30 AUGUST 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.

Most remember the theremin (named for a Russian physicist who invented it in 1920) as a favorite with Hollywood composers for underscoring the bizarre and unearthly in films made during the 1940s and 50s (see the newsletter of 30 June 2007). But it also made an appearance in several classical compositions commissioned by American therminist Lucie Bigelow Rosen, who did much to popularize it during the 1940s.

One such work, the Fantasy for Theremin, Oboe, String Quartet and Piano (1944) by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959), is featured on this release. However, an Ondes Martenot, which is a very similar sounding, but more sophisticated device based on the theremin principle, is employed here. In a single movement lasting about fifteen minutes, you'll find this a fascinating piece where Martinu very successfully exploits the musical potential of this electronic instrument rather than using it for shock effect as so many film score composers had done. He does this by surrounding it with conventional instruments whose timbres complement it. The piquant oboe and percussive piano offset any tendency for it to become saccharine sounding, while the strings tend to humanize it by association, giving it more of a real-world quality. The work has a reserved, rhapsodic opening and closing that bracket a busy central section full of those buzzing bee-like, motoric motifs so typical of Martinu.

The Mazurka-Nocturne for Oboe, Two Violins and Cello (1949) that follows is a delightful tidbit that's as light as a feather. The quartet for oboe, violin, cello and piano (1947) is elegant in its neoclassical simplicity, and finds the composer at his best. The whimsical opening movement is followed by a more serious adagio that leads right into a kinetic finale, which could almost be based on a rondo from some piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The disc ends with three duos for strings, which fall into the category of chamber music that's not only fun to play, but equally enjoyable to hear. The one for violin and viola (the second for this combination of instruments dating from 1950) has hyperactive first and last movements that surround a sorrowful lento. Czech and Moravian folk influences are much in evidence.

The two for violin and cello are each in three movements and date from 1927 and 1958. They must rank as some of the most engaging music ever written for this combination of instruments. The first duo opens introspectively with quite a bit of dissonance, but ends with a jolly, 1920s jazz-like rondo, containing a substantial cadenza for the cello. The first and third movements of the second duo are virtuoso showpieces with more of those Martinu bees. The adagio that separates them is a very poignant lament.

Ondes Martenot soloist Valerie Hartmann-Claverie, oboist Lajos Lencses, pianist Helena Sucharova and the Stamitz Quartet obviously love this music, because their performances couldn't be more sympathetic.

The recorded sound is good, making this release a fine example of something that's off the beaten path, but well worth the detour. (P070830)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

French composer Laurent Petitgirard (b. 1950) writes music with emotional rather than intellectual appeal, and his Dialogue for Viola and Orchestra (2002) certainly demonstrates that. In one movement lasting just over twenty minutes, it has no formal structure, yet the melodic milieu the composer creates and dramatically colorful orchestration hold your attention. You may find it's most effective when played at night with the lights out.

The performance by violist Gerard Causse and the Bordeaux Aquitaine National Orchestra under the composer is totally committed.

The cello concerto (1994) is in three movements, which makes this piece a bit more formal than the previous one. While it's definitely not atonal, there's a strange arbitrary angularity about the opening theme that smacks of dodecaphonism. But a sense of key is quickly established with the entry of the cello, which during the course of the first movement exerts a lyrically calming influence on the otherwise highly volatile orchestra. The next movement is darkly introspective with a central cadenza for the soloist and an ending that has the finality of a guillotining. The finale is for the most part agitated and fatalistic with a couple of passages reminiscent of Sergei Prokofiev.

Except for what sound like a couple of intonational anomalies, cellist Gary Hoffmann and the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer deliver an enthusiastic performance of the concerto.

While Le Legendaire (1983-84) is a bit of an oddball, being a concerto for violin, chorus and orchestra with a text in Esperanto, it's a highly original work definitely worth hearing. In a single movement lasting about twenty minutes, it's about an earthly visitation by some unidentified spiritual or extraterrestrial figure who delivers a message of peace to mankind, and then departs (shades of the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still). Glaringly dissonant chords from the orchestra introduce the violin, which proceeds to spin out a highly lyrical melody that introduces the chorus. The singing soon subsides and the violin returns with the orchestra hammering out a repeated rhythmic pattern. This prefaces a Last Judgement-like brass fanfare followed by sustained notes on the horns and trombones that sound like something out of a Tibetan religious ceremony. The violin then makes a rhapsodic return followed by the chorus and orchestra as periods of relative calm alternate with highly dramatic forte passages. The work concludes peacefully except for one final dissonant outburst from the orchestra.

Violinist Augustin Dumay, the Polish Radio Choir of Cracow and the Classical Polish Philharmonic conducted by the composer give a supercharged performance of the piece.

The overall sound on this disc is certainly acceptable, particularly for repertoire as rare as this. But it must be noted that the concerto and Le Legendaire, which were recorded back in 1997 and 1986 respectively, and originally appeared on the Chant du Monde label (no longer available), sound a bit dry. (P070829)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

For most listeners there'll be something new as well as old on this disc of goodies by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).

The concert begins with the overture to his first opera The Maid of Pskov. Originally composed in 1871-72, it was revised a number of times, but the overture remains pretty much the same. It's a rousing piece from a work which many consider the Rimsky-Korsakov equivalent of Mussorgsky's Boris Godounov (1874).

The next selection has been known at one time or another as an overture-fantasy, or by the names Legend or Skazka (Fairy Tale), and dates from 1879-80. Inspired by Russian folklore, it's a five-part suite that shows the composer at his most advanced and fantastic. In fact, it was apparently too far-out for his mentor Mily Balakirev, who apparently disapproved of it, but by today's standards, it's an absolute gem.

Next up, a real rarity in the form of a Neapolitan Song (1880), which is a highly colorful arrangement Rimsky made of Luigi Denza's ever popular Funiculi, funicula. Can you name another well-known, romantic composer who used the same tune in one of his tone poems [see answer]?

The overture from the opera The Tsar's Bride (1899) follows. While the previous overture is brimful of youthful enthusiasm, here the composer is at his most accomplished and engaging.

Another rarity, Sinfonietta on Russian Themes (1878-84) comes next. This piece began life as a string quartet which the composer apparently didn't like and decided to revise as a three-part orchestral suite. As the name implies, it's based on folk ditties, some of which were borrowed by other Russian composers. Can you name someone else who used the folk tune that's the centerpiece of the adagio [see answer]? The work ends with a scherzo-finale, which is a mercurial zinger that’ll take your breath away.

An old chestnut, Capriccio espagnol (1887), fills out this enterprising disc. In many ways it anticipates Benjamin Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), because it shows off every aspect of the orchestra in glorious Technicolor. But unlike the Britten, which was written for a children's film introducing them to the instruments of the orchestra, Rimsky's piece is an entity unto itself as well as one of the most colorful instrumental works ever conceived.

There have been innumerable audiophile quality LPs as well as discs of Capriccio... in the past, and this release is no exception. That's due in no small part to the sensitive, yet thrilling performance of it, along with all the other works here, by the talented Russian conductor Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic.

The Chandos engineers should also take a bow for producing a CD with a perfectly focused soundstage that captures all of those brilliant instrumental effects by this Russian master of orchestration. It’s a shame this wasn’t released as a hybrid CD/SACD disc! (Y070828)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

This release of chamber music by British composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) is simply a delightful listen.

The sonata for clarinet and piano (1911) is a relatively late work with Brahmsian overtones. It's in three movements and opens with an allegro in sonata form that shows Stanford at his most lyrical. The adagio is a moving Irish lament where one can imagine the clarinet as the voice of some long forgotten Hibernian bard accompanied by passages on the piano that are at times reminiscent of the Irish harp. The finale opens with a playful theme which the clarinet and piano toss back and forth before the work ends in an unassuming, but charming manner.

The two fantasies for clarinet and string quartet (1921 and 1922) that follow are very late works. They're both in three movements and have that elegant simplicity so typical of music written by composers in their twilight years. A certain stately wistfulness permeates the first fantasy, conjuring up visions of the English countryside. There's a perky folkish mien about the second that can't help but please the sensitive ear.

Three Intermezzi for Clarinet and Piano (1879) are the earliest works here, and certainly owe a great debt to Brahms. The first is a gorgeous melodic outpouring, while the last two are more agitated and end in dance-like fashion.

The world premiere recording of Stanford's third piano trio, subtiltled "Per aspera ad astra," fills out this wonderful disc. Dating from 1918 and in three movements, two magnificent themes dominate the first one, while the following adagio is characterized by a single soul-searching melody that's spun out most effectively. The finale is optimistically bright with some contrapuntal spicing towards the end, and a glimpse of the stars in the glorious closing coda.

Clarinetist Robert Plane and the Gould Piano Trio assisted by Mia Cooper, second violin, and David Adams, viola, do these works up proud.

The recorded sound is good except for the more forceful clarinet passages which have a bit of an edge. (P070827)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Having heard this disc, most contemporary music enthusiasts will probably have to agree that George Tsontakis (b.1951) is one of America's greatest living composers.

He describes his Man of Sorrows (2005) as a tone poem for piano and orchestra inspired by a fifteenth-century icon of the Crucifixion. While it’s not program music per se, the numbers six and three have particular significance. More specifically, there are six subtitled movements and two sets of six notes derived from a couple of whole-tone scales that appear frequently throughout the piece. Also, the three note "Muss es sein" and "Es muss sein" motifs that figure so heavily in the final movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's last string quartet (No. 16 in F, Op. 135) play an important role.

The first movement, entitled "Ecce homo," is meditative, evoking a feeling of wonder and awe along with the notion of man's incessant tendency to question. The next one, "Es muss sein (?) -- Labyrinthus," begins with the Beethoven motif previously mentioned. But, whereas Ludwig uses it in an almost lighthearted way, Tsontakis turns it into something that’s a bit sinister and threatening. The third, "Lacrymosa (Stabat Mater)," is soothing with passages that may remind you of Alan Hovhaness.

The fourth movement, "Gethsemane: Shards," is an emotional roller-coaster and calls to mind Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony. The number three comes into play again here as there are two chords which have triple tritone relationships. The composer tells us he associates these chords, which are also found in the twentieth of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, with breathing in and out. Consequently Tsontakis employs them to symbolize life, which conceptually speaking, may call to mind Michael Tippett's fourth symphony.

A variant of "Es muss sein" haunts the fifth part, "Jesu Joy -- Crucifixus --," which sees the return of Messiaen combined with what sounds like references to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. It ends in a wonderfully flighty, totally detached manner.

The sixth and last movement, "Vir dolorum (tanquam oves erravimus)," is similar to the first, but as in Charles Ives' Unanswered Question, the music implies man's questioning is inconsequential on the cosmic scale, where any answer becomes meaningless.

Some solo piano works by the three greats of the Second Viennese School come next. At just over five minutes, Arnold Schoenberg's (1874-1951) Six Small Piano Pieces (1911) are atonal, but quite approachable, if you think of them as the ultimate in chromaticism and an embrionic form of German Expressionism.

Alban Berg's (1885-1935) piano sonata (Op. 1, 1908) is a ten-minute mini-masterpiece which anyone liking his more listener-friendly approach to twelve-tone composition, as exemplified by his Lyric Suite and violin concerto, will love.

Lasting about six minutes, Anton Webern's (1883-1945) variations for piano (1935-36) is next. This is dogmatic, hard-core dodecaphony with thematic elements, or tone rows, that sound like they might have been created by throwing darts at a piece of music paper. Incidentally, if you want to go from what many consider the ridiculous to the sublime, try listening to Webern's Im Sommerwind.

The program concludes with another work by Tsontakis entitled Sarabesque (2004). This appealing solo piano piece consists of an atonal smattering of notes surrounding denser sections reminiscent of the more beetle-browed passages in Beethoven's piano sonatas. The delicacy which characterizes its beginning and ending is a trademark of this extremely gifted American composer.

Pianist Stephen Hough delivers immaculate performances of everything here, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton provides letter-perfect support for him in Man of Sorrows.

According to the album notes, Man... was recorded live, but you'd never know it, because the audience is nowhere in evidence.

Not only that, but the sound is exceptional with a clarity and focus that will please the most critical of audiophiles. The solo piano pieces are very good studio recordings except for a slight aura of upper-midrange fuzziness in sforzando passages. (Y070826)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) was a world-famous conductor, but we have CPO to thank for making us aware of his considerable talents as a composer. This release features two of his best chamber works, which should at the very least appeal to late romantic, German music enthusiasts.

The sextet, dating from 1904, is in four movements and scored for piano, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. It's a moving, darkly introspective piece where intense chromaticism runs rampant. The opening allegretto appassionato starts with a gently rolling theme that introduces another somewhat reminiscent of the one that begins Felix Mendelssohn's octet. These are varied and undergo several chromatic metamorphoses in the central development section before they reappear in a dramatic recapitulation and final coda. The following allegretto is in essence a scherzo of Weingartner's own design where there are two absolutely gorgeous, but quite different, intermediary trio sections. The adagio that comes next opens with a lovely lyrical theme which is subjected to a number of clever transformations, and ends somewhat like Richard Strauss' Death and Transfiguration (1888-89). The Danza funebre finale is the longest movement and characterized by brooding, Germanic soul-searching that can't help but move the listener. It's of highly intricate construction with a variety of references to what's come before, and ends in the depths of despair with a final outburst of anguish.

The octet (1924-25), scored for clarinet, horn, bassoon, two violins, viola, cello and piano is a finely wrought, but sullen piece that may reflect the troubled state of mind the composer was in when he wrote it. The opening allegro begins with a questioning theme that gives way to a lovely laendler-like melody. An intense development section follows where the two motifs intermingle before the movement ends on a rather optimistic note. The andante that follows is a set of eight engaging variations on the tune of an old French song about grief experienced over the death of a loved one. Consequently one can't help speculating that this movement may have been Weingartner's final farewell to his third wife, who had died a couple of years before. The Tempo di Menuetto that comes next might be considered a highly melodic, slow-motion scherzo. The finale juxtaposes a cantering theme with another of superb romantic invention, and then merges the two in a glorious peroration as the octet ends at a joyous gallop.

Pianist Oliver Triendl and the Acht Ensemble make a strong case for both works, and should win many converts to the Weingartner cause.

The recorded sound is quite good, making this a most desirable disc. (P070825)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (


If you missed out on this delightful potpourri of high-energy, orchestral tidbits from Domenica Cimarosa’s (1749-1801) operas when it was offered a few years ago, here’s your second chance! Not only that, but this Naxos re-release is less than half the price of the original one on Marco Polo, making it a must for all classical-period music enthusiasts. Cimarosa was Italy's most popular composer during the last half of the eighteenth century, and wrote over sixty-five operas from which the twelve overtures, preludes and sinfonias appearing on this release are drawn. They reveal a composer who was capable of writing incredibly exciting, brilliantly orchestrated music guaranteed to move even the most lethargic couch potato.

Things get off to a roaring start with the overture to Voldomiro (1787), which at times may remind you of those by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had just finished The Marriage of Figaro. The prelude to The Baroness Stramba (1786) contrasts slow and fast passages to great effect, while that for The Eccentricities of the Count (1772), Cimarosa’s very first opera, features a lovely central episode, which sounds like an orchestral imitation of someone strumming a guitar.

Next up, we have the overture to Cimarosa's best known opera The Secret Marriage (1792). It’s performed here for the first time on disc in its original version, which includes a lovely melody for the oboe that was later cut. By the way, there's a strange similarity between the beginning of this and Mozart's overture to The Magic Flute (1791). Could Domenico have known Wolfie's opera?

Moving right along we have the prelude to Faithful Infidelity (1779), where elements of opera buffa with opera seria are combined as evidenced by the presence of comic as well as tragic sounding passages. Although the opera is long since forgotten, the introduction to The Return of Don Calendrino (1778) is a glorious, nine-minute, three-movement sinfonia, which may remind you of those by Antonio Rosetti (1746-1792). The Carpenter (1780) achieved great success and was even staged by Franz Josef Haydn at Eszterhaza in 1783-84. The tiny sampling we have of it here is a sheer delight.

Cimarosa wrote his Cleopatra (1789) for Catherine the Great and the prelude features some fancy fiddling that’s a treat for the ear. The introduction to The Banquet (1782) is another nine-minute, three-movement sinfonia with some fine feathered-sounding passages that anticipate Haydn's Hen Symphony (No. 83 in G Minor, 1785). Do you suppose one of the dishes being served was chicken cacciatore! Also written for the Russian court, The Virgin Sun (1788) was set in what was then considered the exotic land of Peru. There are energetic outbursts from the strings and timpani in the overture which portend an earthquake and volcanic eruption that take place later in the opera.

An opera buffa, The Gullible One (1786) is about a man attempting to marry off his daughter, who is rumored to be mad. Maybe she really was, because the overture is pretty crazy in a frenetic classical way, and a barrel of fun. The disc concludes with a prelude to another opera dating from 1786, The Impresario in Distress. Apparently this was one of Cimarosa's most successful works, and there are at least five different versions of the opening number. The best known one is performed here, and it's a real winner.

Conductor Alessandro Amoretti and the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia play up a storm in every one of these delightful classical concoctions, and the sound is good. There's never a sullen second on this welcome reissue! (P070824)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (