CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
15 APRIL 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.
Ásgeirsson: Pno Qnt, Wind Qnt 2, Stg Qt 3, Wind Oct, Stg Spt; Soloists of Reyk ChO [Ice Mus]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Best known for his choral and vocal works, here's some chamber music by one of Iceland's finest contemporary composers, Jón Ásgeirsson's (b. 1928). His creative output is very much folk influenced, to the point where you may find him the Icelandic counterpart of Bela Bartok. Another great twentieth century composer, Paul Hindemith, also comes to mind when hearing Ásgeirsson's music because, like Hindemith, he places particular emphasis on intervals of the second, fourth and fifth. Incidentally, all five of the selections featured here are world première recordings.
The disc begins with a four-movement piano quintet (1975) based on Icelandic folk songs. The odd-numbered movements feature catchy dancelike tunes, while the even ones are melodically mournful. This work is immediately appealing and at times reminiscent of Edvard Grieg's more programmatic miniatures.
The second wind quintet (1998) is a most imaginative piece haunted by the ghosts of Carl Nielsen and Hindemith. In three movements, the outer ones are perky Aeolian delights that surround a curiously dark central episode. The construction is flawless.
Structurally speaking, Ásgeirsson's third string quartet (2002) features the new as well as the old. While the opening is a beautifully crafted sonata form movement, the andante flirts with dodecaphony, and the finale is a quadruple fugue with folksy underpinnings. Short, articulate and without a wasted note, this is a mini-masterpiece.
The octet for woodwinds (1977) is a seven-minute, expertly fabricated, one-movement piece in A-B-A form where Nielsen and Hindemith are again in evidence. There's a dirge-like quality about the "B" section, which is dominated by the interval of a fourth, and may be melodically related to Icelandic chant known as rímur.
The program concludes with Seven-String Poem (1967), which is a one-movement string septet. Written as a eulogy for another Icelandic composer, Ásgeirsson says more in the space of twelve minutes than most composers do in thirty or forty. There's never a slack moment in this concise work where constantly shifting moods and dynamics make for riveting listening. It must be ranked as a major contribution to the body of music for string ensembles.
Collectively speaking, these five pieces require a variety of talented instrumental soloists. All of the musicians here are drawn from the Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra, which must be a real virtuoso group, because the performances are superb.
Chamber music recordings don't get any better than this, and that's saying a lot, considering the diversity of solo instruments represented. The strings are silky, the winds, open and airy, and the piano, well-rounded with no digital grain. The soundstage is ideally proportioned, and will provide you with a convincing virtual listening experience. Captivating music and superb sound make this a chamber music disc of great distinction.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080415)
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Coleridge-Taylor: Vn Conc, Legend, etc; Harrison, Jul.: Bredon...; McAslan/Braithwaite/Lon PO [Lyrita]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
These four rarely performed, but absolutely gorgeous works for violin and orchestra by British composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) and Julius Harrison (1885-1963), make this one of the most desirable Lyrita releases to appear in some time. The son of a white Englishwoman and black doctor from Sierra Leone, Samuel was in his day as famous a musical figure as Sir Arthur Sullivan. But times and musical tastes change, and it's only been in recent years that Coleridge-Taylor has once again come into his own through recordings like this. Harrison was best known as a conductor, but he also composed, and his Bredon Hill included here will make you wish he'd written more.
The first three works on the program are by Coleridge-Taylor. His Legend, or Conzertstück, was written in 1897 when he was a student of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. It's a delicately orchestrated work in A-B-A form that’s a melodic masterpiece with immense appeal.
The romance (1899) that follows shares its beautiful principle melody with the slow movement of an earlier sonata for violin and piano. It's no wonder the composer recycled it, because it ranks with his best lyrical inventions.
The violin concerto, written in 1912 for the famous American violinist Maud Powell, had a troubled history, both musically and logistically. Coleridge-Taylor not only had to rewrite the last two movements, but then the full score with associated parts for the U.S. première went down on the ill-fated Titanic. Fortunately there was enough time to send replacement copies of the music, and the final version of the work turned out to be a real winner. Incidentally, it owes a large debt to Dvorak, whom Samuel greatly admired.
Coleridge-Taylor is on a melodic high throughout the entire three-movement work, which has a refreshing lightness of touch and informality that make it almost more of a suite than a formal concerto. Brilliant thematic ideas populate the opening sonata form allegro as well as the gorgeous andante. The finale is a spirited rondo with a wonderfully insistent recurring motif and cyclic references to previous thematic material. The last few measures go from dark to light in the twinkling of an eye, ending this romantically inspired piece on a triumphant note. Hearing it, one can’t help being saddened by the fact that Coleridge-Taylor died at the early age of thirty-seven.
The disc concludes with Harrison's rhapsody Bredon Hill (1941), which might facetiously be described as The Lark Descending. That's because like Vaughan William's The Lark Ascending (1914, revised 1920) it also features an avian solo violin. But here the bird swoops down over one of the most beautiful pastoral locations in old Worcestershire, England, as pictured symphonically by the rest of the orchestra. The instrumental attention to detail is worthy of that which Austrian conductor-composer Gustav Mahler lavished on his scores, but the music itself couldn't be more English.
For many of us, these performances by violinist Lorraine McAslan, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite, remain definitive. The precision and sensitivity with which they play this music are unsurpassed by what little competition there is.
The recordings date from 1994 and were made in one of Britain's finest venues, Watford Town Hall. Consequently, the orchestral balance and soundstage are excellent. However, those with sound systems partial to highs may find the string tone a bit steely. Although the performances may not be quite as good, those desirous of better sound might want to investigate a Hyperion release that includes the violin concerto (CDA-67420) and a Dutton CD with Bredon Hill (see the newsletter of 16 April 2007). Many will want both of these as well for the other interesting selections not on the Lyrita. Also make sure you read the recommendation below for another exceptional Lyrita release with music by William Hurlstone.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080414)
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Foulds: A World Requiem; Soloists/Botstein/Various Cs/BBC SC&O [Chandos (Hybrid)]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (2 SACDs)
This world première hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0), recording of British composer John Fould's (1880-1939) A World Requiem (1918-21) was captured at a live performance of the work at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November 2007. It's a massive piece in the grand English choral tradition, and on a scale with Berlioz' Grande messe des morts and Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand (No. 8). The score calls for four soloists, multiple choruses (four are represented here, including a boy choir), organ, orchestra, a distant ensemble of violins, harps and celesta, and three groups of brass and percussion positioned at remote locations around the performing space. So it's not surprising to learn there were an estimated 1,250 performers for its première back in 1923 (also at the Albert). Honoring the dead of World War I, the program for the first performance referred to it as "A Cenotaph in Sound," and hearing it you'll probably agree that Foulds created just that.
The requiem is in two parts, each consisting of ten connected movements. The text, written by Fould's second wife Maud MacCarthy (1882-1967), is almost completely in English. It's a skillful interweaving of excerpts from the Bible and the writings by Christian preacher and author John Bunyan (1628-1688), and even includes a Hindu poem. Foulds made innumerable revisions to the score between 1923 and 1926. Consequently, an entirely new performing version of it was prepared for this revival (see the extensive album notes for details).
High points of the first part include an exceptionally moving opening, which is a solemn, hushed chorale for baritone, chorus and orchestra with quotes from the 23rd Psalm. Then in the "Confessio" movement, Fould's shows his fondness for Eastern musical devices in the form of some quarter-tones for the violins [track-3, beginning at 04:45]. The "Jubilatio" section contains some exquisite choral writing as well as an outburst for full orchestra and organ that will test the profundities of the best sound systems. The ghost of Berlioz haunts the following "Audite," which requires the services of those brass and percussion groups stationed around the hall. At one point [track-5, beginning at 05:31] a motif is introduced that sounds peculiarly like the brass fanfare which opens Wagner's overture to The Flying Dutchman. The "Pax" movement calls for that "distant ensemble" mentioned above, which accompanies a lovely chorus for the boys worthy of Boito's heavenly prologue to his opera Mefistofele. The next two sections, "Consolatio"' and "Refutatio," are arias of consolation sung by the mezzo-soprano and baritone. The concluding two movements, "Lux Veritatis" and "Requiem," are musical distillations of celestial grace that aptly capture the spiritual implications of their titles.
The second part begins with a massive, exhilarating "Laudamus" for soprano, chorus, orchestra and organ that's guaranteed to shake the rafters – beware of flying voice coils. The next two movements, "Elysium" and "In Pace," find Foulds once again in an Eastern frame of mind. The texts are based on the writings of a Hindu religious poet, and the music is the most harmonically advanced here. It establishes a feeling of mysticism that will prevail throughout the rest of the piece. The a cappella "Hymn of the Redeemed" that follows is simply gorgeous, and probably performed here for the first time (see the notes). Words fail to describe the next two sections, "Angeli" and "Vox Dei," which are related to Eastern mysticism and the enigmatic Revelation of St. John respectively. They're absolute magic and must be heard to be believed. Impressively high decibel orchestral effects announce Christ's second coming in "Adventus,” and set the stage for the message of reconciliation and redemption annunciated in the last four movements. The work ends with the radiance worthy of a supernova as all intone, "He hath blessed us. Alleluia."
Conductor Leon Botstein does a magnificent job in coordinating all of his assembled forces, and shaping a performance that must be one of the most remarkable choral achievements in recent years. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers, tenor Stuart Skelton and baritone Gerald Finley are in great voice and sing with total conviction. Soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s singing is highly dramatic, but her vibrato is at times a bit over the top. The Trinity Boys Choir with the combined Crouch End Festval, Philharmonia and BBC Symphony Choruses all sing their hearts out, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra with organist Malcom Hicks give excellent accounts of themselves.
The Chandos engineers have worked a miracle with this recording. Except for a couple of barely audible coughs, there are no extraneous sounds from the audience. What must have been an incredibly well-placed microphone set-up together with the magnificent acoustics of the Albert Hall make for an expansive, but convincing soundstage that’s as wide as it is deep. Yet all of the soloists and performing groups are captured in exquisite detail. What's even more amazing is that there's none of that digital edge so frequently associated with discs featuring complex choral music. The orchestral sound, as well as that of the organ, remains perfectly balanced with silky highs and thunderous bass. These comments apply to both the CD and SACD stereo tracks as well as the multichannel one. The latter will give you the best seat in the Albert Hall for an audio adventure the likes of which you've rarely experienced.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080413)
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Harbison: Ulysses (cpte bal); Rose/BosMOP O [BMOP/s]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
Many of us remember a 1986 Nonesuch recording of an exciting orchestral piece by Harvard-educated, American composer John Harbison (b. 1938) called Ulysses Bow (later released on First Edition, but no longer available). However, upon reading the album notes, we discovered much to our chagrin that it was only the last half of a full-length ballet. With this enterprising release from BMOP/sound, we now have the complete score.
Inspired by his having seen Monteverdi's opera Return of Ulysses, Harbison decided back in 1983 to write an evening-length ballet for large orchestra based on the wanderings of the legendary Greek hero. But ballets of that scope had long since become dinosaurs, and the composer had to come up with four separate commissions from different symphony orchestras to fund it. It's good he persisted, because Ulysses must rank as one of Harbison’s finest dramatic creations, even if it had to wait twenty years for its complete world première performance.
Harbison uses a system of thematic labels, or leitmotifs as Richard Wagner called them, to identify various aspects of the scenario, which is based on Homer's Odyssey. Accordingly, the first act, known as Ulysses' Raft, begins with a rather wistful motif representing our hero's journey. But Ulysses and his band of brave men soon encounter all sorts of bizarre characters and situations, set to some of the most colorfully animated and engaging music Harbison has yet produced. Highlights include the enchantress Circe’s song rendered by that granddaddy of electronic instruments, the Ondes Martenot [track-4, beginning at 00:40], and a highly dramatic "Land of Shades" scene with brass fanfares reminiscent of the fate motif in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony. There's also an exciting "Sea Perils and Shipwreck" episode complete with the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, whom Zeus dispatches with lightning bolts represented by thunderous percussion.
The second act, entitled Ulysses' Bow, concerns itself with our hero's homecoming, the defeat of his wife Penelope's suitors and his reunion with her. Those familiar with that 1986 recording will find it packs an even greater emotional wallop now that it's finally in context with the first act. The opening prelude contains some intense outbursts, which may remind you of those massive orchestral chords when Judith opens the fifth door in Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. The first scene, "Ulysses' Return," features a plaintive oboe solo that may bring to mind the subdued beginning of the Appian Way in Respighi's The Pines of Rome. The crazed dance of the suitors is a tarantella from hell, and the scene depicting their demise at the hands of Ulysses and his son Telemachus will leave you breathless. The final reunion between our hero and his wife is pure magic evoked by the wave of an impressionistic wand. It ends this exceptional stage work in moving neo-romantic fashion. Franz Schreker would have loved it!
Composing a full-scale ballet in this day and age took a lot of courage, considering the chances of getting it performed were practically nil. But Harbison persevered, and now we have him to thank for a contemporary dance masterpiece, particularly as it's performed here. The music couldn't possibly have better advocates than the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and its conductor Gil Rose. The detail, emotional sweep and carefully judged dynamics that Maestro Rose brings to this score are exceptional.
The recording is just as impressive as the music. It was made concurrently with the first performance of the complete ballet in 2003, but there are no unwanted utterances from the audience. An ideal venue (the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall) and some exceptional sound engineering give this expansive music just the right amount of breathing space. The realistic soundstage and sharp instrumental focus guarantee you, virtually speaking, the best seat in the house. The instrumental tone is totally natural over the entire frequency spectrum, which includes some pretty profound bass. Audiophiles will have a ball with this one!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080412)
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Hurlstone: Pno Conc, Fant-Vars…, Pno Trio, Pno Qt; Parkin/Braithwaite/Lon PO/Tunn Pno Qt [Lyrita]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (2 CDs)
While most classical music afficionados have heard of British romantic composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (see the recommendation above), that's probably not the case for his compatriot William Yeats Hurlstone, whose music is featured on this two-disc set from Lyrita. Hurlstone was born a year after Coleridge-Taylor (1876) and died six years before him (1906) at the early age of thirty. Both composers knew each other and studied with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who apparently considered Hurlstone his best student. When you hear this album, you'll understand why.
The first CD begins with Hurlstone's three-movement Piano Concerto in D (1895), and thank you Lyrita for making this romantic gem available once more. The opening is highly lyrical, but at the same time prone to frequent displays of virtuosity. This probably reflects the fact that the concerto was a vehicle for the composer, who was himself a remarkable pianist. The thematic ideas here and in the following scherzo movement are exceptional and reveal that Hurlstone was a melodist of the first order. The last movement is actually two in one. It begins with a lovely, sweeping, extended adagio, mostly for solo piano, which sets the stage for the brilliant concluding rondo. The latter is a kinetic delight, full of boundless energy as well as gorgeous tunes related to ideas in the first movement. The fireworks finale explodes with optimism and fancy finger work, leaving everyone in the audience on a high.
The Fantasie-Variations on a Swedish Air for orchestra (1900-03) fill out the first disc in grand symphonic fashion. Only after a somber introduction do we hear the air which is the subject of this superb theme and variations. Borrowed from a Swedish folk song that begins, "The roses, the leaves, they make me so happy," it's a simple sounding melody with a naiveté matching those opening words. But don't let that fool you, because Hurlstone transforms this rustic acorn of a thematic idea into a strapping symphonic oak. He does this by performing some highly inventive surgery on the theme, which he then subjects to a variety of sophisticated, brilliantly orchestrated transformations. The striking progression from the mundane to the profound makes this piece most memorable and something that bears repeated listening. By the way, it would appear that orchestral variations were a Hurlstone specialty, and you'll find two more sets of them on another Lyrita (SRCD-208).
The second CD in this album is devoted to two of Hurlstone's finest chamber works, the Piano Trio in G (circa 1905) and Piano Quartet in E minor (1898). Both are in four movements, and again demonstrate what a magnificent melodist Hurlstone was. In fact, Vaughan Williams reportedly once described him as "the English Schubert."
The opening movement of the beautifully-crafted trio centers around a lovely lilting theme that certainly bears this out. The gorgeous andante, sprightly scherzo-like third movement and concluding allegro, featuring a most attractive Scottish air that's subjected to a little "fuguery," will charm the most critical of listeners.
The piano quartet is probably the finest of Hurlstone's chamber works, and although it predates the trio, it's much more harmonically adventurous. The first movement has all the clarity and finesse of Dvorak's piano quartets. For the searching andante the composer borrows a theme from his quintet for piano and winds (1897). The vivace third movement contains a delightful, Scottish-sounding central trio section, and the finale is a rustic romp that ends this tasty English treat in joyous fashion.
Pianist Eric Parkin plays the concerto to perfection, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Nicholas Braithewaite gives him magnificent support. Braithewaite's take on the Fantasie-Variations... is outstanding, but there are a couple of brief intonational problems involving a solo violin about two-thirds of the way through. The performances of the trio and quartet by the Tunnell Piano Quartet are exceptional and outdo what little competition there is for either piece.
Made in 1979 in Kingsway Hall with the legendary Kenneth Wilkinson at the controls, the two orchestral recordings on the first disc are exceptional from the soundstage standpoint. However that was nearly thirty years ago, and it would appear that either the analog tapes have lost a bit of their luster, or the transfer process was not exactly ideal. But as we've said before, with rare, exceptional repertoire like this you'll soon forget any sonic shortcomings. Besides that, these are the only currently available recordings of these two works.
The piano trio and quartet were recorded two years later and fare a little better soundwise. They're characterized by a natural, but dry acoustic, silky strings and fairly well rounded piano tone. On first hearing this disc there was a three or four second spot where there seemed to be some mistracking. However, this was probably due to some transient debris because the problem disappeared with subsequent playing. It should be noted that there are more recent recordings of both pieces. But comparing those to what we have here, you'd probably find the superiority of the older performances greatly outweighs any improvement in the sound quality.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080411)
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Sugata: Sym Ov, Peaceful Dance…, Rhythm of Life, Dancing Girl…; Komatsu/Kanag PO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
East meets West here on another wonderful Naxos disc of discovery, which contains three world première recordings (*) of music by Japanese composer Isotaro Sugata (1907-1952). He possessed a xenomorphic style of composition that shows European as well as Russian influences. His initial training was with a couple of Japanese composers who had studied in Berlin and were proponents of the German school. This is evident in some of Sugata's earlier works, but he later turned to French and even Russian models to better synthesize Japanese with Western music. There are those who would criticize his efforts as derivative, but the skill with which he constructs his polystylistic creations makes for some highly entertaining listening.
The CD begins with his Symphonic Overture (*), which was written in 1939 and modeled after Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler symphony. It represents a highpoint in his creative output, and had the honor of being included along with another overture by Humiwo Hayasaka (see the newsletter of 1 November 2006) in a 1939 concert honoring the 2600th Year of the Emperor. It's a beautifully constructed piece whose title is a little misleading as it could easily be considered a miniature symphony in three connected sections. The slow introduction is redolent of Hindemith, but a lovely melody based on a Japanese song popular at the time is soon introduced, returning us to the East. A dramatic drumroll introduces the energetic allegro section that starts off in Mathis... fashion. However, Russian influences -- Shostakovich in particular -- soon creep in, setting the stage for the triumphant concluding section. The ebullient finale is a hymn of victory that Rheinhold Glière would have been proud of.
Japanese influences are much more prominent in the next selection, Peaceful Dance of Two Dragons (*), which dates from 1940. In three tiny movements, the work is based melodically and rhythmically on Gagaku (ancient Japanese imperial music). The opening measures call to mind Smetana's The Moldau, while later on Bela Bartok's Mandarin and Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka and Nightingale join in the festivities. There are even hints of what would come from Miklos Rozsa and Alex North in their scores for those cinematic Biblical extravaganzas of the 1950s and 60s.
If you had any doubts about the stylistic specter of Stravinsky in the previous piece, you won't in the 1950 ballet score The Rhythm of Life (*). It's a musical montage of Japanese melodies and easternized segments from The Firebird, The Rite of Spring and Petrushka skillfully blended to suite the most discriminating of tastes. As a bonus, Sugata throws in a few ideas inspired by Prokofiev's Scythian Suite [track-7, beginning at 01:16] and Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice [track-7, beginning at 09:06].
The disc is filled out with Dancing Girl in the Orient, which is the fourth movement of Sugata's Sketches of the Desert - Suite in Oriental Style (1941). Reminiscent of those loveable overripe oriental creations of Ketelby, fans of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ippolitov-Ivanov will find this bellybutton-bobbing number a real delight. Take it off, baby! Take it off!
Although you've probably never heard of it, the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra is certainly impressive. Conductor Kazuhiko Komatsu’s attention to detail is superb, and he gives us magnificent accounts of Sugata's exotic music.
The overall quality of the orchestral sound is very good, but these colorful selections would have benefitted from a wider, deeper soundstage and more reverberant acoustic.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080410)
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