10 OCTOBER 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 romantic French organ music buffs will want this release featuring modern recordings of three of Pierre Cochereau's (1924-1984) best-loved improvisations originally done on the great organ at Notre Dame de Paris. How can that be, you say, because they're a one-time thing that's never written down? Well, from 1968 right up until his death there was a recording system in place that captured everything he played there. The sound quality was not that great but good enough to allow reconstructions of those incredible organic flights of fancy he came up with every Sunday.

The program begins with a set of variations on Frere Jacques reconstructed by Francois Lombard, who plays all of the selections on this disc. An imposing introduction worthy of Louis Vierne opens the piece, but the mood soon turns more mundane as the main theme makes its appearance. Cochereau then proceeds to subject it to eight magnificent transformations, which include a funeral march and Queen Mab-like scherzo, before it ends with one of those whirlwind toccatas that the French do so well.

Another theme and variations, this time on Alouette, gentille alouette, is next in a reconstruction by the distinguished English organist David Briggs (see the newsletter of 14 May 2007). The piece begins with disembodied references to the main theme, which is then subjected to nine metamorphoses. These range from the bizarre to the ethereal and highlight some of the more subtle-sounding stops on the organ. The last variation is a contrapuntal extravaganza guaranteed to shake the rafters.

The final selection on the program is another reconstruction by Lombard of a suite whose seven parts are each based on a popular French song. The perky opening prelude as well as the Dupre-like gigue and musette are delightful. The finale, a toccata, will sound familiar because it's based on the Marche des roi, which Bizet used in his incidental music for Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlesienne.

Lombard plays everything with great flair, recreating that incredible sense of excitement Cochereau was able to inspire in his audiences. The organ here (originally a Danion-Gonzalez dating from 1871) is ideally suited to this music. At full organ, like all of the great romantic French instruments, it sounds like a pride of angry lions.

The recorded sound is spacious and certainly complements all of the selections included here. (P071010)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

These world-premiere recordings make for another magnificent disc of discovery from the wonderful folks at Naxos. Hearing this music by English composer John Gardner (b. 1917), one can only wonder why it's languished in obscurity for so long.

The program opens with a totally infectious performance of his tunefully rambunctious Midsummer Ale Overture (1965). It’s a real pops pleaser, combining the irreverence of Malcolm Arnold with that jazzy sense of syncopation Leonard Bernstein had in his more animated pieces.

The first piano concerto (1956) is in three movements and begins with a marvelously insistent theme, which forms the structural glue for the opening allegro. The soloist and orchestra battle it out for most of the first movement. However toward its conclusion, the combatants resolve their differences and things end quietly, with a foreboding restlessness manifesting itself in the strings. The following movement, a theme and variations, begins broadly with a prolonged melody of Prokofiev descent. This undergoes a series of very inventive metamorphoses, which terminate in some keyboard fireworks. The concluding rondo follows immediately and features a jagged recurring theme whose angularity is accentuated by the percussiveness of the piano. The music eventually takes on an almost Mephistophelean air as the main motif is reasserted in increasingly demonic guises. Then the mood shifts toward the conclusion of the concerto, ending will-o’-the-wispishly.

Pianist Peter Donohoe delivers what sounds like a definitive performance of the work, with sterling support provided by conductor David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

The first symphony (1946-47) had a long gestation period and incorporates a considerable amount of material from earlier compositions. Consequently it's quite complex. However, with repeated listening you'll find it a very rewarding piece, particularly in this highly sympathetic performance. In the standard four movements, it begins hesitantly with a ghostly opening motif that serves to unify the first movement. The emotional intensity builds, only to gradually fade away, leaving the listener anxiously anticipating what’s to come. The scherzo that follows is a tune-swept delight, with French and Scandinavian overtones. The third movement begins mournfully and intensifies with anguished passages that slowly subside, bringing it to an utterly dejected ending. The finale begins with an aggressive, rhythmically perky theme that alternates with more lyrical ideas. But ultimately the initial motif becomes a juggernaut, crushing everything in its path as the symphony concludes on a triumphant D major chord.

For a more detailed analysis of this fascinating work click here.

Generally speaking, the recorded sound on this disc is audiophile quality except for an occasional hot spot in the upper midrange.

If you like Gardner's symphony, by all means investigate those of Gordon Jacob recommended below. (Y071009)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

British-born Gordon Jacob (1895-1984) is best known for his outstanding arrangements and orchestrations of other people's music (see the newsletter of 15 September 2007), but he was also a very accomplished composer, as evidenced by the two symphonies on this release.

The first one was written in 1929 and is atypical because it's in five movements. The opening allegro very effectively contrasts rhythmically aggressive forte passages with lyrically lithe subdued ones, before coming to an optimistically exclamatory conclusion. There are times when it may remind you of Constant Lambert's music. The following lento was described by Jacob as elegiac and somewhat in the style of a funeral march. It may well have been written in memory of the composer's brother, who was killed in the World War I Battle of the Somme (1916), and to whom the symphony is dedicated. The scherzo sparkles with magic Jacobian orchestral touches that delight the ear. The fourth movement is a rhapsodic larghetto. Its opening and closing sections, which contain a gorgeous rocking melody, surround a more flighty, at times almost sinister-sounding central episode. The finale is a contrapuntal tour de force, with bustling strings punctuated by brass outbursts, cymbal crashes and some hefty whacks on what must have been a humongous bass drum. The influence of Vaughan Williams is quite apparent, which is not surprising considering Jacob studied with him.

The second symphony (1945) is in the standard four movements and begins quietly with partial references to the main theme, which is eventually heralded in full by the solo trumpet. Oddly enough, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the melody for the old French carol Bring a torch Jeanette, Isabella.... Once stated, it's subjected to a series of contrapuntal transformations before reappearing just before the conclusion of the first movement. The following adagio is grave but very moving, with somber strings underscoring wind passages of Elgarian solemnity. The scherzo is mercurial and light as a feather, demonstrating yet again what a master orchestrator Gordon Jacob was. The finale is a ground, which is a type of passacaglia. Here the main theme, or ground, is repeated over and over in a variety of voices of the orchestra, while at the same time being varied in others. More specifically, there are twenty-seven exceptionally ingenious variations of it in this fourth and final movement. The composer saves the best for last, where the ground is transformed into the opening bars of the “torch song” motif that began the symphony.

Conductor Barry Wordsworth and the London Philharmonic Orchestra deliver exemplary performances of both works, which should win many over to the music of this neglected composer.

The sound is excellent, although some audiophiles might wish for a wider soundstage and a little less sunny high end.

If you like these symphonies, make sure you investigate the one by John Gardner recommended above. (P071008)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Naxos' ongoing series devoted to the complete music for piano and orchestra by German-born Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) continues with this recently released second of five projected volumes (see the newsletter of 16 January 2006). In addition to being a composer, Ries was a highly successful concert pianist who was much in demand throughout Europe. So it's not surprising he wrote eight concertos to showcase his own talent, and delayed their publication as long as possible to keep them exclusively for his personal use.

The fact he assigned them opus numbers in order of their appearance in print creates great confusion today as to their compositional chronology. However, after some extensive sleuthing it would appear the one here was probably the fourth (C# minor, 1812-13) to be written.

The program begins with two of his shorter occasional pieces, the Swedish National Airs with Variations (1812-13) and Introduction and Polonaise (1833). As its name implies, the earlier work is notable for a wealth of Swedish folk material, but its dramatic opening owes a great debt to Beethoven. This is understandable considering Ries was a close friend and student of his. But the real surprise occurs a few minutes in, where there are passages auguring what would soon come from Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849).

Oddly enough, there's much less evidence of any Chopin connection as far as the later Introduction and Polonaise is concerned despite it's being based on a Polish dance, and contemporary with Frederic's early pieces. Some may even find themselves double-checking the track listings to make sure these two selections are in the right order. But Chopin or no Chopin, both are brilliant pianistic showcases providing the soloist with ample opportunity for dazzling displays of digital dexterity.

The disc is filled out with the fourth concerto, which is easily on a par with the two released previously (see the newsletter of 16 January 2006), and as before shows the influence of Beethoven. However, there's a melodic suppleness and warmth which make it a Ries creation, again anticipating what would come from Chopin. This is particularly true of the closing rondo, which is based on a theme similar in spirit to that in Frédéric's Rondo à la Krakowiak (1828). Do you suppose both composers were mining the same vein of Polish folk music?

As with their previous disc for Naxos, pianist Christopher Hinterhuber and conductor Uwe Grodd are devoted champions of this unjustly neglected music. The performances by the Gavle Symphony Orchestra are every bit as good as those by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on the first CD (see Naxos-8557638).

The recorded sound is good with only a slight hint of digital graininess in some of the more complex piano passages. In short, this is a bag of Ries's pieces that's impossible to resist! Make sure you also investigate the magnificent piano quartet arrangement Ferdinand made of his mentor's Eroica Symphony (No.3, 1803, see the newsletter of 15 September 2007). (P071007)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Those with an interest in late-romantic French chamber music will find these two piano trios quite irresistible.

The one by Joseph-Guy Ropartz (1864-1955) dates from 1918 and is in three movements. The influence of his teacher Cesar Franck is much in evidence, but there's a melodic and harmonic fluidity about the piece that make it a unique Ropartz creation. The composer was born in Brittany and had a great love for the sea, which may well have been a source of inspiration for the broadly expansive, gently rolling first movement. The outer sections of the scherzo that follows are rhythmically spiky and driven. They surround a rhapsodic central section that's lyrically entrancing. The third movement is rather unusual because it's in two parts that take on the aspect of a slow movement followed by a spirited finale. The opening part is a gorgeous, highly moving reverie that could be considered the equivalent of an adagio. It transitions quite suddenly into the second part, which begins with a spirited, jubilant melody that's masterfully developed, with cyclic references to previous thematic material. The work ends in a triumphant coda based on the motif that began the second part.

The disc is filled out with another piano trio, which is a real curiosity because it was written by a Frenchman who was known almost exclusively as a conductor. Rene-Emmanuel Baton (1879-1940), or Rhene-Baton, as he liked to be called, was also born in Brittany and championed the music of several French composers who were his contemporaries. These included Debussy, Ravel and Roussel, and their influence, along with that of Franck, is quite evident in the remarkable trio included here. Written in 1923 and in three movements, it opens quietly with a wistful theme. This is subjected to a number of impressionistic-sounding transformations that call Ravel to mind. Things become more dramatic toward the conclusion of the first movement as the variations grow more intense before ending quietly. A lively divertissement based on a Breton folk song melody comes next. It's a highly engaging piece of writing that picks you up and carries you right along with it. The finale begins slowly with a dark-hued theme that increases in ardor, only to be interrupted by an attractively imploring motif. The two vie for center stage as ideas from the opening movements make brief cyclic appearances before the work ends unassumingly.

We owe the Trio Hochelaga a great debt of thanks for unearthing these two wonderful selections, which they perform to perfection. No wonder they're considered one of Canada's best chamber music ensembles!

What's more, the recorded sound is quite good, making for a disc that's well worth investigating. (P071006)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Late-romantic music enthusiasts will be delighted to discover this lovely opera by Latvian composer Bruno Skulte (1905-1976). The vocal score dates from 1947, and was written in Germany, where the composer had fled to escape the repressive Soviet regime that occupied Latvia toward the end of World War II. However, Skulte never finished orchestrating it because there was no hope of ever getting it produced. That had to wait until 2005, the centenary of the composer's birth, when Andrejs Jansons (who is also the conductor here) undertook the task of completing and premiering it. When you hear it, you'll be glad he did! It's one of those folk-inspired operas, like Janacek's Jenufa, with a down-to-earth quality and raw emotionality that can't help but move the listener.

Sung in Latvian, it takes place in rural Latvia in 1896, and centers around Raita, the son of a well-to-do landowner, and Maruta, a beautiful young woman, who has just inherited a rich neighboring estate. The opera opens with a brief, fateful-sounding prelude for orchestra. But the mood soon shifts as the first-act curtain goes up on a wonderfully festive tavern scene. The guests are celebrating Raita’s engagement to Leva, who’s the daughter of a wealthy local farmer. Rather than going into any more detail here (see the album notes for an excellent plot synopsis and complete Latvian-English libretto), suffice to it to say this sets the stage for a love triangle involving Raita, Leva and Maruta that underlies the entire five-act opera.

There's a simple melodic folk quality about many of the arias and choruses that make this work most appealing. Also, there are some very imaginative scenes depicting civil unrest, witchcraft and a violent thunderstorm, after which both houses of the main protagonists go up in flames. In the end Raita and Maruta, who has since given birth to his son, are joined by the villagers in a lovely chorus of reconciliation as they sing of their desire to banish anger and hate from their lives.

This recording, featuring the soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Latvian National Opera, will probably be the definitive one for some time to come since future productions of repertoire this rare are highly unlikely. With folk operas like this, it's the singer's ability to capture the spirit of the occasion rather than hit all the right notes that grabs and holds an audience's attention. That's certainly the case here, where all of the soloists display an enthusiasm for this music which transcends any artistic shortcomings.

The recorded sound is quite good, making this a very attractive acquisition for those desirous of something that's much more than just a curiosity. (P071005)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (


Those who missed out on this magnificent restoration of all of Max Steiner’s (1888-1971) music for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) when it first appeared on CD several years ago, now have a second chance to hear it! 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 classic film score buffs.

Based on a story by an author who, oddly enough, managed to keep his identity secret for all of his life, the movie easily ranks with the all-time best American-made films. Directed by the great John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart in one of his finest roles, it won three Academy Awards.

It takes place in Mexico and is a study in greed involving three American gold prospectors. Steiner's masterful mixture of motifs representing Hispanic, psychological, and American elements makes this score one of his crowning achievements. As a matter of fact, the music has such variety and panache that it stands on its own. And you’ll find you appreciate it all the more for hearing it without any spoken dialogue or visual distractions.

As presented here in John Morgan's superbly reconstructed arrangement, the score becomes an extended, tightly knit suite for orchestra unified by all those highly memorable Steiner melodies that recur throughout it. Not only that, but it's some of the composer's most colorful music, thanks to the efforts of Max’s favorite orchestrator, Murray Cutter, who outdid himself when it came to this score. The variety of instruments called for is astounding, and includes quite a few with Mexican associations, as well as an enormous percussion section that was vital to creating the “gold and greed” motifs.

As a bonus, the music for the theatrical trailer plus the alternate main title (with the Warner Brothers logo fanfare) and finale are also included.

Conductor William Stromberg elicits a stunningly enthusiastic performance from the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, which, despite their Eastern origins, couldn't sound more appropriate to the film's environs.

The recorded sound is quite good, making for an exceptional disc documenting one of Max Steiner's finest creations.

If you enjoy this CD, you'll also want to try another recent Naxos release of the complete film scores Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote for The Sea Hawk and Deception, again from Stromberg and his Muscovites (see the newsletter of 9 August 2007). (P071004)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (