14 MAY 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 release proves beyond a doubt that Australian-born, English-trained Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960) should be remembered for more than just his killer Storm Clouds Cantata featured in both versions of Alfred Hitchcock's The Man who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956).

That's particularly true of the symphony (1945)* included here, which is in four movements lasting almost three-quarters of an hour. There's a seriousness of purpose and martial demeanor about it that imply World War II was very much on the composer's mind when he wrote it. The opening movement is darkly apprehensive with aggressively arresting passages that foreshadow some of Sir Malcolm Arnold's more sinister moments. The following scherzo is quite mercurial, but there's a feeling of angst that underlies everything.

The adagio is the work's emotional center of gravity and begins with a three minute elegy for strings that in some ways is reminiscent of Roy Harris. It then turns rather pastoral with passages not unlike Vaughan Williams, providing temporary relief from all the doom and gloom that's come before. However, clouds of concern soon return and the movement ends quietly. The finale bursts forth in threatening fashion only to turn gloriously optimistic bringing the symphony to a triumphant conclusion.

The other music on this disc finds Benjamin in a more lighthearted mood and brings to mind that ever popular pops piece Jamaican Rumba that he came up with in 1938. The Overture to an Italian Comedy (1936)** is a tarantella-laced frolic that's brilliantly scored and bound to please.

Cotillon (1938)*** is a suite drawn from a collection of English dance tunes published in London in 1719. Anyone liking Malcolm Arnold's colorful orchestral dances will be pleased to discover this earlier compendium of British toe-tapping delights.

The North American Square Dance Suite (1951)* is the American counterpart of the preceding. It's based on fiddle tunes from the United States and Canada, many of which originally came from the British Isles.

All of the selections here are beautifully performed by the *London Philharmonic, **Royal Philharmonic and ***London Symphony Orchestras under Barry Wordsworh, Myer Fredman and Nicholas Braithwaite respectively. This generous compendium of Benjamin's music (almost seventy-five minutes worth) represents the first appearance on CD of these Lyrita recordings.

The sound is absolutely fabulous and guaranteed to give even the most discriminating of audiophiles a titillating earful. (Y070514)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

In the past only a very few solo piano albums have made it into these newsletters, so it's a real pleasure to tell you about this spectacular two CD set featuring the complete piano music of the great Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). Not only that, but the second CD is filled out with all of his organ works.

The first disc is for the most part devoted to the early piano pieces. The three Danzas argentinas (1937) are rhythmically driven, harmonically dense folk-spiked dances creatively linked to his ballets Estancia and Panambi.

Then there are three pieces dating from between 1939 and 1940 which are also folk-related and have a sophistication reminiscent of Paris and Les Six.

Malambo (1940) is a stunning virtuosic tour de force that again hearkens back to his ballets.

The 12 Preludios americanos (1944) are noteworthy for their variety and range from simple to knuckle-busting. They draw on several inspirational sources including Aaron Copland and Heitor Villa-Lobos, who are the dedicatees of numbers nine and eleven respectively.

Suite de danzas criollas (1946) represents the composer in a state of stylistic transition where structural and dynamic clarity were becoming of greater importance to him.

Next there are eleven delightful pieces for children that date from the 1930s and 40s. Like Villa-Lobos' Baby's Family Suites (1918 and 1921), these are meant more as recollections of childhood rather than tunes for tots to play.

The disc concludes with three transcriptions for piano. Two are based on the composer's own works; the lovely Milonga (1948?) from the song Cancion para el arbol del olivido and the spirited Pequena danza (1955) from Estancia. The third, which dates from 1970, is a spectacular baroque bash based on an organ toccata by Italian composer Domenico Zipoli (1688-1726), who visited Argentina in the early 1700s.

The second CD contains Ginastera's three piano sonatas. The first (1952) is folk oriented with highly chromatic machine gun bursts of notes that will leave your hair standing on end. The breathtaking finale is definitely not for beginners.

The second (1981) contains more notational strafings and relies heavily on pentatonic scales. At times these make it reminiscent of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in their more oriental sounding moments. It ends with another finger-numbing workout for the soloist.

The third sonata (1983), which was his final work, is in one brief movement lasting a little less than five minutes. It shows that right to the very end his music still had that astounding sense of kinetic energy which so characterizes his style.

The disc concludes with Ginastera's only two pieces for organ. The Toccata, villancico y fuga (1947) pays homage to the Baroque, and Johann Sebastian Bach in particular. The old familiar B-A-C-H motif used by Franz Liszt as well as many others who wrote organ music underlies the final fugue.

The other selection dating from 1980 is a variations and toccata based on the fifth century Easter hymn Aurora lucis rutilat. This is its first appearance on disc, which is surprising, because it's a spectacularly bravura piece that should appeal to all organ virtuosos. Like Vincent d'Indy's Istar it's one of those inverted theme and variations where the "big tune" doesn't appear until the very end.

Fernando Viani is as equally accomplished on the organ as the piano, and delivers magnificent performances of these pieces.

The sound is excellent with none of those annoying artifacts that frequently mar digital piano recordings. Audiophiles looking to put a virtual Steinway in their listening room should definitely consider getting this release. (Y070513)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Written in 2006 by Russian composer Alla Pavlova (b. 1952), who is now living in the United States, this spellbinding symphony will hold your attention from its very first to last note. Ms. Pavlova tells us it’s a musical expression of her feelings about life and spirituality. Although it's cast in five movements lasting about three-quarters of an hour, it can be considered a single work in extended sonata form where the first and second movements are the statement, the third, the development and the fourth and fifth, the recapitulation. By emphasizing the role of the strings and solo violin as opposed to that of the brass (horns only) and percussion, the scoring is much more translucent than that of her previous symphonies (Naxos 8557157 and 8557566).

The first movement contains three lovely themes that will tug at your heartstrings just like so many of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's more melancholy melodies. The second is spiritually mysterious and contemplative with solo violin and woodwind passages that evoke feelings of inner peace. The third movement is the symphony's center of gravity where material from the first is developed. It builds to an emotional climax culminating in a gorgeous violin solo and string-swept coda reinforced by the horns and bass drum. The two concluding movements might be thought of as "Death” and “Transfiguration" respectively, where previous motifs are recalled in the former and new material is introduced in the latter. They provide an affecting ending to this thoroughly engaging work. By the way, try listening to this symphony in the dark. It's magic!

Lasting only about five minutes, the elegy for piano and strings (1998) is a moving lament originally written for the film The American Healys, which was a tragic love story.

The Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio (formerly known as the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra) under Vladimir Ziva make a strong case for both works.

The recording is good despite some edgy string sound and a boomy bass drum. But don't let that discourage you from getting this release, because the music will soon make you forget any sonic shortcomings. (P070512)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

The violin concerto by German composer Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) receives its world premiere recording here. This is quite surprising because it's certainly right up there with his delightful flute and harp concertos (see the newsletter of 31 August 2006), and one can only wonder why it's languished in obscurity for so long.

Written in 1876 and dedicated to the great German violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, it's in the usual three movements all of which contain some absolutely gorgeous themes. It opens forebodingly with a motif somewhat reminiscent of the beginning of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. The violin picks this up, but then quickly introduces a lovely second melody in the major. These two motifs compete with one another for the rest of the movement with the second one finally winning out. The andante that follows is a beautiful aria with the violin as soloist. Another outstanding theme that's closely related to what we just heard begins the finale. It's subjected to a number of clever developmental transformations before it returns in triumph bringing the concerto to a magnificent conclusion. Although the album notes are the usual CPO gobbledegook, they do make a very valid point, which is the more you hear this concerto, the more you'll love it!

Two romances for violin and orchestra follow. One is actually the prelude to the fourth act of Reinecke's opera King Manfred (mid 1860s), while the other (1879) is an independent concert piece. Both are captivating lyrical gems.

The first symphony (there are three) was a problem child, which the composer began in 1858 and reworked on numerous occasions before finalizing it in 1863. While there's no denying that it owes a great debt to Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, it's a very well-crafted four movement work with sufficient thematic originality to make it quite appealing. The opening and closing movements are definitely the highpoints, but that's not to imply the andante and scherzo are substandard as far as early romantic movements go.

All of the performances on this release are excellent with violinist Ingolf Turban in top form. The Berne Symphony Orchestra and conductor Johannes Moesus certainly give him admirable support, and make a strong case for the symphony.

The sound is very good and there are no extraneous noises even though the concerto and romances were apparently recorded live. (P070511)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Back in the days before home sound systems, the organ transcription became a very effective way of making large scale works more readily available to the public. Consequently there were many itinerant organists who devoted themselves to playing transcriptions of symphonic music throughout Europe and America. This release is an outstanding example of what you might have heard at one of their recitals.

It's entitled "The Art of Organ Transcription," and with good reason. Namely, successful sounding organ transcriptions of pieces like the two here are indeed an art form requiring considerable creativity as well as virtuosity. The creative aspect involves arranging the many orchestral parts so they can be played with just two hands and two feet, as well as picking the right combinations of pipes (known as registration) to convincingly mimic a variety of instrumental timbres. But that's only the beginning, because it then takes a real virtuoso to faithfully execute what inevitably turns out to be an extremely demanding score.

British-born David Briggs is one of the best practitioners of this art alive today, as evidenced by the standing ovation he recently got at Washington National Cathedral, where he played some of his own transcriptions. Now, thanks to this disc, those of you who weren't there can get an idea of what an exciting concert that was. Granted, he plays a different instrument here, but the Blackburn Cathedral organ is quite exceptional with outstanding tonal characteristics that make it ideally suited to the selections on this CD. Most of you have undoubtedly heard both of the symphonies done here all too frequently, but they take on new life when transcribed for organ, and become old wine in new bottles, if you will.

The program begins with Franz Schubert's (1797-1828) Unfinished Symphony (No. 8). Listen to how effectively Briggs captures the alternately foreboding and lyrically reassuring passages in the first movement, as well as the innocent and highly assertive ones in the second. Also, the dynamics on "The Pope of Instruments" (a Berlioz sobriquet for the organ) are not to be believed.

That's particularly true of the next selection, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) fourth symphony. Briggs very effectively conveys the full emotional impact of that fateful opening movement, while his renditions of the following andantino and scherzo are magnificently registrated and played. The finale is something else again, and quite mind-boggling when you consider this is a one-man band. Note the incredible clarity with which he executes those complex running passages, and how successful he is at "organizing" a symphonic work of this magnitude. The final coda must be one of the most spectacular pipe orgies on silver disc, barring none.

Exquisite transcriptions, spectacular performances and good recorded sound guarantee you a thrilling listening experience.

By the way, Briggs is also noted for his stunning improvisations, and he's composed a number of outstanding works as well (see the newsletters of 9 February 2006 and 20 September 2006). Make sure you click on either the album picture or title above to see some of his other discs featuring these.

One last note, be on the lookout for an upcoming recording of David doing his transcription of Gustav Mahler's sixth symphony. He included the slow movement in his Washington recital, and it was something of a religious experience! (P070510)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Finally here's a modern day recording of some music by a composer who's remained in obscurity far too long! Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978), who grew up in Bulgaria, studied in Berlin as well as Sofia. Consequently the very colorful, late romantic orchestral pieces presented here show a variety of influences.

The program opens with probably his most popular work Vardar (1928), which is a Bulgarian rhapsody named after a river in Macedonia. It opens majestically with a theme somewhat reminiscent of the one that begins Bedrich Smetana's Ma Vlast. A delightful dance section that may recall the more lively numbers in Rheinhold Gliere's Red Poppy Ballet follows. The first theme then reasserts itself and the piece ends playfully with a sprightly coda based on the central dance episode. Rich scoring and an infusion of Bulgarian folk elements make this a most attractive piece.

The next selection is a suite drawn from Vladigerov's incidental music for August Strindberg's A Dream Play, and it's a real find. Also known as his Scandinavian Suite, it dates from 1924 and is in six sections. Outside influences are rife and it begins and ends in an impressionistically mysterious way. In places it's strikingly similar in temperament to Franz Schreker's Prelude to a Drama, which was drawn from his opera Die Gezeichneten (see the newsletter of 20 November 2006). Highpoints include a lovely stately march, a fire-and-brimstone entr'acte with hints of Richard Wagner's Magic Fire Music, a Sugarplum-Fairy-like ballet sequence and a Swedish dance worthy of Hugo Alfven.

The disc closes with seven Bulgarian dances (1931), which are right up there with those of Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak and Edvard Grieg. All of them were inspired by those infectious Bulgarian folk songs, which have become so popular in the past few years, and you'll find it hard to stop playing them.

Those who’ve heard his recordings of Georges Enesco’s music know what a terrific conductor Horia Andreescu is, and he certainly doesn't disappoint here. He elicits inspired performances from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and the sound is guaranteed to give you audiophiles a demonstration-quality orchestral earful.

Musically speaking this is a great release, but be forewarned that the CPO's album notes are quite bewildering. (Y070509)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (