14 MAY 2014


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.

The album cover may not always appear.
Antheil: Ballet Mécanique (orig Vers, 1924), Jazz Sym... (orig vers ,1925); Rose/BosMOP O [BMOP/s (Hybrid)]
With this audacious release BMOP/sound is the first to give us a modern day hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0), recording devoted to one of the most off the wall works ever composed by a twentieth century American. His name was George Antheil (1900-1959, see the newsletter of 8 June 2011), and the piece is his Ballet pour instruments mécaniques et percussion more commonly known as Ballet Mécanique (1925). Written while he was living in Paris, it was to accompany a Dadaist film of the same name, and is by today's standards a sonic happening.

At 1,240 measures in length, and full of complex frenetic rhythms reflected in more than 600 time-signature changes, the composer was never forthcoming with any practical guidance as to tempos. Consequently those have varied widely in performances down through the years.

This plus frequent atonal arpeggios, massive tone clusters, and repeated phrases auguring the minimalists (see the newsletter of 21 October 2013) make for a cacophony of sound! It's the demon offspring of the newlyweds in Stravinsky's Les Noces (1923) along with evanescent melodic bits, many of which are borrowed from jazz (see the newsletter of 22 November 2010) and ragtime.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg considering it's scored for what could qualify in the Guinness Book of Records as the strangest "instrumentarium” ever conceived. To wit, sixteen player pianos (pianolas) -- Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) eat your heart out! -- two regular ones, three xylophones, four bass drums, tam-tam, and some electrically powered devices. These include seven bells/buzzers, three motor-driven propellers and a siren, which bring to mind Malcolm Arnold's (1921-2006) Grand Grand Overture (1956) with its three vacuum cleaners and electric floor polisher!

Suffice it to say that back in the 1920s it was impossible to synchronize all those pianolas. Accordingly only one was used along with several conventional pianos for the 1926 Paris premiere. This was a scandalous success that made the 1913 riotous first performance of Stravinsky's (1882-1971) The Rite of Spring look like a "Teddy Bears' Picnic." It immediately brought Antheil considerable fame in Europe, but an over-hyped, disastrous 1927 Carnegie Hall performance got him branded in American classical circles as the Bad Boy of Music. Consequently the piece was never done again in his lifetime.

However, George never gave up on it, and in 1953-4 he made some drastic revisions in essence creating an entirely different work. This included reorganizing as well as shortening some sections -- it went from almost half an hour to a little over fifteen minutes -- eliminating the pianolas, increasing the conventional pianos to four, and augmenting the percussion. In retrospect his efforts were well spent as this version has been performed several times since his death.

Then in 1989 American conductor Maurice Peress (b. 1950) recreated and recorded the Carnegie Hall concert version (see Nimbus 2567). But the middle 1990s saw the development of a system whereby multiple pianolas could be synchronized, making the piece as originally envisioned possible.

Consequently in 2000 the Electronic Music Foundation released a CD of it (EMF 020) utilizing sixteen Yamaha Disklaviers. Then in 2001 our performers here followed suit performing that version of it in Boston's Symphony Hall. The year 2009 saw them make this recording across the street in the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall. However, there was only enough room on stage for eight Disklaviers, but with all the clatter and minimalistic repetition you'll never know the difference!

This is a case where the music literally speaks for itself with the work [T-2] generally falling into three "scenes". The opening one gets off to a clangorous start [00:01] with the "sirenist" periodically surfacing [00:49, 01:43, 03:23, 04:51]. A hammering ding-dong piano episode follows [05:53], giving way to a relatively subdued section [07:13]. But chaos returns with the beginning of the next scene [07:21], which has more pounding bravura keyboard passages and sirenic ululations.

A perky theme [14:34] tries to break through the din, but is overtaken by a mind-numbing repetitious episode [15:22-19:53]. Then just when you think you're ready to scream, there's a crazed tam-tam, bass-drum-reinforced "calling all keyboards” cadenza [19:54].

This ends in an outlandish siren diminuendo and pianissimo electric bell pedal point [21:33] that bridges into the final scene [21:39], which begins with a case of piano hiccups. There are some refreshing silences between them followed by a dyspeptic bell [21:45] and buzzers [22:19]. Then the piece concludes with virtuosic keyboard spasms [22:59], a rueful howl from the siren [25:07], and a machine gun pianola episode [25:24] terminating in a bass-drum-accented riff [26:23] -- Take two aspirin and call us in the morning!

Like that illustrious Carnegie concert mentioned above this release begins with the original 1925 version of Antheil's A Jazz Symphony for Solo Piano and Jazz Band [T-1], which is a tuneful respite from the foregoing work. It’s all the more colorful for some brash "bad-boy" moments, which would unfortunately vanish when he changed the instrumentation and cut it by about half in 1955 (see CPO 777109).

Originally intended for Paul Whiteman's (1890-1967, see 28 February 2012) second Carnegie Hall "Experiment in Modern Music" concert -- the first introduced the world to Gershwin's (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924, see 31 March 2011) -- it's in essence an infectious one movement piano concerto. Generally falling into three sections, Antheil frequently borrows tidbits from Joplin (1868-1917) and Stravinsky, as well as popular tunes of the day.

After an invigorating tango-flavored big band opening [00:02], the piano makes a dramatic entrance [00:18] playing a frenetic cheeky theme (FC) [01:22] vaguely reminiscent of the opening motif in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1911-3). FC then becomes the subject of a succeeding wild episode that could accompany one of Laurel and Hardy's zanier comedies!

Next there's a more subdued passage [02:34] with a reflective piano, sleepy tuba, and plucky banjo that alludes to FC [03:09]. The music then takes on a mécanique persistence in the mesmerizing middle section [03:50] that has wailing winds [07:23] and more banjo hinting at FC [08:32].

This stops suddenly, and after a short caesura we get the finale [09:31], where the piano gives us a lovely 20s merry-go-round-like waltz (TM) [10:09]. It's picked up by the orchestra [10:38], after which there's a series of rapid piano scales, wind trills and more subdued references to early Stravinsky [11:09, 11:30]. Then TM makes a radiant reappearance [12:32], and the symphony ends in "bad-boy" discord [12:56].

Ballet Mécanique being one of the most madcap works ever written and subject to a variety of "instrumentariums", it's hard to compare past performances of it. But rest assured this one from conductor Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project is tops. What's more, their rendition of A Jazz Symphony is by far the best of the few 1925 versions currently available on disc.

Made at the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall, Boston, the recordings are excellent with the CD and SACD stereo tracks projecting a wide moderately deep soundstage in an ideally reverberant acoustic. All that percussion including the many keyboard instruments populating the ballet seems well apportioned from left to right. As for the symphony the solo piano is stage left, and arguably might have been more effective in the center as is usually the case with concertos.

The SACD multitrack moves the listener into a forward-center orchestra seat and provides some mécanique backwash from the rear speakers. A good balance is maintained between the various instruments in all three play modes, which is saying a great deal considering the aberrant assemblage of them in the ballet.

The instrumental timbre is musically appealing throughout the symphony. However, when Antheil turns all those pianos loose in the ballet, it's understandably clamorous with coruscating mids and highs, particularly on the CD track. At the other end of the sound spectrum, the lows remain well controlled in all three play modes even with those four bass drums. Audiophiles are in for a sonic tsunami with this disc!

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Fund (, Y140514)


The album cover may not always appear.
Ben-Haim: Stg Qt 1, Stg Qnt; Waterman/Carmel Qt [Toccata]
In past pages we told you about some symphonic music of Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984, see 19 December 2011). Now the enterprising Toccata label gives us some of his equally noteworthy chamber music for strings.

By way of a reminder, he was born in Munich as Paul Frankenburger, and began his musical career in 1920 as a successful pianist, conductor and composer. But with the rise of Nazism he fled to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1933. It was there that he changed his name to Paul Ben-Haim to get around visa restrictions, which denied him employment of any kind.

He'd then become a revered teacher and composer, whom some refer to as the father of Israeli classical music. The two works on this CD are interesting snapshots of his early creative efforts just before and not long after his departure from Germany.

The string quintet of 1919, written while he was still a student in Munich, is an amazing accomplishment for a twenty-one-year-old that receives its long overdue world premiere recording here. In three movements the first marked "Leidenschaftlich bewegt" ("Passionately Moving") [T-5] is in sonata form. It begins with a primal confident motif (PC) [00:00] that's briefly elaborated, and will color the two themes that soon follow (see the album notes for a detailed musical analysis).

The first of these is lyrically expressive [01:33] as opposed to its successor that's somewhat along the lines of a Schubert (1797-1828)
March militaire (1818) [03:04]. An extended development comes next [04:48] in which Frankenburger as he was then known subjects all three ideas to a number of inventive thematic transformations. These reflect a variety of moods varying from nostalgic to mournful, antsy, tragic and even amorous. Then a curt crestfallen recapitulative coda [11:08] brings the movement to an enervated conclusion.

A change of pace follows with "Sehr langsam, mit tiefster Empfindung" ("Very Slowly, with Deepest Emotion") [T-6], which is dominated by two themes. The initial one [00:05] acts as a pensive prelude to the alluring second (AS) played by the first viola [03:13].

The composer was an inveterate songwriter in earlier days, and AS is the melody for the fifth of his Morgenstern Lieder (currently unavailable on disc). Entitled "Verse beim Erwachen" ("Verses upon Awakening", 1919; see the album notes for English and German texts) it was completed just prior to the quintet .

AS is then fragmented and developed in passages that are alternately anguished [04:51, 07:21] and rhapsodic [06:02, 08:09]. The movement ends with memories of the opening measures [09:38].

A neo-baroque rondo [T-7] marked "Energisch bewegt" ("Energetically Moving") concludes the work. This begins with a skittish thematic grouping (ST) [00:01], succeeded by a somewhat childish marchlike ditty (CM) [01:00]. These are combined in an intricate development with a closing fugue [06:17] followed by a restatement of ST [07:24]. A whimsical final coda [08:12] juggling CM and ST concludes the quintet on a lighter note.

The first string quartet of 1937, which is presumably his only completed one, was one of the initial works he'd write after moving to Palestine. While it remains rooted in the compositional fundamentals he'd learned in Munich, from the stylistic standpoint it's quite different. In the conventional four movements, they're now marked in Italian and show French impressionist instead of German influences.

The opening sonata form "Con moto sereno" ("With Serenity") [T-1] begins with a rising folkish motif (RF) for the viola [00:00], and will dominate the movement. It's followed by the first violin playing a sullen contrasting subject (SC) [01:24] that's elaborated. Then after a brief pause we get a harmonically adventurous development [02:51], which is much more progressive than anything in the preceding work. RF continually returns exerting a calming influence on the music, and brings the movement to a peaceful conclusion.

A fetching "Molto vivace" scherzo follows [T-2] having antsy sections that are an amalgam of Mendelssohn's (1809-1847) later quartets with those of Debussy (1862-1918) and Ravel (1875-1937). They surround a couple of laid-back ländler episodes [01:30-03:18, 04:46-05:07] that recall Mahler (1860-1911).

The penultimate "Largo e molto sostenuto" ("Slow and Sustained") [T-3] begins with a sinuous modal theme (SM) [00:00] that's subjected to a couple of transformations. The initial one introduced by the viola is plaintive [01:25], and the second played by the first violin, agonized [02:56]. SM then returns on the cello, and the movement quietly fades away.

We're told in the album notes that Ben-Haim once said the closing "Rondo - Finale" [T-4] could be considered a musical prophesy of the sad fate that would befall European Jewry during World War II (WWII, 1939-45). In that context it brings to mind Shostakovich’s second piano trio (1944) as well as his fourth (1949) and eighth (1960) string quartets, and Babi Yar Symphony (No. 13, 1962), which have similar connotations.

Proceeding on that premise, the Hebraic, RF-related first theme (HR) [00:07] could represent small Jewish communities in Europe and Russia prior to WWII. HR then undergoes a dismembering elaboration implying the annihilation of same [01:42], followed by a period of mourning [02:50]. Reminders of HR [05:34] suggest a resurgence of Jewish spirit, but another destructive episode transpires [06:34], and the quartet ends in a dour, frenetic HR-based coda [08:11] with a cry and final chord of despair.

Established in 1999 the Carmel String Quartet is one of Israel's most honored chamber ensembles. They give immaculate interpretations of both works with admirable assistance from Haifa-born violist Shuli Waterman in the quintet. A New York Times review of the Carmel's 2004 Carnegie Hall recital characterized their playing as passionate with a sizzling, visceral quality, which well describes their performances here.

Recorded last year in the auditorium of Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv, the soundstage projected is wide, sharply focused, and in a minimally reverberant acoustic engendering a clean lean sound. In that regard the instrumental placement and balance is superb, while the overall string tone is on the glassy side of musical. While this detracts from some of the quintet's inherent romanticism, it all the more delineates the delicately structured quartet.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P140513)


The album cover may not always appear.
Joncières: Dimitri (cpte opera); Soloists/Niquet/FlemR C/FlanOpChil C/Brus P [Edic Sing (CD-Bk)]
A significant romantic French opera discovery, those liking Meyerbeer (1791-1864), Berlioz (1803-1869), Gounod (1818-1893), and Massenet (1842-1912) won't want to be without Victorin Joncières' (1839-1903) Dimitri (c. 1871)! The libretto by Viscount Henri de Bornier (1825-1901 and Paul-Armand Silvestre (1837-1901 is drawn from Friedrich Schiller's (1759-1805) unfinished play Demetrius (1804-5), and along the lines of Mussorgsky's (1839-1881) Boris Godunov (1872-4), which was based on Alexander Pushkin's (1799-1837) eponymous drama (1825).

Interestingly enough Joncières' opera was completed a year before Mussorgsky's, but its first performance wouldn't come until two years after the 1874 premiere of Boris. In five acts the plot for Dimitri is involved, and the elegant book presentation of this album in French and English has just about everything you'd ever want to know about the opera, including a comprehensive plot synopsis and complete libretto.

Like Wagner's (1813-1883) operas, Dimitri has recurring leitmotifs. The major ones (see the book) appear in the overture [D-1, T-1], beginning with what we'll call a fate motif (FM) [00:00]. This gets things off to dramatic start along the lines of Rienzi (1840-3), and atypically includes a reverential choral utterance towards its end [05:56-06:17].

As the curtain goes up we're somewhere in Poland, and see the entrance to a monastery on the right facing a hill with the Don River flowing in front of it. The first scene begins with a rousing Cossack chorus [D-1, T-2], after which we're introduced to Vasili [D-1, T-3], who was raised under that name, but will soon declare himself Dimitri the rightful heir to the Russian throne instead of the usurping Boris Godunov. Accordingly from this point on we'll refer to him as Dimitri.

A pastoral gypsy scene is next [D-1, T-4]. Then the ones that follow filling out the act [D-1, T-5 through 12] include some gorgeous numbers for Dimitri and his inamorata Marina worthy of Gounod.

The dark prelude to the second act [D1, T-13], which takes place at the King of Poland's palace in Krakow, hints at bad times ahead. However, these are momentarily forgotten with a comely lilting chorus for his cousin Vanda's ladies-in-waiting [D-1, T-14]. And speaking of Vanda, she's had designs all along to replace Boris with Dimitri, whom she’d then marry, thereby becoming Tsarina.

At this point the political machinations fly thick and fast as we're introduced to a scheming Polish nobleman, the Count of Lusatia [D-1, T-15], who's in cahoots with Vanda. He delivers a fervent air and cabaletta [D-1, T-16] filled with delusions of grandeur. Then he tells Dimitri in a heated exchange [D-1, T-17 and 18] that he must forget Marina and promise to marry Vanda if he is to become Tsar.

Three terrific ensemble numbers for a throng of feasting guests, Vanda, Dimitri, Count Lusatia and the King of Poland follow [D-1, T-19 through 21]. They begin and end with an awesome polonaise worthy of Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) Eugene Onegin (1877-8). This brings the act to a close with Vanda believing the King will give her Dimitri's hand in marriage after he's crowned Tsar, and Dimitri utterly distraught over the thought of losing Marina.

The action then switches to Russia for the rest of the opera. The first part of the third act takes place in a castle at Vyksa some 180 miles east of Moscow. It opens with an emotional exchange between Marina and Marpha, who’s former Tsar Ivan the Terrible's widow and the mother of Dimitri, whom she believes Boris assassinated [D-2, T-1 through 4].

Marina exits whereupon Job the Archbishop of Moscow enters. He informs Marpha that rumor has it Dimitri's still alive, and there's someone claiming to be him mustering men to seize Boris' throne [D-2, T-5]. He then goes on to say she must prevent this by denying he's her son. However, she refuses, indicating she'll name him as such, and goes on to tell of her great hate for Boris [D-2, T-6].

Job storms off, and this part ends with a devout aria by Marpha thanking Nature for appeasing the pain she’s suffered over the loss of her son with the current turn of events [D-2, T-7]. This beautifully written music seems headed towards Massenet.

The act's conclusion is introduced by a stirring military prelude [D-2, T-8] and takes place in Dimitri's encampment just outside Moscow [D-2, T-9]. Highlights include a moving invocation to the city sung by Dimitri [D-2, T-10], after which it's announced that Boris has been killed in his palace. Then we get a stirring final ensemble number [D-2, T-11] ending with an exotic high-stepping Cossack dance [D-2, T-12].

Dimitri's camp is also the setting for the fourth act, which begins with a warlike orchestral flourish and exhilarating soldiers' chorus [D-2, T-13] along the lines of Gounod's in Faust (1859). Then revelations fly thick and fast with the duplicitous Count declaring Dimitri isn't who he claims to be, as he the Count killed the real one [D-2, T-14 and 15]. Freaked-out by all this, Dimitri grabs a knife on a nearby table, and stabs the Count in the chest. But as we'll learn later he only wounds him.

Enter Marpha for a poignant exchange with Dimitri [D-2, T-16]. Doubts are raised about his being her son [D-2, T-17], and it ends in a touching duet [D-2, T-18] where they ask God to enlighten them on the matter. Then we learn the boyars of Moscow along with a great crowd are coming to present Dimitri with the keys to the city [D-2, T-19].

In a resolved romance [D-2, T-20] with some of that rationalization ever present in operas he decides to greet the people with Marpha as his mother. A closing ensemble piece smacking of festive scenes in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862-7) concludes the act with the boyars and crowd joyously proclaiming him Tsar [D-2, T-21 and 22].

As the curtain rises on the fifth and final act we see the courtyard of the Kremlin at dawn. Vanda is standing alone beneath a broad balcony on the left with St. Basil's Cathedral to the right. We first hear FM (see above) in the orchestra [D-1, T-23], which is indicative of her despair and the basis for a succeeding aria. In it she laments Dimitri's abandoning her for Marina, and as a consequence never being able to wear the crown. We also discover she saved the Count [D-2, T-24], whom Dimitri thought he'd killed (see above).

Adding insult to injury, the loving couple then appear on the balcony above her, and sing a gorgeous "until death" love duet [D-2, T-25] set to a melody that's arguably the thematic high point of the opera. There are some malevolent asides from Vanda that make this number all the more affecting, and then the conniving Count appears vowing to avenge her.

As day dawns we hear a coronation march [D-2, T-26] calling to mind the one in Meyerbeer's Le Prophète (1849). During this the four protagonists are joined on stage by Archbishop Job, Marpha and the citizens of Moscow for the final scene [D-2, T-27]. Job issues an impassioned plea supported by the crowd with the celestial strains of the St. Basil’s choir in the background, for Marpha to swear the young man standing before them is really her son Dimitri.

She sings an enigmatic response [03:01] ominously set to FM, and the crowd again implores her to swear [03:33]. But a shot suddenly rings out [03:49] as the Count fires a musket at Dimitri mortally wounding him. Cries of grief and joy issue from the assembled supporters and enemies of the would-be Tsar, whereupon he dies addressing last words to Marina and Murpha kneeling beside him. The opera then concludes with a reference to FM [04:15], the crowd singing "O mighty God, establish the truth!", and Job blessing all to FM-based swelling, benedictory orchestral chords.

One couldn't ask for a better performance of this operatic rarity. Soprano Gabrielle Philiponet (Marina), mezzo-sopranos Nora Gubisch (Marpha) and Jennifer Borghi (Vanda), tenor Philippe Talbot (Vasili/Dimitri), bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams (the Count) as well as basses Nicolas Courjal (Job) and Jean Teitgen (King of Poland) are all in superb voice. They're given enthusiastic, rapt support from the Flemish Radio Choir, Flanders Opera Children's Chorus and Brussels Philharmonic under French conductor Hervé Niquet. Joncières couldn't be better represented!

Made in Studio 4, Place Flagey (Flagey Square), Brussels, Belgium, this studio recording is commendable. The sonic image projected is ideally suited to the considerable forces present, and in an enriching venue. The overall sound is musically pleasing, but as is often the case with conventional CDs the solo voices and high strings are occasionally pinched in the highend. The balance between the soloists, choruses and orchestra is excellent throughout.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P140512)


The album cover may not always appear.
Riisager: Orch Wks V3 (Sym 4 "Gaia", 5 "Serena", Sinfa conc, Summer…); Holten/Aarhus SO [Dacapo]
This third volume of Dacapo's series devoted to Danish composer Knudåge Riisager's (1897-1974) music gives us world premiere recordings of four more of his works. Dating from between 1937 and 1950, they include his last two symphonies, thereby completing Dacapo's survey of all five (see the newsletter of 27 August 2013).

What better way to begin than with some Danish pastry titled Summer Rhapsody (1943-4) [T-1]! It's a brilliantly scored medley of ten local folk tunes that opens with a festive Nielsenesque preface [00:01]. This is followed by a rustic waltz [00:20] and a couple of numbers that could be from a US hoedown [01:20 and 02:09].

The mood then turns sorrowful with weeping horns and strings [02:46]. But not for long as we get three ditties reminiscent of Virgil Thomson's (1896-1989) scores for The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937, see 30 October 2007). They consist of a flutter-tongue trumpet-decorated romp [05:05], gliding country waltz [06:01], and a playful promenade [06:48].

Sighing winds and strings then give us a lovely plaintive melody [07:35] interrupted by jocund woodwinds that introduce a jolly whimsical tune [09:08], which segues into a final bounding galop (BG) [09:51]. This ends the rhapsody raucously with a dissonant raspberry [10:51] followed by a thrilling BG-based coda!

The Sinfonia concertante of 1937 for string orchestra is next. Representative of Knudåge's neo-Baroque style and consisting of five movements, the beginning allegro [T-2] is a busy offering. It begins with an insistent fetching melody (IF) [00:00] that chases its tail in a spirited development [01:07] with a brief pensive respite [02:24-02:39]. A terse recap [02:40] and IF-laced coda [03:28] end the movement joyously.

A short swaying intermezzo [T-3] leads directly into a vivace [T-4] with a rhythmic spasticity reminiscent of Bartók (1881-1945). Then we get a grave [T-5] built on a somber theme that's accented on the first two beats, bringing to mind the first movement of Ernest Bloch's (1880-1959) Concerto grosso No. 1 (1924-5). Knudåge's elegantly constructed work ends in another allegro [T-6] brimming with spicy rhythms and key changes again recalling the Bloch.

In 1940 Riisager wrote an article declaring the symphony dead (see the newsletter of 27 August 2013). However, he was never able to completely abandon the genre, and would go on to produce the two "sinfonias" that fill out this disc. While both are distantly related to the symphonies of old, there's a no-nonsense succinctness present that sets them completely apart from the engorged romantic wallows of the early 1900s.

The former of the two entitled Sinfonia gaia (Gay Symphony), which was completed in 1940, is his fourth symphony. In three movements the opening "Allegro ostinato" ("Fast and Obstinate") [T-7] features an audacious, timpani-reinforced chanting theme (AC) for strings and brass [00:00] that dominates its outer sections. They surround a dramatic development [03:05-04:51], and conclude the movement much like it began.

The next "Allegretto chiaro" ("Graceful and Clear') [T-8] is a lovely restrained, AC-related melodic interlude. While "Rondo di ritmo" ("Rhythmic Rondo") [T-9] turns AC on its head and into a hyperactive, drum-accented scurrying idea that ends the work exuberantly.

1950 saw the completion of his fifth and final effort in this genre entitled Sinfonia serena (Serene Symphony). Scored just for strings and timpani, it's in four movements and another of the composer's neo-Baroque creations.

The initial "Allegro ardito" ("Fast and Bold") [T-10] states an itchy toccata-like theme (IT) [00:00] followed by a laid-back countersubject (LD) [01:18] that's a derivative of IT. The two are then played off against one another in a brief development [01:47]. This ends the movement vivaciously with a reminder of IT [03:17] flecked with hints of LD [03:54].

"Vivace ilare" ("Fast and Humorous") [T-11] is a whimsical pizzicato-laced scherzo followed by a "Lamentoso" [T-12] with a despairing Bartókian melody that appears in several guises. But sadness gives way to a perky final "Allegro spregiudicato" ("Fast and Free") [T-13], which recalls waggish moments in Rossini's (1792-1868) Barber of Seville Overture (1816). Riisager was probably thumbing his nose at all those heavy duty romantic symphonies of yore!

From the performance and sound standpoint this release takes up where its predecessor left off (see the newsletter of 27 August 2013). The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra once again under Bo Holton delivers animated readings of these symphonic curiosities, which will most likely be definitive for years to come.

Made by the identical production staff and at the same location as the preceding volume, Dacapo gives us another audiophile disc! It creates a wide, deep, clearly focused sonic image in a capacious acoustic. The instrumental timbre is natural with clear highs and transient rock-bottom lows. That bass drum thwack in Summer Rhapsody [T-1, 02:44] will save you dusting your speakers for a week!

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y140511)


The album cover may not always appear.
Toch: Stg Trio, Vc Son, Vn Son 1, Divert 1 (vn, vc); Adagio (cl, pno); SpecConcBer (Naxos)
It's a real pleasure to welcome Austrian composer and American immigrant Ernst Toch (1887-1964) back to these pages (see 16 January 2013)! Born in Vienna to humble Jewish parents, Toch was an exceedingly well educated man who studied philosophy and medicine as well as music. He soon became an acclaimed pianist in Europe, but World War I (1914-8) intervened, during which he served four years in the army on the Italian front.

After that he decided to become a composer, and would teach at Mannheim University until Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Then like Schoenberg (1874-1951), Korngold (1897-1957, see 31 March 2011), Tansman (1897-1986, see 25 May 2011), and Eric Zeisl (1905-1959, see 15 November 2013), he was forced to flee Europe, and eventually wound up in Los Angeles initially writing Hollywood film scores to make a living.

But as Zeisl had done, Toch would abandon the world of cinema for more serious compositional and academic pursuits. These included becoming a professor of music and philosophy at USC, where André Previn (b. 1929) was one of his students, as well as a guest lecturer at Harvard University.

Just within the past few years his music has finally begun to receive the acclaim it so justly deserves, and this is particularly true of works in the chamber category. They're sampled on this new outstanding release from Naxos, which includes five spanning most of his musical career from 1913 through 1950.

The program begins with the only currently available recording on disc of his String Trio from 1936. In three movements lasting almost half an hour, it's a significant contribution to the genre. An allegro [T-1] gets things off to a wiry dissonant start followed by a pair of ideas.

The first is an angular fugato-delivered motif (AF) [00:48], and the other an AF-related frail whimpering theme (FW) [01:36] with pizzicato embroidery. They undergo an anguished chromatic development [02:45], and return in reverse order (FW, 06:26; AF, 07:27) with FW having the last say [08:26] to end the movement peacefully.

The despondent adagio [T-2] is a moving threnody based on a spun out sad cantabile subject. Then gloom turns to restless foreboding in the final allegro that begins with an agitated AF cognate (AA) [00:00], which is transformed into a romanticized lyrical subject (RL) [01:08].

RL is food for an extended elaboration with arresting pizzicato accents and a fleeting cello cadenza [04:42-05:19]. AA then returns [05:20], and RL reappears [06:22] becoming the pith of an agitated coda that concludes the trio subito.

The only currently available recording on disc of the Adagio elegiaco (1950) for clarinet and piano [T-4] provides a brief relaxed respite from the foregoing. Written as a greeting for two sibling friends, it's based on a motif with a musical monogram derived from their family surname, and finds Toch at his most tender.

His one and only cello sonata of 1929 dedicated to the great Emmanuel Feuermann (1902-1942) is next on the program. It's in the usual three movements, the first of which is an allegro [T-5]. Here the piano initiates a Slavic-tinged, skipping theme (SS) [00:00] that's picked up by the cello [00:24] and brings Shostakovich (1906-1975) to mind. SS is subjected to some developmental variations, and eventually just runs out of steam ending the movement perfunctorily.

Then we get one of Toch's more bizarre creations with film score overtones, an arachnoid intermezzo entitled "Die Spinne" ("The Spider") [T-6]. Moreover, it's dominated by a back-and-forth motif making it easy to imagine said insect spinning a web. Do you suppose those twitchy cello passages [01:32-01:53, 03:42-04:09] represent an ensnared struggling fly!

The manic closing allegro [T-7] is a whirlwind rondo revolving around an antic theme that augurs saucy moments in Shostakovich's first piano concerto (1933). There's also an unrelenting mechanistic kineticism like that found in George Antheil's Ballet pour instruments mécaniques et percussion (Ballet Mécanique, 1925; see above). It ends the sonata in a virtuosic flurry, and is definitely not for amateurs!

In 1925 Ernst wrote Two Divertimentos for String Duet that are violin-cello and violin-viola duos respectively. We're treated next to the earlier, which is in three movements with the opening one marked "Flott" ("Quick") [T-8]. A busy sonata form minikin, it's followed by "Fließend, sehr zart" ("Fluent, and Very Tender") [T-9] that's an otherworldly reverie with Eastern overtones. The final "Frisch" ("Fresh") [T-10] is a cheeky heehawing tidbit which ends the piece mockingly.

The disc is filled out with an early work from 1913 written in Germany. It's the first of his two violin sonatas that's out of Brahms (1833-1897) and Reger (1873-1916, see 30 March 2008). In three movements, the initial allegro [T-11] starts with a couple of teaser piano notes [00:01]. Then we get a lilting romantic theme for the violin (LR) [00:07] that's elaborated and succeeded by a sorrowful pleading melody (SP) [02:02].

The moody extended development of LR and SP that follows ranges from expansive [03:07] to anxious [04:33], introspective [05:11], solicitous [06:50] and searching [08:44]. Then a recap beginning with melancholy memories of SP [09:24] runs amuck [10:44], ending this resplendent movement in the grand romantic tradition.

A haunting adagio [T-12] dominated by an aloof disembodied idea (AD) [00:00] transitions between the Brahmsian first movement and Regeresque final allegro [T-13]. The latter borders on a sonata rondo where we first hear a wiry whimsical (WW) tune [00:00] with an AD-related countersubject (AC) [00:16]. An introspective AC-based reverie follows [01:58], then a development of WW [03:43] with spiky imitative passages and a passing reference to AC [04:52]. This concludes the sonata emphatically.

Our performers are drawn from one of Germany's finest chamber music organizations, Spectrum Concerts Berlin (SCB). They include violinist Annette von Hehn, violist Hartmut Rohde, cellist Jens Peter Maintz along with clarinetist Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer, as well as pianists Katya Apekisheva for the Adagio... and violin sonata, and Jascha Nemtsov the cello sonata.

Each a virtuoso in their own right, together they deliver superb performances of these pieces. Toch couldn't have better advocates, and readers who haven't done so already may want to investigate SCB’s previous Toch Naxos release.

Made at the Siemens Villa concert hall in Berlin, the recordings are generally good. They present a modest soundstage appropriate to the small forces involved in a warm acoustic with the instruments well placed and balanced. For the most part the strings are natural sounding and the piano well captured, except in the violin sonata where there's some occasional upper register fuzziness.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P140510)


The album cover may not always appear.
Williamson, Mal.; Pno Concs Cpte (1-4, Sinfa conc, 2 pnos & stgs); Lane/Shelley/Tasm SO [Hyperion]
Born in Sydney, Australia, Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003) would receive his early musical training "Down Under" where one of his instructors was famed conductor-composer Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962, see 12 March 2009). Then in 1950 he moved permanently to London, where he first worked as an organist, proofreader and even a nightclub pianist.

The year 1953 saw him begin lessons with serial composer Elisabeth Lutyens (1908-1983), and Schoenberg (1874-1951) disciple Erwin Stein (1885-1958). Consequently his works from this period have atonal leanings.

However, Williamson was also interested in other avenues of expression, and from the mid-1950s on, his music began to show tonal influences. These were related to composers as diverse as Bartók (1881-1945), Stravinsky (1882-1971), Messiaen (1908-1992), Britten (1913-1976) and Bernstein (1918-1990), as well as the likes of Kern (1885-1945), Gershwin (1898-1937) and Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) in the jazz and popular field.

Malcolm would write over two-hundred-and-fifty pieces in all genres, including film and television scores. His concert works for piano(s) and orchestra are included here and date from 1957-71, except for the fourth numbered concerto, which came a little over twenty years later in 1993-4. Four of the six selections are the only currently available recordings on disc, and so indicated by "OCAR" after their titles.

The program begins with his first concerto of 1957-8 (OCAR). In the usual three movements, the initial one [D-1, T-1] opens slowly with the tutti delivering an élan vital motif (EV) [00:08], which is the lifeblood of the piece. It appears in a number of inventive guises, beginning with the piano playing a vivacious syncopated one [00:39]. The movement then concludes with a romanticized big tune transformation of it [05:40] ending in a dramatic tam-tam dissolve.

EV is mournfully attired in the andantino [D-2, T-2], which may bring Richard Strauss' (1864-1949) Death and Transfiguration to mind. But the mood turns ebullient in the final poco presto [D-1, T-3], which is an infectious rondo with a couple of EV-based themes. The first is an antsy ditty recalling animated moments in Prokofiev's (1891-1953) piano concertos (1911-1932) [00:02], and the second a lovely idea reminiscent of Bernstein's amorous melodies [01:28]. The work ends in an exciting fugato-introduced coda conjoining the two [03:27].

The next piece is the concerto for two pianos and string orchestra of 1971 (OCAR). Much more progressive than the preceding work, it's in three movements and starts with an allegro [D-1, T-4]. This introduces a modal-sounding tone row (MT) [00:03], and although it's the basis for the entire concerto, the work remains tonal throughout. A Bartokian interplay between the pianos and orchestra follows giving rise to hammering fragmentary keyboard passages that add a superficiality to the music.

The subdued lento [D-6, T-5] is a moving reverie with an MT-based cantus firmus. It’s the work's high point, and the opposite of the final allegro [D-1, T-6]. This has plucky outer passages surrounding an MT-derived chorale [02:01-02:53], and ends the work ostentatiously.

The second numbered concerto (OCAR), also in three movements with an all string accompaniment, fills out the first disc. Written in 1960 over a period of just eight days, to use the composer's own words, it's characterized by spontaneity and vigor rather than profundity (see the informative album notes). Consequently the initial allegro [D-1, T-7] is an immediately appealing Gershwin-Rodgers cocktail with a dash of Bartók.

There's an Eastern mysticism about the andante [D-1, T-8] making it the concerto's emotional center of gravity. This transitions via a keyboard trill [04:50] into the final allegro [D-1, T-9] that has all the vitality of the opening one. Despite some jazzy asides it increasingly takes its cue from the finale of Stravinsky's The Firebird (1910) [01:15], ending the concerto in Russian territory.

The companion disc begins with the third concerto of 1962 scored for full orchestra. The only four movement work on this album, it's the longest and gets off to an atypical start with what's entitled toccata [D-2, T-1].

Two themes are presented, the first being a rhythmically brusque utterance (RB) [00:03] reminiscent of Hindemith (1895-1963), and the other a contrasting lyrical idea (CL) [01:18]. The two compete in a combative development [02:17] that leads to a romantic big tune recap of CL [05:43]. Then RB returns in the final coda [06:31] bringing the movement to a quick close.

The succeeding virtuosic scherzo is an arid study in freaky rhythms [D-2, T-2] that's followed none too soon by an inspired theme with variations [D-2, T-3]. It’s the concerto's zenith with a lullaby-like main subject (LM) introduced by the soloist [00:00], who goes on to play the first variant.

This is an embellished version of LM set to a romantic string accompaniment [00:58]. Then angry horns [01:46] announce a sinister variation where the gnome in Mussorgsky's (1839-1881) Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) is alluded to in a motif (GM) delivered by the piano [02:01].

The next three transformations, which range from rhapsodic [02:57] to shivering [03:37] and bombastic [04:58], are succeeded by an extended cantankerous one that begins with a hint of the Dies Irae (DI) [06:34]. This spooky episode is riddled with specks of DI [08:11, et al.] as well as GM [08:18, et al.], and has what amounts to a piano cadenza [09:16-10:15]. The latter introduces a final amorous number [10:16] that ends the movement quietly with the soloist recalling [11:02] its opening measures.

Like the toccata the concluding allegro [D-2,T-4] has two contrasting themes, a snickering repetitive ditty [00:00] and shimmering sinuous melody [01:48]. They're tossed back and forth with rhythmic abandon in a virtuosic fireworks display devoid of any profundities.

The next piece started out as the composer's second symphony, but finally became the Sinfonia concertante in F sharp major (1958-62) scored for piano, three trumpets and strings of 1958-62. In three movements, the first has the simple metronomic marking of 76 quarter note beats per minute [D-2, T-5], and opens with sustained trumpet chords [00:00]. The piano soon plays a solemn chorale-like melody (SC) [00:03], and the movement then turns into a poor man's version of the opening one from Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (1930-48).

The andante [D-2, T-6] builds to a pretentious climax, and fades away in a mundane manner. The piece then ends in a presto [D-2, T-7], which is a rondo with nettlesome trumpet outbursts, and magniloquent passages for soloist and tutti that include a fitful cadenza [03:54-04:45]. Despite a final attempt to bring things full circle with recollections of SC [05:13], there's a bluster and arbitrariness about this work that some may find make it the least desirable one here.

The album is filled out with the fourth concerto of 1993-4 (OCAR) calling for full orchestra. With rancorous opening and closing movements surrounding a warmhearted one, this could well be called the composer's "Jekyll and Hyde" concerto.

It gets off to an arresting allegro start [D-2, T-8] with angry explosive tutti chords [00:00] soon followed by aggressive piano passagework [00:08]. The whole movement is a lengthy development with hints of a lovely Kern-like melody (LK) [00:36, 00:50, 02:52, 04:31] that never fully flowers, making Williamson one heck of a melodic tease!

Then he does a complete about-face in the Andante piacevole (Agreeably Slow) [D-2, T-9]. This is dominated by an attractive LK-related idea (AL) [00:10], all of whose melodic possibilities are dramatically explored in romantic fashion.

The last allegro has all the energy of the opening one with contorted allusions to LK and AL. But try as they might [01:54] neither can overcome the malevolent rhythmic forces at work. This strange concerto then ends violently in the world of Mr. Hyde.

Australian pianist Piers Lane, who's been lauded in these pages for his recordings with the Goldener String Quartet (see 20 June 2012), proves to be an equally effective soloist in these Williamson works. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra gives him splendid support under Howard Shelley, who wears two hats in the double concerto where he's the second pianist, and conducts from the keyboard.

Made in 2012 and 2013 by the same production staff at the Federation Concert Hall in Hobart, Tasmania, the recordings are very good and sound consistent. They project a generous, clearly focused sonic image perfectly suited to the assembled forces in a warm ideally reverberant venue. The balance between soloists and tutti is well maintained, but the three trumpets in the Sinfonia... are overpowering, and would have been more effective at a greater distance.

The instrumental timbre is bright with a pronounced percussive edge in Williamson's twitchy rhythmic movements. In that regard there is occasional digital clutter in upper forte piano as well as string passages.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, S140509)