1 MARCH 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.

Strange and wondrous sounding things happen when you hear early Baroque organ music performed on a mean-tone tempered instrument like the one here. That's because this method of tuning produces pure major thirds, which were all the rage in Dieterich Buxtehude's day (1637-1707) as they were thought to be the musical equivalent of "heavenly harmony." Not only that, but they intensify the contrast between consonances and dissonances in music thereby giving it greater emotional impact.

So it's quite likely this is what you would have heard at the prestigious St. Mary's Church in Lübeck, Germany, when the composer was organist there. However, these "heavenly thirds" come at a cost, because pieces in certain keys can sound harsh or even dissonant on mean-tone instruments. So steps must be taken to ameliorate these incompatibilities. The most radical solution is to transpose the work in question to a more listener-friendly key, and in Buxtehude’s day organists did this all the time.

Besides transposition though, there are several other ways to accomplish this. For instance, the organ for this recording has additional sub-semitone black keys and pedals just for this purpose (see the excellent album notes for an explanation and picture of them). These are necessitated by the fact that accidentals like d-sharp and e-flat, which are the same identical note and represented by just one black key on a conventionally tuned instrument, must take on slightly different pitches on a mean-tone one in order to minimize the problems mentioned above. Additionally the performer can downplay dissonant notes by shortening their length, camouflaging them with ornaments and/or even opting for leaner registrations that make them less apparent.

The highly versatile and talented soloist here, Hans Davidsson, uses every trick at his disposal to come up with some of the most colorful Baroque music that ever emanated from an organ pipe. As a matter of fact, after you've heard this album, Buxtehude on a conventionally tuned instrument comes off sounding rather drab! The one Davidsson plays here is located in Göteborg (Gothenburg), Sweden, and it’s absolutely spectacular. That’s because it’s a modern day synthesis of the finest North German Baroque instruments from such builders as the great Arp Schnitger.

Not only that, but this is one of the best sounding recordings of "The Pope of Instruments" to come along in some time. It utilizes Erik Sikkema's new ULSI recording methodology, which does for church spaces what Ray Kimber's IsoMike does for the concert hall (see the 7 February 2007 newsletter). Accordingly, audiophiles who love organ music must have this release, and are encouraged to read about ULSI by clicking here.

Musically, artistically and sonically producer Roger Sherman has a “Triple Crown” winner with this, the first of three albums from Loft Recordings devoted to the composer's complete organ works a la mean-tone. This one contains all of his better known ones, so it's perfect for those wanting a single highlights album. However a word of warning, after you hear it you may well find "you can't eat just one," and you'll probably want the second and third volumes, which have since been released (see the the newsletters of 17 November 2007 and 29 September 2009).

Those desiring more detailed information about what’s included can find it on the new, beautifully appointed Gothic Web Site by clicking here. (Y070301)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Reading the album notes for this release one cannot help but be impressed by Taiwanese born composer Gordon Shi-Wen Chin's (b. 1957) stated desire to write meaningful music devoid of superficiality. He has succeeded in doing just that with the two modern sounding, but quite approachable concertos on this release.

These world premiere recordings honor two Taiwanese-American soloists; veteran violinist Cho-Liang Lin and the up-and-coming cellist Felix Fan, whom you'll undoubtedly be hearing more about on the basis of his outstanding performance here.

The double concerto for violin and cello is in four programmatically titled movements. The first, "Drifting Shadow", consists of highly agitated opening and closing sections surrounding a more rhapsodic central one, and may call to mind Samuel Barber's violin concerto (1939-40). The next, "A Flowering Sacrifice," is for the most part slow and repentant with occasional glissando sighs from the strings. A sprightly rondo, "In Expectation," follows providing an exhilarating contrast to what’s come before.

The finale, "Yearning: A Sweet Torture," begins forcefully with a brief repeated motif played by the percussion. The soloists then enter into an increasingly heated exchange with the orchestra, interrupted periodically by additional percussive outbursts. The work ends peacefully as all the disputants resolve their differences and the soloists fade into the distance.

The concerto, Formosa Seasons for Violin and Strings, was originally to be paired with Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons, but other than that there's no apparent association between the two. The first movement, "Summer," is sultry with virtuosic passages allowing the soloist to shine like the summer sun. "Autumn" opens in a restlessly driven manner and contains a rather catchy theme with a Jingle Bells rhythm before becoming quite meditative and ending quietly.

"Winter" begins hesitantly, but the soloist soon dominates the proceedings only to be subdued by some heavy duty pizzicato passages from the orchestra. "Spring" bursts forth with rhythmic energy to spare, giving Lin a final opportunity to demonstrate his considerable talents. The shortest of Chin's seasons, it ends abruptly in medias res leaving the listener quite breathless.

The composer creates a uniquely appealing sonic world in both of these pieces, and the two soloists along with the Kansas City Symphony under Michael Stern fill it most admirably.

The recorded sound from renowned audio engineer Adam Abeshouse is demonstration quality. This release is recommended to modern music enthusiasts and audiophiles alike. (Y070228)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

This successor to Hyperion’s critically acclaimed release of Morten Lauridsen's (b. 1943) choral music that appeared a couple of years ago on Hyperion (CDA67449 or SACDA67449) is just as outstanding. It features more of the same, and with this composer, more is never enough.

The choral song cycle "Mid-Winter Songs," written in 1980, is performed here in a version with orchestral accompaniment. It's based on the poetry of Robert Graves, who's probably best remembered today as the author of I, Claudius. Lauridsen says that next to music his greatest passion is poetry, and it certainly shows in the five highly sympathetic settings that make up this work. It's lyrical, emotionally packed music that on the surface may remind you of Aaron Copland or even Benjamin Britten. But, everything rests on a foundation that’s undoubtedly explained by Lauridsen's study of, and abiding love for, chant and other early music. Skillfully structured with each of its sections thematically linked, the whole work comes off sounding like a veritable choral symphony.

Also consisting of five songs, the cycle Les chansons des roses was written in 1993 to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. These are all a cappella except for the last, which features piano accompaniment and was actually the first to be composed. The exquisite simplicity and Gallic lightness of touch that characterize these songs may well have you agreeing with those critics who think Lauridsen is one of, if not the best American choral composer alive today.

Although both cycles have appeared on disc before, many may find they prefer these performances for their greater intimacy and more finely textured sound.

They're followed by premiere recordings of three sacred pieces. I will lift up mine eyes and O come, let us sing unto the Lord (the latter with organ accompaniment) are anthems to Psalm texts. They are early works dating from 1970 and show the composer's great affinity for Medieval music. The third selection, Ave, dulcissima Maria completed in 2005, is an invocation for unaccompanied male chorus. It was commissioned by the Harvard University Glee Club, and they certainly got their money's worth! The occasional tinkle of finger cymbals, played by the composer, is reminiscent of the Sanctus bell used during Mass. There's a supplicatory mien about these sacred works that grasps your attention, and makes them much more involving than the usual choral fare served up while the collection plate changes hands.

The program ends with the first recording of Nocturnes, also completed in 2005. It's a cycle based on three poems by Rilke, Pablo Neruda and James Agee. The Rilke and Agee have piano accompaniments, while the Neruda is a cappella, and probably one of the most moving expressions of love you'll ever encounter. (Speaking of Neruda, make sure you also read the recommendation below for Peter Lieberson's song cycle based on more of his love sonnets.)

This second Lauridsen release from Hyperion is certainly a potential award winner, and no choral collection is complete without it. While the recorded sound is good, it does remind one of how extremely difficult it is to convincingly capture choruses in the digital domain. Consequently one can't help wondering if it might not have sounded even better had something like Ray Kimber's remarkable IsoMike been used (see the 7 February 2007 newsletter).

By the way, those of you who think they don't like choral music should consider giving this disc a try. It might just change your mind! (P070227)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (1954-2006) was an extraordinary mezzo-soprano who won the hearts of all who heard her, and her death at the age of fifty-two was a terrible loss for the classical music world. This valedictory album is a moving testament to her art as well as that of her husband, composer Peter Lieberson (b. 1946), and the great love they shared for each other during the last nine years of her short life.

He wrote the five songs she sings here specifically for her as a token of their devotion to one another. Based on love sonnets by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), they couldn't be more appropriate to the occasion. With such an outstanding singer, these late-romantic, almost impressionistic settings must rank with the greatest Liebeslieder. Of course it helps that the composer chose some of the most affective twentieth century love poems ever written. The emotional response they've elicited from American audiences since their premiere in 2005 has been remarkable. That’s due in no small part to the fact that they deal with the subject of mortality and its relationship to the love between two individuals. In that respect they might even be called Songs of Love and Farewell, because the shadow of the Grim Reaper and his all too swift scythe hang over each of them.

An autumnal, almost pastoral glow suffuses the first song, while the second swells amorously upward like a nimbus cloud on a hot summer's day. The third and fourth are more anguished and introspective with curious little repeated motifs that add an air of detached wistfulness similar to that in Im Abendrot from Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs (1948). The fifth song, which limns the immortality of love, may well reduce you to tears.

Hearing this disc many listeners may be reminded of the great contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953), who also died from cancer at an early age, and her timeless performance of Der Abschied from Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (1908-9). Like Ferrier, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson will undoubtedly go down in classical music annals as a legendary performer.

The orchestral support provided by conductor James Levine and the Boston Symphony couldn't be more sympathetic.

This is a live recording, but you'd never know it because the sound is quite presentable and the audience, nowhere in evidence. At only thirty-two minutes long, this disc is a bit pricey, however the circumstances surrounding it and the artistry involved easily outweigh the cost. It's certainly a must for lieder lovers, but you'd better take three hankies to the concert!

While we're on the subject of Pablo Neruda, make sure you also read the above recommendation for Morten Lauridsen's Nocturnes, which includes another one of Neruda's love sonnets, but for a cappella chorus. (P070226)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

There are Gallic goodies galore on this leadoff album devoted to the complete chamber music of Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937).

A two CD set, the first disc contains six works for piano and strings. The Fantasie-Impromptu, Serenade, Berceuse and Andante are all early works for violin and piano that were written between 1880 and 1885. Spanish influences are evident in the first two of these, while the third and fourth are more French sounding.

The sonata for violin and piano dates from 1900 and is in three movements. The opening one is absolutely thrilling and owes a great debt to Gabriel Faure. The second is a charming lullaby-like creation. The finale is thematically and structurally right out of Cesar Franck, who was one of Pierné’s teachers. Despite these influences, there's a precision and attention to detail that are typical of Pierné.

That's even more apparent in the final selection on this first disc, the quintet for piano and strings, written seventeen years after the sonata. Also in three movements, it's much more harmonically adventurous than anything we've heard so far. The opening moderato begins cautiously on little cat feet, but gradually builds to a dramatically intense climax, which waxes and wanes ending the movement in much the same spirit as it began.

Next there's an appealing Spanish flavored middle movement based on a five-beat Basque rhythm, which also serves as a link to the opening of the finale. The last movement begins hesitantly as thematic rivulets coalesce into a jubilant torrent that ebbs and flows as previous thematic material is reintroduced in typical Franckian cyclical fashion. Everything then ends triumphantly.

The second disc begins with eight selections for various wind ensembles as well as solo woodwinds with piano. You'll find all of them delicately delightful.

Then there's the tiny ballet Giration for chamber ensemble (1933) that, believe it or not, was specifically written to publicize Thomson-Houston gramophones. This was to be done by making a 78 of the music, which would then accompany the dancers.

Next up, a Spanish dance for violin and piano that may have been an early thought for his delightful Music Hall Impressions (see the newsletter of 15 July 2006).

The CD ends with a recitation of a poem by Albert Samain entitled Nuit divine featuring background music for violin and harmonium by the composer.

All of these delightful chamber works are beautifully performed by pianist Christian Ivaldi and members of the Luxemburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

The recording quality is very good, making this a tray of chamber music petits fours that's pretty hard to resist. (P070225)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Here's the latest installment in Chandos' ongoing survey of Ottorino Respighi's (1879-1936) orchestral music, and from a programmatic standpoint it's the most varied and interesting to date.

The CD opens with his Burlesca dating from 1906. Brilliantly orchestrated, this might best be described as a tiny tone painting, although there's no indication of any program associated with it. While definitely a Respighi creation, there are passages that sound like they might be from some undiscovered symphonic poem by Jean Sibelius. Are those brief allusions to the Dies Irae halfway through (track-1 beginning at 03:46)?

The next selection, the Preludio, corale e fuga (1901), is extremely colorful, which is not surprising considering it was written under the supervision of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whom Respighi had been studying with at that time. The prelude sounds a bit like a cross between the beginning of Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony (No. 8, 1822) and the more sinister parts of Camille Saint-Saens' Le Rouet d'Omphale (1872). Instead of ending, it segues directly into the next section where the chorale, already hinted at, appears in full glory. This leads straight into the fugue, which starts off frenetically only to blossom into a gorgeous, highly melodic development that sets the stage for some concluding orchestral fireworks. The final coda shows this great Italian composer at his very best, and can't help but move even the most jaded of listeners. Rimsky must have been very proud of his student.

Also included is one of Respighi's most charming pieces, Rossiniana (1925). It’s a four movement suite consisting of free transcriptions based on some of Gioachino Rossini’s piano works. It will remind you of Respighi’s well known ballet La Boutique fantasque (1918), which was drawn from similar material. A solo trumpet heralds the radiant music characterizing the first movement. This is followed by a rather sinister sounding lamento that begins somewhat like Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (1899). It’s full of percussive effects that will test the limits of any sound system. The third movement is a delicately scented intermezzo of spring breezes that sets the stage for the titillating tarantella which ends this fanciful frolic. As performed here you may well find you prefer this Rossini pastiche to his more familiar ballet.

The final selection on this release shifts the spotlight from Rossini to Sergei Rachmaninov. In 1930 Respighi orchestrated five of his seventeen Etudes-tableaux (Op. 33, No. 4 and Op. 39, Nos. 2, 7, 6 & 9). The result is one of the most colorful late-romantic creations you could ever hope to hear. The first etude is reminiscent of the Isle of the Dead, and again there are hints of the Dies Irae, which appears frequently throughout Rachmaninov’s entire oeuvre. The second is a festive depiction of a village fair and may remind you of his Symphonic Dances (1940). The third is a funeral march with some tone painting that must be heard to be believed. The fourth tells the story of Little Red Riding Hood in Technicolor orchestration. The wolf is represented by some spectacular percussive effects, including the snapping of lupine jaws on the tam-tam. The fifth etude is a march similar in spirit to the second, and will leave you wishing Respighi had orchestrated all seventeen.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda takes this music very seriously with great attention to detail, and the BBC Philharmonic is in top form.

The recorded sound will quite simply knock your sox off -- audiophiles should take note! (Y070224)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (