CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
22 NOVEMBER 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.
Boulanger, N.: Fant Pno & Orch (w Gershwin & Tansman); Greilsammer/Sloane/French RPO [Naïve]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Parisian born Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) believed her younger sister Lili (1893-1918) was a much better composer, and so she decided to teach. Nadia consequently became one of the most sought-after composition instructors of the twentieth century, whose American students alone make up a who's who of US composers (see the Thomson recommendation below).
However, a few of her early creative efforts survive, and when you hear the delightful Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra of 1912 presented here for the first time on disc, most would agree she was a little hard on herself! In one extended twenty-minute span, the dark introduction, which recalls Franck's (1822-1890) Symphonic Variations (1885), states the main idea that’s apparently of Russian folk origin (see the informative album notes).
It undergoes three imaginative transformations with melodic allusions to an old favorite of Russian composers, the Dies Irae sequence from the Latin Requiem Mass. While influences would seem to include Fauré (1845-1924) as well as Rachmaninov (1873-1943), the work anticipates what would soon come from Prokofiev (1891-1953) and Stravinsky (1882-1971). You'll find it an exceptionally interesting rarity where Nadia practices what she's about to preach.
Next up, we have a work by one of Boulanger's great admirers and close associates, Polish composer Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986, see the newsletter of 11 May 2009). The second of his two piano concertos dating from 1927 makes its recorded debut here. And it's about time, considering what a triumph it was when the composer as soloist premièred it in America shortly after it was written.
Essentially in four movements, the last two being connected, this fiendishly difficult piece represents Tansman at his best. It has a Slavic lyricism like that found in Tchaikovsky (1840-1893, see the newsletter of 31 October 2009) and Rachmaninov, combined with a rhythmic eccentricity worthy of Prokofiev or even Stravinsky.
There are also a couple of delightfully simplistic tunes typical of Poulenc (1899-1963) [track-1, beginning at 01:15], hints of impressionism à la Ravel (1875-1937), and a smattering of that polytonality Milhaud (1892-1974, see the newsletter of 17 February 2007) so loved. Incidentally, after one of the US performances, it was none other than George Gershwin (1898-1937) who rushed up to Tansman expressing wild enthusiasm for the piece.
And speaking of Gershwin, the disc closes with his Rhapsody in Blue (1924, 1926, revised 1942). This all-time favorite demonstrates beyond a doubt how wise Nadia Boulanger was in tactfully turning aside Gershwin's request for lessons when he visited Paris in 1928. She told him any attempt to academically refine an already highly successful, fully formed musical personality like his might in the end be counterproductive.
Written in response to a commission from American conductor Paul Whiteman (1890-1967, see the newsletter of 10 March 2011) for a "jazz concerto," Rhapsody... was originally orchestrated by Ferde Grofé (1892-1972, see the newsletter of 20 November 2006) for Paul's twenty-four member jazz band plus violins in 1924 (see the newsletter of 31 March 2011). Ferde then expanded it for a pit-sized instrumental ensemble in 1926, and full symphony orchestra in 1942. It’s the last version that’s usually heard today.
In four connected sections, which correspond in classical terms to an introduction, scherzo, andante and finale, this jazzy piece of homespun is brimming with unforgettable melodies from one of America's best tunesmiths. Interestingly enough, Gershwin initially sketched the piece on a train trip from New York to Boston, and he tells us all those railroad noises were a source of inspiration. With that in mind, there are several passages where it's easy to imagine track and tie clicking by [track-6, beginning at 04:08].
Because of its jazzy improvisatory nature, this is one of those concertante works where the soloist alone can turn an otherwise everyday performance into an extraordinary one. And Israeli pianist David Greilsammer does just that, manipulating the ivories with a lively inventive attention to rhythmic and dynamic detail that makes this recording one to cherish.
Credit must also go to American conductor Steven Sloane, who elicits eloquent yet exceptionally enthusiastic playing from the French Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (FRPO) very much in the spirit of Tin Pan Alley. A special round of applause goes to the clarinetist and percussionist who provide that extra jazzy je ne sais quoi Paul Whiteman would have loved.
The Boulanger and Tansman readings are equally superb, giving Greilsammer an opportunity to show off his expressive sensitivity in the former, and technical brilliance throughout the latter. The support provided by Maestro Sloane and the FRPO is impeccable, making a strong case for these neglected works.
The Boulanger and Gershwin recordings were taken from a live performance in the Salle Pleyel Concert Hall, but you'd never know it as the audience is nowhere in evidence either during or after the music. Some skillful editing rather than close miking must have been involved, because the soundstage is ideal with none of that claustrophobic feeling usually associated with the latter. Placed center-left and perfectly balanced against the orchestra, the piano is well rounded and instrumental timbre bright but natural sounding.
A Radio France studio recording, the Tansman understandably sounds somewhat more confined. But the piano and orchestra are immaculately captured with a clarity that reveals all the intricate detail of this virtuosicly challenging piece.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y101122)
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Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Shakespeare Ovs V1 (Julius Caesar w 5 others); Penny/WAustra SO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Shakespeare Ovs V2 (As You Like It w 4 others); Penny/WAustra SO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Having given us a taste of symphonic music by Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968, see the newsletter of 13 July 2009) and Alfredo Cassela (1883-1947, see the newsletter of 23 July 2010), Naxos now treats us to some by their student, Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968). The eleven overtures on these two discs are based on Shakespeare’s (c. 1564-1616) plays, which were a lifelong love of his.
More like tone poems, all are world première recordings except Much Ado about Nothing. Five were written in Italy before the rise of Nazism forced his emigration to the United States in 1939 (see the newsletter of 30 September 2010). The remaining ones were completed in America, where he'd spend the rest of his life.
Three of the six on volume one were inspired by the Roman tragedies Julius Caesar (1934), Antony and Cleopatra (1947, see 30 March 2006), and Coriolanus (1947). Brilliantly orchestrated and intensely dramatic, it's easy to understand why from 1940 through 1956 Mario was regarded as one of Hollywood's finest film score composers. In fact they anticipate Miklós Rósza's music for such biblical epics as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben Hur (1959), but still have that sense of structure and direction found in outstanding concert music.
The other three overtures, The Taming of the Shrew (1930, see the newsletter of 15 January 2010), A Midsummer-Night's Dream (1940) and Twelfth Night (1933), find the composer at his most lyrical. While they have the emotional appeal of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) or even Max Steiner's (1888-1971) best scores, there's an old world charm and melodic finesse that make for much more than movie music. Romantics will love them, and as they put the second volume in their player, find themselves quoting Twelfth Night (1601-02), "If music be the food of love, play on!"
Disc two begins with As You Like It (1953), whose arresting opening is some of the most progressive music to be found in any of these overtures. It then turns quite pastoral with passages that have forest associations as well as hunting horn calls reminiscent of Wagner's (1813-1883) Siegfried.
A sense of drama returns in the next three selections. These are The Merchant of Venice (1933), Much Ado About Nothing (1953), and The Life and Death of King John (1941), which are dedicated respectively to three great conductors, Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), Robert Whitney (1904-1986), and Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970).
Italian folk tunes similar to Luigi Denza’s (1846-1922) melody for the ever popular Neapolitan song "Funiculì, Funiculà" (1880, see the newsletter of 31 October 2009) give Merchant a Latin flavor. Much Ado has a skittishly lyrical opening and closing surrounding a funeral march worthy of Sir William Walton (1902-1983). He and Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) come to mind in the optimistic big-boned King John.
The concluding selection, The Winter's Tale (1935), is a candidate for the most structurally intricate of these overtures, with some arresting solos featuring various winds, as well as cello, harp, and percussion. Brilliantly scored, it’s the perfect closer for this series of beautifully crafted symphonic minidramas.
We have conductor Andrew Penny and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) to thank for unearthing these gems. Enthusiasm rather than technical proficiency characterizes these performances. But as we've said before, with repertoire this rare we're lucky to have what's here!
The recordings were made over a nine-day period in the WASO's Perth studios, and present a convincing soundstage in a compatible acoustic setting. While instrumental clarity and focus are definitely strong points, there's some harshness in the high end that precludes these discs from getting an audiophile rating.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P101121, P101120)
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Thomson: Solemn..., Joyful..., 3 Pics (orch), Orch Songs (7); Soloists/Rose/BosMOP O [BMOP/s]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
The Harvard music department has certainly produced its share of distinguished American composers, including John Knowles Paine (1839-1905), Arthur Foote (1853-1937, see the newsletters of 31 July 2009 and 28 February 2010), John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951, see the newsletter of 30 April 2008), and Walter Piston (1894-1976). But none was more influential than Mid-Westerner Virgil Thomson (1896-1989, see the newsletter of 30 October 2007), who went on to study with Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) in Paris during the 1920s (see the Boulanger recommendation above).
He was an astute music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune from 1937 through 1951 with a wit worthy of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), and could at times be a bit of an intellectual exhibitionist. But that's not the case with his music whose elegant sincerity makes him an American Original. Frequently based on folk as well as hymn tunes, there's a disarming melodic simplicity and Gallic suavity about it clothed in an orchestral finery which seems to be a specialty of Harvard composers (see the newsletter of 15 April 2008).
The program opens with A Solemn Music and A Joyful Fugue of 1960-61, which played in tandem form a modern day prelude and fugue. The slow ponderous opening could easily be a funeral dirge for some fallen hero (see the newsletter of 30 April 2008). The sprightly conclusion may bring to mind the livelier contrapuntal moments in Benjamin Britten's (1913-1976) The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946).
Thomson was a past master when it came to setting the English language to music, and the next seven orchestral songs are cases in point. The first of these is The Feast of Love for baritone, which was written in 1964. With a text consisting of several stanzas chosen and translated by the composer from an anonymous second or fourth century Latin poem known as Pervigilium Veneris (The Vigil of Venus), it's a sensuous vernal paean to the goddess of love (see the album notes for this and all the other texts). The vocal line finds Thomson at his most lyrical, while the orchestral accompaniment is the essence of articulation and refinement.
With the name Collected Poems, don't let the next selection fool you! It lasts only about five minutes, and is the amusingly clever creation of another Harvard man, American writer Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), consisting of some thirty odd uppercase titles, each followed by one-line verses. Thomson set it in 1959 for baritone and soprano, who alternately sing the captions and lines to a magnificently effervescent instrumental accompaniment. There's a sense of Zen detachment which makes it come off sounding like a series of koans.
The poetry of London-born William Blake (1757-1827) inspired Thomson's Five Songs from William Blake (1951) for baritone. They cover a variety of moods, which the composer convincingly conveys by perfectly matching the words to exquisitely scored melodies. Highlights include the lovely hymn-like "The Divine Image," arrestingly phrased, percussively punctuated "Tiger! Tiger!" and bitonally fleeting "The land of Dreams."
The concert concludes with a trio of his finest symphonic works known collectively as Three Pictures for Orchestra. The first, The Seine at Night completed in 1947, is an impressionistic pastel that's a fascinating combination of Debussy (1816-1918), Delius (1862-1934) and Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Once again it may remind you of Britten, but this time his Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes (1945).
The second selection, Wheat Field at Noon, was written a year later (1948). It's a theme and variations where the main idea contains all twelve tones of the chromatic scale ingeniously arranged to produce a captivating extended melody. Set in a static harmonic matrix, the variations build to a climax reminiscent of those in a Roy Harris (1898-1979) symphony (see the newsletters of 20 December 2006 and 25 November 2008) only to evaporate. This is Thomson at his most mysterious where there's also an intermittent bell-like ticking somewhat anticipating Gyorgy Ligeti's (1923-2006) Poème Symphonique (1962) for one hundred metronomes.
The final Sea Piece with Birds of 1952 finds the composer at his most harmonically adventurous. It's a chromatically impressionistic seething seascape with swooping birds that screech a final chorus and then disappear as the work ends with a tam-tam undertow. Three Pieces is like no other Thomson you've ever heard, and by itself makes the concert on this disc worth the price of admission.
Baritone Thomas Meglioranza and soprano Kristen Watson are both in fine voice. They deliver these songs, except when that tiger shows his stripes, with a conversational understatement perfectly suited to Thomson's lyrically relaxed settings. Conductor Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project provide sensitive accompaniment for the soloists, and give perfectly shaped performances of the orchestral selections. This represents another high point in their continuing championship of little known US repertoire (see the newsletters of 15 April 2008, 30 May 2008 and 10 September 2010).
You'd never guess these recordings were made at three different locations because they all project a consistently generous soundstage in a warm acoustic. As regards the instrumental timbre, there's good and bad news with impressively tight bass, but highs that suffer from moments of digital grain in massed violin passages. From the vocal standpoint, the soloists are beautifully captured and balanced against the orchestra.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P101119)
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Weingartner: 4-5 Stg Chbr Wks Cpte V2 (Qt 5, Qnt); Vahle/Sarastro Qt [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
This second volume in CPO's ongoing survey of Felix Weingartner's (1863-1942) complete chamber music for four and five strings (see the newsletter of 8 September 2008) includes another quartet as well as his only quintet. Best remembered as a world famous conductor of German repertoire than a trendsetting composer, it's not surprising to find the influences of Beethoven (1770-1827), Schubert (1797-1828), Schumann (1810-1856), Brahms (1833-1897), Wagner (1813-1883), Bruckner (1824-1896) and even Mahler (1860-1911) in his music. Still he has something new to say, which should definitely appeal to those liking the chamber music of another great German conductor-composer, Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954, see the newsletter of 28 April 2007).
Weingartner’s fifth and last string quartet (c. 1935) is in four movements, and opens with an allegro in a modified sonata form of his own design. More specifically, the thematic ideas are fragments of a larger whole, and undergo immediate development. The interplay of energetic and lethargic passages is reminiscent of late Beethoven, and keeps the listener on the edge of his seat.
The lovely andante owes a debt to Schubert and Schumann, yet there's a sense of melancholy that seems to be a Weingartner trait. Not one to wallow in a romantic quagmire, he offsets it with another allegro that's actually a scherzo. The outer sections are redolent of Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and surround a delightful central ländler worthy of Brucker.
The final presto is an intricate sonata-rondo which shows the composer's mastery of form and counterpoint. Melodically speaking it has the simplicity of Mozart (1756-1791), but there's a structural complexity and harmonic density typical of the late romantic period.
The CD is filled out with the string quintet of 1904-06, which includes a second viola. In four movements with minimal breaks, this is a magnum opus lasting forty minutes. There's a sense of drama that seems to imply some unknown underlying program, and in that regard the beginning allegro takes on the aspect of an emotionally charged tone poem. It transitions directly into the next movement, which is a minuet wherein a wistful first subject alternates with an animated dance of possible Eastern European origin.
After a token pause, Weingartner comes up with another ingeniously constructed movement. This begins as a recitative that materializes into the main subject of what turns out to be a theme and variations. You may find it spiritually akin to the third "Heiliger Dankgesang" movement of Beethoven's fifteenth quartet (Op. 132, 1825; see the newsletter of 7 February 2007).
No sooner does it end on a sad note than the concluding allegro bursts forth with a boisterous, angular idea (BA). Again a structural curiosity, this movement might best be described as bipolar. Lasting almost fifteen minutes, the first two-thirds is a manic sonata-rondo with BA the driving force. This grinds to a sudden halt, and after a brief caesura there’s the string equivalent of six hunting horn calls [track-8, beginning at 08:55]. The music then becomes withdrawn, and the quintet concludes as a rhapsody of introspection, that again suggests the presence of some hidden program.
With this release, the Sarastro Quartet, which is based in Winterthur, Switzerland, continues their traversal of rare and interesting chamber music (see the newsletters of 8 September 2008 and 29 October 2009). Their performances are very committed and display a sensitivity that's a prerequisite for these intricate scores. There are some intonational anomalies, but not of such frequency that they detract from one's appreciation of the music.
Produced by CPO and Swiss Radio, the recordings were done at the Marthalen Church in Switzerland. They're good, projecting a soundstage commensurate with music of this scope in a pleasant venue. The strings are natural sounding except for a little zing in the violins' upper registers.
One final observation, the album notes are an absolute hoot, with more of that goobledegook frequently served up by CPO's "amusicologists." Just consider this quote, "...Weingartner evidently tried to execute a quadrature of the circle over the logarithmus naturalis to the third power of the threefold conic..." Sounds like something Mr. Spock would say!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P101118)
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Zwilich: Millenium Fant, Images, Peanuts®...; Biegel/Williams/Gainsford/Jiménez/FloriStU SO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Back in 1983 Floridian Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939) became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music with her first symphony, also known as Three Movements for Orchestra. Since then she has become one of America's most honored and frequently performed contemporary composers. The three concertante works for one and two pianos on this new release from Naxos show why.
The concert begins with her Millennium Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra of 2000. It's in two movements, and according to the composer based on a folk tune her grandmother used to sing her as a child. A virtuoso undertaking, the work opens with a nostalgic, pizzicato-accented fragment (NP) of the song. The piano becomes infected with NP, and encouraged by the orchestra begins a jazzy St. Vitus' dance based on it. The frenzy eventually abates, and the movement then ends introspectively. Some listener's may detect a similarity between NP and the theme that opens Samuel Barber's (1910-1981) first symphony (1936, revised 1942).
With staggered hyperactive and restrained episodes, the second movement is full of pyrotechnics for both the soloist and tutti. The folk song is fully elaborated towards the end [track-2, beginning at 09:25], and the work closes with some thrilling bravura passages.
The next piece, Images for Two Pianos and Orchestra from 1986, was commissioned by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each of its five movements was inspired by a painting in their collection (click here to view them).
The opening selection after Swiss Cubist Alice Bailly's (1872-1938) "Self-Portrait" (1917) is intensely dramatic with rushing strings assaulted by stabbing chords and runs on the pianos. By contrast there's a bit of angst in "The Abandon Doll" (1921) by French painter Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938), where female innocence turns to vanity. Incidentally, some may remember her for that outstanding 1893 portrait she did of her one-time lover Erik Satie (1866-1925).
The next three movements are based on pictures by American Abstract Expressionists. Alma Thomas' (1891-1978) "Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses" (1969) is notable for a rapidly repeated note hammered out on the pianos as avian utterances from the winds waft by. There's a neoclassicism à la Stravinsky (1882-1971) about the music for Elaine de Kooning's (1920-1988) "Bacchus #3" (1978), which also has an extended tuba passage Tubby would have loved. The meditative, brilliantly orchestrated finale depicting Helen Frankenthaler's (b. 1928) "Spiritualist" (1973) ends this exhibition much as it began.
The closing work, Peanuts® Gallery for Piano and Orchestra (1996) was inspired by the beloved cartoons of Charles Schulz (1922-2000). In six movements honoring the strip's main personalities, it begins with "Schroeder’s Beethoven Fantasy", where Zwilich with comic abandon tosses around motifs in the opening of Ludwig's Hammerklavier Sonata (No. 29, 1818) and the scherzo from his Choral Symphony (No. 9, 1822-24). Next, we get a dreamlike "Lullaby for Linus" that finds him napping with his beloved security blanket.
After that there's "Snoopy Does the Samba", which is a percussively punctuated, rhythmically infectious number that would wake the dead. Then "Charlie Brown’s Lament" seems best characterized by a couple of lines from an old poem, "A shade of sadness, a blush of shame, Over the face of the leader came...".
And in conclusion we get one of Zwillich's most colorful, unpredictable offerings in "Lucy Freaks Out", followed by "Peppermint Patty and Marcie Lead the Parade". This brings to mind the ending of Saint-Saëns' (1835-1921) Carnival of the Animals (1886), where all the previous character motifs go marching by in a symphonic comic strip.
Pianist Jeffrey Biegel is no stranger to these pages (see the newsletter 15 February 2008), and once again distinguishes himself with technically accomplished performances of Millenium and Peanuts® that are both rhythmically and dynamically animated. Heidi Louise Williams and Read Gainsford are equally impressive as duo pianists in Images. Their precision team work assures a carefully judged, sensitive reading of the most progressive and emotionally invested score here.
The Florida State University Symphony Orchestra is featured on this release, which seems appropriate considering the composer graduated from and is currently on the faculty of that institution. Under their conductor Alexander Jiménez, these Sunshine Musicians light up Zwillich's vivacious music.
The recordings of the first two selections are good with well rounded piano tone, and the soloists ideally balanced against the orchestra. The instrumental timbre is natural sounding across a wide soundstage in a favorable acoustic.
As for Peanuts®, although all three works were recorded over a two day period in the same venue, the piano seems a bit recessed and the soundstage compressed in the first movement. However, the sonics seem to open up somewhat for the remaining five, suggesting a miking or mixing incongruity.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P101117)
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