CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
30 JANUARY 2008
The albums below are "Classical Releases Of Current Key Significance," or "CROCKS", if you will. To purchase an album, simply click on one of the Web site retail outlets given in the "AVAILABILITY" table under the write-up.
Bloch, E.: Pno Qnts 1 & 2; Night, Paysages & 2 Other Pieces for Stg Qt; Lane/Goldner Qt [Hyperion]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Here is some neglected, but outstanding, chamber music in thrilling performances. As well as being one of the twentieth century's most gifted composers, Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was also an accomplished violinist and pianist. That combination of talents probably explains the exceptional level of workmanship evident in all of the selections on this disc.
In 1921 Bloch began work on what was to be a cello sonata, incorporating a number of themes he'd come up with in his youth. But he soon realized his ever expanding ideas required a much larger canvas, and this resulted in the imposing three-movement first piano quintet (1923) included here. At over half an hour, it's a major modern masterpiece full of that neo-romantic fervor so characteristic of Bloch's earlier compositions. Interestingly enough, here, as well as in his later quintet, Bloch treats the piano simply as a member of the ensemble rather than a solo instrument.
The opening agitato is restless music seething with energy and spiced with occasional quarter tones. All of the major thematic ideas that make up the piece are introduced here, and manipulated with consummate skill before the movement ends succinctly. The following andante is mysteriously plaintive and may remind you of the composer's Schelomo rhapsody for cello and orchestra. The finale begins in a frenzied state with highly agitated motifs that gradually give way to subdued, pleadingly melodic material redolent of that "Semitism" so often noted in Bloch's works. These two contrasting thematic groups are ingeniously played off against one another in passages that at times have a Shostakovich flavor. Incidentally, at one point the composer indicates the pianist should sound "like an exotic bird." Be that as it may, the work ends on a C major chord, which in context must be one of the most sublime moments in all of twentieth century chamber music.
Four of Bloch's short pieces for string quartet follow. Night and Paysages were written in 1923 and owe a great debt to French impressionism. The former sounds like it could be an early sketch Debussy might have made for one of his Nocturnes (1900) for orchestra. Paysages is a three-part tonal travelogue describing a barren Arctic wasteland, pastoral Alpine scene, and a bustling village located somewhere in the South Pacific. Simply known as Two Pieces, the remaining miniatures date from 1938 and 1950 respectively, and are more typically identifiable as Bloch. The first is quite melodic with more of those Blochian Semitic overtones, while the second is high-strung except for a lovely lyrical midsection.
This outstanding CD concludes with the three-movement second piano quintet, dating from 1957. Whereas Bloch's first effort in this genre was neo-romantic, the writing here is much more concise and neo-classical in spirit. The first movement, marked animato, evokes an overwhelming feeling of tenuousness engendered by the anxiety-ridden phrases that dominate it. One can't help thinking that Bloch, who knew he was dying when he wrote it, was trying to portray in musical terms the idea that life hangs by an extremely fine thread. There are passages recalling his ever-popular first concerto grosso that was written some thirty years earlier. As in the previous quintet, the andante is again mysterious, but more withdrawn. The final allegro begins excitedly with an intensity greater than anything we've heard so far. But this angst gradually dissipates into a feeling of heavenly resignation as the quintet ends very much like its predecessor.
Pianist Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet obviously love this music and turn in performances that totally sweep away what little competition there is. Having wetted our appetite with these delights, we can only hope that Hyperion will bring us the Goldner doing some, if not all, of Bloch's five quartets.
While on the bright side, the recordings are excellent with good piano tone and shimmering strings. The soundstage is ideal with just the right amount of instrumental resolution to insure clarity during those dense passages so typical of this composer. In short, this is a real "Blochbuster" that's not to be missed!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080130)
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Cimarosa: Ovs, Prels & Sinfas fm Operas V2 (9); Mallon/Toron ChO [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
This is another fun one from Naxos featuring more openers from the operas of Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801). He was the most famous and popular Italian opera composer during the latter half of the eighteenth century, and wrote over sixty-five stage works, nine of which are represented here. They adhere to the Italian overture, fast-slow-fast principle, and are delightfully melodic, highly inventive rousers which Classical period enthusiasts will find most appealing! Don't be surprised if you hear commonalities between them, because Cimarosa had no compunctions about borrowing from his own works when a deadline loomed.
Five of these are single movement overtures with fast opening and closing sections that surround a slower one. The Imaginary Armida (1777) sounds like it could be the beginning of an as yet undiscovered W.A. Mozart symphony. There's a ceremonious stateliness about Orestes (1783) that harkens back to Lully's more serious stage works. Artaxerxes (1784) may sound familiar in places, because Cimarosa lifted parts of it for the overture to his most famous opera, The Secret Marriage (1792, see the newsletter of 30 August 2007). Women Should Be Taken at Their Worst (1785) is a lighthearted offering very much in keeping with the opera's humorous title and plot. When you hear the outstanding opener for Giannina and Bernardone (1781), you'll understand why it was an international hit in the 1780s. There’s a gorgeously scored passage for the oboe that’s one of the highpoints on this disc.
The remaining four selections are tripartite sinfonias with alternating fast-slow-fast movements. The Italian Girl in London (1778) was the composer's first big success, and hearing this extract from it one can see why audiences of the day were wowed by it. While it would appear that Alexander in India (1781) and Circe (1783) were among Cimarosa's less well-received operas, you'd never know it from the inventively colorful music presented here. Despite its oddball title, The Fanatic for Ancient Romans (1777) was apparently a successful comedy that was still being produced as late as the 1800s. This skillfully written sinfonia would seem to bear out its popularity.
All of the performances by the Toronto Chamber Orchestra under conductor Kevin Mallon are superb. The precision, sense of dynamics, and boundless energy he brings to these classical miniatures is exceptional.
The recordings are resplendent and present an ideally focused soundstage with just the right amount of depth and reverberation -- audiophiles should take note!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080129)
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Doppler, F. & K.: Fl & Orch Wks (Andante..., Conc, etc); Gallois/Seo/Gallois/SinfaFinlJyvas [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Mention "Doppler" and most people think of the celebrated Doppler effect named after Austrian physicist Christian Doppler (1803-1853), and typified by the change in pitch of a train whistle as it speeds past you. But as this new release from Naxos proves, Doppler also has important connotations in the world of music, because it's the last name of two brothers, Franz (1821-1883) and Karl (1825-1900), who were virtuoso flutists and composers of some note. Born in the Ukraine, they were no relation to Christian and went on to have very distinguished musical careers in Hungary and later Germany.
All six selections on this disc are either by Franz (*) or both brothers (**), and feature one or two flutes. Except for the concerto, the other five pieces were originally written with piano accompaniment. But orchestral arrangements of them have been specially made for this recording.
The program begins with two fantasies. The first is a reworking of themes from Verdi's Rigoletto and features two flutes (**). Medleys like this were very popular back in the 1800s, and you'll hear all the best loved tunes from the opera embellished with some very fancy flute work. The second is for a single flute and based on Hungarian folk tunes (*). Hearing this Magyar mélange, one is not surprised to learn that Franz Doppler helped orchestrate some of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies.
Next, we have the piece de resistance on this disc, which is an andante and rondo for two flutes (*). If you don't know this piece, you're about to discover an early romantic treasure. If you do, you'll find the loving performance it receives here, with full orchestral accompaniment, upstages any recorded competition it ever had.
The potpourri on American themes for two flutes (**) that follows is a real winner. Yankee Doodle, Hail Columbia, The Star-Spangled Banner and a couple of other goodies are tossed up into a clever collage of Americana that anticipates what Charlie Ives would soon be doing.
A bravura waltz that again features two flutes (**) is in the best Johann Strauss tradition, particularly as done here with full orchestra. The incredible display of virtuosity by the soloists will leave you quite breathless.
The program concludes with a three-movement concerto for two flutes (*) which was lost and only rediscovered in modern times by the great flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. It's a classically structured gem that brings to mind the music of Mendelssohn. Yet there's a melodic fluidity here that smacks of Eastern European influences, which is not surprising taking into account the considerable amount of time the Doppler brothers spent in Hungary. There's a lyricism and lightness of touch about the finale that will leave you with a smile.
Flutists Patrick Gallois and Kazunori Seo really outdo themselves with some of the most gorgeous playing one could ever hope for. The Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla conducted by Gallois himself provides ideal accompaniment.
The recorded sound is very good, but there's a hint of shrillness in sustained flute passages.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080128)
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Hummel, J.: Pno & Orch Wks (Retour..., 2 Vars, Oberon…); Hinterhuber/Grodd/Gavle SO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Every one of the four pieces for piano and orchestra on this new Naxos release show Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) at his most inventive. Composed between 1820 and 1833, these one-movement occasional pieces make it easy to believe reports by his contemporaries that Hummel was not only an incredible virtuoso, but also an extraordinary improviser. The spontaneity and freshness of these works may even remind some listeners of what would soon come from the great American pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869).
Le retour de Londres -- Grand Rondeau brillant (1833) was one of Hummel's last pieces and there's a certain amount of abandon about it that's often typical of composers' final works. It opens reservedly, but it's not long before a big six-four chord announces a perky rondo theme which recurs periodically throughout the piece. The episodes between its appearances are some of the most progressive music Hummel ever came up with, and make you wonder if Chopin might have heard this. The work concludes with a thrilling coda embellished by impressive displays of digital dexterity from the soloist.
Two sets of variations separated by a period of ten years are included. The Variations in F major (1820) begins with a theme that sounds like it must have been inspired by Papageno's little song from Mozart's The Magic Flute. It's subjected to a number of delightful transformations which are less formal than is usually the case with a work of this type. In fact Hummel never strays too far from the basic melody and relies on rhythmic devices and orchestral colorations to achieve variety.
With a slow, moody introduction, the Variations and Finale in B flat major (1830) is a more involved work, but once underway there's the same lightness of touch that was present in the two preceding pieces. The theme was apparently taken from a singspiel that was popular in Berlin at that time. Although it's a catchy little number, you'll probably find this is a case where Hummel's inventive variations are far more interesting than the original tune. Be that as it may, this work must rank as one of the composer's best in this form. And again, one can only wonder at one point [track-2, beginning at 07:37] whether Chopin might have known it. Towards the end there's a lovely introspective variation followed by an animated, highly embellished reprise. This puts the frosting on this tasty torte and brings the piece to a radiant close.
While Hummel's fantasy for piano and orchestra Oberons Zauberhorn (also known as L'Enchantment d'Oberon, 1829) was undoubtedly inspired by Weber's Oberon (1929), it's very much an independent creation except for an opening reference to the three-note horn motif that begins the opera. It's in five connected parts that include a spirited march and wonderfully spooky storm episode (there's also a storm in the stage work). The latter is made all the more dramatic by some lightning-fast runs and thunderous chords played by the soloist. The fantasy concludes with one of Hummel's most distinguished themes, which is related to the opening "Oberon" motif and introduced by the horn. Thematically speaking it brings this engaging showpiece full circle, and to an exciting conclusion.
Pianist Christopher Hinterhuber works more of his keyboard magic for Naxos here (see the newsletters of 16 January 2006 and 10 October 2007) with spirited, yet highly articulate performances of all four works. The support provided this outstanding artist by the Gavle Symphony Orchestra under Uwe Grodd is ideal.
The recorded sound is certainly acceptable, but there is some digital graininess in piano passages. It would be very interesting to hear what these pieces would have sounded like had something like Ray Kimber's IsoMike or Erik Sikkema's ULSI recording methodology been used.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080127)
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Röntgen: Vc Conc Cpte (3); Muruzabal/Watkins/Neth RChO/Schaefer/Neth RSO [EtCetera]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Like the Doppler brothers above, the world of physics also comes to mind at the mention of composer Julius Röntgen’s (1855-1932) name. In fact he was a distant relative of the great Nobel-Prize-winning German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923), who discovered X-rays.
Julius was an extremely prolific composer (he wrote eighteen symphonies), who was German-born and trained, but moved to Amsterdam in his early twenties. He lived and taught there for the rest of his life, and was involved with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (now Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) as well as that acoustic marvel of a concert hall that’s home to that incredible group of musicians. Consequently, it's not surprising that he's frequently referred to as a Dutch composer. But when you hear the three concertos on this release, it becomes quite obvious he's decidedly Germanic and owes a great debt to Brahms. Yet his gift for writing delightful, extended melodies, the optimistic mood that pervades his works, and the lightness of his orchestration set his music apart from the more serious fare that was being turned out by the likes of Gustav Mahler, Hans Pfitzner, and Max Reger.
Röntgen’s first cello concerto (1893-1894) is in three movements and almost twice as long as either of the others. It opens with a recitative-like pronouncement from the soloist reinforced by declamatory chords from the orchestra. A highly agitated thematic idea follows and then a couple of lovely lyrical melodies are introduced and developed along with the preceding material in Brahmsian fashion. A pensive cadenza introduces the closing measures of this section where all of the previous themes are recalled. The next movement follows without a break and features one of those gorgeous extended melodies that Röntgen was so adept at writing. It's interrupted by a couple of dynamic interjections from the orchestra, but triumphs in the end. The finale begins immediately with a catchy angular tune that's subjected to a couple of thematic transformations. But the original melody always returns (in rondo fashion), and the concerto ends optimistically in the major with a display of virtuosity from the soloist.
The second concerto (1909) is in a single movement and was written for one of the greatest cellists of all time, Pablo Casals (1876-1973). It's unlike most concertos because it begins with an extended cadenza for the soloist. However, the orchestra finally makes a dramatic appearance with a domineering theme that the soloist takes up. This is gradually reworked into another one of those lovely sinuous Röntgen melodies. The cello then introduces a catchy little tune, which sparkles with a little help from the celesta. This is subjected to a series of variations, a couple of which sound like they could have been penned by Ralph Vaughan Williams. A drum-roll followed by some brass fanfares announces the return of the original melody, and the concerto ends gloriously leaving everyone smiling.
The last concerto (1928), also in one movement, is the most dramatic of the three. The opening is intense and worried with forceful passages for the soloist. But the gloom gradually clears with a series of radiant riffs played by the celesta, and the appearance of another one of those lovely Röntgen themes intoned by the soloist. The orchestra then intervenes and introduces a melody of heroic proportions, followed by a demanding cadenza for the soloist. Brass flourishes announce the conclusion of the work, which ends triumphantly.
Cellist Arturo Muruzabal turns in very effective performances of all three works with an enthusiasm that greatly outweighs occasional intonational anomalies. The support provided by the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic under Paul Watkins in the first two pieces, and the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henrik Schaefer in the third, is committed and flawless.
The recordings of the first two concertos are excellent. Both have wide, but detailed, soundstages and the solo instrument is ideally miked and balanced. The third concerto comes off a little worse for wear because the recording, which was made two years earlier, doesn't quite have the clarity of the others. Also there's a bit of a digital edginess in forte passages. Still, you'll find this a small price to pay for this rarely heard, but very enjoyable music.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080126)
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Tsontakis: Vn Conc 2, Clair de Lune, Past...Passion; Copes/Boyd/StPaul ChO [Koch Int'l]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
Those of you who enjoyed this composer's piano-concerto/tone-poem Man of Sorrows (see the newsletter of 30 August 2007) are in for another treat with this release. George Tsontakis (b. 1951) is fast becoming recognized as one of America's greatest living composers. Just last year he won the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters "Charles Ives Living Award," while in 2005 the violin concerto featured here won the equally coveted University of Louisville "International Grawemeyer Award." Yes, his music is quite contemporary and has an intellectuality that puts it in the "No pain, no gain!" category. That said, be also advised that it’s quite approachable, and anyone willing to do some serious listening will be amply rewarded!
Although the second violin concerto (2003) is in four movements, it only lasts about twenty minutes. But the variety of ideas presented in that short span of time is amazing. The first movement, "Surges (among stars)," is a cosmic journey where the soloist floats through a luminescent nebula of sound created by the orchestra. It's followed by "Gioco (Games)" which is a rhythmically sparkling celestial dance with what sound like avian associations. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the more animated parts of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony. In the "Cantilena" that's next, the violinist vocalizes over an instrumental accompaniment which ranges from tenuous and restrained to sinister and overpowering. "Just Go!" is the subtitle for the finale. It’s a brilliantly orchestrated hyperkinetic astral tarantella that ends suddenly as the solo violin simply blinks out. You’ll find this riveting music that bears repeated listening.
As the name implies, the two-part symphonic poem, Clair de Lune (2006), owes a great debt to the French impressionists. Yet there's a crystalline quality about it that's a Tsontakis trademark. The first section, "Moonlit," is a pentatonic reverie containing snippets from a number of Debussy's works, including the piano piece for which this work is named, as well as La Mer and L'apres-midi d'un faune. The concluding part, "Jeux - Ballet Moon (Pas de Deux)," is tastefully glitzy with jazz elements that may call to mind Morton Gould's Latin-American Symphonette (1941) and Leonard Bernstein's Fancy Free (1944). This is attention-getting music of remarkable individuality. So turn out the lights and let George take control of the horizontal and the vertical!
The orchestral fantasy The Past, The Passion (1987) is a symphonic diptych, which explains the two-part title. It's scored for only 14 instruments, but you'd never know it considering the unbelievable variety and richness of sonorities the composer elicits from such a tiny ensemble. Mesmerizing echo effects and arpeggios at the outset of "The Past" immediately grab you and set the tone for the incredible musical journey you’re about to take. An amazing sense of thematic development and radiant orchestration characterize the remainder of this section, which flows seamlessly into the next. The Passion begins with a quote which most will recognize as the melody for one of the most familiar choruses in J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion. The entire section is a meditation on this choral tune and shows Tsontakis at the height of his creative powers as he fragments and reassembles it in a variety of ingenious ways. Granted this brilliantly orchestrated piece would certainly have to be classified as the work of a "Colorist," but only in the best sense of that term.
Violinist Steven Copes delivers a magnificent performance of the concerto with spot-on intonation remarkable for the fact that a considerable amount of his part soars above the stave. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under conductor Douglas Boyd provides him with ideally sensitive accompaniment, and gives us spectacular readings of the two other selections as well. Incidentally, the first two works were written for this orchestra.
The recorded sound is excellent with a clarity and directionality that make this a demonstration disc of the first rank. When it comes to orchestration, Tsontakis is right up there with the likes of Rimsky-Korsakov, and this music will challenge even the finest sound systems.
We owe a great debt of thanks to Koch International Classics for being the first recording company to champion the music of this exceptionally gifted American composer. You may also want to try a couple of their companion discs of his chamber music (KI-CD-7550 and KI-CD-7579). Let’s just hope that at some point they reissue his Four Symphonic Quartets.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080125)
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