CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
15 JANUARY 2010
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.
Hill, Alf.: Stg Qts V3 (5 "The Allies", 7 & 9); Dominion Qt [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Following last year's release of the second volume in their ongoing survey devoted to Australian composer Alfred Hill's (1869-1960) string quartets (see the newsletter of 7 January 2009), Naxos now gives us a third installment. With seventeen known ones to his credit, the three on this CD (Nos. 5, 7 and 9), like those on its immediate predecessor (Nos. 4, 6 and 8), are from his middle period.
Compared to his early efforts (Nos. 1-3 on Naxos 8.570491), the influences of Brahms (1833-1897), Dvorák (1841-1904), and Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), whom he'd encountered during his studies in Leipzig (1887-1891), are much less apparent. He was becoming increasingly his own man, and his style was taking on more distinctive characteristics. You'll also find a homespun sincerity about his music, which makes it most attractive in much the same way as that of American composer Arthur Foote (1853-1937, see the newsletter of 31 July 2009).
The fifth quartet dates from 1920 and is titled "The Allies," with each of its four movements bearing subtitles and an association with a different country. Hill calls the opening allegro "Artistic," and tells us it's identified with France. Accordingly, passages of Gallic vivacity alternate with rhapsodic Franckian ones. The intermezzo, "Syncopated," that's next represents America, and is a scherzo in all but name. Here it would seem the composer is musically characterizing the US reputation for industry and inventiveness something like what William Grant Still (1895-1978) would later do in his Autochthonous Symphony (No. 4, 1947, see the newsletter of 21 December 2009).
With the moniker "Romantic," the romance that follows depicts Italy. So it's not surprising to find its outer sections reminiscent of late Puccini (1858-1924), and an inner one that's like an impassioned aria out of some Verdi (1813-1901) tragedy (see the newsletter of 2 March 2006). But the mood brightens in the final allegro, "Nautical," which characterizes Britain. Scampering motifs and lyrical folklike ideas conjure up images of the open seas, tall ships and "Rule Britannia." At half an hour, memorable melodies abound in this testimonial to the creativity and skill of a little known but highly gifted composer from "down under."
The more harmonically advanced seventh quartet (1934) is next. The first of its four movements is noteworthy for two contrasting thematic ideas which are respectively insistent and pleading. A delightfully animated pizzicato-accented intermezzo follows, and then an impressionistic andante, where the Debussy (1862-1918) and Ravel (1875-1937) quartets (1893 and 1902-03) may have been in the back of Hill's mind.
The finale opens with a couple of fetching themes that could be of folk origin. These are skillfully developed, and then just before the end the composer restates the motif that began the work. The exciting coda ending the quartet is based on this, and owes more than a passing debt to Dvorák.
The CD closes with the ninth quartet dating from 1935, which is even more harmonically progressive, anticipating the composer's late period. Again in four movements, the opening is moody and searching with an increased sense of chromatic adventurousness. Impressionist elements again haunt the andantino, which is pensively elegiac. By contrast the following scherzo is a bouncy lighthearted hornpipe who's opening theme bears a passing resemblance to the old sea shanty, "Blow the Man Down."
A couple of anguished ideas begin the finale, and are briefly interrupted by a gorgeous fragmentary motif (GF) [track-12, beginning at 01:36]. This will act as an idée fixe made all the more effective by the composer's sparse use of it. More specifically, the agitated development that follows includes only two fleeting references to it, and then the work ends with a forceful restatement of the finale's opening measures and a last wistful remembrance of GF.
As on their previous Hill release for Naxos, the performances by the Dominion String Quartet of New Zealand (DSQ) are totally committed, but a bit perfunctory as far as the fifth and seventh quartets go. This will be particularly apparent to those who have the Australian String Quartet performance of the fifth that appeared some years ago on a Marco Polo CD (currently only available as an MP3 download). Also there are a couple of spots in the seventh where the intonation seems a bit shaky.
Be that as it may, the DSQ’s take on the ninth, which was done a year later, is outstanding! Maybe its members found this quartet more inspiring, but whatever the reason they turn in an absolutely impassioned performance of an Aussie masterpiece! It makes it very easy to forget those former quibbles.
Set down at two different locations in 2007 and 2008, the recordings are consistently good with adequate soundstages, but some may find the venues a bit dry. The string sound is very natural, and unlike volume two, there are no extraneous low frequency noises.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100115)
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Rouse, C.: Sym 2, Fl Conc, Rapture; Bezaly/Gilbert/RStock PO [BIS]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
A year ago we told you about some outstanding symphonic music by one of today's leading American composers, Christopher Rouse (b. 1949, see the newsletter of 7 January 2009), and here's some more! While the previous release featured his first symphony, this one gives us the second, which most listeners will find even more challenging. Like the earlier CD, it's filled out with another concerto and a brief tone poem.
The disc opens with a flute concerto written in 1993. In five movements, it could be described as emotionally symmetrical. The first and last movements, titled "Amhrán" (Gaelic for "song"), are rhapsodically entrancing, and written in the style of Irish folk music without any conscious quotations. The second and fourth are kinetically uplifting, and modeled after Scottish and Irish jigs (see the newsletter of 27 November 2009).
The central "Elegia" is a heartrending reaction to a horrible incident involving the murder of a two-year-old boy, which happened while Rouse was writing the piece (see the composer's informative album notes for more details). It's the dramatic center of gravity for this moving work, and will give you pause for thought.
The second symphony was originally conceived along with the first in 1984, but didn't make it onto music paper until ten years later (1994). Symmetry and death also play a role in this three movement work, where two highly energetic outer allegros surround a longer adagio . The composer tells us the latter was inspired by the sudden demise of his good friend, American composer Stephen Albert (1941-1992, see the newsletter of 16 April 2007).
Minuscule motifs, spastic pounding rhythms, and confining counterpoint characterize the allegros, making them intense listening experiences, bordering on the claustrophobic. They aptly reflect the composer's intent to make this symphony an angry response to death modeled after Dylan Thomas' (1914-1953) celebrated lines, "Do not go gentle into that good night...Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
The percussive machine-gun opening and pile-driver inner episode of the central adagio are also much in keeping with the Thomas quotation. But at the same time this movement captures the icy breath of death in the tradition of Rachmaninov's (1873-1943) Isle of the Dead (1909, see the Wetzler recommendation below) and Sibelius' (1865-1957) The Swan of Tuonela from the Lemminkäinen Legends Suite (1893-1900).
The closing selection, Rapture, was written in 2000, and as its name implies ends this disc on an entirely different note. A modern day counterpart of Scriabin's (1872-1915) Poem of Ecstasy (fourth symphony, 1905-08), some may find the great Russian composer, mystic and dreamer pales in comparison. With a subdued opening that could almost be out of Debussy's 1862-1918) La Mer (1903-05), Rouse's piece quickly builds to a euphoric cataclysmic climax across the entire orchestral palette -- beware of flying voice coils! If there was ever an orgy of symphonic sound, this is it.
Conductor Alan Gilbert and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra continue here with their survey for BIS of Christopher Rouse's symphonic music. Once again the performances are stunning with an attention to dynamics and detail that bring out all the drama in these brilliantly orchestrated scores. Flautist Sharon Bezaly gets a big round of applause for her sensitive, platinum-tongued interpretation of a flute concerto that may be unconventional, but represents a significant contribution to the genre. This disc blows away what little competition currently exists for the concerto as well as the symphony.
Recorded on three separate occasions between 2003 and 2007 in Stockholm's sonically resplendent Concert Hall, the BIS engineers, as they did with their previous Rouse release, have given us one of their best efforts in years. The orchestral image is perfectly focused across a soundstage that's wide, but deep enough to comfortably handle the enormous complement of percussion present.
The instrumental timbre is natural over the entire frequency spectrum except for wisps of digital grain in only the loudest passages. And speaking of that, the dynamic range is awesome with percussive outbursts that will challenge the transient response capabilities of the finest speaker systems. Audiophiles should definitely take this along when they next audition new equipment.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y100114)
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Schmidt, F.: Sym 2, Fuga Solemnis (org, brass & perc); Johnsson/Sinaisky/Malmö SO [CPO]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
Schmidt, F.: Sym 1, Notre Dame (Intro, Intrmzo & Carnival Music); Sinaisky/Malmö SO [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) was a composition student of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) as well as renowned Austrian pedagogue Robert Fuchs (1847-1927), who taught such greats as Mahler (1860-1911), Sibelius (1865-1957), Schreker (1878-1934, see the newsletter of 20 November 2006) and Zemlinsky (1871-1942). But in his earlier years Schmidt was better known as an outstanding cellist with the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra, and became the favorite of Gustav Mahler shortly after Gustav was appointed its conductor in 1897. However, enmity soon broke out between the two, a situation that was not helped by Austrian music critics of the time fancying Schmidt's first symphony over Mahler's initial efforts.
In today's concert halls the pendulum has swung very much the other way with Mahler's ten symphonies eclipsing Schmidt's four. This is unfortunate as those hearing these CDs featuring the first two of Franz's will discover. Both are late romantic gems deserving much wider acceptance, and particularly the second, which contains one of the twentieth century's most exquisite themes and variations.
Composed between 1911 and 1913, the second is in three movements. It begins with a delightful, chromatically flighty theme (CF) that will dominate and unify the entire work. Another heroically robust idea (HR) and an extended lyrical melody (EL), both of which Richard Strauss (1864-1949) would have loved, follow. These are developed with frequent reappearances of CF in a variety of guises. The movement ends in Straussian triumph with a blazing coda built around EL and HR.
That fabulous theme and variations is next, and yes, you guessed it, the main idea is derived from CF! There's a Viennese charm as well as understatement about the following ten variations that make each and every one a winner. Highlights include will-o'-the-wisp fifth and seventh ones [track-2, beginning at 04:01 and 06:54], a ravishing expansive eighth [track-2, beginning at 07:46], and a magnificent waltz sequence comprised of the ninth and tenth [track-2, beginning at 09:45 and 13:04]. The movement ends with an infectious blend of all the motifs heard in the symphony so far, showing what a master craftsman Schmidt was.
The counterpoint-laced finale is a loose rondo with recurring thematic material again derived from previous ideas. It begins deceptively in delicate, restrained fashion, but a magnificent chorale tune based on CF soon breaks out. The piece then ends on a symphonic high of staggering proportions!
The disc is filled out with Schmidt's last organ work, Fuga Solemnis, written in 1937 just two years before his death. Scored for organ, six trumpets, six horns, three trombones, tuba, timpani and tam-tam, it attests to the composer's skill as a contrapuntalist. The organ alone dominates the first half of the piece, which at times sounds somewhat Brucknerian. When the brass and percussion finally appear [track-4, beginning at 08:20], they first pay reverence to the organ, and then serve to embellish it with increasingly florid passages. The music escalates into a rousing laudation reminiscent of Richard Strauss' festive pieces for organ and orchestra.
The first symphony completed in 1899 is the major attraction on the other CD featured here. In the standard four movements, the opening one begins with five festive chords for full orchestra that may call to mind the beginning of Mozart's (1756-1791) overture to The Magic Flute (1791). They also serve to introduce the first of two themes that are the building blocks for this sonata form movement. While the influences of Wagner (1813-1883), Brahms (1833-1897) and again Strauss are apparent, there are rhythmic in addition to chromatic twists and turns that make this a unique Schmidt creation.
A rhapsodic, melodically rich slow movement and blithe scherzo follow. The outer sections of the latter are dominated by a catchy two-part, fast-slow melody, and surround a lovely central waltz trio. The finale, like that in the second symphony, shows how well the composer had learned his counterpoint, and once more includes an impressive chorale tune. Remembrances of past ideas also pop up like so many spring flowers, ending this accomplished symphony in a state of great joy.
The CD closes with three brief orchestral syntheses drawn from the first act of Schmidt's opera Notre Dame based on Victor Hugo's (1882-1885) 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The first, "Introduction," and third, "Carnival Music," are lighthearted and belie the darker aspects of the opera. The second, "Intermezzo," (labeled "Interlude" on the CD backpanel) is one of the most beautiful romantic miniatures ever written, and accordingly Schmidt's best known work. There's an innocence and simplicity about these selections that may bring Engelbert Humperdinck's (1854-1921) music to mind.
Calling for large bodies of strings divided into as many as six-parts, Schmidt's symphonies are challenging to say the least. But that doesn't faze our conductor here, Vassily Sinaisky! As on his previous recordings of Franz Schreker's orchestral works for Chandos (9797 and 9951), he works his late romantic magic on this music too. In his capacity as new head of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra (MSO see the newsletter of 21 December 2009), he gets performances of the two symphonies which easily top what little competition now exists. This is even more amazing considering one wouldn't normally think of the MSO strings as in a class with those of the world's most prestigious orchestras.
A big round of applause should also go to organist Anders Johnsson as well as the MSO brass and percussion sections for their stirring account of the Fuga Solemnis. We owe them and Naxos thanks for providing us with the only recording of this rarity currently available on disc.
The locations for all these recordings were in Malmö, Sweden. The symphonic selections were done in the concert hall, and the organ piece, St. Petri (St. Peter's) Church. Both were ideal venues with just the right amount of reverberation to allow these opulent scores breathing space without any blurring. The Naxos engineers have taken full advantage of this, giving us impressive soundstages, and an orchestral timbre that's more musical than analytic. Romanticists will be delighted, but hardcore audiophiles may find themselves wishing for a little more demonstrative sound.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100113, P100112)
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Wagenaar, J.: Taming... Ov, Summer..., Saul..., Romantic..., Frithiof's...; Hermus/NWGer P [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Unlike his compatriot Julius Röntgen (1855-1932, see the newsletter of 31 October 2009), who was German born and trained, Johan Wagenaar (1862-1941) was truly a product of the Netherlands. Born in Utrecht and a student of Dutch pedagogue Richard Hol (1825-1904), he became a distinguished teacher as well as organist, only later turning to composition. Symphonic music was his first love, and at long last we're fortunate to have several superb examples of it on this enterprising release from CPO.
The program begins with the concert overture De getemde feeks (The Taming of the Shrew) after the Shakespeare (c. 1564-1616) play (c. 1593). Written in 1909, it's the most advanced work here, and has remained one of his most popular with Dutch orchestras. While there are echoes of Richard Strauss (1864-1949), there's a lyrical sweep and chromatic fluidity that anticipate the world of Korngold (1897-1957).
Next up, the orchestral fantasy Levenszomer (Summer of Life), which was composed in 1902. In loose sonata form, it begins with a bouquet of happy melodies that are followed by a more introspective, pastoral sounding development section. The opening ideas are then forcefully recapitulated, but gradually fade away as the piece ends quietly, leaving the listener with a warm and fuzzy feeling of fulfillment.
The program continues with the tone poem Saul en David (Saul and David), written in 1906 to commemorate the three hundredth anniversary of Rembrandt's (1606-1669) birth. Inspired by the painting of the same name (1655-60), which was then attributed to the great master, the picture's authenticity has since been questioned, but Wagenaar's music remains a bona fide Dutch treat.
The opening suggests a depressed King Saul who soon flies into a sudden rage. A passage for solo harp somewhat like that which begins Smetana's (1824-1884) Ma vlast (1872-79), represents the entrance of David, who tries to soothe Saul's savage soul by playing for him. At first this seems to work with the music becoming joyfully manic as the king's thoughts turn to happier days. But not for long, because gloom once again sets in, and the poem ends with Saul falling into a final funk.
The attractive Romantisch Intermezzo (Romantic Intermezzo) of 1894 that's next shows Wagenaar was an accomplished tunesmith, who could spin out melodies with the best of the great romantic composers. Considering he was also an organist of some note, one wonders if this selection might have originally been for that instrument.
The disc concludes with the composer's first orchestral work, Frithjof's Meerfahrt (Frithiof's Sea Voyage). Written in 1886, it's based on an episode from Swedish writer Esaias Tegnér's (1782-1846) poem Frithiof's Saga (1825). Somewhere between a concert overture and tone poem, it's a tale of the high seas that may bring to mind Mendelssohn's (1809-1947) The Hebrides (1830-32, see the newsletter of 21 December 2009). There’s a seasoning of Wagner (1813-1883) and Brahms (1833-1897) along with a pinch of Goldmark (1830-1915) in this dramatic offering, where Frithiof and his brave crew face all sorts of pelagic perils -- shades of Mozart's (1756-1791) Idomeneo (1781, see the newsletter of 20 August 2009). Its glorious triumphant ending signals they've become the masters of their fate.
A relative newcomer to silver surfaces, Dutch conductor Antony Hermus does well by this music of his fellow countryman. The performances he gets from the Northwest German Philharmonic are totally committed, and should secure much wider recognition for a composer with a body of works where quality greatly outweighs quantity.
The recordings are crystal clear with a convincing soundstage, but the overall orchestral timbre is a bit on the bright side. Those with tone and/or equalization controls may want to adjust them accordingly.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100111)
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Wetzler: Visions, Assisi Legend for Orch; Beermann/RobtSchum P [CPO]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Although he was born in Germany of Bohemian and German parents, composer Hermann Hans Wetzler (1870-1943) grew up in the United States, where his father immigrated in 1848. He received his first musical training in the US, but after his family moved back to Germany in 1885, he continued his studies with Clara Schumann (1819-1896) and Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921).
The year 1892 saw Wetzler's return to the US, where he undertook a number of musical endeavors as a performer (piano, viola and organ), conductor and teacher. He even established his own orchestra in 1902. However, it was not that well received by the critics, so he returned to Germany in 1905 to pursue a career as a conductor in Europe.
He secured a number of successful posts there, including one in Cologne, where he wrote the selections on this disc. Then in 1929 he moved to Switzerland. This was a wise decision, considering his Jewish heritage, and the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany back then (see the newsletter of 21 December 2009). With the banning of his music there in 1935, and the outbreak of World War II four years later, Wetzler returned to the US in 1940, where he spent the remaining three years of his life.
It's obvious from the foregoing that Wetzler was an extremely enterprising individual with a mind all of his own. And this carries over into both of the symphonic selections recorded here. The first, Visions (1923), is a series of six brief tone paintings, which the composer tells us are designed to musically recreate aspects of the human spirit. One could think of them as late romantic takes on Anton Arensky's (1861-1906) Silhouettes (Orchestral Suite No. 2, 1892, see the newsletter of 3 July 2008). Curiously enough Wetzler's piece originally even had the same title as the Arensky, but this was later changed at the suggestion of his publisher.
There's a hint of Prokofiev's (1891-1953) Scythian Suite (1915) in the opening "Introduction, " which might well represent those mischievous thoughts that frequently flash through our minds. Repentance for these and presumably any subsequent related actions would seem to be the subject of the following "Adagio." Based on a Michelangelo (1475-1564) sonnet (see the album notes for the text), it's a moving melodic plea for divine help in reforming a sinful life, thereby ensuring entrance into heaven.
Images of the Inferno from Dante's (c. 1265-1321) Divine Comedy (1308-21), and Arnold Böcklin's (1827-1901) painting Isle of the Dead (see the Rouse recommendation above, and the newsletter of 27 November 2009) haunt the "Scherzo demoniaco" that's next. A Mahlerian tinted Mefistophelean vision of evil (see the newsletter of 20 September 2006), there are hints of Franck's (1822-1890) Le Chausseur maudit (1882) and Saint-Saëns' (1835-1921) Danse macabre (1874).
The mood lightens in "Intermezzo ironico," which has an amusing sarcasm somewhat in line with Shakepseare's memorable soliloquy, "All the world's a stage." It draws inspiration from Ravel's (1875-1937) Alborado del grazioso (1905), Respighi's (1879-1936) Fountains of Rome (1914-16), and Richard Strauss' (1864-1949) Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1918). Wetzler's use of castanets again recalls Arensky's piece, where they appear in his final silhouette, "Dancer."
With thematic references to previous visions, the two concluding ones, "Fugato risoluto" and "Risonanza estrema," bring these symphonic impressions of human nature to a colorful cyclic close. There's an infectious defiance about the former, where one can picture Don Juan (1888) and Till Eulenspiegel (1894-95) dueling in the background. With its endearing theme and remembrances of the previous "Adagio," the final vision will melt the iciest of hearts. Filled with peaceful resignation, one pictures the soul soaring heavenwards and merging with the divine.
The disc concludes with Wetzler's Assisi Legend for Orchestra, which was completed and premièred in Chicago in 1925 after winning first prize in a composition contest held there. The piece reflects the composer's growing interest in the Catholic Church, and St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1286) in particular. It's a tone poem in six loosely connected parts, each commemorating an aspect of a pilgrimage the composer made the previous year to the Saint's monastery in Italy.
The beginning sections, "Einsamkeit" ("Solitude") and "Trauerglocken" ("Mourning Bells") share something in common with late Wagner (1813-1883). They invoke images of an austere monastery surrounded by an imposing landscape bathed in the gray light of dawn. The music brightens and becomes less intimidating as "Ostermorgen" ("Easter Morning") breaks.
Bird calls are soon heard, anticipating the next section, "Vogelpredigt" ("Sermon to the Birds"). Here their songs become more frequent as they flock around the Saint, who's represented by the cello. A radiant sunrise with Wetzler at his most opulent bursts forth in "Schwester Sonne" ("Sister Sun"). The final section, "Bruder Tod" ("Brother Death"), recalls previous ideas that gradually disappear like the setting sun, implying Francis' death. Beautifully crafted and deeply felt, it's no wonder this work was a prize winner!
Many will probably remember conductor Frank Beermann for his outstanding CPO recordings of Friederich Fesca's (1789-1826) little known symphonies (see the newsletter of 9 August 2007), and with this release he gives us some even rarer repertoire. As general music director of the Robert Schumann Philharmonic he gets splendid performances from this time-honored orchestra, making a strong case for Wetzler's music. You won't be disappointed!
These spectacularly orchestrated works are magnificently captured by CPO's engineers, making this a demonstration quality disc. The soundstage is most impressive, and the orchestral timbre completely convincing over the CD's considerable frequency and dynamic spectra. Late romantics as well as audiophiles should investigate this release.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y100110)
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