15 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.

Samuel Feinberg (1890-1962) may not be a household name, but he holds a significant place in the legacy of outstanding Russian pianists and was an important pedagogue. He also wrote a limited amount of music mainly for the piano.

The sampling of it on this release includes his third piano concerto (1947), which is one of his major works. In three movements and lasting three-quarters of an hour, this piece has a structural complexity very reminiscent of fellow Russian Nikolai Medtner's third piano concerto (1940-43). The first movement begins with an extensive brooding orchestral introduction where the piano makes only brief appearances. The music then comes to life as more and more virtuosic demands are made of the soloist and several interesting themes are introduced and developed. The movement ends excitedly in a flurry of keyboard activity not unlike that found in the closing moments of Sergei Prokofievís early piano concertos.

The andante that follows might best be described as a combination of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Gustav Mahler. Its lovely simple beginning and ending surround a more agitated central section and prepare the way for the finale. This opens with a rather tentative theme for the soloist which is picked up by the orchestra as the two enter into an elaborate dialogue. Several Slavic sounding motifs are introduced and developed in a way that again recalls Medtner. A massive cadenza follows and the orchestra enters with an impressive closing statement as the concerto ends in almost Brucknerian fashion.

By the way, this is the same performance of the concerto that appeared on the now defunct Consonance label back in the mid 1990s.

The disc is filled out with some of Feinberg's solo piano music -- his sixth sonata (1923) and four preludes (Op. 8, 1920-25). Lasting only twelve minutes, the sonata must be one of the most intense and difficult pieces in the genre. The preludes vary in mood, but intervallic elements link them together. While the influence of Alexander Scriabin is quite evident in both works, there's a deliberateness and structural integrity that are Feinberg traits.

The performances are excellent and the recorded sound is certainly acceptable considering that with repertoire as rare and interesting as this, beggars can't be choosy. (P070315)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

This outstanding release from "down under" features works by Richard Mills (b. 1949), whoís one of Australia's finest contemporary composers. While all of the selections included here are certainly approachable, this is "No pain, no gain!" music, because it'll require your undivided attention and repeated listening to be fully appreciated. Be assured though, that those making the effort will be amply rewarded. The three concertos on this disc are in single extended movements ingeniously constructed from seminal thematic and harmonic ideas that appear at the beginning of each work.

The one for cello (1990) is highly dramatic and in four subsections of decidedly different mood. The opening is intensely anguished and immediately grabs the listener's attention. An energetic allegro, which makes considerable demands on the soloist, follows. This flows into a more relaxed adagio providing a respite before the spectacular rhapsodic finale. Millís orchestration is superb with some brilliant percussive effects undoubtedly explained by the fact that the composer was a percussionist earlier in his career.

By contrast, the violin concerto (1992) is more lyrical with scoring thatís occasionally reminiscent of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It begins with an engaging, angularly melodic allegro that slips into a beautiful lento where soloist Barbara Jane Gilby shows off her considerable talents. A perky presto, which demands some very fancy fiddling from Ms. Gilby, follows and ends with a dramatic flourish for full orchestra.

The final selection on this disc is a concerto for violin and viola (1994). While there's a neoclassical simplicity and transparency to it, it's the most percussive and colorful selection here. Rather than trying to outdo one another in typical concerto fashion, the two soloists work together. It opens with a mercurial vivace where the violin and viola are on equal footing. An amorous lento introduced by the viola follows, and the violin joins in as the two instruments sing a gorgeous duet. This becomes increasingly agitated, but then subsides only to start anew in what turns out to be the beginning of a highly virtuosic finale.

The concerto ends as the two soloists serenade one another and the orchestra joins in with a final joyous outburst of approval for their efforts. As with the two previous works, the scoring is brilliant proving that Mills is certainly a "colorist" in the best sense of the term. There are several passages involving the glockenspiel, harp, marimba and/or piano that sound absolutely magical and may remind you of American composers Roy Harris and Lou Harrison.

The soloists are all superb and the support provided by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra under the composer's direction is exemplary.

The sound is demonstration quality and should please even the most discriminating of audiophiles.

By the way, make sure you also investigate the Carl Vine CD recommended below as well as the ABC Classics releases of music by Australian composers Brenton Broadstock, Don Kay, Peter Sculthorpe and Nigel Westlake. (Y070314)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950) was one of the greatest late-romantic/early-modern Russian symphonists who ever lived. He wrote twenty-seven symphonies, but for the past couple of years recording companies have been too busy cranking out those by Dmitri Shostakovich to pay much attention to them. However, this groundbreaking release from Warner Classics may indicate that the tide has finally turned.

The two works included here show different aspects of the composer's symphonic personality. The sixth (1921-23), his largest undertaking, is in four movements with an optional final chorus (included here), and takes three-quarters of an hour to perform. The tenth (1926-27), which is in a single movement lasting only a quarter of an hour, could almost be considered a symphonic poem; but, more about that later.

The sixth symphony opens with an extended sonata-allegro that has two contrasting groups of themes, one of frantic urgency and the other more relaxed and lyrical. Myaskovsky's elegant development of these is highly chromatic with hints of Alexander Scriabin's later symphonies. The movement ends on a pessimistic note only to be followed by a rather diabolical sounding scherzo, where the specter of Camille Saint-SaŽns' Danse macabre (1874) is not far away. There are also references to what would seem a preoccupation with Russian composers, the Dies Irae. The third movement is a moving andante that has all the appeal of something from a Sergei Rachmaninov symphony, and again the Dies Irae is much in evidence.

The finale begins jubilantly with quotes from some French Revolutionary songs. But then in a passage reminiscent of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, it dramatically changes key and the Dies Irae makes another appearance along with a Russian Orthodox burial hymn. However, the soul ultimately triumphs as the chorus and orchestra extol its final journey to God. This movement may remind some of the finale from Scriabin's Divine Poem Symphony (No. 3), which depicts the human spirit abandoning itself to the joy of free existence.

As stated above, the tenth symphony (1926-27) is in many respects a symphonic poem. That's because it's based on Pushkin's poem The Bronze Horseman, which was also the subject of a 1948-49 ballet by Reinhold Gliere, who was one of the composer's teachers. The poem was inspired by the disastrous flood that hit St. Petersburg in 1824, so it's not surprising that the tenth opens with brass and percussion creating an image of rampaging waters. From the programmatic standpoint other details of the poem are also in evidence, but in absolute terms this short symphony is a structural masterpiece and an indication of what was to come from this great composer.

The performances are superb and conductor Dmitri Liss has a real feel for Myaskovsky.

The recorded sound is very good, making this release an absolute must for those who either don't know these symphonies or want to replace their older, inferior sounding versions of them. (P070313)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

This is the second volume in Timpani's survey of the complete string quartets by late-romantic French composer Joseph-Guy Ropartz (1864-1955).

In the standard four movements, the fourth quartet (1933-34) is more joyous and optimistic than his earlier efforts, and may bring to mind Vincent d'Indy's later chamber music. The opening allegro is in sonata form with two contrasting themes, one rather jolly and the other more introspective, which the composer handles with consummate skill. A scherzo like section follows featuring a catchy folk-like theme. The slow movement is a lovely melody which Ropartz subjects to some very inventive thematic transformations. The vivacious finale provides an ideal ending to this beautifully constructed work.

The fifth quartet (1939-40), subtitled ďQuasi una fantasia," is atypical of the genre because itís in five parts played without interruption. Itís even sunnier than its predecessor, which is surprising considering it was written just after the composerís wife died from a prolonged illness. Three fast, cheerfully energetic sections are interspersed with two slower, more pensive ones. The work ends in a blaze of light featuring some spectacular ensemble playing by the Stanislas Quartet.

Ropartz's sixth quartet (1947-48) was one of his last pieces and there's a wonderful autumnal glow about it that's frequently found in works written by composers in their later years. It's the most harmonically advanced of the three, and in this respect may recall the music of Arthur Honegger, to whom it was dedicated. Two outer, exquisitely structured sonata-form movements surround a Queen-Mab-like scherzo and a beautiful lento, which may be the most moving music on this release.

The performances are superb and the sound is very good.

Make sure you also have the previous volume in this Timpani series containing his second and third quartets (1099); and, be on the lookout in these pages for a third release that will feature the first one. (P070312)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Russian contemporary composer Sergei Slonimsky (b.1932) began his career as an avant-gardist. However, the music on this release finds him in a more approachable late-romantic/early-modern frame of mind.

The sinfonietta (1966), or Symphoniette as it's referred to in the album notes, is in three movements and opens slowly in a mysterious rather foreboding way. The woodwinds then introduce an attractive lyrical theme which turns sinister as the other members of the orchestra subject it to some fugal convolutions before the movement ends very much like it began. The following andante is an extended aria based on a lovely modal melody.

The closing movement is very engaging and contrasts highly energetic with more lyrical sounding themes, the best of which will receive special attention later on. Celesta and harp figure heavily in this beautifully orchestrated movement, and the sinfonietta ends somewhat like Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra in a flurry of scurrying strings over which the brass proclaim the "big tune" referred to earlier. The performance and recording are quite good except for some extraneous clicks in the second movement (track-11 at 04:07, 04:22 and 04:47).

The version of Virineya included here is billed as an oratorio suite based on the composer's opera by the same name written in 1967-74. The original stage work is a harrowing tale about the collapse of social order in a Russian village concurrent with the 1917 Revolution. The story focuses on a peasant woman named Virineya, who is unable to adjust to life under communism and is subsequently murdered. The oratorio is in nine sections and opens with a moving song for the heroine with choral accompaniment. It's full of all that Slavic pathos, which would seem to be a Russian specialty. Other highpoints include a choral interlude entitled Blizzard with hints of Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, and a lively trepak for chorus and orchestra.

Judging from the album notes, there appear to be inconsistencies between the titles and order of the last three or four tracks of the oratorio. Unfortunately there's no libretto so it's difficult to determine exactly what's amiss, but the music speaks for itself.

The soloists are certainly in character with voices that sound more folk-like than operatic. The choral and orchestral support is excellent and the recording, certainly acceptable.

Despite the problems mentioned above, those looking for some rare and interesting contemporary Russian music will probably want this release. (P070311)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

This interesting release from "down under" features works by Carl Vine (b. 1954), who is one of the most highly regarded Australian composers living today. The selections here, like those on the Richard Mills CD recommended above, are certainly approachable. But, again they fall into the "No pain, no gain!" category, because they'll require your undivided attention and repeated listening for full appreciation.

The disc begins with an oboe concerto (1996) in three movements. The first one has a pensive beginning and ending surrounding a catchy, highly animated central section. Here the oboe skitters along above an orchestral accompaniment reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein's livelier dances from West Side Story. The second movement features a lovely aria for the soloist, while the third opens and closes in highly syncopated fashion with a gorgeous central cadenza.

The next selection, entitled Canzona (1986), is for string orchestra. It begins slowly, but builds to a stirring climax and is in the best tradition of English string music by such composers as Frank Bridge, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett.

In 1990 Vine wrote a ninety-minute ballet based on Shakespeare's The Tempest that included electronic and pre-recorded music. He later extracted a twenty-minute suite from the orchestral part, which is whatís featured here. In six highly programmatic sections, this melodically colorful work testifies to the composer's considerable abilities as a tone painter. As with Richard Mills' music (see the recommendation above), the percussionist plays an important role and is shown off to great advantage in this superb recording.

The disc concludes with Smith's Alchemy, an arrangement for string orchestra that Vine made of his third string quartet (1994). The name reflects the fact that the original was commissioned by the Smith Quartet, which is based in London. This piece has been hailed by critics as one of the finest Australian works for small orchestra, and when you hear it you'll undoubtedly agree.

All of the performances are outstanding and presented in demonstration quality sound, which should please the most discriminating of audiophiles.

By the way, make sure you also investigate the ABC Classics releases of music by Australian composers Brenton Broadstock, Don Kay, Peter Sculthorpe and Nigel Westlake. (Y070310)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (