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.

Although Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) is not that well known to the average concertgoer, he certainly is to organists and pianists for the staggeringly difficult, romantic keyboard music he wrote. That's particularly true of his two sets of etudes Op. 35 (1848) and 39 (1857). There are twelve studies in each of these, with the earlier one devoted to the major keys and the later, to the minor.

The eighth, ninth and tenth etudes from Op. 39 are a virtuosic entity unto themselves also known as a concerto for piano solo. It’s featured here in an electrifying performance by the indefatigable Marc-André Hamelin. The concept of a concerto has been further emphasized in the score by the composer marking some passages with the word solo and others tutti. The first movement alone (eighth etude) lasts almost half an hour and at 1,343 bars, it's longer than Beethoven's entire Hammerklavier Sonata (No. 29, 1818). It's equally ferocious to play with a peripatetic key structure and a raft of accidentals guaranteed to challenge the mental acuity and manual dexterity of even the greatest keyboard artist. Four thematic subjects dominate the complex opening movement, which is one of the most intense ivory ticklers you'll ever encounter. But rather than going into a detailed analysis here, make sure you read the excellent album notes.

Although there are passages that show the influence of Chopin, explosive, pointillistic runs of notes give Alkan's music a unique sound, and make it fiendishly difficult as well as exhausting to perform. At a little less than half the length of the preceding movement, the adagio (ninth etude) begins quietly, providing a respite from the foregoing fireworks. But not for long, because thunderheads soon gather and the music becomes forebodingly funereal, ending on a sudden exclamatory chord. The finale (tenth etude) is one of the most thrilling knuckle-busters in all of piano literature, as well as a bit of a travelogue with references to what sound like Magyar, Slavic and Middle Eastern melodies. In regard to the latter, one cannot help but be reminded of Saint-Saens’ Egyptian Piano Concerto (No. 5), which would come some forty years later.

The keyboard artistry here is simply breathtaking, because Marc-Andre is one of those rare virtuoso pianists who devotes all of his amazing talents to the cause of the music rather than self-aggrandizement.

The disc is filled out with six songs, as the composer called them, for solo piano. Inspired by Felix Mendelssohn's Songs without Words, Alkan wrote five volumes of them, and it's the middle one (Op. 65, c. 1870) that's included here. You'll find these are charming, delightfully unassuming goodies with a definite Mendelssohnian spin. There's more of that Alkan pointillism in the fifth, which has the unusual title of Horace et Lydie (see the album notes for more details). The sixth, Barcarolle, is one of the composer's best known pieces, which oddly enough sounds a bit like one of the more melancholy numbers that would come out of Tin Pan Alley in the 1930s.

Hamelin makes every one of these tiny gems sparkle, concluding what must be one of the most exhilarating piano recitals now available on disc.

The recorded sound is very good, but do watch your playback level lest you experience some midrange blurring in forte passages.

Incidentally, if you're not already familiar with them, you might want to try two earlier releases from Hyperion (CDA66794 and CDA67218) of Marc-André doing more of Alkan's piano music. (P070915)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Back in Beethoven's day (1770-1827) there were no recordings or fancy sound systems, so the only way to bring music into the home was via the family piano and/or some local chamber group. Consequently there was a big demand for arrangements of larger concerted works for solo instruments and small ensembles. A get-rich-quick industry soon developed where many transcriptions of popular classical pieces were being made by musically incompetent profiteers without the knowledge of the composer.

Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (No. 3, 1803) needs no introduction, but a few words are in order about the version for piano quartet appearing here. It was done by Ferdinand Ries (1734-1838), who was one of Beethoven's most outstanding pupils and a pianist-composer himself of some note (see the newsletter of 16 January 2007). Beethoven was fully aware of his pupil's arranging activities, and this particular one was Ries' last. It probably dates from around 1826 just before Beethoven died. The skill with which Ries managed to translate the emotional essence of the original to the chamber medium is nothing short of astounding! Don't be surprised if you find yourself wondering whether the quartet might not have been an early sketch for the symphony.

The other selection filling out this disc is another piano quartet arranged by the master himself from his own quintet for piano and winds (Op. 16, 1796). It appeared shortly after the original and even has the identical opus number. It was easy to produce, because the piano part is the same in both, so it was just a matter of choosing which stringed instrument would replace each of the winds. With it, Beethoven, who was never one to pass up a buck, had two moneymakers for the creative price of one. Maybe it's just as well he was such a penny-pincher, because many find the strings add a feeling of warmth to the later version which makes it more emotionally appealing.

The performances here by the Mozart Piano Quartet are noteworthy for their enthusiasm and attention to detail, and the recorded sound is very good. Those interested in a little different take on an all too familiar warhorse, along with some old wine in a new bottle, should definitely investigate this enterprising release from MD&G. (P070914)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

The poise and sensitivity Richard Hickox brings to Sir Edward Elgar's (1857-1934) two completed symphonies make his performances of them required listening. Also, these Chandos releases must qualify as two of the finest sounding orchestral recordings to have yet appeared in the hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0), format.

Written shortly after the composer turned fifty, the first symphony (1907-08) was dedicated to the great German conductor Hans Richter. It is in four movements, lasting just over three quarters of an hour. The beautiful "noble and simple" melody that begins the work couldn't sound more Elgarian and serves a double purpose. It's not only the first subject of the opening movement, which is in sonata form, but also a unifying motif that reappears periodically throughout the entire symphony. During the course of the first movement, a wealth of other outstanding themes are introduced and very skillfully developed along with it. The outer sections of the scherzo that follows are so highly charged that they propel you right along with them, while the quieter central trio episodes feature one of Elgar's most winsome melodies.

The meditative adagio contains one of Elgar's most gorgeous themes, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the opening "noble" melody. The finale begins hesitantly on "little cat feet" with further references to the "noble" motif. But additional melodic material is soon introduced and interwoven in cyclic fashion with themes from previous movements. In the last couple of minutes, the "noble" melody takes on "big tune" status as the brass extols it and the work ends with one of the most exciting codas in all of English romantic symphonic literature.

The release is filled out with master orchestrator Gordon Jacob's (1895-1984) brilliant, 1947 symphonic arrangement of the composer's organ sonata, which was written in 1895 when Elgar was in his late thirties. In this form the four-movement piece could be considered somewhat analogous to Anton Bruckner's Study Symphony (1863), which was composed when Bruckner was about the same age as Elgar. The sonata is an exuberantly youthful masterpiece, with a jaunty opening movement, lovely lilting allegretto, pensively passionate andante and an energetic, somewhat Mendelssohnian finale that will leave you smiling.

Elgar's second symphony (1909-11), which was dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII, is featured on the other disc recommended here. Like the first, it begins with a melody that will serve as a unifying motif throughout the work and symbolizes the "Spirit of Delight" quote from Shelley that prefaces the score. It contrasts with another more introspective group of themes, which form the second subject of the opening sonata-form movement. Oddly enough, one of these [track-2, beginning at 07:08] sounds like a reference to a well-known motif from Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger (1868). The movement ends triumphantly as the "Spirit" melody returns in all its glory.

The slow movement takes on the aspect of a lament, and contains a breathtakingly gorgeous Elgarian tune [track-3, beginning at 05:48] that would have turned Cesar Franck green with envy. Inspired by a trip to Venice, the following rondo serves as a scherzo where scurrying sunlit passages alternate with darker-shaded episodes of a more threatening nature. By the way, the "Spirit" motif lurks in the background throughout both of these movements. The finale begins nonchalantly with a rather Brahmsian-sounding melody, but soon intensifies as Elgar turns up the emotional heat with additional thematic material that's at times developed in almost militaristic fashion -- shades of his Pomp and Circumstance marches. Towards the end the storm clouds clear, and that wonderful "Spirit" melody shines forth, leaving the listener -- probably with tears in his eyes -- basking in a warm autumnal glow.

The disc concludes with one of Elgar's best concert overtures known as In the South (1903-04), or Alessio, which is the name of the town in northwestern Italy where it was written. Lasting over twenty minutes, it’s more of a tone poem that the composer tells us was partially inspired by Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. As you may recall, this was also the source of inspiration for Hector Berlioz' Harold in Italy (see the newsletter of 11 July 2007), and if you listen carefully, you'll hear an extended melody on the viola where Elgar pays homage to that great French composer [track-1, beginning at 14:01]. With a festive heraldic beginning and rather darkly ominous central section, it has a heroically dashing ending reminiscent of Richard Strauss' Don Juan (1888).

Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales deliver exceptional performances of everything here. Hickox brings a cohesiveness to these thematically convoluted symphonies that usually escapes most conductors.

The two-channel CD and SACD tracks set a standard by which other orchestral recordings should be judged. The multichannel SACD track will get you the best seat in the house at Brangwyn Hall, where this was recorded. Don't pass up these musical legacies of the Edwardian era! (Y070912, Y070911)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Following their extensive series of discs devoted to the wind band music of John Philip Sousa, Naxos now gives us some by Charles Ives (1874-1954). As played here by "The President's Own," i.e., the United States Marine Corps Band, these selections will bring back fond memories of more innocent times in America, when weekend concerts in the park were commonplace and there was no need for a Department of Homeland Security.

The program begins with one of Ives’ most popular works, Variations on "America," which was originally for organ and later orchestrated by William Schuman. You'll find this version for band has an even greater sense of youthful irreverence that makes it all the more enjoyable.

Overture and March “1776” and They Are There! are Ivesian, patriotic pastiches where old familiar tunes come flying at you like bats out of a belfry. Old Home Days is a tiny five-part suite that includes a boisterous, vaudeville-like section titled "The Opera House and Old Home Day." It ends with "London Bridge Is Fallen Down!," which is a scampering spoof of the familiar nursery rhyme. Marche Intercollegiate features a tune that Cornell University graduates will be all too familiar with.

The next selection, although simply known as a fugue, is one of Ives' greatest creations. Based on the missionary hymn From Greenland's Icy Mountains, it initially appeared as the opening movement of his first string quartet (1896), and then as the third in his monumental fourth symphony (1910-16, see the newsletter of 4 December 2006). As done here, it must be one of the most moving works in all of band literature.

The march known as Omega Lambda Chi, has associations with Ives' old alma mater, Yale University, and is certainly in the Sousa tradition. As arranged here, Variations on Jerusalem the Golden is in essence an engaging concerto grosso where the soloists comprise a wind sextet. It's back to college with A Son of a Gambolier, which should meet with the approval of any Georgia Techies.

Then comes a moving postlude transcribed from a lost organ work. Could those be references to the Wehe! Wehe! motif from Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle [track-14, beginning at the 02:37]? The ”Country Band” March finds Ives at his raucous best, and is quite similar in spirit to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's A Musical Joke, where village musicians come in for some good-natured ribbing. In fact, nobody's safe here, including "The March King" himself, whose Semper Fidelis and Washington Post get thrown into Charlie's tune-filled Cuisinart.

Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) from the symphony known as Holidays translates very well for band and is one of the best selections on this release. It's full of impressionistic-sounding passages, some of which will recall Clouds from Debussy's Three Nocturnes [track-16, beginning at 01:56]. Hints of the Dies Irae and a reference to Taps are most effective.

This wouldn't be an "All American" production without at least one cowboy. And a transcription of Ives' song Charlie Rutlage certainly fills the bill, even if that ill-fated wrangler got crushed under his own horse! The Circus Band is another Ives masterpiece and one of the most infectious quicksteps he ever came up with, particularly as done here by "The President's Own." Runaway Horse on Main Street is an odd snippet that finds the composer at his most dyspeptic. March No. 6 is paired with Here's to Good Old Yale in a rollicking sophomoric romp, which may bring back fond memories of football games, hip flasks and scantily clad cheerleaders.

The Alcotts, transcribed from the revised version of the Concord Piano Sonata (No. 2, 1904-15), concludes this wonderful CD on a Transcendentalist note, with bizarre references to the opening of Beethoven's fifth symphony.

All of the arrangements as well as the performances on this release are uniformly outstanding, and the sound is good even if a bit on the dry side. (P070910)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

British born Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) was initially a student of Vaughan Williams but later became heavily influenced by the music of Bartok and Janacek -- and even studied in Prague. Probably best known for her outstanding string quartets, you'll find this new Lyrita release of her orchestral music an extremely rewarding disc of discovery.

The program begins with Overture, Proud Thames (1952), which is a musical paean to that river similar in concept to Bedrich Smetana's tone poem The Moldau. The musical language is late romantic with a definite English feel to it. The triumphant ending probably signifies this legendary waterway’s passage through the city of London. Vernon Handley and the London Philharmonic Orchestra make a strong case for it.

In four movements, the Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1953) is a strikingly original work that opens with a distinctive exclamatory motif. The first movement is characterized by a contrapuntal kinkiness and rhythmic angularity that render it somewhat of a cross between Beethoven's Leonora overtures and Michael Tippett's works for string orchestra. The following lento is dramatic and full of tension until the very end, when a solo violin manages to tranquilize the rest of the orchestra. The scherzo attains an energy level worthy of Bohuslav Martinu's more frenzied works, as the eight string sections of the double orchestra toss hyperactive motifs back and forth in a game of musical lacrosse. A pensive passacaglia interrupted by a frenetic central fugato concludes the symphony peacefully with subdued references to the exclamatory motif that began it.

The Serenata Concertante (1962) might best be described as a confrontation in four movements for violin and orchestra with a parcel of pyrotechnics for the soloist. The work begins in a restrained manner with the violin making a rhapsodic entrance. However, Bartokian brass fanfares soon emanate from the orchestra as the pace quickens, giving the soloist a chance to strut his stuff. The first movement ends quietly with the violin having the last word. The percussively spiked scherzo is highly kinetic and quite arresting as the soloist and orchestra play tag with one another. The lyrical andante that follows includes a cadenza-like passage where our soloist spins out a lovely long melody that's one of the serenata's highpoints. The finale is a rondo that not only features some fancy fiddling but several extraordinarily colorful orchestral effects. It ends abruptly, leaving the listener wishing there were more of this inventive opus.

Violinist Manoug Parikian, who premiered the work, is featured here as well as in the preceding symphony. He plays to perfection and is accompanied in both by the London Symphony Orchestra under Vernon Handley.

Music for Strings (1983), again in four movements, is the most progressive piece here and finds the composer at her best. The opening movement sounds Eastern European, with Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste immediately coming to mind. The scherzo, while punctuated with pizzicato passages, is quite lyrical in places and may recall the string music of Frank Bridge. The slow movement is characterized by an assemblage of fragmentary motifs that makes it seem like it's floating in space. The finale is a hoedown that's just plain fun and ends quite humorously in medias res.

Conductor Barry Wordsworth and the London Philharmonic Orchestra deliver a committed performance of this delightful score.

The recordings are generally good, but some tracks sound like their final reverberations were prematurely attenuated. (P070909)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (


It's too bad Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) isn't around to hear this hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/4.0), rerelease from PentaTone of his Symphonie Fantastique (1830). Originally a quadraphonic recording made by Philips back in 1974, it's been newly remastered here by Polyhymnia International and has never sounded better! Audiophiles are in for an exceptional listening experience with a disc that may well become a new standard by which other three- and four-channel orchestral recordings will be judged.

But that's only part of the good news, because many consider this performance of the symphony one of best. With Berlioz champion Colin Davis conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in its own hall -- one of the greatest venues in the world -- the stage was set for what would turn out to be a landmark recording. The gorgeously burnished Dutch string tone, inimitably rich-sounding brass and honest-to-goodness bells make this orchestra's rendition of the work unique and ensure the listener an unforgettably fantastic Fantastique.

Davis wisely opts for a rather laid-back approach to the first three movements, saving all the fire-and-brimstone for the last two. In the fourth, “March to the Scaffold,” just listen to the precision with which the orchestra plays, and to those fabulous snarling trombones [Track-4, beginning at 01:39] and pounding timpani, which get lost in many recordings of this work. In the concluding “Dream of the Witches' Sabbath,” no holds are barred as Davis whips this great orchestra into a frenzied state of musical pandemonium rarely encountered on disc.

The two-channel CD and SACD tracks represent a great improvement over the original Philips LP and CD releases, which many of us thought sounded rather harsh. The soundstage is most impressive, with an amazing sense of orchestral detail. The multichannel version (left and right, front and back) will save you the cost of a trip to Amsterdam, because it virtually puts you right in the middle of the fabulous-sounding Concertgebouw hall.

When it was introduced back in the 1970s, most audiophiles considered quadraphonic a case of sonic overkill. But with the advent of hybrid discs and home-entertainment systems, it would now appear it was just way ahead of its time. Let's hope PentaTone gives us more of these visionary recordings. (Y070908)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (