CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
30 SEPTEMBER 2012
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.
Cartan: Str Qts 1 & 2, Intro & Allegro... (wind qnt & pno), Fl & Cl Son; StanisEn&Qt [Timpani]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Like António Fragoso (1897-1918, see the newsletter of 31 July 2012) and Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897, see the newsletter of 27 August 2012), French composer Jean Cartan's (1906-1932) early death at twenty-six (from tuberculosis) deprived the world of an extremely promising musician. Most of his meager output is chamber music, which is sampled on this recent Timpani release. Three of the four selections presented are world premiere recordings indicated by "WPR" after their titles.
While Cartan studied with Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937, see the newsletter of 6 January 2012) and Paul Dukas (1865-1935) at the Paris Conservatory, it would seem his lay mentor was Albert Roussel (1869-1937, see the newsletter of 31 October 2009), who took a great interest in him. This is borne out by the four selections here, which have a neoclassical crispness reminiscent of Albert's music.
The first string quartet from 1927 (WPR) was dedicated to Roussel, and is in four movements. The piquant opening one very much lives up to its "Animé et énergique" ("Animated and energetic") markings, while the next jazz-inspired "Vif et nerveux" ("Lively and nervous") is an antsy scherzo with infectious references to 1920-30s dance hall music (see the newsletter of 28 February 2012).
It couldn't be more different from the following "Trčs lent" ("Very slow"), which begins with a mournful theme of Baroque persuasion. This becomes the subject of a three-part fugue for the upper strings over a cello ostinato. But sadness is soon swept away by a closing “Trés animé" ("Very animated") movement.
This is a whirlwind sonata-rondo with a couple of phrases [track-4, 03:35 and 04:03] that may bring Falla's (1876-1946) El amor brujo (Love, the Magician; 1914-15) to mind. Here two folkish dancelike ditties are subjected to some catchy contrapuntal and chromatic twists. The quartet then ends in high spirits, and must have greatly pleased its dedicatee.
The Introduction et Allegro (Introduction and Allegro, 1926-30; WPR) for wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon) and piano is next. Works of this genre are rare, and it would seem safe to assume Cartan was inspired by Roussel's Divertissement (Divertimento, 1906) for the same instruments. In a single A-B-A movement, the beginning and ending evoke a country setting, and surround a sprightly waltz sequence. At only eight minutes, this is a miniature French late romantic gem.
More harmonically adventurous than the preceding, there’s a neoclassical transparency throughout the sonatine (sonatina) for flute and clarinet of 1930. In three movements, the “Pastorale" and "Beceuse" have a Gallic sauciness reminiscent of Poulenc (1899-1963), while the closing "Rondeau" seems closer to Stravinsky (1882-1971).
The disc closes with the second string quartet of 1930-1 (WPR). This has a contrapuntal and chromatic sophistication that surpasses all of the composer's earlier efforts, making it Cartan's masterpiece. In three movements, the opening "Modéré sans lenteur" ("Moderate but not slow") [track-9] is of modified sonata form, and begins with a severe fugal motif followed by a leaping figure. Both are immediately elaborated, and a third idea [01:26] reminiscent of the opening theme from Beethoven's (1770-1827) fourth piano concerto (1806) is then introduced.
A development section follows in which we get a jazzy repeated riff [02:15] recalling a phrase from Gershwin's (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924-42, see the newsletter of 22 November 2010) heard just after the opening clarinet solo. This is not surprising considering Gershwin was in Paris around 1928, and Cartan may well have heard either the 1924 or 1926 version of this American classic. The movement then ends with a brief recap and a final quiet pedal point (PP) for low strings [06:18] in the quartet's elusive home key (Ab major).
We get a complete change of pace with the vivacious "Allegro con fuoco" ("Fast with Fire") [track-10] that’s next. Also in modified sonata form, the opening statement harbors several ideas that are soon elaborated and augmented with another two motifs. All are ingeniously developed and recapitulated, ending this masterfully constructed movement perfunctorily for a timing of 07:11, and not 11:20 as indicated in the album booklet.
If you thought the first two movements were structurally unusual, the finale [track-11] takes the cake (see the album notes for details). It probably comes closest to a sonata-rondo, and begins with a disoriented, anguished adagio section (DA) [00:00] that seems in search of a home key.
A neoclassically spiky allegro episode (NS) with several motifs soon follows [02:29], transitioning into an ear-catching variant of DA [04:08] notable for some colorful, tonally queasy passages [04:16]. A new idea then initiates the return of NS [06:32] with some arresting pizzicato. This dissolves into another variant of DA [07:58] that continues the quest for a home key along with some reminders of past ideas. Resolution is finally found in the last three pianissimo sustained chords [10:48] that remind us of the home key first established by PP above.
All the musicians here are with the Stanislas Ensemble, and the string quartet drawn from them is no stranger to these pages (see the newsletter of 30 May 2008). Its members achieve a new standard of excellence with their performances of these quartets. Their attention to detail and dynamics brings out all the nuances of Cartan's tightly knit scores.
Flutist Olivier Sauvage and clarinetist Philippe Moinet distinguish themselves in both of the wind selections. They're joined by equally talented oboist Pierre Colombain, hornist Pierre Riffault, bassoonist Nicolas Tacchi and pianist Catherine Chaufard in the Introduction et Allegro.
Made at the Salle Poirel in Nancy, France, the recordings present a well-focused soundstage in a warm acoustic with the instruments ideally placed and balanced. Vivid strings, fluid winds, and a well-rounded piano tone make for a generally musical sounding disc. There are a couple of brief low frequency disturbances occasioned by outside traffic, and the musicians stomping on the performance stage in their enthusiasm for the music.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P120930)
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Fung: Pno Conc "Dreamscapes", Vn Conc, Glimpses (3, prep pno); Hanick/Lee/Cyr/MetropEn [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
There are those who consider John Cage (1912-1992) one of America's most important avant-garde composers in the post-World-War-II period. Accordingly there's been a recent flurry of celebrations honoring what would have been his 100th birthday. On the other hand, some less progressive listeners tend to dismiss his pieces as preposterous gimmickry where the performers are more foley artists than musicians.
This new release from Naxos should appeal to both mind-sets, as it features selections by one of the most eclectic composers living today, Canadian-born Vivian Fung (b. 1975). Cageophiles will love her Glimpses for prepared piano, while traditionalists should find the two concertos intellectually challenging.
Of Chinese parentage, Fung had a strong desire to mix East and West in her creations. Consequently after she got her doctorate in composition from Juilliard, she made an extensive study of Asian music. This included gamelan, which you may recall Canadian Colin McPhee (1900-1964) as well as American Lou Harrison (1917-2002, see the newsletter of 15 May 2008) explored in some of their works. And the resultant salmagundi Vivian tosses up should appeal to anyone with an inquiring mind.
The most recent piece here is the violin concerto of 2010-11 [track-1]. In four contiguous sections lasting about twenty minutes, it begins quietly with the soloist soaring over avian cries from the strings and winds. Both soloist and tutti then accelerate the pace in passages reminiscent of a starting locomotive, followed by a brilliantly orchestrated animated episode with fiddle fireworks and exotic percussion.
The music soon subsides and some pianissimo stratospheric notes for the violin (PSNs) introduce the second part [05:15]. This has increasingly frenetic passagework for the soloist set to an orchestral accompaniment of burgeoning harmonic density, and ends with three plucked notes on the violin.
After a brief pause, the third section begins with more PSNs [10:47], and a cadenza [12:21] that makes Tartini's (1692-1770) Devil's Trill Sonata (1713) seem like child's play. The orchestra then reappears with a vengeance, and the music self-destructs in several percussive explosions that'll save you dusting your speakers for a week.
An instrumental episode with a couple of lupine glissandi bridges into the fourth and final part [15:19], which might best be described as a Sino-rhapsody. The concerto concludes with some additional virtuosic hurdles, plus more of those PSNs as soloist and tutti float skywards, and out of sight.
Fung throws a bone to John Cage fans with her set of three miniatures for prepared piano (2006) known collectively as Glimpses (2006). The first titled "Kotekan" after a Balinese style of gamelan playing, involves such instruments of pianistic torture as metal binder and mini plastic hair clips, popsicle sticks, and even a metal bar. The resultant clatter is very gamelan-like, and may grow on you with repeated listening.
The next selection, "Snow", retains the bar but replaces the other "preps" with plastic clothespins and sticky paper. Here a percussive opening and closing similar to the beginning of the third movement from Béla Bartók's (1881-1945) Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) surround a shivering kazooish central episode.
The closing "Chant" is a virtuoso contortionistic tour de force [track-4], where the soloist has to do more than just man the keyboard. He must also directly access the piano strings by pulling a rosined loop of twine around one of them, and reach inside to pluck them with either his finger, a plectrum or a rubber wedge.
If all that weren't enough, at one point he's instructed to drop a porcelain bowl on them. But there's no evidence of that here -- maybe it broke on a disastrous earlier take! Be that as it may, the music at times recalls Henry Cowell's (1897-1965) groundbreaking piano pieces. His Aeolina Harp (1923), The Banshee (1925) and Sinister Resonance (c. 1930) immediately come to mind.
The disc closes with a piano concerto Fung calls "Dreamscapes" (2009) [track-5] that consists of a prologue, four vignettes and a postlude, all lasting just over twenty-five minutes. There are some special effects that make it somewhat of a Cage happening, and call for seven Vietnamese bird whistles as well as wine glasses placed next to each of the orchestra members -- but more about that later!
The prologue opens with intermittent taps on two slit drums, and those whistles played by members of the orchestra's brass and wind sections. The soloist soon enters and in Cageian fashion plucks out a singsong melody (SS) on the piano strings [00:10]. Returning to the keyboard, he plays a florid note-ridden idea, and is soon joined by those would-be birds playing their usual instruments.
A roar from the low drums and bellicose fortissimo piano chords announce the first vignette [02:11]. Here soloist and tutti gradually work each other up into a sonic lather. But after some manual strumming of the piano strings [05:35] accompanied by avian shrieks from the orchestra, reason prevails and the music fades.
This is followed by the slit drums tapping on the front door of the second vignette [05:59], which is an elaboration with orchestra of the opening Kotekan section in Glimpses (see above). The interplay between soloist and tutti takes on an almost Dixieland air, and ends in a challenging keyboard cadenza [08:45-10:11].
A percussion-accented episode and keyed upward scale on the piano segue into the third vignette, which begins with the soloist once again climbing into the piano to strum a rising glissando [11:47]. Returning to the keyboard he gives us an extended diaphanous theme that will dominate this section.
The orchestra remains delicately subdued throughout all this, allowing pointy-eared listeners to detect some strange sighing sounds [12:55, 13:04 and 16:45]. These are another Cageian touch, where the brass players have been instructed to whisper nonsense syllables into their mouthpieces.
A torrent of falling ff keyboard notes heralds the fourth vignette [17:48], which is a frenzied exchange between soloist and orchestra. It has some earthshaking percussion, and another demanding keyboard cadenza alluding to previous motifs [20:14-21:34]. The vignette concludes with manic outbursts from both soloist and tutti, followed by a series of stabbing forte chords on the piano, which would have been more effective in shorter supply.
A couple of open-ended orchestral chords introduce the brief postlude [23:09], where we get an elongated keyboard version of SS soon accompanied by ethereal glass- harmonica-like sustained tones [24:26]. These come from the orchestra members rubbing the rims of those wine glasses mentioned above. John would have loved it!
Violinist Kristin Lee's performance of the first concerto is technically brilliant. But what’s even more important, her sensitive phrasing and pacing give it emotional as well as intellectual appeal. A true champion of contemporary music, pianist Conor Hanick's renditions of the other selections are equally spectacular. Also, considering the stigma sometimes associated with prepared pianos, he gets great credit for his artistic adventurousness and versatility.
Both soloists receive magnificent support from up-and-coming conductor Andrew Cyr and the Metropolis Ensemble. All its members not only turn in virtuosic performances, but faithfully follow their extracurricular instructions to the letter. Let's hope that after the recording session those glasses were filled with a fine wine to reward their efforts.
The concertos were recorded at Tanglewood's Seiji Ozawa Hall, Lenox, Massachusetts, while the piano pieces were done in Oktaven Audio's studio, Yonkers, New York. Consequently the soundstages are understandably different with that for the orchestral works appropriately wider, deeper and in a more spacious acoustic than the solo piano one. But no matter, because all these recordings are demonstration quality, making this CD one of the most spectacular to come along in some time.
Brilliant orchestration featuring some exotic percussion, the unusual variety of sounds indigenous to prepared pianos, and the other Cageian devices present light up this disc like a Christmas tree! The instrumental timbre is characterized by crystal-clear highs, a musical midrange and low well-defined bass. Our soloists are perfectly placed and balanced against the ideally arrayed twenty-eight member Metropolis Ensemble. The Naxos recording engineers get a big gold star for this one!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y120929)
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Gernsheim: Vn Sons Cpte (4); Intro &..., Fant, Andante (vn & pno); S.Kirpal/A.Kirpal [Brilliant]
RECOMMENDED (2 CDs)
Born in Germany within six years of each other, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Friedrich Gernsheim (1839-1916) both wrote a substantial amount of chamber music. But only that of the older composer has stood the test of time, which is regrettable because Gernsheim made some significant contributions to the genre. In fact Brahms, who didn't suffer fools lightly, knew him from 1862 on and thought highly of his work.
Fortunately Gernsheim has undergone a silver disc resurrection thanks to the efforts of several enterprising record labels. These include Brilliant Classics, who previously gave us an invaluable release featuring a couple of his piano quartets (see the newsletter of 10 May 2010). And now they turn their attention to his violin sonatas with this recent two-CD album that includes world premiere recordings of all four extant ones (an early student piece is lost).
The first disc starts with Introduction and Allegro Appassionato for violin and piano (c. 1875) [CD-1, track-1]. A two-part violin showpiece, the restrained pensive opening hints at the virtuosic frenetic theme (VF) that soon begins the allegro [02:44]. VF is then contrasted with a second rhapsodic idea (SR) [03:34], and the two undergo an immaculate development. The piece ends recalling SR, and in a thrilling coda based on VF.
The first violin sonata is next, and was probably written during the five years Friedrich spent in Paris (1855-1860). The first of its three movements is a lovelorn andante possibly reflecting a failed affair he'd had with a Parisian beauty. Things become a little more cheery in the scherzo-like second movement, while the concluding allegro [CD-1, track-4] is energetic and full of purpose except for a romantic central episode [01:29-03:02]. The sonata then ends with exciting virtuosic flourishes for both soloists.
Between 1874 and 1890 Gernsheim served as director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Society, and it was during this period he wrote his second sonata. Also in three movements, this is a much more sophisticated effort. Granted the piano part is reminiscent of Brahms, but Friedrich gets all the credit for the gorgeous, lovingly harmonized thematic ideas present. An introspective opening allegro finds the violin having an inquiring discourse with the piano, while there's a tentativeness about the next andante that makes it an affecting wistful offering.
The final sonata form allegro [CD-1, track-7] begins with the violin playing a huffy-puffy theme soon followed by an expansive countermelody (EC) [00:42], which is at one point set to a very Brahmsian piano accompaniment [01:00]. The two undergo an inventive development, are recapped in reverse order, and then the sonata ends with a coda based on EC.
Around 1876 the composer wrote a Fantasiestück (Fantasy Piece) for violin and orchestra, also making the arrangement with piano accompaniment that fills out this disc. An eleven-minute impassioned lied for the violin with a dramatic supporting piano part, it's based on a gorgeous spun-out Gernsheim melody spiced with occasional bravura passages.
The second CD opens with his fourth sonata (c. 1912), which once again adheres to a three movement structure. It's Friedrich's crowning achievement in the medium, and the equal of similar works by any of his contemporaries. There's a melodic fluidity and increased chromaticism right from the beginning of the lovely initial allegro that put this sonata considerably beyond the world of Brahms.
With a dreamy start and finish surrounding a folksy central dance episode, the andante could be considered a delightful combination slow movement and scherzo. The final allegro is a playful fiddler's holiday having a fugal hoedown first subject and winsome romantic second. An impish development with plenty of opportunity for the artists to strut their stuff follows. Then a coruscating reprise ends the sonata in a burst of sunlight -- Richard Strauss (1864-1949) eat your heart out!
Next, the third sonata, which was apparently a problem child that began life as a piece for cello and piano in the late 1890s. Unsatisfied with it, the composer decided to rearrange it for violin, and even revised it around 1905, giving us the version heard here. A four-movement work, its cello genesis may explain what seems to be a relatively low tessitura for the violin.
The first allegro is solidly constructed and characterized by more of those attractive flowing Gernsheim melodies. It's followed by a scherzoesque movement with energetic outer sections haunted by the spirit of Mendelssohn (1809-1847) bracketing a comely melodic episode.
The andante is a slow-moving wheel of misfortune with somber spokes revolving around a piteous, sometimes imploring hub. But the mood brightens in the concluding moderato, where violin and piano work each other up into a passionate exchange, ending the sonata in the best tradition of the high romantic.
The second disc concludes with a brief encore, an andante from 1853 written by the fourteen-year-old Friedrich as a Christmas present for his mom. Even at this tender age there's a precocious sincerity auguring much greater things to come.
The performances by the Kirpal brothers are uniformly good with violinist Steven giving loving accounts of these romantic treasures, despite a couple of intonationally queasy extreme upper notes. Pianist Andreas delivers uniformly ideal support, showing restraint and sensitivity in violin-dominated passages, and playing with great panache in the many demanding solo ones.
Made at a private estate in Germany, the recordings are clean. They project violin and piano to left and right with a comfortable distance between them in a clement salon-like acoustic. The violin tone is natural and the piano sound well-rounded but lean, which is probably an inherent characteristic of the instrument rather than the miking.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P120928)
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Joubert: Str Qts 1, 2 & 3; Brodsky Qt [SOMM]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
South African by birth, John Joubert (b. 1927) would receive his early musical education in Cape Town. One of his teachers was William Henry Bell (1973-1946), whom we lauded in these pages a couple of years ago (see the newsletter of 18 February 2009).
Then in 1946 at age nineteen (1946) he won a four-year scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in London. His instructors there included Theodore Holland (1878-1947, see the newsletter of 27 August 2012) as well as Alan Bush (1900-1995, see the newsletter of 31 August 2011). And upon graduation he'd take up residence in Britain, where he'd pursue an academic career until his early retirement in 1986.
Ever since his arrival in England, he's remained an active composer and produced a significant body of work. This includes four string quartets, the first three of which are featured on this recent SOMM release. All are world premiere recordings, however the version of the second quartet that’s here was previously issued by SOMM back in 2007.
The first quartet was a student work completed in 1950 just before he left the RAM. It’s his opus 1 and a most impressive start to a distinguished creative career.
In three movements the flirtatious opening allegro is in sonata form, and exceptionally well constructed. There are rhythmic twitches like those pervading Sir William Walton's (1902-1983) first symphony (1931-5), and Joubert admits in his album notes to being influenced by him.
The next lento, which was the first movement written, couldn't be more different! It's a moving elegiac offering with Expressionist leanings where all four instruments are consumed with grief. Had Franz Schreker (1878-1934) composed a string quartet, its slow movement might have resembled this.
The opening measures of the kinetic final allegro [track-3] may bring to mind the second motif from Jupiter in Gustav Holst's (1874-1934) The Planets (1914-16). But Sir William's influence is once again evident with Joubert referencing [03:26] a rhythmic riff that recurs in the opening movement of his first symphony (see above). This is also the subject of a lovely brief rhapsodic episode towards the quartet's end [06:16-07:37], which adds a nostalgic touch to a student work that must have gotten an A+.
It would be twenty-seven years before John would write his second quartet (1977), which is a facile four-movement stele that pays homage to Beethoven (1770-1827) and Shostakovich (1906-1975). In fact, the initial introspective moderato starts with and is entirely based on the three-note "Muss es Sein" ("Must it Be") motif (MES) opening the fourth movement of Beethoven's last quartet (No.16, Op. 135; 1826).
The fleeting sonata form allegro that's next begins with a couple of nervous MES-derived ideas having more of those Waltonian twitches mentioned above. They're subjected to a consummate fugal development, followed by an anguished reprise that ends the movement perfunctorily.
Written not long after Shostakovich's death and subtitled "In Memoriam DSCH," the adagio [track-6] is a lament for the great Russian composer. It begins with the cello playing a sad plangent theme (SP) [00:00] synthesized from MES and the "DSCH" (D-Eb-C-B) musical monogram (DMM) Shostakovich so often used (see the newsletter of 22 November 2011). A grief-stricken elaboration of SP follows, and then a mercurial scherzoesque episode. The latter is short-lived and succeeded by a variant of the mournful opening and some concluding measures directly quoting DMM [07:13].
These bridge via a smattering of quizzical pizzicato into the final allegretto, which begins with a lovely relaxed flowing melody (RF) over an ostinato accompaniment again derived from MES and DMM. Next RF undergoes a series of developmental contortions, which build to a wrenching climax followed by its sudden return. The quartet then concludes free of the anxiety which permeated the preceding movements.
The composer went back to a three-movement structure for his third quartet ( 1985-8). A considerably more abstract work, it opens with a sonata form allegro [track-8] built on two ideas. The first is frenetically driven (FD) [00:00] as opposed to a wistful second [01:14], which turns out to be the same DMM motto he used in the previous quartet (see above). A complex chromatically peripatetic development follows, and then a dramatic reprise ends the movement with subdued memories of DMM and FD.
A fugal lento with a mournful subject follows [track-9], and about halfway through the upper strings sounding like strange voices crying in the wilderness introduce a triplet-dominated countersubject [03:09]. The movement then builds to a crescendo of despair, ultimately fading into nothingness.
Beginning with a brusque pizzicato teaser, the final allegro [track-10] states a couple of catchy melodies. The first is a sprightly ditty the composer calls a "walking" tune (SW) [00:09] in accordance with the circumstances surrounding its conception. On the other hand, the second is a melancholy Gallic-tinged number (MG) [02:21] he apparently borrowed from an earlier piano concerto (1958, and currently unavailable on disc).
A brilliant development follows where there are occasional glissandi bordering on the antic, and plenty of opportunities for the artists to show off their technical proficiency. Hushed memories of MG initiate a short recap. Then SW rushes out the backdoor ending things all too soon, and leaving you ready to spin this exceptional disc of discovery all over again.
The Brodsky Quartet is in top form, playing these pieces to perfection in what will probably be definitive performances for a long time to come. Their enthusiasm, virtuosity and sensitive attention to detail make a strong case for this music.
While five years separate the recording of the second quartet (2006) from the first and third (2011), all were made at St. Mary's Church in the Walthamstow area of London. They are very consistent, and project a suitably sized soundstage in a nourishing, not overly reverberant acoustic. The four players are well positioned and focused, bringing out the considerable detail in these scores. This and pleasing string tone assure a musical-sounding disc.
Incidentally, there are a couple of momentary low-end thumps, probably resulting from some fervid footwork by the artists on the performance stage. But what’s more puzzling is a brief barely audible snatch of what sounds like sleigh bells at the beginning of the third quartet's last movement [track-10, 00:00-00:10].
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P120927)
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Merikanto, A.: Syms 1 & 3; Sakari/Turku PO [Alba (Hybrid)]
AUDIOPHILE (1 SACD)
Those liking the symphonies of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) and Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947) are in for a big treat with this new Alba hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.1) release. It features world premiere recordings of the first and last of Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto's (1893-1958) three symphonies. By the way, Aarre was the son of Oskar Merikanto (1868-1924), whom many consider Finland's greatest songwriter to date.
Aarre studied with Max Reger (1873-1916, see the newsletter of 30 March 2008) in Berlin from 1912 up until 1914 when Reger's declining health forced an end to his teaching career. He was a demanding instructor who insisted on his students' strict adherence to the time-honored rules of counterpoint and harmony. Consequently the young Aarre frequently felt his creative instincts were being stifled. But all this laid a solid foundation for the significant body of orchestral works he'd write, and it was during this period he started the first symphony.
After losing his German mentor, he moved to Russia in 1915, where he studied orchestration with Sergei Vasilenko (1872-1956) at the Moscow Conservatory. His two years there also saw him finalize the symphony, which was premiered in 1917.
In four movements, the sonata form opening allegro is no great shakes thematically. However, it's skillfully constructed with some colorful ear-catching modulatory sequences, and beautifully orchestrated. The same can be said of the following "Scherzo fantastique," where there's a rhythmic and chromatic whimsicality giving rise to frequent changes of mood that hold the listener's attention.
Almost twice as long as either of the preceding movements, the andante is the emotional center and high point of the symphony. It starts with a theme reminiscent of the big tune beginning the last movement of Sibelius' second symphony (1901). A faster dance-like, partially modal ditty follows, and the two ideas are imaginatively developed, and recapitulated in reverse order. The movement concludes with a lovely duet for solo violin and English horn recalling its opening.
The final allegro begins with a lumbering Sibelian theme (LS) that may bring En Saga (1892, revised 1902) to mind. An elaboration of LS follows concluding with a drum roll that transitions into a reverent chorale episode. This gradually builds to a stirring crescendo, which quickly fades with LS returning in a playful guise to end the symphony with a big grin.
The three movement third symphony dates from 1952-3 and lasts half as long as the first. Coming almost forty years later, it's a much more progressive work where neoclassicism and modally tinted folk-like themes predominate. What's more, Merikanto scored it for an extremely large orchestra composed of a wide variety of instruments for maximum color. The end result is an exceptionally immaculate symphonic offering made all the more transparent by frequent wind writing.
It begins atypically with a scherzo where the winds and strings play a merry rustic dance tune followed by a lovely cantilena. The two are the lifeblood of the movement's outer sections, which surround a melancholy episode recalling Sibelius' icier moments.
As in the previous symphony the andante is the work's emotional center of gravity. Here bleak strings and frigid winds make it easy to imagine oneself shivering on a glacier in The Land of the Midnight Sun.
But any frostbite suffered soon heals in the final allegro, which begins with a jolly warmhearted dance ditty on the bassoon immediately picked up by the orchestra. Having an endearing naiveté approaching that of Edvard Grieg's (1843-1907) folk dances, it undergoes several rondoesque transformations. Then at just under five minutes, this delightful movement ends the symphony all too soon with a brass sunburst and timpani roll.
Under their chief conductor Petri Sakari, the Turku Philhamonic Orchestra, which incidentally is Finland's oldest, do the honors here. They play these symphonies with a commitment and sensitivity, particularly the many woodwind passages in the third, making a strong case for this music.
Made at the Turku Concert Hall in Finland, the recordings are very musical. The stereo tracks project an expansive soundstage in a reverberant enveloping acoustic, and the instrumental timbre is good with the upper strings sounding even more natural in SACD. The multichannel track assures you a center orchestra seat, and seems to produce the warmest sound of all.
From the stereo standpoint the disc will certainly rank as demonstration quality for audiophiles liking wetter sonics, but listeners preferring a more delineated sound will probably disagree. On the other hand, those in both camps with home theater systems should find the multichannel track very impressive. By the way there’s a subwoofer channel, but with the absence of any seismic bass and in the interest of low-end clarity, you might want to turn it off.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y120926)
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Sanjuán: Castilla, Liturgia Negra; Orozco-Estrada/Basque NO [Claves]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
Spanish composer Pedro Sanjuán (1886-1976) makes his CLOFO debut with this disc featuring two of his orchestral works in Claves' ongoing survey of Basque music. These are the only currently available recordings of either piece.
Originally trained in Madrid, young Pedro would go on to study in Paris, returning to Spain in 1914. He'd complete his musical education there with private lessons from Joaquin Turina (1882-1949). Then in 1923 he moved to Cuba, where he founded the Havana Philharmonic and became its first resident conductor.
In 1932 he journeyed back to Spain, but returned to Havana in 1937 where he resumed his conducting activities. He then began making an increasing number of guest appearances in the United States, eventually moving there probably around 1950. He'd spend the rest of his life in the US, conducting many of its finest orchestras, and teaching at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
The program begins with Castilla (c. 1927), which is a three-part concert suite inspired by the Castilla la Vieja (Old Castile) region of Spain. The opening "Panorama" [track-1] starts off mysteriously [00:01] hinting at the main theme to come. The music might well be describing a mountaintop view of the Spanish countryside in eerie predawn light.
A fugato then introduces the full idea, which turns out to be a warm radiant tune (WR) [02:52] that might well represent a sunrise. Incidentally WR is vaguely reminiscent of the principal theme from the slow movement of Haydn's Emperor Quartet (Op. 76, No. 3, c. 1799), which is the melody for the old German National Anthem, "Deutschland über Alles."
The development that's next includes four energetic folkish variants of WR [05:03, 05:57, 06:41 and 08:52], which could be interpreted as local villages coming to life. Then after a momentary pause the movement ends [09:21] much as it began, but this time maybe the composer had a golden sunset in mind.
The succeeding "En la ilanura" ("In the Plain") is a lyrical pastoral rhapsody. It's easy to imagine the winds as representing shepherd pipes, twittering songbirds, and hawks soaring over flowering green meadows limned by the strings.
As a grand finale we get "Cantos de trilla' ("Threshing Songs"), which in accordance with its name is a potpourri of folk ditties ranging from jubilant to wistful and dance-like. Skillfully assembled, they're individually developed and then recapped, ending the suite in high spirits. Turina’s ghost haunts the entire score.
The concert ends with Liturgia negra (Black Liturgy, c. 1931), which reflects Afro-Cuban influences, and calls for a restaurant-sized kitchen of percussion, including some of South American origin. In that regard it anticipates American composer Morton Gould's (1913-1996, see the newsletter of 26 March 2010) Latin-American Symphonette (1941), and to some degree the music of Venezuelan Evencio Castellanos (1915-1984, see the newsletter of 28 February 2012) as well as Puerto Rican Ernesto Cordero (b. 1946, see the newsletter of 6 January 2012).
In five sections, the first "Chango (Invocation - Danza ritual)" begins with a lurching percussion-laced invitation to the dance where the low strings and winds cast a syncopated intoxicating rhythmic spell over the rest of the orchestra. After a brief pause all join in a fanatical Caribbean caper that becomes increasingly frenetic, only to end suddenly with a final whack on the drums.
The following "Iniciation" and "Babaluayé" ("Babalu Aye") are rhythmically charged episodes associated with religious initiates and the spirit of the earth respectively. The former is wholly infectious with a continuous beat that may remind you of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's (1829-1869) music (see the newsletter of 30 June 2007). The latter alternates what sound like calls to the deity it honors with invocatory dances.
As a change of pace we get "Canto ŕ Oggun," which is a song to the Afro-Cuban god of war, Ogoun. It's a brilliantly orchestrated theme and variations with a gorgeous woodblock-punctuated cantilena for a subject. This undergoes several rhythmically catchy transformations, and then the section ends in a saucy coda.
Sanjuán saves the wildest for last with "Comparsa Lucumi" ("The Lucumi Dancers"). After a volcanic introduction, we get a magmatic Cuban bolero with primitive pounding drums and a serpentine melody that won't quit! It ends the liturgy in a state of religious ecstasy worthy of the orgiastic moments in Revueltas (1899-1940) and Ginastera (1916-1983).
The performances by the Basque National Orchestra (BNO) under its principal conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada are supercharged, releasing all the potential energy stored in these scores. Not only that, their attention to rhythmic and dynamic detail brings out all the aboriginal aspects of this music.
Although a year separates them, both recordings were made in the BNO's Concert Hall, San Sebastián, Spain, and sound consistent. With an additional complement of Latin-American percussion instruments, the orchestra takes on massive proportions. The soundstage projected is accordingly immense, and made all the more so by highly reverberant surroundings that make it somewhat distant. That said, the instrumental timbre is very musical with delicate highs and thundering bass. This release will have real appeal for those liking wetter sonics.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P120925)
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