20 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.

Following the release of Hugo Alfvén’s (1872-1960) fifth symphony (see the newsletter of 28 March 2007), the Naxos folks now gives us another outstanding disc of orchestral selections by that great Swedish composer. His film music is featured here with two six-movement suites he extracted from his scores for Synnove of Solbakken (1934) and A Country Tale (1945). Both are rustic love stories and contain material that Alfvén borrowed from his ballet-pantomime Bergakungen or The Mountain King (1916-23).

Synnove... is set in Norway, so consequently it’s not surprising that much of the music is based on Norwegian folk melodies, and comes off sounding more than a little like Edvard Grieg. Highpoints include a gorgeous waltz melody that signifies young love and permeates the whole piece, plus a jovial finale, which finds Alfvén at his most appealing (shades of his three Swedish rhapsodies).

A Country Tale is a much more serious sounding affair that begins with angst and foreboding. The second and third movements are a lovely dream and love scene respectively featuring some delightful melodies that may well have been folk inspired. Things then turn rather solemn for the remaining three movements, which feature a musical portrait of jealousy, a funeral march and an anxiety-ridden finale with hunting calls and lupine associations (see the album notes).

The program closes with an elegy (c. 1918) that Alfven wrote in memory of another Swedish composer, Emil Sjogren, who died in 1918. In essence it’s a small tone poem lasting just over twelve minutes. A rather funereal sounding opening theme is contrasted with another of solace and consolation. The piece ends leaving the listener with a feeling of reconciliation and divine closure.

The performances by the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra under Niklas Willen are excellent and the recorded sound is good, making this a highly desirable follow-on to the previous disc referred to above. (P070620)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg's (1887-1974) cello concerto (1917-22), like that of Sir Edward Elgar, is a heartfelt, melodically dramatic work that can't help but move the listener. Although Atterberg played the cello himself, this opus didn’t come easily and it took him five years to write. Like most concertos it's in three movements, but the breaks between them are minimal giving the impression it's in one big arch. This structure, at least as far as concertos go, is certainly out of the ordinary.

The opening movement begins with an anguished, but beautiful, andante cantabile which builds to a powerful climax. This gradually fades and is immediately followed by a perky scherzo-like section that serves as a bridge to the next movement. This is an adagio, which is in effect a rhapsody where the cello pleads its case most persuasively. Although the orchestra begins the finale in spirited fashion, the soloist enters hesitantly. The works then takes a more decisive thematic course of action, which may call to mind aspects of Antonin Dvorak's cello concerto. Still, there's a cloud of doubt that hangs over the proceedings almost up until the very end. In the last moments though, the orchestra finally convinces the cello to see a silver lining, bringing the work to an optimistic conclusion.

Dating from 1939, Atterberg's version for string orchestra of Johannes Brahm's second string sextet (1864-65) is a real gem, and an invaluable addition to the canon of works in this genre. The delicacy and respect with which he treats the older composer's music is an example to those arrangers with a heavier hand. Even listeners who've tired of the original piece will find this more symphonic approach of considerable interest, and reminiscent of Brahms' two delightful serenades for orchestra.

Soloist Truls Mork works his usual magic in the concerto. The performances of both works by the NorrlandsOperan Symphony Orchestra under Kristian Jarvi (it seems everyone in that family is a conductor) are quite good, particularly if you like things a bit on the understated side.

The recorded sound is certainly in keeping with what we've come to expect from BIS. (P070619)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Known primarily for Hiawatha's Wedding Feast from his big-boned cantata The Song of Hiawatha, these delightful pieces prove that British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was equally adept at writing solo piano miniatures. Although his mother was English, his father was from Sierra Leone and Samuel never forgot his African heritage as evidenced by the selections on this release.

By his own admission they were an attempt on his part to do the same thing for Negro melodies that Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak and Edvard Grieg had done for Hungarian, Bohemian and Norwegian folk music. Hearing this disc, most would have to agree that he certainly succeeded. Each of the Twenty-four Negro Melodies (1905) is a tiny theme and variations where the original melody is clearly stated at the outset.

The first seven are based on folk tunes from Africa, and you'll find the second, The Stones are Very Hard, and fourth, They Will Not Lend Me a Child, are melodic knockouts. The eighth, The Bamboula, is derived from a West Indian ditty of African descent and will sound very familiar to most. That's because Louis Moreau Gottschalk -- do you suppose our soloist here is any relation? -- had immortalized it some sixty years earlier in one of his most popular solo piano pieces by the same name. You'll find Coleridge-Taylor's version refreshingly different, but the ending would seem to imply he knew Louis Moreau's music.

The remaining sixteen pieces are based on American Negro songs. Consequently they may well remind you of those works by Dvorak and even Frederick Delius that were inspired by the same source material. Coleridge-Taylor's treatment of these wonderfully soulful melodies is exemplary. The ninth, The Angels Changed My Name, tenth, the old familiar Deep River and twenty-third, Steal Away, couldn't be more heartfelt and moving.

Pianist David Shaffer-Gottschalk delivers loving performances of this unusual, but engaging repertoire.

The recorded sound is very good making this a release that piano enthusiasts will certainly want to investigate. (P070618)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Now here's some real action music from one of America's greatest living women composers. There's never a lull with Joan Tower (b. 1938) as evidenced by the three hyperactive orchestral delights served up on this release. Not only that, but audiophiles will revel in the spectacular sound captured on this disc.

Made in America (c. 2005) is in essence a theme and variations based on America the Beautiful However, it's quite different from any other T&V you’ve probably ever heard, because the theme never really appears in all its full glory. It's more of a fragmentary riff that keeps surfacing on a boiling sea of transformations. The piece opens ominously with veiled references to America... à la Charles Ives, but the pace soon quickens as the music shifts gears and gallops ahead. The tension ebbs and flows as passages of sublime beauty that hint at the main theme alternate with those of a much more threatening nature. The piece ends forcefully, but noncommittally.

Make sure those tchotchkes are glued down before you play Tambor. With a heavy emphasis on percussion, it’s a high energy piece which will challenge the transient response capabilities of even the most sophisticated sound systems. Not surprisingly rhythmic elements predominate, while the little melodic material present seems inexorably Dies Irae-related. As the album notes point out, the piece might have been inspired by all those exotic South American percussion instruments the composer may have heard during her childhood in Bolivia. By the way, these are premiere recordings of the first two works.

The third selection, a concerto for orchestra (c. 1991), is in two continuous parts with a variety of instrumental solos that must make it just as enjoyable to play as to hear. It opens quietly with all sorts of instrumental creatures gradually coming to life. Tension mounts as a chugging locomotive of a theme, again with Dies Irae connotations, proceeds to run amuck throughout the whole orchestra. The first part ends frenetically leading right into the concluding one and an anguished passage for the strings.

A restrained, hauntingly lovely episode for various solo winds follows. But this is short-lived, because the strings like a swarm of angry Bartokian bees soon swoop down on the rest of the orchestra. This causes great agitation and gives rise to a theme sounding somewhat like a musical case of the hiccups. These subside as the Dies Irae Express once again comes roaring down the track. The concerto ends in typical Tower action fashion with a "March to the Scaffold" drum roll and fff harumph of a final chord.

The Nashville Symphony under conductor Leonard Slatkin, who's long been an advocate of Tower's music, makes a strong case for everything here, and the recording speaks for itself.

If you find this CD to your tastes, you might want to try another Naxos release featuring Ms. Tower's chamber music (Naxos 8.559215). (Y070617)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

If you found David Briggs one-man-band organ transcriptions exciting (see the newsletter of 14 May 2007), just wait until you hear this hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.1) album. The ante has been upped by using two separate organs (in the same church and played from one console) as well as some recording wizardry. The result is an audiophile’s dream come true and probably the greatest sounding Wagnerian organ transcription disc released to date.

None of this would have been possible without organist Hansjorg Albrecht's terrific feel for Wagner as evidenced by his masterful arrangements and stunning registrations. But the finishing touch was provided by audio engineer Martin Fischer who, along with Albrecht, designed the recording sessions so that overdubbing could be used to capture the more complex parts of the music. In fact there are places where as many as five separate takes were combined to produce the final product – Les Paul and Mary Ford eat your hearts out!

What Albrecht gives us is a suite of six beautifully chosen selections from the The Ring Cycle, which literally take on new life as presented in these magnificent transcriptions. The program begins with two scenes from Das Rheingold. First there's the opening one with the Rheinmaidens. This will have you where the fishes swim along with some bass profundities guaranteed to rattle closet doors. Then there's the closing procession of the gods into Valhalla, which is a real hose remover!

Next comes an old theater organist favorite, The Ride of The Valkyries from Die Walkure, but this is like no ride you’ve ever had before. It’s “Bernoulli effect” music where the sound is so uplifting that you'll truly think you're airborne and Valhalla bound.

Forest Murmurs from Siegfried follows. The sensitivity with which Albrecht handles these arboreal musings is magic, and in some ways it’s the musical highpoint of this disc. It also provides the calm before the storm that's about to come in the form of two scenes from Die Gotterdammerung that will bring the house down, so to speak.

The first of these, Siegfried's Funeral Music, is an exercise in humongous dynamics that some of us couldn't help feeling was more emotionally powerful than the orchestral version. The second, Brunhilde's Farewell, brings everything to a glorious conclusion in some of the most spectacular sound you’ll ever experience from a passel of pipes. You may even find yourself with a tear or two as everything ends on one of the most beautiful leitmotivs in the whole Ring, "Redemption through love."

For the most part the sonic success of this recording was due to the choice of two tonally superior and complimentary instruments in the same ideal acoustic. This was helped by some very sophisticated dubbing that ensured even the most complex passages, which at one point included a cimbelstern, would came through in prismatic detail.

Located directly across from each other in the St. Nikolai Church in Kiel, the grand organ is a Kleuker dating from 1965, while the smaller choir one is the largest Cavaille-Coll now extant in Germany. The microphone placement was such that the organs are to either side of the listener. In the two-channel CD and SACD modes the soundstage is of Cinerama proportions, but perfectly balanced and highly detailed. In the multichannel SACD mode the soundstage elongates, encompassing the listener in one of the most convincing virtual cathedral spaces imaginable. This is definitely a disc that should be in every organ lover's collection, particularly if you're an audiophile. (Y070616)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

The selections by Erich Zeisl (1905-1959) on this release will come as a welcome discovery to those who love the music of his compatriots Franz Schmidt, Joseph Marx, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Alexander von Zemlinsky. In 1938 Zeisl, like Zemlinsky, was forced to flea Austria due to the worsening political situation there, and both of them eventually wound up in the United States.

Zeisl's piano concerto was composed in Los Angeles in 1951-52, and is in three movements lasting a little over half an hour. It's a memorably lyrical, late romantic showpiece that certainly deserves more attention than it's gotten to date. It begins with a confident "walking" theme that undergoes a number of clever transformations. These culminate in a sparkling virtuoso variant that concludes the first movement in Sergei Prokofiev fashion. The following andante is very affecting and at times seems to presage Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (No. 3), which was written some 25 years later.

After an assertive introduction by the soloist, the finale becomes a contest between a group of scurrying, militaristic sounding themes and a lovely melodic motif. There’s something of Dmitri Shostakovich in the former, while the latter is right up there with the best of those passionate film score melodies Max Steiner came up with. As might be expected in a romantic concerto like this, it’s the Steiner-like theme that triumphs in the end.

The ballet Pierrot in der Flasche was written in 1929 and has a scenario typical of some of the more grotesque staged creations coming out of Europe at the time. Based on an oriental fantasy, the story was updated to reflect the Roaring Twenties and the public's faddish preoccupation with jazz. A wonderfully varied, five-movement suite that Zeisl later extracted from it is what we have here.

The skittish opening prelude is both jazzy and flirtatious. The interlude and festival music that follow include a motif reminiscent of Grampapa in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, and a terrific carnival number worth getting this disc for alone. A sensuous love scene (shades of the intermezzo from Schmidt's opera Notre Dame) comes next, and then a wild infernal dance that in the original stage work apparently called for a corps de ballet in vampire bat drag.

The last movement is an infectious potpourri of musical ideas including a funeral march and 1920s toe-tapping number. It’s a frivolous, but infectious conclusion evincing a level of melodic invention worthy of Korngold at his best.

The performances by pianist Gottlieb Wallisch and the Vienna Radio Symphony orchestra under Johannes Wildner are totally committed and make a strong case for this music.

The recorded sound is quite good except for some occasional digital graininess in the upper midrange.

Incidentally, congratulations are in order to CPO for some album notes that are for once clear, concise and illuminating. (P070615)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (