CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
3 OCTOBER 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.
Britten: Pno Conc (incl orig 3rd mvmt), Young..., Diversions; Osborne/Volkov/BBCScot O [Hyperion]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
The word spectacular is no exaggeration when it comes to this release, which includes all three of British composer Benjamin Britten' s (1913-1976) works for solo piano and orchestra. Youthfully energetic scores, electric performances and scintillating sound will make those who've never paid that much attention to this music prick up their ears.
The piano concerto, which was written in 1938, is a bit out of the ordinary because it's in four titled movements, and in 1945 the composer replaced the third, "Recitative and Aria," with an entirely different one called "Impromptu." Both are included here, so with a little button-pushing you can program your own preferred version of the work.
The opening movement, "Toccata," lives up to its name with some keyboard pyrotechnics that are easily the equal of the fieriest moments in Prokofiev's piano concertos. There's a lovely melodic lull just before the movement ends with a virtuosic coda. The next section is titled "Waltz," and it's a pretty fantastic one that starts off unpretentiously only to take on diabolical connotations.
As stated above you have a choice of third movements. The "Impromptu" (programmed next on this CD) is a powerful theme and variations that's closer to a passacaglia. With a subject theme that’s totally haunting and among Britten's best, it may remind you of the passacaglia in Peter Grimes (1945). Or you can opt for the earlier "Recitative and Aria" [track-5], whose rather antic, high-strung opening introduces a gorgeous lyrical section that ends in dissonance and mystery. Either way, the best is yet to come in the closing "March," where the demands on the soloist are enormous. With its insistent percussive accompaniment, including cymbals and bass drum, you'll have the musical equivalent of a Roman Triumph in your listening room, ending the concerto in a state of glory.
Young Apollo is a fanfare that was written in 1939 on a commission from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Its title refers to a line in John Keats' (1795-1821) unfinished poem Hyperion, and it's scored for the unusual combination of piano, string quartet and string orchestra. Lasting seven minutes, it's even more virtuosic than the opening of the concerto, as musically dazzling as the poem's Sun-god subject, and a real crowd-pleaser.
Diversions for piano and orchestra dates from 1940 and remains a relatively unknown masterpiece. It's one of those piano works for the left hand commissioned by Viennese concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), who lost his right arm in the First World War. Can you name some others [see possible answers: one, two, three, four, five, six]?
Britten is at his most inventive here and creates a virtuosic showpiece which totally belies the fact the soloist is playing with just one hand. It takes the form of a theme with ten tiny variations plus a concluding tarantella. Each of the variations has a title, and some seem stylistically related to other great composers for the piano. More specifically the second, "Romance," and third, "March," are reminiscent of Prokofiev, the seventh, "Badinerie," Ravel, and the eighth, "Burlesque," Rachmaninov. The last variation, "Adagio," is the longest and most emotionally involving. The piece then ends with a fireworks tarantella and a shower of golden sparks from the piano, brass and percussion.
Pianist Steven Osborne delivers breathtaking renditions of everything. His playing is characterized by a transparency, carefully judged sense of dynamics and feeling of urgency that set his performances apart from all others. He breathes new life into these scores, which deserve much wider acceptance than they've gotten to date. The support provided by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under up-and-coming Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov is equally exceptional. They play like there's no tomorrow!
The sonics are for the most part good, with the piano beautifully captured and perfectly spotlighted against the rest of the orchestra. The instrumental timbre is natural sounding, if a bit on the bright side, and the bass response, quite stunning. The soundstage sounds a bit recessed at first, but as one gets caught up in the music, any sense of confinement seems to drop away. One parting thought, if you like this release do try Steven Osborne's magnificent recording of another British modern keyboard masterpiece, Sir Michael Tippett's (1905-1998) piano concerto.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P081003)
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Dean, B.: 12 Angry..., Intimate..., Va Conc, Komarov's...; Dean/Young/Wolff/Sydney S [BIS]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
The "Australian Sound" was a subject for discussion in the newsletter of 8 September 2008, and this new release from BIS provides us with more examples of it in the form of music by composer Brett Dean (b. 1961). A virtuoso violist (formerly with the Berlin Philharmonic) as well as a conductor, he has over the past few years become one of Australia's most promising composers. To date most of his works have been programmatic, either telling a story or dealing with historical, sociological and/or environmental issues. That's certainly the case with three of four pieces on this CD.
The disc begins with his viola concerto (2005), featuring the composer as soloist, which is the exception, and only piece of absolute music here. But still it's highly dramatic and most listeners will find themselves making up their own story to it. In fact, it's so emotionally charged that one could almost think of it as a modern day counterpart of Berlioz' Harold in Italy (see the newsletter of 11 July 2007). In three movements, the opening, "Fragment," paints a symphonic picture of some miasmal alien world. The next, "Pursuit," finds the viola trying to escape the clutches of some orchestral monster. At one point it manages to hide from the beast in a brief moment of cadenza-like reflection. But then it's found and the chase continues as it skitters away, vanishing into thin air and ending the movement.
This leaves the listener expectantly anticipating the "Veiled and Mysterious" finale, which is much as advertised. Here the viola aspires to and achieves a state of grace as the orchestra eventually prostrates itself before it in an act of reverential contrition. Brilliant writing and exceptionally imaginative orchestration make this concerto one of the most significant contemporary contributions to repertoire for this most amorous of stringed instruments.
The next piece, Twelve Angry Men (1996), takes its title from a 1957 movie of the same name. Scored for twelve cellos, it's a programmatic musical representation of the explosive deliberations carried out by the twelve-man jury in that film. It's a masterpiece that words cannot do justice to, and you'll just have to experience it for yourself!
"Intimate Decisions" (1996) for solo viola, again played by the composer, is one of the most incredible displays of virtuosity on that instrument you could ever hope to hear. Not only that, but it's a highly emotional piece, which Dean describes as a musical representation of an intense discussion with a close friend. The mood changes are kaleidoscopic and the writing inspired, making it a totally mesmerizing creation. Again this is a case where you'll have to hear it to believe it!
The closing selection, Komarov's Fall (2006), was commissioned by conductor Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic along with works by three other contemporary composers to complement a concert given by that orchestra featuring Gustav Holst's The Planets (1918). Dean's piece is an orchestral tone poem honoring the memory of Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov (1927-1967), who was the first astronaut to die in the space race. Those familiar with that concert would probably agree it was by far the most interesting of the four new pieces played, and packs a real emotional wallop. The celestial, telemetrically suggestive opening introduces a highly lyrical section representing the cosmonaut bidding his wife farewell over the Soyuz 1 radiotelephone. Then in the final measures one can envision the fiery reentry and crash of the spacecraft. This is followed by a deathly silence and then quiet passages, suggesting wisps of smoke floating heavenwards along with Komarov's soul.
Three of the four selections here feature Dean as either soloist or conductor. His playing in the concerto as well as Intimate... raises the bar for all violists as there's absolutely no hint of that queasy intonation which plagues some. The supercharged performance of Twelve... he elicits from the cellists of the Syndney Symphony is breathtaking. And speaking of the Sydney Symphony, it provides outstanding support under conductor Simone Young in the concerto, and gives an exceptionally sensitive reading of Komarov's... with Hugh Wolff on the podium.
This disc is an audiophile's dream come true with an exceptional dynamic range, and wide frequency response made all the more arresting by some unearthly percussive effects. The two orchestral works were recorded in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, which is a venue that sounds as good as the building looks. The Australian engineers conjure up a soundstage of amazingly real proportions, while maintaining a perfect balance between the soloist and orchestra in the concerto, as well as highlighting the many brilliant instrumental groupings in Komarov's Fall. The chamber works were recorded in different, slightly drier-sounding locations that perfectly complement this exciting music. The instrumental timbre is totally lifelike. One last thought, if you like this disc, make sure you hear the string concertos of Dean's compatriot Richard Mills (b. 1949, see the newsletter of 15 March 2007).
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y081002)
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Glazunov: Stg Chbr Wks Cpte V3 [Ste (stg qt), Stg Qnt]; Stirling/Utrecht Qt [MD&G]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
Here's the third installment of MD&G's ongoing survey devoted to the complete chamber music solely for strings by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). Although he never became a member of the "Mighty Handful" (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov), or "Russian Five" as they're sometimes called, Glazunov wrote music that was greatly influenced by them. However, there's a degree of sophistication present that smacks of German romanticism as evidenced by the two selections included here.
The five movement Suite for String Quartet (1887) is in some ways a follow-on to his Five Novelettes (1886), which was scored for the same group of instruments (see the newsletter of 28 April 2007). But unlike the earlier piece, which is a folk-influenced travelogue, the suite is an exploration of formal musical structures. Built on what are for the most part Slavic sounding melodies, the opening is a romanticized prelude and fugue which is followed by a shimmering scherzo and an exotic andante of oriental persuasion. A most imaginative theme and variations is next, and then the work closes with a delightful waltz that anticipates the composer's two Concert Waltzes for orchestra of 1893-94. One of the themes [track-5, beginning at 01:51] may bring to mind the scherzo from Alexander Borodin's second string quartet (1885).
Like Franz Schubert's string quintet, Glazunov's one and only effort in this art form (1892) calls for two cellos rather than a second viola. In the standard four movements, the opening allegro shows the composer at the height of his melodic powers, and anticipates the more lyrical moments in his fourth symphony (1893). The scherzo is pizzicato-laced Slavic magic, and the andante, a gorgeous melodic outpouring that’s "Mother Russia" to the core. The finale is a bustling village dance spiced with stretti and ends this Russian chamber masterpiece on a festive, folksy note.
The Utrecht String Quartet is one of the Netherlands most renowned chamber ensembles, and gives exceptional accounts of both works, along with British cellist Michael Stirling in the quintet. Performances of the suite can come off sounding rather rigid and perfunctory because of its emphasis on formal classical structures. But that's certainly not the case here with the loving attention lavished on it by this Dutch group.
The quintet is one of Glazunov's most expressive chamber works and open to a wide variety of interpretations. That's certainly true of the Utrecht's reading of it as compared to that of the Fine Arts Quartet (with cellist Nathaniel Rosen), which appeared earlier on a Naxos release with the Five Novelettes (see above). Whereas the Utrecht’s is immaculately articulate as well as technically dazzling, the Fine Arts’ is more impulsively dramatic and romantically inclined. Each show the work in an entirely different light and most listeners will want both, particularly since they're coupled with different companion pieces.
The recordings are good from the soundstage and balance perspectives, but those with audio systems that favor the high end may find the strings somewhat brittle. If you like this disc, make sure you also investigate the Utrecht's other MD&G releases of more Glazunov (6031236 and 6031237), as well as Alexander Grechaninov's (1864-1956) four string quartets (6031157 and 6031388).
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P081001)
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Perosi: Ste 5 "Tortona", Ste 7 "Turin"; Sacchetti/MilanNCh SO [Bongio]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Those few who know him usually associate priest-composer Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956) with sacred choral music, but he also wrote a great number of instrumental works. These include eight orchestral suites dedicated to as many Italian cities, and it's two of these that are featured on this release. Those who are fond of Gustave Charpentier's Impressions d'Italie (see the newsletter of 15 January 2008) and Massenet's orchestral suites are going to love this disc of discovery, which shows that Perosi was a first-class melodist.
The fifth suite (1908) is dedicated to Tortona where the composer was born. It's in three movements that structurally speaking are unique Perosi creations. The first is scherzo-like where the composer introduces several engaging tunes, which may well have been folk inspired. These are then presented in differing orchestral guises, creating a bucolic mood that may bring to mind the lighter moments in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (No. 6, 1808). The andante is a gorgeous melancholy aria that now and then comes off sounding rather mournfully Slavic. In the concluding presto the composer juxtaposes an uplifting, smiling tune with a slower, more wistful melody to great effect. The work closes optimistically with the former motif, and what could easily be references to tolling church bells played by the horns.
Turin is honored in the seventh suite (1911), which is again a tripartite creation where the structural informality of each of its movements makes them more like tone poems. The opening one sounds rather Germanic with hints of the finale from Schuman's fourth symphony (1841-51), Strauss' Don Juan (1888) and Wagner's prelude to the third act of Lohengrin (1850). While the mood is generally bright to start with, it gradually becomes more serious and sounds quite nationalistic by the time the movement ends. There's an underlying reverence about the next part where it's not too hard to imagine it might have been inspired by the city's famous cathedral, which houses the controversial “Shroud of Turin.” The finale could well represent a typical day in that metropolis. One can imagine the hustle and bustle of work interrupted by a brief siesta, and then a beautiful sunset followed by a relaxing evening in the "Capital of the Alps," as it's sometimes referred to.
The performances by the Milan New Chamber Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Sacchetti are very committed, and show Perosi was capable of writing extremely colorful orchestral music. But in all fairness to potential buyers, it should be noted that the playing is, to put it diplomatically, a bit squirrely in places. Be that as it may, with repertoire this rare, beggars can't be choosers, so just sit back and enjoy!
Although these are live recordings, they come off sounding quite good with only a couple of coughs and no applause. As is rarely the case with productions like this, the soundstage is very convincing and the orchestral timbre, completely natural over the entire frequency spectrum. In fact the sonics somewhat make up for any performance shortcomings.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080930)
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Stojowski, S.: Orch Ste, Printemps, Prayer...; Soloists/Nalecz-Niesiolowski/PodlBial PC&O [DUX]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
In his day Polish composer Zygmunt Stojowski (1870-1946) was highly regarded in Europe as well as the United States, and hearing this disc it would be hard to explain why he's disappeared from sight. He began his musical studies in his native country, but at the age of seventeen moved with his mother to Paris, where he attended the Conservatoire National. His instructors there included Théodore Dubois (see the newsletter of 30 October 2007) and Léo Delibes, which undoubtedly explains occasional French sounding touches in the two choral works featured here. Then in 1905 he moved to the United States, spending the rest of his life in New York City. It was there that he was one of the first to join the faculty of an institution which would later become the Juilliard School of Music.
The first selection on this invaluable release is his suite for orchestra dating from 1890-91. It became a favorite with European audiences, and Tchaikovsky liked it so much he planned to conduct it, but never got the chance because of his untimely death in 1893.
It's in three movements and opens with a spectacular theme and variations based on a tune that accompanies a Polish adaptation of the Latin hymn Salve Regina. You may find that it bears a passing resemblance to the old Lutheran choral Nun danket alle Gott. The first variation [track-1, beginning at 02:18] owes a debt to Brahms, who by the way spoke very highly of this piece. The second [track-1, beginning, at 03:07] is sheer exuberance, while the third [track-1, beginning at 04:33] contains a lovely slow choral highlighting the cello and horn. The fourth [track-1, beginning at 07:04] serves as a contrapuntal introduction to the finale [track-1, beginning at 09:03] where the theme is reprised in all its glory.
So much for the sacred! Things turn secular in the last two sections, which are based on Polish Dances. The first one is an attractive marriage of the polonaise and mazurka with an exotic central episode that sounds quite oriental. The finale, based on the krakowiak, features a comely lyrical tune which is imaginatively developed before the work ends in an exhilarating Slavic cyclonic coda.
The cantata Le printemps (1895) for chorus and orchestra has a French text based on an ode to spring by Horace. Dedicated to Delibes, it's an immediately appealing, totally charming vernal paean that brings the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan to mind.
The other cantata here, Prayer for Poland (1915) is a much more serious undertaking inspired by the First World War (1914-18). Scored for soprano, baritone, chorus, orchestra and organ, it's a plea to the Virgin Mary to end the anguish suffered by Poland at the hands of its neighboring countries. The highly moving opening and closing choruses call to mind the great English oratorio tradition and composers like Sirs Edward Elgar and George Dyson (see the newsletter of 15 February 2008). On the other hand there's something quite French about the anguished passages surrounding the baritone solo that bring to mind the music of Florent Schmitt (see the newsletter of 25 July 2007) (1870-1958) as well as Lily Boulanger (1893-1918). The hope-filled finale is particularly effective, making this a work you'll want to hear again.
The name may not be familiar, but the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra in Bialystok are a class act! Under conductor Marcin Nalecz-Nieslolowski their performances of these pieces exude a nationalistic fervor that will probably never be matched again on record. The brief solos by soprano Marta Wróblewska and baritone Marciej Bogumil Nerkowski are beautifully sung.
The recordings are quite good with an impressive, lifelike soundstage and perfectly balanced instrumental and vocal solos. The orchestral timbre is natural with smooth strings, but the chorus might have come off a little less strident with different microphones. All in all though, this is a fine production and a key contribution to the world of late-romantic Slavic music.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080929)
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Vasks: Musica… (Stg Qt 3 arr stg orch), Viatore (stg orch), Enghn Conc; Sne/Riga Sinfta [Wergo]
(RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Considering the geographic location of the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), it’s not surprising to find Scandinavian as well as Slavic influences in the music of their composers. The combination of the two produces what might best be referred to as the "Baltic Sound," which certainly characterizes the works of Latvian Peteris Vasks (b. 1946). Deeply felt and highly spiritual, his music, like that of Estonian Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), has Slavic emotionality expressed with Scandinavian reserve. This is evident in the three selections on this release, which listeners should find quite compelling.
Musica adventus is an arrangement for string orchestra of Vasks' third string quartet (1995-96). In four movements, we're told it's related to Christmas, but any Yuletide associations remain obscure to say the least. It opens haltingly with references to what could be some ancient, little-known carol, and gradually builds to a brief climax that quickly fades away. The next two movements are an insistent primitive round dance and somber meditation respectively, with what sound like partial references to the Dies Irae in the former. There's something celestial about the finale where it’s easy to imagine whirling galaxies and newly born stars twinkling in hazy nebulas.
The next selection, Viatore (2001), is also for string orchestra, and pays homage to Arvo Pärt. In one continuous sixteen-minute span, Vasks spins out an extended Slavic-sounding melody similar to the one we heard in the second movement of the preceding piece. It's set against a haunting harmonic background that invokes images of frozen wastelands in northern Scandinavia.
The concerto for English horn and orchestra is not only a rarity with respect to its solo instrument, but a masterpiece to boot! Dating from 1989, it’s in four highly individualized movements, each of which is titled. The first, "Elegy I," begins with a sustained high note played by the strings, which fades as the soloist enters with the rest of the orchestra. A lovely romance follows, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Swan of Tuonela from Sibelius' four Lemminkäinen Legends (1893-95). The second movement, "Folk Music," is as advertised with Slavic overtones and some passagework [track-7, beginning at 01:17] reminiscent of the "Troika" in Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite (1934). It also contains what must be the most spectacular cadenzas ever written for the English horn with some novel percussive effects involving its keys [track-7, beginning at 05:49].
The concluding sections, "Elegy II" and "Postlude," are a highly emotional rhapsody and mysterious fantasy respectively. The latter is brilliantly orchestrated with colorful percussive embellishments that involve a vibraphone, and some effervescent glissandos. It ends as the English horn vanishes into the depths of the cosmos, which this composer is so good at conjuring up.
The soloist and conductor here, Normunds Sne, along with the Riga Sinfonietta very successfully convey the deep spiritual convictions present in Vasks' music. The precision with which these thirty-six musicians play is exceptional, and the richness of their combined sound astounding, considering the small size of this ensemble.
Crystalline sound is the rule here, and add all the more to the music's impact. The soundstage is perfect for a performing group of this size with just the right spread and ambiance. And the balance between soloist and orchestra in the concerto is ideal. The string timbre is a bit bright, but if anything that seems to complement these selections, whose seriousness of purpose might otherwise render them unrelentingly somber.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P080928)
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