16 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.

Like Paul Moravec (see the newsletter of 7 April 2007), American composer Stephen Albert (1941-1992) won the Pulitzer Prize for music. In Albert's case it was awarded in 1985 for his RiverRun Symphony (No. 1), which he was commissioned to write for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

The work, while not programmatic, is a musical representation of a river as a metaphor for the cycle of life, death and rebirth. He apparently got the idea from reading James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, where Ireland's Liffey River plays a dominant role. Thus the symphony's subtitle RiverRun, which is the very first word in the Joyce novel.

The symphony dates from 1983 and is in the standard four movements, each of which has a descriptive title linking it to the song cycle TreeStone that was composed concurrently with it. The first movement opens starkly with a rather Stravinskyesque sounding chord and what is almost a quote from Ludwig von Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata (No. 8). This is followed by twittering woodwinds and strings that are interrupted by outbursts from the brass and percussion. The music then becomes a broadly flowing river of sound with insistent rhythmic ostinatos somewhat suggestive of the more animated parts of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.

The movement ends with a questioning motif made up of five chords that introduce a very haunting slow movement followed by a rather bizarre scherzo. In the latter, a childlike tune based on an Irish folk song is contrasted with a march, which sounds somewhat like the Darth Vader/Imperial March music John Williams wrote for the original Star Wars films (1977-1983). The finale is a tripartite structure of Albert's own design, where each section is more agitated and intense than the last. An Ivesian impressionism colors everything, and the symphony closes in an unresolved state ready to begin all over again just like the cycle of life.

The second symphony (1992) was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, but Albert died in an automobile accident before he could complete its final assembly and instrumentation. This was done by his friend and colleague Sebastian Currier (b. 1959), now one of America's most up and coming composers in his own right (see the newsletter of 9 March 2006). In three movements, it's entirely different from its predecessor and devoid of any Joyceian connections.

The first bars are suggestive of Claude Debussy or Maurice Ravel, but it's not long before there are hints of Jan Sibelius, whom Albert greatly admired. The first movement is for the most part a continuous lyrical outpouring where extended thematic ideas flow from one group of instruments to another before it ends optimistically. The brief Scherzo that follows is, as the detailed album notes point out, quite sarcastic and smacks of Stravinsky.

The final movement is similar in length as well as mood to the first, and the most cinematic of the three, although that's not meant in a pejorative sense. It gradually builds to a magnificent climax in rather Sibelian fashion leaving the listener with a sense of regret that there'd be no more music from this very talented American composer.

Conductor Paul Polivnick and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra make a strong case for these symphonies and the recorded sound is very good. At Naxos prices this release delivers just about as much emotional bang for the buck as you're ever likely to get. (P070416)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Best known as a conductor, Englishman Julius Harrison (1885-1963) composed several orchestral works worthy of revival as evidenced by this recent disc from Dutton.

The Worcestershire Suite (1918) is named after a former county (now part of Hereford and Worcester counties) in central England where Harrison grew up. It consists of four musical sketches related to that area. The first is a delightful children's dance; the second, an impressionistic river scene; the third, a beautifully melodic picture of fruit trees in blossom; and the fourth, an infectiously tipsy portrait of a two local folk musicians.

This is followed by an undiscovered gem, Harrison’s lovely rhapsody for violin and orchestra titled Bredon Hill (1941). Similar in mood to Ralph Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, it's a symphonic landscape painting of one of the most beautiful locations in old Worcestershire.

Next there's the Troubadour Suite (1944), which is in four sections and based on troubadour and trouvere melodies dating from the thirteenth century. This engaging piece is in the tradition of all those other folk oriented suites for orchestra by the likes of Percy Grainger and Gustav Holst.

British light orchestral music doesn't get any better than Harrison's Romance: A Song of Adoration (1930), which may remind you of Eric Coates' more winsome creations.

Prelude-Music (1912) for harp and strings, and Widdicombe Fair (1916) for string orchestra fill out the Harrison part of the program. Both are distinguished occasional pieces that are respectively wistful and capricious in character.

The disc concludes with a serenade for strings (1943) by Australian-born, English-educated Hubert Clifford (1904-1959). Like all of the Harrison selections, this is very much in the best English folk-pastoral tradition. In four movements, it's the most progressive sounding piece here and has a refreshing nonchalance reminiscent of Michael Tippett's lighter music for strings.

The performances couldn't be more sympathetic and the Dutton engineers certainly outdid themselves on this release -- audiophiles please take note. (Y070415)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Following their highly acclaimed traversal of David Diamond's complete string quartets (Albany 504, 540, 613 and 727), the Washington, DC based Potomac Quartet now gives us those of Quincy Porter (1897-1966). Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Porter attended Yale University where he, like Charles Ives, studied with Horatio Parker. After graduation Porter went to France and took courses in composition from Vincent d'Indy. In his later years he went on to become a professor of music at his old alma mater.

Unlike Ives the iconoclast, Porter was a conservative whose output, while forward-looking, was based on tried-and-true past principles. This probably explains why his music languished in obscurity during the latter half of the twentieth century when most American composers were trying to outdo each other with more and more outlandish sounding concoctions. But times have changed, and these beautifully written quartets, which span most of Porter's compositional career, should find very appreciative ears among today's audiences.

The first disc in this two CD set contains numbers one through four (1923, 1925, 1930 and 1931), which are models of contrapuntal and harmonic construction.

Four delightful short pieces -- the three-part rather liturgical sounding In Monasterio (1927), Ukranian folk song Our Lady of Potchaiv (1923) and a scherzo (1923) and fugue (1941) -- fill out this CD.

The second disc holds the remaining five quartets (1935, 1937, 1943, 1950 and 1958). These are rhythmically as well as harmonically more advanced with an attention to detail and intellectual introspection a bit reminiscent of David Diamond's work in this genre.

All nine quartets share French and German influences that may call to mind the chamber music of Darius Milhaud and Paul Hindemith (also a professor at Yale from 1940 through 1953). Speaking of Hindemith, the Gebrauchsmusik concept (music for practical purposes) he championed certainly applies here.

By the way, it's probably advisable to audition these on a one-a-day basis. That’s because you may well become desensitized to their more subtle aspects if you try listening to too many at one sitting.

Outstanding performances and superb recorded sound make this an album every American music enthusiast should consider getting.

In the meantime, here's a suggestion for the Potomac Quartet as to their next recording project. How about giving Harvard equal time by doing Walter Piston's five quartets? (Y070414)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

If you've ever seen any of those low-budget sci-fi movies so popular in the 1950s, you probably remember the word "Röntgen" on those clicking Geiger counters carried around by mad scientists in strange suits. And it's in fact a measure of radiation named for the great Nobel-Prize-winning German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923), who discovered X-rays. But there's also a musical connection, considering it was Wilhelm's distant relative Julius Röntgen (1855-1932) who wrote the orchestral selections featured here.

Julius was an extremely prolific composer (he wrote twenty-five symphonies, some still in manuscript and unnumbered), who was German-born and trained, but moved to Amsterdam in his early twenties. He lived and taught there for the rest of his life, and was involved with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (now the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) as well as that acoustic marvel of a concert hall they still play in. Consequently it's not surprising that he's frequently referred to as a Dutch composer. But when you hear the selections on this release, it becomes quite obvious his music is decidedly Germanic. There are none of those French influences that sometimes creep into works by composers from the Low Countries.

His third symphony (1910) is in the standard four movements and shows influences of Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and even Antonin Dvorak, who was very much in the Brahms camp. Speaking of Schumann, one of the opening phrases [track-1, beginning at 00:45] sounds strangely like an early passage in the first movement of his Rhenish Symphony (No. 3, 1850). The delicate slow movement that follows sets the stage for a "ferocious" presto that recalls Anton Bruckner's more driven scherzos. Röntgen seems to come into his own only in the last movement, despite a beginning that sounds right out of Beethoven. Here fragmented motifs, initially introduced in the brass over scurrying strings, coalesce into a magnificent chorale-like peroration for full orchestra that ends the symphony.

The Aus Jotunheim Suite (1892) is named for a mountainous region in Norway, which the composer and his good friend Edvard Grieg visited in the late 1800s. It's atypical Röntgen, because it's based on Norwegian folk tunes. In five sections, it's an absolutely lovely piece where Julius shows himself every bit as capable as Edvard in transforming folk music from Grieg's own country into a serious concert work.

Enjoyable music, dedicated performances and good sound make this release well worth a try. (P070413)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Late romantic Belgian composer Jef van Hoof's (1886-1959) symphonic music is reminiscent of Alexander Glazunov and Richard Strauss, who as it turns out were his two favorite composers. And like them, he was a melodist of the first order.

The third symphony (1944-45) is in four movements and begins with a lovely rocking melody that Glazunov would have been proud to have written. It's subjected to some harmonic transformations and developmental machinations in the style of Cesar Franck. The following slow movement is the symphony's emotional center of gravity, and a very moving remembrance of the many hardships the composer's hometown of Antwerp suffered during the Second World War. The energetic scherzo provides an upbeat contrast notwithstanding a couple of veiled references to the Dies Irae. The finale is based on cyclical principles where previous themes make brief appearances. There's a very refreshing playfulness about this movement, which concludes in Till Eulenspiegel fashion leaving you with the feeling that "All's well that ends well!"

The suite from Van Hoof's opera Fire of May (1913-16) is in three movements played without interruption. It comes off sounding like a fifteen-minute rustic tone poem, and serves as a charming opener for this wonderful disc of discovery.

It's followed by a divertimento for trombone and orchestra (1935) cast in two sections. The first is in the form of a lovely aria for the trombone, while the second is an energetic scherzo giving the soloist gets a chance to show off his considerable talents.

The remainder of this release is devoted to eleven songs for soprano and orchestra that are distinguished for their melodic comeliness. The first four (1906), set to poems by Hungarian-born, Dutch poetess Giza Ritschl, are quite melancholy and probably reflect the composer's grief over the recent death of his mother. A Mood of Spring (1910) is a tiny tuneful jewel. Three Songs in the Manner of Folk Songs (1907) are gorgeous romantic ditties that may just produce a tear or two. Afternoon at Home (1946) is a becoming berceuse, while I Love You (1907) is a folk song of Van Hoof's own devising that’s elegant in its simplicity. The Garland Has Been Hung (1913) is the Belgian counterpart of Richard Strauss' later lieder.

Soprano Ann De Renais brings out the very best in each of the vocal selections and trombonist Ivan Meylemans makes a strong case for the divertimento. Conductor Zsolt Hamar and the Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra provide ideal accompaniment for each the songs as well as stirring performances of the orchestral works.

All this plus very good recorded sound make this release a real find, which no romantic should be without! (P070412)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

All of the works on this outstanding release were written by British composers in response to the First World War (1914-18).

The version of Sir Edward Elgar's (1857-1934) The Spirit of England (1916-17) done here calls for soprano, tenor, chorus and orchestra. It's a setting of three war related poems that finds Sir Edward at his most inspired. You'll be reminded of his great oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, which he even borrowed a couple of quotes from.

Like George Butterworth (1885-1916), Australian-born, English-educated composer Frederick Kelly (1881-1916) was killed in battle along the Somme River in 1916. Kelly's elegy for harp and strings was written in 1915 and honors the memory of British poet Rupert Brooke, who had died that year while serving with the Royal Navy. It's an exceptionally moving piece and makes one realize what a terrible loss the classical music world suffered with the death of this talented young composer.

In a strange way, the next selection, Ivor Gurney's (1890-1937) War Elegy (1920) for orchestra, was itself a victim of the war. The original score was left in total disarray as a result of a mental breakdown suffered by the composer following his harrowing experiences on the Western Front. Thanks to the efforts of some very dedicated musicologists, it’s been totally reconstructed and we can now hear this most affecting piece where the spirit of Elgar is not too far away.

Sir Hubert Parry's (1848-1918) The Chivalry of the Sea (1916) for chorus and orchestra is described as a naval ode, and commemorates those who died at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. It ranks right up there with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford's Songs of the Sea and Fleet (see the newsletter of 20 September 2006) and Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony (No. 1) as some of the best pelagic choral music to come out of England.

This poignant program closes with an extraordinary discovery, Lilian Elkrington's (1901-1969) short orchestral tone poem Out of the Mist (1921). She was a student of Sir Granville Bantock and, if this piece is any indication, she must have been one of his best. It's a shame she stopped composing following her marriage! In fact the work here was apparently thrown out after her death only to be found by accident some years later. It commemorates the arrival at Dover, England in 1920 of a warship carrying the body of Britain's WWI Unknown Soldier. It's an incredibly descriptive piece that conjures up a vivid vision of Charon's ferry materializing out of the Channel mists. The music builds to an incredible climax as one realizes its sole silent passenger was just one of millions killed in another example of man's inhumanity to man.

This disc is an exceptionally moving release you won't want to be without. Soloists Susan Gritton and Andrew Kennedy are in fine patriotic voice for the Elgar, while David Lloyd-Jones and the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra prove to be perfect advocates for every measure of music here.

The recorded sound is good except for some occasional choral peakiness. (P070411)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (