CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
30 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.
Bach, J.S.: Hpd Wks (6 early, 1705-23); Staier [Harm Mund]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
This disc treats us to another outstanding recital of baroque music played by Andreas Staier on an exceptional sounding harpsichord (see the newsletter of 23 February 2006). It's a modern day copy of one made in Hamburg in 1734 by Hieronymous Albrecht Hass (1689-1752), who built some of the most elaborate harpsichords of all time. His aim was to make instruments with a breadth and variety comparable to the organ, and it would seem he accomplished his goal if the instrument featured here is any indication. This time Staier has chosen six of Johann Sebastian Bach's (1685-1750) early keyboard works, which ideally show off this instrument's amazing variety and richness of tone. There’s no hint of Sir Thomas Beacham’s amorous skeletons on that tin roof!
Bach's seven surviving toccatas for harpsichord represented major innovative departures from the established genre, and are among his major early keyboard achievements. The three included here are in multiple, highly concise movements. Played on this instrument, the fireworks finales of the D major (BWV 912, 1705-07) and E minor (BWV 914, 1707-08) toccatas must be some of the most exciting harpsichord music you could ever hope to hear. You may detect Italian influences in the G major one (BWV 916, 1709-10), performed here with additional ornaments as indicated on a score once owned by J.S.'s older brother Johann Christoph.
Those who don't know the nine-part diverse partita based on the melody for the chorale O Gott, du frommer Gott (BWV 767, 1707-08) will find it a welcome discovery. It's a magnificent example of Bach’s genius for taking a simple tune and subjecting it to a variety of highly inventive transformations.
The Suite in A minor (BWV 818/818a, 1717-23) is reminiscent of the six French Suites (BWV 812-17), and there are two versions of it. Staier combines the best of both, including two additional movements found only in the later score. The majestic first saraband [track-20] would have turned Lully green with envy, while the eerie minuet [track-22] is a showcase for one of this instrument’s most colorful stops.
The program concludes with the Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother (BWV 992, circa 1705), which is about as programmatic as J.S. ever got in his instrumental music. While the first three movements are rather sorrowful, the fourth and fifth are of brighter countenance and prepare the way for the rousing fugal finale.
Andreas Staier's playing is superb, capturing every nuance of this youthful, energetic music, and in the process, making the most of this glorious instrument. Wanda Landowska would have killed for it!
The recording is stunning and done in an ideal venue. Audiophiles who are not that familiar with harpsichord music are encouraged to give this disc a spin. Incidentally, those with sound systems that go all the way down in the bass end may notice occasional low frequency murmurs. They’re associated with the mechanical linkages inside this massive B-29 of an instrument, and if anything add even greater gravitas to the performances.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080430)
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Beethoven: Sym 3 "Eroica", 12 Contres, Creatures… (finale); Manze/Helsing SO [Harm Mund (Hybrid)]
RECOMMENDED (1 SACD)
Now for the CROCKS Newsletter $64,000 question! Without listening to this disc or reading the album notes, do you know what the Eroica Symphony, the set of contredances, and the finale of the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus included here have in common, besides the fact they were all written by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)? The answer will become apparent as you read more about this exceptional hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0), release from Harmonia Mundi.
For today's audiences the Eroica Symphony (No. 3, 1803-04; see 15 September 2007) may be an all too familiar warhorse, but it was a real shocker when it first appeared and represented a dramatic turning point in symphonic music. To try and recapture for yourself what audiences back then must have felt, just imagine the most progressive symphonies you'd ever heard were the Mozart Jupiter (No. 41, 1788), Haydn London (No. 104, 1795) and first two comparatively tame ones of Beethoven (No. 1, 1800 and No. 2, 1801-02).
With that in mind, and having read conductor Andrew Manze's enlightening album notes, now listen to this performance of the Eroica. His rousing reading of it cannot help but recreate that sense of astonishment early-nineteenth-century concertgoers must have experienced. In the last movement, pay particular attention to the second theme [track-4, beginning at 02:07]. It may sound rather folksy, but it's entirely original and had great significance for Beethoven, as we shall soon see.
The twelve Contredances (1802) that follow show the composer's lighter as well as his more practical side. That's because, as Mozart had found, dances like these had great popular appeal and were a surefire way to make a quick kreutzer. But wait! What's that theme which begins the seventh dance [track-11]? It's the "Eroica tune" we remarked on above, and its presence here makes one wonder what something befitting a Viennese two-step is doing in the finale of one of the greatest symphonies ever written? Well, continue listening because the plot thickens.
The closing selection on the disc is the finale from the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (1800-01) and, lo and behold, it begins with that same melody, thereby revealing the answer to the opening question. The "Eroica tune" permeates the entire ending of the ballet, which concludes in glorious fashion with one of Beethoven's killer codas.
Incidentally, there's even a fourth piece for solo piano that uses this same theme as the subject for fifteen variations and a fugue. It was written in 1802, just before the symphony, and has since become known as the Eroica Variations.
So why was Beethoven so preoccupied with this tune? Unfortunately there's no documentation that sheds any light on the subject, so all we can do is speculate. The album notes mention one of the more elegant theories, which is that the melody symbolized for Beethoven the principles of liberty, fraternity and equality associated with the French Revolution. This is certainly in keeping with the composer's preoccupation with that civil conflict and Napoleon Bonaparte's subsequent rise to power.
Incidentally, Beethoven had originally written "Bonaparte Symphony" on the title page of the third, but when Napoleon declared himself emperor in 1804, he scratched it out, replacing it with "Eroica Symphony." While we'll never know the real truth of the matter, the fact remains that it's one of Ludwig's most lovable melodies. Andrew Manze is to be complimented for making it the raison d'être of one of the most intelligent concept album to appear in years.
As you've probably already inferred from what's been said, the performances are extraordinary. Manze's fresh approach to everything bursts with an enthusiasm and excitement that's as if he had just discovered these scores. The fifty-five-member Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra is perfectly sized to deliver intimately detailed renditions of these selections. Consequently you'll find there are intricacies and nuances in this music, particularly the symphony (see Manze's rather amusing notes regarding "SOGs"), that you've never picked up on before.
There has been some criticism regarding the placement and balance of the violins, but the fact remains the recordings are crystalline, with piping highs and spankingly clean bass. The CD and SACD stereo tracks project a well-appointed soundstage, while the mutichannel one creates a very convincing virtual concert hall ambiance, mirroring the resplendent acoustics of the Helsingborg Concert Hall.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080429)
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Godard, B.: Vn Conc 2, Conc Romantique, Scènes Poétiques; Hanslip/Trevor/SlovStKos PO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Born in Paris, Benjamin Godard (1849-1895) managed to write a prodigious amount of music in his rather short lifetime and is best remembered for his operas and salon pieces. The rapidity with which he composed undoubtedly explains the variable quality of his output, but the orchestral selections on this new Naxos release are cream of the crop. They reveal the influences of early-nineteenth-century composers like Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann rather than later ones such as Richard Wagner and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Godard was a child prodigy on the violin and wrote a number of works highlighting that instrument, two of which appear here. The second violin concerto (circa 1893) begins with a lyrically graceful opening allegro that's followed by a gorgeous adagio. The infectiously bouncy concluding allegro almost sounds like it could have been penned by Sir Arthur Sullivan. There are frequent opportunities throughout the piece for displays of technical prowess by the soloist.
Although the Concerto Romantique for violin and orchestra is an earlier work (1876), it’s a bit more unconventional than the previous one. It's in four movements, the first of which consists of an energetically spiky theme, alternating with a beautifully laid-back melody. It ends with a recitative-like cadenza in a minor key, setting the mood for the mournful adagio that follows. The work concludes with a delightful canzonetta and a mercurial allegro full of fiddle fireworks. The canzonetta may well sound familiar because it's become one of Godard’s most popular pieces and is often played by itself.
The concluding selection, Scènes Poétiques (circa 1878), is a series of four symphonic landscapes of great delicacy. The first, "In the Woods," evokes images of a peaceful, arboreal bower with chirping birdies, while the second, "In the Fields," paints a picture of wind-swept meadows dotted with summer flowers. There's an isolated serenity about "On the Mountain" that's most refreshing. The last section, "In the Village," is a bustling, bucolic scene with hints of a passing storm, and ends this thoroughly captivating work on a rather folksy note.
Chloë Hanslip is an exceptionally talented young violinist who has made several highly acclaimed recordings, including this one. More than just a virtuoso, her magnificent tone and feel for this music are extraordinary. The Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra of Kosice under British conductor Kirk Trevor provides ideal support in the two concertos and makes a very convincing case for the four scenes.
The sonics are quite good with excellent balance between the soloist and orchestra, a convincing soundstage, and a reverberant venue that adds a warm glow to everything. The only minor complaint would be that the strings are a little bright in some of the more intense passages.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080428)
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Herzogenberg, H. von: Pno Trios 1 & 2; ATOS Trio [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
The early works of Austrian-born composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900) were greatly influenced by Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. But around age thirty he shifted his allegiance to the Brahms and Dvorak circle of composers, as evidenced by the two piano trios presented here. Their harmonic structure is quite Brahmsian, but there's a warmth and litheness about their thematic content that set them apart from other German chamber music of the late 1800s.
The opening movement of the first trio (1876) is notable for the variety of lovely themes of differing moods it contains. The andante is an attractive series of variations on a beautiful cantabile melody, and the presto, an impish scherzo that never takes itself too seriously. The finale begins with a solemn lento based on the motif that opens this work. But it quickly gives way to two contrasting ideas: a rapid anxiety-ridden one in the minor, and a cheerfully tuneful one in the major. These play a game of rondo tag with each other during the course of this highly agitated, virtuosic movement, bringing the work to a fiery close.
The four movements that make up the second trio (1882) are quite different in mood. Thematically speaking, the first one is a study in wistfulness à la Brahms, while the second is about as romantic as andantes of this period get. The prickly allegro that follows is a scherzo with diabolical overtones, and the finale is the most progressive music on this disc. There's a feeling of self-assurance and nonchalance about the latter that make it a study in optimism, bringing this piece to a most satisfying conclusion. If Dvorak ever heard it, chances are he loved it!
The ATOS Trio won a couple of chamber music awards in 2007, and you can understand why when you hear their outstanding interpretations of these trios. They obviously have a great love for and understanding of this music and use their considerable technical abilities solely in its interests.
While the recordings are good from the soundstage and venue standpoint, they’re a bit congested in the more complex forte passages. This is probably explained by the fact that the disc is cut at an extremely high level. However, don't let that deter you from experiencing some little known but very appealing romantic chamber repertoire. If you like it you might also want to try the piano quartets of Friedrich Kiel (see the newsletter of 27 February 2008).
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080427)
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Rzewski: The People United… (th & 36 vars for pno), Winnsboro… (pno); van Raat [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Frederic Rzewski's (b. 1938) thirty-six variations for piano on the melody for El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido, or The People United Will Never Be Defeated, has three distinctions. First, it's one of the most outstanding American solo piano pieces ever written. Second, as far as the theme and variations genre is concerned, it ranks with the best. And third, this is modern music that's listener friendly and has immediate appeal.
Back in 1973 Chilean composer Sergio Ortega (1938-2003) heard a street-singer shouting, "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido," and immediately came up with a tune to accompany the words. Set to Ortega's melody this soon became an international protest song against any form of dictatorship. It had great appeal for the politically left-wing oriented Rzewski, who used it in 1975 as the basis for a monumental set of variations for piano. The piece lasts about an hour, and was written in response to a commission by American pianist Ursula Oppens. It’s subsequent popularity would seem to indicate she certainly got her money's worth!
Rzewski has purposely written an extremely long and tortuously difficult piece, which is as much of a challenge for the most gifted of keyboard artists, as the music is representative of mankind's continual struggle for a better existence. The piece begins with a simple statement of the theme, which is at first subjected to some rather straightforward augmentative and rhythmic transformations. But the composer's extensive academic training (he studied with Walter Piston, Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt at Harvard and Princeton, as well as Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy) shows through in some of the highly sophisticated, complex variations that follow. Not only that, but the piece becomes increasingly demanding to play.
The variety of stylistic as well as formal musical devices the composer uses stagger the imagination. Folk music, blues, jazz and quotes from other revolutionary songs are thrown into the creative pot, and Rzewski even tips his hat to Arnold Schoenberg with a variation based on a twelve-tone row derived from the theme. A few special effects for the piano worthy of John Cage are also employed. These include slamming down the lid to represent a gunshot, and the repeated hammering of one key to symbolize an alarm bell. Our soloist also strums and dampens the strings with his fingers in the optional cadenza that’s performed in this recording just before the final triumphant reprise of the main theme.
As an encore, Rzewski's Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues from his North American Ballads (1979), ends the program. It's a fascinating, highly demanding piece named for a song cotton mill workers used to sing. Brief repeated patterns of notes mimicking the sound of mill machinery begin the piece and reach "Excedrin Headache Number One" proportions – shades of Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry (1926-28)! Gradually, the melody of the song appears in bluesy and then ragtime guise. But it's soon obliterated with the return of that mechanical clatter made all the more intense by the use of tone clusters.
None of this music is for amateurs, and even most virtuosos wouldn't attempt such an endurance test. Fortunately our soloist here, Ralph van Raat, rises to the occasion with performances that are not only technically impeccable, but totally capture every nuance of these emotionally charged, rather programmatic works. His success with these pieces was helped by his working closely with the composer over their proper interpretation. Consequently van Raat plays with a clarity, directness and heartfelt passion which should make them appealing to those normally wary of contemporary music, particularly at Naxos’ usual low price.
The piano is one of the most difficult instruments to capture digitally as evidenced by the many inferior sounding CDs of piano music out there. Fortunately this is not one of them. In fact it's one of the best sounding piano discs you could ask for. Obviously the venue, microphones and digital-to-analogue conversion equipment used were ideally suited to the occasion, resulting in a CD that's demonstration quality. But you'll have to hear it to believe it!
By the way, the variations are not banded, so it's impossible to directly access a specific one. Anyone listening to this disc who has the score and feels like jotting down their starting times, please send them to McQ@CLOFO.com. We'll update this recommendation with them for the benefit of all our readers.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080425)
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American Orch Songs (Carpenter, Griffes, Harris, Parker, Thomson); Mason/Mann/Odense SO [Bridge]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
Bridge Records has done a great service for American music lovers with the release of this disc. It contains songs with orchestral accompaniment written between 1893 and 1964 by five extraordinary U.S. composers. All but one of the five works presented here are world première recordings (*).
The program opens with The Feast of Love by Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), which was written in 1964 on a commission from the Library of Congress. For the text, the composer chose and translated several stanzas from an anonymous second or fourth century Latin poem known as Pervigilium Veneris (The Vigil of Venice). It's a sensuously vernal paean to the goddess of love, with a vocal line that finds Thomson at his most lyrical. The articulate clarity of his orchestral accompaniment is a trademark of Harvard-trained composers like Thomson. Those who love his film scores (see the newsletters of 16 January and 30 October 2007) will find this first modern day recording of Feast... most appealing.
John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) also studied at Harvard, and is represented here by his Water-Colors (*), written in 1916. Based on Chinese poems, the four selections that comprise this opus are quite different from one another. Carpenter admired Debussy and the first song, On a Screen, sounds rather impressionistic. The second, The Odalisque, is very melodic and comes and goes as quickly as the dragon-fly it limns. Highwaymen is again impressionistic with an appropriate reference to "Taps" [track-4, beginning at 01:28] at the mention of "brigand daggers," and a humorously jazzy outburst of the St. Louis Blues [track-4, beginning at 02:00] just before the song ends much as it began. To a Young Gentleman could almost be out of Gilbert and Sullivan, and ends this tiny song cycle on a light note.
The next selection, Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun (*) was written by Roy Harris (1898-1979) in 1959. Set to a poem by Walt Whitman that's haunted by the specter of the War Between the States, it's instantly recognizable Harris whose music is a perfect match for Whitman's expansive verse. A mini-cantata in two connected parts, most will find it the high point on this disc. The first section is a sweeping rural invocation of nature full of those thirds and fifths that give Harris' music such an open sound. The second is a manic, dance-like ode to urbanism (New York City) and escapist self-indulgence. You'll find this music packs a powerful emotional punch.
A real rarity by Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) follows. Dating from 1917, his Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan (*) call to mind the impressionistic Orientalism of Debussy and Ravel. Each of these miniatures is an exquisite gem from one of America's most under-appreciated composers. Gorgeous melodies characterize all five songs, and we owe Bridge a round of applause for unearthing them.
With two Harvard men on the program, it's only fair that Yale should be represented with the music of Horatio Parker (1863-1919). Composed in 1893, his Cahál Mór of the Wine-Red Hand (*) is based on a poem by J.C. Mangan about the thirteenth century mythical Irish King referred to in the title. The fact that Parker was under the spell of Richard Wagner when he wrote this rhapsody for baritone and orchestra is apparent from the outset, which is similar to the opening of Das Rheingold. Parker, like Wagner, uses emblematic themes, or leitmotifs, during the course of the piece. There are even hints of the Loge (Magic Fire) [track-12, beginning at 06:24] and River Rhein [track-12, beginning at 06:38] motifs found in the Ring Cycle.
Critically acclaimed baritone Patrick Mason certainly lives up to his reputation on this release. A very versatile singer with a commanding voice, he delivers tailor-made performances that perfectly suite the differing moods of each of these selections. The orchestral accompaniment provided by the Odense Symphony Orchestra under conductor Paul Mann brings out every facet of these colorful scores.
Previous Bridge CDs featuring symphonic music done by this orchestra have been an audiophile's dream come true -- try their Ginastera disc (Bridge-9130) -- and from the orchestral standpoint, this release is no exception. However, those audiophiles with totally transparent sound systems will notice an occasional edginess to Patrick Mason's normally magnificent voice that must have been electronically induced. Those with more forgiving ones will find this a demonstration quality disc on all counts. Either way, the outstanding music presented here greatly outweighs any sonic quibbles, and represents a most enticing slice of "American Pie."
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080424)
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