CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
(CLOFO)
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS



28 JANUARY 2009

CROCKS NEWSLETTER

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.



The album cover may not always appear.
Dietrich, A.: Sym 2, Vn Conc, Intro & Rom (hn & orch); Kufferath/Neunecker/Rumpf/OldenSt O [CPO]
German composer Albert Dietrich (1829-1908) was a student and friend of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and consequently greatly influenced by him. Dietrich also knew Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), and listening to the three selections on these discs, one also senses an affinity between their symphonic music. But it's difficult to say who emulated whom, considering they were writing concurrently during their mature productive years. Either way, German romantic music enthusiasts will be delighted to come upon this album of discovery.

The second symphony (the first was never printed and is now lost) premiered in 1869 with the composer conducting, and became one of the most frequently performed new symphonies of its time. Hearing it today, that's not hard to believe because it's a beautifully written work that bridges the symphonies of Schumann and Brahms. In the standard four movements, the opening allegro definitely owes a debt to the former composer, but if anything Dietrich outdoes Robert in matters of construction and orchestration.

The following andante features some lovely horn passages, and conjures up images of rolling hills bathed in the auburn light of a setting sun. There's a curious similarity between the opening measures of the scherzo and Paganini's famous twenty-fourth caprice for violin (1820), which engendered works by the likes of Brahms, Rachmaninov, Blacher and Lutoslawski. Otherwise, the specters of Schumann's Rhenish Symphony (No. 3, 1850) and Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture (1826) haunt this movement. The finale has a Brahmsian ring, but the wealth of thematic material and romantic development lavished upon it are more reminiscent of Dvorák, albeit minus the Slavic touch..

And now a real find! The violin concerto dating from 1874 was very popular in its day, and it's about time this underrated work resurfaced! The first of its three movements is a lyrical outpouring of inspired thematic ideas. It's noteworthy for an atypical cadenza that's like a recitative where the violin is the soloist. In it the orchestra provides intermittent pedal point accompaniment that hints at the opening motif. The adagio is an emotive exuberance attractively embroidered by the winds. The closing allegro apparently caused the composer much trouble, which he obviously overcame, because you couldn't ask for a more winsome, high-spirited finale. This concerto ranks with the best of what the romantic period has to offer, and many will find it preferable to Joseph Joachim's (1831-1907) efforts in this genre

The concert closes with the Introduction and Romance for Horn and Orchestra published in 1872. It's a one-movement, nine-minute concertino which anticipates the two full-fledged horn concertos of Richard Strauss (1882 and 1942), and even the one by Reinhold Glière (1950). The horn is one of the most dramatic as well as difficult instruments in the orchestra. And this eloquent music, where the soloist is given an extended melodic line of ideal tessitura and dynamics, shows it off to perfection. If you like this piece, you'll love Robert Schumann's Concertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra (1849).

Dietrich was the court music director in Oldenburg, Germany, for thirty years (1861-1891), so it's quite appropriate that the Oldenburg State Orchestra does the honors here. Under conductor Alexander Rumpf, the symphony receives a riveting performance, while the support provided in the two concertante works is highly commendable. Violinist Elisabeth Kufferath gives us a totally sympathetic interpretation of the concerto, but one can't help wondering how Julia Fischer or Joshua Bell would have handled it. As in her previous recordings of the Brahms and Ligeti horn trios, Marie-Luise Neunecker proves she's one of today’s finest French horn players.

These recordings were made at live performances, but you'd never know it because they're not miked that close and there's no extraneous audience noise. In fact the soundstage is remarkably spacious and the balance between the soloists and orchestra, quite acceptable. With music this rarely performed and recorded we're lucky to have sound this good, even if it does fall a little short of demonstration quality.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090128)

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The album cover may not always appear.
Dubois, T.: Vc & Pno Wks (5 incl son), Vn & Pno Wks (4 incl son); Loiselle/Robert/Lemelin [ATMA Cl]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
ATMA Classique's invaluable survey of French composer Théodore Dubois' (1837-1924) chamber music (see the newsletter of 30 October 2007) continues with this exceptional release. You'll find the nine selections for violin or cello (all with piano accompaniment) on this CD some of the most elegant Gallic chamber music to appear in a long time.

You may never have heard of Dubois, but his musical credentials were impeccable. Careerwise he succeeded César Franck as choirmaster at Sainte-Clotilde in 1863 and Camille Saint-Saëns as organist at the Church of the Madeleine in 1868. Not only that, but he taught at the Paris Conservatoire where he could count Paul Dukas as well as Florent Schmitt (see the newsletter of 25 July 2007) among his students, and would become its director from 1896 to 1905.

The recital opens with his three-movement cello sonata, which was premiered in 1905. It's a winning combination of the new wine of romantic chromaticism in old classical bottles. The gently rocking melodic first movement is followed by a stunning theme and variations. The finale is a totally infectious rustic stomp apparently based on a popular song of the day.

Four exquisite miniatures are next. Ballade (violin, 1909) conjures up alternate celestial and infernal images in the best tradition of silent movie music. Nocturne (cello, 1903), Mélodie (violin, 1882) and Andante Appassionato (cello, published in 1925) rival any of Gabriel Fauré's small-scale works for violin or cello.

The violin takes center stage in the exceptional sonata (1900) that follows. Also in three movements, you may find it ranks among the greatest romantic French chamber music discoveries you've made! Melodic mania and flights of passionate fancy carry one aloft in the opening allegro. The solemn, moving andante brings the listener back to earth, only to be swept off his/her feet in the kinetic finale. In typical Franckian cyclic fashion, motifs from the first two movements reappear, binding this immaculate work all the tighter. A frenetic final coda ends the sonata on a jocund note.

Three more memorable miniatures fill out the program. Andante Cantabile (cello, 1899) is an aria that shows off the cello's uncanny proclivity to mimic the human voice. Méditation et Scherzetto (violin, 1912) is an appealing contrast of the quiescent and quixotic. Cavatine (cello, 1886) gives the cello the last say on this disc with another gorgeous aria, concluding this extraordinary concert all too soon.

Violinist Anne Robert, cellist Benoît Loiselle and pianist Stéphane Lemelin are all superb! Their technically accomplished, ardent performances bring out all the subtle charm of these ravishing scores. The composer himself couldn't have asked for more dedicated advocates of his music.

The recordings are good, but the soundstage could be a tad roomier. The violin and cello are very natural sounding, but for some reason those with very pointy ears may find the piano more convincing when paired with the violin. Differing microphone setups over the three days indicated in the album notes for these recordings might explain this.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090127)

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The album cover may not always appear.
Leighton: Orch Wks V2 (Sym 2 "Sinfa mistica", Te Deum); Fox/Hickox/BBCWalNa C&O [Chandos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Following their highly acclaimed first volume in a new series devoted to the music of English composer Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988, see the newsletter of 3 July 2008), Chandos now gives us another. Leighton wrote a great deal of outstanding choral music, so it's good to have two stunning examples of it this time around. Although he wasn't an inveterate churchgoer, the composer was religious in the sense that he read a considerable amount about the philosophy of religion. He also once stated he found religious, mystical and visionary ideas a most exciting stimulus for composition. That would certainly seem to be the case with the two works for soprano, chorus and orchestra presented here.

First up, the recording première of his second symphony (he composed three numbered ones), which was completed in 1974 and bears the sobriquet "Sinfonia mistica." Lasting almost fifty minutes, Leighton wrote it in memory of his mother who had died the previous year, and described it as a requiem or meditation on death. The texts for each of its six movements are drawn from the writings of English metaphysical and anonymous medieval poets. It begins and ends with words by John Donne (1572-1631), and references to the American hymn "Shall We Gather at the River" (1865, also known as “The Shining River”) by the Reverend Robert Lowry (1826-1899). Incidentally, back in 1958 another great English symphonist and contemporary of Leighton, Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986), used this tune as the basis for a set of variations for brass.

The opening movement is a chilling sonnet about human frailty delivered by the soprano over an alternately mysterious and menacing orchestral accompaniment. The following scherzo is a percussively punctuated reminder of death first intoned forcefully by the chorus and then mournfully by the soloist. It ends with an odd, jazzy little episode [track-2, beginning at 08:01] that includes what sounds like a barroom piano, and could well be a diabolical representation of the Grim Reaper. The lovely meditation and elegy that are next offer a bit of solace, but in the end mortality prevails.

Another worded scherzo limns how fleeting life is and the resulting insignificance of man. The finale brilliantly intersperses hopeful verses from Lowry's hymn (see above) with Donne's dour pronouncements about the human condition. The jazzy death rattle mentioned above reappears at one point [track-6, beginning at 11:00], and the work ends fatalistically with more Donne sung by the soprano as the orchestra imitates a distant tolling church bell. Those liking this symphony should also investigate Leighton’s third.

The composer’s English setting of the Early Christian Latin hymn of praise, Te Deum, concludes this memorable choral disc. Originally composed for soloists, chorus and organ in 1964, he was asked two years later for a version with orchestra. So in 1966 he orchestrated the organ part and rewrote most of the solo passages for a segment of the chorus to better balance the voices and orchestra.

It begins with Scotch snappish chords in the brass as the soprano sings, "We praise thee," and the chorus enters jubilantly. An animated section follows which may bring to mind Walton's (1902-1983) Belshazzar's Feast (1930-31, revised in 1948 and 1957). A subdued episode with a brief baritone solo then ensues and builds to a laudatory crescendo. As it fades the soprano and chorus return, ending this on a benedictory note. Leighton says a great deal in just a little over eight minutes, making this one of the shortest, but most effective choral works you'd ever hope to hear.

Under the late Richard Hickox, Soprano Sarah Fox and the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales deliver what will be definitive performances of this rare repertoire for some time to come. The symphony is in many respects a fitting tribute to this great English conductor, who died suddenly at age sixty on 23 November 2008, almost a year to the day after these recordings were made. His enthusiasm for whatever he was conducting and ability to bring out the best in his performers are what made his discs, including this one, so special. He will be fondly remembered and sorely missed by those of us who held him very dear for all the wonderful, little known British music he introduced us to on Chandos (see the newsletters of 20 September 2006, 20 November 2006, 6 December 2006, 17 February 2007, 15 September 2007, 15 February 2008, 15 March 2008 and 3 July 2008).

As far as conventional CDs go, this release finds the Chandos engineers at their best. An exceptionally large soundstage gives the massive forces present comfortable breathing space, but everything remains in focus. The instrumental timbre is totally natural over the entire frequency spectrum. In that regard the transient response is exceptional, making the plethora of percussive effects all the more spectacular. Ms. Fox beautiful voice is very realistically captured, but those with systems favoring the high end may find some of the massed choral passages a bit grainy. This seems to be a problem only remedied by the proper choice of microphones and SACD format (see the Foulds recommendation in the newsletter of 15 April 2008). One last nitpick, there are what might be truck sounds [track-3, beginning at 04:04], but they only last about five seconds. Maybe some local pub delivered fish 'n chips and a couple of hundred pints for the assembled troops.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090126)

- AVAILABILITY -
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The album cover may not always appear.
Marx, J.: Frühlingsmusik, Idylle, Feste im Herbst; Wildner/Vien RSO [CPO]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
A couple of years ago we told you about some wonderful chamber music by Austrian composer Joseph Marx (1882-1964, see the newsletter of 18 October 2006), and now romanticists will be delighted to discover three of his symphonic works on this recent release from CPO. Highly regarded by Puccini and Richard Strauss, Marx personally knew many of the greatest European composers of his day, including Berg, Korngold, Lehár, Ravel, Schreker and Szymanowski, just to name a few. His music has points in common with all of them, and is consequently a fascinating mixture of styles ranging from romantic to modern. The mood is basically Germanic, but there are flashes of Latin temperament -- Marx had an Italian grandmother and spent much of his youth in Italy.

He loved nature and, having written his monumental Herbstsymphonie (Autumn Symphony) in 1921 (see below), had planned the following year to compose another extended nature piece for orchestra. But ultimately this became three separate, thematically connected symphonic poems, which he completed in 1925. The first of these, Eine Symphonische Nachtmusik (Symphonic Night Music) is not included here, but Idylle (Idyll) and Eine Frühlingsmusik (Spring Music) are.

The disc begins with Eine Frühlingsmusik (1925), which admittedly owes a great debt to Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy and Franz Schreker, but still remains a unique Marx creation. That's because he skillfully manipulates the romantic, impressionist and expressionist stylistic elements found in their music to his own ends. Hearing this tone poem one can easily imagine vernal Alpine meadows with seas of flowers and babbling mountain brooks, where spring fever soon turns youthful fancies to thoughts of love.

Idylle (1925) is next and bears the title "Concertino on the Pastoral Fourth." Here intervals of a perfect fourth frequent an impressionistic tone painting of what could well be a rustic arboreal summer scene. The hushed woodwind opening and subsequent swelling string passages will have many listeners thinking of Marx as the Austrian Delius with an orchestral palette every bit as exotic as that of Korngold. This symphonic pastel is the essence of understatement and irresistibly charming. Musical representations of nature don't get any more inspired than this!

The final selection, Feste im Herbst (Autumn Celebration, 1946), is a very welcome recording première of a piece whose origin lies with Marx' Herbstsymphonie (Autumn Symphony) mentioned above. The latter was of such Mahlerian proportions that performances of it had ceased by 1927. So twenty years later Marx decided to resuscitate at least part of the score by reworking the finale into a stand-alone symphonic poem. In so doing, he structurally pruned the distended original and simplified the orchestration.

It begins with what the album notes tell us is a musical depiction of harvest activity, but you may find it sounds more like a country carnival. Either way, things soon turn somewhat mysterious (track-3, beginning at 03:49] with passages strangely reminiscent of Schreker's Prelude to a Drama (1913), which is a synthesis of music from his singularly expressionist opera Die Gezeichneten (1918, see the newsletter of 20 November 2006). Shortly thereafter there's a folksy episode followed by curious oriental riffs [track-3, beginning at 05:29] that could almost be out of Glière's Red Poppy Ballet (1927). While the significance of the latter remains a mystery, they add all the more atmosphere to this Technicolor score. Marx treats these differing motifs and moods like pieces of a symphonic jigsaw puzzle that, finally assembled, leave one with the image of an autumn day in a far-off Shangri-la.

Conductor Johannes Wildner and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra certainly have the measure of their countryman’s music, and make a strong case for the recent Marx revival. While the first two selections also appear on an ASV disc, Wildner's more dramatic approach seems preferable. You may hear a couple of bass thumps most likely courtesy of him doing the "Bernstein Bounce" on the podium. By the way, there are several other Marx CDs to explore on ASV (1073, 1158, 1164, 1174) and Chandos (10505).

The selections here are presented across a vast resonant soundstage, which aesthetically complements the panoramic scope of these sumptuous symphonic settings. While the resultant tsunami of sound limits the effectiveness of this release as an articulate demonstration disc, audiophiles who are romanticists at heart will find themselves delightfully awash in it. Have a nice play!

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090125)

- AVAILABILITY -
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The album cover may not always appear.
Roslavets: Vn Concs 1 & 2; Ibragimova/Volkov/BBCScot SO [Hyperion]
Thanks to their adventurous attitude towards rare repertoire, the folks at Hyperion now give us a second release of orchestral music by Russian composer Nikolai Roslavets (1881-1944). Having fallen afoul of the culturally repressive Soviet authorities, his home was ransacked shortly after his death and many of his manuscripts confiscated. It wasn't until just before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 that these works began surfacing and became known in the West. And a good thing it was too, because this disc and its immediate predecessor (see the newsletter of 17 February 2007) prove Roslavets was an extremely talented composer with a voice all of his own.

Written in 1925, the score for the first violin concerto remained lost for over sixty years, during which time it was only known in a reduction for violin and piano. Even though its first full performance took place almost twenty years ago, this is the only recording of it currently available. But judging from the quality of the music, that shouldn't be the case much longer! Roslavet's writes in a highly individualized style, which shows the influences of Scriabin and Schoenberg. More specifically there's an intense chromaticism similar to that found in the late works of the former composer as well as a tonal scheme related to the dodecaphony of the latter. Despite the use of these avant-garde devices, the concerto remains predominantly tonal and listener-friendly.

Scored for a large orchestra, it's in the conventional three movements, which follow a fast-slow-fast layout. The opening is notable for an introductory theme that's a bifurcated twelve-tone row. The first six tones are the basis for an interrogatory ostinato in the cellos and basses, which the violins answer with the remaining six. This hexapartite approach dominates the entire concerto, and may bring to mind aspects of Cristopher Rouse's clarinet concerto, which we told you about last time (see the newsletter of 7 January 2009). Incidentally, you may find Roslavets' atonal tiptoeing around creates a sound world similar to that of Szymanowski (1882-1937).

The first movement ends in a breathtaking extended cadenza, which also serves as an introduction to a brilliantly orchestrated, romantically inclined adagio, somewhat reminiscent of Alban Berg's (1885-1935) violin concerto (1935). The finale might best be described as a thrilling musical fox hunt where the soloist is chased by the orchestra over an imaginatively rugged melodic and rhythmic terrain. In the end, unlike Janácek's doomed vixen, this fox escapes its pursuers and the concerto ends with final chords of exasperation from the hunters.

This is the world première performance of the second violin concerto completed in 1936. It's a much more approachable work undoubtedly explained by the fact that Roslavets like all the other Russian composers at that time was under the gun to produce music with mass appeal. Compared to its predecessor, it's half as long and for a smaller orchestra, but retains the same three-movement, fast-slow-fast structure. Also, it's much simpler harmonically, which gives it greater tonal stability.

The opening allegro begins romantically with a theme of folk character stated by the orchestra. The violin soon enters in recitative fashion and then, like a hummingbird, darts hither and thither around the fragrant melodic flowers that spring up from the orchestra. The movement ends with some solo pyrotechnics and joyous tutti outbursts. The introspective adagio is the most harmonically advanced section of the concerto, and gives the work a sense of emotional depth. Folk elements once again come to the fore in the skittish finale that's based on an infectiously spastic opening motif. Here the soloist indulges in some more fiddle fireworks and even has a moment for inner reflection before the concerto ends in a beguiling coda of hiccups.

On this disc you'll make the acquaintance of an exceptionally talented newcomer to the ranks of distinguished violin virtuosos. Born in Russia in 1985, Alina Ibragimova is someone you'll be hearing more about on the basis of her finely attuned interpretations of these welcome additions to the violin literature. As with their previous Hyperion release featuring piano concertante works by Benjamin Britten (see the newsletter of 3 October 2008), up-and-coming Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra couldn't be more supportive of their soloist.

The sonics are for the most part good with a soundstage that may initially sound a bit immured. But as one gets caught up in the music, any sense of confinement seems to drop away. The solo violin is quite beautifully captured, and ideally spotlighted against the rest of the orchestra. The bass response, particularly in the generously orchestrated first concerto, is immaculate. However, some may find the high end gets a little out of hand in forte passages involving the full orchestral. You may also notice a couple of thuds most likely resulting from Maestro Volkov doing the "Bernstein Bounce" on the podium.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090124)

- AVAILABILITY -
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The album cover may not always appear.
Smalley, R.: Pno Qnt, Trio (hn, vn, pno), Stg Qt 2; Smalley/Wright/Poulsen/Austra Stg Qt [Melba]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
English-born (1943) and trained Roger Smalley moved to Australia in 1974 where he has since become a major figure in contemporary music circles. While he's probably best known as a pianist, he's also a gifted composer as evidenced by the three selections on this recent release from Melba Recordings. He writes modern, tonally accessible music that's intellectually challenging as well as emotionally captivating.

The concert begins with his four-movement piano quintet of 2003, which is beset with references to the first few measures of Chopin's last mazurka (Op. 68, No. 4). The agitated first movement, entitled "Overture," conjures up images of some silent movie villain with a long mustache and flowing black cape. There's a nuits d'été air about the quirky, diminutive intermezzo, where fireflies flash fragments of the mazurka. It's quoted more fully in the mercurial scherzo, which magically evaporates into thin air.

The finale is the longest as well as the most ingenious part of the quintet. And while it's a real thought piece, it's also dramatically absorbing. Here the mazurka is the subject of a chaconne as well as a sequence of seven variations that appear above it. What's more, the variations are cast in forms that were commonly used by Chopin (polonaise, waltz, etc.)!

The three-movement trio for horn, violin and piano completed in 2002, is a welcome addition to the handful of contemporary ones by the likes of Lennox Berkeley (1954), Don Banks (1962), Gyorgy Ligeti (1962) and Robert Simpson (1984). It has the musical equivalent of a cinematic flashback where the seed melody that’s the basis for the twelve-tone row with which it begins, and for that matter the whole piece, doesn't appear until the second movement.

The opening allegro is a twitchy, free sonata form construct which remains tonally grounded despite its dodecaphonic start. But there are some pretty intense chromatic and rhythmic developmental episodes that place considerable demands on each of the performers.

The second movement, entitled "Mirror Variations," is the centerpiece of the trio, and begins with the seed melody mentioned above played by the horn. Seventeen variations follow, culminating in a frenetic passage with horn glissandi. This gradually subsides as the violin and horn become more melancholy and introduce a canon involving the seed and its inversion, or mirror image (whence the title). The movement ends in medias res with the piano playing a chorale based on the seed.

The finale is the most lyrical part of the work where there are once again remembrances of the seed melody. It gets off to a churning start and contains a couple of hyper episodes full of spectacular horn fireworks. One of these [track-7, beginning at 02:13] may bring Shostakovich to mind. Then the trio suddenly expires with an inconclusive chord on the piano, bringing this exceptional chamber creation to an untimely end.

The concluding selection is Smalley's second string quartet completed in 2000, which the composer tells us was a precursor of the above quintet. Like its successor there are thematic links to Chopin via another of his mazurkas (Op. 56, No. 3). Smalley uses fragments of it as the melodic DNA for this twenty-minute, one movement work. It opens slowly and mysteriously, emerging from swirling mists with birdlike glissandi, but the pace soon quickens with hints of Chopin.

Smalley then constructs a highly chromatic, mesmerizing masterpiece that's exceptional for its seamlessness. There are haunting allusions to the mazurka, and one can only marvel at the composer's ability to conceive a totally integrated quartet in a single extended span. In some ways it may remind you of Luciano Berio's (1925-2003) remarkable Rendering (1989-90), where he surrounds insular sketches of Schubert's uncompleted tenth symphony with a symphonic sea of his own making.

All of the performances are superb and include the composer himself as pianist in the quintet and trio. The Australian String Quartet accompanies him in the former and is featured in the quartet, which it commissioned. The very talented hornist Darryl Poulsen, who commissioned the trio, is joined in it by Australian virtuoso violinist Paul Wright. With a lineup like that, these performances must be considered definitive.

Since each of these works was recorded at a different location, you'd expect variations in their sonic images. But it would appear the Australian engineers have managed to keep acoustic incongruities to a minimum. Consequently only pointy-eared audiophiles may find the soundstage for the quintet a bit more confined and less reverberant than that for the other two selections. The piano sound is immaculate and well-rounded, the horn magnificently captured in all its obstreperousness, and the strings are totally natural. This is a demonstration quality disc that will please audiophiles as well as modern music enthusiasts.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090123)

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OLD BUT GOLD


The album cover may not always appear.
Bach, J.S.: Lute Prels (2), Stes (2) & Trans (5); Farr/Hill Lute-Hpd [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE (2 CDs)
This album slipped under the CLOFO radar when it was first released last July, and it wasn't until a companion disc featuring the same lute-harpsichord appeared five months later (see the D'Anglebert recommendation in the newsletter of 18 December 2008) that we picked up on it. Instruments like this existed in the eighteenth century, but none of them have come down to us. So what we have here is a modern day reconstruction by Keith Hill. It's based on documentation dating from 1768 that describes one owned by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

When it comes to harpsichords, there are those who find themselves in sympathy with Sir Thomas Beecham's rather droll put-down of them involving amorous skeletons and a tin roof. But with gut rather than metal strings, even the most prejudiced harpsichord critics may find themselves won over by Mr. Hill's velveteen-toned keyboard recreation.

Old J.S. must have been a lute buff because he owned one along with two lute-harpsichords, and composed as well as arranged a significant number of works for it throughout his career. These are generously represented here in this impressive collection of original pieces (BWV 996-999) as well as transcriptions (BWV 964, 990, 995, 1000 and 1006a), impeccably played by Elizabeth Farr on this magnificent instrument.

The concert begins with a seven-part suite (BWV 995) that's a transcription of the fifth one for unaccompanied cello (BWV 1011) with the key changed from C to G minor. Highlights include a sonorous opening prelude, which is in essence a French overture (slow-fast-slow), and a stately allemande. The sarabande exemplifies style brisé, or the "broken style" of playing associated with the lute, where each note is allowed to resonate at length. Two sprightly gavottes and an angular gigue end the work.

The next two selections are suites composed specifically for the lute. BWV996 is in six-parts and opens with a preludio that's in stylus phantasticus, or the "fantastic style" found in the keyboard music of North German composers like the great Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707, see the newsletters of 1 March 2007 and 17 November 2007). The bourrée may well sound familiar because it's always been a favorite signature tune with classical music stations. The concluding gigue has the intricacy of a lace doily.

BWV 997 begins with a harmonically rich prelude followed by a fetching fugue. Then surprise of all surprises there's a gorgeous sarabande that's melodically identical to the closing chorus of the St. Matthew Passion written several years earlier. The final gigue and double are musical siblings that end the suite all aglitter with tonal rhinestones and sequins.

The first CD concludes with three shorter works. The Prelude, Fugue and Allegro (BWV 998) written for lute or harpsichord is interesting because each of its sections becomes more contrapuntally complex. The Prelude (BWV 999) for lute calls to mind those in the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The Fugue (BWV 1000) is a transcription of the renowned one from the first sonata for unaccompanied violin (BWV 1001). Bach also used this in his Prelude and Fugue for organ (BWV 539), changing the key from C to D minor.

The concert continues on the second disc with a seven-part suite (BWV 1006a) that's a transcription Bach did for lute-harpsichord of his third partita for unaccompanied violin (BWV1006). Many will recognize the opening prelude as the melodic foundation for the introductory sinfonia from his Wir danken dir, Gott Cantata (BWV 29). The French sounding gavotte en rondeau could be right out of Rameau or François Couperin, while the concluding Italianate gigue brings to mind Handel's more intricate harpsichord creations.

The following four-movement sonata (BWV 964) is a harpsichord arrangement J.S. made of his third sonata for unaccompanied violin (BWV 1003). With a much more luxuriant sound than the original, the transcription is tailor-made for Hill's instrument. The final fugue is a contrapuntal gem with ingenious echo effects that presage the finale of the Overture in the French Style (BWV 831).

The recital ends with the Sarabanda con partite (BWV 990). Although a keyboard work, the predominance of style brisé writing (see above) makes it sound like it could have originally been for lute. Of atypical construction, it's a seventeen-part combination theme and variations with a concluding suite. There's a Gallic elegance about the main theme that makes it most appealing, and an ideal subject for the eleven ingenious variations that follow. The eleventh is a plucky etude that shows off the lute-harpsichord to great effect.

But that's not all folks, because Bach then proceeds to tack on a delightful four-part suite based on the main idea. And just so we won't forget from whence we came, he concludes by restating the opening theme, bringing this exceptional musical odyssey and concert to a close.

We've already sung the praises of the instrument featured here, but it would be of little use without the talented services of harpsichordist Elizabeth Farr. Suffice it to say she is a keyboard artist of exceptional ability. Technical mastery, precision of attack and well-judged tempos characterize her playing, making this an outstanding release.

The sonics are superb, putting this disc in the demonstration quality category. The sound is totally natural, and the magnificent tone of this instrument is significantly enhanced by a wide soundstage and an appropriately reverberant acoustic. Harpsichord enthusiasts will not want to be without this album or its successor mentioned above.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090122)

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