CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
23 JULY 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.
Andreae: Stg Qts 1 & 2, Fl Qt (w vn, va & vc); LocrEnLon [Guild]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Many readers were thrilled to discover Swiss conductor-composer Volkmar Andreae's (1879-1962) two piano trios, which we told you about some months ago (see the newsletter of 15 January 2008. Now the enterprising Guild label gives another installment of his chamber music, this time for four players. Unlike the trios which span roughly fifteen years of his early creative career (1901-14), the three quartets on this CD cover a later, much wider time frame (1905-45), providing a glimpse of his fully mature style.
Being a tiny country bordered by such musically disparate cultural giants as France, Germany, Austria and Italy, Switzerland frequently produces composers strongly influenced by those from one or more of its neighbors. In the case of Andreae, it's the German connection that's most apparent. This was true of his conducting career, during which he championed Anton Bruckner's (1824-1896) symphonies, and obvious in the earliest work on this disc, his first string quartet of 1905.
In four movements with descriptive German subtitles, and lasting almost forty minutes, it opens "At a moving tempo." The listener is immediately swept off his feet with a soaring Alpine theme worthy of Richard Strauss (1864-1949). After some "modulatory" mayhem, the composer contrasts this with a leisurely wistful tune that could be a variant of the melody for the folk song "Barbara Allen." A dramatically entangled development follows, where at one point [track-9, beginning at 04:51] there are intense rhythmic figurations reminiscent of the scherzo (second movement) from Beethoven's (1770-1827) Choral Symphony (No. 9, 1822-4). The final coda is a masterful blend of the two main motifs, and leaves the listener with a warm-and-fuzzy feeling.
The outer sections of the scherzo are an engaging combination of Mendelssohn (1809-1847, see the newsletter of 9 February 2006), and what sounds like some local peasant dance. They live up to the movement marking "As fast as possible," but not the central episode, which is subdued, mysterious and somewhat reminiscent of Ravel (1875-1937). Maybe a west wind from France was blowing through Switzerland when Volkmar wrote it.
The next movement marked "Slow, and freely interpreted," is just that! With several gorgeously sinuous ideas, and all the anguish of overcast Mahler (1860-1911), you'll find this exceptionally moving music. That's also true of the finale, "Animated and varied," which is a unique Andreae creation genetically related to sonata form. More specifically it has two different back-to-back opening statements, call them S1 and S2. These are followed by a development primarily based on ideas in S1, and then it concludes with capricious sequential recapitulations of S1 and S2.
Like the first movement, S1 opens in Straussian fashion with an ebulliently effervescent melody. This is followed by a couple of whimsical ideas. The music then pauses [track-12, 01:52-01:54] while the composer shifts emotional gears, and S2 appears featuring a romantically imploring tune coupled to a folkish sounding ditty. A rigorous contrapuntally laced development and recapitulation of S1 are next. After that there's another hiatus [track-12, 08:15-8:17], and S2 returns in somewhat altered form, providing the quartet with a novel ending.
This release also includes his second string quartet of 1922, which is in four movements like its predecessor, but only half as long. Despite some highly chromatic developmental passages, there's a classical simplicity about the beginning sonata form andante. Its tragic ending is offset by the playful, almost childlike allegretto that follows, which is a scherzo in all but name. Both of these movements are immaculately constructed, and obviously the work of a highly accomplished composer.
The mood of the quartet darkens with the lento, which is a sole-searching lament that may well have been a delayed expression of grief for the victims of World War I (1914-18). But spirits brighten with the perky concluding allegro. It would seem those Gallic westerlies were blowing again when Volkmar wrote it, because there's a cheekiness typically found in the works of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) or even Jean Françaix (1912-1997, see the newsletter of 31 October 2009).
The third selection here is Andreae's 1945 quartet for flute, violin, viola and cello, which is a significant addition to the body of chamber music for that silvern instrument. In four movements, it begins with a rhythmically quirky motif (SH) that sounds distantly related to the opening of Shostakovich's (1906-1975) first symphony (1923-24). Soft spring breezes waft through the first movement, while an avian flute soars gracefully above pensive strings in the following adagio.
The animated Vivace contains several memorable tunes of French persuasion, while the concluding movement is Janus-faced. At first stern and meditative, it suddenly smiles, taking flight. An attractive melody soon appears [track-8, beginning at 05:10], followed by a couple of fleeting references to SH, and then the work ends with a perfunctory toss of the head.
As with their previous Andreae recording for Guild (see above), the Locrian Ensemble of London deliver superb performances of all three quartets, again making a strong case for his music. Known for championing rare repertoire deserving much wider exposure, keep your eye out for more groundbreaking Locrian releases on Guild.
Done in the reverberant acoustic of St. Paul's School, New Southgate, London, the players for each quartet are ideally placed across a spacious soundstage. The flute is perfectly captured, while the string tone is good, if a bit on the lean side. Those with sound systems particularly sensitive to sub-frequencies may notice a couple of low-end murmurs most likely emanating from local city traffic.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100723)
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Casella, Alf.: Sym 1, Conc for Stgs, Pno, Timp & Perc; Soloists/Vecchia/Rome SO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Casella, Alf.: Sym 2, Scarlattiana (pno & orch); Roscoe/Noseda/BBC P [Chandos]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
Naxos and Chandos now join CPO (see the newsletter of 31 October 2009) in what would seem to be an ongoing revival of Italian composer Alfredo Casella's (1883-1947) symphonic oeuvre. Widely travelled and a real cosmopolitan, he even preceded Arthur Fiedler (1894-1979) as head of the Boston Pops Orchestra between 1927 and 1929, his music is understandably eclectic.
As early as age thirteen Alfredo went to Paris where he would study composition with Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), and spend the next twenty years of his life, not returning to Italy until 1915. During his stay in France he became a close friend of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) as well as George Enescu (1881-1955), and developed a great admiration for Mahler (1860-1911), Debussy (1862-1918), Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and the "Russian Five" (1, 2, 3, 4 & 5). Consequently all of their influences are apparent in his earlier works.
This is particularly true of his first two symphonies (he wrote three), which were completed during his Paris years, but had to wait until now to make their recording debuts on the discs recommended here. Naxos gives us the earliest dating from 1905-06. Following the example of other French symphonies by the likes of Franck (1822-1890), Chausson (1855-1899) and Dukas (1865-1935), it's atypically in three movements.
It opens with a theme (BG) bearing a strange resemblance to the one heard at the beginning of Mussorgsky's (1839-1881) Boris Godunov (1874). More of a free-form tone poem, the first movement is filled with a sense of tragedy that at times approaches the emotional intensity of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture (1869, revised 1879-80).
A Germanic pathos dominates the adagio that's next. The dark, rhythmically insistent introductory measures and tragic tune that follows show the influence of Brahms (1833-1897), but the beautiful consoling melody (BC) that soon appears [track-2, beginning at 03:41] could be out of Mahler. This ranks among Casella's finest symphonic achievements, and he knew it because you'll find a differently orchestrated version of it as the adagio for the second symphony recommended below.
Almost as long as the two preceding movements in tandem, the finale is very much a tone poem with symphonic peaks that anticipate Richard Strauss' (1864-1949) Alpine Symphony of 1911-15. Highly dramatic and imaginatively scored, you'll find this music has a voice all its own, despite the many influences present. The symphony ends quietly in cyclic fashion with remembrances of BG, and a couple of truly inspired penultimate plunks on the solo harp [track-3, beginning at 19:52].
Having opened with Alfredo's first orchestral effort, the program concludes with his last, the Concerto for Strings, Piano, Timpani and Percussion. Written in Rome almost forty years later (1943) during the Nazi occupation of Italy, this three-movement astringent neo-baroque offering is a bird of another feather. It inhabits the world of Stravinsky's (1882-1971) Capriccio for Piano... (1928-29), Bartók's (1991-1945) Music for Strings... (1936), Martinu's (1890-1959) Double Concerto... (1938), and Honegger's (1892-1955) second symphony (1941), while anticipating Frank Martin's (1890-1974) Petite Symphonie Concertante... (1945).
The introductory allegro is beset by an aggressive rhythmic ostinato that dominates the whole movement. One can imagine it as a musicalization of the angst Italians must have felt while living under Nazi domination. This anxiety turns to outright despair in the contemplative saraband that's next, where any thoughts of liberation disintegrate.
Percussive defiance characterizes the chugging finale in which there are the first glimmers of optimism expressed in the piece. But unlike the hope-filled trumpet chorale which ends the Honneger symphony mentioned above, Casella concludes with an ambiguous fade-out, leaving the outcome of this concertante conflict to the listener's imagination. Masterfully constructed and without a wasted note, you'll find this bears repeated listening.
The Chandos CD gives us the second symphony of 1908-10 dedicated to the composer's good friend George Enescu. In five movements, which include a final epilogue, it's quite Mahlerian in its volatile emotional makeup. After a funereal opening, a couple of colorful themes are soon introduced, one of which begins with the first six notes of the Dies Irae [track-1, beginning at 02:51], and could almost be out of Korngold (1897-1957). An imaginative development that owes allegiance to Richard Strauss and César Franck follows. The movement ends in great agitation and with an arresting descending passage in the lower strings which terminates in forceful chords for full orchestra.
The rhythmically infectious allegro that follows is in fact a scherzo with a beginning and end that sound like a cross between the scherzo in Sibelius' (1865-1957) first symphony (1899) and the last movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's (1844-1904) Scheherazade (1888, see the newsletter of 30 September 2006). The lovely central episode has a theme that could almost be a variant of the BG motif in Alfredo's first symphony (see above).
And speaking of the earlier symphony, as indicated above, the adagio that's next is a reorchestration of the one there. Although it includes the same BC melody, this setting is darkly nostalgic, smoothing the waters before the turbulent movement that's about to follow.
The latter starts with a march motif reminiscent of the opening bars from Mahler's Tragic Symphony (No. 6, 1904) that inexorably builds to a martial climax of cataclysmic proportions. The movement then ends with despairing gasps from the brass and strings punctuated by tam-tam death rattles. But take heart, things change for the better in the concluding epilogue!
With cyclic references to previous thematic highpoints, including BC, the strings assisted by organ, and then joined by the rest of the orchestra, create a musical nova, ending the symphony with hope for a bright future. An amazing accomplishment for a twenty-seven year old, many may find it outdoes Mahler.
After all that heavy-duty music, what better way to end this concert than with Casella's light-hearted divertimento for piano and small orchestra "Scarlattiana." Written in 1926 and dedicated to Vittorio Rieti (1898-1994), it's cast in five sections. Following in the footsteps of Respighi, who based his La Boutique Fantasque (1918) on Rossini's (1792-1868) piano doodles, and Stravinsky, who borrowed from works attributed to Pergolesi (1710-1736) in his Pulcinella (1920), it's a delightful neoclassical frolic drawing on some ninety of Domenico Scarlatti's (1685-1757) legion harpsichord sonatas.
The opening sinfonia is at first staid, but soon bursts into a flurry of “Scarlattiana" activity as the piano and orchestra begin a hectic game of tag. The graceful minuet that’s next includes one of Domenico’s most familiar offerings (Kk 380, L 23). It’s followed by a capriccio spiced with clicking castanets, maybe to remind us of the composer’s years in Spain. The brilliantly scored pastoral is a sinuous melodic gem featuring some harmonic surprises. With a slow beginning, the finale quickly changes gears twisting into a crazed tarantella that ends the divertimento in a whirling frenzy.
The Rome Symphony Orchestra (RSO) under its artistic director and resident conductor Francesco La Vecchia give us a dramatic performance of the first symphony, ringing every drop of emotion from this anguished score. Gebrauchsmusik conceptually speaking, the concerto is accordingly treated in a more matter-of-fact way, but with careful attention to dynamics and rhythmic detail. Pianist Desirée Scuccuglia and percussionist Antonio Ceravolo are to be commended for their technically accomplished, vibrant performances.
Recorded in different locations in Rome, the first symphony occupies a large impressive soundstage, while the concerto is not quite as spread out. The orchestral timbre is certainly acceptable, but some may find it a bit edgy in the symphony. The placement of the solo instruments in the concerto is ideal, and they’re perfectly balanced against the strings. Granted this disc may not be demonstration quality from the sonic standpoint, but it certainly makes up for that in musical interest.
Maestro La Vecchia and the RSO will soon be giving us three more Casella discs on Naxos, which will include the remaining symphonies. But as far as the second symphony is concerned, it's hard to believe they'll be able top the performance on the Chandos release recommended here.
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic deliver a searing rendition of it that qualifies this undiscovered blockbuster as a late romantic symphonic masterpiece. Along with pianist Martin Roscoe they also prove themselves equally adept at handling the whimsical divertimento. There's a lightness of touch and sensitivity prevalent in their reading of this score that will immediately endear it to listeners.
The Chandos audio engineers have outdone themselves with these recordings made in the acoustically outstanding Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester. The wide and deep soundstage projected for the symphony is appropriate to the massive forces involved, while that for the divertimento is perfectly suited to a smaller ensemble.
The orchestral timbre is very natural across the extended frequency range engendered by Casella's opulent scoring. This includes organ and extensive percussion in the symphony, which give rise to some low bass that's exceptionally clean. As for the divertimento, the piano is well-rounded and perfectly balanced against the orchestra. Audiophile romantics will want this CD.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100722, Y100721)
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Davidoff, C. (Davidov, K.): Vc Cons 3 & 4 (w Tchaikovsky); Yang/Mikkelsen/Shang SO [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
In his early years Carl Davidoff (1838-1889, also transliterated as Karl Davidov or Davydov) showed a strong interest in music, first taking up the viola da gamba and then the cello. However, it wouldn't be until after his graduation in 1858 from the University of Moscow with a degree in mathematics, that he'd go on to study music at the Leipzig Conservatory. It was there he first demonstrated what a phenomenal cellist he was, when he participated in the premičre of fellow student Salomon Jadassohn's (1831-1962, see the newsletters of 15 April 2009 and 9 June 2009) first piano trio (1858, see the newsletter of 10 May 2011).
Two years older than Tchaikovsky (1840-1893, see the newsletter of 31 October 2009), Davidoff was also a composer of considerable ability with a gift for melody. That is quite apparent in his four cello concertos, all of which are now available on CPO with this release of the last two (see CPO-777263 for the earlier ones).
In the usual three movements, the third and fourth concertos are separated by ten years. The third, which was completed in 1868, opens with an attention-getting motif (AG) played by the horns and woodwinds, which are soon joined by the rest of the orchestra. The soloist then elaborates on AG, and a couple of other memorable tunes are introduced. There's an angularity along with a hint of Slavism in these ideas that bring to mind Schumann (1810-1856, see the newsletter of 28 April 2007) and Tchaikovsky. A skillful development follows, ending in a demanding extended cadenza and brief tutti recapitulation of the major themes.
The elegant central andante is at heart a theme and variations where the main idea may well have been derived from some Russian folk song. With miniature developmental passages between the variations, structurally speaking this movement borrows from sonata form.
The closing allegro is a rondo that begins with a scurrying mouselike ditty (SM) that will dominate the movement. But Davidoff being a generous tunesmith soon gives us another two, more leisurely themes based on it. He then plays an ingenious shell game with the three, at one point alluding to AG (track-6, beginning at 06:14). Periodically there's some bridgework [track-6, beginning at 02:42] that may bring to mind the main theme from the last movement of Schumann's Spring Symphony (No.1, 1841). As the piece draws to a close, there's another reference to AG, and the concerto concludes frenetically in moto perpetuo with a final burst of fireworks from the soloist.
The fourth concerto from 1878 also begins with arresting horn calls, after which the cello enters stating a swaggering bravura idea (SB). Right after it [track-1, beginning at 1:01] there are several measures that would seem to anticipate the opening theme from Dvorák's second cello concerto (Op. 104, B 191) of 1894-95. A couple of lovely lyrical melodies, one of which is quite Tchaikovskian [track-1, beginning at 03:48], follow and are woven into an intricate developmental tapestry along with SB. After a brief cadenza, the movement concludes in a seriously agitated state.
The Lento that's next gives the soloist a chance to rhapsodically float on a gently rolling orchestral sea. The thematic material presented is first-class.
Two ideas dominate the finale. The first is exuberant and could almost be an undiscovered Dvorák Slavonic Dance. The flowing second isn't far removed from the main theme in the last movement of Johannes Brahms' (1833-1897) first symphony (1855-76). The composer tosses these about with refreshing abandon, giving the soloist several opportunities to display his technique. The final measures contain fleeting references to both as the concerto ends in a flurry of goodwill.
The CD is appropriately filled out with three encore selections for cello and orchestra from the pen of Davidoff's illustrious contemporary Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The first of these, Nocturne, is an arrangement done by the composer around 1888 of the fourth from his six piano pieces (Op. 19, 1873). It's rather melancholy compared to the whimsical Pezzo Capriccioso of 1887 that follows. This tiny gem was originally written as it appears here.
The final selection is another arrangement, again by the composer (circa 1886-88), of the ever popular Andante cantabile (second movement) from his first string quartet (1871). No more need be said about this timeless standard other than it ends this remarkable disc of discovery with a warm endearing glow.
As with the first two Davidoff concertos, Swiss-born Taiwanese cellist Wen-Sinn Yang (see the newsletter of 30 October 2007) joins Norwegian conductor Terje Mikkelsen (see the newsletter of 26 March 2010) for the ones here. The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is featured on this release in outstanding performances of everything. Yang's tone is superb, and he plays these pieces with total dedication. Mikkelsen furthers the cause, coaxing enthusiastic yet sensitive support from the SSO.
The recordings are generally quite good and present a satisfying soundstage enveloped in a warm acoustic. The cello is perfectly highlighted and sounds heavenly. The orchestral timbre is for the most part natural, but there are moments in massed forte violin passages that are a smidgen bright. Maestro Mikkelsen also gives us a couple of "Bernstein Bounces" at no extra charge.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100720)
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Sainsbury: Vn Conc (w Wood); McAslan/Wordsworth/Sutherland/BBCCon O [Dutton]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
Dutton scores again with world premičre recordings of three more romantic violin concertante works by two little known English composers born seventy-five years apart. Lionel Sainsbury (b. 1958) put himself in the company of Sirs Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) and Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006, see the newsletter of 21 December 2009) when he won the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship at the age of twenty-one. Haydn Wood (1882-1959, see the newsletter of 31 May 2010), best remembered for the World War I hit song “Roses of Picardy,” contributed significantly to the body of British light music most people associate with Eric Coates (1886-1957, see the newsletter 15 May 2008).
The concert begins with Sainsbury's violin concerto of 1989, which at forty minutes is on a grand scale. In the standard three movements, the opening allegro is cast in sonata form. The rhythmically agitated first theme (RA) is transformed into a flowing second, which could almost be out of Sir William Walton's (1902-1983) first symphony (1931-35). After an invigorating development, the two ideas make a brief reappearance just before the movement ends "Not with a bang, but a whimper."
The andante that's next is a beautifully written rhapsodic offering with spun-out melodies, one of which seems related to RA. Except for a couple of amorous outbursts, it’s subdued, introverted music that ends with the auburn glow of an autumnal sunset.
Almost as long as what’s come so far, the final allegro is a study in contrasts. It begins with an episode based on a Waltonian march-like motif (WM). After some violin fireworks this subsides into a pastoral sounding section with a melody reminiscent of Vaughan Williams' (1872-1958) Lark... (1914, revised 1920, see the newsletter of 29 June 2009). Throughout the movement WM lurks behind the scenes in rondo fashion, and is worked into a triumphant concluding coda along with remembrances of past major themes. Although the soloist is given several opportunities along the way to demonstrate their technical prowess, but the music never becomes an empty display of plumage.
Completed some sixty years earlier in 1928, Haydn Wood's three movement violin concerto is understandably much more romantic than Sainsbury's. In that regard, as the album notes point out, the opening of the first movement brings to mind film music of the 1930s, and such celebrated Hollywood composers as Max Steiner (1888-1971). But don't take that in a derogatory sense because the work as a whole possesses a melodic and structural refinement that make it a stunning addition to the body of romantic violin concertos.
The fervent themes which dominate the first movement are most likely an expression of the composer's love for his wife, to whom the work is dedicated. By having the orchestra reinforce rather than compete with the soloist, Wood makes them all the more passionate.
The following andante is a love song if there ever was one, but not with a single kernel of corn! It's a free-form elegiac theme and variations built on a ravishing tune worthy of Frederick Delius (1862-1934, see the newsletter of 29 September 2009). The movement ends in another one of those beautiful English sunsets.
The sprightly finale precludes the concerto from becoming romantically cloying. It features two contrasting themes, one audaciously spiky and the other boldly amorous, which alternate with one another. Every now and then there's a catchy rising five-note motif in the winds [track-6, beginning at 02:08], which just might remind you of a similar riff in the prologue to Leoncavallo's (1858-1919) Pagliacci (1892). The concerto ends with a hint of the theme that opened it, leaving the listener glad to have made the acquaintance of a piece that surfaces here for the first time in seventy-five years.
The CD is filled out with an adagio for violin and orchestra (1905), which is the only surviving movement from what was probably a concerto Wood composed during his student years with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924). Extremely moving, it exudes a confidence, simplicity and directness that belie he was only twenty-three when he wrote it. One can only regret we'll never hear the complete concerto, if indeed it did exist.
With this release our soloist, Lorraine McAslan, continues her invaluable survey of little known British violin works, playing with the same enthusiasm and authority that has characterized her previous CDs (see the newsletters of 30 September 2006, 15 April 2008 and 11 May 2009). She receives outstanding support from the BBC Concert Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth for the Sainsbury, and Gavin Sutherland in the Wood selections.
The recordings are generally good with an accommodating soundstage in a complementary venue, and an acceptable balance between the soloist and orchestra. The overall instrumental timbre is a tad edgy in the high end, particularly when everyone gets cranked up. Consequently those with equalization and/or tone controls may want to make a few fine adjustments. Those without that capability, or adverse to knob-twiddling, should just sit back and let this memorable music make them forget any sonic deficiencies.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100719)
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Wallace, W.V.: Lurline (cpte opera); Soloists/Bonynge/VictnOp C&O [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (2 CDs)
There are three composers named William Wallace listed in today's classical catalogs, and it's the Irish one (1812-1865), not the Scottish (1860-1940) or American (b. 1933), who's the subject of this recommendation. The situation is made a little less confusing by the fact he changed his name to "Vincent" after converting to Catholicism in 1831, and is therefore usually referred to as William Vincent Wallace.
Vincent was a man of the world who in 1835 emigrated from Ireland to Australia, making it his base for extensive travels around the globe. These included a conducting tour of the United States in the early 1840s, during which he helped found the New York Philharmonic. Incidentally, he would become a U.S. citizen a few years later.
In 1845 he journeyed back to Europe, where he composed his "grand legendary opera" Lurline between 1847 and 1848. But even despite efforts by the great Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), political turmoil on the continent meant it would be twelve years (1860) before it received its premičre, which finally took place at Covent Garden, London. With a libretto (click here to see it) by English playwright Edward Fitzball (1792-1873), the story is based on the Lorelei legend. It's about the beautiful Rhine nymph Lurline, who lures river men to an early watery grave by playing her magic harp.
In three acts, each having three scenes, it begins with a spirited overture. While the influences of Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) are apparent throughout, Wallace shows himself to be a formidable melodist from the very start. The opening scene takes place in a moonlit cavern on the Rhine, and starts with a jolly chorus of nymphs welcoming the arrival of the River King, Rhineberg [CD-1, track-4].
His daughter Lurline soon appears playing her harp, and sings a lovely aria [CD-1, tracks-5 and 6] set to a majestic uplifting melody (MU) reminiscent of one heard towards the end of Weber's overture to Der Freischütz (1821). In it she reveals she's smitten with the nobleman Rupert. This greatly upsets Daddy, because Lurline's falling in love with a mortal will mean the end of her immortality. Another exceptional aria for Lurline follows [CD-1, track-8], and then the scene closes with a rousing chorus [CD-1, track-10].
The second scene is in the apartment of Ghiva, Baron Truenfels' daughter, who's set her sights on Rupert. After a lively duet between father and daughter [CD-1, tracks 11 and 12], Rupert, who at this point is totally unaware of Lurline's infatuation with him, enters [CD-1, track-13]. In the course of a cleverly written trio, he professes his love for Ghiva, but tells her he's not wealthy. Big mistake! Because having learned that, the Baron and Ghiva send Rupert packing in a droll trio that could be out of Gilbert & Sullivan [CD-1, track-14]. Thus endeth the second scene.
Rather than going into all the details (see the synopsis included with the album notes), the third scene boasts the most dramatic music so far. As it concludes [CD-1, track-18], Lurline puts a magic ring on the unconscious Rupert's finger to the strains of that MU tune mentioned above, and suddenly disappears. He then revives, and realizing who the ring is from, sings an aria to her again based on the same MU melody. A storm breaks out, but Rupert, now totally enchanted with her, jumps into a nearby skiff, and heads out into the river to find her. Bad idea! Because the boat sinks, and he disappears beneath the waves. His vassals assembled on the shore are horrified by all this, and declare him lost in a thrilling chorus that ends the first act.
In the words of the immortal Anna Russell (1911-2006), "D'ya remember the Ring!" Well as it turns out, the one Lurline gave Rupert is actually the world's smallest scuba device. So in the second act we find him alive and well in Lurline's underwater palace. This act has several melodically memorable numbers for the two lovers [CD-1, tracks-22, 23, 24 and 25], in addition to a jolly drinking chorus for Lurline's attendant water nymphs and the meddlesome gnome Zelieck [CD-1, tracks-26 and 27]. While back on land Ghiva sings a delightful troubadour ditty [CD-2, track-2], after which the baron and his buddies go on a thrilling hunt [CD-2, tracks-3 and 4].
Returning to the watery realm below, Rhineberg delivers a moving aria about his paternal love for Lurline [CD-2, track-5]. There's also an extraordinary scene where Rupert hears his vassals in a boat above praying for his departed soul [CD-2, tracks-6 and 7]. The act ends with an inspiring ensemble number for the Rhine King and all his assembled subjects [CD-2, track-9 and 10].
In the third and final act Rupert returns to his castle with some gold given him by Rhineberg. His miraculous reappearance is much to everyone's surprise, which is expressed in a wonderful chorus of amazement [CD-2, tracks-14 and 15]. But there's dirty work afoot, and Ghiva along with the conniving Zelieck have managed to engineer a falling out between Rupert and Lurline. The situation is made all the more inauspicious by the arrival of some robber-assassins who want to kill Rupert for his gold.
Thus the stage is set for an exciting finale with highlights that include a stirring ensemble number for Rupert, Ghiva, some storm spirits, and Rupert's vassals [CD-2, track-17]. There's also a beautifully written extended number for Lurline [CD-2, Tracks-18 and 19], a coed barber shop quartet [CD-2, track-21] about lost love, and a short jolly choral ballet [CD-2, track-22] with all the charm of Mozart (1756-1791).
As the opera draws to a close, we get an outstanding duet of reconciliation for Lurline and Rupert [CD-2, track-23]. Then in a supercharged finale, she strikes her harp, and with a deus ex machina incantation (see the newsletter of 20 August 2009) causes the river to rise, washing away the would-be robbers [CD-2, track-24]. As the waters subside, all join in a joyful chorus extolling Lurline and the glories of the Rhine set to -- you guessed it -- that MU melody. Needless to say, everyone lives happily ever after, and your day will be a little brighter for having heard this.
Soprano Sally Silver (Lurline), mezzo-soprano Fiona Janes (Ghiva), tenor Keith Lewis (Rupert), baritone Donald Maxwell (Truenfels), bass-baritone David Soar (Rhineberg), and bass Roderick Earle (Zelieck) are all in fine voice. They approach their roles with a uniform enthusiasm no doubt inspired by the legendary Richard Bonynge who conducts here. The singing and playing he gets from the Victorian Opera Chorus and Orchestra are exemplary, and in the same league with the many other outstanding recordings he's made during his long career on disc.
Presented here in a new performing edition by the conductor, we're lucky to have such a distinguished rendition of this stage work. For the foreseeable future it will undoubtedly remain the definitive recorded performance of an opera that hasn't seen the light day since the second half of the nineteenth century.
A studio recording made at the Martin Harris Center in Manchester, England, there's none of that claustrophobic miking designed to limit those extraneous noises that accompany live performances. Set in a pleasantly reverberant acoustic, the soundstage projected is consequently expansive enough to comfortably handle the considerable cast and orchestra. The highlighting of the soloists and chorus is ideal with just the right balance maintained between them and the instrumental forces.
While the orchestral timbre is quite good, the vocal sound is sometimes a bit pinched. As noted in previous recommendations, it's too bad this isn't a hybrid album where the SACD tracks would most likely have given a more convincing representation of the soloists and chorus. That said, with a find like this you'll soon forget any sonic shortcomings.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100718)
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