18 FEBRUARY 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.

The album cover may not always appear.
Arnell: Syms 1 & 6 "The Anvil", Sinfa quasi Variazioni; Yates/RScotNa O [Dutton]
With this release the Dutton folks complete their survey (see the newsletters of 23 June 2006, 25 July 2007 and 15 January 2008) of English composer Richard Arnell's (1917-2009) six numbered symphonies. This alpha-omega installment gives us the first and last of these plus his youthful sinfonia, which, like Anton Bruckner's formative Study (No. 00, 1863) and Nulte (No. 0, 1863-69) symphonies, presaged what was to come. Arnell composed the two earlier works included here during his extended stay in the United States (1939-1947), and the later one long after his 1947 return to England.

Back in the 1940s and 50s, Bernard Herrmann and Sir Thomas Beecham considered Arnell a very talented composer, and proceeded to champion his music. They've since been proven right, because today he's counted as one of England's greatest symphonists, along with the likes of Malcom Arnold (1921-2006, see the newsletter of 18 December 2008), George Lloyd (1913-1998, see the newsletters of 18 October 2006 and 8 December 2007), Robert Simpson (1921-1997) and Michael Tippett (1905-1998).

The Sinfonia quasi Variazioni was written in New York City in 1941 and premièred there the following year with Sir Thomas conducting the New York City Symphony Orchestra (NYCSO). Sometimes referred to by the composer as his first symphony, it shows how well he'd learned his lessons from John Ireland, who was his composition teacher at the Royal College of Music.

In five brief movements, the opening one is really just an elaboration of a theme that will return as the main idea for the symphony's finale. The middle three movements are alternately fast and slow, with the outer ones attractively atwitter, and a central andante that's the work's emotional core. As stated above, the theme heard at the outset forms the basis for the symphony's majestic conclusion, which is at times reminiscent of Paul Hindemith (1895-1963).

Like the previous piece, the Symphony No. 1 was composed (1943) and premièred (1944) in New York City by Beecham and the NYCSO. It's a neoclassical gem that Arnell had originally called a chamber symphony before he designated it as number one. The first of its four movements is a delicate, articulately crafted rondo-like structure with a tiny recurring staccato riff [track-6, beginning at 00:27] that could almost be out of Rossini's overture to The Barber of Seville. In the following andante the winds sail leisurely over a sea of shimmering strings, finally reaching peaceful moorings. A brief bubbly vivace acts as a transition to the concluding presto. Here the winds and strings engage in a delightful "Caucus-race" around an engaging melody [track-9, beginning at 01:37], and the work then ends abruptly.

Lasting a little less than fifteen minutes, the sixth symphony nicknamed “The Anvil” was written between 1992 and 1994. Fifty years separate it from the first, and like the last symphonies of Carl Nielsen and Dmitri Shostakovich, it's a bit off-the-wall. After all, how many other symphonies do you know where an anvil is periodically struck throughout it in Nibelungen fashion! Incidentally, at age ninety-two Arnell is apparently working on a seventh.

The sixth is in what the composer refers to as "four sections," which follow each other with practically no break. The opening one is entitled "Introduction," and lasts a little less than a minute. It begins with a single chord on the piano followed by a whack on the anvil and the winds intoning a reference to the "Muss es sein? Es muss sein!" motif from Beethoven's last string quartet (No. 16, 1826). Sounding somewhat like the opening of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, it leaves one quite mystified as to what's intended. But that's only the first of several occasions where you'll find yourself scratching your head in wonderment.

The next part called "Structure and Tune" is possessed by a motif and rhythm that Arnell tells us represent the words "Ye are many." This is a quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley's (1792-1822) poem The Masque of Anarchy, commemorating the 1819 Peterloo massacre of British civilians In Manchester, England. This section builds to a percussively pounding climax and then suddenly fades away.

What's referred to as "Keyboard Event" follows where, according to Arnell, the concertante piano part is meant to represent the composer participating in his own work. It's a threatening affair and another imponderable.

The finale, labeled "Conclusion," begins like "Introduction," but with the addition of cymbal crashes. Then the lower strings murmur a slow melody subliminally suggestive of the big tune Beethoven uses for his setting of Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" in the finale of his Choral Symphony (No. 9, 1822-24). Arnell repeats it over and over again in Roy Harris fashion, creating a mountain of sound, after which there are flashbacks to "Muss es sein." More piano/anvil commentary follows, and the symphony ends with a percussive eruption and an ambiguous final chord.

This is a fascinating piece, but what's it all mean? Unfortunately the notes Arnell appended to the score (see the album booklet) don't tell us much. But one obvious conjecture is that it's a commentary on man's continuing inhumanity to man, and the composer's hope it will some day be replaced with love and understanding. It certainly leaves one wondering what his seventh will be like.

As with their other previous releases (see the opening paragraph), conductor Martin Yates and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra give us immaculate performances of these selections, again making a strong case for Arnell's music. With all its quirks and eccentricities, they're particularly challenged by the enigmatic sixth symphony, but hold it together beautifully.

The recordings are generally good with an accommodating soundstage and complementary venue. On some of the more violent percussive passages, the bass response is sensationally deep and tight. However, those with systems having a robust high end may find themselves turning their level controls counterclockwise on all-out passages.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P090218)


The album cover may not always appear.
Bate, S.: Va Conc; Bell, W.H.: Rosa...; Vaughan Williams: Romance; Chase/Bell/BBCCon O [Dutton]
The great viola revival (see the newsletters of 30 May 2008, 24 July 2008 and 3 October 2008) continues with this disc of discovery from Dutton. It features music by two rarely heard British Composers in addition to that of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

One of the two, Stanley Bate (1911-1959), studied with VW as well as Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) in Germany and Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) in France. Married briefly to Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), Bate moved to Australia in 1939, and then the United States in 1941 before returning to England in 1949. The other, William Henry Bell (1873-1946), could count Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924, see the newsletter of 30 August 2007) among his teachers, and left England in 1912 for South Africa, where he spent the rest of his life.

Bate composed his forty-minute, four-movement viola concerto in the US between 1944 and 1946. Although there are indications he originally planned to dedicate it to the great violist William Primrose (see the newsletter of 11 July 2007), it's Vaughan Williams' name that appears on the printed score. And well it should, because his teacher's guiding hand is unmistakable in it. One could think of it as a follow-on to VW's Flos campi (1925) and suite for viola (1934). Or, without stretching the imagination too far, the viola concerto Vaughan Williams never wrote.

Some may accuse Bate of being derivative, but this is first-rate music that at times sounds extra-British in keeping with the composer's multinational training. The first movement is very much in the VW mold with an attractive juxtaposition of amorous and valorous passages that at one point [track-1, beginning at 07:25] could be out of Sinfonia Antarctica (No. 7, 1942-52). It ends with a spectacular cadenza and reprise of its sensuous opening.

The following andante and allegro are respectively mournful and hyperkinetic, while the highly dramatic finale bears a passing resemblance to Miklós Rózsa's (1907-1995) best film music (see the newsletter of 25 July 2007).

Next we have an undated Vaughan Williams rarity originally for viola and piano entitled Romance. Probably written in the 1930s for English viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis (1876-1975), it appears here with an orchestral accompaniment courtesy of our soloist, Roger Chase. Although a bird of a different feather, there are similarities to The Lark Ascending (1914, revised 1920).

Now for the number one find on this disc, the Rosa Mystica Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1916) by William Henry Bell. We have Dutton to thank for this première recording, which represents the only performance of this piece since it was premièred in Capetown, South Africa on 8 November 1917.

In three-movements, it was probably Lionel Tertis' playing that inspired Bell to write it. Its title, the prefatory poem heading the score (see the informative album notes) and an initial reverential theme [track-6, beginning at 01:03] based on the opening motif from Palestrina's Missa Assumpta est Maria Motet imply associations with Christmas and the Virgin Mary.

The Palestrina idea referred to above, call it the "Rosa Mystica riff,” is the basis for several other lyrically attractive ideas of varying tempo the composer skillfully develops in the brilliantly orchestrated first movement. The following adagio is a melancholy meditation in which the soloist spins out a moving extended air over a magical accompaniment, featuring intermittently muted strings and brass.

The last movement follows without a break, beginning with a trumpet call and a faster, more muscular theme played by the viola. This is worked into a spirited optimistic climax, after which the mood becomes more introspective. The Rosa Mystica riff then reappears, and the concerto ends in a state of heavenly bliss. Why this exceptional work had to wait over ninety years to receive its second performance is a "Cosa Mystica."

Rapturous, perfectly intoned playing characterize soloist Roger Chase's performances on the most amorous of stringed instruments. What's more he plays the legendary Montagnana viola which once belonged to Lionel Tertis. In the course of these recordings conductor Stephen Bell and the BBC Concert Orchestra must have developed a real soft spot in their hearts for these radiant works, because you couldn't ask for more sympathetic support.

The sonics are generally good with a convincing soundstage and ideal balance between the soloist and orchestra. There are times though when the few forte passages in this contemplative music suffer from a bit of high end glare.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P090217)


The album cover may not always appear.
Flotow, F. von: Pno Concs 1 & 2, Jubel Ov, Wilhelm von...; Petersson/Wiesheu/Pilsen PO [Sterling]
This enterprising release from Sterling shows German composer Friedrich von Flotow (1812-1883) was more than just the guy who wrote Martha (1847). The orchestral selections here are worthy of prime time, and on a par with Carl Maria von Weber's (1786-1826) piano concertos and concert overture of the same name.

The first piano concerto (1830) has a colorful history of strife-ridden rehearsals, leading up to an untoward première involving a broken piano string and an inebriated, belligerent repairman. In the usual three movements, the opening allegro begins with a confident theme stated by the orchestra. While the attractive melodies and skillful development that follow have aspects of Beethoven and Weber, there are also similarities to the two Chopin (1810-1849) concertos that appeared about the same time as Flotow's. An operatically lyrical adagio follows, and then a rondo with a Mendelssohnian theme that's most attractive. There's a clarity and straightforwardness about this music that make it singularly Flotow.

The four-movement second concerto, which was written the following year (1831) and has never been performed in concert, seems to pay homage to Carl Maria. The restrained beginning soon gathers momentum with a perky theme that struts about and finally goes on parade, ending the movement in martial fashion. The delightful scherzo looks forward to some of Sir Arthur Sullivan's (1842-1900) melodies, and has what may be an allusion [track-5, beginning at 01:36] to a familiar theme that appears towards the end of Weber's Der Freischütz (1821) Overture. The flowing adagio features some lovely passages for the woodwinds and elegant keyboard writing. There's something almost Rossiniesque about the final rondo, which is built around an infectiously prickly tune that Flotow handles with great aplomb. The mood darkens towards the end, but not for long as the concerto finishes in a burst of sunshine.

The Jubel Overture of 1857 opens with a stately idea soon followed by a flighty motif, which could be out of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826/42) Overture. Der Freischütz again comes to mind in the way Flotow handles these melodies, while the high-powered ending owes a debt to the conclusion of Richard Wagner's (1813-1883) Rienzi (1842) Overture.

Incidental music to the play Wilhelm von Oranien in Whitehall (William of Orange in Whitehall, 1861) fills out this release. Consisting of an introduction and four interludes, it opens with heraldic chords for full orchestra. This is followed by thrilling horn calls that evoke images of a hunt and that spooky Wolf's Glen. The first and third interludes show what a master of melodic invention Flotow was, even if in the latter he seems once again to borrow from A Midsummer Night's Dream. The second interlude is a rousing fantasy on Rule Britannia, which presages Sir Henry Wood's (1869-1944) Fantasia on British Sea Songs (1905). The fourth recaps the introduction and ends with Rule... worked into a thrilling finale.

It would appear that Swedish pianist Carl Petersson (b. 1981) makes his CD debut here. He plays these little known concerti to perfection with great sensitivity, and a precision ideally suited to Flotow's transparent scores. Hopefully, we will be hearing more from this talented young performer. Conductor Hans Peter Wiesheu's specialty is unearthing unknown works like these, and he draws superb performances from the Pilsen Philharmonic Orchestra (aka the Pilsen Radio Symphony Orchestra), proving that city can be proud of more than just its local brew.

Transparency and brilliance characterize these recordings. A perfectly proportioned soundstage with an ideal balance between soloist and orchestra make this lucid music all the more appealing. The piano sound is crystalline and the instrumental timbre bright but listener-friendly. Romanticists and audiophiles alike will love this Sterling release.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y090216)


The album cover may not always appear.
Freitas Branco (Branco): Sym 2, After a Reading…, Artificial Paradises; Cassuto/RTÉNa SO [Naxos]
Having piqued our interest in this late romantic Portuguese composer with their first volume of his orchestral works (see the newsletter of 8 September 2008), Naxos now gives us more music by 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). German and French influences are evident in his music, undoubtedly as a consequence of his studies with Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) in Berlin and Désiré Pâque (1867-1939) in Paris.

Freitas Branco's second symphony dates from 1926-27 and is in the standard four movements. The first begins with a Gregorian-like melody that gives way to a bouncy tune followed by a chromatic motif that could almost be out of César Franck's symphony. These ideas are cleverly developed and restated with the movement ending quietly and mysteriously. The andantino that follows conjures up images of a minstrel with guitar in hand serenading some beautiful senhora. There's something of Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice (1897) in the mischievous scherzo. The finale gets off to a slow hushed start, but then, as in the first movement, a couple of faster ideas are introduced. These are developed in Franckian fashion with the cyclic return of ideas from previous movements. The work ends with a triumphant restatement of the theme with which the symphony began.

The next piece is the orchestral fantasy After a Reading of Guerra Junqeiro (1909), where the reading in question is Portuguese poet Abílio Guerra Junqeiro's (1850-1923) poem The Death of Don Juan (1874). The composer’s German training surfaces here in this delightful symphonic poem, which seems to take Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1894-95) and Don Juan (1888) as its models. Still, there’s a Latin vivacity about it that makes it a Freitas Branco creation.

The final selection, Artificial Paradises (1910), is the high point of this CD, and apparently considered by many to be the composer's masterpiece. Inspired by the autobiographical account Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) by British author Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), it's a stunning late-romantic tone poem. The mysterious beginning languidly builds to an ecstatic climax that abruptly ends. Then a tenuous twinkling motif with hints of the Dies Irae is heard [track-6, beginning at 06:35], and French impressionistic sounding passages [track-6, beginning at 08:22] that anticipate Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe (1912). A crescendo, which may well represent a drug-induced high, ensues; but withdrawal quickly follows as the work quietly winks out. This brilliantly orchestrated fifteen-minute work ranks with the best late-romantic symphonic poems, and you'll be glad to make its acquaintance.

As in volume one, Portugal's finest living conductor Álvaro Cassuto leads the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland in magnificent performances of everything here. They certainly beat out what little competition there is for the symphony, as does the Naxos bill of fare.

Like the previous release, the recordings are excellent from the soundstage perspective; however, the highs are a tad bright on occasion. Notwithstanding that, you'll find this disc a most enjoyable listen.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P090215)


The album cover may not always appear.
Rózycki: Stg Qt; Szymanowski: Stg Qts 1 & 2; Royal Qt [Hyperion]
There are a considerable number of outstanding string quartets by late-romantic/early-modern, central European composers that remain relatively unknown today. This enterprising release from Hyperion will introduce you to three of them by two Polish composers, one of whom, Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), will be familiar to most, while the other, Ludomir Rózycki (1884-1953), will come as a very welcome discovery. The two Szymanowski quartets included push the borders of tonality, but that of Rózycki is a bit more conservative, although highly chromatic like most late-romantic music.

Written about a year before Szymanowski's first quartet, Rózycki's dates from 1915-16 and is in three movements. The slow romantically reserved opening soon gains in tempo becoming the first thematic idea. It's followed by a lovely extended lyrical melody, and the two become the foundation for a superbly crafted sonata form first movement. Some passages may bring to mind Debussy's string quartet (1893) and Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (1899). The amorous andante is crafted from a sensuous sustained theme with an ebb and flow that's most affecting. There's something rather folksy about the wiry energetic finale. It's spiced with sul ponticello passages, and is a real attention-getter, containing references to the previous movement. A spectacular final coda full of fiery fiddling brings the quartet to a giocoso conclusion.

Although in three movements like Rózycki’s quartet, the first of Szymanowski's efforts in this genre (1917) is harmonically and tonally more adventurous. The slow mysterious beginning soon gives way to anguished passages that are highly chromatic as well as impressionistic. They bring to mind late Scriabin and Schoenberg before he fell off the tonal bandwagon. The andantino is a shimmering spider web spun from the finest lyrical silk, and shows the romantic side of the composer's nature. The finale, a scherzando alla burlesca, features a bumptious folksy theme that gets off to an abortive fugal start. The composer then subjects this odd melody to a series of distortions worthy of a fun house mirror. The quartet ends as inscrutably as it began.

The last of Szymanowski's two quartets came ten years later (1927). Also in three movements, the opening moderato recalls the oriental impressionism of Ravel (1875-1937), however Szymanowski's string writing is highly individual and this music inhabits a sound world all its own! In fact he produces sonorities that might have given Bartók a few ideas for his later quartets. And speaking of Bartok, Szymanowski also had a great interest in folk music, especially that from the Tatra Mountain region of southern Poland and northern Slovakia (see the newsletter of 16 January 2007). This is apparent in the scherzo that follows, where he uses fragments of Tatra ditties and rhythms to concoct what must be one of the wild-and-woolliest movements in string quartet literature. The concluding lento has all the drama of late Beethoven and includes a grotesque fugue based on another of those Tatra tunes. Sul ponticello shivers and pizzicato goose bumps appear just before the work ends suddenly with a whoop and a holler.

The technical as well as aesthetic demands made by these works, especially the Szymanowski, are considerable, and the Warsaw based Royal String Quartet meet them admirably. The skill with which they execute numerous special string effects combined with an unerring sense of intonation in this chromatically elastic music guarantees you a captivating listening experience.

Superbly recorded, the strings are totally natural sounding, and every nuance of these performances is faithfully captured. The soundstage projected is ideally suited to an ensemble this size, and the venue adds just the right amount of reverberation without blurring any details of this complex music. Modern music fans, adventurous romantics and audiophiles are advised to investigate this release.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y090214)


The album cover may not always appear.
Witkowski: Stg Qt, Pno Qnt; Jude/Debussy Qt [Arion]
Records International buyer Jeff Joneikis' ability to come up with exclusive, first-rate rare classical repertoire is unsurpassed. And last month he did it again with this Arion release of music by little known French composer Georges Martin Witkowski (1867-1943). The son of a Polish officer who had immigrated to France, his father died when he was only two. A few years later his mother married the organist at Rennes Cathedral, who was a friend of César Franck (1822-1890) and Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911).

Initially, like his father and grandfather before him, Georges pursued an army career by enrolling in a French military academy, where he became conductor of the school band. While there he made the acquaintance of Franck, who encouraged him to compose, and it was Guilmant who became his first music teacher.

After graduation he was stationed in Lyon where he met and became good friends with Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894). On the advice of the older composer, Georges studied composition and orchestration with Vincent d'Indy (1851-1931), which resulted in his leaving the military to become a professional musician. Great success followed and in 1924, with the support of Paul Dukas (1865-1935), he succeeded Florent Schmitt (1870-1958, see the newsletter of 25 July 2007) as director of the Conservatoire de Lyon, a post he would hold until two years before his death.

Unlike the great impressionist string quartets of his contemporaries Debussy (1893) and Ravel (1903), Witkowski's, completed in 1902, is based on Franckian principles. At almost forty minutes, it's in five movements with pairs of alternately slow and fast ones surrounding a central scherzo. The opening is a sublime fugue with a serene subject and relaxed, lyrical countersubject, which run a highly chromatic gauntlet. These ideas return in slightly modified fashion as the building blocks for the more animated, haunting second movement.

The whimsical arch-like scherzo has as its keystone the opening fugue subject we heard at the beginning of the quartet. This movement is spiced with some delightful pizzicato and serves to refresh the palate for what's about to come. The slow fourth movement begins imploringly and then another fugue whose main idea is derived from a motif first heard in the previous scherzo [track-3, beginning at 01:43] appears The animated finale follows immediately with all the major thematic characters making final appearances in this superb five-act stringed drama. Witkowski's quartet easily ranks with those of Vincent d'Indy, Albéric Magnard (1865-1914), Guy Ropartz (1864-1955, see the newsletter of 30 May 2008) and Joseph Jongen (1873-1953). Some may find they prefer it to any of theirs!

Published only recently, the three-movement piano quintet is a more youthful work completed in 1898. Passionate and full of magnificent melodic ideas, it gives Franck and Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) a run for their money. The opening is contemplative then temperamental with mood shifts like fleeting patches of shadow and sunlight on a nimbused summer day. The following slow movement begins in melancholy fashion with yearning stretti and a killer melody that appears fairly early on [track-7, beginning at 02:45]. There's some rhapsodic passagework for the first violin, and an attractive sprinkling of Wagnerian modulations before this emotionally fraught, amorous offering ends much as it began.

The best is yet to come in the singular finale, which must be one of the most ear-catching French romantic chamber music movements ever written. Marked "alla zingara," this gypsy hoedown is an explosion of youthful passion with an Eastern European flavor. Wildly ecstatic passages gushing fountains of notes are contrasted with moments of darkest anguish, but the former win out, ending this quintet in a euphoric explosion.

The Debussy Quartet along with the assistance of pianist Marie-Josèphe Jude certainly live up to the numerous awards the album notes tell us they've received. Their performances are technically perfect, but more importantly, they're impassioned while at the same time carefully judged. There's an attention to dynamics and detail that brings out all the nuances of these chromatically complex scores. By the way, if you don't already know them, check out a couple of other Joneikis finds, the Debussy doing Joseph-Ermend Bonnal's (1880-1994) quartets on Arion, and the piano quartets of Louise Héritte-Viardot (1841-1918, see the newsletter of 15 May 2008) on Ars Produktion. You might also enjoy the chamber music of Mel Bonnis (1858-1937, see the newsletter of 30 March 2008) on MD&G.

The recordings are generally good with a soundstage that could have been a little wider. The string tone is acceptable and the piano accurately captured. However, the venue is bright and quite live, adding a little edge to the highs.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P090213)

Records International