16 JANUARY 2007


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.

There are goodies galore including two world premiere recordings on this welcome release from Naxos. Best known for his five symphonies and a number of classic British films scores, English composer William Alwyn (1905-1985) wrote many outstanding shorter orchestral works, some of which appear here.

The concert begins with his six Elizabethan Dances. These alternate in mood between what you would have heard in the times of Elizabeths I & II. Highlights include a spirited pipe and tabor caper, a sassy Morris dance and a closing branle of jubilation, which has a rhythmic energy worthy of Leonard Bernstein's Candide Overture or the more colorful choreographic numbers in his Fancy Free.

With a title almost longer than the piece itself, The Innumerable Dance -- An English Overture follows. Inspired by a poem in William Blake's Milton, Alwyn uses his considerable talents as an orchestrator to recreate the vernal atmosphere evoked in print. A world premiere recording, romantic music lovers will be thrilled to discover this splendid ten-minute tone poem.

A delightful two-movement concerto for oboe, harp and strings comes next. The opening section is quite nostalgic and pastoral sounding, while the closing one is a spirited dance made all the more piquant by the presence of a double-reed soloist.

The concert continues with the brief eclogue Aphrodite in Aulis. This is another world premiere recording and an absolute gem.

A symphonic prelude entitled "The Magic Island" follows, where the isle in question is Prospero's from Shakespeare's The Tempest. This is one of the composer's most exquisite creations because he manages in the space of just ten-minutes to capture all of the moods and atmosphere of that enchanted habitat. The spirits of Claude Debussy and Karol Szymanowski are certainly haunt this magic land, which is not surprising when you consider Alwyn had studied their scores extensively.

This exceptional program concludes with a festival march, which couldn't be more English. You'll find it ranks right up there with those of Sirs Edward Elgar and William Walton.

Naxos scores again handily with this engaging disc and the sound is quite good.

Incidentally, several years ago Lyrita released two CDs of what many consider definitive performances of Alwyn's symphonies with the composer conducting. Unfortunately these discs were only briefly available and a great number of classical collectors failed to get them. If you missed out the first time around, now's your big chance, because they've just been reissued on Lyrita (227 and 228). (P070116)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

While Sir Arthur Bliss and Michael Torke have extolled colors in the symphonic medium, American composer Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) now does so with some chamber music.

Her piano trio is in two movements subtitled "Pale Yellow" and "Fiery Red." There's a tuneful tentativeness about her shade of yellow that's infectious enough to really get under your skin. On the other hand, Higdon's red is highly energetic with what might best be described as an itching insistency. One could almost fantasize that it's an allergic reaction brought about by the first movement. Do you suppose there's some sort of underlying dermatological significance here? All kidding aside though, it's a very engaging piece that's well worth hearing.

That's also true of the next two selections, which are both for string quartet. Voices begins in frenzied fashion much the same way as the trio ended. It then concludes with two more sedate movements, the last of which has a lovely benedictory quality that's most appealing.

Ms. Higdon tells us that Impressions is a response to both the artists and composers of the Impressionist period. By her own admission the string quartets of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel heavily influenced her work. Much to her credit though, it has a sound all of its own even if she does utilize the principles underlying their music. The first movement is brightly colored and somewhat assertive, while the second is a lovely meditation. The third is pointallistically prickly and reportedly inspired by the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia. Stylistically the finale comes closest to the French Impressionists, but there's a lilting restlessness that makes it a unique Higdon creation.

All of the performances are excellent with the last two works done in the studio and the trio taped live, but the audience is as quiet as a mouse.

The recordings come off sounding a bit dry, but in the case of the trio that's probably due to some close miking designed to minimize any extraneous sounds. Despite these audiophilic quibbles, this is a most interesting release featuring music by one of America's most up-and-coming composers. (P070115)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

If you don't know the music of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) you're in for a great discovery when you hear this outstanding release. If you do, you'll find these recorded performances totally eclipse what little competition ever existed.

The program begins with Songs of a Fairy Tale Princess for coloratura soprano and orchestra. Originally written in 1915 as a set of six songs with piano accompaniment, the composer later orchestrated the three included here. An Impressionistic orientalism pervades these haunting creations, which if anything even outdo the forays by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel into similar areas of exoticism.

Next comes the ballet Harnasie, which is a real rarity today, but was one of the composer's most popular works following its completion in the early 1930s. It's presented in toto and calls for a tenor soloist and chorus in addition to the orchestra. This music is Polish to the core, because it's awash with references to folk songs and dances from the Tatra Mountain area of southern Poland and northern Slovakia. The scenario centers on a group of highland brigands, and must have been inspired by the many folk tales about such characters as Juraj Jánošík (1688-1713), who was the Slavic Robin Hood of the Tatras.

The ballet begins in a mountain pasture where sheep are safely grazing (shades of Don Quxote’s encounter with them in Richard Strauss’ tone poem of the same name) with the sound of bells in the background. Next the bandits make their appearance in a series of marches and dances very much in keeping with the angular, highly rhythmic folk ditties so common to that area. This is followed by a magnificent wedding scene that relies heavily on the chorus. It may remind you of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, which came five years after Harnasie. The ballet ends with more rousing highland dances and a lovely epilogue featuring a touching love song for the tenor.

The concert concludes with Love Songs of Hafiz for high voice (a mezzo-soprano in this case) and orchestra. Based on Persian poetry, three of these were written in 1911 and later orchestrated in 1914 when the composer added five more to complete the set. While the ones from 1911 reveal an affinity with the music of Richards Wagner and Strauss, the overall mood is very similar to the first song cycle on this disc.

The soloists are superb and the choral and orchestral accompaniment under the distinguished Simon Rattle is right on the money.

The recorded sound is very good making this release a splendid example of what, for the lack of a better term, might be called Slavic impressionism. (P070114)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

As long as you don't expect a full-blown piano concerto in the grand Russian romantic tradition, chances are you're going to love this release. Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) began this concerto when he was nineteen, but never orchestrated the second movement or even bothered to write a concluding one. Still we're very lucky to have what’s here, because the completed twenty-five-minute first movement easily stands on it's own.

If you disregard the "concerto" connotations it comes off as an absolutely delightful fantasy for piano and orchestra somewhat in the Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky tradition. That's not surprising considering Taneyev was quite a virtuoso pianist himself and studied with Peter Ilyich, whom he greatly revered. Still there's a seriousness of purpose about this work that's typical of the composer, who unlike many of his Russian colleagues was a real work ethic kind of guy and a contrapuntist of the first order.

It opens with what is an exceptionally romantic theme for the composer. In typical Taneyev fashion, he subjects this to a number of highly interesting musical permutations and combinations before it makes a final triumphant curtain call. The eight-minute second movement, later orchestrated by Vissarion Shebalin, is really just a curiosity compared to the preceding one. It's basically a funeral march, which certainly isn't in keeping with the typical romantic piano concerto of that day. Maybe that's why Taneyev never finished it!

Nine of his lovely solo piano pieces fill out this disc. And listening to these you realize what an incredible influence he had on his students Nikolai Medtner and Sergei Rachmaninov, who were soon to become virtuoso pianist-composers in their own right.

Another curiosity included here is a work consisting of four improvisations, which were written at a dinner party by Taneyev along with Anton Arensky, Alexander Glazunov and Sergei Rachmaninov, who were also in attendance.

The program ends with a piece for piano four-hands composed in honor of Tchaikovsky's fifty-second birthday. It's a “nanoballet,” if you will, and subjects themes by the birthday boy to some pretty far-out contrapuntal machinations. It's presented with and without a narration penned by the composer and read by one of everybody's favorite pianist-conductors, Valdimir Ashkenazy.

All of the performances are excellent and the sound on this enterprising CD is very good. (P070113)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

While DVDs generally fall outside the purview of CROCKS Newsletters, this one is so exceptional that we had to bring it to your attention. In fact, it could well turn out to be the most interesting video release of the year! That's because the now rarely seen documentary films presented here are absolute classics. They combine stunning cinematography with some of the most original American music ever written, and moving narrations that border on the poetic.

Pare Lorentz wrote and directed these FDR "New Deal" epics and hired Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) to provide the music. He certainly got his money's worth! The composer produced not only what many consider his finest scores, but some of the best ever written for the silver screen. Thomson, who studied at Harvard and then with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, had the ability to write and orchestrate in an amazingly clear, simple and directly meaningful way. For the Lorentz films he used these talents along with a variety of folk and hymn tunes to create an entirely new kind of American music. Eclectic, down-to-earth and at times even humorous, it had such a uniquely compelling sound that it greatly influenced what would come later from other American composers, particularly Aaron Copland and Roy Harris.

The finer points of Thomson's exquisite scores don't come through on the original 1930s soundtracks, but that's not the case with this DVD! The music and narration have been newly recorded giving these extraordinary documentaries a new lease on life. In the process, several music cuts made in the original films have been restored. We have the outstanding, up-and-coming conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez and his Post-Classical Ensemble to thank for this. Known in the Washington, D.C. area for their imaginative programming and sensitive performances, they really outdo themselves here. Their efforts would undoubtedly have pleased the composer, who was also a formidable music critic.

Dating from 1936, The Plow That Broke the Plains documents the calamities brought about by the Dust Bowl and the New Deal policies designed to overcome them. The River, which came a year later, tells the story of the mighty Mississippi, it's disastrous floods and New Deal efforts to contain and prevent them. Thomson considered The Plow... his finest film score. But Gil-Ordonez makes an exceptionally strong case for The River, by turning it into a highly emotional cinematographic symphonic experience which you'll not soon forget.

A word of advice. You'll appreciate these movies all the more if you first watch the special feature interviews with composer Charles Fussell, who studied with Virgil and knew him well, and educational film expert George Stoney. There's also a brief audio track with Thomson himself commenting on his film scores.

Both documentaries are presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratio. The sound is excellent and offered in Dolby(2.0), Dolby(5.1) or DTS(5.1).

Additional special features include the planned, but later discarded beginning and ending for The Plow..., as well as the original soundtracks for both movies.

Incidentally, Thomson fans should make sure they check out a recent CD featuring his cello concerto along with some pieces by his student and good friend Charles Fussell (see the newsletter of 6 December 2006). (P070112)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (


Although this release appeared almost two years ago, after a recent rehearing it seemed appropriate to bring it to the attention of those who may never have gotten it. That's especially true these days when classical CDs seem to disappear from the catalog with increasing rapidity. Also, Czech composer Jan Hanus (1915-2004) is certainly not that well known, and it seems unlikely that there'll be any new releases of his music in the foreseeable future.

On the basis of this disc, he was extremely talented and lovers of late-romantic/early-modern music by such composers as Leos Janacek and Bohuslav Martinu will find this CD irresistible. The two works included here are colorfully orchestrated and possess great melodic sweep, undoubtedly inspired by the rich tradition of folk music so prevalent in the composer's native country.

The program begins with a suite from his 1952 ballet Salt is Better than Gold, based on the Grimms' fairy tale The Goose Girl at the Well. It opens in a tuneful manner and goes into a polka that may remind some of that bagpiper Schwanda whom Jaromir Weinberger made so famous. A festive royal celebration follows and then two rather mysterious sounding sections which may bring to mind the last movement of Reinhold Gliere's Ilya Murometz Symphony (No. 3). The suite closes with a lovely waltz that gracefully fades into the distance.

The symphony was written one year before the ballet and is in the standard four movements. It's a joyous celebration of life whose first movement is a highly lyrical series of contrasting pastoral and animated sections. A very moving almost Brucknerian andante follows, and then a scherzo that opens in strikingly energetic way and closes with a gorgeous stately sounding theme. This motif also serves as the introduction to the finale where it's developed in Sturm und Drang fashion with a nod to the great Bedrich Smetana. It then reappears exultantly at the very end only to fade away in a very poignant apotheosis, concluding this wonderful symphony on a nostalgic note.

Both of these works are readily accessible, which is not surprising considering that when they were written the Communist authorities ruling Eastern Europe required this of all serious music. But, don't get the idea that they're just Pablum for the proletariat. On the contrary, these pieces are fresh, highly engaging creations that will keep you coming back to them.

As conducted by the great Karel Ancerl, both are terrific showpieces for the Czech Philharmonic, which like the Royal Concertgebouw is one of those orchestras with a sound all of its own. That's particularly true when they play in the Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum, which is where these performances were taped.

Although these monaural recordings date from 1955-1956, they’re good enough so that those with home theater systems will be able to create a pretty convincing erstaz stereo ambience for them. Do give this disc a try while you still can. (P070111)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (