loaded with melodic invention and colorful orchestration, grist for the spate of neo-romantic compositions "discovered" in the early twenty first century.

The Third Symphony, "West Coast Pictures" (no, it's not the west coast of California) in its three movements "depicts the atmosphere of a quiet sun-bright day on the sea;" a violent storm that's interrupted by a beautiful interlude that Atterberg suggests represents "the peculiar peace of the inner fjord, while the sea roars outside but it's raging can hardly be heard," and a quiet sunrise which gathers intensity as the day goes on. The 18 minute conclusion is chock full of memorable themes, oozing with visions of various aspects of nature with a very moving conclusion. An immediately likeable work, very well performed and recorded.

Symphony No. 6 was composed in 1928 and won first prize in the Columbia Grammophone competition, beating Franz Schmidt's Third Symphony. The competition honored the 100th anniversary of Franz Schubert's death. The original purpose of the entrants was to complete Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, but public and critical protests resulted in the composition of an original work "modern in nature yet filled with melody." The jurors who chose this work included Carl Nielsen, Alexander Glazunov and Donald Tovey, hardly people who represented the cutting edge musical experimentation. Pregnant with melody, the Sixth Symphony is an attractive work that will please those listeners desiring the modest challenge of an unfamiliar orchestral score written in a late romantic idiom. Notable is the tranquil adagio and a finale that is a joyful parody of Schubertian melody. Performances and recording are superb.

- Robert Moon


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