CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
30 MARCH 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.
Bonis: Pno Qts Cpte (2); Soir, matin (pno trio); Moz Pno Qt [MD&G]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
While the name “Mel Bonis” may conjure up images of some hyper salesman hawking vegetable slicers on American television, it was actually the pseudonym used by French composer Mélanie Domange, née Bonis (1858-1937). She displayed her musical talents at a very early age, but it was only at César Franck's insistence that her parents finally allowed her to study at the Conservatoire National de Musique in Paris.
Originally trained as a pianist, and unofficially as an organist by Franck himself, she also wrote some three hundred vocal as well as chamber works. In her time, she was highly thought of as a composer, and could count Camille Saint-Saëns among her admirers. Her fellow students included such greats as Claude Debussy and Gabriel Pierné, whom she greatly revered.
Bonis wrote her first piano quartet sometime between 1900 and 1905, and it certainly shows the influence of Franck. The entire four-movement work exudes Gallic charm and is the essence of French romanticism. The thematic material is gorgeous without any hint of sentimentality, and Bonis’ command of harmonic as well as formal structure is formidable. The odd-numbered movements (a moderato and andante) are rapturous, while the even-numbered ones (an intermezzo and allegro) are reservedly animated.
The second piano quartet came over twenty years later (1927), and is dedicated to Pierné. Like its predecessor, it consists of four alternating slow and fast movements. But it's a more progressive work with an increased sense of chromaticism and highly complex structure reminiscent of chamber music by its dedicatee (see the newsletters of 1 March 2007 and 28 March 2007). With the subtlety of a Cézanne landscape, it ranks as an exceptional discovery. You'll thrill to its glorious ending, which leaves one wondering why this music has taken so long to surface.
As an added bonus, the disc is filled out with the tiny diptych Soir, matin for piano trio. Both pieces show Bonis' remarkable ability to come up with exceptionally intricate, extended melodic lines. Understatement is the byword here, and it will keep you returning to this CD repeatedly.
It's hard to imagine how these performances by the Mozart Piano Quartet could be any better. The delicacy and finesse these musicians bring to Bonis’ music is extraordinary, and perfectly in keeping with the graceful style of this extremely gifted composer.
The recorded sound is certainly acceptable, but lacks the lustrous clarity that would have put this release in the demonstration category. Be that as it may, the interest this repertoire will hold for most far outweighs any sonic reservations.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080330)
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Martinu: Sym 4, Estampes, Départ; Weller/BelgmNa O [Fuga Lib]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
The selections on this release from Fuga Libera provide ideal snapshots of the three major periods in Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's (1890-1959) creative career. More specifically, they are representative of his years in Paris (1923-1940), the United States (1941-1953), and Switzerland, where he died in 1959.
Written during his stay in America, all six of Martinu's symphonies must be counted among the greatest twentieth century accomplishments in this genre. Of the six, many would argue -- and with just cause -- that the fourth is his greatest. Dating from 1945, it's in the conventional four movements, but other than that, the composer threw away the mold. You won't find conventional classical structures such as sonata form here. Instead Martinu reverts back to baroque models like the concerto grosso, and institutes his own developmental method of organic growth, where an entire symphonic movement pullulates from several, small thematic seeds. This is apparent in the opening movement, which is formed from miniscule motifs and acts as an introduction to the symphony.
The following scherzo is one of the greatest in twentieth century musical literature. With a boisterously sinister beginning and ending that surround a lovely Czech folk-inspired moderato, it will move even the most phlegmatic of listeners.
The largo is a lyrical beauty with violin, cello and piano solos reminiscent of a concerto grosso. By the way, this recording restores a couple of piano passages that are missing from current printed score. And speaking of the piano, it makes repeated appearances throughout the entire work, enlivening and brightening the symphony.
But Martinu saves the best for last with a spectacular poco allegro finale. This starts off rather darkly with an agitated introduction followed by a moving, Slavic-sounding theme in the minor. But after some imaginatively modulative development, the mood changes as the theme returns in the major, ending this exceptional symphonic effort with a joie de vivre second to none.
Written near Basel, Switzerland in 1958, Estampes, or Engravings, was the composer's last orchestral work. A triptych of neo-impressionistic, unidentified musical pictures, it's the most progressive piece here and will require several hearings to be fully appreciated. There's something almost Bartokian about the sparse, hesitant first engraving, while the second is more lyrical and yearning with an antsy central episode full of what sound like folk references. The prickly, piano-accentuated third engraving ends this enigmatic piece on an optimistic note.
Le Départ is a symphonic interlude from a multimedia work, Les Trois souhaits, or The Three Wishes, that Martinu wrote for the Paris stage in 1928-29. It's a powerful symphonic picture, apparently depicting an ocean voyage. However, except for some wind-like effects in the strings (shades of the cloudburst from Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite written a few years later), it comes off sounding more like a train trip. As the excellent album notes point out, it's hard to explain why this is only its second appearance on disc, considering it has all the dynamic and emotional impact of something like Honegger's frequently recorded Pacific 231.
This magnificent release again proves what an outstanding conductor we have in Walter Weller (b. Vienna, 1939). His feeling for this music is exceptional, and he elicits performances from the National Orchestra of Belgium that blow away what little competition there is for anything here.
Not only that, but the sound perfectly compliments Weller's stunning renditions of these brilliant orchestral scores. Silky highs, profound bass, and a soundstage that's ideally wide with a sense of balance and attention to detail, particularly for that peripatetic piano, make this an audiophile demonstration disc par excellence.
One last thought. If you love the fourth symphony, you may also want to try Martinu's Czech Rhapsody for violin and orchestra (see the newsletter of 15 March 2008), which was written the same year, and bears thematic as well as stylistic similarities to it.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080329)
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Moszkowski: Ste for 2 Vns & Pno (w H.Huber & A.Mendelssohn); Trio Ardito [Acte Préal]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Chamber works scored for two violins and piano are a real rarity. But not on this disc, which contains three of them by late romantic composers Moritz Moszkowski (Poland, 1854-1925), Hans Huber (Switzerland, 1852-1921), and Arnold Mendelssohn (Germany, 1855-1933). While Moszkowski is known for his ever popular piano concerto, and we just told you about some other chamber music by Huber (see the newsletter of 15 March 2008), the name of Arnold Mendelssohn will be entirely new to most.
Moszkowski's suite for two violins and piano (c. 1900) is a relatively late work from a composer who died destitute and penniless. The first two of its four movements are lively allegros full of Slavic tunefulness with plenty of opportunities for all three players to show off their proficiencies. The following lento is gorgeous and made all the more delicate by this rare combination of instruments. The finale is reminiscent of the composer's Spanish dances, and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
Huber's sonata for two violins and piano (1909-13), also in four movements, is more formal and harmonically advanced than the Moszkowski. The opening movement is in sonata form and beautifully crafted. It has a grace and charm typical of this little-known Swiss composer. The following minuet is light and playful, while the third movement is an exceptionally lovely romance. The energetic finale calls for considerable virtuosity from all three players, ending this extraordinary piece in most cheerful fashion.
The trio by Arnold Mendelssohn (1916), again in four movements, is the most conservative piece here, and at times reminiscent of music by Arnold's more familiar namesake, Felix. It begins with a solidly fashioned allegro that’s refreshing for its straightforwardness. The adagio that follows is a reserved, but engaging theme and variations. A fleeting, delightful scherzo-like movement is here one minute and gone the next, leading to the finale, which is the most complex part of the trio. It begins with a lethargic introduction that brightens into some infectiously perky passages for all three players. The work ends in a musical Caucus-race where everyone wins, including the listener.
The members of the Trio Ardito obviously love this music because their performances couldn't be more sensitive. The care they lavish on these fragile pieces is exceptional and make you wish there was more music for this combination of instruments.
The recorded sound is a little on the wiry side, which may be explained by the fact that the disc seems to have been cut at a rather high level. But as we've said before, with repertoire this rare, that's a small price to pay to hear it.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080328)
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Pickard: Flight…, Spindle... (trom, perc & stgs), Channel…; Lindberg/Brabbins/Norrk SO [BIS]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
For those who don't know him, this exceptional release from BIS will serve as an outstanding introduction to the music of John Pickard (b. 1963), who is one of the most talented British composers alive today. A student of Welsh composer William Mathias (1934-1992) and Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (b. 1939, see the newsletter of 7 May 2006), Pickard's compositions, as exemplified by the three selections here, are striking for their directness, dynamism and solid construction, which give them immediate appeal.
The Flight of Icarus (1990) is a twenty-minute symphonic poem inspired by that timeless Greek myth about man's first flight. Pounding drums and forte orchestral effects begin the piece with what Pickard describes as a "lift-off." This airborne music dissolves briefly into a slower, more restrained passage before returning with even more vehemence than before. But Icarus sails too near the sun, melting the wax that binds his feathered wings, and plunges to his death. The work ends with a moving, tragic epilogue to our fallen hero, reminding us of the disasters man brings upon himself through excessive hubris.
Scored for trombone, percussion and strings, The Spindle of Necessity (1998) is not only a symphonic poem, but also a very effective one movement trombone concerto. It's based on a story from another classical Greek source, the last book of Plato's Republic. Rather than going into details here (see the informative album notes), suffice it to say that the trombone could be likened to an astronaut exploring and commenting on some fabulous celestial sound world created by the other instruments. It may bring back memories of Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg's (b. 1958) award-winning clarinet concerto (Ondine ODE 1038-2) where the clarinet plays a very similar role.
Channel Firing (1992-93), based on a poem by Thomas Hardy, is the most flamboyant of the three symphonic poems here. Scored for a huge orchestra with organ, the massive opening and closing sections couldn't better convey the sound of gunnery practice that Hardy describes in his verse. Funereal in spirit, this gloom-and-doom musical commentary on the futility of war packs an overwhelming emotional punch, making it a contemporary masterpiece you’ll not soon forget.
Conductor Martyn Brabbins once again shows his consummate skill in holding together and effectively communicating complex orchestral scores (see the newsletter of 1 June 2007). The Norrköping Symphony Orchestra responds to his every demand with performances as articulate as they are overpowering. Trombonist Christian Lindberg is in fine form, delivering what is probably a definitive performance of what must be one of the most interesting and challenging contemporary brass concertos to come down the pike in recent years.
As far as symphonic music is concerned, Pickard is a colorist in the best sense of the term, and gives the BIS recording engineers some spectacular source material to work with. They were certainly up to the challenge because this release is demonstration quality in every respect. With a perfectly proportioned and focused soundstage, ethereal highs and sonic boom bass, it will test the limits of the best sound systems. So batten down the hatches, turn up the level and get ready for some heavy weather when you spin this one.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080327)
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Reger: Vc Sons Cpte (4 w pno), Vc Stes Cpte (3 solo); Gerhardt/Becker [Hyperion]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (2 CDs)
Some might dismiss Max Reger's (1873-1916) four sonatas and three suites for cello as more trouble than they're worth. But these magnificent performances of them on this new Hyperion release prove that would be a big mistake. Chamber music was a large part of Reger's creative output (see the newsletter of 12 March 2008), and it's quite obvious from the markings on the scores of these works for cello that they were important to him. Granted, this music requires repeated listening to be fully appreciated, but you'll find the rewards greatly exceed the intellectual effort required.
The first two sonatas for cello and piano, dating from 1892 and 1898, were strongly influenced by Brahms, but Reger's peripatetic chromaticism is beginning to show itself even in these early works. In three movements, the lovely lyrical opening and good-humored, complex finale of the first sonata make strong impressions. Although it includes an additional movement, the second sonata is more concise and highly structured than the first. It contains a delightful intermezzo, and concludes with a very appealing rock-a-bye melody that simply fades away, ending the sonata.
Written in 1904 and 1910, the last two sonatas are late, four-movement works that are almost completely devoid of Brahms. Frequent changes of key and mood, together with what might best be described as melodic fragmentation, make both unique Reger creations. The next to last movement of the third sonata is a theme and variations that's to die for. The final allegro is a highly infectious, rowdy rondo that brings the work to a rousing conclusion.
In the fourth sonata, Reger's chromatic wanderings are at times so rampant as to produce the illusion of atonality. But hang in there, because with repeated listening, you'll get your tonal bearings and discover a chamber music masterpiece. The effervescent presto is a sheer delight, while memories of the Brahms piano concertos haunt the gorgeous largo. But the best comes last in the form of a dance-like, baroque-driven allegretto that will leave everyone feeling good.
Reger's three suites for unaccompanied cello fill out this double disc set. Written in 1914, they are very late pieces that, like many of Reger's organ works, pay homage to J.S. Bach. Each suite begins with a rather baroque sounding prelude. However the lovely adagio in the first suite, beautiful largo in the second and brilliant, concluding theme and variations in the third couldn't be by anyone but Reger. These late romantic creations are a must for all who admire J.S.B.'s unaccompanied cello suites.
We owe a great debt to cellist Alban Gerhardt and pianist Markus Becker for taking the time and effort to learn these difficult scores. Both are obviously virtuosos on their respective instruments, but only use their technical abilities to further the cause of this complex music. Accordingly their performances are definitive, and will probably remain so for some time to come.
The recorded sound is certainly acceptable, but one gets the feeling that these works would have benefitted from a wider soundstage and wetter (more reverberant) acoustic. Chances are though, that you'll forget any sonic quibbles when Messrs. Gerhardt and Becker begin working their magic with these infrequently played pieces.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080326)
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Röntgen: Aus Goethes Faust (cpte orat); Soloists/Porcelijn/NaReisop C/Neth SO [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Until now, we've only told you about some of Julius Röntgen's (1855-1932) symphonic music (see the newsletters of 13 April 2007 and 26 January 2008), but here's an outstanding choral work by this German-born and trained composer. It's the cantata Aus Goethes Faust, which was written a year before he died (1931), but had to wait until 2007 for its premičre. Scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra with organ, it consists of twelve scenes inspired by Goethe's renowned closet drama. Despite the fact that Röntgen spent the last fifty-five years of his life in the Netherlands, this piece confirms that he should be considered a German rather than a Dutch composer. In fact the ghost of Brahms and his German Requiem are evident in places. Yet, there's an overall spontaneity and folklike simplicity about this music that make it all the more appealing.
Like Boito's opera Mephistopheles, the cantata opens with a musical representation of heaven. But Röntgen's prologue is just for orchestra with prismatic piano and organ embellishments. It's an impressive beginning with hints of impending infernal connivery in the form of a diabolical motif introduced by the bassoon [track-1, beginning at 03:28].
Three rather folksy-sounding episodes are next. The Song of the Earth Spirit has a predominant piano accompaniment, which may bring to mind some of the vocal selections in Berlioz' Lélio, while the Easter chorus has embedded references to the old familiar chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. The beggar's song, Before the Gate, includes the chorus and harkens back to Mahler's lighter lieder.
The next selection, Faust's Dream, is choral. It's a melodically expansive number that soars towards the heavens and is followed by another two sung episodes. The first of these, Auerbach's Cellar (a local pub), includes a tippling chorus for them that's hoisting a few, and Mephistopheles’ delightful Song of the Flea. Curiously enough Röntgen sets the latter to a melody by Hassler (1564-1612) which J.S. Bach would later use for what has become the best known chorale in his St. Matthew Passion. The second, There was a King in Thule, is sung by Gretchen. It's a lovely, melancholy ballad with a text that might be humorously referred to as the The Fatal Glass of Beer.
An orchestral interlude is next. It's entitled Faust's Invocation of the Earth Spirit and based on thematic ideas from the cantata's two opening sections. Gretchen then sings a sad song of repentance imploring the Virgin Mary's help, and Mephistopheles follows with a rather cynical ballad cautioning young maidens about would-be lovers.
The cantata closes dramatically with a terrific Walpurgisnacht scene for chorus and orchestra and a moving Chorus mysticus. The former, like Mussorsky's A Night on the Bare Mountain, begins infernally with threatening references to Ein feste Burg..., and ends peacefully as the evil beast folds his wings to sleep once more. The opening of the final chorus will remind you of the Chorus mysticus at the end of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand (No. 8, 1906). But unlike Mahler, the last few measures of the Röntgen are quiet and mysterious, bringing this little-known cantata to a transcendental conclusion.
All of the soloists (a soprano, two tenors, two baritones and a bass) are in fine voice, and sing their roles with sensitivity and enthusiasm. The support provided by Conductor David Porcelijn, the Chorus of the Dutch National Touring Opera and the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra is exemplary, and we're lucky to have a premičre of such outstanding quality.
It would appear from the dates given in the album notes that this recording was made just prior to the first public performance of the cantata. Consequently, there's no undesirable background noise. Considering the sizeable forces involved, the recording engineers are to be complimented for faithfully capturing this work. The width-to-depth ratio of the soundstage is ideal, as is the balance between the soloists, chorus, orchestra and organ. This was undoubtedly helped by the splendid acoustics of the Enschede Music Center in the Netherlands, where this recording was made. The only nitpick would be some occasional brittleness in the chorus and strings during more complex passages. But don't let that stop you from hearing what will probably be one of the "Best Finds" of 2008.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080325)
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