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CLASSICAL  CDs

Pt. 3 of 3  May 2003

We’ll start off our final classical section with a real iconoclast of a composer...
LIGETI: The Ligeti Project III, Konstanty Kulka and Chee Yun. Conducted by Antonio Witt. Teldec 8573-87631-2:

Everything Gyorgy Ligeti composes fascinates me with its humor, unpredictability, and cantankerous charm. I even like the pieces I can’t listen to, like his opera Le Grande Macabre: it pushes the envelope so deftly it never tears, but stretches into its own horizons. These works from the latest volume in the Ligeti Project do not disappoint. Consider his Cello Concerto. Opening pianississimo, it stays at that dynamic for most of the piece. Tonally, it’s barely there. But when it breaks out if its self-contained shell and showers you with its disquieting high registers, you may be tempted to leave the room for a few moments. But don’t. There’s magic to come. Listen to the brazen ostinatos of Clocks and Clouds and wonder what shapes they’re going to assume. Halfway through its haunting perambulations, a dense vocalise ensues, which Ligeti helpfully explains as being “notated in the International Phonetic Alphabet, serving the rhythmic articulation and the transformation of timbre.” The violin concerto is a small masterpiece, with its contrasting bitonality with traditional formats like the arioso. Shades of Schnittke! My favorite is his recent song cycle Sippal, dobbal, nadihegeduvel:Weores Sandor versaire. Ranging in length from forty seconds to 2:47, these elliptical pieces are angry, satirical, and nonsensical (“Cannot be translated” read two of the translations.). In these works about coolies, apples, dragons, and walking mountains, he charts new theatrical realms, effectively extending the work he left undeveloped in Le Grand Macabre. Purchase Here

--Peter Bates

If Legeti loses you, here’s some more 20th Century music that’s more accessible...

KURT WEILL: Symphonies 1 & 2; Bastille Music - Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra/David Atherton - GMN.com GMNC0100:

In the great attention given to Weill’s many stage works from both Berlin and New York, his earlier abstract instrumental works have been pretty much ignored. There have been previous recordings of both of these symphonies but this one is from a long time Weill specialist and in up-to-date sonics. His single-movement First Symphony, written when he was only 21, shows the influences of both Mahler and Schoenberg and skirts atonality. It’s a very modern sounding work full of interesting ideas. In 1923 Weill attended a performance of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale and it had a very strong effect on him thereafter - resulting eventually in the spikey and sardonic style incorporating jazz, folk music and burlesque seen and heard in The Three-Penny Opera. The Bastille Music, with accordion, is from this period and originated in incidental music for a play by Strindberg. The Symphony No. 2 mixes some of his ballad-operas’ tricks into a traditional three-movement symphony form. The first movement was being composed just as Hitler was becoming Chancellor. Purchase Here

LOWELL LIEBERMANN: Symphony No. 2; Concerto for Flute and Orchestra - Eugenia Zukerman, flute/Dallas Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Andrew Litton - Delos DE 3256:

This live recording made in the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas is the world premiere of Liebermann’s Second Symphony. He works in the traditional musical forms and finds them stimulating enough for the creation of his own individual voice. The Second is choral symphony in the tradition of Beethoven’s Ninth. The mixed chorus sings passages from various poems of Walt Whitman (which are in the note booklet). There is also pipe organ and auxiliary brass in the balconies a la the Berlioz Requiem. This should be quite a surround sound spectacular if released on multichannel SACD! (Being one of Delo’s VR2 matrix surround discs it works fairly well for now in surround using Dolby ProLogic II for playback.) The symphony has a continuous 40-minute span but four movement-sections are discerned within it. One passage in the Tempo di marcia second movement - featuring xylophone over the march-step orchestra - reminded me of an American Shostakovich. Liebermann’s Flute Concerto was commissioned by James Galway and sounds as if Ravel was still alive and penned a flute concerto. It is more transparently tonal than the symphony, uses a smaller orchestra, and is a breathless workout for the soloist. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

HANDEL: Rinaldo – Vivica Genaux, Miah Persson, Inga Kaina, Lawrence Zazzo, James Rutherford, Christophe Dumaux, Dominique Vissé, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra conducted by René Jacobs – Harmonia Mundi 901796.98 (3 CDs):

From the first bar, partnered by stunning sound, René Jacobs takes hold of Handel’s floridly extravagant score and never lets go. There have been magnificent recordings before of this wonderful music, most notably the recent Decca version conducted by Christopher Hogwood and featuring Cecilia Bartoli in a star-studded cast, but none is as ferocious as this one.

The opera can take it. It was Handel’s first Italian opera for his London audiences, and was a spectacular success with a storyline that has the Crusaders attacking Jerusalem and emotions that range across wide Technicolor plains. This new recording came in the wake of a highly controversial, anti-war production at the Montpellier Festival last year, in a contemporary setting with GIs, sheikhs, nymphomaniacs and other incendiary types. Devoid of the visuals, the performances seem mainstream dazzling - led by the instrumental brilliance of the Freiburg orchestra. Whether trills and turns by the oboes, delicately lazy introductions by the bassoons, or elaborate continuo riffs by lute, harp and harpsichord (sometimes two as in Armida’s aria, Vo far Guerra), here is a conception whose larger-than-life instrumental component stamps it as an opera worthy of standing beside titans like Fidelio.

The vocal work is hardly less dazzling. Vivica Genaux’s Rinaldo may have been the nominative star of the Montpellier show, and her work is truly magnificent, more mezzo than contralto, but she is closely rivaled by Miah Persson as Almirena (her Lascia ch'io piango is so deeply moving and profound that I had to listen to it three times over!) and Inga Kaina as Armida. The countertenors, led by Lawrence Zazzo, are also superb.

The sound is powerful, rich in timbre, detail and texture. Not as much air around it as the Decca, but close to audiophile quality. The liner notes in this sumptuously packaged set are what you might expect from an intellectual French company. Reinhard Strom’s introductory essay refers to Marxists, power and the European Baroque. And Jacobs’s longer discussion of the “Enchantments of a Magic Opera” provides the insights that only an interpreter can hope to know. “In a magic opera,” he writes, “the magic tricks are performed not only onstage, but also in the pit.” How right he is! Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes


VILLA-LOBOS: Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 9; Overture de l’Homme Tel - SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Stuttgart/Carl St. Clair - CPO 999 712-2:

VILLA-LOBOS: String Trio; Duo for Violin and Viola; Deux Chôros for violin and cello; Chôros No. 2 for violin and cello -
German String Trio - CPO 999 827-2:

The Brazilian composer penned a dozen symphonies thruout his life and they are all quite different works. No. 3 of 1919 was a commissioned work to celebrate the Armistice of WW I. It is scored for a large orchestra and chorus and while it lacks a specific program, the insertion of military fanfares and battle calls identify this as the composer’s war symphony. The last movement even has references to both the Brazilian national anthem and Le Marseillaise. The shorter Ninth Symphony, on the other hand, dates from l952 and employs some techniques often used by Villa-Lobos. These include polychordal and pandiatonic passages and timbres combining Romantic and Impressionistic techniques.

The composer wrote a vast amount of chamber music, including many pieces for duos and trios. Since he was a cellist himself he was drawn to string instruments. These chamber works often use double stops, harmonics and simultaneous plucked and bowed notes among their innovative sounds. The major selection here is the opening String Trio of 1945, the only one in Villa-Lobos’ catalog. It is similar in style to his later string quartets but with one less instrument. The lovely Andante movement has an expressive main theme over muted strings, and the Scherzo employs a dance-like theme and rhythm. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

DAVID DIAMOND: Psalm; Kaddish for Cello and orchestra; Symphony No. 3 - Janos Starker, cello/Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz - Naxos American Music Series 8.559155:

Part of the recent Seattle Symphony series launched by Naxos, this release presents much better-known artists than the usual Naxos stable of performers. Starker is one of the greatest living cellists today and had made over 165 recordings. Diamond has been a stalwart of the older generation of American composers - working in an accessible tonal and modal style with traditional forms but using great creativity. It is said to wed Bachian counterpoint with Ravelian tone color. These performances were recording in the Seattle Opera House about a decade ago. Diamond’s Kaddish is only ten minutes long and entirely instrumental, utilizing the rhythmic articulation of the opening words of the Hebrew prayer. The four movement Symphony of 1945 is strongly tonal and has a cyclic form. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

A pair of British “Bs” closes out our classical section...

ARNOLD BAX: Symphony No. 6; Into the Twilight; Summer Music - Royal Scottish National orchestra/David Lloyd Jones - Naxos 8.557144:

Bax was a prolific composer in many forms who had an abiding interest in Irish and Celtic musical culture. His style could be called neo-Romantic but with strong impressionistic tendencies - heard especially in the very Delius-esque Summer Music. Chromaticism and counterpoint are other elements of his approach. Into the Twilight had Celtic inspirations and its title comes from Yeats. The Symphony was written mostly in Scotland and is considered one of his best. The three movements alternate dramatic and lyrical sections in heavily chromatic tonality. Recorded last year in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, sonics are rich and detailed. Purchase Here

ARTHUR BLISS: String Quartet No. 1; Conversations for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Viola and Cello; String Quartet in A Major - Maggini Quartet/Nicholas Daniel, oboe/Michael Cox, flute - Naxos 8.557108:

Bliss, who died in l975, followed Bax in the role of Master of the Queen’s Musick. He is known for his modern but accessible scores for a series of ballets including Checkmate and Adam Zero, and for the soundtrack music to the British sci-fi classic Things To Come. Bliss’ Conversations - written in Paris just after his serving in the British Army in WW I - is at the top of his chamber music list. It is a humorous homage to the young French composers who comprised Les Six. The Quartet No. 1 is an attractive and energetic work written during the two years Bliss was teaching in California. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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