20 NOVEMBER 2006


The albums below are "Classical Releases Of Current Key Significance," or "CROCKS," if you will. Click any album picture or title to see where we suggest getting it.

What an auspicious beginning to a projected series of discs on the Challenge label devoted to the complete works of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) and featuring Ton Koopman as soloist and conductor!

In this first volume Koopman gives us two CDs worth of solo harpsichord works played on two great sounding instruments from the Dutch builder Willem Kroebergen. One of them is a two-manual in the Flemish style modeled after Ruckers, and the other, an Italian single-manual after Giusti.

The program opens with La Capricciosa, BuxWV 250 played on the Ruckers. If you don't already know this piece, it's almost half of an hour long and one of the most imaginative and spectacularly virtuosic baroque themes and variations ever conceived.

As if that weren't enough, two other shorter T&Vs, subtitled Courant simble, BuxWV 245 and Aria more Palatio, BuxWV 247, are also included.

In addition to this knuckle-busting music there are twelve suites (BuxWV 226, 228, 230-235, 238, 242, 243 and an uncataloged one), which, in spite of the composer's North German background, show heavy French influence.

The recital concludes with the spirited Preludium manualiter, BuxWV 163, whose main theme may remind some of George Frideric Handel's more festive pieces.

Mean-tone temperament was used throughout and the instruments were adjusted where necessary to insure the cleanest and purest tuning for each piece. You'll find this adds some delightful harmonic spice to the proceedings.

Koopman's tempos are by his own admission Italianate rather than French and his ornaments are, as usual, impeccably chosen and executed. When you hear this album you'll understand why Johann Sebastian Bach reportedly undertook a trip of some two-hundred miles to hear Buxtehude play, and was consequently greatly influenced by him.

The recording sound is very good. So, Challenge, bring on the rest! (P061120)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Balletomanes are going to love this neo-romantic choreographic opus from a composer who was born in America in 1936, but has spent most of his later life conducting and composing in England. Many know Carl Davis from his highly acclaimed scores for films and BBC radio/television productions, but here he turns his considerable talents to "The Dance."

Aladdin, which was commissioned by the Scottish Ballet in the mid-1990s, is drawn from the old familiar Arabian Nights stories with a scenario set in Persia, China and Morocco. This gave the composer an opportunity to write some very colorful music utilizing among other things the bass drone that accompanies Middle Eastern music, pentatonic tone rows plus the chromatic scales and drumming styles typically heard in North Africa.

Naturally a magic lamp figures heavily in a tale such as this, so it's not surprising that the production opens with a wonderful big tune of Star Trek proportions signifying its presence and power. This motif acts like an idee fixe that materializes whenever the lamp and its resident genie appear. It's a highly lyrical ballet score that proves Davis obviously has a real melodic gift. At times it may even bring to mind the choreographic efforts of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Reinhold Glière.

Some of the more spectacular moments include a series of very inventive numbers where the dancers represent gold, silver and a variety of precious jewels. Then there's also a lovely pentatonic wedding ceremony (shades of The Red Poppy) followed by a traditional Chinese lion dance brimming with exotic percussion and roaring horns. The ballet ends with a spirited Chinese dragon dance and a triumphant reprise of the lamp motif.

The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer's direction gives what must be a definitive account of the score, and the recorded sound is very good making this a most enjoyable release. (P061119)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Here's a lesser known comic opera by Friederich von Flotow (1812-1883) that many may find even more enjoyable than his better known Martha.

Written in 1844, the plot centers on incidents in the life of the Italian singer and composer Alessandro Stradella (1644-1682). This fun music will have great appeal for those who like such works as Otto Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, which came five years later. It's a delightful combination of singspiel, opera comique and romantic elements, but unlike many stage works written back then, you'll be delighted to discover there's absolutely no dialogue.

It's all music and even includes ballet sequences in the first and second acts. While the lied form predominates, Flotow manages to instill his creation with the Italian spirit thanks to some lively tunes and brilliant orchestral coloring. In fact it comes off sounding a bit like a combination of the lighter moments from Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischutz and Sir Arthur Sullivan's The Gondoliers.

This spirited production features an excellent cast, and the choral and orchestral support is superb. It’s bound to bring a smile to your face.

A studio recording, the sound is very good, making this a valuable operatic find. Do try it! (P061118)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

American music lovers will want this new release from Bridge featuring premiere recordings of Ferde Grofe's (1892-1972) Mississippi and Grand Canyon Suites plus George Gershwin's (1898-1937) Second Rhapsody, all as originally arranged by Grofe for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. These pieces take on an entirely new character, because the sound is much leaner with more of an emphasis on winds than strings.

If you're tired of the familiar symphony orchestra versions of the two suites, you'll get a real sense of rediscovery when you hear these remarkable accounts. The banjo part in Mississippi is absolutely infectious and you'll find a surprise awaiting you at the very end. As for Grand Canyon, you'll marvel at how much more mule-like "them critters" sound here as they clip-clop and hee-haw their way down the Bright Angel Trail.

Many have felt Gershwin's Second Rhapsody (1931) was always a poor relation to the earlier "Blue Period" one (1924-6), but you may change your mind when you hear this version. Jazzier and more stimulating than its predecessor, it immediately grabs the listener's attention.

Incidentally the piece was originally to accompany a film. This was apparently about some character wandering the streets of New York, and first titled Manhattan Rhapsody, then Rhapsody in Rivets. However, the Hollywood connection fell through, and the composer finally turned it into a concert piece simply known as his Second Rhapsody.

All three of the selections here receive spirited performances by this excellent group of musicians, and the recorded sound is demonstation quality -- audiophiles please take note!

As a bonus Bridge also gives us the premiere recording of Grofe's Gallodoro's Serenade for Saxophone and Piano with dedicatee Al Gallodoro himself as soloist. It proves beyond a doubt that even at age ninety-one, which Al was when this recording was made, he's still a master of the alto sax. So why not save yourself some travel expenses and take a most invigorating musical vacation with this scenic CD! (Y061117)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

All four of these string quartets are romantic gems from a composer you've probably never heard of. Born in Russia, Paul Juon (1872-1940) first studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory with Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev. In 1898 he moved to Berlin and became best known as a teacher. Then in 1934 he retired to Switzerland where he spent his remaining years devoted entirely to composition.

The first two quartets (opus 5 and 11) were written in 1896 and not surprisingly they show the influence of his Russian surroundings. They have a structural integrity similar to those of Taneyev, but don't rely as heavily on those contrapuntal devices that were such a favorite with his teacher. Opus 5 lasts almost forty minutes and exudes youthful energy. Like so many Russian romantic scherzos, the one here seems to owe a great debt to Slavic folk music. This quartet is atypical in that it consists of five movements and includes a lovely intermezzo that comes just before the finale.

Opus 11 is extremely lyrical and anyone who is fond of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's quartets is bound to fall in love with it.

The last two quartets (opus 29 and 67) appeared some eight and twenty years later respectively. They are more highly developed and introspective creations. Opus 29 retains some of the Slavic lyrical qualities of the earlier ones, but there's a chromatic moodiness which hints at what will come in the fourth.

For the most part Opus 67 transcends the romanticism of its predecessors with a degree of chromaticism that's almost on a level with that found in the music of such neo-romantic composers as Franz Schreker (see below). In fact, Juon may even have been influenced by him when you consider he was assistant professor of composition under Schreker in Berlin. It's a fascinating piece with constantly shifting harmonies that make it sound almost impressionistic, and you'll probably have to hear it several times to fully appreciate it.

From the standpoint of repertoire this is one of the most interesting chamber releases to appear in some time. The performances couldn't be better and the sound is superb. In short, A+ on all counts! (P061116)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

While DVDs generally fall outside the purview of the CROCKS Newsletter, this one is so exceptional that we couldn't help bringing it to your attention. Franz Schreker (1878-1934) was at the height of his creative powers when he wrote both the music and libretto for Die Gezeichneten. As the album notes points out, the title might best be translated as "those who are marked out, or branded, by fate."

Written when German Expressionism was in full bloom, it's a bizarre tale that's pretty far out even by today's standards, because it includes (at least in this production) such sexually charged subjects as transvestism and child abuse. In fact the last act takes place on an island of earthly delights which may call to mind those tales of debauchery supposedly perpetrated by Tiberius at his palace on the Isle of Capri. But rather than going into any more details about the plot, suffice it to say you'll have to see and hear it to believe it.

In the last analysis it's the music that reigns supreme and makes the case for this being the composer's crowning achievement. Like many pieces written towards the very end of the romantic era, it requires a huge orchestra, which Shrecker handles with consummate skill. In many respects it represents one of the last dying gasps of romanticism with all the brilliance and finality of a supernova. The composer's use of chromaticism is so extreme that at times the music almost sounds atonal, but every now and then he creates meltingly beautiful harmonically complex modulations that'll make your hair stand on end.

This release, which was taped at the Salzburger Festspiele last year, has deservedly gotten rave reviews on all counts. The singing is superb with English, French, German or Spanish subtitles an option. The choral and orchestral accompaniment couldn't be better and would seem to indicate that conductor Kent Nagano must have a great fondness for this score. The sets, costumes and lighting create an Expressionist atmosphere of almost terrifying proportions, and must be some of the most imaginative yet to appear in a DVD opera.

This production is presented in the 16:9 anamorphic widescreen format. In spite of the fact that this was a live performance, the sound is demonstration quality and offered in PCM(2), Dolby(5.1) or DTS(5.1). The latter format will knock your sox off and all audiophiles should take note. By the way, the audience is very well behaved and must have been just as transfixed by this production as you'll be. It's just too bad that Schreker, whose music was branded as “Entartete” ("Degenerate") by the Nazis, isn't around to see this glorious vindication of it! (Y061115)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (


Those looking for new and interesting Christmas music will be overjoyed with this release featuring three of Ralph Vaughan Williams' (1872-1958) yuletide creations. He loved Christmas and collected carols as well as folk songs, both of which he skillfully used as building blocks for larger works.

The program begins with the Fantasia on Christmas Carols in an arrangement quite unlike any other that's appeared on disc to date. For soloists, chorus, strings and organ, there's a much greater feeling of reverence and intimacy in comparison to the more familiar rendition with full orchestra.

Next comes a genuine discovery that’s entitled On Christmas Night. Believe it or not it's a tiny ballet based on Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol and scored for orchestra with brief assists from a chorus and two off-stage singers. It's riddled with references to some wonderful carols and concludes with a masterful medley of them based heavily on The First Nowell.

The final selection on this release is also named the The First Nowell. It's a very moving concert version of a nativity play with a scenario adapted from medieval pageants. It originally included eight speaking parts, but only the musical numbers (for soloists, chorus and orchestra) are performed here. Again Vaughan Williams weaves many lovely carols into the score.

This was the last piece he ever worked on, only completing two thirds of it. Fortunately he'd managed to sketch the remainder, which was fleshed out by Roy Douglas shortly after his death. Like the preceding ballet it ends with a thrilling arrangement of The First Nowell, which must have been one of Vaughan Williams' favorite carols. Interestingly enough there's evidence indicating he may have died while working on this very section.

This music is right up conductor Richard Hickox’s alley, and he elicits fabulous performances from everyone involved.

The recorded sound is in the finest Chandos tradition. You might want to play this disc on Christmas Eve, because it's bound to make that occasion all the more special. (P061114)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (