1 JUNE 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.

All of the music on this release is quite laid-back, but what a wonderful selection of goodies from this little known Swedish composer. Andreas Hallťn (1846-1925) began his musical matriculations in Sweden as an organ scholar at Gothenburg Cathedral, but then went to Germany where studied with Carl Reinecke (see the newsletter of 14 May 2007) and Joseph Rheinberger, among others. Hallťn was a great devotee of Richard Wagner, and it shows in the selections included here. However, there's an introspection and Scandinavian folk quality about his music that set it apart.

The romance for violin and orchestra (no date given) is a captivating concertino built around a lovely rhapsodic theme that ebbs and flows taking the listener right along with it.

Gustaf Wasas Saga (1897) is a suite drawn from music the composer wrote for a stage work celebrating episodes in the life of Swedish King Gustavus I. It opens with a very convincing musical depiction of a sunrise even if it does sound like Siegfried might come bounding into the foreground at any moment. The next section opens ominously with a theme that Hugo Alfven may well have borrowed some thirty-six years later for the opening of his suite commemorating King Gustavus II. The scene then brightens and ends with an appealing variation where the former motif is transformed into a waltz in a major key. The next two sections must relate to the triumphant conclusion of some unidentified conflict, because there are martial sounding brass fanfares and a veiled reference to the Marseillaise. The closing section is restrained and concludes the piece on a wistful, but affecting note as the king looks back on his long career.

Spharenklange, or The Music of the Spheres (1895), is one of those drop-dead gorgeous miniatures that only appear in a blue moon. Lasting ten minutes, it opens quietly, but soon builds to a melodically sweeping climax before subsiding much like it began. It may remind many of Danish composer Rued Langgaard's more heavenly creations (see the newsletter of 7 February 2007). By the way, Langgaard also wrote a highly memorable Music of the Spheres that you might want to investigate.

Next up we have Im Herbst, or About Autumn (1895), which is described as a set of two lyrical pieces that are in effect tiny tone poems. The first, Elves Dance in the Moonlight, is as advertised and worthy of the more Puckish moments in Felix Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Then comes Dream Pictures at Twilight, which is reminiscent of Edvard Grieg's Two Elegiac Melodies (1880) and just as lovely.

This is also true of the concluding selection Dammerungsschein (I Skymningen), or In the Twilight (no date given). Scored only for strings, it provides an ideal ending to another outstanding Scandinavian disc of discovery from Sterling.

The performances by violinist Peter Olofsson and the Gavle Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Fifield couldn't be more sympathetic to the Hallen cause and the sound is quite good. (P070601)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

This outstanding but rarely heard American opera by composer Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was commissioned and first performed by the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1934. Don't let the name fool you, because parts of it are far from merry! It's based on a rather grim story by Nathaniel Hawthorne entitled The Maypole of Merry Mount, which was inspired by a violent encounter that occurred between fur traders and the Pilgrim community of Plymouth, Massachusetts back in 1628. The plot is quite involved and there's not enough room to go into it here, but do read the album notes for all the details.

The music is extremely lyrical and some of Hanson's best, with Scandinavian shadings that are reminiscent of his first two symphonies dating from 1922 and 1930.

The first act takes place in a Puritan village and features some magnificent choral work as the inhabitants sing about divine retribution for unbelievers. It also contains a delightful children's chorus, which will sound familiar to those who know the more frequently played orchestral suite the composer later synthesized from the opera.

The second act contains a variety of colorful episodes including a boisterous maypole festival, a couple of armed confrontations and a hellish dream scene (wind machines and all), which Hector Berlioz would have loved. You'll also hear that "Woody Woodpecker Call" motif (as some of us refer to it), that appears in the first movement of Hanson's Romantic Symphony (No. 2).

The third and final act is a real horror show that begins with an Indian attack complete with a scalping. Although the marauding savages are soon repulsed by the Puritans, the worst is yet to come. Their minister announces his conversion to the devil and conjures up some infernal fire that engulfs the village in flames. He then carries one of the leading female characters into the conflagration as the opera ends in Gotterdammerung fashion.

Derived from a pair of critically acclaimed concert performances given in 1996, this recording is beyond reproach with superb performances by soprano Lauren Flanagan, tenor Walter MacNeil, baritone Richard Zeller and bass Charles Robert Austin. The support provided by the other soloists, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Northwest Boychoir, Seattle Girls' Choir and Seattle Symphony under Hanson champion Gerard Schwartz couldn't be better.

The recording is very good with practically no extraneous noise from the audience except for a couple of well deserved outbursts of applause where you'll feel like clapping too. This release is required listening for anyone with even the slightest interest in American opera. (P070531)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

British composer Cyril Scott's (1879-1970) music may in many ways remind you of late-romantic German composer Franz Schrekerís. That's because it's equally opulent, richly scored and frequently sounds impressionistic.

The Festival Overture (1902-29) is a very good example of this. It originated as an overture to Maurice Maeterlinck's play Princess Maleine, but was revised in 1912 when a chorus was added. Soon thereafter it was performed in Vienna where, interestingly enough, Schreker was the conductor. Revised again in 1929, it won an orchestral competition in 1933-34, and that's the version featured here. It opens quietly and quite impressionistically, but soon builds to an overwhelming climax where the full orchestra is joined by the organ and chorus. This groundswell of sound gradually subsides leaving the organist and orchestra to end things on a triumphant note. It's an extremely powerful piece that comes off more like a tone poem than an overture.

This is followed by Scottís violin concerto (c. 1925), which is in four sections that are played continuously. While itís certainly a unique creation, there are passages that will remind you of the violin concertos by Frederick Delius (1916) and Karol Szymanowski (1916 and 1933). By the way, this is the premiere recording of both of the preceding works.

The Aubade (1905, revised c. 1911)) is an attractive ten-minute symphonic painting where the composer uses watercolors instead of oils. The spirits of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel are very much in evidence.

The program concludes with Three Symphonic Dances (1907), which are the last movements of a symphony (it would have been his second) that Scott later discarded. The first dance is a cheery romp that smacks of Percy Grainger's more rambunctious rambles. The drop-dead gorgeous second must be the most romantic sounding piece Scott ever wrote. It may call to mind some of the more lyrical, folk-inspired passages in Vaughan Williamsí incidental music for The Wasps. The third is the most English sounding of the three, but rather than being just a straightforward transcription, itís a full-blown symphonic development probably based on some folk dance tune.

Violinist Qlivier Charlier, conductor Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Philharmonic deliver loving performances of all these works and in some of Chandos' best sound. Although this is only a conventional disc, audiophiles will find itís a rather remarkable test of their systems.

You might also want to try the other previous Scott releases on Chandos (10211 and 10376). (Y070530)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

For years those of us who are devotees of Russian romantic music have hoped that one day we'd be able to hear Sergei Taneyev's (1856-1915) first and third symphonies. That time has finally come with this enterprising release from Chandos.

The first symphony was a student work dating from the early 1860s and may well have been a task set for Taneyev by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who was his teacher at the Moscow Conservatory. Never performed during the composer's lifetime, it wasn't even edited for publication until 1948. It may not be as polished as the sixteen year old Alexander Glazunov's first effort in this genre, but what it lacks in sophistication it makes up for in enthusiasm. Tchaikovsky's influence is evident throughout and all four of its movements are spirited affairs making it one of those oddball symphonies without a slow movement.

Thereís a martial air about the first movement, while the second and third are delightfully lyrical and constitute back-to-back scherzos. The finale begins with a theme based on the same Russian folk song Igor Stravinsky would later use in the last scene of his ballet Petrushka. A counter melody is then introduced and vies for center stage with the previous folk motif, before it finally triumphs concluding the work in grandiose fashion.

Written in 1884, the third symphony was first performed the next year, but then went into eclipse until 1947 when it was edited for publication. It's harmonically and structurally much more complex. The first movement is quite engaging, but more from a cerebral than an emotional standpoint. In the second, a perky march-like theme is alternated with a slower, more stately sounding one. The intermezzo that follows contains some lovely melodies including a sighing three-note motif thatís repeated a number of times, and in the process becomes a haunting kind of idee fixe. The finale opens energetically and is the most Slavic sounding part of the piece. A couple of themes, most likely folk-related, are introduced and developed in Glazunovian fashion before the symphony ends with an appealingly jubilant coda.

The performances by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra under conductor Valeri Polyansky certainly sound authoritative, and the recorded sound is good making this a very attractive release. (P070529)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Four of the six British piano quartets on this recent two disc set from Albany have been recorded before, but not in performances as good as these. The ones by Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935) and Gordon Jacob (1895-1984) make their first appearance on CD here, and many may find it was worth getting this release just for those.

Mackenzie's dates from 1873 and is a beautifully crafted work that owes a great deal to Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. This is not surprising considering Mackenzie studied for several years in Germany. The tuneful opening movement and following scherzo are very engaging. The third movement is a most inventive theme and variations, while the finale is an absolutely infectious creation guaranteed to please.

Next we have Frank Bridge's (1879-1941) one movement Phantasy for piano quartet (1910), which is a much more late-romantic sounding piece than the Mackenzie. It begins darkly, but soon becomes quite animated and scherzo-like. A lovely lyrical section follows and the work ends quietly with brief allusions to the scherzo episode.

The first CD concludes with Herbert Howell's (1892-1983) magnificent quartet dating from 1916. You'll find it's reminiscent of Vaughan Williams with strong folk influences and that pastoral quality so typical of English music being written then. This is one of those rare instances where there's a revised version of a piece that's generally not thought to be as good as the original. So, for this recording the Ames quartet adheres to the composerís first thoughts, except for a couple of modifications to the piano part.

The second disc begins with the music of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), who taught both Bridge and Howells. Stanford studied extensively in Germany and was internationally the best known British composer prior to the heyday of Sir Edward Elgar. The Stanford piano quartet dates from 1879 (he wrote another in 1913) and it's an exuberance that's not to be missed! The composer's Irish roots are evident in the first movement, while the scherzo that follows finds the piano in a playful game of tag with the strings. The slow movement is based on a simple hymn-like theme, and provides a lull before the jubilant storm of a finale, which owes a great debt to Robert Schumann.

Gordon Jacob is represented next. He was a student of Stanford as well as Howells and best known for his striking orchestral arrangements of music by such composers as Frederic Chopin (Les Sylphides) and Schumann (Carnaval). His quartet (1969) is the most progressive on this album, but itís quite approachable with a sparkling clarity and attention to detail that make it most appealing.

The piano quartet of Sir William Walton (1902-1983) concludes this disc. Originally written in 1918-21, the composer revised it several times, and itís the final version which appeared in 1976 thatís presented here. English pastoral elements dominate the first and third movements, but the lion's claws show through in the second and fourth, which seethe with that spiky kinetic energy so typical of Sir William's later music.

The Ames Piano Quartet plays all of these to perfection and the recorded sound is very good. This is one of the most interesting chamber music releases to appear in some time. (P070528)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

This new hybrid release may well turn out to be the audiophile blowout disc of the year. These romantic French works for organ and orchestra recorded in Liverpool Cathedral with an assist from the BBC Philharmonic will certainly test the limits of any sound system. The highs are silky smooth while the lows are of seismic profundity. Those with stereo systems will find the soundstage incredibly wide, but detailed. Multichannel audiences will think they're sitting in the cathedral.

Designed by the great Henry Willis III, the organ is one of the few English instruments that can convincingly recreate the sound of French romantic organs like those built by Aristide Cavaille-Coll. All of the selections on this disc are outstanding, which is not surprising considering each of the composers represented here was an organist at some point in his career.

The program opens with Eugene Gigout's (1844-1925) Grand choeur dialogue as arranged for organ and orchestra by another distinguished late-romantic French composer, Joseph Guy Ropartz (1864-1955). This rousingly festive prelude sets the stage for the sonic blockbusters to follow.

Next comes a real rarity, Camille Saint-Saens' (1835-1921) Cypres et lauriers, which is a stirring follow-up to his Organ Symphony (No. 3) written some thirty years earlier. It begins with an anguished meditative passage for solo organ (secure any loose tchotchkes as the low notes will shake the floors), and ends triumphantly with the orchestra joining in. Hector Berlioz would have loved it!

Charles Gounod's (1818-1893) Fantaisie sur l'hymne national russe (1885) follows. This was originally written for the short-lived pedal piano, but here it is in all its glory, and if anything the ďbig tuneĒ comes off sounding even more stately than it does in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

Then there's a piece by one of the greatest organist-composers of all time, Marcel Dupre (1886-1971). His Cortege et litanie (1921) begins quietly with a reverent sounding melody. The litany motif (shades of Jehan Alainís Litanies) soon appears and is then joined by the opening theme as Dupre whips them up into a magnificent confection of a final coda.

Four pieces by another outstanding French organist-composer, Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911), follow and form a rather effective suite when played in the order they are here. A celebratory fugal allegro comes first and then Meditation sur le Stabat mater, which is very much as advertised. The almost childlike Final alla Schumann sur un noel languedocien provides a complete contrast to the former and sets the stage for the colossal concluding Guilmant selection entitled Marche-fantaisie sur deux chants d'eglise.

The disc ends with Theodore Dubois' (1837-1924) Fantaisie triomphale. This begins ceremoniously and builds to an incredible climax complete with chimes, bringing this magnificent release to an earthshaking conclusion.

Organist Ian Tracey and the BBC Philharmonic under Rumon Gamba play up a storm making this recording a dream-come-true for unabashed romantics as well as audiophiles. (Y070527)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (