17 FEBRUARY 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.

After hearing this release you may come away with the feeling that Richard Rodney Bennett's (b. 1936) music for the concert hall is even better than his film scores. This is the first volume from Chandos Records devoted to his orchestral works, and there are some real finds here.

The disc begins with a partita for full orchestra dating from 1995. In three parts, the opening intrada is very tuneful and bustling with Waltonian energy. A lovely relaxed lullaby follows, and the work ends enjoyably with a rhythmically assertive finale.

The remaining three works involve string orchestras. The first of these, Reflections on a Sixteenth Century Tune, was written in 1999 and the tune is the top line of the three-part chanson En l'ombre d’ung buissonet by Josquin des Pres. It's somewhat of a cross between Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra. You’ll find that it's a significant addition to the canon of late romantic English string music.

Following this we get a cycle of six songs for bass-baritone set to texts from The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Entitled Songs before Sleep, these were written in 2002 and should appeal to the child in anyone. The composer's ability to create music that's juvenescent, but at the same time sophisticated, makes for most enjoyable listening. Highlights include a bouncy fiddle-filled The Mouse and the bumble-bee, a lovely lyrical Twinkle, twinkle, little star and a Brittenesque There was an old woman. The soloist here, Jonathan Lemalu, who gave the first performance of these in 2003, has a real feeling for these ditties and carries them off to perfection.

The concert closes with Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song for cello and string orchestra. Based on the melody for Call the ewes to the knolls, this is in the best English pastoral tradition. It's a moving free-form meditation and stylistically very similar to the previous "Reflections..." Interestingly enough Tippett used the same tune in a couple of his works, including the concerto mentioned above.

Conductor Richard Hickox is usually at his best with selections like these, and this release proves to be no exception.

The recorded sound is quite good. (P070217)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

These two symphonies by American composer Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941) are well worth calling to your attention. Written in the last ten years, they're both in the standard four movements and fall into the late romantic category. They're full of those wonderful western sounding rhythms and themes so typical of American composers like Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland and Don Gillis.

The second symphony (c. 1995-96) opens in a sinister way with what almost sounds like an American Indian war dance. Repeated highly rhythmic passages, which must be a Hailstork calling card, lead to an eerie, more subdued central section. The war dance then resumes and the movement concludes just like it began. The grave which follows is a mournful extended chorale that's quite affecting and a great showpiece for the winds. It was apparently inspired by a trip the composer made to Ghana on the west coast of Africa, where he saw the dungeons used for holding slaves prior to their shipment overseas.

A syncopated, insistently strutting scherzo comes next, setting the stage for the finale. This begins with a passage that features a contemplative clarinet, mystical strings and an interrogatory flute that may bring to mind Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question. A frenzy of orchestral activity follows with those “Hailstork repeats” much in evidence. The symphony ends in a blaze of glory with a big-tune played by the strings that's extolled in the brass and reinforced by the percussion.

The third symphony (no date given) is dedicated to the Grand Rapids Symphony. It begins in what might be described as a state of joyful agitation with sparkling staccato passages that may remind you of the Sunday Morning Interlude (No. 3) in Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes. After the first movement, there’s a moving heartfelt moderato and a sprightly scherzo with all the effervescence of a vintage champagne.

The finale begins with a reflective melody in the strings punctuated by exuberant “Hailstork repeats” in the winds and brass. This gives way to a lovely reflective passage reminiscent of the slow movement, but the opening transports of joy return, and the piece ends just as it began.

The Grand Rapids Symphony under their conductor David Lockington gives marvelous accounts of both works that should win many friends for this delightful American music.

The recorded sound is good, but a bit on the dry side. (P070216)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Here's an outstanding follow-up release to the well received album of string quartets by Russian born Paul Juon (1872-1940, and pronounced "you-one") that we recommended not too long ago (see the newsletter of 20 November 2006).

This one features his two piano quartets, the first of which he called a rhapsody. Dating from 1907 and in three movements, the rhapsody is a real attention-getter. That's because the composer utilizes separate tonal centers (D and F) at different places in the work as well as hybrid scales containing modal elements like those found in Slavic folk music. The variety of keys and ambiguity between major and minor brought about by these two factors make for a highly chromatic listening experience you'll not soon forget. The first movement opens dramatically with some arresting key shifts and has a late romantic intensity that's most appealing. The second possesses a very catchy rhythmic angularity bordering on the quixotic. The third alternates darkly pensive with sunny melodic passages to great effect, and ends in cyclical fashion with the same zinger of a harmonic sequence that began the work.

The second quartet came five years later (1911) and was dedicated to his wife who had recently died. It's not surprising then that it's a much more intimate and heartfelt work covering a wide range of emotions. In four movements, it's structurally and harmonically more complex than its predecessor, yet there's a sincerity and ease of expression that will win many admirers. The first movement is wistfully melancholic and after a couple of hearings you'll probably pronounce it a masterpiece! Subtitled "trembling hearts," the highly rhythmic scherzo exhibits a somewhat diabolical cardiac fibrillation that really gets to you. The adagio is a touching lament that vacillates between total despondency and peaceful resignation. The finale has a melodic angularity that's reminiscent of Robert Schumann, but the movement ends with an ingenious flash of chromaticism that's pure Juon.

While the Berlin Philharmonic Piano Quartet's performances are totally committed, these chamber works are so outstanding that you'll probably find yourself on the lookout for future recordings of them. Unfortunately with a composer as little known as this, those may be a longtime in coming, so this release will have to do for now.

The recorded sound may not be the greatest, but it’s certainly good enough to make a strong case for this wonderful music. (P070215)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Now here's a treasure-trove of polytonal pieces for piano and orchestra from the great modern French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). All of his works in this genre, beginning with his ballade written in 1920 up through his fifth concerto dating from 1955, are included in this album.

The ballade, which was dedicated to Albert Roussel, is characterized mainly by bitonality, but Latin elements as well as impressionistic sounding passages are also present.

Written the same year, the five etudes are more experimental and stylistically advanced with tritonality evident in places. These caused a minor riot at their premiere, but today's audiences will find them imaginative, highly colorful tidbits, which in places point the way towards such later French composers as Olivier Messiaen.

The year 1926 saw the U.S. premiere of one of Milhaud's most popular works, Le Carnaval d'Aix. This was based on his music from the ballet Salade written two years earlier and it’s in the same tradition as Le Boeuf sur le toit and La Création du monde. The folk-like lyricism, sparkling clarity and neoclassical simplicity so typical of "Les Six" (Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre) prevail throughout. One of the themes [CD-1, track-3 beginning at 00:02] sounds like something Ottorino Respighi uses in his first suite of Ancient Airs and Dances dating from 1917.

In 1938 Milhaud wrote the Fantaisie Pastorale, which is highly melodic and practically devoid of polytonality. It will remind you of Poulenc's keyboard concertos.

Between 1933 and 1955 Milhaud produced five piano concertos, each of which is a little gem. All have rather animated beginnings and endings surrounding slow movements that range from dreamy to threatening. Highpoints include the beginning of the first concerto, which contains a theme [CD-1, track-19 beginning at 00:30] somewhat like one in the opening movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's first symphony written in 1923-24. The second (1941) has a gorgeous romance and there are some lovely passages in the third (1946) that once again smack of Poulenc. The fourth (1949) opens and closes with a spiky alacrity reminiscent of Prokofiev's piano music, while there’s a certain Gallic indifference and je ne sais quoi about the fifth that make it most charming.

Pianist Michael Korstick performs these pieces with such Germanic precision and assurance that it’s hard to believe he’s ever hit a wrong note. Conductor Alun Francis and the SWR Radio Orchestra provide dedicated support.

The recording quality is good, but depending on your audio equipment, the highs may come off sounding a tad hard. (P070214)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

It's only been in the last few years that the music of this very talented Russian composer has become known in the West. That's because Nikolai Roslavets (1881-1944) was denounced by the Soviet authorities in 1929 for his avant-garde tendencies, and accordingly his works were suppressed until the advent of perestroika in 1986. By today's standards his music is not that far-out, even if he was being called "the Russian Schoenberg" back in the 1920s. As a matter of fact that sobriquet is somewhat misleading, because he never embraced the dodecaphony propounded by the Second Viennese School of composers (Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern), but rather an extreme form of chromaticism, which was an extension of the harmonic principles espoused by Alexander Scriabin in the early 1900s.

Roslavets started writing a chamber symphony in 1926, but only finished most of the first movement. The symphony premiered here is an entirely different work (1934-35) that the composer went on to complete. In four movements and lasting almost an hour, it has only recently surfaced because of all the political turmoil that has surrounded Roslavets. It'll come as quite a revelation to most modern music enthusiasts and may bring to mind Schoenberg's first chamber symphony dating from 1906. In fact, both works contain important recurring motifs based on intervals of fourths. While neither is strictly twelve-tone, they're highly chromatic to the point of sounding atonal at times. However, with a couple of hearings, listeners will sense enough of a key structure in the Roslavets to preclude that queasy feeling of tonal disorientation that some experience with Schoenberg's later works. The scherzo even sounds like Debussy in places (track-3 beginning at 01:12), which is not surprising when you remember that Roslavets was to some degree an extension of Scriabin, who in his later years became the embodiment of Russian Impressionism. The finale is lush with late-romantic sympathies, but ends rather abruptly almost as if the composer were saying, “Enough!”

The companion piece here is the tone poem In the Hours of the New Moon. It's for large orchestra and one of Roslavets' earliest surviving works probably dating from 1910-13, when he was a student at the Moscow Conservatory. Like the previous selection, it languished in obscurity for many years until Dr. Marina Lobanova came to the rescue and reconstructed a performing version of it in 1989. It was well worth the effort, because it's quite an amazing creation with links to a number of other Russian as well as European composers. More specifically, there are hints of Rimsky-Korsakov as well as passages that may bring to mind Alexander Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy (fourth symphony, 1905-08) and Prometheus -- The Poem of Fire (fifth symphony, 1908-10). Impressionistic elements like those found in Debussy and Ravel are also present, while Roslavets’ consummate skill in handling a large orchestra is reminiscent of Franz Schreker and Richard Strauss.

Conductor Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra turn in what will probably be definitive performances of both works for some time to come, and the recorded sound is very good.

Like another great Israeli conductor, Israel Yinon, Volkov has a real knack for unearthing outstanding, rarely performed repertoire. So you might want to investigate his recent highly acclaimed recording of little known works by Leos Janacek also on Hyperion (CDA67517 or SACDA67517). (P070213)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

This outstanding release from Loft Recordings makes available some rarely heard, but truly great music by Charles Tournemire (1870-1939), who was one of France's most distinguished organist-composers. Musically speaking he was heir to Cesar Franck in that he studied with him and eventually, like Franck, became titular organist of St. Clotilde in Paris.

Consequently it’s not surprising that there's quite a structural similarity between his Seven Last Words of Christ featured here and Franck's well-known three chorals. In fact Tournemire described his work, which dates from 1935, as a poem for organ in the form of seven chorals based on Christ's last words. Granted Tournemire is more modal and mystical sounding than Franck, but the cyclical concept espoused by his teacher prevails in the form of two motifs that recur throughout the piece. One of these is based on a Hindu mode, and is best heard in the fifth choral [track-5, beginning at 00:00]. It's origins are not surprising, considering Tournemire, like Olivier Messiaen, was interested in Eastern music. Ranging from the softest ppp to the loudest ff, Seven... is one of the composer's most dynamic and emotionally moving creations.

The recital continues with a work by Jean Langlais (1907-1991), a student of Tournemire who followed him at St. Clotilde. His Death and Resurrection is one of "Three Gregorian Paraphrases" he wrote for organ in 1933. Although it's linked spiritually with the preceding selection, the sound world is much less mystical and more immediately involving. It begins in a subdued almost dirge-like manner, but eventually erupts into a coruscation of triumphant joy.

The disc ends with a real rarity. Tournemire was noted for his organ improvisations and even recorded some of them back in 1930-1931. Then in 1956 another student of his, Maurice Durufle, reconstructed them from those transcriptions. One of these based on the Easter sequence Victimae paschali concludes this concert. By the way, you’ll find two others on the Tournemire release we recommended previously (see the newsletter of 7 February 2007). When you experience these powerful ad libs, you'll only regret you weren't around to hear all those other one-shot, spur-of-the-moment improvs Tournemire must have tossed off at St. Clotilde.

The selections here are beautifully played by Martin Jean, who’s Director of the Yale University Institute of Sacred Music. He’s at the console of the University’s Woolsey Hall, Newberry Memorial Organ, which was the work of three highly respected builders, including the great Ernest M. Skinner, and is ideal for the heavy-duty repertoire included here.

The recording is excellent with some pedal profundities of seismic proportions that should really waggle your woofers -- audiophiles take note!

By the way, Martin Jean has also recorded Louis Vierne's six organ symphonies at Woolsey Hall. And, while we're on the subject of organ music, you're encouraged to check out the new, beautifully appointed Gothic Web Site, where you'll find a wealth of information on just about anything related to "The Pope of Instruments.” (Y070212)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (