ELVIS COSTELLO: Il Sogno (ballet after Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream) - London Sym. Orch./Michael Tilson Thomas (with Peter Erskine, percussion; John Harle, saxophone; Chris Laurence, doublebass) - DGG CD 00289 471 5772 ****:
Improbable but true: rocker Elvis Costello, who has been developing his classical chops for some years now, has followed his musical curiosity directly into a major length original ballet which he wrote without computers or musical collaborators - even writing half of it directly into the full orchestral score without sketches first! Costello has always had a passion for classical music and has toured with the Brodsky String Quartet, arranging works in a classical style for them and for other chamber groups and small orchestra. He wrote a set of songs for vocalist Anne Sofie von Otter with the Brodsky Quartet.
Costellos musical curiosity about music has moved him to investigate every idiom imaginable, and a bit of many of them find their way into Il Sogno. These include sweeping Romantic string writing, courtly dance music, jazzy swing sounds, the lilt of folk music, and musical evocations of impending ...something. Sometimes the score sounds like very high quality film soundtrack music, which in a way has some affinity with ballet music. Theres lots of drama, color and variety in the score; this is crossover in the best sense of the idea. He also fits in some pre-recorded material. The many different elements all seem to fit together fluidly in unexpected ways; this is quite different from composers such William Bolcolm who suddenly jump from late-Romantic to serial with no warning. (Not that theres anything wrong with that.)
By the note booklet theres some interesting use of film projection and other props in the ballet as well as a topless dancer.this could be a very interesting video, and probably will be eventually. Tilson Thomas is an old hand at this sort of musical diversity, having worked under Leonard Bernstein. He was taken with Costellos creative energy and worked with him closely in premiering the ballet at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC. The recording is excellent for 44.1 CD. A world premiere recording and a fascinating musical take on Shakespeare.
- John Sunier
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 3 in D Minor Wagner-Symphonie - German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin/Kent Nagano - Harmonia mundi HMC 901817, 68:42 ****:
Nagano has seen a spate of CD releases lately which clearly establish him as at the top rank of the worlds great conductors. His discing of this less-often-performed Bruckner symphony is a major statement which beautifully transmits the reverent personality of its composer. Perhaps a reason for this is Naganos use of the original version of the work rather than one of the revised versions which are often performed. The repetitive structures which can become tiresome in some interpretations are here given clear and dramatic terraces of dynamics that build and build to shattering climaxes. I was reminded of my favorite Bruckner interpreter, Gunther Wand. The recording was made in cooperation with the German Radio and cannot be faulted for standard CD. Heres hoping it is on the HM list for future SACD surround release.
- John Sunier
Chants, Hymns and Dances by GURDJIEFF & TSABROPOULOS - Anja Lechner, cello; Vassilis Tsabropoulos, piano - ECM 1888, 72:19 ****:
The piano music of G. I. Gurdjieff was some of the first in the West to suggest the great diversity of music in the rest of the world and especially the orient. It didnt just feature one element of more exotic music (as for example Mozart did in his Turkish music) but was imbued with the cultures with which Gurdjieff had become familiar in his travels thru Asia Minor, Afghanistan, Tibet and other Central Asian countries. He had absorbed the folk music, dance tunes, and sacred music and chants, and working with Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann transcribed them into his own over 300 compositions. For decades the music was used only to accompany the movements he taught to students at his center near Paris. Then Keith Jarrett and others recorded some of them, reaching a wider appreciation of the music.
I personally felt the Gurdjieff piano music to be a bit boring in its New Age simplicity and meditative nature, although I appreciated the timeless feeling about it. Arranging it for cello and piano, as well as the choice of superb performers (and recording) for the music, has now put it in an entirely different light with this new release. These classical musicians have great talent for improvisation and treat the material more freely than others have done. This approach, along with the glorious melodic tone of the cello lines, bring it into a higher realm. The singing tone of the cello reminds one that this music came at basis out of an oral tradition of music - not instrumental. The original pieces by pianist Tsabropoulos are based in part on Byzantine hymns, and fit perfectly in the midst of the program of Gurdjieff works. This is truly an album of world music, with an easily-recognized spiritual dimension.
- John Sunier
HAVERGAL BRIAN: Symphony No. 1 The Gothic - Soloists/Slovak Opera Choirs/Slovak Folk Ens. Chorus/Lucnica Chorus/Bratislava City Choir/Bratislava Childrens Choir/Youth Echo Choir/Slovak Radio Sym. Orch./Slovak Philharmonic Orch. & Choir/Ondrej Lenárd - Naxos 8.557418-19 (2 discs, 59:11, 54:56) ****:
Brian, who lived until l972, was a mostly obscure composer who was pegged as a British Mahler. Both Elgar and Richard Strauss were supporters of his music early in his career. Many of his 32 symphonies have appeared on various recordings on and off over the years, and it appears that Naxos has decided to do its part to present the composer who liked to Think Big and couldnt stop writing symphonies for 80 years. They have started with his First Symphony, which is thought to be the biggest such ever written - required the participation of about 1000 musicians. At almost two hours it is also one of the longest such symphonies. As was Mahler in his Eighth Symphony, Brian was inspired by Goethes Faust in this work. The Te Deum setting which begins Part 2 of the Symphony was inspired by the great Gothic cathedrals and the music sung in them. The various musical inputs are as eclectic as any Mahler and perhaps more so. He loved the unexpected juxtaposition, and a mysterious haunted quality is found in many passages. The simple tonal play of the entire work is a slow and drawn-out move from a beginning D minor key to a final E Major, with a pipe organ coming in for the grand grand finale. The sonics are certainly an improvement over the old BBC tape I have of the work, but this massive project fairly cries out for the hi-res surround treatment. Unfortunately, the original recordings date from l989 and it is doubtful the Czech Radio was recording multichannel back then.
- John Sunier
BEETHOVEN: The Complete String Quartets, Vol. 2: Op. 59 & 74 - Auryn Quartet - Tacet T125 (2 CDs, 142 mins.) ****:
The Auryn Quartets second installment in their complete Beethoven cycle for Tacet is just as tremendous as the first, which comprised the Op. 18 set. Once again, the Auryns and Tacet have demonstrated a near ideal partnership between music and technique in which it is absolutely impossible to imagine one without the other.
Using two Neumann M49 microphones and working in the Cologne studios of DeutschlandRadio, Andreas Spreer has captured the Auryn performances in a space which, without being dry or claustrophobic, sounds like one of those science fiction continuums where space stretches to fit time. The sound is fine and detailed, the lower strings of the viola and cello have a wonderful grainy quality to them. Its probably close to what composers hear in their heads when they compose, before theyve heard the music live for the first time.
The Auryn Quartet, which has done a marvelous Schubert cycle for CPO, is not particularly predictable. They are relatively reserved rhetorically, and tend towards moderate to fast-ish speeds (although they can turn it on, as in the upward whoosh at the end of Op. 59 No. 3). What sets them apart is a sense of latent power that creates a superb kind of musical tension.
Thomas Seedorfs liner notes are very good. If youre wondering, The Quartet took its name from the amulet that bestows intuition upon its bearer in Michael Endes The Neverending Story. There are other very good Beethoven cycles to be had (and sometimes, it must be admitted, the one youve listened to most recently sounds the best), and more on the horizon (including a novel cycle planned by the Miró Quartet who will record the quartets as they reach the age Beethoven was when he wrote them). In the meantime, it looks like the rest of the cycle will be released in the near future. Snap it up if you can!
- Laurence Vittes
BACEWICZ: Polish Capriccio: Works for Violin and Piano. Joanna Kurkowicz, violin/Gloria Chien, piano - Chandos CHAN 10250 *****:
What a great discovery! These chamber works of Polish composer Graz&Mac250;yna Bacewicz (1909-1969), roughly the contemporary of Shostakovich, should impress most listeners as dense masterpieces of neoclassical and atonal style. Its a pity she is not more well-known in this country, but hopefully discs like this will change that. Bacewicz is known as Polands first major woman composer, a mantel she richly deserves. Her Sonata No. 4 starts off deceptively slow, then breaks into a frenetic folk dance, one whose driving rhythms Joanna Kurkowicz and Gloria Chien reproduce with deft intensity. Kurkowicz plays the affecting Andante with subtlety and nary a trace of sentimentality. The Scherzo seems like it was forged for these two performers, with its impish timing and sudden legatos. But they truly blaze through the passionate Finale. This movement spotlights Bacewiczs sense of humor, as she alternates soulful sequences with a satirical martial rhythm.
Other pieces are no less extraordinary. The Sonata No. 5 has both a highly developed lyrical and dramatic sense. Almost immediately, it plunges you into its stormy world. The Nokturn displays sensitivity worthy of Chopin, but with a modern, bittersweet tinge. (Listen for that eerie final high note.) Bacewicz refused to be cast into the neoclassical mold. In Sonata No. 2 for Violin Solo, she snaps free with a prickly atonal work. You may hear traces of Bartoks Sonata for Violin Solo, but the works volatile moods put it in a class all its own. With its stunning challenges to virtuosity, this piece should leave you with your jaw hanging open. Kurkowicz taps deep reservoirs of national feeling in this work. It could have been written for her, so naturally does she navigate its difficult landscape. Other works on this disc make it worthy of many listenings: the playful Oberek No. 1, the whimsical and unpredictable Capriccio and Polish Capriccio, and the melancholic Partita. This melding of three formidable artists grabbed my attention from the start and wouldnt let go until the last note.
-- Peter Bates
JOSEPH CALLEJA: Tenor Arias - Joseph Calleja, tenor. Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, conducted by Riccardo Chailly - Decca 470648-2 ****:
Here's a startling recital by a dazzling young Maltese-born tenor, Joseph Calleja. The press releases from Decca say that, at the age of 12 or 13, Calleja saw Mario Lanza in the movie, The Great Caruso . "When he opened his mouth," Calleja is reported to have said, "I thought maybe there is other music than Metallica and Iron Maiden! Indeed!
Now 25 years old, Joseph Calleja sings like a cross between a Sopranos hunk and Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street - sleek and efficient (i.e., relatively unsentimental) with a pure but full-throated, seductive beauty. Apparently, his longtime teacher Paul Asciak (another Maltese tenor who found success on the international stage) encouraged the gifted young Calleja to listen to recordings of the greatest singers of the past. Far from imitating any of them, Calleja has developed an elegant vocal style to compliment the individual beauty of his lyric tenor voice.
Most of the items on this debut disc are taken from operas in which Calleja has already appeared on stage, including three Verdi roles, Alfredo in La traviata, the Duke in Rigoletto and Macduff in Macbeth, and two by Donizetti, Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore and Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor. The arias by Puccini and Cilea (from Madama Butterfly, L'arlesiana and Adriana Lecouvreur) are from operas that Calleja has no intention of adding to his stage repertory just yet, preferring to let his voice, he says, evolve at its natural pace.
Muti accompanies urgently and passionately and, with the help of the engineers, gets the orchestra to lay down a richly upholstered fabric against which Calleja can star. Intelligent liner notes include the singer's thoughts on the arias.
- Laurence Vittes
BEETHOVEN: Triple Concerto, Op. 56. Rondo in B flat for piano and orchestra, WoO 6. Choral Fantasy, Op. 80 - Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano/Thomas Zehetmair, violin/Clemens Hagen, cello/Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir/Nikolaus Harnoncourt - Warner Classics 60602-2 ****:
Both the Triple Concerto and the Choral Fantasy have long enjoyed cult status among Beethoven aficionados. Each is deeply flawed - the Concerto's urge to accommodate equally each of the three solo instruments implies a vast orchestral context that even Beethoven cannot quite manage, while the last movement is a complete oddity whose main theme defeats 90% of the cellists. The Fantasy also has an uneasy, unwieldy air about it which most performances confirm.
Uncharacteristically, it's been mainstream performances that have yielded the best results for the Concerto, starting with the elegant Oistrakh-Knushevitzky-Oborin recording for EMI led by Malcolm Sargent and the Oistrakh-Rostropovich-Richter effort, also for EMI, led by Karajan. The best of the mainstream performances, however, is conducted by Herbert Kegel for Capriccio, featuring the Dresden Philharmonic and soloists Christian Funke, Jürnjakob Timm and Peter Rösel.
The team Harnoncourt has assembled do a magnificent job of taking the technical challenges (mostly for the cellist and violinist) in stride and investing them with character when necessary, but it's Harnoncourt and the superb Chamber Orchestra of Europe which make this a supremely confident, powerful and physically beautiful reading. Highly recommended, whether you're new to the work or have some of the 40 available recordings.
It's harder to keep recordings of the Fantasy straight, but the most interesting ones happen when the pianist makes the opening solo introduction sound like an improvisation (it apparently is one of the few examples, another being the Fantasia Op. 77, where the composer tried to write down one of actual improvisations). Aimard has the feeling of giving birth, although again it's Harnoncourt whose rich interpretive swagger pays tremendous dividends. The result is that this performance sounds less than it usually does like a study for the last movement of the Ninth Symphony and more like an inspiring, openhearted work of its own. For good measure, Aimard throws in a bright and cheerful reading of the rarely heard little Rondo, which almost sounds well worth it weight in gold and silver.
Good sound, with the sense of excitement being at a concert brings.
- Laurence Vittes
HANDEL: Arias - Renée Fleming, soprano. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Harry Bicket - Decca B0003160-2 ****:
Just what the doctor ordered to brighten up the entry of Fall, the great soprano Renee Fleming sailing forth resplendent in a diverse program of my (for today) leading Desert Island composer, George Frideric Handel.
Fleming, of course, has all the equipment for a Handelian heroine: Creamy tone, dazzling technique, and (mostly) a vivid dramatic persona the only blot on the escutcheon is an occasional blandness But not to worry. Mr. Handels music is so brilliant, and so successfully intended to please, that only the most persnickety listener will notice, or mind. Whether shes trilling or sighing, or belting them out as in the trumpet tune from Samson shes utterly thrilling in a conventional, full bodied way. Aside from some ornamentation, there are few original instrument performance-type practices feints and gestures for her, and because she has such a commanding musical presence, it works. Just as important, she gets superb accompaniment from the original instrument Age of Enlightenment crew and Harry Bicket.
The sound is rich and full, perhaps a little to subdued in the big display pieces. The liner notes are excellent, including a personal note from the singer which actually sounds authentic.
- Laurence Vittes
CHOPIN: 24 Etudes; 4 Impromptus - Murray Perahia, piano - Sony SK 92731 76:55 ****:
A fine splicing of two distinct inscriptions, the Perahia Chopin Impromptus from 23 November 1883 and the two sets of Etudes, recorded June 28-July 4, 2001. Excellent sound engineering by Andreas Neubronner and Richard King provides lifelike, resonant piano tone throughout. The Op. 10 Etudes may represent the first maturity of Chopin the composer. Published in 1833 and dedicated to Liszt, they distill the keyboard technique of an age just beginning to gather momentum from Beethoven and Hummel towards a more florid style. The second set of Etudes, Op. 25 (1837) extend Chopins reign over a colossal arsenal of keyboard techniques and melodic/harmonic invention, a show of prowess that claims the piano as both singer and thunderer at once. The four Impromptus synthesize Chopins invention with his sense of musical spontaneity. The deft use of variation techniques weaves in and out of phase, especially in the elusive plastic lines of the G-flat Major, Op. 51.
Perahias survey of the two Etude opera is quite compelling. He has the sheer finesse and power we heard in Arraus classic rendition for EMI, and his piano tone is even more pronounced and brilliant. If Perahia does not pack the hard patina of Pollini, neither does Perahia project that Himalyan chill Pollini brandishes. The playing throughout is supple, stylish, often magnetically exciting. Intelligent, sensitive playing of the highest order, this disc recommends itself without reservation.
SCHUBERT: Four-Hand Piano Works, Vol. 2: The Hungarian Duets (1824) - Claire Aebersold and Ralph Neiweem, piano - Summit Classical DCD 404 (2 discs) 71:11; 70:44****:
It had been awhile since I had auditioned or read through Schuberts more extended four-hand pieces, like the Divertissement a la Hongroise, D. 818, first revealed to audiophiles by Artur and Karl Ulrich Schnabel, or the Grand Duo in C Major, D. 812, which I used to enjoy courtesy of Gold and Fizdale on a CBS LP. At the time of these works Schubert was taking a rest cure at Schloss Zseliz in Slovakia, where he acted as music teacher to Caroline Esterhazy and sister Marie. Whether or not Schubert entertained amorous intentions towards Caroline, he dedicated his Fantasy in F Minor D. 940 to her. His rejuvenated spirits, in spite of his longing to be back in Vienna, resulted in some of worlds most invigorated, aggressively happy four-hand music in the repertoire.
The Vier Laendler, D. 814 are tender and slight; Brahms brought out their edition, and his knowledge of this repertory has its result in the finale of his own F Minor Piano Quintet, which borrrows heavily from the finale of Schuberts Grand Duo. The Marches and Trios, D. 819 are six grand marches, derivative of the Marches Militaries but longer and sweeter, occasionally somber and funereal - as in No. 5 in E-flat Minor. The virtuoso character of each of these pieces captivated Liszt, who transcribed them for solo performance. The Divertissement a la Hongroise is a mix of Magyar and gypsy elements, the last movement derived from the D. 817 Hungarian Melody for piano solo. It features catchy syncopations, cascading scales, swirling figures, tremolandi, and offbeat appoggiaturas; the three sections keep the performers' fingers and musical instincts sharp. I find the Variations on an Original Theme in A-flat, D. 813 more academic than most commentators who seem to like it. While contrapuntally interesting with its variant on Beethovens Seventh Symphonys Andante, it has canny intelligence and charm, but I find the whole a bit static, and this in spite of a last section wrought from Schuberts song-cycle ethos. The Grand Duo reminds me often of the D. 840 Unfinished Piano Sonata in C. The concepts in this piece are big, with evocations of the Great C Major Symphony. The husband-wife duo, students both of John Browning and Orazio Frugoni, are Chicago musicians who have played Schuberts four-hand oeuvre for WFMT and other venues. They seem thoroughly engaged in this alternately audacious and sweet music, and their sound is strong and clear. A solid set all around.
OTTO KLEMPERER: Symphonies 1 & 2; Merry Waltz; Marcia funebre; Recollections; Scherzo - Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic/Alun Francis - CPO 999 987-2, 65:45 ****:
Klemperer is another of those major conductors whose compositional talents took a distant back seat to their achievements on the podium. Wilhelm Furtwängler would be another. These are not the first recordings of his works but probably the best-played and recorded. The 18-minute Symphony in Two Movements of 1961 opens with a funeral march in the style of Mahler. Klemperer contrasts here in his economy of means with the much more long-winded Furtwangler. One may be surprise to hear La Marseillaise coming forth at the conclusion of the six variations of the second movement. It is not the only French reference in his music - the catchy Merry Waltz to follow on the disc is much more Parisian waltz than Viennese. The 24-minute Second Symphony had a difficult birthing, with Klemperers self-doubt dampening his work on it (he had bouts with depression). He even had some criticism of his efforts from Benjamin Britten, to whom he had sent his First Symphony. Britten had said his notes were not the right ones. Elements of Schumann, Brahms and Mahler are heard in the Second. The conductors grasp of symphonic composition was not perfect, but the work has many enchanting moments. Dont expect to learn a lot from the essay on the music in the booklet. It was evidently translated from the Dutch, is full of points that dont go anywhere, and more frustrating to read than most U.S. concert notes, which are often frustrating enough. Sound is very good. Recommended for the adventurous/curious.
- John Sunier
TAKASHI YOSHIMATSU: The Age of Birds for orchestra; Cello Concerto Centaurus Unit; Chikpa for orchestra - Peter Dixon, cello/BBC Philharmonic/Sachio Fujioka - Chandos New Directions CHAN 10202, 65:27 ****:
This is the seventh in a Yoshimatsu series from Chandos, all featuring conductor Fujioka. The composer seems to have something in common with his late countryman Takemitsu in basing the first and third works here (part of his Bird Trilogy) on what he calls the science of sound. All three parts of Age of Birds are based on bird song in various guises: In the first section, Sky, the orchestra represents the structure of the earths atmosphere. In the second, Trees, the rhythm of the birds songs is fractalized. The Sun is the third part, and it integrates the vectors of different bird songs. Chikap is the word for bird in the language of the Ainu, the aboriginal people on the north island of Japan. It uses a technique the composer calls septaphony, rather than dodecaphony. Harmonic clusters are created within a tonal scale of seven whole notes.
The Cello Concerto is a more mainstream work - influenced by Yoshimatsus fascination with the sound of the Japanese lute (biwa) and chanting of Buddhist sutras by the monks, as well as the cello masterpieces of Bach and Dvorak. An aural opportunity for some musical discovery is afforded by this important CD, and perhaps it will encourage the listener to delve into some of the previous Yoshimatsu releases.
- John Sunier
ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY: Symphony in B Flat Major; Prelude to Es war einmal...; Sinfonietta Op. 23; Prelude to Act III of Der König Kandaules - Czech Philharmonic Orch./Antony Beaumont - Chandos CHAN 10204, 76:00 ****:
Vienna-based composer Zemlinsky was the protegé and friend of Mahler, and many similarities can be heard in both of their works. Lush symphonic textures, ecstatic melodies and rich harmonies are among the features. The first of the two major works on this disc illustrate these qualities best. The 1897 Symphony is described in the notes as a sunrise - a work of a youthful and self-assured young composer, while the 1934 Sinfonietta is shot thru with anxiety, sorrow and self-doubt in spite of its colorful and opulent passages - becoming more of a sunset. Zemlinsky may be listened to for the sheer sensuality of his luxuriant scores, but they are built on a complex maze of interconnected and often contrapuntal elements to an extent that often outdoes Mahler. Originating as 96K/24bit original recordings, the reproduction excels at capturing the complexities of these works.
- John Sunier
ANDRÉS ISASI: Symphony No. 2 in G Minor; Suite No. 2 in E Major - Bilbao Sym. Orch./Juan José Mena - Naxos Spanish Classics 8.557584, 56:08 ****:
Spanish composer Isasi, who lived until l940, began as a song specialist but after studying with with Humperdinck in Berlin he turn to symphonic forms such as these two works. The symphony of l931 is in four movements and may in spots remind the listener of Delius, Scriabin or Richard Strauss. The Suite partakes of the style of Isasis several symphonic poems. It displays an oriental feeling and indicates the composer had a fancy for the music of Sibelius. However, most of the Isasis music is in the Germanic mold, which didnt sit well in his Spanish homeland; in his later hears he was pretty much forgotten. He was passionately interested in nature and wrote a study of bird song (shades of Messiaen and Yoshimatsu...).
DENNIS EBERHARD: Shadow of the Swan: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Prometheus Wept, for Solo Bass and String Orchestra - Halida Dinova, piano/Piotr Migunov, basso/St. Petersburg Cappella Sym. Orch./Alexander Tchernoushenko - Naxos American Classics 8.559176, 56:07 ****:
Lots of Russian connections here for a release in the American Classics series, but Eberhard is an American composer, though I admit unfamiliar to me. He began writing his intense piano concerto with the young Russian pianist Dinova in mind, who he had worked with in her recording of piano works of Scriabin. While working on the second movement he heard about the accident involving the Russian submarine Kursk and its crew stranded at the bottom of the Barents Sea. Extremely moved by the terrible event, Eberhard dedicated his concerto as a memorial to the victims. The Swan reference comes from a poem Yevtushenko had written about the Challenger disaster which depicted this great white swan of death...
The other Eberhard work here also derives from a tragedy - it was a commission from Performers and Artists for Nuclear Disarmament to write a work in remembrance of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He turned to Aeschylus drama Prometheus Bound and combines this Greek mythology with Biblical texts sung in chants inspired by the Russian Orthodox tradition. Prometheus championed the human race which Zeus thought inferior and wanted to destroy. At its premiere the work was preceded by a Russian Orthodox chant sung in Slavonic. The basso performing it substituted for the word Wormwood - which represents the star appearing at the end of the world - the word Chernobyl. Thus the disparate elements amounted to a powerful indictment of the senseless abuse of atomic energy.
- John Sunier