CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
12 MARCH 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.
Arensky: Vn Conc; Taneyev, S.: Conc Ste (vn & orch); Gringolts/Volkov/BBCScot SO [Hyperion]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
This seventh installment of Hyperion's ongoing romantic violin concerto series unearths a couple of treasures by two of Russia's lesser known composers, Anton Arensky (1861-1906, see the newsletter of 3 July 2008) and Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915, see the newsletter of 7 January 2009). They were both professional associates of as well as close friends with Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), and it shows in the works recorded here. When Tchaikovsky died, it was Arensky who wrote probably the most moving music commemorating him, the Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, in which the subject is the tune for his "Legend" from Sixteen Songs for Children (1883). It was Taneyev who was the soloist for the première of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto after virtuoso Nicolai Rubinstein (1835-1881) made one of the biggest boo-boos in musical history and rejected it as unplayable.
Dedicated to the legendary Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer (1845-1930), Arensky wrote his concerto in 1891. Soon thereafter, he meticulously revised it with technical assistance from Auer, considerably improving the violin part. Instead of the usual three movements, it's a unique Arensky creation in a single twenty-minute span consisting of four subsections (conveniently banded on this recording). The first, an allegro, commences with an anxiety-ridden theme (A). which is imaginatively elaborated. The lovely lyrical idea that follows (B) shows what a great melodist the composer was. These are subjected to some chromatic transformations, after which the second section, an adagio, begins with the horn playing a gorgeous folk-like motif. Then "A" returns briefly In rondo fashion just before the end of this part, after which "B" appears in modified form as the subject for the third captivating valse section. Here the music works itself into a frenzy with references to past ideas and frequent spectacular fiddle fireworks that segue right into the brilliant fourth and final section. There's an exciting cyclic reprise of previous material along with additional flashy solo violin work, and then the concerto ends with a dramatic cadence for full orchestra.
Like the foregoing, Taneyev's Suite de concert (Concert Suite) for violin and orchestra (1908-09) is dedicated to Auer. Unconventional in design and twice as long as the Arensky, it's Taneyev's only violin showpiece, and what a vehicle for that instrument it is! Stylistically speaking it pays homage to the Baroque as well as Classical periods somewhat like Tchaikovsky's orchestral suites. The opening prelude commences with virtuosic passages for the soloist, and intensely romantic recitative-like episodes that gradually coalesce into a melodic ending. The next movement is a delightful gavotte that's a romantic fleshing out of eighteenth-century ideas in the style of Mozart, whom Taneyev adored. It will bring to mind the Mozartiana Suite (No. 4, 1887) of Tchaikovsky, another big fan of Wolfie. The oddball third movement entitled "Märchen," or "Fairy Tale," sounds more like a miniature symphonic poem. One can imagine the violin in the role of Little Red Riding Hood cautiously making her way through a Wagnerian forest where Fasolt and Fafner lurk [track-7, beginning at 00:29].
The theme and variations which follows is the longest and most elaborate movement. The winsome subject may well have been derived from a Slavic folk song, and the variations are exceptionally inventive. They include a lilting waltz (third) and a rigorous fugato (fourth), which shows why the composer was considered Russia's greatest contrapuntist. The last variation (seventh) is highly romantic, with the violin soaring to new heights over chromatically verdant fields, ending this sumptuous movement on a quiet note.
But the best is yet to come! Taneyev may have had Capriccio Italien (1880) by his good friend Tchaikovsky in mind when he wrote the finale. It’s a frenetic tarantella, where the soloist gets a chance to strut his stuff, and a real show-stopper! Audiences must have gone ape when Leopold Auer used to play it!
Speaking of Auer, it's hard to imagine how he could have performed these works any better than our soloist here, Ilya Gringolts. The technical command and sense of confidence with which he plays leave you wondering whether he ever hit a bad note in his life! But what's even more important, his sensitivity and feeling for this music, complemented by his silky tone, leave what little competition there is for these pieces in the dust. Up-and-coming conductor Ilan Volkov (see the newsletters of 17 February 2007, 3 October 2008 and 28 January 2009) and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are enthusiastic accomplices in this refreshing Russian caper and have never sounded better.
Sonically speaking, the soloist is beautifully captured and delicately balanced against the orchestra, which appears across a convincing soundstage in a slightly amniotic acoustic. The orchestral timbre is for the most part quite natural; however, the first violins are a bit grainy on occasion. Judging from what sounds like some "Bernstein Bounces," the thirty-three-year-old Volkov must be very active on the podium, but who cares, because the playing he gets from the orchestra is superb.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090312)
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Crossley-Holland: Sym; Goossens, E.: Vars; Ireland, J.: 7 Sym Minis; Yates/RScotNa O [Dutton]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Those liking romantic English pastoral music will want this release featuring some rarely heard orchestral works by three Britishers. Two of them, Peter Crossley-Holland (1916-2001) and Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962), are best remembered as an ethnomusicologist and conductor respectively, but they were also composers of considerable merit as evidenced by two of the selections included here. John Ireland's (1879-1962) music is familiar to most, but the seven symphonic miniatures of his on this disc will come as welcome surprises to many.
The four movements of Crossley-Holland's symphony began life as separate symphonic poems with the first, second and fourth written between 1988 and 1989, and the third in 1994. The first, entitled "Vision," is melodically majestic and conjures up images of some paradisiacal vale surrounded by soaring peaks. There's a sincerity and solidity about this movement that reflect the composer's studies with John Ireland and Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986).
The next, "Pilgrimage," features a couple of recurring motifs that give it a peripateticism quite in keeping with the title. The composer's background as an ethnomusicologist shows through in references to Eastern as well as Western folk music. He originally called the third movement "The River," but upon incorporating it into this symphony, renamed it "In the Stream of Life." Either way it's a lovely outpouring in some ways similar to Smetana's The Moldau -- rapids and all! The finale, "Offering," is about twice as long as any of the previous movements, and gives the symphony a sense of emotional closure with veiled references to the motif with which the work began. It's a sublime ending that could be interpreted as representing spiritual enlightenment, following a lifetime of searching.
And now for a selection that could make The Guinness Book of Records for being the shortest classical work involving the greatest number of composers. Based on a French folk song mentioned in the title and lasting a little over three minutes, the 1919 Variations on "Cadet Rousselle" was originally for voice and piano, where each variation was written by one of four British composers. They included Sir Eugene Goossens who in 1930 orchestrated the version heard here, assigning the voice parts to different solo instruments. Can you name the other three composers [see answers one, two and three]? While the words for the folk song may not be that familiar, the tune is an old chestnut, which turns this piece into a real Beecham "Lollipop." And speaking of Sir Thomas, interestingly enough Goossens began his conducting career as his assistant in 1916.
This delightful disc is filled out with seven symphonic miniatures that are orchestrations of short instrumental works by John Ireland. Originally for piano, Merry Andrew (1919, orchestrated 1931) is a cheeky rustic romp, while The Holy Boy (1913, orchestrated 1941 and 1994) is a gorgeous carol many will recognize. Bagatelle (1911, orchestrated 1924), and Cavatina (1904, orchestrated 2008 for this recording) started as pieces for violin and piano, but in symphonic form they’d certainly make exemplary orchestral encores. Elegiac Meditation (1959, orchestrated 1982), Menuetto-Impromptu (1904, orchestrated 1931) and Villanella (1904, orchestrated 1931) were originally for organ, but in symphonic guise become the epitome of English pastoral music. Taken all together these selections form what amounts to a suite you'll not soon forget!
Fresh from their triumphs with the music of Richard Arnell (see the newsletters of 23 June 2006, 25 July 2007, 15 January 2008, 15 February 2008, 25 November 2008 and 18 February 2009), conductor Martin Yates and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra give us another outstanding disc of discovery with these little known British selections. Yates has just the right feel for this music and his Scotsmen respond in kind.
The recordings are acceptable, but don't find Dutton at their very best. They would have benefited from a wider soundstage and more reverberant venue. Also the orchestral timbre tends to be a bit bright in forte passages. Those with systems that go down to rock-bottom may notice isolated extraneous rumblings in the second movement of the symphony [track-2, beginning at 03:08]. But as we've said before, with music this rare beggars can't be choosers, and the interest factor greatly outweighs any sonic shortcomings.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090311)
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Giannini: Pno Conc, Sym 4; Imreh/Splading/Bourn SO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
Of Italian descent, American-born Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was best known in his day as a teacher, who at one time or another was on the faculty the Juilliard School, Curtis Institute and Manhattan School of Music. However, he also wrote a substantial amount, including over a dozen operas, seven symphonies and a variety of concertos. His creations are highly romantic like those of Howard Hanson (1896-1981) and Samuel Barber (1910-1981), but unlike theirs, Giannini's are more European than American in spirit. This is evident in the two selections on this new release from the provident folks at Naxos.
Giannini's forty-minute, three movement piano concerto dating from 1934 apparently receives its first performance here since its première in New York City back in 1937. This is surprising because it's a monumental, masterfully crafted, arch-romantic peroration that combines the best of Edward MacDowell's (1860-1908) concertos with those of Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943). It opens with a thematic groundswell of an idea for full orchestra with soaring pianistic arpeggios, the first of many fearsome passages for the soloist. A couple of other attractive subjects are then introduced and skillfully developed along with the first. Maybe in keeping with his studies at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, there's something quite operatic about this highly dramatic twenty-minute first movement, which ends in a state of melodic ecstasy.
The gorgeous thematic material heard in the adagio is derived from the opening groundswell motif, and the simplicity and directness with which it's handled may bring to mind Alexander Scriabin's (1872-1915) piano concerto (1896, see the newsletter of 24 July 2008). Oddly enough there's something about the opening theme that anticipates the title music Max Steiner (1888-1971) would soon write for the film Gone with the Wind (1939).
The concluding movement begins in a state of melodic malaise, but a magnificently triumphal idea soon emerges. A skittering motif is then introduced followed by a another memorable big tune that's rather cinematic in temperament (see the newsletter of 9 August 2007). A clever central fugal episode with lots of digital fireworks from the soloist is next. This leads into the finale where that big tune heard previously bursts forth in all its glory, ending the concerto in grand romantic fashion.
The disc is filled out with Giannini's fourth symphony dating from 1959, and like the concerto this is the first performance of it since its première, which was in 1960. A more severe offering of late-romantic persuasion, it's also in three movements. The opening allegro begins with three thematic ideas, which are respectively tonally queasy, tragically lyrical, and guardedly optimistic. The composer shows what a master craftsman he was by subjecting them to rigorous contrapuntal development where intervals of a fourth and fifth predominate.
In the sostenuto that follows, various solo instruments sing amorous arias before and after a chromatically passionate crescendo-diminuendo. Giannini demonstrates more of his remarkable artisanship in the agitated closing allegro, where he masterfully works in material from the preceding movements. The symphony ends with remembrances of those amatory arias and an explosive tam-tam-laced exclamatory coda for full orchestra.
Pianist Gabriela Imreh tells us in the album notes that it took her over nine months to learn the concerto, but it was time well spent because she plays it to perfection. Except for a couple of brief instances of questionable horn work, conductor Daniel Splading and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra provide her with outstanding support, and give us a stirring account of the symphony.
The recordings are generally good, but the piano comes off sounding a bit recessed and the orchestral soundstage somewhat compressed. The instrumental timbre is acceptable, but would have been much better had there been a feeling of more space around the performers. It's a shame the sound is not commensurate with the considerable efforts expended by the performers to bring us such a demanding concerto. On the other hand, with music this seldom played, we're lucky to have what's here even it isn’t an audiophile’s dream.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090310)
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Holst, G.: Orch Wks V1 (Perfect…, Lure…, etc); Hickox/JoyCoSing/BBCWalNa O [Chandos (Hybrid)]
AUDIOPHILE (1 SACD)
This recent hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0) disc from Chandos will bring both joy and sadness to classical music enthusiasts. Joy, because it includes some wonderful lesser known works of English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934). And sadness whereas it's the next to last of conductor Richard Hickox's (1948-2008) invaluable Chandos recordings featuring all that neglected British music he championed (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, 3 July 2008 and 28 January 2009).
As fate would have it, Hickox died suddenly of a heart attack last November while working on a second volume of Holst for Chandos, which would have included his Choral Symphony (1923-24). So, with the demise of Vernon Handley (1930-2008, see the newsletters of 30 September 2006, 25 July 2007, 15 September 2007 and 8 December 2007) just two months earlier, Britain lost two of its greatest conductors last year. They'll be fondly remembered and sorely missed by those of us who held them dear for all the wonderful, little-known British music they introduced us to.
Featuring four of Holst's balletic works, the disc begins with one familiar to most. It's the ballet music prefacing the opera The Perfect Fool (1918-22), which was a satire on Wagner's Parsifal. While Holst's opera has since passed into oblivion because of an awkward libretto, the ballet, which consists of an introductory andante and three dances, survives. Some of it began as incidental music for the 1918 play The Sneezing Charm by Cifford Bax (1886-1962), who was Arnold's (1883-1953) younger brother, and occasionally provided him with words for his vocal creations.
The opening fanfare is reminiscent of that in "Uranus" from The Planets (1916). The first dance honoring the spirits of the earth is endearingly rustic, lumbering about in ursine fashion. There's a tranquility about the second, commemorating the spirits of water, which recalls "Venus" from The Planets. The final dance, dedicated to the spirits of fire, is based on the introductory fanfare. It's an energetic, muscular romp that's not without humor, and finds Holst at his creative best.
Lasting about half an hour, The Golden Goose (1926) is a ballet for chorus and orchestra with a scenario based on the Grimms' fairy tale about a princess who's unable to laugh. Judging by the detailed description of the staging given in the album booklet (the words by J.M. Joseph are also included), it would be most intriguing to see. But without the visual element, it comes off as a delightful fairyland cantata with a Mother Goose text. Highlights include a winning Edwardian opening fanfare and chorus set to a melody oddly reminiscent of that for the 1848 Shaker song Simple Gifts. Then there's a charmingly folksy "Dance of the Three Girls," as well as a plaintively beautiful closing love scene for the princess and her betrothed. Here the opening Shaker-like motif returns as the big tune.
Just for orchestra, part of the tiny ten-minute ballet The Lure (1921) also began as incidental music for that 1918 Bax play mentioned above. Disregarding the scenario, which involves moths dancing around a candle flame, and on the basis of the music alone, the work could easily be called The Asteroids because of its similarities to The Planets. The mystical opening is right out of "Neptune" and followed by a folksy, robust dance recalling "Mars" as well as "Uranus." Celesta and harp are prominent in the next number, whose whimsicality is reminiscent of "Mercury." A lovely violin solo prefaces the larger-than-life Jovian ending of this planetoidal choreographic cameo.
Another choral ballet, The Morning of the Year (1926-27) fills out the disc. Described in the score as "A representation of the mating ordained by nature to happen in the spring of each year," it's a case of better heard and not seen since the scenario is quite off-the-wall (see the album notes for staging details and the words by Steuart Wilson). Folk elements are rife, and the skill with which the composer integrates them into the score makes for one of the most singularly interesting pieces he ever wrote. Comprising an introduction and five dances, the chorus represents the voice of nature in this relatively subdued twenty-minute paean to vernal concupiscence. Highlights include a bumptious "Dance of the Youths," soft porn "Mating Dance" and sublime concluding "Dance of the Youngest Couple." It's quite unlike any Holst you've ever heard, and many may find it the high point of this album.
Spirited, magnificently judged performances of everything here certainly imply conductor Richard Hickox was flourishing when he made these recordings only four months before that fatal day last November. There are what even sound like a couple of "Bernstein Bounces" indicating he was his usual, extremely energetic self, urging his musicians on to bigger and better things. In that regard he was a past master at bringing out the best in his performers by creating a sense of heightened enthusiasm for whatever they were doing. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales (with organ) sets a new recording standard for everything here, particularly in the loving hands of the Chandos engineers (see below). The Joyful Company of Singers provides ideal vocal support, with beautifully sung massed choral passages of great sensitivity in addition to some stunning solo work by a couple of its members.
From the orchestral standpoint, the sound on both the CD and SACD stereo tracks is excellent, with the string tone even more natural on the latter. The SACD multi-channel track places the listener in a very convincing virtual concert hall. Those audiophiles who are bass addicts, and in the early days of "Hi-Fi" used to freak out on those low organ pedal points in "Saturn," will be overjoyed to discover one in The Morning... [track-16, beginning at 02:14]. As far as the singing is concerned, the CD track is a bit edgy, but both of the SACD ones, and particularly that in stereo, represent a great improvement. Once again this seems to confirm the superiority of SACD when it comes to the human voice.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090309)
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Lehár: Die blaue Mazur (cpte opera); Soloists/Beermann/FrankSingA ChC/FrankBrandSt O [CPO]
AUDIOPHILE (2 CDs)
For the past couple of years operetta fans have been overjoyed with CPO's survey of Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár's (1870-1948) lesser known stage works, including Wiener Frauen (1902), Eva (1911, see the newsletter of 20 September 2006) and Schön ist die Welt (1930, see the newsletter of 7 May 2006). Now they give us what many will probably consider the best of these to date, Die blaue Mazur (1920). It's middle period Lehár with all the lyricism of Die lustige Witwe (1905), but also an exoticism like that which would appear in Das Land des Lächelns (1929), except here it's Slavic rather than Sinitic. More chromatic and orchestrally colorful than its predecessors, you'll find it somewhat like the operas then being written by Franz Schreker (1878-1934, see the newsletter of 20 November 2006) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957).
To the uninitiated the meaning of the title Die blaue Mazur, or The blue Mazur, is mysterious to say the least, and explained only towards the end of the operetta. We then find out it refers to the last dance at all-night Polish balls. More specifically, it’s a mazurka played as the blue streaks of dawn appear, and can only be danced by a Polish man with his one and only true love. Needless to say, this was a bit of Polish folklore cooked up by Lehár's librettists Leo Stein and Béla Jenbach, whom you may remember as also having worked with Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953).
In two acts separated by a brief entr'acte, the opening one is in a single scene. It begins with the first of several dance sequences that occur throughout the opera, and are even better than those in Die lustige Witwe. A joyful wedding reception is in progress at Olinski Castle, outside of Vienna following the marriage of Polish count Juljan Olinski to a Viennese beauty named Blanka. But there's trouble afoot as explained in the detailed plot synopsis provided with the album notes (there's no libretto), and Blanka informs Juljan their marriage is finished. Shortly thereafter she leaves the festivities to take refuge with her mother's old friend Baron von Reiger. Among the musical delights in this act, there's a lovely lyrical scene between Blanka and Juljan [track-3], a catchy march-duet for the troublemaking antagonists Adolar and Gretl [track-5], and a beautiful Tauberlied for Adolar [track-7]. The twenty-minute finale [track-11] is rousing with Slavic embellishments that include a moving Polish lament sung by Juljan.
A short orchestral entr'acte based on the melody for Alodar's previous song introduces the second act. In two scenes, the first is at Baron von Reiger's residence in Vienna, where Blanka has fled. It opens humorously as the Baron and two of his cronies sing nostalgically about their youthful days [track-3]. The colorful accompaniment includes a celesta and some spicy Tsigane violin work. Blanka enters, interrupting them, and together they join in an amusing madrigal-like number [track-5]. Soon they take leave of her, and the first scene finale begins, again to the tinkle of the celesta. Blanka muses over all that's happened in inimitable Lehár waltz-like fashion, and, overcome by emotional fatigue, finally falls asleep. We hear remembrances of Juljan's first act lament just before the scene ends.
The last scene takes place at the baron's country estate on the outskirts of Vienna. It opens with everyone dancing to one of the composer's finest waltz creations, where there's a phrase [track-8, beginning at 00:23] anticipating the opening measures of "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Das Land des Lächelns, which would come nine years later. Blanka receives a bouquet of roses from her rejected husband along with a note announcing his imminent arrival. He strides in and they sing a fetching duet of impending reconciliation [track-10]. It's followed by a perky dance ensemble number involving Gretl [track-12], who wants to make amends for all the trouble she's caused. The "Blue Mazurka" is then heard [track-14], and the spectacular finale [track-18] soon follows. To make a long story short, Blanka tears up the divorce papers Juljan previously gave her, and the two are happily reconciled dancing the you know what. The opera then ends joyously, and everyone lived happily ever after. You won't want to pass up this tasty Torte, where each scenic layer is better than the last!
Sopranos Johanna Stojkovich and Julia Bauer are in fine voice as Blanka and Gretl, while tenors Johan Weigel and Jan Kobow turn in commendable performances as Juljan and Adolar. The only nitpick would be a couple of wobbly tenor moments in the first act finale. The other soloists, along with the Frankfurt Singakademie Chamber Choir and Brandenburg State Orchestra under conductor Frank Beermann, provide outstanding support.
The discs are banded in enough detail so those not wishing to hear the dialogue can either skip or program around almost all of it. However, listeners with a smattering of German will probably want to hear it at least once because it's very entertaining, and gives a much better idea of what’s going on than the synopsis.
This is a studio recording, which is rare in these troubled economic times, and the sound is magnificent. The solo as well as massed voices are remarkably well captured, considering this is a conventional CD release. The orchestral timbre is very natural sounding, while the balance between the soloists, chorus and orchestra is right on, and the soundstage ideally proportioned for this type of production. Recorded in the Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach Concert Hall, there’s just the right amount of reverberation to ensure a feeling of space around the performers without obscuring what's sung or spoken. Opera lovers and audiophiles will not be disappointed!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090308)
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Mathias, W.: Org Wks Cpte; Lea/LiverMetCath Org/Orrell/LiverWelC [Priory]
RECOMMENDED (2 CDs)
Many will remember organist Richard Lea's winsome three volumes of Luis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély's (1817-1869) music (see the newsletters of 20 December 2006 and 27 February 2008) played on the great J.W. Walker organ of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (LMC). This album finds him at the same console doing the complete organ works of Welsh composer William Mathias (1934-1992), who wrote some of Britain's finest modern day church music. Ranging from flamboyantly jubilant to devoutly introspective, the variety of selections included in this two disc set is quite astounding. Not only that, but Mathias wrote highly approachable music with immediate audience appeal. All these factors make for one of the best organ releases to appear in some time.
The concert opens with an arresting Fanfare (1987) that's the British counterpart of those thrilling feisty improvisations Pierre Cochereau used to come up with. The two brief vocal selections that follow, the Gergorian chant Vexilla Regis Prodeunt and Renaissance French song L'Homme armé, are the melodic basis for the next organ work, Antiphonies (1982). Here the composer contrasts the sacred with the secular by way of these two tunes in this engaging tone poem for organ. Towards its conclusion there are references to the "Witches Sabbath" from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, but the sacred ultimately triumphs with the return of the chant motif.
Processional (1964), which is probably the composer's most popular organ work, is modal, avuncular, urbane and witty, to borrow from organist John Scott’s description of it. On the other hand, Berceuse (1985) is a ghostly malevolent cradlesong that would give any infant nightmares, and has some pedal points capable of setting off nearby seismometers. That's certainly not true of the rousing Recessional (1986), where the congregation exits with heads held high and ready to sin no more!
Commissioned for the opening of LMC, some consider Invocations (1967) Mathias' finest organ work. In four connected sections, it's a mini-symphony that opens with en chamade "birds-in-thirds" shrieks reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen's more ornithological creations. It then meanders along a bitonal path leading to a field full of squawking Messiaenic fowl. One is mesmerized by the introspective second section only to be shocked back to reality by the exotically agitated third part. This sets the stage for the stunning finale where in cyclic fashion Mathias magically interweaves previous motifs.
The world première recording of the composer's earliest known organ work, Prelude, Elegy and Toccata (1954-55), follows. There's an unsettling tonal ambiguity about the austere prelude and tragic elegy that's only allayed by the mercurial toccata, which ends quite unceremoniously.
The first CD is filled out with three shorter pieces. Postlude (1962) is a delightful will-o'-the-wisp trinket. Fanfare for KBL (1990) was the composer's last organ work, and is recorded here for the first time. It's dedicated to K. Barry Lyndon, who was Registrar of the Royal College of Organists at the time, and designed as an introduction to the third piece, Toccata Giocosa (1967). The latter two are played together, forming a rhythmically spirited whole in which Mathias' neoclassical tendencies show through.
The second disc opens with Jubilate (1974), which is a joyous game of chordal leapfrog. The brief vocal selection that follows is the traditional Welsh hymn Braint, and subject of the next piece, Variations on a Hymn Tune (1962). Consisting of an introduction and six variations, highlights include an alla marcia second variation somewhat in the style of Hindemith, a bagpipe-like fourth, and the concluding sixth, where the hymn tune returns in all its majesty on the tuba mirabilis.
Carillon (1989) and Fenestra (1990) are next. As the name implies, the former was inspired by bell sonorities, and more specifically the carillon music of the Low Countries. The latter, dedicated to organist Jennifer Bate, is a stunning exercise in creative registration, producing some of the most colorful organ music written in the last century. See the extensive, highly informative album notes for a detailed analysis of the piece.
With its droning fifths, there's something rather Scottish about Canzonetta (1979). Fantasy (1978), one of Mathias' most progressive and imaginative organ works, makes considerable demands on the player. Listening to this highly atmospheric music, one can imagine some extraterrestrial landscape with bizarre beasts, miasmal swamps, and rivers of red-hot lava. Curiously enough one of the opening themes contains what sound like distorted references to the DSCH motif [track-7, beginning at 01:06] so frequently used by Dmitri Shostakovich. Chorale "Easter 1966" is a polytonal rumination with more seismic pedal points.
The album concludes with the three movement Partita (1962), described by the composer as a concert suite for organ. The opening maestoso introduces two attractive ideas that are the melodic foundation for the piece. The second movement is a funeral march with all the lugubriousness of Mahler at his most pessimistic, and strange fatalistic Slavic overtones again reminiscent of Shostakovich. The animated final allegro provides welcome relief from the despondent march, ending the partita with a ray of hope.
Organist Richard Lea acquits himself admirably from both the registration and performance standpoints. He was Organ Scholar at LMC under the great Noel Rawsthorne (born 1929), and seems in complete control of this large instrument (88 stops for a total of 4,565 pipes). What's more, he even studied some of this music with Rawsthorne, who by the way gave the première of Invocations (see above). Treble James Orrell should also be complimented for his fine singing of Vexilla Regis Prodeunt, and the Liverpool Welsh Choral for their renditions of L'Homme armé and Braint.
The recordings are excellent, providing you don't object to highly reverberant spaces (seven seconds). What the sound lacks in resolution and focus, it makes up for in extended frequency response and dynamic range. The lows couldn't be lower (some are truly seismic), nor the highs, higher. But watch your level settings!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090307)
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