CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
8 SEPTEMBER 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.
Alwyn: Masque Ov, Conc Grosso 1, 5 Prels, Scot Dances, etc; Lloyd-Jones/RLiver PO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Following in the footsteps of their outstanding release last winter (see the newsletter of 16 January 2007), Naxos now gives us some more delightful, rarely heard orchestral goodies by English composer William Alwyn (1905-1985). He wrote in every possible genre, including film music, and the seven short selections on this disc show what a master of orchestral color he was.
Overture to a Masque (1940) was literally a casualty of World War II because the heavy bombing of London prevented it from being premièred. It would be fifty years before it was discovered in the London Symphony Orchestra archives and given its first performance. It's in three spans consisting of bustling outer sections that surround a subdued, lovely pastoral inner one.
With the next selection Concerto Grosso No. 1 (there are three), which dates from 1943, we get a contemporary take on that old tried-and-true baroque form. In three movements, the first is somewhat humorous with boisterous outbursts from a variety of solo instruments along with the percussion section. A lazy adagio follows and then a spirited finale where the instrumental merrymakers from the first movement return to whoop it up.
Pastorale Fantasia (1939), scored for viola and strings, might easily have been entitled The Hawk Ascending. That's because it bears a pastoral resemblance to Vaughan Williams' Lark... (1914, revised 1920), but features a stringed instrument of greater weight than the violin. It's a gorgeous piece and welcome addition to the small body of music for viola and orchestra.
A world première recording is next with Five Preludes (1927), which was Alwyn's first orchestral work. It's worth getting this disc for these delightfully colorful miniatures alone. Highlights include the nonchalant first, Verdi-like third and Eastern-tinged fifth.
Inspired by a novel about the First World War (1914-18), Tragic Interlude (1936) is one of Alwyn's darkest, most moving pieces. Scored for two horns, timpani and strings, the horror of war is most effectively dramatized. Hearing this it’s easy to understand why his film scores (see the newsletter of 9 March 2006) are so effective.
Composed as a tribute to English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Autumn Legend (1954) is for English horn and strings. Prefaced by a quote from Rossetti's poem The Blessed Damozel, which inspired Debussy to write his cantata of the same name (1888), Alwyn's score is one of his most beautiful. It ranks with the finest contemporary pieces ever written for this rarely heard double-reed instrument and orchestra.
The CD concludes with a Suite of Scottish Dances (1946 and there are seven), which fans of Malcolm Arnold's several sets of British dances will find indispensable. Brilliantly orchestrated, this Highland hoedown will have you cutting a rug!
Listening to the spirited performances David Lloyd-Jones gets from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra it's easy to understand why he's considered one of Britain's finest conductors of English music. What's more, it would appear that Alwyn is one of his specialties. Taking that into consideration along with the Naxos bill of fare, you can't go wrong with this release.
The recordings are good from the soundstage standpoint, but a bit of digital grain in the strings precludes giving this an audiophile demonstration rating. But don't let that stop you from enjoying these wonderful selections.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080908)
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Anonymous: Play of Daniel (13th c liturgical drama); Lyons/DufColl/SWellMin C [Harm Mund]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
The Play of Daniel is probably the most musically sophisticated liturgical drama to come down to us from the Middle Ages. A dramatically powerful work, some have even referred to it as the world's first opera! It survives as an anonymous manuscript from Beauvais Cathedral in Northern France, where it was in all likelihood produced each year as part of the church's Christmas festivities. The Beauvais document provides only the text and a bare musical outline of what was originally intended. Consequently the play is open to a wide variety of interpretations, and no two ever come off sounding quite the same.
Most early music enthusiasts first discovered Daniel when Noah Greenberg and the New York Pro Musica did a recording of it back in 1958 for American Decca (no longer available). Since then there have been several others, but this latest one from Harmonia Mundi is for many of us the finest yet!
The play involves two of the best known stories in the Old Testament, both of which appear in the Book of Daniel. The first is the timeless tale of "The Handwriting on the Wall," which Sir William Walton used as the basis for his magnificent cantata Belshazzar's Feast (1930-31), and the second, "Daniel in the Lions' Den." It's performed here by ten soloists (two sopranos, five tenors, two baritones and a bass), a small chorus and five instrumentalists playing a variety of ancient instruments that include bells and percussion. It opens with a brief prelude featuring the harp and strings, which are soon joined by one of the sopranos singing a beautiful angelic invocation. Two delightful choral sections with brilliant orchestral accompaniment follow as Belshazzar's noblemen sing his praises and join him in a feast. But ghostly voices made all the more supernatural by some spooky instrumental effects soon intone the words, "Mane, Techel, Phares," (“Mene mene tekel u-pharsin” in The New English Bible) that appear on the palace wall. None of the king's wise men can interpret the message, so Daniel is summoned, and predicts the king's downfall.
The next part of the play tells of Darius' ascension to Belshazzar's throne and his association with Daniel, who is subsequently cast into the Lions' den, where he's protected by an Angel of the Lord. The music is if anything more engaging here, and features some wonderful choruses. These are set to piquant orchestral accompaniments made all the more colorful by some enthusiastic support from the percussionists. There are even some amusing roars from the lions. You'll also notice references to the Dies Irae [track-30] when Darius' satraps, who were jealous of Daniel and got him thrown into the den, wind up in his place. The play ends with a moving Te Deum enhanced with the sound of cathedral bells tolling in the background.
As stated above, with music from the Middle Ages like this, there's no detailed score, so all of the accompaniments and harmonizations have to be improvised. Much to their credit, director William Lyons and The Dufay Collective have done an exceptional job of it. Their realization of this is not only very striking, but beautifully played and sounds well within the bounds of what little we know today about medieval performance practices. Credit must also go to the Choristers of Southwell Minster for their outstanding choral support.
This release was produced by one of the record industry's best, Robina Young, and recorded in St. Jude's-on-the-Hill Church in London. The soundstage is perfect and the balance between the soloists, chorus and orchestra, ideal. The instrumental timbre is completely natural and the voice quality is for the most part excellent. The only exceptions to the latter are a couple of forte choral passages where there's some upper midrange digital glare. Otherwise, the sound is demonstration quality. By the way, make sure you read the excellent album notes to better understand the genesis of this fascinating medieval masterpiece. A complete libretto is also included with the original Latin text along with English, French and German translations.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080907)
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Antill: Outback Ov, Corroboree (cpte bal); Judd/NZ SO [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
Most of the Australian composers writing in the first half of the twentieth century studied in Britain, making it almost impossible to find something by one of them which sounds like it’s exclusively from the "Land Down Under." But that's certainly not the case with John Antill (1904-1986), who was totally homegrown and educated, as you'll discover when you hear this enterprising release from Naxos containing two of his best works. Both are laced with Aboriginal influences and possess an informal colonial folksiness as well as an in-your-face irreverence for the musical establishment that make them uniquely Australian.
The Outback Overture (1954) is a late-romantic offering that certainly exemplifies the "Australian Sound." Although it begins peaceably, it's not long before wheels start turning and it becomes a symphonic express through the outback. Like Charles Ives, Antill draws heavily on popular folk ditties for his melodic material, including one that's somewhat reminiscent of Stephen Foster's "Camptown races" [track-1, beginning at 03:12]. Rhythmically it's a real powerhouse as the train speeds down the track. Then towards the end, Antill introduces a terrific "big tune," bringing it to a triumphant conclusion.
Back in 1913 the composer attended one of the traditional song and dance ceremonies known as a Corroboree done by the Australian Aborigines. This gave him the idea for his homonymous ballet, which he completed in 1946. A "Down Under" Right of Spring, legendary conductor Eugene Goossens described it, and with good reason, as the first score of "really authentic Australian character." In seven sections, it's a brilliantly orchestrated, fascinating study in primitive motifs and wild exotic rhythms.
The opening "Welcome Ceremony" begins surreptitiously with a passage for double bassoon over clicking percussion that would have made Stravinsky sit up and take notice! Bird-like screeches from the strings and a number of colorful melodic and rhythmic riffs on a variety of instruments then erupt, eventually bringing this part to a primeval monolithic ending.
The next section, "Dance to the Evening Star," is an ethereal will-o'-the wisp, which highlights the oboe, celesta and violin. "A Rain Dance" relies heavily on the marimba over scurrying strings and brass to conjure up a downpour with appropriate lightning and thunder from the percussion section. "The Spirit of the Wind" is a cyclone of sound featuring zephyrean winds and strings over a hypnotic rhythmic ostinato pounded out by the percussion. In "Rising Sun" prismatic orchestral effects that include curious percussive tics and pops make for a unique musical representation of daybreak. A lumbering bass clarinet over a pianissimo harp and string accompaniment conjures up images of some ungainly goanna crossing the outback in the next to last section, "The Morning Star."
The finale, "Procession of the Totems and Closing Ceremony," begins innocuously enough, but very quickly builds to an overwhelming climax. Here the brass and percussion sections (the latter even includes a bull-roarer) go bonkers, bringing this singular Aboriginal score to one of the most original and thrilling conclusions in all dance music. Oddly enough some of the massive chordal sequences towards the end may call to mind those in the crowd scenes of Puccini's Turandot (1926).
Many will remember James Judd as the talented conductor who over a period of fourteen years turned the Florida Philharmonic into a world-class orchestra -- check out their recording of Mahler's Titan Symphony (No. 1, 1888-98). After that he moved even further south and became Music Director (now Emeritus) of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, which he conducts on this disc. He's obviously lost none of his panache, because you couldn't ask for more exciting renditions of these highly complex scores. The New Zealanders respond to his every wish with performances that are exceptional from both the solo and ensemble standpoints.
The N.Z. recording engineers have given us an orchestral demonstration disc that will probably become a classic. It all begins with the microphone set-up, and theirs must have been exemplary because even with music of this scope they've managed to recreate a truly remarkable soundstage. While it's wide and deep enough to encompass the enormous number of performers required, there's a focus and clarity that present in exquisite detail all of the many solo parts. The balance between the numerous instrumental groups is ideal, and the orchestral timbre, totally natural over the entire frequency spectrum. Needless to say the dynamic range is staggering, but the level was set to perfection with no sign of any digital distress. Make sure you take this with you the next time you go looking for audio components. And by the way, while we're on the subject of music from "Down Under," you might want to investigate another Judd triumph, the symphonies of Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001) also on Naxos (8555862).
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080906)
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Freitas Branco (Branco): Sym 1, Scherzo…, Ste 1 "Alentejana"; Cassuto/RTÉNa SO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
This is the first CD in a new series from Naxos devoted to the orchestral works of Luís de Freitas Branco (1890-1955, sometimes referred to as just Branco). Born in Lisbon, where he spent most of his life, he could be considered the father of the Portuguese romantic symphony (he wrote four). A student of Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) in Berlin and Désiré Pâque (1867-1939) in Paris, there are German as well as French influences in his music, but the latter are more predominant in the selections here.
That's particularly true of his first symphony (1924), which like that of César Franck (1822-1890) is in three movements rather than the usual four favored by German romantic composers. While it opens darkly like the Franck, the mood soon changes with the introduction of a radiant pastoral-sounding theme. These contrasting melodic ideas are developed in tandem, and at one point [track-1, beginning at 09:49] there are repeated passages for the woodwinds that call to mind Vincent d'Indy's (1851-1931) Symphony on a French Mountain Air (1886). Towards the end of the first movement it appears that the "Dark Side" will triumph, but hope prevails as the composer ends on a major chord. The next movement could be considered two in one because it's lovely pathos-filled outer sections surround a joyful scherzo-like inner one. While the opening melodic ideas of the finale owe a debt to the last movement of the Franck symphony, Freitas Branco proves he's his own man in the development of them. The specter of d'Indy is again present, but the brilliant concluding coda is all Branco.
This is the world première recording of Scherzo Fantastique (1907), which was written when the composer was only seventeen. It predates Stravinsky's identically named piece by a year, and shows that Freitas Branco must have been an "A" student when it came to orchestration. Very much in the spirit of the Queen Mab Scherzo, Berlioz would surely have approved.
The composer wrote two orchestral suites inspired by the folk music from the Alentejo region of Portugal, which is south of Lisbon. It's the first of these dating from 1917 that's presented here. In three sections, the opening one is rustically relaxed and contains some gorgeous tunes, which the album notes tell us are shepherd songs. They bear a resemblance to some of the more subdued ditties Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957) would include in his Songs of the Auvergne (1923-30, see the newsletter of 8 December 2007). The second part is titled "Intermezzo," and sounds like it's based on some folk lullaby. At one point there are rhythmic accents consisting of dotted pairs of notes [track-6, beginning at 03:26] that will bring to mind the folk-inspired creations of Bartók (1881-1945).
The concluding movement is a Fandango that's apparently become a Portuguese pops favorite, and the most often played classical piece in that country. It consists of rhythmically lively outer dance episodes that surround a most attractive melodically pensive central one. The dance tune will sound familiar because it's indigenous to Spain as well as Portugal. Both Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov knew and used it; the former in his Jota aragonesa (1845), and the latter in Capriccio espagnol (1887). Like his Russian counterparts, Freitas Branco turns it into a rousing flamenco number complete with castanets, ending this colorful suite in fiery Latin fashion.
Álvaro Cassuto is Portugal’s finest living conductor and an authority on the classical music of his country. Many will remember his magnificent recordings for Marco Polo (8223879, 8225087, 8225216, 8225186, 8225233 and 8225271) featuring the symphonic works of another Portuguese composer, Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988), who was a student of Freitas Branco. Obviously Cassuto hasn't lost his touch, because the performances here are just as accomplished. Granted the orchestra is not Portuguese as on some of his previous discs, but you'll find the playing of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland is equally good and totally committed.
The recordings are excellent from the soundstage perspective, however the highs on occasion shine forth a bit too brightly. In the long run though, this disc is still a most enjoyable listen.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080905)
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Gregson: Tpt Conc, "Homages" Pno Conc (w winds), Sax Conc; Soloists/Rundell/BBC P [Chandos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Following their recent disc of some contemporary Russian concertante works (see the newsletter of 13 August 2008), Chandos now gives us three by British composer Edward Gregson (born 1945). Apparently Gregson has had a life-long fascination with the concerto, which has resulted in his writing a number of them, including ones for the clarinet, violin, French horn and Tuba in addition to those for trumpet, piano and saxophone appearing here.
You'll find the trumpet concerto (1983) refreshingly different from the usual fare because it's scored for strings and timpani like the organ concertos of Francis Poulenc and Gregson's compatriot Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988, see the newsletter of 3 July 2008). The opening movement is in sonata form and begins with a repeated three-note motif played by the timpani and then the trumpet. This is the basis for an agitated episode, which is followed by a rather subdued section where the trumpet spins out an extended, lyrical melody. These two ideas are cleverly developed with some very effective passages for muted trumpet. The movement ends with a coda based on the three notes we heard at the start.
The slow movement was written in memory of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and is based on the musical monogram "DSCH" (D-Eb-C-B) that he himself so often used. It's a mini-masterpiece where the trumpet with dramatic support from the timpani rhapsodizes a eulogy for that great, Russian composer. The movement ends atypically by transitioning directly into a sprightly, cadenza-like passage for trumpet and timpani that also serves as an introduction to the finale. Here the soloist has many opportunities to strut his stuff in a highly animated, scherzo-like offering that must rank as one of the most exciting movements in the trumpet concerto literature.
Entitled "Homages," Gregson tells us his piano concerto (1995, revised 1997) pays tribute to those composers whose concertos he loved as a teenager. He does this by recreating their style rather than actually quoting them. Dedicated to the very talented British pianist-composer, John McCabe, it's scored solely for winds and percussion just like Stravinsky's piano concerto of 1924. As with the Stravinsky, the orchestration is so skillfully wrought that one never notices the absence of strings.
The opening movement begins as a highly kinetic neoclassical toccata that's a fascinating mix of Bartok, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. But the pace soon slackens and a lovely romantic passage follows that's more in keeping with the likes of Poulenc and Rachmaninov. The rest of the movement is a contest between the neoclassical and romantic elements just heard, with the former finally winning out. A magnificent passacaglia, which builds to an incredible climax and then evaporates into thin air, is the centerpiece of the concerto. It leaves the listener craving emotional closure, which comes in the form of a brilliant fireworks-filled "rondo-burlesque." This is a rhythm-driven exercise in tarantism where notes fly by like machine gun bullets. About two minutes into it Gregson introduces a comely, twelfth-century English carol tune, which acts as the melodic underpinning for this technically demanding finale.
The concerto for saxophone (2006) and orchestra, which includes a piano and vibraphone, is the most progressive of the three here, and a significant contribution to contemporary repertoire for this instrument. Dedicated to Nobuya Sugawa, who's our soloist and plays the soprano as well as alto saxophone, it begins mysteriously with him intoning sustained notes somewhere offstage. The orchestra gradually joins in and the soloist moves center stage as the music erupts into a jazzfest which Leonard Bernstein would have loved. The revelry stops as suddenly as it began, and a lovely lyrical passage that could be out of some late-romantic Scandinavian symphony ensues. The jazz and lyrical elements then compete for the remainder of the movement, with the former having the last say in an explosive concluding coda that’s a riot of sound.
The slow movement follows immediately as the piano plays a twelve-note row, which mutates into a quote from the opening of Alban Berg's violin concerto (1935). Gregson uses these atonal artifacts to turn this section of the concerto into a highly chromatic, late-romantic sounding reverie. The haunting concluding measures feature the saxophone with piano-vibraphone accompaniment, and lead right into the energetic finale. Here catchy rhythmic riffs and memorable melodic ideas alternate in a virtuosic tour-de-force for the soloist. The concerto then ends in the reassuring white light of C major.
The names of trumpeter Ole Edvard Antonsen, pianist Nelson Goerner and saxophonist Nobuya Sugawa may not be household words, but their uniformly stunning performances certainly indicate they may soon be. Not only that, but conductor Clark Rundell and the BBC Philharmonic provide them with superb support, making an extremely strong case for the music of Edward Gregson.
The recordings show Chandos at their very best. The soundstage is perfect as is the balance between the soloists and orchestra. The instrumental timbre is completely lifelike across the entire frequency spectrum. More specifically, the strings are silky smooth, the winds and brass, well-rounded and the piano and percussion, particularly the timpani, amazingly well defined. Audiophiles will find this disc particularly well suited to testing their system's transient response.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y080904)
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Weingartner: 4-5 Stg Chbr Wks Cpte V1 (Qts 1 & 3); Sarastro Qt [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
With this release, CPO gives us the first installment in their new survey of Felix Weingartner's (1863-1942) complete chamber music for four and five strings. Like his sextet for piano, string quartet and double bass (1904), which we told you about last year (see the newsletter of 30 August 2007), the influences of other German composers are rife in the two quartets included here. But that's not to say they have no intrinsic value, because both are very engaging musical structures where the brickwork may be quite familiar, but the building design is all Weingartner. They will most assuredly appeal to listeners liking the chamber music of another great German conductor-composer, Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954, see the newsletter of 28 April 2007).
The first quartet (1898) is in the conventional four movements, and an anguished outpouring that Weingartner tells us was an expression of his grief over the recent deaths of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck as well as the child of a close friend. The opening movement begins with a quote from Schubert's Death and the Maiden String Quartet (No. 14, 1824), and is a highly emotional lament very much in the style of that great Austrian master. The following adagio contrasts a rather melancholy theme with a more hopeful group of ideas, which eventually succumb to the former.
A scherzo, which owes a debt to Beethoven's early quartets, interjects a brief ray of light into the work before the soulful finale. This begins in an agitated state with another reference to the Schubert motif. But calm soon prevails as a lovely theme is introduced and worked into a gorgeous series of variations. It's the highpoint of the quartet where the composer is at his most inventive, giving us a beautifully written passage expressive of consolation and repose. Emotionally speaking there's more than a passing similarity to the "Holy Song of Thanksgiving" in Beethoven's A minor quartet (No. 15, 1825).
A wedding present for his second wife, the third quartet (1903) is in three movements and opens with a theme whose notes are associated with her first name. While there are passages in the first movement reminiscent of Schubert and even Dvorák, there's an intricacy and tenderness underlying the music that's solely Weingartner. The combination scherzo and adagio that follows is a chromatic kaleidoscope where one can easily imagine Eastern European folk material may have been a source of inspiration. The finale begins pensively only to accelerate and soar heavenwards with a thematic angularity like that found in the music of Robert Schumann. However, there's a harmonic adventurousness and rhythmic whimsicality that make this movement a unique Weingartner creation, and end this quartet with a smile.
The honors are done here by the Swiss based Sarastro Quartet, whose members give us magnificent readings of both works. Their attention to detail and technical excellence make for what will probably be definitive performances of these two rarely heard quartets for some time to come.
A coproduction of CPO and Swiss Radio, the recordings were done at the Marthalen Church in Switzerland. They're good from the soundstage and venue standpoints, but somewhat strident in the upper midrange. This may be related to the disc being cut at a high level.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080903)
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