7 APRIL 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.

This is the second volume in conductor Ton Koopman's continuing survey devoted to Dietrich Buxtehude's (1637-1707) complete works on the Challenge label. While the first installment featured solo harpsichord music (see the newsletter of 20 November 2007), the second is devoted to the oratorio Wacht! Euch zum Streit gefasset macht (Awake! Prepare yourselves for battle).

While it cannot be attributed to Buxtehude with certainty, Maestro Koopman, a baroque expert par excellence, feels there's no doubt about its authorship. Assuming it’s the real McCoy, it represents a major, heretofore unknown vocal work by this great North German composer that all baroque fans will definitely want to hear. Although its origins are sketchy, it may well have been written for the Abendmusiken (Evening Music) series of public concerts that Buxtehude organized and promoted at his church, the Marienkirche in Lubeck. It survived only as a set of incomplete parts, but thanks to some extensive scholarly research and realization work by Koopman, we now have his very impressive reconstruction of it premiered here.

This is like no other Buxtehude you've ever heard before, because it's very lyrical with passages that are quite operatic. Also there are frequent choruses (all five-part) and more than the usual allotment of purely instrumental numbers. The soloists include three sopranos as well as an alto, tenor and bass, plus a chorus and orchestra that are quite substantial, at least by North German Baroque standards.

Koopman always picks superlative performers, and the singing here is if anything even better than it was in the many cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach that he’s recorded. The orchestral accompaniment is impeccable and the sound, excellent.

Back in 1705 the young J.S. made a two hundred mile journey from Arnstadt to Lubeck to attend the Abendmusiken. When you hear this two CD album, you'll understand why.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P070407)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) wrote twenty-four piano preludes, which were issued in two books containing twelve each in 1910 and 1912 respectively. Then in 2001 conductor Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra commissioned British composer Colin Matthews (b. 1946) to orchestrate all of them. What we have here are half the fruits of his labors (six from each book). These are not just note for note transcriptions, because Matthews has taken some judicious artistic license with them.

He has intermixed and rearranged the order of the selections from each book (read the informative album notes and/or put this "Enhanced CD" into your computer's disc drive for the exact details). He's also transposed keys, modified rhythms, added a couple of small newly composed passages, and made a few other adjustments necessitated by these changes.

In the process Matthews has created what amounts to a new suite for orchestra that lasts almost three-quarters of an hour, and sounds amazingly like a Debussy original. The music is made all the more convincing by conductor Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra who play this sonic picture book to perfection.

Highlights include "Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest" ("What the West Wind has seen," Bk. 1, No. 7) and "La Puerta del Vino" ("The Wine Gate," Bk. 2, No. 3), which cover a wide sonic spectrum and will test the limits of the best sound systems. Then there's "La danse de Puck" ("Puck's Dance," Bk. 1, No. 11), which in Matthew's hands is a delightfully enchanting, tiny Shakespearean tone poem.

The final two selections, "Le vent dans la plaine" ("The Wind in the Plain," Bk. 1, No. 3) and ever popular "La fille aux cheveaux de lin" ("The Girl with the Flaxen Hair," Bk. 1, No. 8), are joined together, and represent the most radical departures from their piano predecessors. More specifically, Matthews has added a brilliant development section to the former, and slowed the latter down by a factor of two, providing the suite with a truly lovely conclusion.

The program ends with that old chestnut La Mer. Many may be put off by the very thought of this, since they probably already own umpteen recordings of it. However, that would be a big mistake, because this is in a class by itself. Sir Mark and the Hallé deliver one of the most crystalline, incredibly detailed renditions of Debussy’s seascapes to come along in some time. The tempos are now and then a little slower than usual, but they work perfectly within the context of this exquisitely delineated performance.

Everything is helped by the recording engineers, who've really outdone themselves with this release. It sports some of the most impressive bass drum sonorities you're ever likely to hear -- or feel for that matter! One last thought, be careful setting your playback level because the dynamic range on this disc is second to none.

It should be noted in retrospect that not long after this release, Hallé issued another with Matthews' orchestrations of the remaining twelve preludes plus Jeux (1912-13). Then in 2011 they compiled a twofer with just the Matthews' transcriptions (see the newsletter of 10 March 2011). This is ideal for any who passed up the first two CDs because of their "war-horse" couplings.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y070406)

Here's a knockout collection of several piano pieces by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) arranged for orchestra by other composers.

The program begins with a suite entitled Slatter orchestrated by Oistein Sommerfeldt. A world premiere recording, it’s made up of three selections from Grieg's set of seventeen piano pieces by the same name (Op. 72). They're based on Hardanger fiddle tunes from Telemark in southern Norway. The harmonies are extremely colorful and designed to mimic the sympathetic sounds produced by the underlying strings peculiar to that type of folk violin.

Hans Sitt's arrangement of four Norwegian dances (Op. 35) comes next. Most everyone has heard them before, but probably not in supercharged performances like these.

Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak (Op. 73), orchestrated by Johan Halvorsen, is a powerful piece Grieg wrote as a memorial to a young and promising Norwegian composer, who had just died. Dramatic major-minor shifts are indicative of the overpowering grief Grieg must have felt for someone who was also a close friend.

The world premiere recording of Ballade (Op. 24) as arranged for orchestra by Geirr Tveitt follows. Lasting almost twenty minutes, it’s a theme and variations based on a folk melody from central Norway. It’s subjected to a number of highly chromatic, extremely creative treatments made all the more colorful by Tveitt's brilliant orchestration. A very dramatic work, it could easily qualify as a symphonic poem, but you'll have to provide your own story.

The disc concludes with two shorter pieces. The Bridal Procession Passes By is from Pictures from Folk Life (Op. 19, No. 2), and was orchestrated by Johan Halvorsen. Most everyone is familiar with the black and white piano version of this, but here it is in glorious Technicolor.

Ringing Bells is from Lyric Pieces (Op. 54, No. 6), and was originally arranged by Anton Seidl. However, just before he died, Edvard revised Seidl’s version. Consequently it’s the most modern sounding Grieg you'll ever hear with lots of superimposed open fifths that point the way towards French Impressionism.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Norwegian conductor Bjarte Engeset outdo themselves on this well recorded release. This is a smorgasbord that's not to be missed, particularly with the prices on the bill of fare at the Naxos restaurant.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P070405)

This release may not be as esoteric as those usually covered in these pages, but it's been so highly praised, and rightfully so, that it would be negligent not tell you about it.

Written when George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was around thirty, the six concerti grossi (Op. 3, circa 1715-22) are full of variety and some of his most vibrant orchestral works. While the first concerto highlights the wind instruments, the second gives the strings a chance to show off. The third is a flute concerto, except in name, and full of unusual sonorities.

While the first three are of Italian persuasion, the fourth is very French in character and reminiscent of the orchestral music found in Jean-Philippe Rameau's stage works. As the excellent album notes point out, the fifth sounds quite operatic, but you'll have to supply your own scenario.

The sixth concerto is a bit of an oddball, because it's only in two movements, the last of which has a solo organ part. Do you suppose Handel's enterprising publisher diddled with it to whet the public's appetite for the Opus 4 organ concertos that he was about to offer? Well no matter, because it's a winner, at least as performed here, where conductor Richard Egarr adds an ad libitum organ solo that acts as a central movement.

The disc finishes with a Sonata a 5 (1707), which the twenty-two year old composer wrote while he was in Rome. That's where he met the great Arcangelo Corelli, whose influence is very evident in this as well as all the other selections above. The sonata starts off with just solo violin and continuo, but as the "a5" indicates, they are soon joined by an orchestra similar to the one we've just been hearing.

The performances are authoritative and absolutely immaculate.

The sound is excellent on this hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0) release, which is also available in conventional, CD(2) format. Those with systems that go all the way down in the bass end may notice some very low level background noise. It's probably from traffic and/or subways in the vicinity of St. John's Smith Square, London, where this was recorded. But that's a small price to pay for some exceptional, less frequently heard music from the youthful Mr. Handel.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P070404)

On the heels of Australian composer Carl Vine's orchestral suite based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, which was recommended last month (see the newsletter of 15 March 2007), here's a Tempest Fantasy for chamber ensemble.

It’s by American composer Paul Moravec (b. 1957), who received his musical training at Harvard and Columbia. Written in 2002, it’s scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, and won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for music. On the surface Moravec's music is quite approachable, because it's based on triadic and tonal principles. But underneath there's obviously a highly creative intellect at work that gives it real substance. The composer says in effect that Tempest... is a meditation on various characters and aspects of the play, which act as starting points for flights of musical fancy.

In five movements, the first relates to Ariel and is appropriately Aoelian. The second, inspired by Prospero, is quite pensive. The third and fourth, associated with Caliban, are grotesque and soothingly reassuring respectively. The fifth is a madcap recap that boils over with musical ideas from the earlier ones. See if you detect a motif in the third and fifth that seems somewhat reminiscent of the “big tune” from the last movement of Robert Schumann's Spring Symphony (No. 1).

The concluding three selections are for piano trio. The first of these, Mood Swings, is a theme and variations, which recreates in musical terms a variety of human psychological states. The Washington Post named it the best new classical composition of 1999, so don't be surprised if you find yourself listening to it repeatedly. B.A.S.S. Variations (1999), another theme and variations, is dedicated to Mercedes and Sid Bass. The main motif is derived from the spelling of their last name, which in German musical notation equates to the notes Bb, A, Eb, Eb. The third, Scherzo, is an encore-like piece that even outbuzzes Rimsky-Korsakov's busy bumblebee.

All of this music was tailor-made for the artists involved, who deliver breathtaking performances.

Engineered by the distinguished Adam Abeshouse, the recorded sound is stunning with a gorgeously liquid clarinet, totally convincing piano devoid of any breakup, and silky strings.

This is a must for all American music enthusiasts, particularly those who for one reason or another failed to get it when it first appeared on the now defunct Arabesque label back in 2004. When you hear it, you'll realize what a great debt we owe Naxos for making it available again, and at a lower price to boot!

By the way, if you enjoy this release, make sure you investigate a recent companion one (Naxos 8559243) featuring the chamber music of another Harvard graduate, John Harbison (b. 1938).

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y070403)

Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos' (1887-1959) second symphony (he wrote twelve) should appeal greatly to all romantics. Begun in 1917 and possibly not finished until the early 1940s, it's fifty-minutes long and in the standard four movements. Unlike his later works, which frequently come off sounding like an inspired musical stream of consciousness, this symphony is highly structured. In fact the principle of cyclic form championed by Cesar Franck is evident throughout. This is certainly in keeping with Villa-Lobos' claim that his first five symphonies were written in the style of Vincent d'Indy, who being a student of Franck, also espoused cyclicity.

The work opens with an upward spiraling theme suggestive of the subtitle "Ascencao" (Ascension), which the composer said was related to his state of mind at the time. Several other very attractive melodic ideas are introduced with the "Ascencao" motif acting as a kind of Idee fixe throughout the movement. A delightful scherzo follows where themes from the previous movement make brief appearances. The andante finds Villa-Lobos at his most melodically inventive. The finale begins with another "Ascencao" type passage that lapses into a Franckian funk. This gives way to a manic-depressive central section in which there are again hints of thematic material that has come before. The mood brightens towards the end as the symphony finishes on a triumphant note. This very approachable work borders on the cinematic, but only in the best sense of that word.

The program concludes with New York Skyline Melody (1939), where the printed notes of the melody trace out an image of the Manhattan skyline circa 1939. Lasting only about three minutes, there are some super intervals that are able to leap tall buildings at a single bound.

Conductor Carl St.Clair and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra of the SWR make a strong case for this early symphony as well as the urban encore that follows, and the recorded sound is quite good.

If you haven't already done so, do try some of Villa-Lobos’ other symphonies, most of which have now been recorded for CPO by these same very talented musicians.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P070402)