16 AUGUST 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.

The album cover may not always appear.
Arensky: 6 Pičces (Op 53), 4 Études (Op 41), 12 Études (Op 74), 6 Esquisses... (Op 52); Neiman [Naxos]
The piano has always been one of the most difficult instruments to convincingly capture on conventional CD, and in that respect it separates the sheep from the goats when it comes to recording engineers. This release not only passes the sound test, but features some very interesting, rarely heard repertoire beautifully played on a distinctive instrument. An international production, the music is that of Russian composer Anton Arensky (1861-1906, see the newsletter of 3 July 2008), performed and recorded by Americans on an Italian-made piano.

A student of Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Arensky was a talented pianist, composer and teacher who could count the likes of Scriabin (1872-1915) and Rachmaninov (1873-1943) among his pupils. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) championed his cause, but unlike him, when it came to solo piano music Arensky was a composer of miniatures, who never showed an interest in more extended forms like the sonata.

The first selection here, Six Pieces (Op. 53, 1901), is a case in point. It takes on the aspect of a suite similar to the five he wrote for two pianos (circa 1885-1904), the second and third of which would later achieve great popularity as orchestral pieces. With its dotted rhythm the regal imposing prelude smacks of Lully (1632-1687), while the flighty scherzo has affinities with Chopin (1810-1849), who was also a significant influence on another great Russian pianist and composer, Mily Balakirev (1837-1910, see the newsletter of 28 October 2008). A wistful elegy is followed by a Tchaikovskian prancing mazurka and tear-stained romance. The collection closes with a harmonically big-boned, virtuosic étude.

The Four Études (Op. 41, 1896), which are the earliest pieces here, obviously owe a great debt to Chopin on one hand, but on the other there's an underlying Russian gravitas with Eastern rhythmic as well as thematic idiosyncrasies that make them an Arensky creation. You'll find that also true of the Twelve Études (Op. 74, 1905), where the composer displays his significant abilities as a melodist. That's particularly the case with the rapturous first (Rachmaninov eat your heart out), and wind-swept fourth. The contemplative seventh gives Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) a run for his money, while the autumnal twelfth brings the cycle to a dramatic finish. Arensky probably would have written another set of these to traverse all the major and minor keys, but demon rum got the best of him!

The disc concludes with Six Esquisses subtitled "Prčs de la mer" (Op. 52, circa 1900). Collectively they form a suite like the opening six selections, but with more emphasis on virtuosity than expressivity. The first two sketches are riddled with Lisztian (1811-1886) runs, while there's a pathos about the exquisite third and angular fourth that would seem to mirror Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Bravura is the byword for the skittish fifth and shimmering sixth, ending this offering with puissant panache.

All of these pieces have appeared at some point on a variety of discs. However, having them together on one Naxos CD makes this release an ideal introduction to Arensky's piano music. That’s also true from the performance and price standpoints. In fact soloist Adam Neiman sweeps away what little competition now exists for these selections with confidently played, poignant interpretations of everything. Maybe he'll team up with another of his young up-and-coming colleagues to give us some of those suites for two pianos (see above) in the not too distant future.

Recorded in the intimate acoustic of The Barn at the Miller Estate in Manchester, Vermont, USA, the Fazioli instrument played by Mr. Neiman is perfectly captured. Incidentally pointy-eared listeners may occasionally detect what for lack of a better term might be called the piano counterpart of wolf tones, possibly associated with peculiarities of the instrument's keyboard/pedal mechanism.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y100816)


The album cover may not always appear.
Dargomizhsky: Rusalka (cpte opera); Solists/Jurowski/ColWDR RC&O [Profil]
This is the second opera about water sprites, or rusalkas as they're known in Slavic mythology, to appear in these pages in just as many months. Whereas the first one, Lurline, by Irish composer William Vincent Wallace (1812-1865), took place on/in the Rhine (see the newsletter of 23 July 2009), this one, Rusalka (1856) by Russian composer Alexander Dargomizhsky (1813-1869, also transliterated as Dargomyzhsky), is set along the Dnieper River.

In four acts, the composer wrote his own libretto basing it on an unfinished verse play by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). Incidentally, other than the fact they're both about a rusalka, the story for this opera is quite different from that of Dvorak's (1841-1904) identically named masterpiece (1901). That has a fairy-tale-inspired libretto by Czech poet Jaroslav Kvapil (1868-1950).

Dargomizhsky's stage works might best be described as a bridge between those by the father of Russian opera, Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), and what would soon come from Borodin (1833-1887), Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). That's particularly true of his Rusalka, where the folk elements hinted at by Glinka play an even bigger role, anticipating the importance they would have for later Russian opera composers.

After a fatefully dramatic nine minute overture [CD-1, track-1], the first act curtain goes up revealing a mill along a bank of the Dnieper River. With no libretto either included or referenced on the internet, you're on your own from here on out, except for a brief synopsis in the album notes. But the music immediately speaks for itself with a tune-swept introductory aria for the Miller [CD-1, track-2]. It's followed by a captivating trio [CD-1, track-3], where he's joined by his daughter Natasha, who's soon to become queen of the rusalkas, and her lover, a local prince.

Next there's a moving chorus [CD-1, track-4], which includes some spirited handclapping, and a couple of duets for Natasha, first with the Prince [CD-1, track-5], and then her father [Cd-1, track-6]. In the course of all this, the Prince reveals he can't marry her because she's not royalty, in spite of the fact she announces she's carrying his child. Totally distraught, her father tries to console her, but to no avail as she appeals to the goddess of the river and jumps in. The first act then ends tragically [CD-1, track-6] with a thrilling ensemble number worthy of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (1879).

The Prince's wedding is the subject for the second act [CD-2], which takes place in his palace. All the magic of the more animated moments in Rimsky-Korsakov's operas is here with lively Slavic sounding choruses, as well as a series of dances, including one of Gypsy persuasion [CD-2, track-5] -- Glinka would have loved it! But the festivities are interrupted by the sound of a disembodied female voice. The Prince recognizes it as Natasha’s, who's now queen of the rusalkas. Curiously enough she sings to the strains of a harp [CD-2, track-6, beginning at 02:57] just like Lurline (see the newsletter of 23 July 2009). The curtain then comes down as the celebration ends on a disquieting note with a dramatic fate-tinged selection for the once joyful wedding party.

The first scene of the third act takes place in the palace a few years later, and includes a melody (BG) of folk origin [CD-3, track-1, beginning at 03:02] similar to one Mussorgsky would use some twenty years later at the beginning of Boris Godunov (1874, see the newsletter of 23 July 2010). The Prince has been away hunting for quite awhile, and missing him, the princess sings a melancholy aria based on BG [CD-3, track-1]. This prompts her companion Olga to try and cheer her up with a catchy little ditty. The scene ends as a hunter from the Prince's entourage enters, and the Princess sends him back to bring her husband home [CD-3, track-2].

The next scene is similar to the one at the beginning of the opera, but the mill is completely dilapidated, and the grounds totally overgrown. It opens with a delightful chorus of water nymphs [CD-3, track-3], which in places smacks of Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla (1842) [CD-3, track-3, beginning at 01:52]. The Prince enters with a moving aria [CD-3, track-4], and then the Miller appears in a ragtag deranged state. After a heated exchange between the two, the Miller tries to kill him. But the Prince's hunting party rushes on stage, and saves him in a spectacular number for all as the third act curtain falls [CD-3, track-5].

The fourth and final act opens in the watery domain of the rusalkas with a captivating dance sequence for them [CD-3, track-6] that brings Leo Delibes' (1836-1891) ballets to mind. Natasha, now their queen, soon enters with her daughter, Rusalochka, and in a comely aria [CD-3, track-7] with rhythmic figurations reminiscent of Glinka's Capriccio Brillante on the Theme "Jota Aragonesa" (Spanish Overture No. 1, 1845), tells the youngster to go ashore, and entice her father the Prince into her underwater realm. Dargomizhsky has the little girl speak instead of sing her lines, which adds a delightful childish touch to her role.

The scene then shifts back to the river bank and mill [CD-3, track-8], where the Princess accompanied by her friend Olga sees the Prince with Rusalochka heading for the Dnieper. They try and stop him, but to no avail as his daughter jumps in the water, and the Miller suddenly appears, pushing Daddy in after her. The opera then ends with a thrilling emotionally charged number for everyone above and below water. There's an air of triumph about the final orchestral coda which leaves one thinking Natasha may have given the Prince one of those Lurline scuba rings (see the newsletter of 23 July 2009), allowing everyone underwater to live happily ever after!

A Cologne West German Radio (ColWDR) studio production, the singing here is uniformly good featuring Russian soloists in the title roles. These include sopranos Evilina Dobraceva (Natasha/Rusalka) and Elena Bryleva (Olga), mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya (the Princess), tenor Vsevolod Grivnov (the Prince), and basses Arutjun Kotchinian (the Miller) and Andrey Telegin (a hunter). Michail Jurowski conducts the ColWDR Chorus and Orchestra in an impassioned performance of this undiscovered Russian operatic masterpiece. Incidentally his young daughter Martha, a budding soprano in her own right, couldn't be a more winsome Rusalochka.

As far as conventional CDs of vocal music are concerned, this release is amazingly good. Spread across a generous soundstage in a warm acoustic, the soloists and chorus are ideally positioned as well as balanced against the orchestra. There is an occasional upper edge to the voices, which had this been a hybrid release, would probably not have been the case on the SACD tracks.. But other than that, sonic fussbudgets will be pleased with this recording. Let's face it, with a rarely performed stage work of these proportions, it'll be a chilly day in Hades before anything better comes along.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P100815)


The album cover may not always appear.
Dove: Tobias and the Angel (cpte opera); Soloists/Abell/YoungV Cs&En [Chandos]
Captivating church operas would seem to be a British specialty, and continuing in the tradition of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde (1957), Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), English composer Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) gives us Tobias and the Angel (1999). The libretto (see the album notes) by British playwright David Lan (b. 1952) is based on a story from the Book of Tobit contained in the Apocrypha.

Although the opera's in a single act, frequent changes of scene make for a somewhat involved plot where mystical as well as Jewish folk elements add lots of color to the scenario. All this provides Dove with an ideal opportunity to prove again he's one of the most inventive opera composers writing today. That's quite apparent in the scoring alone, which calls for eight soloists, a male quartet, three substantial choruses, and an iridescent chamber ensemble that includes accordion as well as organ.

The tale opens in Nineve (Nineveh) with Tobias' father Tobit on stage as the orchestra plays a catchy nine-note riff (CN), which could be a distant cousin of the opening theme from the last movement of Bartók's (1881-1945) Concerto for Orchestra (1942-45). It's repeated three times, and then Dad sings an aria permeated with references to CN in which he bemoans the oppression and murder of Jews by the Assyrians [track-1]. The action suddenly changes to a market place, where the people along with Tobit, his wife Anna and Tobias sing a rhythmically arresting ensemble number with the refrain "The king kills Jews" [track-2].

The scene shifts to an adjoining graveyard where Tobias and his father bury the latter's deceased brother. Suddenly a solo violin is heard playing a Jewish folk-sounding melody as the market is again spotlighted. The people along with Tobias and Raphael, who's an angel in disguise, break into a wild song and dance (WSD) to the words, "I spent my money on a barrel of stout," and a captivating klezmer band accompaniment [track-3].

From this point on the story gets rather complicated, so suffice it to say everything's well explained in the synopsis included with the album notes. Musical highpoints include a terrific morning wake-up chorus of sparrows sung by children [track-4]. They rouse Tobias who's been asleep in the graveyard below, but unfortunately their droppings have gotten into his eyes while he rested, blinding him. There's also a powerful organ-reinforced number for the demon Ashmodeus [track-5], who inhabits the body of Sara, a local beauty in the neighboring town of Ecbatane (Ecbatana). But more about her later!

An enchanting mountain scene for Tobias and Raphael that begins with exotic Eastern rhythms, and contains references to WSD follows [track-7]. It becomes poetically expansive with a moving chorus of trees [track-8] reminiscent of Delius' (1862-1934) Songs of Farewell (1930), or even Vaughan Williams' (1872-1958) Sea Symphony (No. 1, 1903-09, revised 1923), and some colorful passages for the vibraphone.

There's also a mystical echoing mountain chorus for men [track-9], after which the two descend to a river represented by a women's chorus [track-10]. Here Tobias is almost eaten by a gigantic fish, whose part is chanted by the children to some clever accompaniment served up by the accordion, harp and organ. But just like the fish we told you about in Klose's (1862-1942) Ilsebill (1903, see the newsletter of 13 July 2009), this is also a magic one!

Tobias kills it by twisting its tail, and at Raphael's prompting cuts out its heart and gallbladder [track-11], which we learn later have magical properties. In a scene that could almost be out of a Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) show, Tobias now marries Sara, and along with the wedding guests they dance up a storm to more of that delightful klezmer music [tracks-12, 13, 14 and 15]. The two then retire to Sara's room for their wedding night, and Tobias throws the fish heart onto the fire exorcizing her of the evil Ashmodeus [track-16].

The opera now draws to a thrilling climax with more of those infectious morning sparrows, plus welcome snatches of the river, mountain and trees choruses [track-17]. Tobias then cuts the gall-bladder in half and puts the pieces on Tobit's eyes. This miraculously restores his sight to the rejoicing of angels and recollections of CN [track-18]. The opera ends with a heavenly chorus, some angelic musings from Raphael, and a final reference to CN, with which everything began.

Following its 1999 premičre and numerous subsequent performances in British as well as North American churches, the Young Vic Theater Company under its Artistic Director David Lan (see above) mounted a highly successful production of "Tobias..." in 2006. This recording is based on that, and features such up-and-coming British singers as mezzo-sopranos Hyacinth Nicholls (Anna) and Karina Lucas (Sara), counter-tenor James Laing (Raphael), tenor Darren Abrahams (Tobias) as well as baritones Omar Ebrahim (Tobit) and Rodney Clarke (Ashmodeus). All of them deliver beautifully sung characterizations of their respective roles.

They're enthusiastically supported by four male choristers, a thirty-four member children's choir, two adult choruses numbering forty-eight and fifty-eight voices each, in addition to thirteen instrumentalists. All of the above are under American conductor David Charles Abell, whose studies with Leonard Bernstein would seem to be reflected in the electric performances worthy of The Great White Way that he gets from everyone. He even gives us a couple of "Bernstein Bounces."

For a conventional CD the sound is very good with only a slight edge to the voices. Had this been a hybrid disc, that probably would not have been the case on the SACD tracks. The sound stage is appropriately expansive for the large number of singers involved, and enveloped in the warm reverberant acoustic of St. Jude's Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London.

The instrumental timbre is totally natural across the amazingly wide dynamic and frequency ranges produced by Dove's imaginative scoring. Maintaining the correct balance between the soloists, choruses and instrumentalists must have been a significant challenge for the Chandos engineers. However, they've met it head-on, producing one of the most translucent well-focused opera recordings you could hope for.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y100814)


The album cover may not always appear. The album cover may not always appear.
Gál, H.: Vn Concs (2), Triptych (orch); Vogel/Woods/NSinfa [Avie]
Gál, H.: Vn Sons (2), Vn & Pno Ste; Vogel/Lagerspetz [Avie]
We've already told you about a couple of outstanding releases featuring chamber music by Austrian composer Hans Gál (1890-1987, see the newsletters of 7 May 2006 and 18 December 2008), and here are another two equally treasurable discs featuring a selection of his violin works, and then some. Throughout his career, like his colleague and fellow countryman Joseph Marx (1882-1964, see the newsletters of 18 October 2006, 28 January 2009 and 15 April 2009), Gál shunned the trend-setting lure of the avant-garde, including the dodecaphony of the Second Viennese School. He wrote music that was highly chromatic, but remained within the bounds of tonality as evidenced by all of the selections here. They have an elegance and intellectual refinement that give them immediate appeal, while making them worth hearing again and again.

Because of his Jewish heritage, he was forced to flee Continental Europe when the Nazis came to power, just as Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942, see the newsletter of 15 June 2008), Franz Mittler (1893-1970, see the newsletter of 27 February 2008), Alexander Tansman (1897-1986, see the newsletter of 11 May 2009) and Erich Zeisl (1905-1959, see the newsletter of 20 June 2007) already had or would soon do. So he left Vienna in 1938 for Great Britain, and with the help of Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940, see the newsletters of 28 October 2008 and 25 April 2010) eventually became a distinguished professor of music theory at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where he'd spend the rest of his life.

The first CD recommended here features orchestral works beginning with a concerto for violin and small orchestra written in 1932. This was when Hans was at the height of his career as director of the Music Conservatory in Mainz, Germany, and just before the Nazi occupation of that city forced his return to Vienna a year later.

In three movements, the beginning one is a fantasia with an attractive opening theme (AO) played by the oboe that somewhat anticipates Richard Strauss' (1864-1949) concerto for that instrument (1945, revised 1948). The orchestra soon nervously joins in, and the violin appears spinning out a soaring descant based on AO. It then introduces another lovely lithe melody (LL), and an intermezzo scherzando section a bit reminiscent of Shostakovich's (1906-1975) cheekier moments follows. As it ends the soloist returns playing AO, and launches into a scurrying cadenza. The movement concludes with a rigorous outburst from the orchestra, and a final peaceful coda based on LL highlighting the soloist.

Despite an overcast beginning in the strings, the middle arioso takes on a soft glow as the oboe once more introduces a warm subdued melody. The violin picks it up, singing an instrumental aria that ends with another frenetic cadenza. The movement closes with a few underlying pizzicato chords from the orchestra, only to start right up again as the concerto's whimsical rondo finale. This is based on a catchy hyperactive motif (CH) introduced by the soloist. The composer alternates it with other lovely more restrained ideas, engaging in some fancy chromatic footwork along the way. Then the concerto closes with another brief demanding cadenza, and a joyous explosive outburst from the orchestra.

Next on the program, the Triptych for full orchestra composed in Edinburgh almost forty years later (1970). You'd never guess a work of such assurance and vitality was written by an eighty year old! In three movements with many solo passages, particularly for the woodwinds, one could consider it a distant relative of the Baroque concerto grosso (see the newsletter of 8 September 2008). On that note, the first of its subtitled movements, "Impromptu," begins with a robust theme that would have made an excellent subject for a Bach (1685-1750) fugue. Gál develops this plus some other related material with consummate skill. The exciting concluding coda rushes downstairs and out the front door like an impatient child.

The "Lament" that's next begins with a lachrymose dirge for the clarinet, but then brightens as other winds and strings let in a little sunshine. The mood of the opening returns in the closing bars, only to be totally banished by the concluding "Comedy" movement. There's an exuberance here which recalls Richard Strauss' suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1918, see the newsletter of 11 July 2007), and ends the piece in high spirits.

The disc is filled out with the Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra, which was completed in 1939 shortly after the composer arrived in Britain from Vienna. Only in two movements, the first marked andante begins with a couple of heartrending melodies initially for the lower strings, and then the soloist. But the mood shifts about three minutes in, and the pace becomes more animated as the violin plays a perky tune over pizzicato accompaniment. A brief agitated fugato development (AF) follows, and then there's a return to the opening mood with snatches of AF. A fireworks-filled cadenza is next followed by a flashy descending passage for the soloist soon reinforced by the other strings.

This acts as a connecting bridge to the concluding rigaudon movement that starts with a 1716 dance the composer had seen in a display case at the British Museum. He then introduces a lovely amorous idea, alternating it with the dance in a sprightly development featuring some chromatic prestidigitation. Another cadenza with some of those extreme high notes so typical of Paganini's (1782-1840) concertos follows, and leads to a moving recap of motifs from both movements. At first graceful, the concluding coda rapidly gains momentum with what could almost be a reference to "I Wish I Was in Dixie" [track-8, beginning at 06:41]. Then the soloist and tutti sprint to the finish line, providing the concertino with a blitheful terminus.

Except for the sonatinas (Op. 71, 1956-57, not currently available on disc), the next CD offers all of Gál's works for violin and piano. The first selection is his sonata dating from 1920, which he wrote during his pre-Third-Reich years in Vienna. A youthful work there's a chromatic adventurousness which seems to have diminished as he aged. While quite rhapsodic, the first of its three movements generally adheres to sonata form. Labeled "patetico molto moderato," it begins with a theme (PM) that reflects the pathos referred to in the marking. This is set against a more lyrical optimistic second subject, after which the two undergo one of those chromatically charged developments so frequently found in late romantic music (see the newsletter of 30 March 2008).

There's something eerie and diabolical about the next movement, which is a scherzo in allegretto clothing. One can almost imagine the Devil playing his violin in the opening section. This alternates with a more benign melodic passage, which has the last say, ending the movement on a more reassuring note.

The sonata closes with an adagio whose mood is very close to that of the opening movement. It begins with a darkly pensive theme (DP) followed by one that could almost be a lullaby. They undergo a development which borrows from Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Richard Strauss. Then with references to PM the sonata ends hopefully as DP makes a final appearance in a major key.

Next up, a four-movement suite for violin and piano (1940-50), which began life in 1935 as a divertimento for mandolin and piano. A cheery little offering, it totally belies the nightmarish conditions, to use Gál's own description, he and his family experienced in Vienna from 1933 to 1938. That's particularly true of the playfully mischievous opening "Preambulo" and "Capriccio." There's a classical purity about the "Aria" that follows, while the chromatically cantankerousness concluding "Rondo" hearkens back to the violin and piano version of Korngold's (1897-1957) Much Ado About Nothing Suite (1920).

The program concludes with the three-movement sonata of 1933 composed shortly after his return to Vienna from Mainz. As with the suite, there's an optimism that gives no hint of the anxiety-ridden lives Austrian Jews were leading back then. Although there's an exceptional chromatic fluidity about the thematic ideas in the introductory allegretto, Gál holds everything together by casting it in sonata form.

A scherzo with twitchy outer sections and an attractive lyrical core acts as a diversion before the substantial closing movement. This opens with an expansive rhapsodic episode (ER) which gathers momentum, and is followed by a high-stepping tune (HS). References to ER resurface with HS returning in rondo fashion to end the sonata with a jocund flourish.

Highly acclaimed for her "formidable technique and stunning musicality," German violinist Annette-Barbara Vogel, who's the soloist on both of these releases, certainly lives up to her reputation. Not only that, but we have her to thank for the significant role she's played in implementing the ongoing revival of Hans Gál's undeservedly neglected music.

On the first disc conductor Kenneth Woods and the Northern Sinfonia of England provide outstanding support for Ms. Vogel in the two concertante works, and deliver a letter-perfect account of the fickle Triptych. Finnish pianist Juhani Lagerspetz obviously shares Vogel's enthusiasm for Gál's music, playing the three chamber works on the second CD with great delicacy and attention to detail.

Except for an occasional peak in the highs, the recordings on the first release are superb. They project the orchestra across a totally convincing soundstage in a nourishing acoustic. The instrumental timbre is very natural sounding with the solo violin in the two concertante works perfectly captured and balanced against the tutti forces. This is also the case with the numerous woodwind solos in the Triptych.

The recordings on the other disc are good, but not in the same league as the former. While the violin sound is quite convincing, the piano seems somewhat muffled, if not a bit grainy in forte passages. The high level at which this CD was cut may explain the latter to some degree.

One last thought, Gál wrote four symphonies which have yet to appear on disc. How about it, Avie!

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y100813, P100812)


The album cover may not always appear.
Orbán: Cantico di Frate..., Mass 11 (Benedictus), Razumovsky Trilogy; Alföldi/ReménEde ChO [Hung]
Born in Rumania (1947) of Hungarian parents, György Orbán moved to Budapest in 1979 where he now teaches at the Franz Liszt Academy. Having written over a hundred works, he's a composer of considerable merit, judging from the sampling of his oeuvre included on this Hungaroton release.

Saint Francis of Assisi (Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, 1181/8–1226; founder of the Franciscan Order and the patron saint of animals), has been a source of inspiration for many twentieth century classical composers, including Hermann Wetzler (1870-1943, see the newsletter of 15 January 2010), Roy Harris (1898-1979, see the newsletter of 20 December 2006), Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) and Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), to name a few.

Like some of them, Orbán has used Francis' cosmic invocation Cantico di Frate Sole (Canticle of the Sun, 1224) as the text for the opening selection. In the Umbrian dialect (see the album notes for the text with English and Hungarian translations), he set it for soprano and string orchestra in 1996. It's an exceptionally beautiful twelve-minute paean in sonata form where the thematic groups represent "Brother Sun" [track-1, beginning at 02:08] and "Sister Moon" [track-1, beginning at 03:51].

It's hard to believe it's by a contemporary Eastern European composer, because he writes with a romantic Italian lyricism typically found in the orchestral songs of composers like Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909) and Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). What's more, soloist Zsuzsa Alföldi's Umbrian is totally convincing to the point where you'd never guess she was Hungarian.

Orbán has written a significant amount of sacred music, including a number of Masses. And for an encore, Ms. Alföldi gives us the benedictus from his eleventh (1996), also with string accompaniment. Atavistic in taking its cue from romantic Italian opera, a graceful soaring vocal line makes it a lovely sounding piece.

Filling out the disc, we have the Razumovsky Trilogy for string orchestra of 2000. A series of three suites whose starting points were four string quartets he wrote in the 1990s, Count Razumovsky's (1752-1836) name in the title pays homage to Beethoven's (1770-1827) ground-breaking Op. 59 quartets (Nos. 7-9, 1805-06). It's also indicative of Russian stylistic elements the composer has written into these pieces as Beethoven had done with his Opus 59.

The first suite, Ball Music for Count Razumovsky, is in seven sections, and opens with a delightful overture containing a theme [track-3, beginning at 00:26] which could almost be from the "Troika" in Prokofiev's 1891-1953) Lt. Kijé Suite (1934). The "Vasska" section is drawn from Orbán's music for Péter Gothár's (b. 1947) film Vaska Easoff (1995), and ends humorously with what sounds like an unresolved reference to "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" [track-5, at 01:24]. Other points of interest include a poignant "Valse triste" ŕ la Sibelius (1865-1957), a Piazzolla (1921-1992) inspired "Tango," and a paprikash-spiked csárdás entitled "Frisch." The suite concludes with a wistfully tuneful "Voex de bonheur."

The second suite, Pages from an Album, begins with a catchy introductory "Entrée" that scurries about. Arch romanticism characterizes "Aveu," which is offset by the fickle "Elle-męme" and "Scherzo" that follow. The work ends with a lost waltz appropriately titled "Derničre valse oubliée," a spooky "Raproche," and an "Ŕ la tzigane" full of crazed Gypsy fiddlers.

Although it's only in five sections, the final suite, Farewell to Count Razumovsky, is the longest. While not in strict march time nor particularly sentimental, the introductory "Marcia sentimentale" possesses a furtive charm that gets things off to an animated start. The "Never" section brings to mind the air from Bach's (1685-1750) third orchestral suite (1717-23), and the slow movement of Beethoven's first Razumovsky quartet (No. 7, 1805). The penultimate "Tantz" is another csárdás with a main theme inspired by the same Magyar folk tune Kodály (1882-1967) must have had in mind when he wrote the last of his Dances from Galánta (1933). There's a heartfelt sincerity about the closing "Pour toujours" that ends the work with a tearful smile.

Soprana Zsuzsa Alföldi has received repeated acclaim as a concert singer, and she doesn't disappoint here. Her voice is ideally suited to the two romantic vocal selections on this release, and the Reményi Ede Chamber Orchestra (RECO) produces a lustrous tone that perfectly complements her. With its fifteen members specially selected from the most gifted string players in Hungary, the RECO goes on to give thrilling virtuoso-swept accounts of the suites.

These recordings project a lifelike soundstage in a hall with a reverberation time that if anything makes Ms. Alföldi's delivery all the more radiant while enriching the string tone. At higher volume levels some may experience some raggedness in the highs, but other than that the voice and strings are for the most part natural sounding.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, P100811)