CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
8 JUNE 2011
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.
Antheil: Brothers (cpte opera); Soloists/Sloane/Bochum SO [CPO]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
American composer George Antheil (1900-1959, see the newsletter of 30 September 2006) spent the early 1920s in Paris hobnobbing with the likes of Erik Satie (1866-1925), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974, see the newsletter of 17 February 2007) and Virgil Thomson (1896-1989, see the newsletter of 22 November 2010). It was there he established his reputation as a Bad Boy of Music with his Ballet Mécanique (1925, revised 1953).
Then in the late 1920s he moved on to Berlin, where he'd become involved in theater and opera productions. But his music was too “entartete” for the Nazis, and he returned to the United States in 1933. Like Steiner (1888-1971, see the newsletter of 18 April 2011), Korngold (1897-1957, see the newsletter of 31 March 2011) and Tansman (1897-1986, see the newsletter of 25 May 2011), who fled Europe for Hollywood, Antheil moved there in 1936 where he'd become a much sought-after film score composer.
A curious aside to his musical endeavors in Tinseltown stems from his having met Austrian-born film star Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000) there. She was of Jewish origin and had fled her native country in 1937, where her Nazi-sympathizing husband was an arms manufacturer. But she was also an accomplished mathematician, and along with Antheil, who had a flare for mechanical engineering, invented a method of frequency-hopping radio transmission that would help make today's cell phones and Wi-Fi possible.
Except for a couple of earlier less than satisfactory attempts, opera came late to Antheil. Then in 1954 he made up for lost time, producing three single act works, including the one here. With a libretto by the composer (see the album booklet for the complete text in German and English), it's a modernization of the biblical Cain and Abel story set just after World War II (1939-1945) with the names changed to Ken and Abe. The music is extremely lyrical, demonstrating Antheil was a magnificent melodist when he wanted to be.
For five soloists and a small orchestra, it's in three scenes that take place over a twenty-four hour period on a single set dressed as a roomy middle class kitchen. The opera opens at breakfast time, and introduces the three main characters, who are Mary, her husband Abe, and his brother Ken. The groundwork for an ultimately tragic love triangle is laid in a lovely aria sung by Ken [track-4].
Towards the end of it there's a throwback to Antheil's wilder Paris creations when we hear a honking automotive horn [track-4, beginning at 03:36]. Then the scene concludes with some passages not far removed from the opening of Wagner's (1813-1883) Die Walküre (1850) [track-5, beginning at 00:02], and Milhaud's La Création du monde (1923) [track-5, beginning at 00:43].
The plot thickens in the second scene, which takes place on the evening of the same day, when it's revealed Mary is blind. Suffice it to say Ken visits her, pretending to be Abe, and leaves in a rage (see the informative album synopsis for details), setting the stage for the fratricide to come. There’s a darkly haunting aria (DH) for Mary [track-8], and the scene concludes with a beautiful exchange between her and Abe containing a gorgeous heartfelt passage (GH) [track-10, beginning at 01:33].
The final scene takes place the next morning as Ken once again pretends to be Abe. But Mary recognizes him, declares her love for her husband, and calls for help. Abe then enters with two gun-packing former soldier acquaintances, Ron and Jim. A scuffle ensues in which Ken fatally stabs Abe, and Jim shoots Ken, creasing his forehead with the "Mark of Cain." The opera ends tragically as the ill-fated couple sing their farewells that include a reference to GH, followed by a final aria by Mary harkening back to DH.
Furthering CPO's commendable revival of Antheil's music, Soprano Rebecca Nelsen (Mary), tenors Ray M. Wade, Jr. (Abe) and E. Mark Murphy (Jim), along with baritones William Dazeley (Ken) and Piotr Prochera (Ron) are all in fine voice for this operatic rarity. Together with the Bochum Symphony Orchestra under conductor Steven Sloane there's an innocence and directness about their delivery which makes this work all the more attractive as a piece of Americana.
The recording is quite good with the soloists ideally positioned and balanced against the orchestra. The soundstage is appropriate to the modest forces involved, and in a nourishing acoustic. Now and then the voices have a bit of an edge, which would probably not have been the case had this been offered in SACD.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P110608)
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Constantinides: Stg Qts 1-3, Dedications (5), Preludes (3), Eleg...; Various Stg Qts [Centaur]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Composer Dinos Costantinides (b. 1929) was born in Greece and educated there as well as America, where he now teaches at Louisiana State University. His works have gained a worldwide reputation for their excellence, and the selections for string quartet on this new release from Centaur demonstrate why.
The first quartet (1967, revised 2003) [tracks-15, 16 and 17] is a three-movement serial work that's exceptional for its listener friendliness and emotionality. Based on a six-note row, the first and last movements are articulate, yet highly dramatic. They surround a largo built from a four-note motif that's as slippery as an eel.
His second quartet (1979, revised in 1998) [tracks-1, 2, 3 and 4] is subtitled "Mutability" after Percy Bysshe Shelley's (1792-1822) two poems of the same name. Divided into four movements, it's a theme with transformations whose subject we're told is an old popular Greek melody.
Except for the catchy rhythmically phosphorescent third movement, the others are lyrically somber with a chromatic mysticism that at times collapses into dissonance. The last movement hints at the "Marche funèbre" from Chopin's (1810-1849) second piano sonata (1839).
It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's (1807-1882) epic poem Evangeline (1847) that inspired Dinos' third quartet of 2004 [track-10]. In one movement lasting about twelve minutes, it's an exercise in dramatic concision where the mood shifts seamlessly from prickly anticipation to agitated minimalistic anxiety, and finally dark despair.
Three shorter works complete the program. Dedications of 1981 [tracks-5, 6, 7, 8 and 9] is drawn from the composer's 20th Century Studies for Two Violins (1970, currently unavailable on disc). It's another serial piece in five fleeting episodes, but “dodecaphobes” will find there's a variety and whimsicality that make it immediately appealing.
The set of three Preludes from 1997 [tracks-11, 12 and 13] is exceptionally moving. Subtitled "Dreams" and "Heavens" respectively, an Eastern aura suffuses the first and last, which is not surprising considering they're based on modal sequences. On the other hand, the central "Earth" prelude is constructed from palindromic motifs (see the newsletter of 9 March 2006) that give it a captivating insistency.
Last but not least there's Elegy for K (2001) [track-14] written in memory of a close friend. The understandably mournful beginning and ending are offset by a lively Greek dance, which would seem to imply the deceased was fond of dancing.
Different performing groups are represented here, and all of them are in fine form. The Valcour Quartet from southern Louisiana gives us the first of the three numbered quartets. The other two, along with Dedications, are done by the Sinfonietta Quartet, whose members are drawn from the Louisiana Sinfonietta. Preludes and Elegy... are performed by the Nevsky Quartet, which is based in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Done between 1997 and 2008 at an unidentified location(s) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana the recordings sound amazingly consistent. They project a spacious soundstage in a warm acoustic that seems a bit more reverberant when the Valcour Quartet plays. The string tone is natural with just a hint of glare here and there. The only nitpick would be the presence of what are probably some momentary edit blips [track-13 at 00:33, and track-15 at 01:10].
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P110607)
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Halvorsen: Orch Wks V3 (Sym 3, Fossegrimen Ste, Bergensiana, etc);
N.Järvi/Bergen PO [Chandos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Halvorsen: Orch Wks V2 (Sym 2 "Fatum", Ancient Ste, etc);
N.Järvi/Bergen PO [Chandos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Halvorsen: Orch Wks V1 (Sym 1, Mascarade Ste, Entry of Boyars, etc);
N.Järvi/Bergen PO [Chandos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Previous performances of Norwegian composer-conductor Johan Halvorsen's (1864-1935) symphonies have had to rely on scores and parts riddled with errors. But not these recordings from Chandos based on new editions meticulously prepared just for them by Norwegian pianist-conductor Jörn Fossheim. With the release of this third volume in their Halvorsen series, they give us accurate modern day renditions of all three of his symphonies. What's more, a number of other captivating works long overdue for revival are also included.
The most recent album features his third symphony (1928), which is in three-movements with the second a combination andante and scherzo. The work is dotted with references to the likes of Grieg (1843-1907), Puccini (1858-1924), Sibelius (1865-1957) and Rachmaninov (1873-1943). Of particular note here is conductor Järvi's decision to restore a part for the glockenspiel in the finale (see the informative album notes). Hearing it done this way [track-3, beginning at 07:19], it's hard to imagine the symphony would have been quite as colorful without it.
Three short occasional pieces follow, the impressionistic Sorte Svaner (Black Swans, 1921), sprightly Bryllupsmarsch (Wedding March) for violin and orchestra (1912), and mournful folk-song-based Rabnabbryllaup uti Kraakjalund (Wedding of Ravens in the Grove of the Crows, 1891).
Next up, a thirty-minute suite from the early 1900s that Halvorsen extracted from his incidental music for Sigurd Eldegard’s (1866-1950) play Fossegrimen. Folk music references abound throughout this winsome troll-ridden symphonic compendium that has all the appeal of Grieg's music for Peer Gynt (1874-75). With a substantial part for the Norwegian Hardingfele (Hardanger fiddle, see the newsletter of 7 April 2007) [tracks-7, 9 and 12], this performance also includes a diaphanous number known as "Danse visionaire." It’s an earlier Halvorsen piece (1898) that was temporarily inserted to fill out the original incidental music.
The last selection Bergensiana, or Rococo Variations on an Old Melody from Bergen (1921), is one of the composer's most popular works in Norway. Apparently based on an unidentified minuet by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), it's a brilliantly orchestrated infectious offering with an ursine bassoon, skeletal xylophone, amorous mandolin, and once again that tintinnabular glockenspiel mentioned above. It ends the disc on a Nordic high.
Halvorsen's second symphony is the star attraction on the second CD [tracks-11, 12, 13 and 14]. Completed in 1924 just a year after the first symphony (see below), it begins with a fate motif that dominates all four movements, and is reflected in its subtitle "Fatum."
The opening allegro is a masterfully written sonata form movement. It's followed by a dark romance with a plaintive oboe solo, and a jolly folkish intermezzo that's some of the most charming music Halvorsen ever penned. The driven finale has the dramatic intensity of Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and the cyclic subtlety of Franck (1822-1890). Tragedy turns to hope in the last few measures as the symphony ends optimistically.
Lasting almost half an hour, the Suite ancienne (Ancient Suite, 1911) [tracks-1, 2, 3, 4 and 5] is one of Halvorsen's finest creations. Each of its five engaging movements is seventeenth-eighteenth century wine in late romantic bottles.
The disc is complemented by some shorter selections for violin and orchestra. The Three Norwegian Dances (1896-1931) [tracks- 6, 7 and 8] and showy Air norvégien (Norwegian Air, 1903) [track-9] recall Grieg's dances for orchestra. The Chant de la Veslemöy (Veslemoy's Song, 1899-1909) [track-10} is a beautiful melancholic 1909 orchestral version of the fourth movement from Halvorsen's Suite mosaïque (Four Mosaiques) for violin and piano (1898).
The initial CD in this series gives us his first symphony of 1923 [tracks-13, 14, 15 and 16], which at thirty-five minutes is the longest of the three. In four movements, the beginning allegro is a romantic outpouring in the spirit of the many works by Tchaikovsky and Dvorák (1841-1904) Halvorsen frequently conducted. A flowing andante and folkloric harmonically inventive scherzo follow, setting the stage for the exhilarating rondo finale. Notable for some humorous effervescent passages and sweeping melodies, it ends the symphony "In the Hall of the Mountain King."
Dating from 1922, a suite from Halvorsen's incidental music for Ludvig Holberg's 1684-1754) comedy Mascarade (Masquerade, 1724) is also here [tracks-3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11], and it's an absolute gem! Highlights include a vivacious classically oriented "Holberg Overture," some sprightly folk-tinted dances, and a comely lyrical "arietta."
The program is filled out with three other delights, including Bojarernes Indtogsmarsch (Entry March of the Boyars, 1895) [track-1], which is undoubtedly the best known piece Halvorsen ever wrote. It ranks today with such beloved war-horses as the first of Elgar's (1857-1934) Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901-30).
Andante religioso (c. 1899) [track-2] and La Mélancolie [track-12] are moving encores for violin and orchestra. The latter is a 1913 arrangement of a heart-wrenching lament written in 1850 by Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull (1810-1880).
Conductor Neeme Järvi once again works that musical magic we've so often come to expect of him on all three of these discs. He elicits what will undoubtedly be definitive performances of the symphonies for some time to come. And it's hard to imagine more devoted interpretations of the other selections.
The members of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra play their hearts out for him, making a strong case for this undeservedly neglected music by their fellow countryman. A big round of applause also goes to Norwegian violinists Marianne Thorsen and Ragnhild Hemsing (Hardanger fiddle) for their solo work.
All three albums are sonically excellent, which is not surprising considering the same venue (Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway) and personnel were involved. The recordings project an ideally proportioned soundstage in a warm acoustic, where there's no loss of individual instrumental focus. The highs are brightly transparent, but musical. The bass goes down to rock bottom, while remaining well-defined. Audiophiles won’t be disappointed.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y110606, Y110605, Y110604)
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Schmidt-Kowalski: Pno Conc, Va Conc, Sym Fant; Riem/Dascal/Takahashi/AueErz P [Querstand]
SUGGESTED (1 CD)
Despite less than ideal performances, these atavistic symphonic works written by German-born-and-trained Thomas Schmidt-Kowalski (b. 1949) just within the last ten years (no specific dates given) are worth bringing to the attention of all dyed-in-the-wool romantics. Curiously enough he began his career as an avant-garde composer, but soon rejected modernism in favor of a stylistic return to the good old days of such greats as Brahms (1833-1897), Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), Dvorák (1841-1904), Elgar (1857-1934) and Richard Strauss (1864-1948).
With great tunes and a flare for the dramatic, the three-movement piano concerto would certainly qualify for Hyperion's burgeoning "Romantic Piano Concerto" series. The opening allegro owes a debt to Brahms and Saint-Saëns, while there's an appealing Straussian melodic sinuosity about the following adagio.
The finale begins with an attractive jovial idea (AJ), which may bring to mind Brahms' Academic Festival Overture. A lush tune soon follows, and is lovingly developed along with AJ. The concerto then ends with some keyboard fireworks, and a thrilling accelerando as pianist and tutti race to the finish line.
The viola concerto that's next is obviously a potentially lovely work. But there's an intonational queasiness about this performance which may have critical listeners in need of Dramamine before it's over! That said, the three movements consist of a heartfelt elegie, Dvorák-like rhapsodic allegro, and searching, but ultimately optimistic andante with Elgarian leanings.
The last selection is a Symphonic Fantasy for Large Orchestra on "Das Lied von der Glocke" ("Song of the Bell"). Inspired by Friedrich Schiller's (1759-1805) campanalogically cast philosophical epic (1798), it's dominated by a chorale-like bell leitmotif (CB) [track-7, beginning at 00:42].
In the best tradition of high romantic tone poems, it's an imaginative emotionally wrought work that will hold your interest. Towards the end there's a snatch of "La Marseillaise" [track-7, beginning at 11:13] undoubtedly recalling a reference in Schiller's poem to the French Revolution (1789). The piece then closes with a powerful coda based on CB.
Pianist Julian Riem is superb in the first concerto, but as implied above the same can't be said for violist Emilian Dascal in the second. The Aue Erzgebirge Symphony Orchestra under conductor Naoshi Takahashi comes off quite well in the opening and closing selections, but seems a bit at sea in the viola concerto. Then again, with repertoire this rare we're lucky to have what's here, if for no other reason than it may engender more accomplished performances of it.
Taken from a concert that took place last October, the recordings are a mixed blessing. While there's no sign of an audience, the soundstage is a bit congested, and there's some digital grain in loud passages. It would also seem that Maestro Takahashi does a couple of "Bernstein Bounces" on what must have been a timpanic podium.
Incidentally there are four Naxos releases of Schmidt-Kowalski's music available as downloads from the ClassicsOnline.com website. As far as jewel case hard copies of these are concerned, previously you could only get them from Germany. However, some are now available in the U.S. from Records International (see the newsletter of 31 August 2011).
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, S110603)
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