CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
7 JANUARY 2009
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.
Hill, Alf.: Stg Qts V2 (4, 6 "The Kids" & 8); Dominion Qt [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
This is the second volume in Naxos' ongoing survey of Australian composer Alfred Hill's (1869-1960) string quartets (see the newsletter of 30 June 2007). As far as late romantic composers from "Down Under" are concerned, Hill is without a doubt the major one. Born in Australia, he spent most of his early life in New Zealand, but went to Leipzig in 1887, where he studied at the conservatory, graduating in 1891. Hill then returned to New Zealand, spending the rest of his life there and in Australia, where he became a distinguished professor of music and highly prolific composer. While there's confusion over the total number of works he wrote with one estimate running as high as over two thousand, there are seventeen known string quartets.
In Germany Hill encountered the music of all the great European romantic composers. Consequently his early works, including the first three quartets on volume one (see the newsletter of 30 June 2007) show the influence of Dvorák and Tchaikovsky. But by the time we get to the three here, he was beginning to evolve a style all of his own.
The four-movement fourth quartet (1916) appears for the first time in its entirety on this CD. The opening allegro is an engaging tunefest that's followed by a gorgeous adagio with Elgarian overtones. The scherzo apparently dates from his Leipzig years, and sounds somewhat folksy as well as Viennese in spirit. The final rondo might well have been inspired by one of Beethoven’s late quartets. Perspicacious listeners familiar with Hill's Pursuit of Happiness Symphony (No. 4, 1941) will recognize that its first two movements are orchestrations of those opening this quartet.
Intended for performance by his students, the sixth quartet (1927) is subtitled "The Kids." Hill shows his considerable skill as a composer by writing a piece that can be played by beginners, but has enough musical sophistication to hold listener interest. He does this by adhering to simple classical structures like those found in the quartets of Mozart and Schubert, while impregnating the music with wonderfully inventive rhythms and harmonies.
The last offering on this disc is the eighth quartet (1934), which after almost seventy-five years makes its debut here. In four movements, the opening one begins with an impressionistic sounding introduction that could almost be out of Debussy or Ravel. Then a couple of lovely melodic ideas are introduced which form the basis for what turns out to be a sonata form allegro. The brief mercurial intermezzo and beautiful, at times pentatonic, andante that follow find Hill at the height of his creative powers. The finale is for the most part rather English-sounding, and has a fugal central development section. French influences are also present in the form of more Ravel-like passages, and the cyclic return of previous motifs ŕ la César Franck. The work ends with a jocund hee-haw coda as if Hill were asking his audience not to take him too seriously.
The performances by the Dominion String Quartet of New Zealand, while for the most part committed, are a bit perfunctory in places. This will be particularly apparent to those who have the Australian String Quartet's performance of "The Kids" that appeared a number of years ago on a Marco Polo CD (no longer available). But with repertoire this rare and interesting, we're lucky to have what's here.
The recordings are generally good with an adequate soundstage, but some may find the venue rather confining. The string sound is certainly natural, but there are isolated low frequency noises, probably occasioned by traffic outside the theater where these recordings were made.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090107)
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Kabalevsky: Syms Cpte (4); Oue/Hung RC/NDR C&RP [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (2 CDs)
Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987) was a good communist and the only Russian composer of any real standing to live through the cold war years without a single rebuke from the culturally repressive Soviet authorities. This guaranteed him a comfortable existence compared to what Prokofiev (1891-1953), Roslavets (1881-1944, see the newsletter of 17 February 2007), Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Weinberg (1919-1996, see the newsletter of 13 August 2008) had to periodically endure for the sake of their art. But it also meant Kabalevsky was frowned upon by many in the democratic West as a musical minion of the evil Soviet Empire. Consequently the only piece of his to achieve any lasting popularity outside Russia back then was the orchestral suite The Comedians (1938-40), which he extracted from music he'd written for a children's play. However, times have changed and there has been a recent spate of Kabalevsky recordings (see below)), which include this important release from CPO documenting all four of his symphonies.
Kabalevsky's first symphony (1932), which like Shostakovich's twelfth (1960-61) commemorates the Russian Revolution of 1917, has for many years been written off as a Soviet political potboiler. That notion may aptly apply to its subject matter, but not its content, which reveals a sense of structural sophistication worthy of another great Russian symphonist, Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950), who was Kabalevsky's teacher. Unlike the Shostakovich, Kabalevsky's symphony is a relatively short, two-movement work, lasting only about twenty minutes. It's a kind of binary tone poem in which the dark night of oppression gives way to the daylight of freedom. Folk elements are pervasive in this immediately appealing piece, where a variety of musical episodes featuring memorable melodic ideas are skillfully juxtaposed against one another.
And now for a bit of Marx Brothers chicanery, where two will get you three and three will get you two! The "second" symphony is actually Kabalevsky's third and vice versa. The situation is made even more confusing by the fact that the "third," which was written in 1933, is only a symphony in name because it's for mixed chorus and orchestra, and even has the title "Requiem for Lenin." This is its recording debut, and it should not be mistaken for the large scale requiem the composer would later write in 1961.
Kabalevsky detractors may have some justification for deriding this 1933 effort, because the political implications are abundantly obvious. But to its credit it has a moving text (see the album notes) by Nikolay Aseyev (1889-1963), who wrote the subtitles for Sergey Eisenstein's silent classic Battleship Potemkin (1925). Also there's a slavic pathos and nationalistic sincerity about this two-movement "symphony" that make it quite an affecting work once you disregard its Soviet associations.
The composer upped the ante to three movements with his next symphony (the "second") completed in 1934. With an emphasis on the quantity of catchy melodic ideas rather than the quality of any extended development, there's an informality about it that makes it more of a suite. The hyperactive opening is soul mate to the second movement of Shostakovich's first symphony (1923-24). A wistful, emotionally powerful andante full of Slavic anguish follows. The work then ends much the way it began with a jolly grandfatherly theme and references to motifs heard in the first movement.
At over forty minutes long, the four-movement fourth symphony 1955-56) is the composer's crowning orchestral achievement. Like Prokofiev who based his third symphony (1928) on material from his opera The Flaming Angel, Kabalevsky borrowed from one of his own, The Family of Taras (1950, revised 1967) for this one (see the informative album notes for further details). It opens with a lovely lyrical theme that is soon upstaged by a headstrong, rather militant idea. A dramatic development follows in which there's even a bit part for the piano. The movement ends with a hint of melancholy [track-3, beginning at 11:40] not unlike that in the first movement of Prokofiev's seventh symphony (1952), and repeated final chords that have the insistence as well as the decibel level of a pile driver.
An extremely moving funereal largo is next, and then a quirky scherzo that Shostakovich may well have envied. The grand finale finds Kabalevsky at the height of his melodic powers, and ends this veritable gem of a symphonic rediscovery in a state of joyful triumph. It will leave you wondering why it’s languished in obscurity for so long.
Conductor Eiji Oue conjures up performances from the Hungarian Radio Choir, NDR Chorus and NDR Radio Philharmonic that have all the Slavic sole of Russia's finest performers. In so doing he makes a strong case for a long overdue Kabalevsky revival, which it would appear the provident people at Naxos (see their releases 8553411, 8553788, 8557683 and 8557794) and Chandos (see their releases 10011, 10052 and 10384) have already begun.
The recordings date from 2001-02 and took place in two venues -- one for the first, "second" and fourth symphonies, and another for the "third." While the soundstages are consistently convincing for all four, the three symphonies in the first venue seem to have been recorded at a slightly higher level than the other. The dynamics and overall frequency response are impressive with some incredible pants-flapping bass. The orchestral timbre is quite good, but may be a bit edgy on systems partial to highs. The choruses sound realistic, but the voice quality is not as well rounded as that on Telarc's finer hybrid discs.
One last comment. Previously we've complained about some of CPO's album notes, but the ones here are superb and set an example for the industry. Keep it up guys!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090106)
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Penderecki: Conc Grosso 1 (3 vcs & orch), Largo & Son (vc & orch), Soloists/Wit/WarNa PO [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
Unlike most contemporary composers, Polish-born Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) compositional style has become increasingly romanticized as he's aged. That's certainly true of the three works for cello(s) and orchestra on this release where the earliest dating from 1964 is decidedly avant-garde, while the most recent from 2003 is quite romantic.
The disc begins with Concerto Grosso No. 1 for 3 Cellos and Orchestra completed in 2001, which many will find a modern day masterpiece. A little over half an hour, it's in a single span consisting of six interconnected movements, and very much in the late romantic mold. It opens hesitantly with just the orchestra, but the soloists soon make dramatic appearances. A sprightly passage that may call to mind the opening of Shostakovich's first symphony (1923-24) follows [track-1, beginning at 05:18], and then two rather militaristic movements spiked with threatening percussive effects. A lovely notturno where the cellos serenade one another is next, and then an exciting extended allegro with a thrilling triple cadenza for the soloists. This carries the listener right into the meditative finale, which is similar in spirit to the closing measures of Shostakovich's last symphony (No. 15, 1971), and ends the concerto with a sense of resigned inner peace.
Despite its name, the Largo for Cello and Orchestra dating from 2003 is a full-blown concerto that was commissioned by the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). The most romantic sounding work here, it lasts almost half an hour and is in three movements played without interruption. The gorgeous rhapsodic opening adagio has "celestal" touches [track-7, beginning at 07:28] suggestive of the first movement ending from Shostakovich's fifth symphony. The following andante is notable for an opening chorale-like motif and moments of great agitation, which the cello assisted by the celesta and woodwinds eventually manage to pacify. The final adagio is for the most part soul-searching except for one brief militaristic foray, and brings the work to a reverential conclusion.
In two highly contrasting movements that are more like happenings, the eleven-minute Sonata for Cello and Orchestra written in 1964 is the most progressive music here. It's a symphonic house of horrors where the cello is pursued by orchestral monsters and demons. The opening is a gradual descent into the infernal regions where dissonance, quarter tones and what sound like aleatory devices reign supreme. The finale is a study in rhythmic pandemonium full of bizarre string effects, gnashing percussion and leonine brass. What this music lacks in beauty it certainly makes up for in novelty, and there's never a dull moment!
While cellists Ivan Monighetti, Arto Noras and Rafal Kwiatkowski are not that well-known, they may become so in the future because they play up a storm! The support provided by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Antoni Wit couldn't be more accomplished. And that’s saying a lot because the music here ranges from lushly romantic to harshly modernistic, requiring great flexibility from all of the performers concerned.
The recordings are fabulous! A perfectly proportioned soundstage in a complementary venue (the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall) plus ideal instrumental placement as well as balance are the order of the day. The instrumental timbre is totally natural over the entire frequency spectrum, which is extensive as the Sonata... calls for a huge orchestra with an astonishing array of exotic percussion. Besides providing us with some very interesting music, this is a demonstration disc par excellence.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090105)
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Rouse, C.: Sym 1, Cl Conc, Iscariot (chbr orch); Fröst/Gilbert/RStock PO [BIS]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
Listeners who are gun-shy when it comes to contemporary music will discover with repeated listening that the selections on this release are most rewarding. By American composer Christopher Rouse (b. 1949), who is highly regarded for his symphonic scores, they are all extremely imaginative, dramatic works with something new and interesting to say.
Iscariot was written in 1989 for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and is dedicated to American composer John Adams (b. 1947). As to its meaning, Rouse will only say that except for the title referring to Jesus' disciple Judas, it has no other biblical associations, and is privately autobiographical. He goes on to explain that it has no sense of forward motion, but just "is," and any interpretation is left entirely to the listener. It's a kind of static tone poem organized into five sections, or strophes as the composer calls them, of wide-ranging dynamic and tonal characteristics. Highlights include a haunting Bartók-like opening and a central section reminiscent of Ives' Unanswered Question. Towards the end there are startling percussive outbursts and references to the chorale tune “Es ist genug,” with which Bach ends his O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort Cantata (BWV 60) so effectively. This makes the piece all the more mysterious, and no matter what Rouse had in mind, you’ll find it becomes more moving with each hearing!
Inspired by the frantic, lunatic atmosphere of 1950s American TV game-shows, the one movement clarinet concerto (2001) is highly entertaining to the point of being a real hoot! It's a refreshingly prickly score with some percussive effects worthy of a Three Stooges soundtrack. Not only that, but it could aptly be subtitled "The Crapshoot," because after every twelve bars Rouse wrote, he rolled a pair of dice to determine the stylistic content of the next few measures. If he rolled anything other than two sixes, he continued in the "game-show" mode. But if he got them for a total of twelve, he wrote a brief tonal episode where the soloist was given a more lyrical line. Like many of us, Rouse has apparently never been particularly enamored of the Second Viennese School, so this atypical concerto, with all its "twelve" associations, is a most enjoyable, wry send-up of Arnie and his dodecaphonic gang (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern). Incidentally, if you like this work, do try Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg's (b. 1958) clarinet concerto (2002).
Now for the pičce de résistance, Rouse's first symphony composed for his hometown band, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra back in 1986, and dedicated to another great American composer, John Harbison (b. 1938, see the newsletter of 15 April 2008). In one extended movement lasting almost half an hour, it's meant to be a nullification of the romantic heroic ideal. The composer does this by inserting distorted references to the heroic opening theme from the adagio of Bruckner's seventh symphony.
Layed out in four coherent sections, it opens ethereally, quickly building to a pounding dissonant climax that sets the stage for the heroic confrontation to come. A short-lived, peaceful interlude introduces the second section, which erupts into an ostinato of ever increasing violence as our hero struggles futilely against insurmountable odds. A cataclysmic chord announces his defeat, and the third section begins serenely, suggesting he will face his demise with acceptance and resignation. But another violent outburst dispels any such notion. Then with what must be the symphonic equivalent of Edvard Munch's The Scream, the work ends in a pianissimo of despair tinged with hints of the Bruckner motif. This exceptionally powerful piece belongs in every modern music enthusiast's collection!
Hearing these adrenalizing performances under conductor Alan Gilbert one can only envy New York Philharmonic audiences who will be getting him as their music director beginning this year. The playing he gets from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra is exceptional with an attention to dynamics and detail that bring out all the panache of these brilliantly orchestrated scores. And clarinetist Martin Fröst deserves a special round of applause for his inspired interpretation of a clarinet concerto quite unlike any other you’ve ever heard.
In addition to all that, the BIS engineers have given us one of their best recordings in years. The orchestral imaging is perfectly in focus across an ideally proportioned soundstage. The instrumental timbre is totally natural over the entire frequency spectrum, ranging from the profound lows of the bass drum to the dulcet highs of the celesta. The dynamic range is awesome with percussive explosions that will challenge the transient response capabilities of the finest speaker systems. Audiophiles will definitely want to take this disc the next time they go shopping for new equipment.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090104)
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Saygun: Pno Concs 1 & 2; Onay/Griffiths/Bilk SO [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Following their exemplary disc of Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun's (1907-1991) cello and viola concertos (see the newsletter of 15 March 2008), CPO now gives us his two piano concertos. With nearly thirty years separating them, they provide excellent examples of his early and late styles of composition. French influences attest to the composer's youthful studies with Vincent d'Indy in Paris during the late 1920s. The presence of Turkish folk elements reflect Saygun's close relationship with Béla Bartók, who encouraged him to assimilate native folk music into what he wrote as he had done with Hungarian.
Begun in 1951, the three-movement first concerto was not completed until 1957. With a gestation period that long, it's no wonder it's such an incisive work. But it's also quite a youthful one where the stylistic imprints of several other composers are present. In that regard, it might best be described as a fascinating combination of impressionism, romanticism and modernism. The opening movement is dramatically powerful, and for the most part quite unlike anything in the better known, late romantic piano concerto literature. That said, there are times when Ravel and Rachmaninov seem to be lurking in the background. The following andante is pentatonicly pensive, leaving the listener drifting in a dream world, only to be jolted back to reality by the virtuosic high-powered concluding allegro.
Written for the soloist here, Güslin Onay, the second piano concerto (1985) is the penultimate of five concertante works Saygun composed (there's a violin concerto dating from 1967 in addition to the ones mentioned above). In three movements like its predecessor, it's a much more advanced work where the composer creates his own unique sound world. He does this by weaving threads of eastern Anatolian folk melodies into a fabric of western concerto design. Moody and at times even threatening, there's a sense of introspection about the first movement analogous to late Bartok. The second one, which is for the most part melodic, is detached and meditative. Not so the finale, where crushingly aggressive, fatalistic episodes conjure up intimations of mortality. At the very end there's a fleeting glimmer of hope that suddenly winks out.
Judging from her exceptionally sensitive performances, Turkish pianist Güslin Onay has this emotionally complex music in her blood as well as at her fingertips. And her technical proficiency is second to none! All that along with the inspired support provided by her countrymen in the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra under up-and-coming conductor Howard Griffiths (see the newsletter of 20 December 2006) makes for an extraordinary disc of discovery.
Both concertos are presented on an extended soundstage wrapped in a rather wet acoustic that effectively surrounds them in an impressionistic mist. While this is not all that conducive to demonstration quality sound, it certainly complements the temperament of Sagan's music.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090103)
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Taneyev, S.: Stg Trios 1, 3 & 4 (vn, va & vc); Leopold Trio [Hyperion]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
He wrote string quartets (see the newsletters of 7 May 2006, 20 May 2006, 31 August 2006, 30 September 2006 and 8 December 2007) and quintets (see the newsletter of 11 July 2007), but it's Russian composer Sergei Taneyev's (1856-1915) four string trios that are the cream of the crop as far as his exclusively bowed chamber music is concerned. That's particularly true of the three for violin, viola and cello offered here. The remaining one (his second completed in 1907) for the unusual combination of two violins and viola is not included.
The program begins with the third trio, which is the finest of the four and dates from 1910-11. Taneyev scored it for violin, viola and tenor viola. But the latter instrument has never caught on and is replaced with a cello when performed today. The notes remain the same as in the manuscript, however cellist Kate Gould has reallocated some of them to better preserve how the trio must have originally sounded.
The spirit of Mozart underlies the first movement, but there's a textural complexity about it that shows Taneyev for the great contrapuntalist he was. The fleeting scherzo couldn't be more Russian, but has strange references to what sounds like "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Grieg's Peer Gynt (1874-75). There's a lyrical pathos about the adagio worthy of Beethoven, and then the trio ends with a cheeky presto, leaving the audience smiling.
The fourth trio (1913) is next, and was the composer's last work, which he never actually completed. What we have here is a two movement approximation of it where the ending of the first and most of the second part were reconstructed from sketches by the editors who first published the score. It's a highly chromatic, anxiety-ridden piece that shows Taneyev at his most harmonically advanced. The agitated, troubled opening movement sets the stage for the fatalistic, magnificently constructed theme with seven variations that comprise the finale. This piece foreshadows Alfred Schnittke's (1934-1998) darker thoughts in the chamber music medium.
A Mozartian straightforwardness and simplicity characterize the first trio (1879-80) that concludes this disc. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and Taneyev were close friends who both adored Wolfie, therefore it's not surprising Peter Ilyich thought so highly of this piece that he wrote praises for it on the last page of the manuscript. In four movements, the opening one is a jolly neoclassical, sonata-form treat with an infectious Tchaikovskian riff [track-7, beginning at 01:41] that keeps resurfacing much to the listener's delight. The scherzo is a contrapuntal whimsy with a rustic folksy trio section, and the adagio, a rather somber rumination. The finale is Mendelssohnian in spirit with perky Russky folk overtones that call to mind the lighter moments in Beethoven's Rasumovsky Quartets (Nos. 7-9, 1805-06).
The Leopold String Trio raises the bar for performances of these works with articulate heartfelt readings, which completely humanize a composer who in lesser hands can come off sounding rather academic. Violinist Isabelle van Keulen is in top form and violist Lawrence Power's playing is as stunning as ever. Cellist Kate Gould is the linchpin of these performances, and her adjustments to the third trio (see above) clarify its textural complexity to a point where many will prefer this version to any other.
Coruscating sting tone is the order of the day here across a wide, reverberant soundstage that should appeal to those liking a wetter acoustic. The placement and balance between the soloists is ideal, making this an invaluable chamber music disc for testing the instrumental imaging capability of speaker systems. Audiophiles please take note!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090102)
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