CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
20 AUGUST 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.
Benedict: Pno Concs (2 in Eb & 3 in c); Macfarren, W.: Pno Constk; Shelley/Tasm SO [Hyperion]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
The great Hyperion "Romantic Piano Concerto" (RPC) snowball rolls on here with volume forty-eight, featuring two composers who flourished in Victorian England. Sir Julius Benedict (1804-1885), like George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), was German born and trained, but later studied in Italy, eventually settling in London. He had a successful career there as a virtuoso pianist, conductor and composer. English born and educated Walter Macfarren (1826-1905) was a professor of piano at the Royal Academy of Music from 1846 to 1903, and wrote a considerable amount of music for that instrument.
The first of Benedict's three piano concertos had a checkered history, and only its first and last movements survive today as a separate Concertino (Op. 18) and Rondeau brillant (Op. 5). Although neither of these remnants is currently available commercially, we're lucky to have the last two concertos on this latest RPC installment. Oddly enough the second (Eb major, Op. 89) was begun in 1837 thirteen years before the third (C minor, Op. 50) of 1850, but not finished until 1867. That's why their opus and order numbers would seem to contradict each other.
Both concertos are in three movements based on classical models. They're well grounded in Beethoven (1770-1827), but also smack of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). There are even passages that give a nod to Rossini (1792-1868), and probably reflect those years Benedict spent in Italy.
The CD begins with the third concerto, which is notable for a tuneswept opening allegro and beguiling adagio with a flirtatious scherzo-like central core. The spirited finale is right out of Felix.
The second concerto follows, opening with a prolonged orchestral tutti, which at times sounds somewhat militaristic. The first movement features a lovely melody reminiscent of Chopin (1810-1849) [track-4, beginning at 05:35], and some exciting finger work. The lilting andante prepares the way for a galloping finale, which works itself up into a Rossinian frenzy, ending the concerto in a blaze of virtuosity.
The disc is filled out with Walter Macfarren's only extant work for piano and orchestra, the single movement Concertstück of 1881. After a moody introduction, it becomes an appealing homage to Mendelssohn with a main theme derived from one of his Songs Without Words (E major, Op. 38, No. 3). Having heard it, you'll be sorry to learn from the informative album notes that Walter also wrote a full-fledged piano concerto which is now lost!
Pianist Howard Shelley works some more of his prestidigitatorial magic here, giving us airy, delicate performances of these pieces. He also doubles as conductor, eliciting ideal support from the Tasmanian Symphony, whose performances confirm its status as a first-class orchestra.
We've commented before in these newsletters about the superb sound that usually characterizes Australian recordings (see the newsletter of 15 March 2007), and these, made in Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania, are no exception. The piano is well-rounded with no hint of any “digital nasties” across its entire tonal and dynamic range, while the orchestral timbre is totally natural. A perfectly proportioned soundstage in a warm acoustic and ideal balance between soloist and tutti make this audiophile material.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090820)
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Glazunov: Masquerade, 2 Pcs, Pas de…, Romantic...; Yablonsky/GnesA C/Russ PO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
Glazunov: Syms Cpte (8), Kremlin (sym poem); Svetlanov/USSR SO [Svet Fdn]
RECOMMENDED (6 CDs)
The old nuptial rhyme that starts "Something old, something new" certainly describes these two recent releases devoted entirely to the music of Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). The Naxos CD has something new -- the first recording in recent memory of over half an hour of incidental music written for a popular nineteenth century Russian play. The Svetlanov Foundation album has something old -- highly revered recordings of his eight completed symphonies as done some twenty years ago by Russian conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002, see the newsletter of 31 July 2009, 3 July 2008 and 28 October 2008).
The Naxos disc is the eighteenth volume in their ongoing series devoted to Glazunov's orchestral works, and it contains some real rarities. The most noteworthy is the first modern recording of incidental music used for a 1917 production of Mikhail Lermontov’s (1814-1841) play Masquerade (1836). The drama is a tragedy that's in many ways a Tsarist Othello, and was apparently a biting criticism of contemporary society -- so much so that it was banned for thirty years!
Composed in 1912-13, the music calls for chorus as well as orchestra, and has come down to us only in manuscript. When heard without the play the twenty-six numbers comprising it form an amazingly coherent, extended suite that constitutes a major Glazunov find. Bravo Naxos!
Right from the respectively dreamy and then bouncy opening two selections for vocalizing chorus with orchestra [tracks-1 and 2], one knows this is going to be a different Glazunov listening experience. The following sixteen numbers [tracks-3 through 18] are for the most part optimistic, with the ninth [track-9] sounding almost like something Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) could have written. Generally speaking these little gems will remind you of Alexander's best ballet scores, i.e. Raymonda (1896-97), Les Ruses d'amour (1900) and The Seasons (1899). But the next one [track-19] will raise a few eyebrows, because it's a shortened version of Mikhail Glinka's (1804-1857) Valse-fantaisie (1856)! Although the album notes give a detailed description of the stage action, there's no mention of this. But it seems likely it was the featured music for the second of two ball scenes.
The concluding seven numbers [tracks-20 through 26] are much darker, and become increasingly anguished to a degree reminiscent of Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) in his more agonizing moments. There are what sound like a couple of Russian religious folk laments sung by the chorus [track-22 and 25], which must have added significantly to the tragic atmosphere of the drama. The last selection [track-26] radiates a few melodic shimmers of Glazunovian hope just before this highly dramatic incidental suite ends in a final measure of despair.
Incidentally, there’s a song Nina (the Desdemona in this drama) sings in the third act, which is not included here. Written in 1916, it was a late addition for the 1917 production of the play, and became one of Glazunov’s most popular vocal pieces. It was later published as his Romance de Nina (Op. 102).
The program continues with Two Pieces for Orchestra entitled "Idylle" and "Ręverie orientale." Written in 1886 they show what a superb melodist and orchestrator Glazunov was even at the tender age of twenty-one. The first piece paints what sounds like a pastoral scene bathed in autumnal light given off by the French horns. The second lives up to its name with plaintive solo passages for the woodwinds that make it all the more exotic. Strangely enough the beginning presages Frederick Delius' (1862-1934) Over the Hills and Far Away (1897), while the main body of the work recalls the Antar Symphony (No. 2, 1868, revised 1875 and 1897) by Glazunov's colleague and good friend Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).
Next up, Pas de caractčre (1899), which was composed the same year as The Seasons, and sounds like something the composer might have forgotten to include in it. It's a two-minute balletic truffle with a sprightly introduction and high-stepping finale of Magyar persuasion.
The closing selection, Romantic Intermezzo (1900), finds the composer at the height of his melodic powers, and could easily qualify as a slow movement for one of his symphonies. A carefully structured and beautifully orchestrated edifice, it shows what a master musical architect and builder he was. Oddly enough at one point there's a variant of the main theme which seems derived from the "Rheinmaidens" and "Sword" leitmotifs in Wagner's (1813-1883) Ring (1869-76) [track-30, beginning at 05:41]. Maybe Alexander had Siegmund and Sieglinde in mind when he wrote it. In any case it ends the disc with one of his most sublime creations.
Conductor Dmitry Yablonsky obviously loves this music judging from the captivating, highly enthusiastic performances he gets from the Gnesin Academy Chorus and Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. While paying meticulous attention to tempo and dynamic markings, he maintains that Slavic sweep so essential to bringing out the full potential of Glazunov's music.
From the soundstage standpoint these recordings are excellent. There's just the right amount of space and reverberation to assure an accurate virtual image of both chorus and orchestra. The balance between the two is ideal. The only drawback is a strange sounding, upper midrange phenomenon that appears intermittently in choral as well as massed violin passages. For lack of a better term call it a "shriek peak," and it may well be some form of digital artifact created by an incompatibility between the microphones and electronics used.
Turning to The Svetlanov Foundation album, generally speaking conductor Evgeny Svetlanov's performances of all eight completed Glazunov symphonies are a winning combination of subtlety and Slavic emotional abandon, with ideal tempos as well as thrilling dynamics. This release is a must for Glaznophiles who missed out on these recordings when they made a brief CD appearance on the old Melodiya label. Incidentally, there is a short score sketch for the first movement of a ninth symphony (1910) that was orchestrated in 1947 by Gavril Yudin. It's not included here, but those interested can find it on the twelfth volume of Naxos' ongoing survey devoted to Glazunov's orchestral music.
These symphonies lend themselves to a particularly wide range of interpretations, probably because of their melodic ingenuousness, structural candor and general romantic malleability. Consequently there never seems to be a consensus as to the best performance of any particular one. That said, the ratings offered here are purely personal and will undoubtedly fly in the face of some professional critical opinions. On the other hand, being from the heart of a longtime devoted Glaznophile, hopefully they have a modicum of validity. On a scale of 1 through 5, "1" signifies the performance is among the least desirable currently available, and "5," one of the most.
Evgeny's reading of the first symphony (1881-82) gets a "4," and would rate a "5" if the adagio weren't so apathetic. Keep an eye out for a rerelease of Russian conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev's 1983 recording of this on Melodiya. Knowing their loosey-goosey leasing policy, it's probably just a matter of time before it surfaces again.
Symphonies two (1886) and three (1890) both rate a "5." Incidentally conductor Valeri Polyansky, who does all of them except the seventh on Brilliant Classics , turns in renditions of these two that are almost as good, but have the added advantage of being better recorded. Unfortunately you'll have to own both sets if you want the best sound as well as performances.
From the U.S. perspective, the circumstances surrounding the original Melodiya CD release of the fourth (1893) and fifth (1895) symphonies as done by Svetlanov are rather amusing. For some reason Melodiya's U.S. distributor never brought the disc into the country, and it was only briefly available through a New Jersey truckdriver of Russian descent who bootlegged some from Europe. So if you're a U.S. reader, chances are this will be your first opportunity to hear them. And you should, because they get a "4" and "5" respectively.
The fourth would also be a "5," but Svetlanov is one of several conductors who take that gorgeous opening theme too slowly (55 seconds). He dawdles to such an extant that any who cut their teeth on Hans Schweiger’s ground-breaking recording of it with the Kansas City Philharmonic (40 seconds, and on a Urania LP and CD long since gone) will find it painfully lethargic. Hopefully there'll be a rerelease of Walter Weller's version of the fourth (50 seconds) and fifth with the Basle Symphony Orchestra (originally on the Ars Musici label). Both of his performances are superb, and in better sound.
When it comes to the sixth (1896) symphony, Svetlanov easily rates a "5." This is the most bombastic of the eight, and without special handling it can turn into overcooked Tchaikovsky. Evgeny delivers a stunning rendition that should make believers out of all those who've had doubts about it! Again, anyone desirous of a version that's almost as good but has better sonics, will probably also want the Polyansky set mentioned above.
The seventh symphony (1902), which bears the subtitle "Pastoral," is the exact opposite of its immediate predecessor. In many ways it represents a departure from everything before by living up to its sobriquet, and being the most delicately structured and wistful of the lot. Although Glazunov would not die for another thirty-four years, the next ten would see the end of his finest creative period, this symphony being one of the last highpoints.
Unfortunately Svetlanov's performance of it is the least desirable here, and the main problem is obvious from the very start. It opens with an absolutely delightful, perky sixteen-note melody, vestiges of which infect the entire work like some idée fixe. This motif should have all the freshness of a spring breeze, but Svetlanov smears it out, as he does most of the other thematic material that follows. Consequently what should be a refreshing summer day in the country turns into a rather sultry listening experience. Considering all this, Evgeny only rates a "3," and you're advised to investigate conductor Tadaaki Otaka's performance with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales on BIS. It's arguably the best of the sevenths, and like most BIS recordings has super sonics to boot. Serendipitously this is also the version of it included in that Brilliant bargain box mentioned above.
Svetlanov certainly has the measure of the eighth, which can easily founder in lesser hands. His careful attention to tempos and dynamics assure there's never a languorous moment, earning him a "5." As we've noted before, those desiring better sound and a reading that's almost its equal are again referred to the Polyansky mentioned above.
Averaging all of these ratings yields a "4.5," making this a most attractive option for the completed symphonies! And as a bonus, there’s an exhilarating performance of the composer's picturesque symphonic poem, The Kremlin (1890). An extended three-part Russian Easter Overture, there's a celebratory "Folk Festivity," a reverential "At the Monastery," which Albert Ketčlby (1875-1959) would have loved, and a triumphant "Meeting and Entrance of the Prince."
Recorded between 1989 and 1990, the USSR Symphony Orchestra is featured throughout. What its members may lack in technical ability and tonal finesse they certainly make up for with enthusiastic performances.
These are studio stereo recordings, but they date from the Soviet years when cavernous soundstages and metallic highs were the rule. Also there are a couple of points in the first symphony where there's a slight rushing sound that may be caused by less than successful attempts at noise reduction, and/or deterioration of the master tape. However as we've said before, with performances like this we're lucky to have what's here.
For those of you who have CD burners/servers, one last thought regarding the unfinished ninth symphony. Just for fun, you might want to program your own four-movement completion of it by augmenting Yudin's version of the first movement (see above) with another three Glazunov selections of appropriate length. For the scherzo try the one in the symphonic suite From the Middle Ages (1903), which even quotes an old Russian favorite, the Dies Irae. For the adagio, you couldn't do better than the Romantic Intermezzo (1900) on Naxos recommended above. And one of Alexander's last efforts, Počme épique (1933-34), would seem appropriate for the finale. Granted there won't be any thematic consistency, but by the time Alexander would have finished the ninth, all that vodka might have produced some strange results!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P090819, P090818)
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Janácek, Nedbal, Novák, V.: Vn Sons; Zenatý/Kasík [Supraphon]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
This winning collection of romantic/early modern Czech sonatas for violin and piano is one of the most interesting chamber music releases to come along in some time. That of Leos Janácek is an established classic, while Oskar Nedbal's and Vítezslav Novák's will come as welcome surprises to most.
Janácek’s (1854-1928) sonata was a real problem child. So much so that he worked on it for eight years (1914-1922)! What we have here is the third of three efforts in the genre, the first two having disappeared, where the only surviving feature is its four-movement structure. The opening with its spastic rhythms and fractious motifs couldn't be by anyone except Janácek, and anticipates the Sinfonietta and Glagolitic Mass of 1926. The "Balada" that follows is the oldest, and not surprisingly the most conventional sounding movement here. It's a leisurely romantic essay with Moravian folk associations.
The concluding movements are stylistically like the first, and the presence of themes that sound like they might have been written by one of the "Five" (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) betray Leos' love for all things Russian. As is usually the case with this composer's music, Czech folk material also figures heavily. In fact the finale contains a lovely folk-inflected melody [track-4, beginning at 00:42] that makes a couple of appearances before the sonata ends "Not with a bang but a whimper."
The seldom performed sonata of Oskar Nedbal (1874-1930) is an early work dating from 1893-94. It's a beautifully crafted piece that's a gold mine of attractive melodic ideas. The sweeping, energetic opening is followed by a romantic, aria-like andante. The querulous concluding allegro provides the sonata with a forceful, highly engaging ending that gives the soloists a chance to show off their combined talents.
It would appear the student-teacher relationship between Vítezslav Novák (1870-1949) and Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904) was just as contentious as the one Charles Ives (1874-1954, see the newsletters of 6, and 20 December 2006, 15 September 2007 and 3 July 2008) had with Horatio Parker (1863-1919). But in 1891, despite their differences, the twenty-one year old Novák managed to complete this sonata under Antonín's tutelage. And even if it does display the effects of raging hormones as well as the emotional extravagances of youth, it's a magnificent accomplishment that Dvorák must have at least secretly admired.
In three movements like the Nedbal, it opens with a white hot allegro appassionato that's full of first-class thematic ideas with an emotional temperament worthy of Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) in one of his more worked up states. The andante that follows is imploringly melancholy, while there's an almost "Heigh-ho! Come to the fair!" innocence about the concluding allegro.
Violinist Ivan Zenatý and pianist Martin Kasík do the honors, and play up a storm! Both are virtuosos of the highest order, but they use their spectacular technique only in the service of this extraordinarily expressive music.
The instrumental sound is crisp and clear over an ideally proportioned soundstage with just the right amount reverberation for a small ensemble like this. The violin tone is more staunch than silky, and the piano, well-rounded but lean. Audiophiles will not be disappointed.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090817)
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Mozart, W.A.: Idomeneo (cpte opera & doc DVD); Croft/Fink/Im/Jacobs/RIAS ChC/FreiBar O [Harm Mund]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (3 CDs)
Following his stunning performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's (1756-1791) three great operas with texts by Lorenzo Da Ponte [Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Cosi fan tutte (1790)], conductor René Jacobs now gives us an equally outstanding Idomeneo. It has a libretto by Italian poet Father Giambattista Varesco (1735-1805) that's based on a French text written by Antoine Danchet (1671-1848) for André Campra's (1660-1744) opera Idoménée of 1712. Completed in 1781 just before his twenty-fifth birthday, Wolfie's version is a highly dramatic stage work that harkens back to Gluck's (1714-1787) Alceste (1776), while looking forward to the Da Ponte operas. Elements of Freemasonry also run through it, anticipating the principles what would be espoused in Die Zauberflöte (1791).
In three acts, the plot centers around King Idomeneo of Crete and his son Idamante, and in some ways resembles the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. After one of Mozart's more impassioned overtures, the first act sets the stage for the rest of the work with a series of arias and ensemble pieces that show the composer at the height of his creative powers. In it Idomeneo, having set sail for home following the Trojan War, is caught up in a terrible storm, and begs the sea god Neptune to save him. In payment for the god's help, he promises to sacrifice the first mortal he meets upon returning to his homeland. The god does indeed spare his life, but woe to Idomeneo, because the first person he encounters is Idamante!
Choruses play a particularly predominant role in this opera, and the first act alone has three of them. There's a stirring hymn of thanksgiving for the war's end sung by the Trojans and Cretans [CD-1, track-9]; a gripping number depicting Idomeneo's crew on the verge of shipwreck, made all the more sinister by great whacks on a bass drum [CD-1, track-13]; and, a triumphal paean honoring Neptune that ends this act majestically [CD-1, track-21].
It wouldn't be much of an opera without a love story, and the one here involves Idamante, the Trojan Princess Ilia, and King Agamemnon's daughter Elettra, better known to most of us as Elektra. It's a typical love triangle where Elettra is enamored of Idamante who's smitten with Ilia.
Act II begins in the royal apartments where it becomes apparent that Idomeneo hasn't been able to sacrifice his son. In a wonderful trio with Idamante and Elettra he urges the two of them to leave Crete [CD-2, track-14]. A little later a delicate march, which anticipates the one that ends the first act of Le Nozze di Figaro, ushers in a scene change to the Port of Cydonia [CD-2, track-10]. That's where the exciting conclusion of this act takes place as Neptune, who's angered by the King's failure to keep his promise, causes a violent storm to break out, and a terrifying sea monster to appear [CD-2, track-15]. There are all sorts of special wind and thunder effects worthy of a Lully opera (see the newsletter of 11 July 2007), and following another spectacular chorus, the people all run for the hills as the curtain falls.
The drama intensifies in the beginning of the final act as passions mount between the members of the love triangle. They’re joined by Idomoneo in an intricately structured quartet where each expresses their grief over what's happened [CD-2, track-23]. Then in an animated recitative with thematic references to the march mentioned above, the Gran Sacerdote (High Priest of Neptune) tells about all the death and destruction wrought by the monster [CD-3, track-1]. A little later Idomeneo and his resplendent retinue of courtiers enter to a stately march that foreshadows the one in Die Zauberflöte [CD-3, track-3].
But all ends happily when Idamante kills the monster, and a deus ex machina transpires, saving him. The divine intervention here is atypical of that usually found in operas of this period because it only involves an offstage "subterranean voice," as Mozart called it. Referred to in the libretto as simply "The Voice," it would seem to be some supernatural, all-knowing entity with Masonic associations. To an imposing bass drum and trombone accompaniment, it tells us Neptune will be appeased if Idomeneo abdicates in favor of his son with Ilia as queen [CD-3, track-9]. The king does just that to everyone's delight except Elettra, who makes a wild exit singing a marvelously deranged aria [CD-3, track-11]. The opera then ends with a final rousing chorus and ballet celebrating Idamante's coronation and marriage [CD-3, track-14 through 18].
Tenor Richard Croft is an ideal Idomeneo, and mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink is wonderfully cast in a trouser role as Idamante. Sopranos Sunhae Im and Alexandrina Pendatchanska are just as outstanding here as they were with Ms. Fink in Jacob’s acclaimed version of Wolfie's La Clemenza di Tito (1791). A round of applause should also go to tenor Kenneth Tarver in the role of Idomeneo's confidant Arbace as well as baritone Nicolas Rivenq, who sings the Gran Sacerdote. And last, but not least, bass Luca Tittoto gets a big hand for his commanding rendition of "The Voice."
Down through the years many of us have always admired this opera, but found it hard to get as enthusiastic about it as the Da Ponte ones, or for that matter even Die Zauberflöte. But René Jacobs provides that little extra something which you may find puts it right up there with the others. The RIAS Chamber Choir and Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (FBO) sing and play their hearts out for him. Authenticity is the byword, and Jacobs gives us the most complete rendition possible of a stage work that was mercilessly cut in Mozart's day in order to secure performances. He even includes an alternate version of "The Voice" recitative as an appendix [CD-3, track-19]. By the way, in the original scoring two of the numbers [CD-2, track-12 and 19] called for a pair of clarinets in B. Having long since become extinct, the FBO clarinetists had a couple of them made just for this recording!
As regards the many recitatives in this opera, generally speaking the ones with orchestral accompaniment (obligati) have enough variety to present no problem. But those with just continuo (semplici) can become somewhat tedious in lesser performances than this. The semplici are played here on a wonderfully colorful fortepiano by Sebastian Wienand who, just as Mozart would have done, serves up some inspired improvisations. These coupled with an amazing array of harmonically adventurous chords notated by the composer make delightful ear candy out of what could have been some pretty mundane sounding numbers.
The original Italian libretto with English, French and German translations is provided, along with a plot synopsis and informative essays. Make sure you read the one by conductor Jacobs, which should add significantly to your appreciation of the opera. And by all means watch the enlightening bonus DVD that's included. It documents everything about the making of this album.
Clarity verging on brilliance characterizes the recording. The venue is the Immanuel Church in Wuppertal, Germany, which was converted some years ago into a concert hall and cultural center. It provides an appropriately spacious venue for a stage work with a significant number of scenes that approach Hollywood extravaganza proportions. From the orchestral perspective the sound is excellent. From the vocal, it's about as good as one can expect on conventional CD, but would have been better in Super Audio. It's a shame Harmonia Mundi didn't release this as a hybrid like Jacob's Don Giovanni and La Clemenza di Tito. Be that as it may, the balance between the soloists, chorus and orchestra is ideal throughout. Bottom line, audiophiles and Mozart opera enthusiasts alike should certainly give this a spin.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y090816)
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