28 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.

The complete four movement version of Hugo Alfven's (1872-1960) fifth symphony (1942-1953) is what we have here, but the first movement was composed ten years before the other three, and there's the rub. That's because it's probably the best symphonic movement he ever wrote, while the later ones, although they're very good, just aren’t as inspired.

The work opens with considerable angst and some Mephistophelian sounding measures that gradually brighten harmonically in a passage right out of Cesar Franck (track-1, between 02:53 and 04:16). The motifs just heard are developed in spectacular fashion and the movement closes triumphantly, but with an unresolved final chord signifying there's more to come. The following andante has a funeral-like opening and closing, surrounding a light and cheery midsection. The next movement is totally different from anything heard so far. It's a diabolical scherzo complete with an osseous xylophone and demonic winds, and some of the whackiest music Alfven ever composed! The finale opens joyfully with a theme that might well have been written by Alexander Glazunov (track-4, beginning at 00:046). A most elegant development follows, and the symphony ends victoriously in the best tradition of a Hollywood epic.

If you’re feeling adventurous, try playing this piece without the second movement. You may find going directly to the scherzo provides such a complete change of pace from the first movement that the finale comes off sounding a little more convincing.

The disc ends with the gorgeously moving Andante religioso drawn from the composer's Revelation Cantata (Op. 31).

The performances are first-rate and at Naxos prices this is obviously the complete version of the fifth to have.

The sound is very good except for a couple of slightly audible "Bernstein Bounces" from Niklas Willen on the podium. (P070328)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

The highly successful Paul Juon (1872-1940) revival on the Musiques Suisses label (see the newsletter of 17 February 2007) continues with this release of his chamber symphony and first piano quintet. Although he lived in Germany and Switzerland from 1898 until his death, Juon was Russian born and trained, and it certainly shows in the selections on this disc.

There are three versions of the chamber symphony, but it's the original one (1906, scored for violin, viola, cello, bass, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano) that's presented here. It was among the first of several late romantic works for smaller orchestral ensembles, which were probably a counterreaction to all those mammoth monoliths being turned out by Gustav Mahler. The delightful first movement contains two lovely themes, which the composer develops in a most accomplished manner. The following andante features a Slavic sounding melody with a Brahmsian treatment. The third movement is a lively scherzo in all but name. Does the opening theme of the finale sound familiar? It should, because it's an extension of the one heard at the very beginning of the piece. It’s subjected to some inspired transformations that recall the theme and variations movement of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s piano trio (1881-82).

Juon's first piano quintet exists in two versions and, like the chamber symphony, the original one (1906, scored for violin, two violas, cello and piano) is featured here. The opening movement is a beautifully written sonata-allegro with two highly memorable contrasting thematic groups. The andante is characterized by a lovely haunting melody briefly interrupted by an irreverent fugato. Rather than following this with the traditional scherzo, the composer opts for a quirky, but catchy waltz, which flows right into the finale. This begins with a melody from the Russian folk song Spin, my spinning girl, which Tchaikovsky included in his 50 Russian Folksongs for piano duet. Juon's sensitive treatment of it is very moving. The quintet ends unpretentiously, but immediately begs to be heard again.

Great music, performances and recorded sound make this a release that's not to be missed. (P070327)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Here's some outstanding modern music for cello and piano by a man who was one of America's most popular concert pianists back in the early 1900s. Leo Ornstein (1893-2002; yes, he lived to 108!) was born in the Ukraine and admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the tender age of ten. But pogroms against the Jews forced his family to flee Russia for America, eventually arriving there in 1906. Leo was immediately admitted to the Institute of Musical Art (now The Juilliard School of Music) where he became an outstanding piano student.

The first sonata for cello and piano (1915) was written for cellist Hans Kindler, who would later become the founding conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Composed in less than a week, it's a brilliant piece in late romantic style as opposed to those earlier opuses, which had earned Ornstein a reputation as a l'enfant terrible.

The second sonata* (ca. 1920) was never completed and consists of only one extended movement. It could well be described as a lovely Hebraic rhapsody very much like Ernest Bloch's music for the cello.

The six preludes (1929-30) must rank with the greatest twentieth-century music for that instrument, and certainly bear out Kindler's witticism that the composer must have been born with a cello between his knees. Emotionally driven, they range from introspective to frenzied, and give the soloist a great opportunity to show off his talents.

Composition 1* (undated) and two other untitled pieces* (Op. 33, Nos. 1 & 2, undated) conclude this recital. The former is a gorgeous, almost impressionistic sounding lament, which may have been intended as a slow movement for the second sonata (see above). The Op. 33 selections might possibly be transcriptions of two lieder that were probably written sometime before 1914. They are much more avant-garde sounding than anything else here and will give you a brief glimpse of Leo's wilder side.

This CD contains three world-premiere recordings (*), and anyone interested in the cello will find it indispensable. Those of you who don't know Leo Ornstein's music are very much encouraged to become acquainted with it by way of this wonderful release.

The performances are absolutely committed and the recorded sound is very good. (P070326)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Once again there are Gallic goodies galore on this second, and concluding album from Timpani devoted to the complete chamber music of Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937).

The first disc of this two CD set begins with three works for cello and piano. Two of these, the Caprice and Expansion, are terse tunefully early works dating from around 1886, while the third is a one-movement sonata written in 1922. The latter is a masterpiece of harmonic construction that borders on the impressionistic. But, the best is yet to come!

The trio for piano and strings (1920-21) that closes out this disc is undoubtedly the composer's piece de resistance in the chamber genre. Pierné never wrote a symphony, but he certainly made up for it with this magnificently structured work. In three movements lasting almost three-quarters of an hour, it's a piece that requires repeated listening to decipher all its intricacies. The first movement is generally moody and introspective. The following scherzo is almost Tzigany providing a welcome respite from the intense opening and closing movements. The finale is built around a theme which may have been inspired by one of those Breton folk melodies Joseph-Guy Ropartz was so fond of using. Although the movement begins darkly, it ends on a joyful note in dance-like fashion.

The second disc features six additional selections, three of which include the harp and may remind you of Pierne's wonderful Konzertstuck for harp and orchestra (1903).

It begins with a drop-dead gorgeous Impromptu-Caprice (ca. 1886) for solo harp followed by two charming occasional pieces, Variations lbres et final (1932) and Voyage au pays du Tendre (1935), for harp, flute, violin, viola and cello.

You'll also find a fabulous transcription for flute and piano that the composer made in 1909 of his outstanding violin sonata (1900), which we previously raved about (see the newsletter of 1 March 2007).

The CD is filled out with Introduction et Variations sur une ronde populaire (1936) for saxophone quartet and Trois pieces en trio (1936) for violin, viola and cello. The former sounds at times like London Bridge Is Falling Down, while the latter is the composer’s last work and ranges in mood from somber to humorously feline (read the album notes).

As with Timpani's first Pierné chamber release, these works are beautifully performed by pianist Christian Ivaldi and members of the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra with a little help from the Luxembourg Saxophone Quartet.

The recording quality is very good and, like the first album, this is another tray of petits fours that are pretty hard to resist. (P070325)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

As far as early twentieth-century works for saxophone and orchestra are concerned, this enterprising release from Ottavo contains some of the rarest. The seven French pieces on this disc (they range anywhere from a little over three to almost fourteen minutes in length) are drawn from twenty-two works by sixteen different composers that comprise "The Elisa Hall Collection" now housed in the Boston Music Library. They were commissioned by American saxophonist Elisa Hall (1853-1924), who was born in Paris, but spent her early and later years in Boston.

She led a life surprisingly similar to that of American pianist and composer Amy Beach (1867-1944). More specifically, both had strong Boston associations and married renowned surgeons. What’s more, their husbands died while the ladies were in their forties, leaving them financially independent and able to devote the rest of their lives to music.

The disc opens with Claude Debussy's (1862-1918) lovely Andalusian tinted rhapsody (1901-08) in an orchestration completed by his friend Jean Roger-Ducasse.

Vincent d'Indy's (1851-1931) Choral varie (1903) is captivating in its Franckian lyricism, and was played more often by Hall than any of her other commissions.

Andre Caplet's (1878-1925) Impressions d'Automne (1905) is melancholy, but incredibly rich, calling for some profound pedal points on the organ.

There's a mysterious, almost menacing Fu Manchu quality about Florent Schmitt's (1870-1958) Legende (1918). But another more benign and melodically appealing Legende (1903), also by Caplet, follows immediately.

The next selection entitled Divertissement Espagnol (1900) is by Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935), who was then assistant concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). It’s a potpourri of Spanish themes and an absolute gem that should inspire those unfamiliar with his music to investigate further.

A piece by another composer with Boston connections closes the concert. Georges Longy (1868-1930) was first oboist with the BSO, and later established the prestigious Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was also Elisa Hall's teacher and composed the Rapsodie (1904) included here specifically for her and the Boston Orchestral Club, which the two of them founded in 1899. A delightfully wistful work, it leaves you wishing Longy had written more, and hoping Ottavo will issue additional goodies from "The Elisa Hall Collection."

Soloist Arno Bornkamp's warm velvety tone gives this release real sax appeal. That plus some outstanding support from the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jean-Bernard Pommier, make this truly a Dutch treat.

The sound is demonstration quality and guaranteed to please the most discriminating of audiophiles. (Y070324)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Looking for something different and thoroughly engaging? Well, the four late-romantic/early-modern Hungarian selections for harp and orchestra on this release certainly fill the bill.

The program begins with Ernst von Dohnanyi's (1877-1960) concertino (1952), which was written while he was teaching at Florida State University. Hearing this beautifully constructed, melodically sensitive work one can only wonder why it was not performed until three years after his death; but, as the old expression goes, "Better late than never!"

Sandor Balassa (b. 1935) is one of the most talented Hungarian composers alive today, and his Phantasy (2002) for harp and strings bears that out. In one extended movement it begins with a phrase that’s a bit like the opening of Ernest Bloch's Concerto Grosso No. 1. This is immediately followed by an ear-catching theme played by the soloist. After a number of clever transformations -- including one that sounds like it might have been inspired by Antonio Soler's famous fandango – the concerto closes with a spirited allegro containing passages somewhat reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's music for Psycho.

Ferenc Farkas' (1905-2000) concertino (1937, revised 1956), also with string accompaniment, comes next. It consists of two allegros, each with highly atmospheric cadenzas, surrounding a melancholy andante with what sounds like Eastern European folk influences.

The last selection is Frigyes Hidas' (b. 1928) concerto (ca. 2004). As the album notes point out, it's in three movements that one could imagine represent the past, present and future. The opening one is late-romantic and calls to mind Zoltan Kodaly's Summer Evening. The more modern sounding second one is anxious and searching like the beginning of Bela Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The last movement makes a lyrically optimistic statement about things to come, but as it ends, the celesta turns everything that's just been said into a fairy tale.

So there you have it! Four delightful Magyar rarities beautifully performed by harpist Melinda Felletar with the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra under Bela Drahos.

The recorded sound is good. (P070323)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (