CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
15 APRIL 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.
D'Indy, V.: Wallenstein, Choral varié, Saugefleurie, Lied; Power/Fischer/BBCWalNa O [Hyperion]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
With this release from Hyperion in addition to a couple from Chandos (one volume is already out with another due this month), it would appear a well deserved revival of French composer Vincent d'Indy's (1851-1931) symphonic music is under way. With the exception of Choral varié (1903), the selections here date from the late 1800s and show considerable Wagnerian influence. This is very much in keeping with the composer's penchant for German music, and attendance at the Bayreuth première of Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1876.
In 1799 German poet and playwright Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) wrote the dramatic trilogy Wallenstein based on the exploits of General Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634), who at one point commanded the armies of the Hapsburg Monarchy during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). It inspired Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884, see the newsletter of 15 January 2008) and Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901) to write symphonic works on the subject in 1859 and 1866, respectively. Then in 1870 d'Indy followed suit, starting on his own Wallenstein. It turned out to be a three-part tone poem and a labor of love, which took him eleven years to complete (1881).
The first section, "Wallenstein's Camp," begins with a theme which anticipates one César Franck (1822-1890), who was d'Indy's teacher, would use towards the end of Le Chasseur maudit (1882). A couple of ideas follow that owe allegiance to motifs from Der Ring... The second part, "Max and Thécla," is a romantic outpouring evoking the love affair between the General's daughter and one of his soldiers, Max, as well as Max's heroic demise. The finale, "Wallenstein's Death," opens mysteriously, possibly symbolizing the General's belief in astrology. The music gradually builds to a tremendous climax with cyclic references to previous themes, including the opening Franckian one, and then ends somberly.
A fully mature work, there's a phraseological and chromatic sense of balance about Choral varié (1903) like that found in the music of such late romantic French composers as Pierné (1863-1937; see the newsletters of 1 March 2007, 28 March 2007 and 11 July 2007), Ropartz (1864-1955; see the newsletters of 15 March 2007, 10 October 2007 and 30 May 2008), Magnard (1865-1914) and Rabaud (1873-1949). It exists in two versions where the solo instrument can be either a saxophone (see the newsletter of 28 March 2007) or viola. It's the rarely heard one for viola that's presented here, and many who know the other may find they prefer this.
Wagnerian influences are again rife in the tone poem Saugefleurie (1884), however there's a Gallic refinement about the instrumentation that makes it a unique d'Indy creation. Like Tristan und Isolde, love and death are the subjects of this moving work. But the lovers here are a prince and a fairy named Saugefleurie, who as legend would have it dies after giving herself to a mortal.
Lied (1884) also exists in two versions where the solo instrument can be either a cello or viola, and again it's the latter that's featured on this disc. While there are Wagnerian murmurs here and there, some passages [track-6, begiining at 01:59] are oddly reminiscent of Smetana's Moldau (1874), while others look forward to Ravel (1875-1937). It's just the right pastry with which to end this tasty déjeuner.
As with their previous release of Florent Schmitt's music on Hyperion (see the newsletter of 25 July 2007), conductor Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales give us stirring performances of everything. Not only that, but the featured violist is Lawrence Power, whose praises we've sung before (see the newsletters of 24 July 2008 and 7 January 2009). As done here, Wallenstein and Saugefleurie surpass what little competition exists, while these are the only viola versions of Choral varié and Lied currently available on disc.
Crisp cool sonics across a generous soundstage in an affable venue characterize these recordings. A brilliant orchestrator, d'Indy loved to highlight his symphonic creations with frequent solo passage work, which is much in evidence here and beautifully captured by the Hyperion audio engineers. The balance between the viola and orchestra is ideal, and shows the most amorous of instruments off to perfection. This release will find favor with audiophiles as well as romantics.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090415)
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Franck, R.: Sym Fant, 2 Serens, Orch Ste, Liebesidyll…, Ov; Soloists/Fifield/ReutWürt P [Sterling]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Besides César Franck (1822-1890), there were two other Francks, Eduard (1817-1893) and his son Richard (1858-1938), who were also very distinguished romantic composers, but of German descent. We've already told you about some of Richard's chamber music (see the newsletter of 17 November 2007), and now you can sample his symphonic creations on this enterprising release from Sterling (see the newsletter of 18 February 2009).
Although specific dates are not given, all of these orchestral works were written around 1900. A student of composers Carl Reinecke (1824-1910, see the newsletter of 14 May 2007) and Salomon Jadassohn (1831-1902), whose music is just now undergoing a well deserved revival (see the recommendation below), you'll find the selections here just as attractive as those on the earlier Richard Franck release.
The opening symphonic fantasy has some rather angular thematic ideas which owe a debt to Robert Schumann (1810-1856). But there's a chromatic adventurousness here that makes this a singular Franck creation. Beautifully crafted and orchestrated, it could easily be the opening movement of a symphony. Hearing it only makes one wish the composer had expanded it into one.
Two serenades featuring the violin and cello respectively are also included. Both are gorgeous, rhapsodic works with ear-catching, hunt-like sequences in the first and perky chirps from the woodwinds that levitate the second.
In four movements, the suite for orchestra begins with a tuneful prelude featuring a main melody that would have met with Edvard Grieg's (1843-1907) approval. The following section is a Magyar quickstep (see the newsletter of 15 July 2006) that combines the Rákóczi March with thematic elements from the first of Brahms' Hungarian Dances (1852-69). The Reigen, or Round Dance, movement is a folksy caper that's as light as a feather. Franck then skillfully combines chromatic and contrapuntal effects in the finale to provide the suite with a colorful ending.
Liebesidyll (Love Idyll) is a tone poem based on the myth of Amor (also known as Cupid, or Eros by the ancient Greeks) and Psyche. Not surprisingly the most amorous of instruments, the viola, (see the d'Indy recommendation above), has a prominent part in this sensitive, beautifully written symphonic valentine. This is Franck at his most refined, and many may find it the highpoint of the disc.
The concert overture "Wellen des Meeres und der Liebe" ("Waves of the Sea and of Love") fills out the CD. It’s the earliest work here and Brahmsian influences are evident. However, there's a melodic and harmonic subtlety along with an orchestral clarity that are Franck trademarks. It leaves the listener wanting to hear more music by a composer who is just now coming into his own.
Despite one or two squirrely spots, the Reutlingen Württemberg Philharmonic under conductor Christopher Fifield give committed performances of everything, making a strong case for this music. We owe them as well as Sterling a great debt for introducing us to it. Violinst Fabian Wettstein and cellist Tim Ströble deserve a round of applause for their solo work in the serenades.
While the sounds emanating from this disc are certainly pleasant enough, it's not going to win any audiophile awards. More specifically, the orchestral timbre is mild-mannered, the soundstage, slightly veiled and the extreme bass response somewhat smeared. But you'll find the music will soon make you forget any sonic deficiencies.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090414)
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Ireland. J.: Cl Trio, Fant Son (cl, pno), Sxt (cl, hn, stg qt), etc; Soloists/Maggini Qt [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Those who liked a previous Naxos release with some chamber music for clarinet by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924, see the newsletter of 30 August 2007), are going to love this one featuring more of the same by his student John Ireland (1879-1962). The clarinet trio on this later disc will be of particular interest because it's a recent reconstruction of one Ireland completed in 1913, but then withdrew shortly after its first couple of performances. Some years later he reworked parts of it into his third piano trio (1938).
We have Canadian clarinet maker and virtuoso Stephen Fox to thank for this version of the trio. He had to invent about a quarter of what we now hear. But as Anthony Payne (b. 1936) did in his elaboration of the Elgar third symphony (see the newsletter of 15 March 2008), Fox meticulously adhered to the style of the composer, making for a very authentic-sounding finished product. In three movements, the opening allegro features a lively debate between the clarinet and cello moderated by the piano. The march-like scherzo conjures up images of toy soldiers on parade, and is a real toe-tapper. The last movement begins with overcast skies, but the sun soon breaks through, and the trio ends optimistically with virtuosic passages for each of the soloists. Clarinetists will find this an invaluable addition to the body of works for their instrument.
Like his Phantasie Trio for Piano (No. 1, 1906), the Fantasy Sonata for Clarinet and Piano dating from 1943 is in one movement. It’s a highly romantic rhapsody in which the composer's love for this wind instrument is quite apparent, and must rank as one of his finest chamber works. All facets of the clarinet’s expressiveness are explored, with extended melodic passages that show off its sensuality, and agitated virtuosic outbursts where it can sound almost hyenic.
An Ireland war-horse that has appeared in all sorts of transcriptions (see the newsletter of 12 March 2009), The Holy Boy originated as the third of four piano preludes (1913-15). The version for clarinet and piano done here was specially arranged for this recording by our soloist Robert Plane. He based it on one for viola made in 1925 by Lionel Tertis (see the newsletters of 30 May 2008, 24 July 2008 and 18 February 2009). The breathy mellifluence of the clarinet makes this yet another memorable treatment of one of the best tunes to come out of twentieth-century England.
And now for the pièce de résistance du disque, the sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet written in 1898 when the composer was only nineteen. In four movements, this particular combination of winds and strings is sonorously supernal. Falling stylistically somewhere between Brahms (1833-1897) and Dvorák (1841-1904), most would have to agree it's a youthful masterpiece.
The introductory allegro is notable for a couple of memorable, highly romantic thematic ideas. But the lion's claws of Ireland's mature style show through in some spicy, dissonant-sounding spots [track-6, beginning at 02:08 and 06:32] that must have grossed out Sir Charles (see the newsletter of 20 September 2006). Maybe that's why Ireland relegated the score to a desk drawer shortly after its première, not allowing it to surface until some sixty years later thanks to the entreaties of English clarinetist Thea King (1925-1007).
The andante is intriguing for its ambiguous optimism, while there's a Jeux d'enfants innocence about the intermezzo that's most appealing. In the final movement Ireland explores the different sonic characteristics of the winds, and the sextet concludes excitedly with a final twitter of approval from everyone. All romantic chamber music enthusiasts should have this in their collections.
Clarinetist Robert Plane's tone is sumptuous and his playing full of conviction tempered by great sensitivity for this music. Cellist Alice Neary is superb in the opening trio, as is pianist Sophia Rahman, who is also proficient in the sonata and Holy Boy. Many will remember hornist David Pyatt from his invaluable release of British horn concertos on Lyrita, and here he is again in equally fine form for the sextet. He and Robert Plane are joined by the Maggini Quartet, who are fast becoming the leading exponents of contemporary British string quartets (see the newsletters of 6 December 2006 and 28 April 2007). There are other discs of the sextet, but you won’t find one with more bang for the buck than this!
The recordings are superb and definitely audiophile quality. All of the instruments sound completely natural, and their positioning as well as the balance between them is ideal. The first thee selections were recorded in a different venue than the last. Consequently some pointy-eared listeners may find the sextet sounds a bit drier at the outset. But the ear quickly acclimates to it, and any acoustic discrepancies are soon forgotten.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090413)
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Jadassohn: Pno Concs 1 & 2; Draeseke: Pno Conc; Becker/M.Sanderling/Ber RSO [Hyperion]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Six years ago a CD of Salomon Jadassohn's (1831-1902) chamber music was released (no longer available), and some of us adventurous enough to get it were so impressed that we couldn't figure out why we'd never heard of the composer! Our stupefaction was piqued all the more by the album notes, which stated he'd written over 140 works, including four symphonies and two piano concertos. Now thanks to Hyperion's ongoing "Romantic Piano Concerto" series, here's volume forty-seven with these concertos. And they make you wonder all the more why Jadassohn is not better known.
The answer may partly lie in his being of Silesian-Jewish descent and living in Germany at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise. As a consequence his music was increasingly suppressed, and eventually labeled as "entartete," or "degenerate," by the Nazis. Ironically the disc is filled out with a piano concerto by another German composer, Felix Draeseke (1835-1913), who's been neglected for just the opposite reason. His music was promoted by the Nazis as "reine deutsche,” or “pure German,” and accordingly became stigmatized for post World War II audiences.
Jadassohn took occasional lessons from Franz Liszt (1811-1886), and his first concerto (1887) is in a single continuous span just like that of his mentor, which was written almost forty years earlier (1849). The first of its three interlinked sections (conveniently banded here) opens with some brief fireworks for piano and orchestra. These are followed by an attractive, more restrained Chopinesque motif, which forms the basis for this part of the concerto. Jadassohn then gives us a lovely extended melody which, along with the previous idea, become the lifeblood of the central adagio.
The concluding section, a ballade, begins frenetically with a display of Lisztian keyboard pyrotechnics. A couple of comely tunes follow that are the building blocks for this expertly constructed sonata form finale. There's a theme about halfway through [track-3, beginning at 04:14] amazingly similar to one Erich Wolfgang Korngold would come up with in his music for the opening of the archery contest in the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood. After that the excitement builds as the soloist and orchestra play a game of racem-chasem, and the concerto ends in a thrilling virtuosic coda.
The second concerto (1887) is in the usual three movements and begins with a daredevil allegro whose central idea is an austere march-like melody. This is expertly developed along with a more affable theme that once more smacks of Chopin. In the process the soloist is given frequent opportunities to wax rhapsodic as well as show off his keyboard prowess. The movement builds to a wonderful romantic climax, leaving you feeling this is going to be a hard act to follow. But the andantino that's next doesn't disappoint with its absolutely charming slow, lyrical outer sections and hyperactive, bravura inner one.
It's a magical movement that perfectly sets the stage for the spectacular closing allegro, which is in sonata form like the finale of the previous concerto. The demands made on the soloist are substantial, and in the hands of a lesser composer things could have degenerated into meaningless peacocking. But that's not the case with a master craftsman and tunesmith like Jadassohn! He manages to pull everything together into one of the most rousing romantic piano concerto finales imaginable. No wonder he was so revered as a great teacher and could count Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), Frederick Delius (1862-1934), Richard Frank (1858-1938, see the recommendation above) and Edvard Grieg 1843-1907) among his many pupils.
Draeseke, like his equally little known contemporary Herzogenberg (1843-1900, see the recommendation below), went through a Wagnerian phase but became more conservative for the last twenty-five years of his life. A product of this later period, his one and only piano concerto, completed in 1886, might best be described as out of Beethoven and headed towards the late romantic via Liszt, whom Felix knew and greatly admired. In the conventional three movements, the opening allegro is a romantic confrontation where the soloist strafes the audience with machine gun runs of notes. The moving adagio, the longest movement, is an exceptional theme and variations where the composer subjects a chorale-like melody to an astounding variety of clever transmutations.
The impetuously joyful finale is an infectious rondo with chromatically colorful and rhythmically catchy orchestral writing augmented by explosive piano passages. About halfway through Draeseke introduces a lovely restrained variant of the recurring melody [track-9, beginning at 05:30] that sounds surprisingly Elgarian. The concerto ends in an ecstatic state of romantic hysteria, leaving one rather perplexed as to why such a vibrant piece has remained in limbo for well over a hundred years – Nazis or no Nazis!
Our soloist here, pianist Markus Becker, is no stranger to these pages (see the newsletter of 30 March 2008). A virtuoso of the highest order, he uses his technical abilities only in the service of the music, guaranteeing us what will probably turn out to be award-winning performances of these works. Under conductor Michael Sanderling, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra plays these rarely performed concertos with total commitment, making it easy to overlook one rather shaky-sounding horn passage [track-2, beginning at 00:43].
The recordings present the listener with a breathtaking soundstage entirely appropriate to this highly romantic repertoire. The balance between the piano and orchestra is ideal, with the instrumental timbre quite natural sounding except for an occasionally fuzzy piano note. Those liking a bright, crystalline orchestral sound may initially feel the high end is a bit rolled off. However, that impression will dissipate a few minutes into the disc when the ear becomes accustomed to it. One nitpick: there is a less than ideal edit in the first Jadassohn concerto [track-3 at 05:40].
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090412)
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Marx, J.: Orch Chrl Wks (4); Orch Songs (12); Brewer/Belohlávek/TrBC/ApolV/BBC SC&O [Chandos]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
Besides chamber and symphonic music, Austrian composer Joseph Marx (1882-1964) wrote many songs and choral works. Some of them with orchestral accompaniment are sampled on this new Chandos release. While they show the influence of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), Marx, who like Wolf also wrote an Italienisches Liederbuch (1990-96), creates his own soundworld where chromaticism and impressionism coexist as in the music of Schreker (1878-1934, see the newsletter of 20 November 2006) and Zemlinsky (1871-1942).
Marx had a strong interest in the psychology of music and even did a treatise on tonality where he reportedly originated the term "atonal." This, along with his being a poet himself, may well explain the immediate appeal of his vocal creations. Written in an age characterized by the excesses of late romanticism and emotional sterility of dodecaphony, you'll find these most refreshing. By the way, the four works for chorus and orchestra appearing here are world première recordings.
The program opens with a twenty-minute secular cantata, Herbstchor an Pan (Autumn Chorus to Pan) for mixed chorus, boy choir, organ and large orchestra. Written in 1911, it’s very much in keeping with Marx's "nature music" (see the newsletter of 28 January 2009). Set to a poem by Rudolf Hans Bartsch (1873-1952), this stunning autumnal paean will bring to mind Delius' (1862-1934) Eine Messe des Lebens (A Mass of Life, 1898), Schoenberg's (1874-1951) Gurrelieder (1900-03, revised 1910-11), and points the way towards Schreker's Die Gezeichneten (1918; see the newsletter of 20 November 2006). The freshness of approach and ease with which he juggles the massive forces involved make it difficult to believe it was Marx's first orchestral creation!
Twelve songs for soprano written from 1908 to 1912 and later orchestrated are next. Highlights of these are the opulently scored, drop-dead gorgeous Barkarole (Barcarole), folksy Magyar-spiced Zigeuner (Gypsies) and sublime Selige Nacht (Blissful Night). Then there's the charming lãndler-like Sommerlied (Summer Song), vernally soaring Maienblüten (May Blossoms) and one of the most beautiful Liebeslied ever penned, Hat dich die Liebe Berührt (If Love Hath Entered Thy Heart). Richard Strauss (1864-1949) move over!
The disc concludes with three more selections for chorus and orchestra. The first of these, Morgengesang (Morning Chant), dating from 1910, was originally for male chorus, brass and organ but appears here with full orchestral accompaniment in an arrangement done in 1934. It's an impressive offering and recalls Richard Strauss' choral works.
In 2005 Berghymne (Mountain Hymn, date of composition unknown) was discovered in the Austrian National Library. It was in short score for unison choir and piano, which Stefan Esser and Berkant Haydin, who also wrote the excellent album notes, expanded into the version for mixed chorus and orchestra done here. Lasting only a couple of minutes, it's a choral song that despite its brevity possesses enough "Marxist" earmarks to make us thankful it's now represented by more than just a three-by-five library card.
In 1914 Marx moved to Vienna to take up a teaching position as a professor of music theory and composition. That same year he wrote Ein Neujahrshymnus (A Hymn for the New Year) to his own words that seems to reflect his hopes for a successful new career. The work received many acclaimed performances in its original version for men's voices and organ. But this version for mixed chorus and orchestra, again by Herren Esser and Haydin, couldn't be more resplendent, ending this exceptional release on a real high!
There have been other CDs featuring the orchestral songs here, but none of them can match soprano Christine Brewer's sensitive and immaculate renditions of them. In fact, her voice seems ideally suited to the innocence and sparkling romanticism of these Lieder. She’s given stunning support by conductor Jiríi Belohlávek, who conjures up first-class performances from the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Apollo Voices and Trinity Boys Choir, proving he has a winning way with more than just Czech repertoire. His handling of the larger scale choral works is equally commendable, making this release the most desirable disc currently available of Marx's vocal works with orchestral accompaniment. Don't pass it up!
The recordings are certainly spectacular from the balance and soundstage perspectives, but as is frequently the case with massed voices, the sound in all likelihood would have been better in the SACD format. And those of us who've heard discs done with Ray Kimber's IsoMike (see the newsletter of 7 February 2007) can only hope that some day we'll get a production like this utilizing it. In the meantime, as is frequently the case with music this great, most listeners will soon forget any audiophile kvetching.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090411)
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Matthews, D.: Music of Dawn, Conc in Azzurro (vc), Vision & a…; Johnston/Gamba/BBC P [Chandos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Any not ashamed to admit they like contemporary classical music that's listener friendly and may even border on the cinematic should investigate this disc of orchestral works by British composer David Matthews (b. 1943). Known as a symphonist of considerable scope and ability in his native England (he's written seven symphonies to date), this new Chandos release should bring him many new admirers in other parts of the world. The three selections offered are all world première recordings, and provide a fine introduction to this talented composer.
The Music of Dawn is a symphonic poem that Matthews wrote between 1989 and 1990. It was inspired by a painting of the same name (see the album cover above) by British artist Cecil Collins (1908-1989), whose work the composer greatly admired. It's a highly programmatic, brilliantly orchestrated piece that's most engaging.
The quiet opening evokes a vast seascape shimmering with the early light of dawn reflected by passing Debussy wavelets [track-1 at 00:28, 00:35 and 00:46]. The trumpet introduces a mellifluous melody that's followed by some highly original scoring in which Matthews uses exotic percussion to simulate the sound of waves breaking over beach pebbles [track-2, beginning at 00:03]. And this is just the first of many magical moments in this radiant score! Restless winds then introduce a theme which represents the rising sun [track-2, beginning at 02:19], and in some ways anticipates Thomas Newman's (b. 1955) title tune for the highly acclaimed TV series Six Feet Under (2002-05). The music increases in tempo and intensity as the full light of day breaks forth, and the work concludes with a novalike outburst from the full orchestra, ending with a blazing cymbal crash.
Next up, a concerto for cello and orchestra which the composer tells us in the album notes is a journey into ultimate blueness. Thus the title Concerto in Azzurro (2000-02), where Azzurro is Italian for sky-blue. In a single movement comprised of three connected sections, or legs if you will, Matthews says its structure derives from the first movement of Bruckner's (1824-1896) ninth symphony (1891-96) – a claim whose veracity will be left to the more pedantic of the professional critics out there.
The opening leg of this journey begins agitatedly with a theme that will haunt the entire work, and is easily recognized because it's first few notes are the plainsong melody for the Dies Irae (DI). It's followed by a soft-spoken lyrical idea, and the two motifs are then cleverly developed and metamorphose into the next leg of the trip, which is a raucous Scherzo. Then a cadenza for the soloist transports the listener into the mysterious, attractively lyrical opening of the finale. Here the music builds in intensity with the DI much in evidence, and then subsides as the cello calms the orchestra by singing it a soothing DI variant. Shimmering strings and another Matthews' magical moment end the work in a state of heavenly bliss.
Incidentally, speaking of the DI and contemporary concertos, it also figures heavily in one for piano written in 2003 by Bulgarian composer Emil Tabakov (b. 1947, see the newsletter of 7 February 2007). Check it out!
The program concludes with A Vision and A Journey, which was composed in 1992-93, but underwent major revision between 1996 and 1999. It's a symphonic fantasy that the composer tells us has links to the one by Sibelius (1865-1957) known as Pohjola's Daughter (1906). In that regard, many may find it sounds like Sibelius on steroids!
Lasting about twenty minutes, it's also a three-legged journey like the concerto above. Each leg consists of an opening visionary passage that serves as the embarkation point for a trip through a musical landscape left to the listener's imagination.
The first leg begins with an ethereal-sounding vision [track-12] which introduces music that's stylistically baroque and rather gloomy. One can imagine traveling along a deserted road through a stark, monochromatic frozen countryside. This part of the journey ends with what could be a musical representation of Edvard Munch's (1863-1944) The Scream (see the newsletter of 7 January 2009). The next one [track-14] starts off with a percussively aggressive vision that suddenly reveals what might be described as a narrow path winding crossing some luminous rustic land. Is that a reference to the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde [track-15, beginning at 00:51]? A rising heroic vision initiates the third leg of our journey [track-16] to what sounds like a symphonic fairyland. Then the fantasy ends abruptly with a wave of the wand, and an unresolved interrogatory chord.
As we've noted before, Ruman Gamba has a winning way with film music (see the newsletters of 9 March 2006 and 15 June 2008), which probably explains his great success in making a convincing case for these highly programmatic scores. His careful attention to the many intricate orchestral details in them, and ability to bring out all of their dynamics without letting the music degenerate into a romantic wallow, are exceptional. Our cellist here, Guy Johnston, was a student of Steven Isserlis to whom the concerto is dedicated, and hearing his inspired playing, it's hard to imagine a more qualified soloist. With Gamba on the podium, the BBC Philharmonic give Guy superb support, and deliver outstanding performances of the other two selections.
With this release the Chandos engineers have come up with another audiophile treat that should be in every highend showroom. The soundstage is awesomely expansive, yet the ever present, intricately detailed orchestral passages remain in focus. The balance between the cello and orchestra is ideal, and the orchestral timbre, totally natural sounding over the exceptionally wide dynamic range encompassed here. Calling for an extensive percussion section, this music contains a substantial low end component that's magnificently captured, producing some of the cleanest bass vibes you could ever ask for. Accordingly, when it comes to testing your systems' transient response, this is definitely a sheep-and-goats disc. Audiophiles as well as those with a romantic bent are going to love this CD.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090410)
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Herzogenberg, H. von: Pno Qts 1 & 2, Stg Trios 1 & 2, Legends (vc, pno); Frölich/Belcanto Stgs [CPO]
AUDIOPHILE (2 CDs)
If you who missed out on this exceptional chamber music when it first appeared some years ago on two full-priced CPO CDs, you lucked out, because here it is as a bargain "twofor" re-release!
Born in Austria, composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900) received his early musical training there, but decided to move to Leipzig, Germany, in 1871. In the late 1800s Germany was divided into two musical camps, with the supporters of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) in one and, those of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) in the other. Herzogenberg started out as a Wagnerian but then became friends with Brahms and fell heavily under his influence, soon switching his allegiance to his circle of followers. From that point on chamber music became Herzogenberg's specialty (see the newsletter of 30 April 2008) and earned him the title of a Brahms epigone. But that should not be taken pejoratively, because as Brahmsian as it may sound, the exquisitely crafted selections included here prove he has a great deal to offer today's audiences. Besides that, with both composers being contemporaries, at times it's hard to tell who influenced whom.
The first of his two piano quartets was completed in 1892 just after the death of his wife, which probably explains the sense of melancholy that runs through all four movements. The opening allegro is somber with some thematic ideas Brahms probably wished he'd come up with. There's a directness and sincerity about the following andante that's typical of Herzogenberg, and would melt the iciest of hearts. While the scherzo is a little more cheerful than what's come before, there's an underlying anguish that leaves the listener anxiety-ridden. The finale is for the most part angst driven, but towards the very end conjures up feelings of resignation and heavenly peace.
Many may find the second piano quartet, dating from 1897, the star attraction here. Also in four movements, the beginning allegro is masterfully constructed around no-nonsense Brahmsian principles. But there's a transparency about the writing that's all Herzogenberg. The drop-dead gorgeous notturno that follows certainly discredits those contemporaries of his who wanted to dismiss him as a "dry academic." A whimsically rustic scherzo is next, and then a rousing finale, which with a willing suspension of disbelief sounds somewhat Magyar (see the newsletter of 25 November 20008) and/or Slavic in temperament.
In four movements each, the composer's two string trios (violin, viola and cello) were both written in 1879 and are among his most outstanding accomplishments. They have a classical clarity that's right out of early Beethoven, which may explain why Brahms thought so highly of them. The first is notable for its playful opening allegro, folksy dance-like third movement and melodically elegant finale. Highlights of the second trio include a sonorous first movement and charming barcarole-like andantino. The bustling finale is a real winner, and contains a theme which is very much like one Johannes would use three years later in the finale of his first string quintet.
Composed in 1890 for viola or cello with piano accompaniment, the album is filled out with three Legends performed here in the version for cello. Somewhat reminiscent of the "Heiliger Dankegesang..." in Beethoven's fifteenth string quartet, they commemorate Herzogenberg's joyful emergence, even if by wheelchair, from seven months in a sickbed. All three pieces are light fare and topnotch encore material, with the second the most outstanding for its exquisitely sinuous melodic line.
Impassioned playing by pianist Andreas Frölich and the Belcanto Strings wrings every drop of emotion out of these little known treasures. The performances are complemented by the artists' total technical mastery of their respective instruments, and Belcanto's silky tone. Herr Herzogenberg couldn't have stronger supporters!
The gossamer sound that emanates from these discs perfectly matches the mood of this music. While some might wish for a wider soundstage, the one here is bathed in a warm venue that brings out all the grace and inner glow of these exceptional chamber works. Audiophiles as well as romantics will not be disappointed. By the way, make sure you investigate more of Herzogenberg's chamber music on three other CPO releases (see 777081, 777335, 999625, and take any negative comments on these web pages with a grain of salt).
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090409)
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