CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
27 AUGUST 2013
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.
Adler, S.: Pno Qnt; Stg Qts 8 & 9; Lowenthal/Esterh Qt [Albany]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
Born in Mannheim to Jewish parents, Samuel Adler (b. 1928) and his family were forced to flee their homeland for the United States in 1939 with the rise of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. He would then study music at Boston College and Harvard University, where Walter Piston (1894-1976), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), Randall Thompson (1899-1994) and Aaron Copland (1900-1990, see 31 March 2011) were among his teachers.
In 1949 he took conducting lessons from Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951), who was then music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Adler would then go on to become a highly acclaimed teacher at several successive centers of learning. These would include the Eastman School of Music (1966-1995) as well as the New York's Juilliard, where he's been on the faculty since 1997.
In addition to all this, he's a prize-winning composer with a distinguished body of works to his credit. Three in the chamber genre are included on this invaluable release from Albany. They are the only currently available recordings of them on disc.
While his music remains tonal, Adler has a penchant for short motivic ideas and condensed developments that harmonically as well as rhythmically turn on a dime. Consequently each of the selections here will require careful repeated listening for full appreciation.
The program begins with the four-movement eighth string quartet of 1988. This evolved from a short elegy titled "Herinnering" (Dutch for "Remembrance") that Adler wrote in 1987 (not currently available on disc) commemorating the death of a close friend who was born in the Netherlands (see the composer's informative album notes).
It's the basis for the first movement marked "Very slowly" [T-1], which commences with a prayerful sustained note. The sad passages that follow are presumably related to nostalgic memories of the departed. Adler says the contrasting plucky, pizzicato-spiced "Fast and with humor" that's next [T-2] is meant to recall his friend’s lighter side.
Then we get "Slowly and very expressively" [T-3]. This represents a return to the mournful mood of the opening with sobbing passages that make this all the more grievous. However, the final "Fast and with great expression" [T-4] is a vibrant virtuosic undertaking for all four players, which we're told celebrates a life fully lived.
Coming a dozen years later, the one-movement piano quintet of 2000-1 [T-5] is in two sections. The pensive first begins with a motivic nexus (MN) that includes eight and seven-note riffs introduced by piano [00:00] and cello [00:05]. MN is the subject of the engaging developmental dialogue between the piano and strings that ends this part on a sustained note of hope.
After a brief pause we get the second section marked "Fast and Energetic" [04:44]. It opens with the piano soon supported by strings announcing a robust anguished theme (RA) [04:50] derived from MN. This is elaborated and followed by a more subdued second subject (SS) [06:51].
The complex development of RA and SS that's next is a virtuosic, emotionally fraught discourse involving all five instruments. The quintet then concludes forcefully with an embroiled recap of RA and SS along with final hints of MN [13:10].
The CD closes with Adler's ninth and last string quartet to date. It was completed in 2010 on a commission from our performing group, and is in four movements. The initial "Fast with much energy" [T-6] is a series of bustling episodes, each stating a brief motif that's immediately subjected to a demidevelopment. In an effort to highlight every instrument, the composer rarely has them play together, opting for a panoply of duets and trios.
Marked "Slowly and contemplative," the movement that follows is a theme with variations [T-7]. It's a complete change of pace right from its otherworldly introduction, after which a chant-like subject appears. This undergoes several searching transformations, and then the movement ends as mysteriously as it began.
The composer tells us he's always loved Mendelssohn's (1809-1847) scherzos, and "Fast with humor" [T-8] pays homage to same. Adler perfectly captures the instantly recognizable mercurialness of Felix's flightier movements. He also inserts some droll quotes which include that beloved old chestnut "Lippen schweigen" ("Lips are silent") waltz [02:22] from Franz Lehar's (1870-1948) Merry Widow (1905).
The finale marked "Fast and rhythmic" [T-9] is a frenetic supplemental development of those motivic morsels embedded in the first movement. The churning opening [00:00] eventually gives way to dancelike passages [01:09] within which these are further explored. Then suddenly the work terminates with a rhythmic insistence reminiscent of Rossini (1792-1868).
Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy (1714-1790) was the patron of Franz Joseph Haydn (1712-1809), who as you may recall is often referred to as the "Father of the String Quartet." Accordingly our quartet in residence for this release decided to name themselves after the Prince.
One of today's most acclaimed chamber ensembles, the Esterhazy musicians deliver technically accomplished, elegant interpretations of these complex contemporary scores. They're joined in the quintet by piano virtuoso Jerome Lowenthal, who we've previously lauded in these pages (see 31 October 2009).
Co-produced by the composer and Esterhazy's first violinist, Eva Szekely, the location for the quartets was Harrison Studios in Belchertown, Massachusetts, while the quintet was done at Oktaven Audio's Yonkers, New York studio. The recordings project amazingly consistent, suitably proportioned soundstages in warm surroundings. That said, the Oktaven one may strike some as a tad on the drier side.
Clarity is the byword with strings that are bright but musical. The piano is magnificently captured in well-rounded, pleasantly percussive sound, and ideally balanced against the quartet. This demonstration quality release should delight contemporary American music enthusiasts and audiophiles alike.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y130827)
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Brotons: Sym 5 "Mundus Noster", Ob Conc, 4 Pcs (ste, stg orch); González/Brotons/BaleCdeP SO [Naxos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Of Spanish birth, Salvador Brotons (b. 1959) received his undergraduate musical training at the Barcelona Conservatory, and was then awarded a Fulbright Scholarship that allowed him to get a Doctorate in Music from Florida State University. He's since become a highly respected conductor with an international reputation, and a prolific composer whose works have won numerous awards. He makes his CLOFO debut in both of these capacities on this new Naxos release featuring world premiere recordings of three selections from his orchestral oeuvre.
Written in 2010, the fifth symphony is his last to date, and bears the title "Mundus Noster" ("Our World"). In four movements, each having programmatic associations with key issues encountered in modern society, it could also be considered a four-part symphonic poem. The initial movement [T-1] labeled "Power. Poverty. Ambition." falls into three spans. The first for brass and timpani [00:01] is brutally overbearing, while the subdued second [01:34] features lamenting violas.
They're soon joined by the woodwinds, whose appearance marks the beginning of the third span [04:58] where ideas from the preceding ones are developmentally tossed about. The music becomes increasingly frenetic and insistent, finally ending in a couple of explosive outbursts for full orchestra.
The next "Meditation 1, Hypocrisy" [T-2] starts with a pensive introduction for the cellos [00:00]. This is upended by a brilliantly orchestrated, dissemblingly capricious, concluding section in which Brotons tellingly captures a feeling of insincerity. He also injects an element of humor by including a deceitful polka [02:20] and waltz [03:44] with droll hints of Mendelssohn's (1809-1847) "Wedding March" from A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826-42) [03:23, 06:25] and the first of Schubert's (1797-1828) Three Marches Militaires (Op. 51, D733, 1818) [06:41].
Marked "Meditation 2. Violence and the growth of 'egos'" [T-3], the third movement begins with soporific dreamy passages for high strings [00:01]. But the mood is soon shattered by a percussive blast [02:10] heralding the movement's cinematic conclusion. This is for the most part conflict-driven, but there are a couple of heroic segments [04:19-05:28, 07:42-08:19] worthy of Elgar (1857-1934). The movement then ends in the Brotons' counterpart of Berlioz' (1803-1869) "March to the Scaffold" from the Symphonie fantastique (1830).
Many will find the final "Depressive lament. Hope. Elevation and excelling" [T-4] the work's high point. It opens with sobbing glissandi strings [00:00] that underscore somber woodwind passages [00:17]. The music then becomes more optimistic in a rapturous central segment [02:49-06:09] which could almost be from the slow movement of a late Mahler (1860-1911) symphony.
A magic passage including glockenspiel, harp and vibraphone [06:10] transitions into the transcendent finale, which builds to a monumental climax. Purportedly this signifies the emergence of a more caring society, making the world a better place to live. The symphony then ends in a timpani-accented crescendo of hope.
A change of pace is next with the three movement oboe concerto of 2009-10. The initial sonata form Obertura [T-5] is a dialogue for soloist and tutti. It's built around two contrasting thematic groups, which are respectively sprightly [00:00] and morose [01:29]. After a vivacious development [03:13], and lyrical recap [04: 49], the movement ends excitedly in a high energy coda [06:50].
The oboe sings a plaintive lullaby in "Berceuse" [T-6], but baby is soon awakened by those demonstrative timpani strokes (DTs) [01:56] Brotons so loves. Then it's a return to sonata form for the final Tarantella [T-7], which is an oboe tour de force.
This opens with a chirpy first theme [00:00] designed to show off the soloist's virtuosity, and a sinuous second [00:50] that's a good test of how expressively he can play. A brief development [01:51] follows and transitions via more DTs [02:22] into a demanding oboe cadenza [02:32-04:20] with some amusing corvine calls [03:08]. Then the concerto ends in a cheerful recap of the opening ideas [04:21], and a final jolly [05:25] coda with -- you guessed it -- more DTs!
The disc concludes with Four Pieces for String Orchestra, which Brotons wrote in 1977 when he was only seventeen. It would go on to win the Spanish National Orchestra Composition Competition of that year, bringing him his first public recognition.
Made up of four subtitled independent movements, the composer also refers to it as a suite. The opening "Elegy" [T-8] is grief-stricken, and in what Brotons calls "mountain form" (see the album notes). It begins quietly in the lower registers, gradually building in intensity as it climbs higher. Then it descends down the other side of this dolorous peak [03:09], and suffers a final cardiac arrest.
Things brighten a bit with the impertinent "Humoresque" [T-9], which finds the composer in a capricious, bordering on diabolical state of mind. On that note, could those be occasional hints of the Dies Irae [01:04, 03:12] (see Riisager's Concerto for Orchestra below), and are the solo fiddle passages [01:29] the devil playing his violin?
The mood darkens again in "Nocturn" [T-10], which must be one of Brotons' most moving pieces. But the suite ends in good spirits with a vivacious pizzicato-col-legno-spiced "Dance" [T-11] that brings whirling dervishes to mind.
Brotons wears two hats as composer and conductor of the Balearic City of Palma Symphony Orchestra (BCPSO) featured here. The performances he gets are definitive, and show the BCPSO to be a first class organization. Their principal oboist, Javier Arnal González, delivers a stunning account of the concerto.
The recordings were made over five days at the Music Conservatory Auditorium in the city of Palma on Majorca, the largest of Spain's Balearic Islands. They present a comfortably sized soundstage in warm surroundings with the oboe perfectly captured and balanced against the orchestra for the concerto.
The instrumental timbre is pleasing with delicate highs and a realistic midrange, but the bass end would have benefitted from a bit more emphasis. Accordingly the sound falls a tad short of demonstration quality.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P130826)
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Higdon: Sky Qt, Stg Trio, Dark… (bsn & pno trio), Va Son, Amazing… (stg qt); Soloists, Serafin Qt [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Not long ago we told you about some of American composer Jennifer Higdon's (b. 1962) recent chamber music (see 28 April 2013), and now Naxos gives us five of her finest earlier efforts in this genre. All are world premiere recordings.
The disc opens with a short piece based on an old chestnut, the tune for the eighteenth century Christian hymn "Amazing Grace" [T-1]. The composer tells us (see her interesting album notes) this began life as part of a choral cycle called Southern Grace (1998, currently unavailable on disc), which she later arranged for string quartet (2003). In Higdon's imaginative hands, something that could have easily turned into a trite trifle becomes a moving occasional piece. But you may want to play it last as it makes a better encore than opener.
The full-fledged string quartet that's next was inspired by U.S. Western skyscapes, and is accordingly called Sky Quartet (1997, revised 2000). It's a scenic poem like Ferde Grofé's (1892-1972) Grand Canyon Suite (1929-31, see 20 November 2006), but with eyes turned heavenwards.
In four movements the initial "Sky Rising" [T-2] begins with pizzicato rays of light [00:00] brightening the morning sky. The burning theme that's next [01:47] may well represent the sun coming over the horizon, but with more menace than the opening of Haydn's Sunrise Quartet (Op. 76, No. 4, 1796-7). It's elaborated and then the movement closes with reminders of the first measures, which collapse into a final unresolved pianissimo passage for high strings.
"Blue Sky" [T-3] is a felicitous slow movement celebrating "blueness," and with a little stretch of the imagination seems somewhat blues oriented. It couldn't be farther removed from "Fury" [T4], which is a tempest in a teapot compared to Ferde's Grand Canyon "Cloudburst".
Beginning with what could be allusions to angry thunderheads [00:00], pouring sheets of rain [00:31] and raging downdrafts [01:21] are soon released. The movement then concludes with a final flash of lightning [03:02].
Chaos turns to awe in the rapturous "Immense Sky" [T-5]. This might well be a contemplation of that strange azure sky experienced out west immediately following a late afternoon storm. In any case it's the high point of the quartet, and concludes it exultantly.
The sonata for viola and piano (1990) is in two movements, the first marked "Calmly" [T-6]. It begins with the piano playing hesitant single note motifs [00:00], succeeded by the viola spinning out an extended lyrical idea (EL) [00:29]. An elaboration in which the two instruments become increasingly intertwined follows.
Then we get a couple of thematic episodes [02:11, 03:39], the last of which abuts a viola cadenza [05:30-06:47]. An antsy harmonically sequential development follows, intensifies, and falls back, ending the movement with quiet reminders of past ideas. These include EL, but this time around it appears on the piano [08:56].
The "Declamatory" finale [T-7] begins with a vibrant virtuosic discourse between the two instruments [00:00] that comes to a complete halt. Then after a significant pause there's a meditative episode taken up by the piano [04:52] and then viola [06:05]. This segues into an argumentative coda [07:02] that ends the sonata energetically.
And now for an oddball quartet starring the usually reclusive bassoon along with a piano trio. Named Dark Wood [T-8] after the instrument's main component, the piece dates from 2001, and is in a single arch [T-8].
It begins with two isolated honks on the bassoon [00:00]. Then the piano sounding as if it had been prepared (see 30 September 2012) strikes a couple of notes that are somewhat marimba-like [00:04]. It's joined by a plucky cello [00:23], and enraged violin [00:29] in a bassoon-accented orgiastic dance, which could pass as a flatulent parody of the opening from Stravinsky's (1882-1971) Rite of Spring. There are also a couple of spooky spots with some eerie sul ponticello and haunting bassoon passages [01:25, 02:39, 03:21].
Pizzicato cello [06:28] and chuckling bassoon [06:32] announce a return to the orgy. But it's more developmental this time with a lyrical segment [08:49] in which the bassoon sings a lovely cantilena. Additional snippets of "prepared" piano [10:20] then introduce the grand finale [10:33], which is a virtuosic workout for all. It ends the piece frenetically, making it one of the most original contemporary chamber creations to appear in a long time!
The disc is filled out with a string trio written in 1988 for some of Higdon's classmates at the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia [T-9]. In one extended stream-of-consciousness movement lasting almost twenty minutes, it would seem to fall into six spans. The first begins with an instrumentally closely-knit melancholy idea [00:00] that undergoes an anxious expansion [00:48]. This is followed by a somber theme [02:10], which is subjected to an elaboration that includes a cello cadenza [02:49-03:32].
After a respectful pause we get a slow, extremely dramatic second span, which opens with a sad melody (SM) [05:24]. The pained development of SM that ensues [05:43] is immediately followed by a third span [08:28], which is for the most part an anxious scherzo.
This has a couple of ominous moments [09:46, 10:55], the last of which transitions directly into the remaining three spans. These recap past ideas, and are sequentially frenetic [11:56], wistful with reminders of SM [13:24], and haltingly nostalgic [15:36], thereby ending the trio peacefully.
The Delaware-based Serafin String Quartet (SSQ) makes an impressive CLOFO debut here. Their spot-on intonation, attention to rhythmic detail, superb sense of phrasing, and rich ensemble sound result in technically accomplished, glowing accounts of the first two selections.
SSQ violist Molly Carr and pianist Charles Abramovic turn in an equally fine reading of the sonata, while bassoonist Eric Stomberg, violinst Timothy Schwarz and SSQ cellist Lawrence Stomberg join him for a totally captivating rendition of Dark Wood. The latter two string players are joined by Ms. Carr for a thrilling performance of the concluding trio.
Made on four occasions between 2011 and 2012 in the Gore Recital Hall at the University of Delaware, the recordings are excellent and sound consistent. They project appropriately sized sonic images of these small chamber groups in nourishing, marginally reverberant surroundings. The strings are bright but musical, while the piano is ideally captured and percussively well-rounded. There's a mellow ligneous quality about the bassoon that's most appealing.
The instrumental placement and balance is good, but the viola in the sonata seems exceptionally close. Ms. Carr's superb artistry might have benefitted from more "Spielensraum", which hopefully would have produced a richer sound from the most amorous of stringed instruments.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y130825)
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Mielck: Macbeth Ov, Dramatic Ov, Finnish Ste, Old…, etc; Murdvee/HelsU SO/Soloists/Vars Cs [Toccata]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
A year ago we told you about Portuguese-born António Fragoso (1897-1918, see 31 July 2012), whose early demise at twenty-one deprived the world of a most promising composer. Now the adventurous Toccata label gives us some music by an equally talented Finn, Ernst Mielck (1877-1899), whose death just two days short of his twenty-second birthday was an equally great loss.
A sickly child who almost succumbed to tetanus and may have been somewhat autistic, Ernst by age ten had displayed significant musical talent, and would begin studying at home with a private teacher. His progress was astounding, and at thirteen (1891) he was off to Berlin where he'd continue his musical education until 1894. Mielck would then return to Finland, but take additional academic sojourns to Germany between 1895 and 1898. During this period he'd study with Max Bruch (1838-1920), who at one point pronounced him his favorite student.
Early in 1899 he moved to Switzerland for health reasons, but the Grim Reaper caught up with him there and he died before the year's end, leaving only a handful of works. These include a symphony (1897), which preceded Jean Sibelius' (1865-1957) initial effort in the genre (1899) by two years, making it the first by a Finnish composer. Judging by it and the five selections on this release, one can't help feeling Jean might have had some serious competition had Ernst lived to a ripe old age.
The selections here, four of which are world premiere recordings indicated by "WPR" after their titles, are presented in chronological order beginning with his Macbeth Overture of 1896 (WPR) [T-1]. Not a programmatic work despite its title, you'll find stylistic elements recalling Beethoven (1770-1827), Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Schumann.
After a brief ominous introduction we get four memorable themes. Tragic [00:24], lyrical [02:07], pugnacious [02:52] and heroically dignified (HD) [04:18], they are the subjects for a superbly crafted development [05:42]. The return of HD [10:34] announces the concluding coda where the foregoing ideas are synthesized into a final triumphant motif [12:04]. This is followed by a jubilant outburst for full orchestra ending the overture exultantly, Birnam Wood having come to Dunsinane!
The Altböhmisches Weihnachtslied (Old Bohemian Christmas Song, 1897; WPR) [T-2] is a lovely setting for mixed chorus and orchestra of an old German carol (see the album notes for the text with English and Finnish translations). A peaceful introduction by the orchestra [00:00] prepares the way for the chorus invoking shepherds to come and welcome the newly born Christ. This is interspersed with a couple of lovely pastoral interludes, and followed by a lively male chorus "Lasset uns sehen..." ("Hasten then...") [03:14]
The conclusion begins quietly with the word "Halleluja" [05:07], and builds to a dramatic fugato [07:14], which gradually abates ending the work much as it began. Incidentally Bruch apparently found this section particularly moving.
Another orchestral selection known as Dramatic Overture (1898) [T-3], which many consider Mielck's finest effort, follows. It may well have been inspired by Brahms' (1833-1897) Tragic Overture (1880), which Ernst had apparently heard just before starting it.
Structurally similar to Macbeth..., it’s a bit more programmatic. The composer tells us it represents the battle between good and evil in some unnamed hero where the latter prevails leading to his downfall. It would seem to have something in common with Richard Strauss' (1864-1945) Ein Heldenleben, which was completed that same year (1897-8).
It opens with a sad somber (SS) theme [00:00] having harp glissandi [00:13, 00:37, 01:07] that give the overture a bardic feel. Then another agitated idea [01:50] that's forcefully elaborated transitions into horn calls. These introduce a winsome benign melody (WB) [03:17] bridging into a sophisticated dynamic development [05:17] with contrapuntal touches. The work draws to a close with an overly optimistic recap of WB [09:01], which is ultimately crushed by a variant of SS [10:04], and eventually SS [10:45] itself. The music then fades ending the overture in dark despair.
Next, Altgermaisches Julfest (Old Germanic Yule Feast, 1899; WPR) for baritone, male chorus and orchestra [T-4]. This is a setting of a German poem (see the album notes for the text with English and Finnish translations) celebrating the pagan yuletide feast associated with the winter solstice.
Following a spirited orchestral opening [00:00], there's a jolly chorus with a reference to the Anglo-Saxon god Wodan (aka Odin or Wotan; see 20 June 2013). The baritone then exhorts all to prepare for and celebrate the yuletide season [02:08]. The chorus joins in [03:59], and the music slows into a reverential song [05:22] asking all to pray to Wodan's son Brage (aka Bragi) for spiritual strength. A brief orchestral passage then brings back the mood of the opening [06:40], after which the chorus exalts the gods along with the season, closing this minicantata on a joyful note.
As far as the composer's major works are concerned, the CD ends with his swan song, the Finnish Suite of 1899 (WPR). In five movements, the first three are derived from actual Finnish folk melodies, while the remaining two are original Mielck creations modeled after same.
The opening movement [T-5] is in simple ternary A-B-A form with the "A" section based on a piquant herding tune introduced by the oboe [00:00]. It's an exotic melody with an Eastern accent that would seem to support past claims of a relationship between the Finnish and Hungarian cultures.
"B" is an infectious dancelike ditty [01:14] featuring winds with some colorful tintinnabular effects. Then "A" returns [02:07], but this time on the even more nasal-sounding cor Anglais. This movement couldn't be more different from the succeeding allegretto [T-6], which is a charming peasant waltz.
A chromatically flighty scherzo [T-7] and lovely andante [T-8] are next. The latter has a gorgeous wistful theme (GW) [00:00] that's one of the composer's loveliest melodic creations.
The final vivace [T-9] begins with an exhilarating extraverted tune (EE) [00:00] that's a distant relative of GW. EE is infected with that hemiola rhythmic pattern we told you about last month (see 31 July 2013), which makes it sound occasionally like an undiscovered Dvorák (1841-1904) Slavonic Dance (1878-87).
A blustery folkish ditty follows [00:30], and then a cheeky bumptious number (CB) [00:56], both of which are closely related to EE. They're developmentally tossed about with a sophistication that shows the great compositional strides Mielck had made since his student days. A recapitulative coda with a tumid version of CB [03:24] ends the suite in great pomp.
Conductor Mikk Murdvee, who’s been an assistant to Esa-Pekka Salonen (see 28 November 2012) on a number of occasions, elicits spirited playing from the Helsinki University Symphony Orchestra (HUSO). For the most part a student organization, the HUSO proves itself to be a first rate group of musicians who bring a youthful enthusiasm to this music. The Lyran Women's and Helsinki Men's Academic Choirs along with baritone Juha Kotilainen are in fine voice for the two choral selections.
Made at a concert hall in Kauniainen, Finland, the recordings present a wide, somewhat recessed sonic image in a reverberant space. The resultant sound is pleasing but a bit homogeneous with the choruses and baritone convincingly captured and well balanced against the orchestra.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P130824)
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Riisager: Orch Wks V2 (Sym 2, Sym 3, T-DOXC, Conc for Orch, Primavera…); Holten/Aarhus SO [Dacapo]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Knudĺge Riisager (1897-1974) was born in Estonia of Danish parents, but at age three he’d move with his family back to Denmark, where he'd spend the rest of his life, and become a career civil servant. However, he was also extremely active as a composer, music writer and administrator, who after his retirement from the government served as director of the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen, from 1956 through 1967.
He received his first musical training at Copenhagen University, after which he'd go on to study in Paris from 1921 through 1923 with Albert Roussel (1869-1937) and Paul Le Flem (1881-1984, see 27 August 2012). Then in 1932 he'd make an academic sojourn to Leipzig. Consequently while there's a Nordic feel to his music, international influences are also present in those works from the mid-1920s on.
Best known in his day as a ballet composer, Riisager also wrote a substantial number of symphonic pieces. The five on this second volume in Dacapo's ongoing exploration of his orchestral fare are world premiere recordings, and mark his CLOFO debut. All fall under the category of "action music" in which there's never an idle moment.
Presented in chronological order, the first selection entitled T-DOXC (1926) [T-1] was named after a new Japanese commercial aircraft that had just been introduced in Denmark. Riisager refers to the work as a "počme mécanique," which brings to mind Futurism and the "machine music" being written back then by the likes of Varčse (1883-1965), Prokofiev (1891-1953), Honnegger (1892-1955), Antheil (1900-1959; see 8 June 2011) and Mosolov (1900-1973; see 29 June 2010).
The composer tells us it was meant to express his wonderment at seeing the plane fly into view and disappear from sight. Accordingly a dreamy impressionistic beginning and ending surround a contrasting episode [00:36-06:53], where string pizzicati [00:37], brass glissandi [00:51], cymbal swishes [01:01], snare drum tattoos [02:25] and frequent whacks on the bass drum [02:53] add a mechanical touch. It may bring to mind Honneger's rhythmically cyclo-reciprocative Pacific 231 (1923), which Riisager had probably heard.
The following year saw the completion of his second symphony (1927), which is in a single fifteen-minute movement [T-2]. Ostensibly it seems to fall into five parts, the first [00:01-04:14] being strikingly dynamic, and somewhat reminiscent of Sibelius' (1865-1957) seventh symphony (1924).
It hints at the work's dominant idea, which is played by the trumpet at the outset of the next part [04:15]. This is a heroic seven-note motif (HS) bearing a strange resemblance to the opening of the second movement scherzo from Bruckner's (1824-1896) eighth symphony (1884-7, revised 1889-90). HS then becomes food for the chromatically nomadic development that follows.
A sustained brass chord [07:27] might well be mistaken for the symphony's conclusion, but suddenly a third section that’s a percussively pugnacious additional development breaks out [07:34]. This gradually subsides via a pianissimo drumroll [10:01] into a fourth episode that's a victorious contemplation of HS.
Then after a brief pause the fifth and final portion takes the form of an HS-based chorale [13:15] to end the symphony triumphantly. Incidentally volume one in this series (Dacapo 8226146) includes his first symphony of 1825, which pales in comparison to its successors.
Several concertos for orchestra have appeared in these pages over the past couple of years (see 31 July 2013), including one written in 1929 by Riisager's fellow countryman Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996, see 27 May 2013). Now here's another from 1931 by Knudĺge that's a Neo-baroque confection harkening back to the concerto grosso (see 21 September 2011).
In four-movements the initial curt moderato [T-3] sounds like an eighteenth century dance tune served up in the manner of early Stravinsky (1882-1971). The succeeding allegro [T-4] is a delightfully infectious syncopated scherzo with a mischievous scurrying theme (MS) [00:00] that may evoke a sense of deja vu.
And well it should, because the first few notes of MS are lifted from that ageless Gregorian chant tune known as the Dies Irae (DI), which has become a bit of a cliché with modern day composers (see 27 May 2013). More direct references to DI surface [00:34, 03:02, 03:11, 04:06], and then the movement concludes irreverently with some dissonant thumbing of the nose, and a final forte "So there!" chord.
DI dominates the concluding grave and allegro movements, which couldn't be more different. The former [T-5] is a funereal lament that's the concerto's emotional center of gravity. The latter [T-6] is a sprightly countrapuntally spiced whimsy with nostalgic strings, chortling winds and cheeky percussion. It ends what must rank as one of Riisager's most inventive works with an irreverent last reminder of DI.
Next up, the six-minute Primavera Concert Overture (Spring Overture) 1934 [T-7], which starts with a glowing melody (GV) [00:00]. There are vibrant percussive flashes, and the music transitions into a subdued pastoral passage [01:50] with vernal bird calls.
An attractive life-affirming theme then appears [02:58], and the music builds with substantial percussive encouragement into a dramatic final coda. It briefly recaps the opening measures [04:03], and ends in a bizarre afterthought [05:00] with skittering strings and brass over pounding drums. Some may find this odd postscript recalls the wilder moments in Janácek's (1854-1928) Sinfonietta (1926).
Back in the 1930s some avant-gardists were declaring the symphony dead, and Riisager may well have agreed with them considering a 1940 article he wrote to that effect. In retrospect it may explain why he referred to his third effort in the genre of 1935 as a sinfonia, and atypically structured it in three movements. What's more they're all relatively fast and designed to appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions.
The initial Feroce [T-8] begins with an angular halting motif (AH) [00:01] memorable for its rhythmic rather than melodic attributes. This undergoes a percussion-spiked development, which may bring combative passages in Nielsen's (1865-1931) Inextinguishable Symphony (No. 4, 1914-6) to mind.
A relaxed inner segment based on a lyrical transformation of AH [04:43-05:43] follows, and then the opening development resumes. It ends the movement in sinister fashion with ominous flute cries and repeated strokes on the timpani [08:08] that trail off into nothingness.
Next we get Violente e fantastico [T-9], which begins with a stridently aggressive idea (SA) [00:00] suggestive of the opening from Falla's (1876-1946) El amor brujo (1914-5). Hints of AH follow [00:07, 00:17, 00:25], and then we get a diaphanous wistful countersubject (DW) [01:01]. SA and DW are elaborated with more allusions to AH [03:09, 03:20, 03:29], and the movement ends quietly with a relaxed reminder of DW [04:39].
The final Tumultuoso [T-10] starts with an energetic jaunty idea (EJ) [00:00], which sounds like a cross between Gounod's (1818-1893) "Funeral March for a Marionette" (1872, orchestrated 1879) and Debussy's (1862-1918) "Golliwog's Cakewalk" from his Children's Corner (1906-08, orchestrated 1911; see 20 June 2013). An amusing, laid-back ursine passage [01:30] follows, and then the opening pace resumes [03:48] as Riisager throws scraps of all past themes into his developmental blender. The sinfonia ends with a coda recapping EJ [05:39] and a final forte yawp for full orchestra.
The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, who gave us those invaluable recordings of Holmboe's symphonies, now turns its attention to Riisager under the watchful eye of conductor Bo Holton (see 26 March 2010). They give us performances of these orchestral rarities which will undoubtedly be definitive for years to come.
Denmark is home to some of the world's finest audio engineers and microphone manufacturers. Consequently Danish labels such as Dacapo usually deliver superlative recordings, and these are no exception!
Made over a six day period a couple of years ago at the Concert Hall in Aarhus, Denmark, they project a wide, deep, clearly focused soundstage in a warm spacious acoustic. The instrumental timbre is natural with crystalline highs, and well-defined rock-bottom lows. Those bass drum whacks in T-DOXC [T-1, beginning at 02:53] will preempt your having to dust your speakers for at least a week!
Riisager's colorful scoring has different instrumental soloists and groups constantly popping up. Consequently the production staff had to perform a complex balancing act, which they've done most successfully through proper microphone placement and mixing. Those interested in 1920s and 30s symphonic rarities captured in demonstration quality sound will definitely want this CD.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y130823)
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Strasnoy: Sum (4 orch pcs), 3 Caps... (vn & orch); Honda-Rosenberg/Mälkki/Slobodeniouk/RFr PO [Aeon]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
The son of Russian Jewish parents who fled Europe for Argentina to escape the anti-Semitism sweeping that area of the world in the first half of the twentieth century, Oscar Strasnoy (b. 1970) grew up in Buenos Aires. He began his musical education at the local conservatory, and would broaden his horizons with further studies in France (Paris Conservatory) and Germany (Frankfurt University of Music).
A talented pianist and conductor, he's also become a promising composer who's won several awards. He tells us he draws freely on all aspects of music both past and present rather than embracing any one school. The sampling of his orchestral works on this enterprising release from Aeon reflects this. They include a cycle of four pieces known collectively as Sum, and a violin concerto based on three Paganini (1782-1840) caprices. These are the only currently available recordings of the Strasnoy on disc.
Oscar's eclectic disposition is apparent in the first selection titled "The End" (Sum No. 4; 2006) [T-1], which gets off to a bass-ackwards start with the final bars of Beethoven's (1770-1827) eighth symphony (1812). These are diabolically deconstructed in what might best be described as a developmental asthma attack. There are some wheezy reminders of the opening just before the end, and then the music runs out the backdoor like a spooked cat.
The following number is simply called "Y" (Sum No. 2; 2008, revised 2011) [T-2], which is meant to be associated with the English word "why", or "warum" in German. Accordingly it's a lugubrious, fragmented rendering of the third piece in Robert Schumann's (1810-1856) eight Phantasiestücke (Op. 12, 1837) for piano known as "Warum?". Sinister brass shrieks make the Strasnoy more ominous than its forerunner.
A change of pace is next with Trois caprices de Paganini (Three Paganini Caprices, 2011). This is in essence a violin concerto whose three-movements are based respectively on the first, sixth and last of Niccolň Paganini's (1782-1840) Twenty-four Caprices for Solo Violin (Op. 1, 1801-7). The opening one is a virtuosic showcase for the soloist set to an off-the-wall accompaniment that includes some colorful piano embellishments. It's followed by a flighty, mysterious movement [T-4] with queasy references to the original caprice.
Everyone will recognize the last one [T-5], which has been the inspiration for a long line of pieces by the likes of Eugčne Ysa˙e (1858-1931, see 21 September 2011), Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), Boris Blacher (1903-1975) and Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994).
Strasnoy's take on it is an extremely accomplished compact theme and ten variations, which many may find the high point of this disc! With a jazzy beginning, the violin first states the subject caprice (SC) [00:07] to some clockwork percussion. A deranged first variation with a chaotic keyboard passage follows [00:45], and then a swooping avian one [01:05].
The next five are sequentially mournful [01:33], entomological [01:55], rhapsodic [02:29], whimsical [02:58] and spastic [03:31]. The movement concludes with a pizzicato-spiced episode [04:06] followed by an amorous number [04:26], and then a final puckish reprise of SC [05:13].
The disc is filled out with two more Sum selections. The ghosts of Mahler (1860-1911) and Stravinsky (1882-1971) haunt the first, which is called "Incipit" (Sum No. 1; 2006) [T-6]. It has persistent stabbing chords that keep the listener on edge, and bring to mind the disaggregated opening Sum.
The final "Scherzo" (Sum No. 3; 2005, revised 2011) [T-7] is a rhythmically antsy creation where bits of the eponymous movement from Schubert's (1797-1828) last keyboard sonata (No. 21, D 960; 1828) play peekaboo on the piano [00:32, 00:43, 00:53, 00:57, etc.]. It’s a colorfully scored work where infectious melodic riffs, some of which are Eastern-sounding [06:19], abound! With a simple tick-tock ending, it concludes this disc unassumingly.
Two of today's most promising younger conductors lead the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra in superb accounts of this music. Susanna Mälkki is on the podium for the first two works, and Dima Slobodeniouk presides over the remainder with violinist Latica Honda-Rosenberg delivering a technically stunning performance of the capricious concerto. A round of applause also goes to the unnamed pianist who plays an important supporting role throughout these scores.
Made at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the soundstage presented is spacious, and in a reverberant acoustic that will appeal to those liking wetter sonics. The production staff also included the composer, who was one of the artistic directors, and assisted in the mixing as well as editing of these recordings.
They're characterized by a pleasing instrumental timbre with pleasing highs and low clean bass. The many solo groups and instruments, including the violin and piano, are ideally highlighted and balanced against the rest of the orchestra. The only nitpick would be a low-level rushing sound audible in quiet passages probably caused by the theater's ventilation system. Also there's a pop of undetermined origin in "Incipit" [T-6, 05:42].
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P130822)
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