CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
30 MAY 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.
Anderson, Leroy: Orch Wks Cpte V2 (incl Carols Ste 1); Soloists/Slatkin/BBCCon O [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
This second volume in Naxos’ ongoing survey of Leroy Anderson's (1908-1975) complete orchestral music features five world première recordings. Not only that, but most of the remaining eleven selections will be new to most, making this release a must for all pops enthusiasts. You’ll find each of these tiny pieces a perfectly cut, melodically lustrous gem.
The concert begins with two recording firsts, the Woodbury Fanfare (1959) and A Harvard Festival (1969). The former calls to mind Sir William Walton's music for Lawrence Olivier's Shakespeare films. The latter is a revision of A Harvard Fantasy, which was written in 1936 and established Anderson's long-lasting relationship with conductor Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Anderson, who was himself a Harvard graduate, based these on student songs, and in the version heard here there are bits of Spirit of '76 drum and fife music, "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and Mendelssohn's Wedding March thrown in for good measure. All in all, one could consider it a tongue in cheek American counterpart of Brahms' Academic Festival Overture. Calling for an organ as well, there’s an Elgarian grandeur about it which makes it a knockout piece that alone justifies this disc’s purchase price.
The oldy-goldy, Forgotten Dreams (1954), that follows will be familiar to most, but not Whistling Kettle (c. 1966), which is another première. Scored for violins and violas, it would seem to have its roots in the folk music of Appalachia. It's a good introduction to the next selection, Horse and Buggy (1951), which is a colorful outing in that surrey with the fringe on top.
Another old favorite, The Waltzing Cat (1950), is done here to "purrfection" with appropriate meows from the strings and a ditsy assist from various toy instruments. There's a wonderful surprise ending reminiscent of that for the circus march from The Incredible Flutist (1938) by Walter Piston, who was one of the composer's teachers at Harvard.
Then it's Home Stretch (1962) for some thoroughbred racing music that may at times sound like those naughty dances done by the girls at the Folies Bergère. And speaking of girls, The Girl in Satin (1953) is a beguiling tango that's a sequel to Leroy's ever popular Blue Tango (1951, see the newsletter of 15 February 2008). It's followed by the syncopated polka, March of the Two Left Feet (1970), where you can almost see Charlie Chaplin as the "Little Tramp" tottering down the road.
The recording premières of two of the composer's later works, Waltz Around the Scale (1970) and Lullaby of the Drums (1970), are next. The bonnie bluebells of Scotland would seem to have some association with the waltz, which is such an outstanding miniature that it's hard to understand why it’s never become more popular. The lullaby is actually more of a march, and a percussion-laced Latin offering that's bound to please.
Three of the composer's most popular creations follow: Jazz Legato (1938), Jazz Pizzicato (1938) and Song of the Bells (1953). The first two became synonymous with the Boston Pops, and were best sellers back in the old 78 RPM days. The third would appear to be more than just a jazz-ornamented waltz as it seems to pay tribute to the time-honored English tradition of change ringing.
The final two selections show Anderson was also an arranger of considerable ability. The first of these entitled Song of Jupiter (1951) is an orchestral version of the aria "Where'er you walk" from Handel's Semele, and has a stateliness worthy of Edwardian ceremonial music. The other is a suite of carols for string orchestra infinitely preferable to the ones on those tired old stocking stuffer discs that get trotted out each holiday season. Not only is Anderson's choice of carols exceptional, but there's a classical simplicity about this Christmas treat that would even warm the cockles of old Scrooge's heart. This is one of three such suites Anderson did, the other two being for brass (see the newsletter of 24 July 2008) and winds respectively.
As on his first volume of Anderson for Naxos, conductor Leonard Slatkin elicits exceptionally spirited performances from the BBC Concert Orchestra. Pianist Alistair Young and trumpeter David McCallum are to be complimented for their fine solo work in Forgotten Dreams and Song of Jupiter respectively.
Despite a bit of digital graininess in massed string passages, the overall sonics are excellent with the soundstage more ideally proportioned than on the first disc. You'll find a number of Popsicles here, served up by a Good Humor Man who was one of America's finest light classical composers.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080530)
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Dale, Benj.: Va & Pno Wks (Ste, Phant, English…), Intro... (6 vas); Chase/Otaki/Soloists [Dutton]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Chances are you've never heard of British composer Benjamin Dale (1885-1943), but many violists have because he wrote some exceptional music for that instrument as evidenced by the selections on this new release from Dutton. Incidentally, Dale had something very interesting in common with his fellow countryman and contemporary Edgar Bainton, whom we told you about last time (see the newsletter of 15 May 2008). In their youth, both frequently traveled to Germany, and were there in 1914 when World War I broke out. Consequently they were imprisoned as British citizens in wartime Germany, and didn't return to England until after the war.
Like Bainton, Dale was an excellent pianist, which probably explains the considerably difficult piano parts in his music. Those for the viola tend to be equally demanding, which is not surprising considering they were written at the urging of the great virtuoso English violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975).
The three movement Suite for Viola and Piano (1906-07) is a real find, and a tour de force for both soloists. The work opens with a slow introduction that gradually gives way to a couple of rhapsodic ideas that take the viola on a melodic sojourn over its entire range. The first movement ends with a brilliant showpiece of a coda. The slow-fast-slow romance that follows is a lyrical masterpiece that's become a standard with violists. Its animated central section sounds like it may well have folk associations. The lively finale is as fiendishly difficult as it is beautiful. It contains several killer melodies, which played on this most romantic of stringed instruments, are guaranteed to make your hair stand on end. There's also a curiosity here in the form of a recurring rhythmically catchy riff [track-3, beginning at 00:25] that sounds like a derivative of the promenade theme from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).
The Introduction and Allegro for Six Violas (1911) was commissioned by Tertis to be played by his most promising viola students, one of whom was Eric Coates (see the newsletter of 15 May 2008). It's a gorgeous, late romantic sounding work that may bring to mind the original string sextet version of Arnold Schoenberg's Transfigured Night (1899). This piece is a must for all violaphiles.
Originally for violin and piano, English Dance (1916) was written during Dale's internment in Germany. The version for viola and strings that’s here was arranged by his friend York Bowen (1884-1961, see the newsletters of 30 September 2006 and 8 December 2007). Part of it [track-5, beginning at 00:47] is reminiscent of one of those spirited dances Richard Strauss would include in his incidental music for Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1918).
The twenty-minute Phantasy for Viola and Piano (1910) is in essence a sonata where each of its four movements flow seamlessly into one another. The work begins with a slow introduction for the piano, which in some ways presages the entrance of that instrument in Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand, which would come some twenty years later. Two contrasting ideas, one pensive and the other jaunty, are then introduced by the viola, and serve as the basis for the opening section of the work. A lovely andante with some yearning passages for the viola makes up the second section that's followed immediately by a bouncy scherzo-like episode. It gradually slows and darkens in mood leading into the finale. This is an aria-like lento that highlights the viola and ends things on a sublimely rapturous note.
Violist Roger Chase and pianist Michiko Otaki play the Suite…, English Dance and Phantasy… to perfection. In the piece for six violas, Chase is joined by five of his former students, and if their performances here are any indication, he must be an outstanding teacher. By the way, you'll marvel at the rich chocolaty tone produced by the instrument Chase plays. It’s the same Montagnana that once belonged to Lionel Tertis.
The recordings are superb with an ideal soundstage where the ambiance is perfectly suited to this diminutive, but lush music. The viola and piano are both very convincingly captured, and although the recording level seems to be rather high, there's no evidence of any upper-end "kazooing." This is a chamber music release that's definitely in the demonstration category -- audiophiles please take note!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080529)
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Dohnányi, E.: Vn Concs 1 & 2; Ludwig/Falletta/RScotNa O [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Superb performances, magnificent sound and Naxos’ low bill of fare make a strong case for these romantic gems from the pen of Hungarian composer Ernö von Dohnányi (1877-1960). Unlike his more musically adventurous contemporaries Bartók and Kodály, Dohnányi remained rooted in the German romantic tradition, and it shows in these concertos -- particularly the earlier one. But that's not to say his music lacks a Magyar dimension, because Hungarian folk influences are frequently present.
The concertos are both in four movements, but separated by a period of thirty-four years. The first (1915) was written while Dohnányi was teaching at the Berlin Musikhochschule at the invitation of the great German violinist-composer Joseph Joachim. It's therefore not surprising to hear in it the musical persona of Joachim as well as that of his associate Johannes Brahms. The opening movement begins with and is dominated by a slow, almost sinister sounding theme that sounds more Eastern European than German. The spirit of Brahms haunts the gorgeous andante, yet there's a harmonic delicacy and melodic lightness of touch that put the stamp of Dohnányi on it.
The outer sections of the third movement are quite animated and include some fancy fiddle work. The slower, rhapsodic central section is typical of the composer, and may remind you of his suite for orchestra (1908-09, see the newsletter of 15 July 2006). The finale begins with a catgut-buster of a cadenza. It’s followed by a lovely theme, which sounds like the composer might have had the big tune from the last movement of Brahms' first symphony (1878) in his subconscious when he wrote it. A series of highly inventive variations follows, including one [track-4, beginning at 12:00] with what seems like an indirect reference to the opening theme of the Mendelssohn violin concerto. Dohnányi ends his concerto with the soloist sailing heavenwards in a blaze of orchestral sunlight.
The second concerto (1949) was composed after the composer had moved to the U.S. and taken up a teaching post at Florida State University. It's a much more progressive work that's more Magyar in spirit. It opens with some frenetic, virtuoso violin work that's followed by a lyrically sinuous extended theme. This is developed and chased around by a scurrying motif, but the two eventually metamorphose into a blissful episode. Here the violin spins out a couple of very attractive melodies ending the movement in highly romantic fashion. This is offset by a colorfully animated intermezzo where Hungarian folk influences prevail as the soloist takes on the role of a Gypsy primás towards its conclusion.
The following adagio features a beautiful, extended melody that's the most romantic sounding part of the concerto. References to thematic material from the first movement gradually appear, and the music becomes increasingly frenetic. The soloist then struts his stuff in passages that serve as a bridge right into the finale. This is a rondo with a wonderfully high-stepping theme that appears in a variety of guises as it prances around snippets of previous melodic ideas. The work ends capriciously in a burst of fiddle fireworks with a concluding high note on the violin underscored by a dramatic whack on the timpani.
Violinist Michael Ludwig really seems to be enjoying himself here, delivering virtuoso as well as highly musical readings of both concertos. The orchestral support provided by conductor JoAnn Falletta and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is outstanding. Consequently most would probably agree these are the best performances of both works currently available.
The recorded sound is exceptional with a perfectly laid out soundstage in an ideal venue. And the balance between soloist and orchestra is right on the money. Those with sound systems that favor the high end may experience a slight feeling of cumulative brightness, but not to the point where it becomes oppressive. Generally speaking, most audiophiles will find this an exceptional disc.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080528)
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Gandolfi: Points of…, Themes from a Midsummer…, Y2K Compliant; Rose/BosMOP O [BMOP/s]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
The music of American composer Michael Gandolfi (b. 1956) is the subject of another winning release from BMOP/sound (see the newsletter of 15 April 2008). Many will remember this composer for his large, extended orchestral work The Garden of Cosmic Speculation released last year, but here we have three of his smaller-scale pieces. If anything, they show he can do even more with less, and is a master colorist in the best sense of the term.
In four movements, Points of Departure (1988) only calls for double woodwind-quintet and sixteen strings, but the sonorities Gandolfi manages to extract from this small group of instruments is amazing. In the opening movement, entitled "Spirale," his use of shreiking piccolos and strings in their upper registers creates the image of some crystalline monolith filled with flashing lights. The next section, "Strati," with its contrasting pizzicato and pedal point effects is almost harp-like, while "Visione" is awash with luxuriant strings where intervals of a fourth and fifth give it an unearthly quality.
In the finale entitled "Ritorno," the dream state that characterized the first three movements, is swept away as the music becomes more agitated. Those petulant piccolos return, demanding a change of mood, which comes in the form of a descending tone row. Its last few notes are given to a solo double bass, bringing the work to a rather sinister conclusion.
Themes from a Midsummer Night (2001) is a concert suite of ten brilliantly orchestrated numbers drawn from Gandolfi's incidental music for the Shakespeare play. Late-romantic in spirit, there's a clarity and articulateness about this music that makes it most appealing. Highlights include the opening, "Air (Oberon in Flight)," that's as light as a feather and totally captivating. Then there's "Hermia and Lysander," which is a lovely pastoral, and "Bottom Brays" complete with Gandolfi's take on those heehaws that appear in Mendelssohn’s overture to the play. Scored only for piano with scraped cymbal and woodblock, the closing selection, "Postlude (the Most Gentle)," is absolute magic.
But the best is yet to come in the form of the next piece, Y2K Compliant (2000). It takes its name from the term electronics manufacturers came up with to assure buyers that their products were ready for the much dreaded changeover from 1999 to 2000. Scored for an orchestra of classical proportions, the opening, "Short Circuits," is a syncopated, polyrhythmic exercise that's a bit of a magical salamander which swallows its own tail. You may find it reminiscent of Michael Torke's music. The slow middle section, "Analog Dreams," harkens back to such lush romantic pieces for strings as Samuel Barber's Adagio and even Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho. Minimalism is evident in the finale, "Joyous Reverb," but Gandolfi introduces enough melodic content, including the tune for the chorale In dulci Jubilo, to make it palatable to the most extreme "Glassophobe." Like the two previous works, this highly complex, intricate music will require repeated listening to grasp all its subtleties.
In music as detailed and transparent as this, the demands made upon each and every one of the instrumentalists are substantial. Consequently all of the performers must be in top form to bring it off successfully. Not only that, but scores as involved and complicated as these require a circumspect conductor to hold things together. Both of these conditions are fully met by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose, who delivers outstanding performances of everything here.
Recorded at the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall, the sonics are quite good with an ideal soundstage and ambiance. However, folks with sound systems favoring the high end may experience a little glare when those piccolos cut loose.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080527)
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Ropartz: Stg Qts Cpte V3 (1, Fantaisie brève); Stanislas Qt [Timpani]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
This is the third and final volume in Timpani's survey of the complete set of six string quartets by late-romantic French composer Joseph-Guy Ropartz (1864-1955, see the newsletter of 15 March 2007). The two works here date from around 1893, and while they show the influence of César Franck, who was one of Ropartz' teachers, they have a harmonic and structural complexity similar to that found in the music of his friends Vincent d'Indy (1851-1931) and Albéric Magnard (1865-1914).
Dedicated to d'Indy, the first quartet is in four movements and lasts almost three-quarters of an hour. Chromatically speaking, it owes a great debt to Richard Wagner, but from the structural standpoint, Frank's cyclic principle is pervasive. In extended sonata form, the first movement is sublime, while there's a folksy quality about the fleeting scherzo. The slow movement is a moving lament that's followed by an animated finale full of references to Breton folk tunes, which are a trademark of Ropartz' music -- he was born and bred in Brittany. The thematic interconnectedness that the composer achieves in this quartet is simply amazing, and makes it worth returning to repeatedly. Obviously he greatly took to heart all he’d learned from Franck.
The disc is filled out with Fantaisie brève, which is dedicated to Magnard. It exists in a three as well as a four-part version, and it's the latter that's recorded here. The piece opens with a prelude that begins with a theme derived from the dedicatee's name. Like many motifs honoring names, this one may sound a bit contrived at first. But the highly skillful transformations Ropartz subjects it to in the next three movements certainly make up for any initial awkwardness. These include a somber fugue, an infectious serenade (missing from the shorter version of the work) and a thrilling finale that smacks of Beethoven in spite of its Gallic origin.
The performances by the Stanislas Quartet are totally committed, and what they may lack in technique, they certainly make up for with enthusiasm for this little known chamber music.
While the instrumental tone is excellent, the soundstage is somewhat limited and one gets the feeling the recordings would have benefitted from less closer miking and more ambiance. But as noted before, with repertoire this rare we're lucky to have what's here. By the way, make sure you investigate the first volume of Ropartz’ quartets on Timpani (1099).
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080526)
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Tcherepnin, A.: Pno Concs 1 & 3, Festmusik, Symphonic March; Ogawa/Shui/Singa SO [BIS]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
The son of the noted Russian conductor-composer Nicolas Tcherepnin (1873-1945), Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) was born and lived in St. Petersburg until 1917, when the Russian Revolution forced his family to move to what is now Tbilisi in Georgia. It was there that the young Alexander established himself as an up-and-coming pianist and finished the first of his six piano concertos. In 1921 he moved with his family to Paris, which remained his home base for the next twenty-eight years while he concertized extensively throughout the world. Then in 1949 he took up a teaching position in the United States, ultimately becoming a U.S. citizen in 1958. A widely traveled, highly educated man, Tcherepnin’s style changed considerably down through the years, and his piano concertos provide ideal snapshots of the different phases he went through.
In a single movement, the first concerto (1918-19) is a late-romantic, youthful tour de force that comes off more like a rhapsody than a formal concerto. It opens with an extended whirring motif for the orchestra, ending in a drum roll that introduces the piano. The principle themes are then stated and undergo some clever development leading up to an extended piano cadenza. The slower, highly lyrical section that follows gradually builds in power as that initial whirring motif once again surfaces. The main thematic ideas then reappear and the concerto ends on a triumphant note.
The third concerto (1931-32) is a bird of a different feather. In two movements, it's a very modern sounding piece with a Spartan wiriness that gives it a neoclassicism reminiscent of Stravinsky's pieces for piano and orchestra. According to the composer, the first movement is associated with the idea of travel, represented by the opening three bar theme. Played by two bassoons, it sounds vaguely reminiscent of Nuages from Debussy's Nocturnes (1900). The piano then enters and flirts with the bassoon motif, setting the stage for a busy development section that supposedly reflects the vicissitudes of travel. But the pace eventually slackens, and the movement ends much as it began.
The second part is a contrapuntal think piece with passages that presage Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (1942-45). It's basically a complex fugue and was written at a time when Tcherepnin was propounding his nine-step scale, which was his answer to Schoenberg's twelve-tone row. However, you'll find that unlike the music of the dodecaphonists, Tcherepnin's has an emotional dimension that makes this concerto immediately appealing.
Although his second opera The Wedding of Sobeide (1928-30) was a failure, he managed to extract an orchestral suite entitled Festmusik (1931) from it that met with considerably more success. A late romantic work, it's in four parts, and opens with an ebullient overture that recalls the excitement generated by the opening of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite (1915). The three dances that follow are bizarre, oriental sounding creations with references to Armenian and Georgian folk music.
The CD is filled out with Symphonic March, composed and premièred in Chicago in 1951. Late romantic in persuasion, it's a colorful Slavic parade that at times sounds a bit like the overture to Borodin's Prince Igor [track-8, beginning at 01:01, 01:52 and 02:50]. With its brilliant orchestration, catchy convoluted rhythms and patina of Russian folk tunes, it makes for a lively conclusion to this captivating disc of discovery.
Pianist Noriko Ogawa plays the concertos with an attention to detail and clarity that show off every aspect of these colorful works. On the basis of their performances here, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra rightfully deserves its reputation as one of the leading Asian orchestras. Conductor Lan Shui was an associate conductor under David Zinman as well as Neeme Järvi, and seems to share their propensity to deliver outstanding performances of Russian music.
Although the balance between the piano and orchestra is ideal, and the tonal quality is quite good over the entire frequency spectrum, this is not one of BIS' best recordings. That's because the soundstage is somewhat compressed, and the ambiance, a bit on the dry side. Still you'll find the engaging music on this release far outweighs any sonic nitpicks. If you don't already own them, you'll probably want to check out the second and fourth piano concertos on another BIS release (1247).
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080525)
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