CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
26 MARCH 2010
The albums below are "Classical Releases Of Current Key Significance," or "CROCKS", if you will. To purchase an album, simply click on one of the Web site retail outlets given in the "AVAILABILITY" table under the write-up.
Alnaes, E.: Syms 1 & 2; Mikkelsen/LatvNa SO [Sterling (Hybrid)]
RECOMMENDED (1 SACD)
Sterling once more lives up to its name on this hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.1), release with these world première recordings of another two winning symphonies (see the newsletter of 8 February 2010), but this time by Norwegian composer, Eyvind Alnaes (1872-1932). Like his compatriot Gerhard Schjelderup (1859-1933), whom we told you about last time (see the newsletter of 8 February 2010), he'll probably be new to most, or for the few who do know him, only remembered for his songs, which Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) did much to popularize. However, he also wrote a handful of orchestral works, and the ones here are among his best.
The year 1889 saw Alnaes begin his musical studies in Oslo, which he continued with Carl Reinecke (1824-1910, see the newsletters of 31 August 2006 and 14 May 2007) in Leipzig during the early 1890s. But his funds ran out after a couple of years, and he had to return home until 1897 when he received a grant allowing him to resume his tuition in Berlin. He completed his four-movement first symphony there in 1898.
It's a symphony of "twos" where each movement is based on pairs of thematic ideas. The opening allegro, marked "patetico," begins with a motif similar in mood to the more tragic moments in Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) fourth (1877) and sixth (1893) symphonies. This is contrasted with an optimistic melody much in keeping with the many lovely songs Alnaes wrote. A masterful development follows in which the two ideas vie for center stage, with the first having the final say as the movement ends in a state of pessimistic agitation.
The adagio is one of the finest slow movements in Nordic romantic symphonic literature. A pair of boreal themes alternate with one another, conjuring up images of some frozen Lapland landscape on one of those days when the sun never sets. The temperature rises in the next scherzoesque section, which features a couple of folkish dance ditties that prance about, sometimes in Brahmsian fashion.
The ideas in the finale are respectively march-like and wistful, with the former a bit reminiscent of those toiling Nibelungen in Wagner's (1813-1883) Das Rheingold (1869). Alnaes develops the two with a rigor worthy of Beethoven or Brahms, while maintaining an overall reserve that's typically Scandinavian. A triumphant concluding coda based on the march theme ends this symphony in a blaze of glory.
Completed in 1923, the second symphony, also in four movements, is more sophisticated than its predecessor. The opening allegro is based on binary motifs that are in turn optimistically expansive (OE) and shyly withdrawn. There's a euphoria about OE that brings to mind the symphonic music of Alnaes’ Danish contemporary Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). In sonata form, the movement has a complex, skillfully executed development section. The thrilling recapitulation ends with a coda that’s based on OE, and brings things to a Wagnerian conclusion.
The lento is a funeral march the composer wrote in memory of a friend. An appropriately somber piece, it's intensely moving, and adds emotional depth to a symphony whose other movements are on a high. That's certainly true of the following scherzando, which has chromatically impish opening and closing sections with what sound like Eastern European folk overtones. They surround a trio section whose lifeblood is another outstanding Alnaes melody.
The final allegro begins with Walküre-an swoops followed by a couple of catchy tunes. The first is a simple, prickly ditty not far removed from one of Edvard Grieg's (1843-1907) Norwegian (1887) or Symphonic Dances (1896-98). The second is more grandiloquent as well as involved, requiring virtuosic efforts from everyone in the orchestra. The two ideas are tossed about in a rhapsodic free-for-all, and the symphony ends memorably with dazzling brass flourishes.
A champion of Halvorsen (1864-1935) and Svendsen (1840-1911), Norwegian conductor Terje Mikkelsen now turns his attention to Alnaes, getting superb performances of both pieces from the Latvian Symphony Orchestra. They magnificently serve the cause of this neglected music with what they give us here.
The recordings present an excellent soundstage, particularly the multichannel track, in an acoustic appropriate for romantic symphonic music of this scale. Clarity and brilliance characterize the sound, maybe to the point where some audiophiles may occasionally wish the highs were a little less predominant on the stereo tracks.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100326)
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Alwyn, W.: Ov..., Black..., etc (w Bowen, Parry & Vaughan Williams); Wilson/Lon C/BBCCon O [Dutton]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
All of the selections on this new Dutton release are world première recordings of rarely heard British music that will appeal to romantics. The CD includes five pieces by William Alwyn (1905-1985, see the newsletter of 8 September 2008), in addition to one each by York Bowen (1884-1961, see the newsletter of 18 December 2008), Sir Charles Hubert Parry (1848-1918, see the newsletter of 16 April 2007), and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958, see the newsletter of 18 February 2009).
The disc begins with a real curiosity, Alwyn's Overture in the Form of a Serenade for small orchestra with wordless soprano solo and choir [track-1]. Completed in 1946, it's dedicated to Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst (1874-1934), who are honored in it with quotes from the third movement of the former's A Pastoral Symphony (No. 3, 1921) [track-1, beginning at 04:19], and opening "Wizard's Invocation" in the latter’s ballet The Perfect Fool (1923, see the newsletter of 12 March 2009) [track-1, beginning at 05:02].
The overture's energetic introduction and conclusion are reminiscent of the busier moments in Constant Lambert's (1905-1951) music. They surround a peaceful central section which the added voices render quite pastoral sounding. The forceful ending resembles the beginning of Alexander Borodin's 1833-1887) second symphony (1869-76, see the newsletter of 30 September 2006).
Written in the 1920s, the remaining four Alwyn selections are striking for the variety of musical moods they create, presaging the superb film scores he would later write (see the newsletter of 9 March 2006). The 1925 Prelude [track-5] is tempestuously dramatic, while Blackdown - a Tone Poem from the Surrey Hills from 1926 [track-6] depicts an expansive windswept country panorama.
The Peter Pan Suite of 1923 [tracks-7, 8, 9, 10 and 11], inspired by Sir James Barrie's (1860-1937) beloved eponymous story, was Alwyn's first orchestral effort. It's a miniature photo album with captivating musical pictures of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, the Lost Boys of Never-Never Land, and of course, Captain Hook with references to that familiar old hornpipe, Jack's the Lad.
Ad Infinitum - a Satire for Orchestra, dates from 1929 [track-11], and was inspired by the play Pictures from the Insects' Life. Its author, Czech-born Karel Capek (1890-1938), was one of the fathers of science fiction. Some may remember he also wrote The Makropulos Affair (1922), which Janácek (1854-1928) would later turn into an opera (1926, see the newsletter of 29 September 2009).
It begins with forceful descending chords that introduce some scurrying entomological phrases. A lyrical central episode follows, but the bugs briefly reappear. The piece then fades into the distance with a theme on the trumpet [track-11, beginning at 06:09] bearing a strange resemblance to the title music Alexander Courage (1919-2008) would later write for the original Star Trek television series (1966).
York Bowen, is represented here by his orchestral poem Eventide of 1922 [track-4]. If you like Tintagel (1917-19) by his fellow student and good friend Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953), this piece will come as a most welcome surprise. Inspired by John Keats' (1795-1821, see the newsletter of 3 October 2008) first sonnet, it’s English nature music (see the newsletter of 29 September 2009) at its best.
Sir Charles Hubert Parry composed incidental music for a number of plays, and we're lucky to have three excerpts here from what he wrote for an 1892 dramatization of Charles Kingsley's (1819-1875) 1853 novel Hypatia [tracks-12, 13 and 14]. Set in Alexandria, it's a religiously oriented drama about a remarkable fifth century woman by that name, who was an astronomer, philosopher, and the first important female mathematician.
The first two selections are lovely entr'actes that find Parry at his most lyrically ingratiating. The third is a terrific march in the tradition of those stately common-time creations soon to come from Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934, see the Grand Celebration recommendation below).
And last but not least, Ralph Vaughan Williams is represented by a very early piece (1901-02), his Heroic Elegy and Triumphal Epilogue [tracks-2 and 3]. The opening elegy begins with hushed funereal strings somewhat like Richard Strauss' (1864-1949) Death and Transfiguration (1888-89), over which the trombones intone a dark sweeping melody (DS). This is elaborated into a lovely more cheerful episode. But the trombones soon return reiterating DS, and ending things pessimistically.
The epilogue begins unpretentiously, rapidly building to a soaring crescendo only to fade away. The subdued section that follows makes oblique references to DS, which eventually reemerges as the music builds to a tremendous climax assisted by the organ. The ending has all the expanse of the more dynamic moments in VW's ballet Job of thirty years later (1931).
One couldn't ask for better advocates of this music than the BBC Concert Orchestra and London Chorus under conductor John Wilson. They give us performances with an attention to detail and sense of dynamics that should make them definitive for years to come.
On the other hand, the recordings, while acceptable, won't win any prizes. The soundstage is wide as well as quite reverberant, and will only appeal to those favoring a wetter acoustic. The instrumental and choral timbre is friendly enough at lower levels, but in forte passages there's a brittleness that will probably necessitate some knob twiddling. That said, these sonic reservations should not deter you from hearing the wonderful music on this CD, even if you won't be using it for demonstration purposes.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100325)
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Gould, M.: American Symtes 2 & 3, Conc..., Interplay, Chorale..., Cockrell/Miller/Albany SO [Albany]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
That wonderful sense of innocence and abandon that filled American movie musicals of the 1930s and 40s (see the newsletters of 24 July 2008 and 13 August 2008) characterizes the selections on this new release from Albany. Featuring some seldom heard works by New-York-born composer Morton Gould (1913-1996), you'll find they provide a welcome escape from the social and political turmoil swirling around us today.
Gould wrote four suites for orchestra that he called "symphonettes," the most familiar being the last, which is the rhythmically rambunctious "Latin American" one (1940) familiar to most. He simply referred to the other three as "American," and while the first of these is not currently available on disc, the second and third are to be found here.
Dating from 1938, the three-movement American Symphonette No. 2 [tracks-1, 2 and 3] is brilliantly scored with a jitterbug-infested opening. The next movement, which the composer purposely misspelled as "pavanne" to avoid any confusion with the Ravel (1875-1937) "pavane" (1905), is probably the best loved number Morton composed. It's one of those tunes that's so familiar no one can ever think who wrote it, but now you know! The finale is again dance-like with an opening theme whose father may well have been a sailor (see Jack’s-the-Lad in the Alwyn recommendation above). Infectious rhythms anticipating the Latin American Symphonette, and some timpani glissandi make this one of the most infectious offerings here.
The American Symphonette No. 3, also completed in 1938, is in four movements [tracks-11, 12, 13 and 14], the first of which might be described as a classical jam session worthy of Cab Calloway's (1907-1994) more manic moments. The following "intermezzo" is a bluesy curiosity with a Dies-Irae-inflected bass line [track-12, beginning at 00:22] underscoring a theme in the violins [track-12, beginning at 00:28] reminiscent of that sinuous melody appearing halfway through George Gershwin's (1898-1937) An American in Paris (1928). Then comes a "gavotte" that's a hepcat version of the "pavanne" mentioned above. The frenzied finale has all the kineticism of rush-hour traffic complete with car horns.
Gould's Concerto for Orchestra of 1944 is also on the program [tracks-4, 5 and 6]. Written about the same time as Bartók's (1881-1945) masterpiece (1943-44), it's less than half as long, and in three instead of five movements. All together a bird of a different feather, you'll find it a virtuosic exercise brimming over with lively optimism.
The first movement is notable for bustling jazzy outer sections that surround an attractive slow central saxophonic rhapsody. There's a tune early on [track-4, beginning at 00:55] reminiscent of the song "New York, New York" in Leonard Bernstein's (1918-1990) musical On the Town, which was written the same year.
The slow movement is much more reserved, but Morton's ebullient personality doesn't allow for any musical morbidity. There’s a casual melodic stride that may call to mind the more subdued moments in Roy Harris' (1898-1979) third symphony (1937). It leaves the listener totally relaxed, and ready for the high-energy finale, which is a hoedown laced with bobbysoxer antics.
Next up, a work that would become one of Gould's most successful. Originally called American Concernette No. 1, it's a diminutive four-movement piano concerto dating from 1943, which to this day most people know as Interplay [tracks-7, 8, 9 and 10]. That's because choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) heard a broadcast of it shortly after it was written, and turned it into an extremely popular ballet by that name.
The opening movement is a syncopated romp with endearing honky-tonk qualities. The catchy lurching "gavotte" that follows brings to mind the Scarecrow's song and dance number in the Wizard of Oz (1939). The next movement, marked "blues," features a simple graceful tune, which finds the composer at the height of his melodic powers.
Our soloist gets a chance to show off his digital dexterity in the helter-skelter finale. It ends this American Jeux d'enfants with a game of tag for piano and orchestra you'll not soon forget.
The last piece on the disc, Chorale and Fugue in Jazz of 1934 [marked track-15 (16:21) on the album back panel, it’s actually tracks-15 (03:19 -- chorale) and 16 (13:02 -- fugue) on the CD], receives its first complete performance here. One of the composer's earliest efforts, it's scored for a large orchestra that includes saxophones and duo pianos. Gershwin’s influence is undeniable -- note the inverse clarinet glissando at the end -- but there's a student naiveté and brashness that make it an engaging Gould oddity.
Conductor David Alan Miller has become an outstanding champion of American music (see the newsletters of 20 December 2006), and this release is no exception. The Albany Symphony Orchestra respond to his direction with performances that are as enthusiastic as they are well played. Pianist and long time Gould admirer Findlay Cockrell is absolutely superb in Interplay. It's too bad Gould, himself a great conductor, isn't around to hear these rousing renditions of his creations.
The recordings are very good, particularly the second symphonette, concerto and Interplay, all of which were recorded in the exceptional acoustic of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Albany, New York. The third symphonette and Chorale... were done at Albany's Palace Theatre, and sound a frog's hair more compressed and brittle. Those nitpicks aside, the soundstages are generous, but well-focused with an ideal balance maintained between the many solo groups and orchestra. All that plus silky strings, velveteen winds and clean percussion, including a well-rounded piano tone, make this a demonstration disc.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y100324)
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Mozart, W.A.: Stg Sxt (arr Sinfa Conc KV 364), Pno Qt (arr Cl Qnt KV 581), Soloists/Mannh Qt [MD&G]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
In the past we've told you about some striking transcriptions of orchestral works for chamber groups (see the newsletters of 15 September 2007 and 27 February 2008), and here's another from MD&G devoted to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Back in his day there was no "canned music," let alone any sound systems, so arrangements of symphonic pieces for smaller ensembles were all the rage as a means of getting them into the home.
A good example of this was the appearance in 1807 of a string sextet version of his ever popular, three-movement Sinfonia Concertante in Eb for violin, viola and orchestra (KV 364/320d, 1779). By an unknown arranger and published in Vienna with the title Grande Sestetto Concertante, this reduction for two violins, two violas, cello and bass, is the leadoff selection here. Whoever was responsible for it really knew what they were doing, because they've managed to create an irresistible addition to the Mozart chamber music canon.
While the general outline of the piece remains the same as the sinfonia, the arranger has given us something quite new with a lightness of touch and radiance that's obvious from the first few notes. The original two solo parts have been redistributed among the five smaller instruments with the bass acting in an accompanying role. Consequently this is no place for amateurs, considering the substantial virtuosic demands made on everyone. That's particularly true of the letter-perfect opening allegro, and infectious closing presto where all the instruments engage in a musical "Caucus-race."
As scored here, the sighing lyrical central andante gives each of the performers an opportunity to wax most eloquently. And on that note, perspicacious listeners may notice the violas at times sound somewhat darker than in the original. That's because there's no scordatura, or tuning them up to brighten the music, as is the case with the sinfonia.
The disc is filled out with a real curiosity that will immediately find its way into the hearts of those fond of chamber music for keyboard ensembles. It's a transcription for piano quartet of Wolfgang's beloved four-movement Clarinet Quintet (KV 581, 1789). It was published in 1802, and as with the previous piece, the arranger remains unknown.
Brimming over with memorable themes, many who love this quintet may well have fantasized it for other combinations of instruments. What we have here is a real winner not too far removed from one of Mozart’s later piano concertos. Grace and charm rather than virtuosity are the key ingredients, particularly in the opening allegro, where classical restraint reigns supreme.
The gorgeous larghetto which follows is much more of an ensemble number in this arrangement. It takes on a richness many may find surpasses that in the original quintet.
Listening to the third movement minuet it's easy to envision one of those fancy dress balls taking place in some luxurious Austrian palace. Then the piano imparts an impishness to the final allegretto... which makes it just as infectious as that Mozart rondo (in D, KV382, 1782) Walther Matthau couldn't get out of his head in the film Hopscotch (1980).
Our artists are the Mannheim String Quartet assisted by pianist Thomas Duis, violist Sebastian Bürger and bassist Mátyás Németh. Their technical proficiency is subsumed in the sensitive committed playing they lavish on these scores.
With source material as familiar to audiences as this, performers doing arrangements like these are faced with the problem of choosing between original score markings and what's on the music in front of them. Judging from the highly successful readings delivered here, it would seem these musicians have chosen well. They make such a convincing case for these pieces one might easily be fooled into thinking they came first, and the sinfonia and quintet were later afterthought expansions of them.
The recordings are demonstration quality with the strings arranged from left to right in order of increasing size, and the piano centered behind them in the quartet. All of the instruments are flawlessly captured across an ideally wide soundstage with just the right amount of reverberation to insure richness of tone without loss of clarity. In that regard the intricate balance maintained between the players as well as highlighting of soloists couldn't be better. Audiophiles will find this disc an excellent test of a system's imaging capabilities.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y100323)
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Nielsen, C.: Cants (2), Homage... Inc Mus, Ariel's...; Holton/Soloists/Various Cs/Aarhus SO [Dacapo]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
Just as Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) “completists” thought they had all of the great Danish composer's major works on disc, here's a new one with three world première (WP) recordings! These include two festive cantatas as well as some incidental music for a play honoring Dano-Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754).
The CD begins with a cantata (WP) that was commissioned for the opening ceremony of a 1909 national trade exhibition in Aarhus, Denmark. At almost half an hour, this is a major vocal work, and because of time constraints Nielsen delegated parts of it to his young student Emilius Bangert (1883-1962). In seven sections, the first, fifth and sixth were written by Nielsen, the second, third and seventh, Bangert, and both collaborated on the fourth. But there's a stylistic consistency throughout that would seem to indicate Carl carefully coordinated the overall effort.
The two opening sections for chorus and soprano are joyous invocations of spring and an abundant harvest (Danish, German and English texts for everything are included in the informative album notes). There are some of those catchy Nielsenesque modulations [track-1, beginning at 01:13], as well as a couple of phrases that could almost be out of Sir Arthur Sullivan [track-1, beginning at 02:13]. The first section would normally conclude with an extended unaccompanied spoken recitation, but rather than breaking up the musical continuity of the piece, the producers have wisely opted to put it at the end of the disc as an appendix [track-16].
In the third section the chorus lauds Denmark’s Jutland peninsula and its city of Aarhus. The fourth for accompanied reciter, chorus, soprano and bass is the longest, and an attractive nationalistic paean with operatic overtones. The last three, all of which are choral and in praise of Denmark, conclude this vocal rarity with bright hopes for the future.
The next selection is some incidental music (WP) Nielsen composed for Hans Hartvig Seedorff Pedersen's (1892-1986) 1923 play Homage to Holberg. Pedersen wrote this to honor the two hundredth anniversary of Holberg's The Political Tinker (1722), which was the first play in the Danish language. Although composed just a year after his monumental fifth symphony (1921-22), the three numbers Nielsen came up with here are stylistically much closer to his opera Masquerade of 1906. That may have been by design, considering the latter is based on Holberg's 1724 play of the same name.
The opening number begins with a fanfare that anticipates Sir William Walton's prelude for Lawrence Olivier's film Richard III (1955). Four muses then sing a charming rather humorous ensemble piece with those rhythmic twitches so typical of Nielsen. The next section for chorus and baritone is a bit more serious, but laced with amusing musical references to a barking dog [track-9 at 02:27]. The chorus dominates the chorale-like last number, bringing things to a reverential close.
Next we have an excerpt from Nielsen's incidental music to Helge Rode's (1870-1923) prologue for a 1916 production of Hamlet honoring the third centenary of Shakespeare's death. Entitled "Ariel's Song," it's a lovely aria for tenor and orchestra characterized by Scandinavian demureness.
Another cantata (WP) dating from 1908 follows. This was for the annual university commemoration, and has a text by Niels Moller (1859-1941), who was in the insurance business, but wrote and taught part-time. It's in four sections and was to be performed in the university auditorium, which placed limitations on the size of the orchestra. Accordingly Nielsen opted for just strings with a few winds and a piano.
In four sections, the opening one begins quietly, quickly picking up momentum. A male chorus soon enters followed by a tenor and soprano singing a florid duet about humanity's emergence from primeval darkness into light. The next section, which is for bass and male choir, dramatically outlines the intellectual progress of mankind. The third for soprano, tenor and bass supported by the chorus, eulogizes man’s pursuit of knowledge. The concluding chorus encourages the students in attendance to go forth and use what they've learned to make the world a better place in which to live.
The substantial combined forces of the Danish National Opera Chorus plus the Vox Aros Male and Aarhus Cathedral Choirs, along with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra under conductor Bo Holten are perfectly suited to this celebratory music. Together with soprano Ditte Hojgaard Andersen, tenor Mathias Hedegaard, and bass-baritone Palle Knoudsen, all of whom are in fine voice, they give us performances with a nationalistic fervor perfectly suited to these scores. Mention should also be made of reciter Jens Albinus, who delivers the spoken parts with great authority.
These recordings were done in the superb acoustic of the Aarhus Concert Hall. They are excellent from the soundstage standpoint with just the right amount of spread and depth for the massive forces involved. The instrumental timbre is quite natural sounding, and the soloists perfectly captured and balanced against what at times becomes a sonic tidal wave. However, as is the case with most CDs, one could wish for a more convincing choral sound, which is a bit on the edgy side.
As we've noted before, when it comes to digital recording, massed choruses seem to be the most difficult to faithfully reproduce. Generally speaking they come off much better in Super Audio, particularly when something like Ray Kimber's IsoMike is used.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P100322)
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Grand Celebration (Macy's 150th; Dupré, Elgar & Jongen); Conte/Wana Org/Milanov/Phil O [Gothic]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
This blockbuster release marks the completion of another chapter in the colorful history of the Wanamaker Organ. Originally designed to be the largest in the world (just over 10,000 pipes), it was built by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair where the great Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911, see the newsletter of 1 June 2007) played forty recitals on it. The Kansas City Convention Hall was to be its permanent home after the fair, but a series of unfortunate financial incidents prevented this. So it was crated up and moved to a St. Louis warehouse.
It languished there until 1909 when John Wanamaker (1838-1922) bought it for his new department store in the Center City District of Philadelphia. It took thirteen freight cars to move it to the "City of Brotherly Love," where its installation in the store's seven-story Grand Court was completed in 1911.
Wanamaker soon came to the conclusion it was too small for the space it occupied, and decided to enlarge it, opening his own organ factory in the store's attic. An additional 8,000 pipes were added by 1917, and 1919 saw the initiation of a series of historic concerts highlighting the organ. As on this disc, the first of these included the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose conductor was then Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977). With Charles-Marie Courboin (1884-1973) at the console, the program featured Widor’s (1844-1937) Sinfonia Sacra (1908), which we told you about in the newsletter of 8 February 2010.
Subsequent recitals were given by such greats as Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), Louis Vierne (1870-1937), Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), Marco Enrico Bossi (1861-1925) and Alfred Hollins (1865-1942). Dupré was so taken with the instrument that in 1921 he improvised a thirty-minute, four-movement symphony on it. Based on plainsong themes and depicting the life of Christ, he would later write it down as his Passion Symphony for solo organ (No. 1, 1924).
He's represented on this disc by his Cortege and Litany (1921). Originally part of some incidental music for a Paris play, and scored for chamber orchestra, the composer was later persuaded to make this arrangement for organ and orchestra. Cortege features a lovely lithe melody that first appears in the orchestra, which is soon joined by the organ.
A restatement and brief development follows ending in a quiet chord underscored by a seismic 32 foot organ pedal point [track-1, beginning at 01:59]. An insistent litany theme, which anticipates Jehan Alain's (1911-1940) solo organ piece Litanies of sixteen years later (1937), is then introduced by the woodwinds and organ. This is worked up along with the opening idea into a thrilling climax that’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser!
After John Wanamaker's death in 1922, his son Rodman (1863-1928) took over the business. Two years later (1924) he decided to augment the organ again, and commissioned Belgian-born Joseph Jongen (1873-1953, see the newsletter of 13 August 2008) to write a piece inaugurating the enlarged instrument. He responded with his Symphonie concertante for organ and orchestra, completed in 1926.
The composer was even scheduled to be the soloist for the Philadelphia première, but work delays on the organ as well as the death of his father in 1927 prevented this. Some minor modifications followed, and by 1930 it had attained its present configuration of 28,482 pipes (461 ranks). Incidentally, it's recently been completely restored.
As for Jongen's music, it was premièred in Brussels in 1928, but wouldn't be performed in the United States until 1935 when it was done at New York City's Carnegie Hall. Since then Wanamaker's has changed hands several times, with the current owners being Macy's, Inc. And on 27 September 2008 they celebrated their 150th anniversary in the Department Store business with the concert recorded here. So it would seem things have finally come full circle with this being the first performance of the piece on the instrument it was originally written for.
The opening allegro is basically in sonata form, but Jongen begins it with a brilliant fuguelet introducing the two main ideas. These are a robust chugging motif (RC) and a beautiful expansive melody (BE) that the composer skillfully develops, tossing them back and forth between organ and orchestra. The movement ends quietly followed by what's called a divertimento. This is a scherzo in all but name, where a feathery fleeting theme and rapturously rhapsodic melody alternate with cyclic references to RC and BE.
The lento that's next is the longest movement. Sinuous melodies brilliantly registrated and orchestrated make it one of the most delicately scored pieces for this combination of instruments you could ever hope to hear. There's a unique Jongen touch in the form of some arresting impressionistic remonstrations from the brass [track-4, beginning at 04:00 and 09:00]. These hint at the exuberant finale to follow while insuring this section never becomes a romantic wallow.
The concluding toccata recalls those in the organ symphonies of Widor and Vierne. Bravura writing and masterful scoring produce one of the most exciting movements in all romantic symphonic literature. It's right out of some cosmic concerto grosso where the "Pope of Instruments" and orchestra challenge each other in an escalating series of climaxes that end in a supernova coda.
A hard act to follow, the concert concludes with what might be considered a recessional, the first (1901) of Elgar's (1857-1934) six Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901-30, see the newsletter of 15 March 2008). With a big tune that won't quit and most listeners have graduated to it at least once, it needs no introduction. Suffice it to say the original scoring calls for organ, whose presence becomes increasingly noticeable towards the end, adding even greater majesty to the music. Elgar would use this melody again for the "Land of Hope and Glory" section in his 1902 Coronation Ode for Edward VII (1841-1910).
Billed as "A Grand Celebration," this album certainly captures the excitement associated with this once in a lifetime concert. Organist Peter Richard Conte demonstrates his total command of this windblown behemoth both from the registration as well as technical standpoints with some hand and footwork that would turn an octopus green with envy. In the first two selections, which are more solo pieces, he uses his phenomenal virtuosity never just for show, but only to serve the music. In the Elgar he gooses up the organ part just enough to make this one of the most thrilling performances of it you'll ever hear.
That's also due in no small part to the spirited playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra under its associate conductor, Rossen Milanov. Their reading of the Dupré is equally effective, as is most of the Jongen. However those who cut their teeth on the groundbreaking performance of the latter with Virgil Fox (1912-1980) may find parts of the first movement a tad subdued here. Also there are some brief queasy-sounding horn passages in the lento [track-4, beginning at 11:23], but other than that everything proceeds swimmingly.
As far as recordings of live performances go without benefit of touch-up sessions to get rid of occasional coughs (two noted) and applause (after each selection), these must rank with the most impressive ever done. The soundstage is stupendous! Granted the combined organ and orchestra may at times seem a bit congested, but that would probably be true under any circumstances with forces of this magnitude. The low frequency response is unbelievably immaculate despite all those organ pedal points (see above) plus some heavy-duty bass drum activity in the Elgar.
Audiophiles hearing this will undoubtedly find themselves wishing it had been done in Super Audio, which might have produced a more convincing instrumental timbre in the stereo mode, and knocked everyone's socks off in multichannel. But there's a musicality about this conventional Red Book CD that will transport any listener to sonic heaven. Reading the album notes, it's easy to believe producers Roger Sherman and Frederick Haas required the services of seven recording engineers. Caution: before playing, tie down any loose objects in your listening room!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y100321)
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