11 JULY 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.

Here's another awesome sounding, bargain-priced hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/3.0) release from RCA featuring for the first time on disc more original, three-channel recordings pioneered back in the "Golden Age of Stereo" (1950s) by legendary audio engineers Lewis Layton and Richard Mohr. This one contains some stunning performances of works by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch. When it came to Berlioz, Munch was an undisputed master and one of the first to popularize his music in the United States.

The disc begins with Harold in Italy featuring the renowned William Primrose as the viola soloist. It was written in 1834 at the request of violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, who had just acquired a new Stradivarius viola. It's in four scenes which according to the composer are poetic recollections of his wanderings in Italy after the manner of Byron's Childe Harold. Upon hearing the completed work, Paganini was so pleased he gave Berlioz a check for twenty thousand francs. That was a significant amount of money in those days, but it pales in comparison to all the enjoyment Harold... (particularly this performance of it) has given audiences down through the years.

The release is filled out with four of Hector's most colorful overtures in readings which would even make famed conductor and Berlioz champion Colin Davis' hair stand on end. Beatrice and Benedict (1862) comes from the opera of the same name, and this rendition of it captures all its quirky rhythms in stunning detail.

It's followed by The Corsaire (1844), which was written during one of the most emotionally tempestuous periods in the composer's life. Munch captures every degree of this white hot score in what for many of us is the greatest modern day performance of it on disc. The program closes with the overture to the opera Benvenuto Cellini (1838) and The Roman Carnival, which was composed in 1844 as an afterthought opener for the second act. These performances, particularly in sound like this, must be among the greatest ever recorded.

By the way, those opera lovers who don't already know it should check out the original version of the complete Benvenuto Cellini.

As remastered here, both the CD and SACD stereo tracks are excellent, and audiophiles will be delighted with the silky smooth string sound on the SACD one. The SACD three-channel tracks must be heard to be believed, and resolve any problems on previous LP/CD releases of this Harold... where the solo viola sounded a bit recessed.

Great music, performances and price make this a most desirable release. Also, be sure to read the recommendation below for two additional RCA hybrid releases of music by Richard Strauss. (Y070711)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

The late-romantic Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was quite an individualist and the sixteen symphonies he wrote prove it. He gave all of them colorfully descriptive titles (some even had more than one) and was constantly rearranging and tinkering with them. The two early symphonies on this new hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0) release from Dacapo are no exception.

The second symphony, subtitled "Awakening of Spring," was composed in 1912-14 and extensively revised in 1926-33. The earlier three-movement version is featured here as opposed to the later one, where the original first movement was reduced by half and combined with the second to produce a much shorter, two-movement work. This could well be a case where the composer's second thoughts may not have been for the best. That’s because the material he presents in the first version, while youthfully impetuous, is of such originality that it certainly justifies the longer playing time.

It must also be noted that this was the most frequently performed of his symphonies during his lifetime. Granted the opening owes a great debt to the tone poems of Richard Strauss (see below), but Langgaard’s vibrant changes of mood from pensive to jubilant make it very much his own creation. The gorgeous Lento religioso that follows might be considered reverential reflections on the regenerative aspects of spring.

There's a Langgaard curiosity here [track-2, beginning at 08:33] where he introduces some "Strange, hypermodern tones...," as one reviewer put it, that would also appear in his Music of the Spheres (1918). The last movement was most likely inspired by Gustav Mahler's fourth symphony (1892-1910) which ends with an extended song. Like the Mahler, Langgaard's is also for soprano, but set to texts derived from the poems Sounds of Spring and In Spring by Emil Rittershaus. You'll find it a glorious conclusion to one of the most interesting pieces of symphonic literature to come out of Scandinavia in the early twentieth century.

The third symphony is in reality a three movement piano concerto, and at one point, like its predecessor, there were two versions of it. The original one (1915-16) has unfortunately been lost, so it's the considerably shorter revision dating from 1925-33 that’s presented here. It claims the distinction of having three subtitles ("La Melodia," "Midsummer Sounds" and "The Flush of Youth") and consists of two highly lyrical, joyous sounding movements in sonata form that surround a slow one of funereal cast.

The outer ones are very much in the spirit of Felix Mendelssohn, while the central one has a mysterious unpredictability that's typical of Langgaard. As if that weren't enough, towards the end you'll hear a vocalising chorus, which the composer indicated could be added ad libitum. All this makes for one heck of a romantic piano concerto, which you'll find yourself playing over and over again.

The performances from soprano Inger Dam-Jensen, pianist Per Salo and the Danish National Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard are absolutely committed, and will win you over to the Langgaard cause.

The recorded sound on the CD and SACD stereo tracks are excellent and project a wide, but detailed soundstage. The SACD multichannel version will put you in the concert hall. This disc should appeal to all romantic music enthusiasts as well as audiophiles.

By the way, you might want to investigate some of Langgaard’s other symphonies that have appeared earlier on Dacapo (see the newsletter of 7 February 2007). (Y070710)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Jean-Baptiste Lully's (1632-1687) groundbreaking Thésée, or Theseus, became the foundation for the tragedie lyrique, which would dominate French baroque opera up until Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) began writing for the stage. This stunning new recording will make today's audiences appreciate just what a blockbuster it must have been when it appeared in 1675 during the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715).

While the plot is based on the Theseus legend from classical Greek mythology, Lully and his librettist Philippe Quinault set the prologue to it in Versailles. By doing so they were able to link mythological elements in it to personalities and events associated with the court of "The Sun King."

As done here Thesee is a resplendent production with fourteen soloists, a substantial chorus, which in Lully’s day included a corps de ballet, and a large orchestra by French baroque standards. You’ll also hear some exotic percussion instruments, namely wind and thunder sheets, and the musette, or French bagpipe, which adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the highly colorful instrumentation.

The opera begins with a stately overture after which Venus and Mars in the company of some lesser deities sing the praises of their master (i.e. Louis XIV). Then it's on to the first act that opens in martial manner with trumpets, drums and a soldier's chorus á la Lully. The soldiers reappear periodically during the act, which ends with a stirring march. It may remind you of the fanfare by Jean-Joseph Mouret that became so popular a few years ago as the opening theme for the BBC Masterpiece Theater television series.

The plot thickens in the second act as a sinister love triangle involving Theseus, Princess Aeglea and the sorceress Medea develops. Highlights include a delightfully comic divertissement involving two old men complete with geriatric glissandos and arthritic syncopations.

A festive air serves as the ending and bridge to the third act, where Medea really gets nasty. At one point she transforms the King of Athens' palace into a desert full of frightful monsters with some sonic support from those wind and thunder sheets. The act ends on an infernal note with Medea conjuring up the spirits of Hell (an all-male chorus).

The fourth act curtain rises on a bleak desert scene where Medea invokes the Furies to help wreak vengeance on her rival Aeglea. Machinations too complicated to go into here follow (see the excellent album notes), during which Medea changes the desert into a lovely enchanted Isle. The act concludes with the island inhabitants singing and dancing a gorgeous pastoral masque spiced with the delightful sounds of the musette.

So much for rustic tranquility because the fifth and final act, which takes us back to the King’s place, finds Medea loaded for bear. In fact, towards the end of the opera, she makes an entrance in a chariot drawn by flying dragons and conjures up flames and monsters in an attempt to destroy everyone. But the goddess Minerva, accompanied by a chorus of other divinities, intervenes, and this magnificent French baroque spectacle ends happily with some heavenly music from Lully.

The singing is spectacular and big bouquets of roses go to sopranos Laura Pudwell and Ellen Hargis as Medea and Aeglea, and tenor Howard Crook as Theseus. The Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and Chorus under Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs raise the bar for performances of repertoire like this.

This was a studio recording and the sound is excellent, making this a must for baroque opera lovers. (P070709)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Timpani continues their exploration of little known music by Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937, see the newsletter of 28 March 2007) with this disc, which is one of the greatest French romantic releases to hit the streets in a long time!

"L'An Mil," or "The Year 1000," is an extended, three-part combination tone poem and cantata for chorus and orchestra. Composed in 1897, it's a musical representation of the apocalypse that was to occur at the end of the first millennium as predicted in The Book of Revelation. It's first-rate Pierné that owes a great debt to Cesar Franck, who was one of his teachers.

It opens solemnly with the orchestra, which is soon joined by the chorus intoning Miserere mei (the subtitle for this first part). There are orchestral references to the old familiar Dies Irae, and then the music swells with Franckian intensity. The preceding themes are developed with apocalyptic sounding fortes and the first section ends with mournful sighs from the chorus as the Dies Irae once again haunts the orchestra.

The second section, entitled "The Feast of Fools and the Ass," is a wacky scherzo in all but name. It opens with the chorus singing a raucous folk-like ditty, which includes a blasphemous spoof of the Kyrie from the Latin Mass. But a solemn bass solo interrupts the festivities warning of the disasters to come. Not for long, though, because the chorus soon continues their irreverent debauch ending this part in what sounds like a musical equivalent of "The Garden of Earthly Delights."

Solemnity returns with the finale, which is the most gorgeous part of the work, as the chorus regains its religious composure and sings a Te Deum (the subtitle for the third part). This waxes to fervent heights before ending on a quiet note of renewed devotion and faith.

The disc continues with the massive prelude for orchestra and chorus from Les Cathedrales. This was incidental music the composer wrote in 1915 for a reading by Sarah Bernhardt of Eugene Morand's dramatic poem of the same name. The spirit of Franck is again very much in evidence along with quotations from The Marseillaise. It's one of the composer's most somber, heartfelt pieces filled with a sense of nationalism associated with France's involvement in World War I.

The disc concludes with Paysages franciscains (1918), or Francisan Landscapes, for orchestra. It was inspired by Danish writer Johannes Jorgensen's account of travels he had undertaken, following in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi. In three parts, it’s a Pierne masterpiece where his subtle, articulate orchestration anticipates Maurice Ravel’s later works. The first two sections are musical Cezannes of the garden at the Saint Damian Convent and olive groves on the Assisi Plain. With hints of church bells, birds, splashing water, and fading autumn light, Claude Debussy, who had died just before it was finished, would have loved it!

The finale describes a procession honoring the Virgin Mary along the Poggio-Bustone road. It begins unassumingly, but with the approach of the faithful, builds to a jubilant climax, which even includes a brass band. The music gradually fades away as the procession passes by, and the work ends on a happily quiet note. In some ways this part anticipates by ten years the conclusion of Ottorino Respighi's Pines of Rome where a Roman legion comes marching down the Appian Way.

The Nicolos de Grigny Choir of Reims and Lorraine National Orchestra under Jacques Mercier obviously love this music, and you will too!

Like Timpani's previous release of Pierné's lesser known orchestral works (see the newsletter of 15 July 2006), the recorded sound is superb and a guaranteed audiophile extravaganza. Do not pass this one up! (Y070708)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Here are another two incredible sounding, bargain-priced hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/2.0/3.0) releases from RCA of music by Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Except for The Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite, all selections were three-channel recordings done by legendary audio engineers Lewis Layton and Richard Mohr, and appear here for the first time on disc. When played through a high-end multichannel system, they produce a wide soundstage with a sense of balance, detail and depth far superior to stereo.

The first disc begins with Sinfonia domestica (1902-03). While the programmatic subject matter may be rather mundane, it was Strauss' penultimate tone poem (An Alpine Symphony dating from 1911-15 was the last) and one of the finest he ever wrote. In five connected sections, the opening one introduces three main themes representing a husband, wife and baby. The next four are symphonic representations of various events in the daily life of this family, and show Strauss at the height of his craft. The ingenuity with which he develops the family motifs and incredibly colorful orchestration -- all subjected to that special Fritz Reiner touch -- make for an unforgettable listening experience, particularly in three-channels!

The first disc concludes with an orchestral suite dating from 1918 that Strauss derived from incidental music he had written six years earlier for Moliere's play Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Those with multichannel systems will soon forget that it's only in stereo, because it's one of the composer's most elegant orchestral works, and the attention Reiner lavishes on it makes it one of the finest Strauss recordings of modern times.

The second disc begins with another great Strauss tone poem, Don Quixote (1896-97), in a legendary performance with cellist Antonio Janigro and Maestro Reiner once again micromanaging the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It’s been said that this is the best recorded performance of it ever done, and when you hear it, particularly in the multichannel format, you may well agree. It's one of the composer's most inventive scores.

The sheer genius with which Strauss symphonizes the escapades of the ditzy old Don into an extended theme-and-variations-cello-concerto is quite astounding. Sancho Panza's heehawing donkey, bleating sheep and the Don's hallucinatory ride through the air (with a little help from a wind-machine) are all here. Incidentally, you'll also hear references to those sheep when the Bourgeois Gentilhomme gets queasy at the dinner table [track-12, beginning at 03:14]. Maybe he got some underdone lamb!

A younger Don of a more licentious nature is the subject of the closing selection on this disc. Dating from 1888, the tone poem Don Juan was one of Strauss’ first mature works. It was somewhat of a landmark in the evolution of late-romantic symphonic poems and influenced countless other composers. Also, it's one of those rare pieces that sounds just as fresh and thrilling no matter how many times you’ve heard it. You'll find that especially true with Fritz and The Windy City Boys turning their considerable talents to it.

By the way, the album notes indicate this is Reiner's 1954 recording of Don Juan (originally reissued on RCA Living Stereo CD 68170). As one of our very astute readers has pointed out, this must be in error, because RCA didn't start making three-channel recordings until sometime after 1954. So what we have here must be Reiner's 1960 recording of it, which was first reissued on an RCA Living Stereo CD (63301) that's no longer available. This is further born out by the timing and performance characteristics, which match those of the later version.

As remastered for these new hybrid releases, the CD and SACD stereo tracks on both discs are exceptional. But the SACD ones come out on top as far as the string sound is concerned. As you may have inferred from above, the three-channel versions are in a class by themselves.

Also, be sure to read the recommendation above for another RCA hybrid release of music by Hector Berlioz. (Y070707, Y070706)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Following their complete traversal of Sergei Taneyev's (1856-1915) string quartets (see the newsletters of 7 May 2006, 20 May 2006, 31 August 2006 and 30 September 2006), the Northern Flowers label now gives us all of his quintets (two for strings and one for piano).

The first one for strings (two cellos, 1901) is in three movements, and while it may not be among the composer's greatest chamber works, the craftsmanship certainly holds the listener’s attention. Although dedicated to Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, it opens with a theme reminiscent of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who was a teacher and close friend of the composer. An intense, structurally complex development follows and the movement ends in gorgeous lyrical fashion.

The next movement is highly energetic and takes the place of a scherzo. Motifs heard previously are further developed and set the stage for the last movement, which is a theme and variations, and the piece de resistance of this opus. Lasting longer than the first two movements combined, it begins with a motif reminiscent of what we heard at the very beginning of the piece.

The ten variations that follow are highly inventive and vary in character from melancholic to whimsical, martial and even dance-like. The ninth variation is a five-part triple fugue that’s very much in keeping with Taneyev's love of and consummate skill in writing counterpoint. According to the album notes, a couple of themes from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Sadko are worked into it, which would figure considering its dedicatee. All contrapuntal hell breaks loose in the concluding tenth variation, and then the work ends on a rather melancholy note.

The second string quintet (two violas, 1904) is nothing short of a Russian chamber music masterpiece that will require repeated listening for full understanding. It's emotionally intense and was apparently inspired by the composer's thoughts of how music can temporarily restore in an older person those feelings of happiness and love that have long since been lost. In the intense, highly chromatic opening movement the main thematic ideas are subjected to some soul-searching development.

The following adagio is one of the most moving creations in Taneyev's entire oeuvre with a Slavic melancholy and sense of resignation that prevail despite occasional anxiety-ridden outbursts. The scherzo provides a glimmer of light after the darkness of the first two movements. It may remind you of the one in Alexander Borodin's second string quartet (1881).

The last movement is complex, but highly articulated, with another five-part triple fugue and a rhythmic insistency reminiscent of Beethoven's later quartets. It ends abruptly almost as if the composer had said, "So there!"

The piano quintet (1910-11) is in four movements and lasts over three-quarters of an hour. It opens hesitantly as musical ideas coalesce into brief, anguished passages interspersed with more reflective ones. What Taneyev lacks in the "big tune" department, he certainly makes up for in the structural and developmental ones as exemplified by the glorious conclusion of this movement.

The following scherzo is delightfully mercurial and at times march-like, with a slower Russian sounding central section. The next movement is an ingenious passacaglia where the ostinato theme trudges along with dogged determination through several musical landscapes of differing mood.

The finale is driven and gives all of the performers a chance to show their stuff. In places it may bring to mind that sighing motif of despair which appears near the beginning of Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini. However, the initial anguished pessimism soon changes to outpourings of optimism as this fabulous piece ends in a state of euphoria reminiscent of Alexander Scriabin's more ecstatic creations.

Pianist Tamara Fidler and the Taneyev Quartet (assisted by cellist Beynus Morozov and violist Yuri Kramarov in the first and second string quintets respectively) play up a storm in these commanding performances.

The sound is quite acceptable and dates from 1968 (piano quintet) and 1980-81 (string quintets).

If you enjoyed the quintets, you’ll love Sergei's string quartets now making their appearance on Naxos (see the newsletter of 8 December 2007)! (P070705)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (