CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
31 OCTOBER 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.
Casella, Alf.: Sinfa for Orch (Sym 3), Italia; Francis/ColWDR SO [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
With a grandfather, father and two uncles who were all major cellists, Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) came from a distinguished musical family. In his youth he exhibited extraordinary talents in the scientific as well as musical fields, and for several years it was unclear which he'd follow. But in 1895 he heard Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) conduct the first Italian performance of Richard Wagner's (1813-1883) Götterdämmerung (1876), which totally captivated him, turning him towards music.
With the death of his father in 1896, and at the insistence of Italy's then greatest living symphonic composer, Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909), he and his mother moved to Paris, where he would study composition for the next several years. He became a student of Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) and remained in that city until 1915 when he returned to Italy. During his years in France he could count among his close associates George Enescu (1881-1955), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), all of whom seem to have influenced him.
This release from CPO will be a significant disc of discovery for those listeners unfamiliar with Casella. It begins with the third and last of his symphonies, which he called a Sinfonia for Orchestra. Completed in 1940 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the request of its then conductor Frederick Stock, it's a tight-knit, four-movement classically proportioned work from late in Alfredo’s career.
There's a solidity and structural integrity about the opening allegro which fans of Paul Hindemith's (1895-1963) symphonic music will love. Dramatic percussive effects are to be found in the funereal andante and insistent scherzo. In the former one can imagine a brief skirmish involving that Roman legion which marched through Ottorino Respighi's (1879-1936) Pines of Rome (1924, see the newsletter of 9 March 2006), while the ghost of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) seems to haunt the latter.
The work concludes cyclically with all the important thematic characters taking a final bow. Brilliantly orchestrated and masterfully constructed, there's a cinematic sense of excitement about the finale that makes this one of Casella's most engaging symphonic achievements.
The CD is filled out with his early rhapsody for orchestra Italia, which was written in 1909 during his Paris years. In it he shuns those impressionistic influences that were so pervasive in France back then, producing a tone poem more in the tradition of Richard Strauss (1864-1949). His frequent use of folk material from sunny Italy imparts a sense of nationalism to it.
Lasting a total of twenty minutes, it's in two connected sections. The composer tells us the dark, tragic opening one is associated with the desolate scorched spaces and hellish sulfur mines found on the volcanic island of Sicily. It couldn’t be more different from the closing part, which is a jocund bacchanal inspired by the carefree life usually associated with the city of Naples (see the newsletter of 15 January 2008).
Curiously enough, towards the end of the piece there's another commonality between Strauss and Casella where, as Richard had done in Aus Italien (1886), Alfredo quotes Luigi Denza’s (1846-1922) melody for the ever popular Neapolitan song "Funiculì, Funiculà" (1880). It makes for a joyous ending to a piece which in some ways was a precursor of Respighi's Roman Trilogy (1914-28).
Our conductor here, Alun Francis, who has made many friends through his outstanding recordings for CPO of music by Allan Pettersson (1911-1980) and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948, see the newsletter of 9 June 2009), will continue to do so with this magnificent release. His love of these Casella works is abundantly obvious in the committed, fervent performances he gets from the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne. Casella is one of those composers who benefit from that little extra touch by the conductor, and Alun provides it!
The recordings are quite good and project a soundstage with more depth than breadth. The orchestral timbre is quite natural. Those partial to a more brilliantly detailed sound rather than a musical one may wish for more sparkle in the highs and greater clarity in the low bass.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P091031)
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Kleiberg: Vn Conc, DblB Conc; Thorsen/Sjölin/Reuss/Trond SO [2L (Hybrid)]
AUDIOPHILE (1 SACD)
For those of us living in the U.S. nation's Capital, 2004 saw one of the most memorable concert events in recent years, a performance of Norwegian-born Stale Kleiberg's (b. 1958) powerful Requiem for the Victims of Nazi Persecution (2002) at Washington National Cathedral. Commemorating the "9/11" terrorist attacks, it was broadcast nationally, and shortly thereafter released on CD to great critical acclaim. Now here's a new hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.1) disc from the 2L label with two concertos by this little known but highly gifted composer. Both are contemporary works with an extended sense of tonality grounded in the late romantic rather than the avant-garde. Some may find they bring to mind the symphonic music of Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, who oddly enough was born the same year as Kleiberg.
The CD begins with a violin concerto dating from 2005, which the composer considers one of his major works. Thematic metamorphosis is the common denominator in all three of its movements, and like Lindberg's highly praised clarinet concerto, the variety of moods conjured up is nothing short of amazing. It opens pensively, gathering momentum as the soloist and orchestra carry on a fascinating chromatically colorful dialogue. In the process a number of fragmentary motifs are tossed about, finally coalescing into a robust melodic idea that ends the movement assertively.
The following adagio begins mysteriously as the violin in the company of other solo wind instruments drifts heavenwards. This leads to an orchestral catharsis and agitated passages haunted by repeated phrases on the vibraphone. Another tutti introduces a brief cadenza for the soloist, and then the movement ends in a state of celestial bliss.
The final allegro commences with a rhythmically jagged motif à la Stravinsky (1882-1971) played by the violin. The orchestra joins in, and a rhapsodic episode for the soloist with a walking bass and quixotic airborne flights of fancy in the woodwinds follows. The opening theme then reasserts itself, becoming the basis for the concerto's conclusion, which includes a much more extensive and demanding cadenza than what we heard before.
The next work is a real curiosity because it features the double bass, which like the tuba is rarely chosen as the solo instrument for a concerto. This is understandable considering its limited natural note range as well as the extended length of its neck do not lend themselves to displays of virtuosity. Also, in spite of its size, a single bass fiddle has minimal decibel output compared to other modern day bowed instruments. On the other hand, with its longer strings it can produce more natural sounding harmonics than any other stringed instrument in the orchestra. Kleiberg takes full advantage of the latter, producing one of the most engaging bass concertos written to date.
Dating from 1999 and in three movements, the opening andante begins with alternating brass and string flourishes that seem Nordic in spirit and may recall Sibelius' (1865-1957) Finlandia (1900). The double bass enters sounding rather cello-like, and introduces an animated theme (AT) in its upper registers in tandem with the bassoon. A brief orchestral interlude follows, and the soloist then intones a fascinating folk-like melody (FM) each note of which is one of those natural harmonics mentioned above. The two ideas are elaborated on by soloist and tutti in a manner sometimes reminiscent of the "Dawn" or "Sunday Morning" interludes from Britten's (1913-1976) Peter Grimes (1945). The movement then ends mysteriously with a restatement of FM.
In the hypnotic adagio that follows the soloist remains exclusively in the upper registers with natural stopping as well as those harmonics. The resulting sound world is quite unlike anything you've ever heard in a concerto for a bowed instrument. But the bass fiddle's true character shows through in the final allegro, where the stringed behemoth immediately chortles an ursine version of AT. This jolly movement once again finds our soloist frequently in the company of his woodwind counterpart, the bassoonist. It also includes a meditative cadenza of considerable difficulty. After it FM and AT return briefly in cyclic fashion, and the concerto ends on an orchestral high.
Violinist Marianne Thorsen and bassist Göran Sjölin are simply superb, playing with a verve and sensitivity that make a strong case for Kleiberg's music. The same can be said of the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned both pieces, and under conductor Daniel Reuss provides ideal support for both soloists.
The recordings are excellent with the CD and SACD stereo tracks producing a soundstage that's quite convincing even if it seems a bit stretched compared to the multichannel one. The instrumental timbre is totally natural sounding in all three playing modes across the extended frequency and dynamic spectrums effectuated by Kleiberg's brilliant scoring. The soloists are perfectly miked and highlighted against the orchestra. The 2L folks pride themselves on their recordings, and audiophiles will not be disappointed with this one.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y091030)
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Piatigorsky: Vars on Paganini... (vc, pno); Popper, D.: Ste, 3 Pieces, Im Walde; Warner/Buck [Cedille]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Ukrainian-born Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976) is best remembered as one of the greatest cellists of the twentieth century, but he also dabbled in composition. As his fellow countryman Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) had done in Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934), he used the last of Nicolo Paganini's (1782-1840) Twenty-four Caprices for solo violin (1801-07) as the subject for a set of variations. Originally for cello and orchestra, he later made an arrangement with piano accompaniment, which is what you'll find on this new, highly enjoyable release from Chicago-based Cedille Records. Some rarely heard treasures for the same combination of instruments by Czech-born David Popper (1843-1913) are also included.
Dating from 1946, the Piatigorsky starts with the Paganini tune, which is then followed by fifteen variations each dedicated to one of Gregor's musical colleagues. Some of the more memorable include (dedicatee in parentheses): the first (Pablo Casals, 1876-1973) -- a moderato outpouring that could be from a J.S. Bach (1685-1750) suite for unaccompanied cello; the second (Paul Hindemith, 1895-1963) -- a jagged, frenetic energico display of virtuosity; the sixth (Joseph Szigeti, 1892-1973) -- a double-stopped dark adagio; the seventh (Yehudi Menuhin, 1916-1999) -- a decathalon allegro with running notes and leaping intervals; the eighth (Nathan Milstein, 1904-1992) -- a pesky "entomovirtuosic" presto; the ninth (Fritz Kreisler, 1875-1962) -- an allegretto that smacks of those short Sacher-Torte creations Fritz liked to come up with; the fourteenth (Jascha Heifitz, 1901-1987) -- a bravura allegro that scurries about like a terrified mouse; the fifteenth (Vladimir Horowitz, 1904-1989) -- an accelerating locomotive tempo di marcia finale worthy of one of the most flamboyant keyboard artists of all time.
David Popper was one of the greatest cellists to emerge during the romantic period, and a composer of considerable merit. The latter statement is verified by his four-movement suite for cello and piano (Op. 69, possibly 1894-95) included here. Despite its title, this is absolute music that's as rigorously structured as most romantic cello sonatas. The opening allegro is in modified sonata form with gorgeous soaring, chromatically harmonized melodies that impart a most appealing rhapsodic dimension to it. Both performers get a chance to wax romantic as well as show off their technical abilities.
Classical simplicity and charm inform the following minuet, but there's an anguished insistency about the ballade that’s next. It portends a sense of doom only relieved by the optimistically hyperactive finale, where the colorful chromaticism of the first movement returns. Both performers are given frequent opportunities to strut their stuff, particularly in the final coda. It ends the suite on a real high that will have you immediately playing it again!
Popper probably used the Three Pieces (Op. 11, pub. 1874) that come next as recital encores. The first, "Widmung" ("Dedication"), is an impassioned adagio in the spirit of Felix Mendelssohn's 1809-1947) Songs Without Words (1825-45). "Humoreske" and "Mazurka" are as advertised, but so dazzling that they must have had Popper's audiences demanding even more encores!
In 1882 the composer wrote a six-movement suite for cello and orchestra entitled "Im Walde" (1882). Meant to conjure up forest scenes and moods, the version he later did with piano accompaniment is next. The first movement, "Entritt" ("Entrance"), features a winsome extended melody, suggesting a warm, sunlit, arboreal setting. Popper was a protégé of Franz Liszt (1811-1886), and the ungainly "Gnomentanz" ("Dance of the Gnomes") that's next may have been inspired by the second of the older composer's Two Concert Études (S 145, 1862-63?), "Gnomenreigen." "Andacht" ("Devotion") is romantically sentimental but doesn't outstay its welcome. The charming en-pointe "Reigen" ("Round Dance"), which concludes with some lighter-than-air upper cello harmonics, and rhapsodic "Herbstblume" ("Autumn Flower") are both wonderfully atmospheric. In the concluding youthful "Heimkehr" ("Homeward") one can picture Little Red Riding Hood, basket in hand, skipping through the forest with nothing to fear because the Gnomes have eaten the wolf!
Cellist Wendy Warner is absolutely superb and brings a sense of great excitement tempered with sensitivity to these pieces. Her technique is awesome, but she uses it only in the service of the music. Pianist Eileen Buck is equally impressive and, in the case of the Piatigorsky as well as Popper's Im Walde, executes to perfection some extremely difficult and demanding piano parts that are reductions of full orchestral accompaniments. You'll undoubtedly be hearing a lot more from both of these exceptionally talented artists!
Although the recordings were done on different occasions in 2007 and 2008, they were made in the same studio at WFMT, Chicago. The sound is consequently quite consistent for all four selections. The string tone is very natural and the piano, well rounded with no hint of “digital nasties.” The soundstage does seem somewhat compressed, with the channel balance listing a bit to starboard, but not to a degree that detracts from the fabulous music making going on here.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P091029)
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Röntgen: Syms 8 & 15, Vars on a Norwegian Folk Melody; Porcelijn/NDR RP [CPO]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
CPO treats us to two more of Julius Röntgen's (1855-1932) twenty-five symphonies (some still in manuscript and unnumbered) on this next release in their ongoing revival of his music (see the newsletters of 16 April 2007, 30 March 2008 and 28 October 2008). Having spent the last fifty-four years of his life in the Netherlands, many think of him as a Dutch composer. However, his birth, childhood and training in Leipzig make his music sound more German than anything identifiable as coming from one of the Low Countries.
During his years in Germany he met and became an admirer and close friend of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), who consequently influenced him greatly. But so did a number of other composers because Julius was a true cosmopolitan with a keen interest in the music of his immediate contemporaries, who included César Franck (1822-1890), Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Claude Debussy (1862-1918), and Richard Strauss (1864-1949).
He also kept abreast of such up-and-coming composers as Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) as well as Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), and was even intrigued by the dodecaphony of the Second Viennese School. But except for a couple of experiments with atonality towards the end of his life, he found it "unmusical," and never resorted to it himself.
Generally speaking, composers who are inveterate symphony writers usually produce them at regular intervals throughout their careers. But not Röntgen, who having conceived eight between 1910 and 1928, went on in a flurry of creative activity to complete another seventeen during the last three years of his life (1930-32). This explains why only nine months separate the eighth (May 1930) and fifteenth (February 1931) symphonies included here.
Lasting about twenty minutes and in two connected sections, the eighth owes a great debt to the composer's good friend Edvard Grieg. The misty opening as well as the dramatic dance and panorama that follow could almost be out of Peer Gynt (1874-75). The instrumentation is made all the more colorful by the inclusion of an underlying piano obbligato.
The concluding part [track-1, beginning at 10:58] starts with a brief vocalise for soprano based on a lokk, or Norwegian folk melody. Apparently the composer had heard and noted this down during one of his visits and hikes with Grieg in the mountains of Norway. One can't help thinking Röntgen may have gotten the idea for this sung interlude from having heard Carl Nielsen's (1865-1931) Sinfonia espansiva (No. 3, 1910-11). In any case, it's an inspired touch and returns at the very end to make this one of the composer's most imaginative and rewarding symphonic creations.
The fifteenth symphony is only a few minutes longer but in the conventional four movements. The opening allegro begins with a fateful falling three-note motif (FF). During the course of this tightly structured movement it becomes an idée fixe that's subjected to a number of timpani-reinforced contrapuntal machinations recalling late Brahms. The brief scherzo-like section that's next is infectiously wistful, while the following lento is grief stricken, with a mellow cello as well as plaintive woodwinds.
The finale opens with a rather folkish sounding melody that could almost be out of the second movement of Berlioz' Harold in Italy (1834). It’s followed by an idea that could well qualify as the beginning of a passacaglia. The two themes are then skillfully varied and juggled about in Brahmsian fashion. The symphony ends with the return of FF reinforced by timpani, concluding things on an austere note.
When Röntgen visited Grieg in 1896 the two of them became fascinated by the same Norwegian folk song, "Det er den störste Darlighed" ("It is the greatest folly"). Later that year both used it in solo piano pieces, Julius as the subject for a fantasy with variations (no recording currently available), and Edvard in the second of his Nineteen Norwegian Folk Melodies. Röntgen was never to forget the tune, and not long before his death in 1932 he revisited his fantasy, orchestrating and calling it Variations on a Norwegian Folk Melody. This expanded version concludes our concert here.
After a brief vaporous introduction that hints at the subject folk melody, it finally appears [track-6, beginning at 05:22] in the strings. The ten variations that follow might better be called metamorphoses as the theme is not always readily apparent. Highlights include a dramatic waltz sequence [track-6, beginning at 09:41] as well as a couple of melancholic episodes [track-6, beginning at 12:52] which may bring to mind Grieg's Two Elegiac Melodies (1881). The rousing Brahmsian peroration [track-6, beginning at 18:09] and brass fanfares that follow seem to foreshadow a triumphant fortissimo ending. But Röntgen stays true to the subdued nature of the original song, concluding this masterful set of variations with a touchingly harmonized, subtly orchestrated final statement of it. Grieg would have loved it!
Conductor David Porcelijn gives us a spirited performances of all three works, and soprano Carmen Fuggiss sounds wonderful in the eighth symphony. There are a couple of places in the second movement of the fifteenth where some members of the NDR Radio Philharmonic (North German Radio Broadcasting Orchestra) seem to be having intonational difficulties -- maybe the schnapps was flowing a little too freely the night before! But not to fear, because most listeners will be so captivated by the music they won't even notice.
All three recordings date from 2006 and are very good. The symphonies were set down six months before the variations, but in the same concert hall, which undoubtedly explains the uniformly consistent sonics. The soundstages projected are very convincing, and the many solo and small instrumental groupings called for in Röntgen's vibrant orchestration are perfectly focused and blended with the rest of the orchestra. This includes Ms. Fuggiss who's miked at enough of a distance that her singing adds an otherworldliness to the music without dominating it. The instrumental timbre is totally natural across the entire frequency and dynamic spectrums. Audiophiles will love this one!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y091028)
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French Fl & Hp w Stg Trio Wks (Françaix, Pierné, Roussel, Schmitt, Tournier); Mirage Qnt [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Featuring five late romantic works for flute, harp and string trio (violin, viola and cello), you'll find this release a musical platter of French pastries that's hard to resist. Written between 1925 and 1937, each of the selections is by a different composer, but all share an affinity with the music of Debussy (1862-1918).
Marcel Tournier (1879-1951) is best remembered as one of France's greatest harpists, but he also wrote some memorable music, like the suite (Op. 34, c. 1930) which opens this CD. In four movements, the opening "Soir" is a gorgeous nocturnal reverie, while the "Danse," "Lied" and "Fête" movements all have the innocence of a Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) painting (see the newsletter of 29 September 2009). Ravel's (1875-1937) Introduction and Allegro (1905), which Tournier probably played, may well have been a source of inspiration.
Florent Schmitt's (1870-1958, see the newsletter of 25 July 2007) four-movement Suite en rocaille of 1937 follows. "En rocaille" is probably best translated as "in rococo style," which certainly seems to fit this whimsical chamber offering. Intricately detailed, it exudes Gallic charm.
Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937) wrote some captivating chamber music (see the newsletters of 1 and 28 March 2007), and the Variations libres et finale of 1933 that's next is no exception. The refinement and grace characterizing his works are present in this meticulously crafted piece. No one plays second fiddle here, as each of its parts is not only a challenge to play but memorable for its content.
Many may find Jean Françaix's Quintette dating from 1932 the high point of this disc. In four movements that alternate between slow and fast, the first and third are lovely, lazy lullabies which fall easily on the ear. The second and fourth possess that melodic as well as rhythmic cheekiness and irreverence that make this composer's music so infectious.
Albert Roussel’s (1869-1937) Sérénade dating from 1925 is probably the best known selection included here. Neoclassical with only hints of impressionism, this exquisitely structured, chromatically colorful three-movement work shows the influence of his teacher Vincent d'Indy (see the newsletter of 15 April and 13 July 2009). The rhythmically spiky opening allegro and dreamy andante that follow presage Albert's ballet Bacchus et Ariane of five years later. The final presto is an elegant stylistic encapsulation of the composer spiced with some concluding violin glissandi that make this diminutive work a French chamber masterpiece.
Made up of musicians who were or still are associated with some of Canada's finest orchestras, the Mirage Quintet delivers letter-perfect performances of everything here. This is one of those rare ensembles where each of its members is obviously a virtuoso but very much aware that successful chamber music is a team effort requiring a concerted ego.
The sonics are exemplary, with the violin, flute, viola, harp and cello appearing from left to right across a generous soundstage in the warm acoustics of St. Anne's Church in Toronto, Canada. The instruments are ideally captured, with none of that high-end flute flare typical of many digital recordings. The strings are silky smooth and the harp tone, perfectly rounded. This disc is a good test of a speaker system's imaging capabilities.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y091027)
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Tchaikovsky, P.: Pno Concs 1-3 (orig vers 1 & 2), Conc Fant; Lowenthal/Comissiona/Lon SO [Bridge]
RECOMMENDED (2 CDs)
Bridge Records has done us a great service by bringing back to the catalog these legendary late 1980s studio recordings of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) complete music for piano and orchestra. You'll find them exceptional from three standpoints. First, it’s the original versions of the first and second concertos that are done here, which in a number of places are quite different from what you're normally used to. Second, pianist Jerome Lowenthal (b. 1932) delivers performances with a balance of refinement and technical brilliance which many would argue has never been surpassed! And third, he is ideally teamed up with conductor Sergiu Comissiona (1928-2005), whose attention to detail in these scores is exceptional. He elicits playing from the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) that's not only emotionally exciting but intellectually stimulating.
In 1875 Tchaikovsky completed and previewed his first piano concerto for its intended dedicatee, the legendary Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein (1835-1881), who proceeded to launch into a diatribe, calling it unworthy and unplayable. While the composer did subsequently revise it, when you hear the original version presented here you'll have to agree Rubinstein made one of the most monumental misjudgments in musical history!
From the very beginning you'll notice a difference in the piano part, where flowing arpeggiated chords replace those familiar monolithic ones. This is just a harbinger of the introspection that seems to pervade the original. It's far less a vehicle for fire-and-brimstone performances by grandstanding soloists with technical ability to burn and, more often than not, little feeling for the music.
Lowenthal is a pianist whose virtuosity is never in question, but he uses it with precision and restraint only in the service of what he's playing. This is very apparent in the concerto's opening movement, where his attention to rhythmic and dynamic details is exceptional. Equally impressive is the delicacy and reserve he imparts to the following andantino, with its inspired central scherzo episode. Credit must also be given to conductor Comissiona for summoning up ideal support from the LSO. And a special round of applause should go to the woodwind section, which helps make this performance so memorable.
The finale in this version is much more of a conversation between the soloist and tutti than a piano monologue. That's because Tchaikovsky would later cull some of the orchestral accompaniment to make the concerto more of a keyboard showpiece. The increased sense of dialogue, particularly under Maestro Comissiona's informed direction, makes it far less pretentious than the later version. In time you may even find you prefer it!
The first disc closes with the two-movement Concert Fantasy for piano and orchestra of 1884. This was premièred and later given many successful performances by the composer's student and good friend Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915, see the newsletter of 31 July 2009). Tchaikovsky also wrote an alternate ending for the opening section. This dazzling coda (also included here) was to be used if the first movement were played alone. Always filled with self-doubts about his music, maybe he thought this would help ensure acceptance of at least half the fantasy.
The beginning movement is a festive romp, with a folksy atmosphere and a seven-minute cadenza that must have given Taneyev a chance to show what an incredible virtuoso he was. The orchestration is breathtaking, with an occasional sprinkling of tiny bells beautifully captured here, unlike most other recordings. Incidentally, you can recreate the abridged version of the work by switching to the alternate coda [CD-1, track-6] just after the cadenza ends [CD-1, track-4 at 10:51].
The second movement begins quietly, with anguished passages for the piano, cello and strings that are full of Slavic soul. A nervous little motif follows in the woodwinds, soon introducing a couple of lively folk-like tunes that are tossed about by the soloist and orchestra. Hints of previous ideas return toward the end in a whirlwind coda, leaving the listener feeling this is a work deserving much wider recognition.
The second concerto underwent major surgery to produce the version commonly heard today, losing seven minutes from its second movement alone. Also premièred by Taneyev, when you hear the original of 1880 on the second CD, you may never play the later one again!
In three movements, the work is another example of the composer's tendency to treat soloist and tutti separately. Fabulous melodies, dashing rhythms and an imaginatively modified sonata form structure make the opening allegro one of the most exciting in the romantic concerto genre. A four-minute killer cadenza executed to perfection by Lowenthal introduces the thrilling recapitulation, which ends joyously with five "Scotch-snapped" chords for full orchestra.
As presented here in all its glory, the following andante has several extended solo passages for violin as well as cello in addition to those for piano. They ostensibly make parts of the work a triple concerto. Anyone familiar with the composer's piano trio knows how skilled he was at writing for these three instruments, and his handling of them here makes for one of the most attractive orchestral movements he ever penned.
The finale is a spirited rondo that sounds like it could be based on Russian dance tunes. Spiky, Cossack-kicking repeated melodies with unpredictable shifts between major and minor turn it into a roller coaster ride you'll not soon forget, particularly in the hands of Messrs. Lowenthal and Comissiona.
In 1892 Tchaikovsky began another symphony. He soon rejected his preliminary ideas for it, only to begin anew some months later, finally producing the Pathétique Symphony (No.6, 1893). In the meantime, at the insistence of his nephew he decided to transform what he'd originally come up with into a piano concerto. He completed the first movement, as well as some sketches for the remaining two, but lost interest in it, sending the finished portion to his publisher. Not long thereafter he died of cholera, and what he'd submitted soon appeared in print as the single-movement third piano concerto of 1892-93.
It opens with a muscular Slavic-sounding motif stated by the bassoon that's taken up by the piano and then the orchestra. This gathers momentum and gives way to a more laid-back melodic idea counterbalanced by a couple of hyperactive dance-like riffs. An exciting developmental episode followed by a lovely rhapsodic tune introduce a cadenza that must be one of the most progressive solo piano pieces Tchaikovsky ever wrote. The orchestra then returns, restating the opening ideas. These provide the material for a spectacular coda that brings this monomerous concerto to a thrilling conclusion.
Interestingly enough, the sketches Tchaikovsky abandoned for the symphony and concerto would not be wasted. In the case of the former, Russian musicologist Semyon Bogatyriev (1890-1960) would realize a "Seventh Symphony" (1956) from them. As for the latter, Tchaikovsky's good friend Taneyev completed and performed them as an Andante and Finale for piano and orchestra in 1896.
As already indicated above, pianist Jerome Lowenthal, conductor Sergiu Comissiona and the London Symphony Orchestra give exemplary performances, some of which many consider definitive. That, coupled with the chance to hear the composer's original thoughts on his two major piano concertos, make this album a must for those who failed to get these recordings when they first appeared on the Arabesque label some twenty years ago.
Dating from 1987 and 1989, all of these were done in Abbey Road Studio #1 and sound consistent. Remastered for Bridge by award-winning Adam Abeshouse, the graininess that plagued digital recordings back then has been miminized. The soundstage may be somewhat compressed, but the warm acoustics of the recording venue ensure a highly musical listening experience.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P091026)
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