27 FEBRUARY 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.

The album cover may not always appear.
Braunfels: Te Deum; Soloists/Honeck/E.Ericson ChC/Swed RC&SO [Orfeo]
Talk about bad breaks, Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) certainly had his share of them. Born in Germany in 1882, he began his career there as a very successful opera composer, who was rated by critics alongside the likes of Hans Pfitzner and Richard Strauss.

That soon changed when the Nazis came to power and declared Braunfels' music entartete, or degenerate, because he was half-Jewish. While his mixed ethnicity, and the fact he had converted to Catholicism, probably saved him from the concentration camps, he was still forced to withdraw from public life. He didn't return to the German musical scene until after the fall of The Third Reich in 1945.

Unfortunately, fate then dealt him another blow. His late-romantic style of writing -- like that of such contemporaries as Zemlinsky, Schreker, and Korngold -- was no longer in fashion with the rise of modernism, as exemplified by dodecaphonism and neoclassicism. Consequently, he died in 1954 a forgotten composer. Fortunately, over the past few years the pendulum has now swung the other way, and there's been a resurgence of interest in late-romantic music. Hearing his monumental Te Deum (1922) featured on this release, it would appear Braunfels' time has finally come.

The work is in four sections and scored for enormous forces, including soprano and tenor soloists along with a massive choir (two here), huge orchestra, and organ. It's on a scale with the Te Deum of Hector Berlioz, which is not that surprising when you consider Braunfels greatly admired him (see the newsletter of 16 January 2006). In the opening Te Deum laudamus, which is in praise of the Holy Trinity, laudatory monolithic choruses alternate with passages of seraphic beauty sung by the soloists.

The Judex crederis that follows conjures up a most effective musical picture of the Last Judgment. The composer does this with a chorus of doom, accompanied by outbursts from the brass, spooky sounding passages for the winds, pounding percussion, and threatening chromatic runs together with de profundis pedal points on the organ. You'll also notice rhythmic references to the same section of the Berlioz Te Deum.

The Aeterna fac section is a gorgeous combination of the more religious moments in Richard Wagner's Parsifal and the conclusion of Richard Strauss' Death and Transfiguration. But there's a dynamism and reverence about it that's typical of Braunfels.

The closing Dignare Domine opens funereally in what the composer described as an obituary for his recently deceased father-in-law. However the mood soon brightens as the chorus and soloists sing about redemption. The work ends forcefully and on a religious high with thoughts of eternal bliss and salvation.

Soprano Gitta-Maria Sjöberg and tenor Lars-Erik Jonsson are in top form, and Manfred Honeck conducts the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir along with the Swedish Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra in a totally committed, overpowering performance of this sacred rarity.

The recorded sound is impressive, particularly for a work of this scale. The balance between the soloists, choruses, organ, and orchestra is excellent, as are the soundstage and venue. The only negative factor is a bit of digital grain in the massed choral passages, but you'll soon forget that with music this moving.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P080227)

- AVAILABILITY - Records International

The album cover may not always appear.
Kiel, F.: Pno Qts Cpte (3); Triendl/Mathé/Schlichtig/Jankovic [CPO]
German composer Friedrich Kiel (1821-1885) wrote no symphonies or operas, preferring to apply his considerable talents to solo piano, chamber and sacred music. His three piano quartets included on this release are a significant addition to the genre, and we have CPO to thank for unearthing them. They were composed within the space of two years around 1867, and basically grounded in Beethoven and Mendelssohn. But there's an intricate interplay between the piano and strings as well as a delicacy of construction that makes them uniquely Kiel creations.

The first quartet in A minor is in four movements. The opening allegro is apprehensively cloudy; however, a sunny theme soon shines through. The composer’s handling of these dark and light elements for the remainder of this movement is exquisite. Oddly enough, there's a variant of the opening theme [track-1, beginning at 06:43] that sounds like one of the motifs P. I. Tchaikovsky would use ten years later in the second movement of his fourth symphony. But returning to the Kiel, an adagio of Schubertian lyricism and a cheeky scherzo follow. The energetic, tuneful finale owes a great debt to Mendelssohn.

Generally more upbeat than its predecessor, the second quartet in E major is also in four movements. The first is a highly melodic allegro with a harmonic density worthy of Brahms. The following intermezzo and largo movements tread carefully with a thematic angularity reminiscent of Robert Schumann. The rondo finale is a mercurial romp that's as light as a feather and ends this delightful piece cheerfully.

A lovely slow introduction characterizes the opening allegro of the three-movement last quartet in G major. A busy theme, notable for its melodic flow, is soon introduced and proceeds to dominate this movement, which is the most harmonically progressive of anything we've heard so far. The andante that follows is elegantly simple. It couldn't be more different from the finale, which is a a tarantella-like presto that concludes this most engaging of the three quartets on a real high.

Pianist Oliver Triendl, violinist Ulrike-Anima Mathé, violist Hariolf Schlichtig, and cellist Xenia Jankovic make a very strong case for these works. Let’s just hope they add another violinist to their band and give us Kiel's two piano quintets.

The recordings are good, but don't have the luster or depth characteristic of exceptional sounding chamber music discs. Still you'll find the music speaks for itself, making this release a very enjoyable listen.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P080226)


The album cover may not always appear. The album cover may not always appear.
Lefébure-Wély: Org Wks V3 (Organiste Moderne Nos 25-34, etc); Lea/LiverMetCath Org [Priory]
Lefébure-Wély: Org Wks V2 (Organiste Moderne Nos 15-24, etc); Lea/LiverMetCath Org [Priory]
Here are the final two releases in Priory's three-disc survey devoted to the organ music of Luis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély (1817-1869). He was one of the most celebrated French organists during the romantic era and noted for his fabulous improvisations. Based in Paris for his entire career, he was first at St. Roch, then La Madeleine, and finally the prestigious Saint Sulpice right up until his death. It's interesting to note that two other great, French organist-composers followed in his footsteps; Camille Saint-Saëns at La Madeleine, and Charles Marie Widor at Saint Sulpice.

Although Lefébure-Wély's improvisatory skills are lost to us today, his formal compositions survive, including his magnum opus, L'Organiste Moderne, published in 1868. We can get some idea of his flights of fancy at the organ console because the thirty-four selections included in it are apparently based on his improvisations. The first fourteen of these appeared on the initial release in this series (see the newsletter of 20 December 2006), and the two discs featured here contain the remaining twenty (ten each). You’ll find the variety of moods represented in this compendium quite astonishing.

Several of the ones on these later CDs are of particular interest. There are a couple of delightful pastorals (Nos. 16 and 25) complete with bagpipes, bird calls, a thunderstorm, and trompette en chamade sunshine as the clouds roll by -- just beware of flying voice coils! The Procession Adoro Te (No. 17) is most inspiring, and anticipates what would come from Widor and Vierne. Then there's a march (No. 18) and the Sorties in Bb and Eb (Nos. 21 and 29), all of which are real show-stoppers where one can easily imagine prancing circus horses. Lefébure-Wély shows his more serious side in two fugues (Nos. 30 and 33). But not for long as those horses reappear for one final march (No. 34) around the ringmaster, ending this delightful pipe-work potpourri in refreshingly frivolous fashion.

Each of the later discs also contains one of the four offertoires that comprise the composer’s Opus 35 (the other two are on the first CD). The one on volume two (the third of the four) is a tiny sonata, and has a theme strangely reminiscent of that old nursery rhyme The Farmer in the Dell [track-11, beginning at 02:10]. The offertoire on volume three (the last of the four) is also a miniature sonata, and has a commanding martial beginning and ending that surround a lovely aria-like developmental section. It may bring to mind Alexandre Guilmant's more extended works in this form.

As an added treat, on the last disc you’ll find Hymn of the Nuns from a set of ten religious meditations, circa 1858. This was one of the composer's most often performed works, and it's immediately appealing, with low pedal points and twittering highs that will test the limits of any speaker system.

Lefébure-Wély was a close friend of the great French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and inaugurated a number of his instruments. Consequently one would expect a Cavaillé-Coll to be the ideal choice for this music. But the imposing English organ featured here (Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool) must certainly rank as a close second, particularly in the skillful hands (and feet) of Richard Lea, whose registrations of everything here are impeccable. Lea is a virtuoso master of the pipes whose playing is electric and perfectly captures the spirit of these incredibly varied and imaginative pieces.

The recordings are excellent, providing you don't object to highly reverberant spaces. What the sound lacks in resolution and focus it makes up for in extended frequency response and dynamic range. The lows couldn't be lower (some are truly seismic), nor the highs higher -- and watch your level settings!

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P080225, P080224)


The album cover may not always appear.
Melcer-Szczawinski (Melcer): Pno Concs 1 & 2; Plowright/König/BBCScot SO [Hyperion]
The music on this forty-fourth volume in Hyperion's survey of romantic piano concertos shows there are still obscure works in this genre very much worth reviving. Henryk Melcer-Szczawinski (also known as Henryk Melcer, 1869-1928) was born in the outskirts of Warsaw and became an influential musical figure in his native Poland as well as Austria and Finland. He was not only an outstanding pianist and conductor but also a composer of some consequence, if this disc is any indication. His two piano concertos featured here are romantic gems, which should appeal to anyone who likes the one by his compatriot Moritz Moszkowski.

The first concerto was written in Vienna between 1892 and 1894 while the composer was studying with the world-famous Polish pianist Theodor Leschetizky. The first movement is characterized by some exceptionally lovely thematic material, impressive keyboard fireworks displays, and an exciting fugal episode before it ends quietly. A pastoral andantino follows and leads right into the high-energy, Slavic-sounding finale. Here the "big tune" heard at the very beginning of the concerto reasserts itself in a drop-dead final coda. Had Chopin lived to hear it, he would have turned green with envy!

Written in 1898 and dedicated to Leschetizky, Melcer-Szczawinski's second piano concerto was co-winner of the Polish Paderewski Prize for best concerto that year. The opening allegro is a delicately poised, melodically memorable offering that could easily stand on its own as an independent rhapsody. The highly emotional andante that follows is in A-B-A form and contains a gorgeous "A" melody. The knuckle-busting finale is definitely not for amateur pianists and a real thriller that will leave you on the edge of your seat.

Pianist Jonathan Plowright is magnificent in these concertos. Obviously a consummate virtuoso, he uses his technical skills only in the service of the music. With an amazingly sensitive touch and complete feel for the dynamics of these pieces, he makes romantic masterpieces out of both. Conductor Christoph König has the members of BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra playing these works as if their lives depended on it, and consequently you couldn't have more committed or sympathetic performances.

The sonics are excellent, with just the right balance between the piano and orchestra, and a very convincing soundstage where the width-to-depth ratio is ideal. While the sound is bright, there’s no digital glare.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y080223)


The album cover may not always appear.
Mendelssohn, F.: Pno Trios 4 Hands (arr syms 1 & 5, Hebrides & Ruy Blas ovs); Soloists [MD&G]
Up until the early 1900s there were no recordings or fancy sound systems, so the only way to bring music into the home was via the family piano or a small chamber group. As a result, there was a big demand for arrangements of larger concert works for solo instruments and small ensembles. This was certainly the case with the symphonic repertoire of Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). On this enterprising release from MD&G we have four "chamberized" renditions of Mendelssohn's orchestral works arranged for piano four hands, violin, and cello.

Two of these are transcriptions of The Hebrides (1830, also known as The Lonely Isle or Fingal's Cave) and Ruy Blas (1839) overtures done by Carl Burchard (1818-96). Both come across as convincing, highly effective chamber music, where the dynamics as well as the excitement of the original works are amazingly preserved. This is due in no small part to that extra pair of hands at the keyboard.

An equally successful arrangement of Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony (No. 5, c. 1840) made by Friedrich Herrmann (1828-1907) is also included. You'll find it's just as thrilling as Ferdinand Ries' piano quartet version of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (No. 3, 1803) that was featured in the newsletter of 15 September 2007.

The disc is filled out with another similar downsizing of Felix's first symphony (1824, revised 1829), done this time by the composer himself. The album notes -- at least the ones in English -- are somewhat confusing regarding the genesis of this arrangement. But what we have here is based on the revised version of the symphony where Mendelssohn replaced the original minuet with an orchestral version of the scherzo from his string octet (1825). The skill with which Mendelssohn translates the emotional essence of the symphony to the chamber medium is quite astounding. It makes one wonder if the trio, except for the scherzo, might have been an early sketch for the symphony.

Pianists Gerald Fauth and Olga Gollej along with violinist Andreas Seidel and cellist Matthias Moosdorf perform all four transcriptions with a sensitivity and enthusiasm that give them a life of their own.

The sound is quite good, and would have been ideal had the low-end been a bit more robust. But no matter, because those interested in a little different take on some all too familiar warhorses will find these arrangements most refreshing -- even if they do fall into the category of old wine in new bottles.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P080222)


The album cover may not always appear.
Mittler: Stg Qts 1 & 3; Hugo Wolf Qt [CPO]
Those familiar with the remarkable string quartets of Hans Gál (see the newsletter of 7 May 2006) and Ernst Toch are going to love this exceptional disc of discovery from CPO. Like both of them, the Nazis forced Franz Mittler (1893-1970) to flee his native Austria in 1938. He came to New York and remained in the United States until 1964, at which time he returned to Europe, where he spent the remaining six years of his life. Some of you may even recall that he was one of the four pianists who comprised the U.S.-based First Piano Quartet, which became very popular in the 1950s through ostentatious concerts worthy of Tinseltown and weekly radio broadcasts. But Mittler was also a composer of considerable abilities. Although he's best remembered for his songs, the two string quartets featured here reveal he was also very much at home in that medium.

The first quartet (1909) is a real charmer, with a gorgeous opening allegro and imploring andante. There's more than a dash of Mendelssohn in the fickle scherzo, while the folk-like finale is somewhat reminiscent of Dvorak. It ends this delightful work on an informal but most appealing note.

Subtitled Aus der Wanderzeit, or From the Period of Wandering, the third quartet was written in 1918 at the end of World War I. Each of its movements is a musical snapshot of four places where Mittler had been stationed as a lieutenant during that conflict.

The first movement was inspired by the town of Wolhynien in the Ukraine. There's a Slavic lilt to the music, which at one point [track-5, beginning at 02:00] sounds like something out of Smetana's The Moldau. The perky scherzo is associated with Serbia, and the lovely, länder-like andante, with Styria, which is a province in southeast Austria. The colorful finale is a rhapsody inspired by what must have been an exciting tour of duty in Hungary. It's a musical goulash containing meaty Magyar folk melodies spiced with quarter tones instead of paprika. It provides a fitting conclusion to this different yet engaging quartet.

Hearing this release one can understand why the Hugo Wolf Quartet of Vienna has earned an outstanding international reputation. Their sensitive, articulate performances of these two quartets are totally in keeping with the generally laid-back character of the music.

Completely natural string tone, an ideal soundstage, and a warm venue make for an exceptional-sounding disc whose acoustical amenities perfectly complement its musical contents. Audiophiles take note!

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y080221)