CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
12 APRIL 2012
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.
Foerster, J.B.: Pno Trios Cpte (3); Janácek Trio [Supraphon]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Many of us thought the standout discovery of 2010 was Supraphon's album of Czech composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster's (1859-1951) five string quartets (see the newsletter of 29 October 2010), and now they give us an equally memorable disc with his three piano trios. While these span forty years (1883-1922) representing different phases in his creative development, each was written in the shadow of a family member's death, so there are darker moments common to all.
Conceived while he was a music student in Prague, the first piano trio was completed in 1883. In four movements, the initial idea for the opening sonata form allegro starts with a sinister five-note motto. And considering his apparent continuing grief over his mother's demise a couple of years earlier, Foerster may have intended this as a fate motif (FM). It will infect the entire movement, including a couple of other succeeding themes. The consummate development and recapitulation that follow show he'd learned his lessons well. The movement then ends perfunctorily with harrowing references to FM.
The scherzo that's next also begins with another five-note motto, but this time an antsy rather whimsical one. It dominates the movement's outer sections, which surround a lovely lyrical central episode. This presages the coming adagio, which from the outset features one of the composer’s most beautiful melodies (MB). There's a wistfulness here that makes one wonder if it might have been associated with memories of his mother.
The trio concludes in another sonata allegro [track-4] opening with three delightful subjects, a Slavonic hop [00:00], Moravian cantilena [1:03] and catchy Bohemian polka (CB) [02:14]. After a repeat, Foerster puts them in his developmental cocktail blender, finally recapping all in an ebullient "shaken, not stirred" coda with a couple of final references to MB [11:17]. By the way CB put an earworm in this listener's head that persists as of this writing!
Eleven years later he completed his second trio (1894), which is only in three movements, follows an unconventional fast-fast-slow schema, and is harmonically more adventurous. The initial allegro is a sonata form structure opening with two ideas. The first is energetically outgoing, and may remind you of Dvorák's (1841-1904) Slavonic Dance No. 8 from his Op. 46 set (1878). The second is a lovely, more retiring tune also with a Slavic lilt. They're subjected to a brief development tinged with occasional sadness, followed by a recapitulative concluding coda that's all sweetness and light.
The fleeting featherlight extremities of the next scherzo enclose a dramatically charged aria-like episode hinting at the tone of the final movement. This is a dark emotionally torn adagio undoubtedly linked to the recent death of the composer's younger sister. Cries from the strings along with stabbing ff chords on the piano bring home a sense of grievous loss throughout this elegiac reverie. Foerster must have been very close to his sister!
It would be another twenty-five years before he finished his third and final trio (1919-1921). Once again a family tragedy had occurred not long before its genesis with the death of his only son.
In three movements like its predecessor, it's one of his most progressive works, and borders on early expressionism. This is evident right from the opening harmonically searching moderato. In modified sonata form, it's structurally complex with a fugally introduced final coda, and will require more than one listening to fully decipher.
The following understated andante is a doleful cloud-covered meadow of meditation with only an occasional patch of hope-filled sunshine. It lays the groundwork for the agonized, bipolar final allegro, where the composer pulls out all the emotional stops. Despite isolated piano passages reminiscent of Rachmaninov (1873-1943) [track-10, beginning at 00:42 and 05:19], there's a searching chromaticism that borders on atonality, making this music that grows on you with repeated exposure.
The Janácek Trio delivers immaculate supercharged performances of everything eclipsing the Foerster Trio's groundbreaking CD release of ten years ago (also on Supraphon). Back then their rather diffident approach didn't show these trios off for the chamber masterpieces they are. Fortunately that situation has now been corrected with this stunning new disc. Incidentally, what may sound like a couple of intonational anomalies in the last trio would seem to be passing-tone peculiarities of this highly chromatic music.
Done on three separate occasions between 2009 and 2010 for Czech radio in the same Prague studio, these recordings are generally satisfying. The soundstages projected are modest and in a warm acoustic. Placement and balance between the instruments is good with them sounding marginally closer together in the first trio.
The piano is well captured with only an occasional hint of digital grain. The strings are for the most part natural except for a wiry upper violin passage or two in the first trio. Some listeners may notice brief low frequency rumblings at the beginning of the second trio. Maybe Laurel and Hardy were moving a piano next door!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P120412)
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Glazunov: Stg Chbr Wks Cpte V5 [Stg Qts 1 & 7)]; Utrecht Qt [MD&G]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
The Utrecht Quartet concludes their surpassing survey of Russian composer Alexander Glazunov's (1865-1936) chamber music for strings (see the newsletter of 21 September 2011) with this fifth volume. The first and last of his quartets presented here neatly bookend the previous selections, providing revealing stylistic musical snapshots of him as a Wunderkind, and then during his final years in Paris.
Glazunov was composing at eleven, and by the time he was in high school Mily Balakirev (1837-1910, see the newsletter of 28 October 2008), leader of "The Five," ran across some of his scores. He brought them to the attention of Rimsky-Korsakov's (1844-1908, see the newsletter of 30 August 2007), who immediately took "Sasha" on as a private pupil, subsequently describing his musical development as not by the day, but literally the hour.
During this period (1881-1882) Alexander wrote the first of his nine symphonies (last uncompleted, see the newsletter of 20 August 2009) and seven string quartets. Then in 1882 Rimsky conducted the highly successful premiere of the former. And when the enthusiastic audience called for the composer to take a bow, they were completely dumbfounded to find a teenager standing in front of them!
What's more, it so impressed wealthy Russian philanthropist Mitrofan Belyayev (1836-1903) he'd go on to establish a publishing house for Sasha’s music. But more immediately he invited Glazunov, who played the cello, to participate in the weekly Friday night string quartet gatherings known as "Les Vendredis" ("The Fridays"). These took place in Belyayev’s home, and it was on one of these occasions that the first quartet received its premiere.
In four movements, the opening one is in two parts. It begins with an andantino having a rhythmically accented riff which hints at the first theme (RA) in the succeeding allegro. This starts in fugal fashion with a full statement of RA followed by a related folkish idea (RF). Fragments of both are then tossed about in a variety of keys. The movement concludes with melancholy thoughts of RA that make a pizzicato transition into a cheeky concluding coda recalling RF.
A catchy fluttering, Slavic-tinged scherzo, and autumnal aria-like andante are next. The sorrow characterizing the latter is completely swept away by the finale. It's structurally similar to the first movement with a cheery rustic foot-tapping first idea (CR) and more effuse, melodically related second (ME). These are skillfully intertwined, and the quartet concludes with remembrances of ME, which via more pizzicato give way to a lively CR-based coda. Not bad for a sixteen-year-old!
The seventh quartet of 1930 is one of the composer's last works, and as might be expected, harmonically as well as structurally considerably more advanced. It's also in four movements, but each is subtitled, implying an underlying program that the composer never elaborated on further.
The first, "Hommage au passé" ("Homage to the Past"), is in sonata from and obviously folk influenced, which would seem to explain the name. It's another two-part affair with an initial adagio that's a mournful contrapuntal preview of the Russian-soul-filled first theme (RS). The succeeding allegro section begins with a happier full version of RS, followed by a related darker idea. They're masterfully developed, and the movement ends in a dramatic coda built on both. The last five notes are identical to those with which the piece began.
The gorgeous andante, "Le souffle de printemps" ("The Breath of Spring"), with its wistful beginning and buoyant ending may recall memories of happier times in Russia. On that note the infectious scherzo, "Dans la forêt mystérieuse" ("In the Mysterious Forest"), is a return to the world of Russian fairy tales like those Anatole Liadov (1865-1914) explored in his Baba-Yaga (1891-1904) and Kikimora (1909).
The finale, "Festival Russe" ("Russian Festival"), kicks off with a theme appropriate to the occasion being quite reminiscent of the one for the coronation scene chorus in Mussorgsky's (1839-1881) Boris Godunov (1874). This will recur throughout the movement in various folkish developmental guises, including some colorful contrapuntal as well as stunning balalaika-like pizzicato ones. The quartet concludes with a frenetic reference to the opening idea, and ends in a catchy rhythmically spiky coda. Obviously the old boy hadn't lost his touch when it came to writing celebratory music.
As with their previous Glazunov releases the Utrecht String Quartet plays both works with exceptional feeling and an attention to detail that turn what frequently comes off as just good music into great. If you've not already done so, by all means check out their traversal on MD&G of Glazunov’s other quartets (6031236, 6031237, 6031238 and 6031239), as well as the four (1894-1929) by Alexander Grechaninov (1864-1956; 6031157 and 6031388).
The MD&G engineers have really outdone themselves on this one! They give us recordings that project a slightly larger soundstage in a warmer more reverberant acoustic than the previous audiophile-rated release in this series (see the newsletter of 21 September 2011), and the music is all the richer for it! The instrumental balance is ideal, and the string tone totally natural from top to bottom. Just for the record, there was a momentary, barely audible blip on the review copy in the andante of the first quartet [track-3, at 03:08].
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y120411)
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Kalkbrenner: Pno Concs 2 & 3, Adagio & Allegro (pno & orch);
Shelley/Tasm SO [Hyperion]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Kalkbrenner: Pno Concs 1 & 4;
Shelley/Tasm SO [Hyperion]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
German-born Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785-1849) was playing piano concertos by age six, and would go on to study in Paris and Vienna between 1798 and 1814. During this period he started to compose, and became a virtuoso pianist par excellence with an enormous ego that didn't sit too well with many of his contemporaries. As a case in point, he'd later tell the young Chopin (1810-1849), who was then considered by many as an even greater pianist, that he'd benefit from three years of intensive study with him!
While in Vienna Friedrich became a good friend of Hummel (1778-1837, see the newsletters of 30 January 2008), with whom he played duets, and on occasion hung out with Beethoven (1770-1827). In that regard it would seem Kalkbenner's music reflects the classical sensitivities of the former more than the latter's romantic tempestuousness.
In 1814 he left Austria for England, eventually becoming the most highly paid piano teacher in London. By 1823 he'd made a small fortune and moved to Paris, where he joined the Pleyel Piano Company, founded by pianist-composer Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831). The "City of Light" would be his base of operations for the rest of his life.
The year 1823 also saw him pen the first of his four piano concertos, all of which are on the two Hyperion "Romantic Piano Concerto" releases considered here. They were written to show off Kalkbrenner's prodigious technique, which was characterized by highly disciplined, machine gun finger-work. In that regard it's almost as if he was possessed by the idea "idle digits mischief make." The conventional three-movement structure prevails throughout, and each ends in a rondo. Incidentally, these are the only currently available recordings of the last three.
The earlier disc (album cover to the right) featuring the first and fourth (1835) concertos was released in 2006, so interested collectors already have or know about it. Accordingly we'll simply say numero uno smacks of Mendelssohn (1809-1847, see the newsletter of 21 December 2009), while the last would seem to be making its way towards Chopin. Maybe it was Kalkbrenner who'd have benefitted from lessons with Chopin!
The other CD (album cover to the left) was just recently released, and has the middle concertos along with Kalkbrenner's Adagio ed Allegro di bravura (Adagio and Allegro in Bravura Style) for piano and orchestra. The second concerto of 1826 is the leadoff selection with an opening allegro whose orchestral introduction is very similar to that in Hummel's A minor one of 1821.
But Friedrich soon goes his own way, giving us a concerto that at times recalls John Fields' (1732-1837) seven efforts in this genre (1799-1832), and frequently seems like a piano sonata with orchestral accompaniment. The charming immaculate first movement and reflective andante can't help but please! The latter, subtitled "La tranquillité" ("Tranquility"), has a theme that bears an initial resemblance to the main one in the last movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (No. 6, 1808),
The digitally dexterous concluding rondo is tuneful and rhythmically infectious. It includes a knuckle-busting cadenza and ends the concerto in a thrilling flurry of notes. Kalkbrenner's ability to write engaging music like this would seem to somewhat justify his vanity.
The third concerto of 1829 begins with an allegro having a dramatic orchestral introduction and a couple of subsequent Beethoven-boned motifs (BBs), parts of which the composer embellishes with flighty finger-work. Then there's a subdued central episode [track-4, beginning at 06:53] that could pass for one of those nocturnes originated by John Field. It's followed by more titillating bravura passages that include a brief cadenza, and memories of those BBs, which soloist and tutti work up into a triumphant conclusion.
The maestoso section that's next serves as a tiny slow movement, and introduces the closing rondo with dark hints of the delightful recurring theme (DR) that'll dominate the latter. That begins with a cheerfully bouncy complete version of DR, which skitters along in charming fashion, ending the concerto on a light note and leaving the audience smiling.
The disc concludes with the Adagio ed Allegro di bravura (Adagio and Allegro in Bravura Style, 1830) [track-7] mentioned above. A virtuosic tour de force, the deceptive adagio is built around a simple childlike melody (SC) played by the piano [01:07] with just occasional ostentatious passages hinting at what's to come.
Suddenly horn calls announce the allegro [03:19], and we're off to the races as the piano introduces a hyped-up version of SC. This is the first of several exciting virtuosic variants that follow, making this movement probably the biggest crowd-pleaser on both discs. The piece then ends in a shower of hammer on piano wire sparks, where the world of Chopin is not far away!
A frequent guest artist in these pages, the adventurous Howard Shelley continues his invaluable exploration of little known piano works (see the newsletter of 30 September 2010) with these two releases. From what we're told about Kalkbrenner as a pianist (see the informative album notes), the delicacy, precision and technical finesse with which Shelley plays these intricately busy concertante works seems just what the composer intended.
It should also be noted that Howard wears two hats here, conducting the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra from the keyboard. In so doing he exerts even greater control over the music, bringing out subtle rhythmic and dynamic interactions between soloist and tutti that insure it never becomes a series of mindless finger exercises.
As with most Australian productions of the past few years, these recordings done in the Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania are for the most part first-rate, and sound surprisingly consistent considering five years separates these discs. The soundstages are ideally suited to the assembled forces and surrounded by a warm, pleasantly reverberant acoustic.
The balance between soloist and tutti is well maintained throughout, and the orchestral timbre is convincingly musical, particularly on the later release. While the piano seems perfectly captured with well rounded tone on the more recent disc, it doesn't come off quite as well on the other.
More specifically there are a couple of spots where isolated upper notes have a strange ring to them that may be digitally induced. Consequently only the newer release would seem to qualify as demonstration quality. We should also note that those with sensitive systems may notice occasional brief low frequency disturbances on it most likely due to outside traffic.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y120410, P120409)
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Lansky: Shapeshifters, With the Grain, Imaginary...; Quattro Mani/Starobin/Brown/Alab SO [Bridge]
AUDIOPHILE BEST FIND (1 CD)
One of the leading exponents of computer-generated music, American composer Paul Lansky (b. 1944) moves from "Silicon Valley" to Symphony Hall with the three orchestral works on this new enterprising Bridge Records release. With a nod to Star Trek I: The Motion Picture (1979), Lanksy humorously describes them as written for carbon-based life forms, in this case the members of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra (ASO), who give us these world premiere recordings.
With a distinguished academic background and currently a professor of composition at Princeton University, Lansky is well versed in today's music, including popular, as well as that of the past. And rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, he draws on all of this to come up with tonally based works having an eclecticism that give them a fresh sound. His music is immediately approachable with a "New Age" ring, and may bring Michael Torke's (b. 1961) creations to mind.
Referred to as a concerto, Shapeshifters for two pianos and orchestra (2007-08) was commissioned by the ASO for the Quattro Mani piano duo, who are our soloists. Far from the conventional romantic concerto, it's a four-part musical morphosis with piano obbligato. The opening movement subtitled "At Any Moment" assays the sudden vicissitudes of life, and begins with a simple good-natured tune played by soloists. The orchestra soon joins them in passages having a circular insistence reminiscent of change ringing. But things take a quick turn for the worse [track-1, beginning at 04:26], and the movement ends in unresolved pessimism.
The next two sections immediately catch the listener's attention with their woodblock-accented clocklike opening measures. "Florid Counterpoint" begins with passionate sustained orchestral chords accompanied by runs of piano notes. These introduce soothing laid-back passages bringing flowers more than fugues to mind. On the other hand, the following "Confused and Dazed" comes off as a series of connected dance episodes ranging from languorous, to antsy and even raucous.
The latter anticipates the concluding "Topology," which is a frenzied choreographic number with macho rhythmic figures recalling Ginastera (1916-1983) and Piazzolla (1921-1992). Bravura writing for the pianos set to a brilliant orchestral accompaniment make for a thrilling ending.
The next piece, With the Grain (2009), was commissioned by The Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University for one of today's finest classical guitarists and our soloist here, David Starobin (b. 1951). Also referred to as a concerto, this fits the bill more than the previous piece, considering there's frequent dialogue between soloist and tutti.
The title implies the guitar's wooden nature, and the work's four movements are named for different woodgrains they're meant to represent. Unless you’re a carpenter, this may all sound a bit far-fetched, but fortunately the composer goes on to give brief descriptions of each. We’re told the restrained opening number, Redwood Burl, limns "slow, round, evolving shapes." It features a delicate exchange between soloist and orchestra where Starobin’s artistry is at its peak.
Karelian Birch described as "long, sinuous, wavy lines" gains momentum developing into an infectious melodic shimmy. While Quilted Beech -- "quiet, with soft contours" -- is a subdued harmonically exotic reverie. The final Walnut Burl -- "busy, with aggressive twists and turns" -- is for the most part ecstatically expansive with a couple of comely big tunes and catchy syncopated rhythms. Its concluding measures end the concerto in subdued optimism.
The CD closes with Imaginary Islands of 2010 commissioned by the ASO and its principal conductor Justin Brown (b. 1964). Its three movements are titled musical portraits of fanciful isles. The first Rolling Hills, Calm Beaches, Something Brewing conjures images of gentle waves lapping against a hummocky shoreline to the cries of circling seabirds. But a threatening thematic idea that becomes increasingly pronounced makes it easy to imagine a tsunami laying waste to this tropical paradise as the music ends on an unresolved trumpet note.
Our next stop along this symphonic archipelago is billed as Cloud-shrouded, Mysterious, Nascent, and could well be one of those volcanoes that periodically pop up at sea. Subdued and thematically spooky there's something of King Kong's (1933) Scull Island here. Could those shrieks from the winds be pterodactyls on the wing?
With the title Busy, Bustling, With a Heartbeat, the concluding selection could well be the Island of Manhattan (see the newsletter of 8 February 2012). As the title implies it's an energetic piece dominated by a sinus rhythm. Fortunately the composer frequently interjects syncopated melodic fragments, which prevent this from becoming one of those mind-numbing minimalist exercises. Like the first movement it ends with a question mark, making one wonder if Lansky will dream up more exotic isles for us to visit.
The duo piano team of Alice Rybak and Susan Grace known as Quattro Mani make a strong impression with their technically accomplished highly dramatic playing in Shapeshifters, while guitarist David Starobin serves up a sensitive immaculately tailored performance of With the Grain. Conductor Brown and the ASO (see above) provide them with ideal support, and paint a captivating picture of those Imaginary Islands.
These recordings were made on a couple of occasions in the Jemison Concert Hall, Birmingham, Alabama. The last selection was apparently done in concert, but with nary a peep from the audience, you'd never know it thanks to audio wizard Adam Abeshouse and his crew of top technicians. The soundstages projected are consistently wide as well as deep, and made all the more impressive by this magnificent sounding venue.
Adam and his boys should also be credited for perfectly balancing the soloists and individual instrumental groups that frequently appear against the orchestra. In that regard the pianists are positioned wide enough apart to fully dramatize the dynamic interplay between them. The piano tone is generally well rounded, guitar perfectly captured, and the orchestral timbre musical throughout. By all means take this along on your next audio safari!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y120408)
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Ramsay, J.: Stg Qts 1, 2 "Shackelton", 3 "...Mozart K465" & 4 "... Darwin"; Fitzwilliam Qt [Metier]
AUDIOPHILE (2 CDs)
Remember that Spanish lawyer we told you about who writes music on the side (see the newsletter of 19 December 2011)? Well here's a British geologist with similar moonlighting proclivities! In addition to his scientific pursuits, London-born John Ramsay (b. 1931) took up the cello at age eighteen, and has since gone on to compose several works. These include four string quartets that make their recording debut on this new 2-CD album from Metier, which is offered as a "twofer."
While the music is intellectually challenging, it's also very approachable, making for one of the most interesting chamber releases to appear in some time. What's more, all four are played by the Fitzwilliam Quartet, whom most will remember for their legendary performances and recordings of Shostakovich's (1906-1975) quartets.
Written in 2001, the four-movement first quartet begins with an allegro that immediately catches the listener's attention. We're told in the informative album notes its shifting rhythmic patterns have Magyar associations. It couldn't be more different from the next moderato, which is a lovely theme and variations whose subject is a Gaelic folk song.
The following scherzo has animated outer sections surrounding a subdued center that's even more Eastern European sounding than the first movement. It recalls those folk ditties so frequently quoted by Bartók (1881-1945) and Kodály (1882-1967). It concludes in spirited fashion only to be followed by the sad and gloomy lento introductory measures of the finale. But the mood suddenly brightens as the movement becomes a busy rondo, ending this immaculately structured quartet on a radiant D major chord.
The second quartet subtitled "Shackleton,” which was written in memory of the composer's recently deceased friend and colleague Robert Millner Shackleton (1909-2001), presumably dates from between 2001 and 2002. Also in four movements, the opening moderato is based on an insistent baleful motif that conjures images of the Grim Reaper swinging his terrible scythe. A sense of bereavement persists in the following exotically sinister adagio, and lachrymose funeral march (LF) with its plaintive plucked perambulatory accompaniment.
We get a temporary suspension of grief in the finale, which starts off with some fiery flamenco-accented passages laced with catchy two-against-three and three-against-four polyrhythms. But LF eventually returns, ending this quartet -- and the first disc -- in sadness over the loss of a great man.
The second CD begins with the third quartet of 2004, which is atypically in five movements. The first one is entitled "Homage to Mozart K465" and takes its cue from Wolfgang's (1756-1791) Dissonance Quartet (No. 19, K465; 1785). Its slow, harmonically queasy introduction, which is almost identical to Wolfgang's, is followed by an allegro section. This begins with a jumpy syncopated theme (JS) plus countersubject that are developed and succeeded by a subdued mysterious idea. All these motifs are then skillfully combined, and the movement ends with references to JS.
The next adagio is based on a chromatically sinuous idea reminiscent of some giant bird gliding on thermals. On the contrary the scherzo is an antsy tripartite affair with outer sections having spastic rhythmic shifts and changes of key. The inner one stands out for a sprinkling of semitones which gives it an off-key preternatural character.
The keyed up tension that's been building for the past three movements peaks in the polytonal, dissonance-ridden opening of the next andante. It's then resolved in a cathartic concluding coda that ends the movement decidedly in C minor.
All this paves the way for the grand finale, which is a fugue with a subject and later harmonic structure that the composer has based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers (see the album notes and the newsletter of 10 May 2011). In so doing, Ramsay has come up with a contrapuntal gem that ends this intriguing quartet in splendid fashion.
The album concludes with the fourth quartet from 2009 subtitled "Charles Darwin." It was commissioned for the 200th anniversary of the great English naturalist's (1809-1882) birth, and is in one continuous movement [track-6] having three subsections. Each of these is programmatically related to a different aspect of Darwin's pioneering work (see the informative album notes for details). And most of the scenario for the first two could be likened to the prehistoric earth sequence featuring Stravinsky's (1882-1971) Rite of Spring (1913, revised 1947) in Walt Disney's (1901-1966) 1940 version of Fantasia (see the newsletter of 6 January 2011).
The opening part envisions earth's creation with swirling clouds of cosmic notes gradually coalescing into a mother earth motif (ME) [02:23] that will become an idée fixe serving to unify the piece. The music goes on to limn geological upheavals giving rise to landmasses and the atmosphere. Violent storms with torrential rains then break out [05:05] and abate, leaving sunny placid seas [07:38].
The next section begins with a "wriggly" theme [08:51], as Ramsay calls it, describing the emergence of primitive life forms from these Paleozoic waters. This is transformed into more sophisticated ideas representing the evolution of larger more complex animals [09:59], and eventually mankind [11:53].
Thematic references to three of the world's most widely accepted religions, which seem less and less tolerant of one another, follow. The first, Judaism, is a Hebraic folk melody [12:53], which may remind you of the last movement from Shostakovich's second string quartet (1944). The next, Christianity, is a hymn tune [13:04], and the last, Islam, some Eastern sounding number [13:22].
Increasingly discordant passages with rhythmic quotes [13:52] from "Mars, the Bringer of War" in Gustav Holst's (1874-1934) The Planets then lead to a contrapuntal jihad [14:14], culminating in a nuclear holocaust [17:04] and the extinction of all life [17:33].
The third and final part is a reflective contemplation of things to come. It begins with sad ambivalent passages [18:35] containing allusions to ME in the minor. But nuclear winter finally dissipates as ME returns optimistically in C major. However, Darwin's conclusions about the unpredictability of mankind's future color Ramsay's final thoughts, and he closes the quartet with ME once again in the minor. It's a dramatic ending to an album of music by a composer with something new and interesting to say in a conventional way.
The performances by the Fitzwillian String Quartet (FSQ) are impeccable! They display the same razor sharp precision, confidence and emotional commitment to the music which characterized their ever popular Shostakovich performances. And as far as testimonials to FSQ's abilities are concerned, need we say more than they so impressed Dmitri he dedicated his last three quartets to them!
Incidentally in 2010 after thirty-seven years with the FSQ, second violinist Jonathan Sparey decided it was time to hang up his bow, and was replaced by Colin Scobie. With Jonathan playing in the first and last of Ramsay's quartets, and Colin the other two, it's quite obvious the group has lost none of its standing.
The recordings were made on two separate occasions in 2010 (Nos. 1 & 4) and 2011 (Nos. 2 & 3) at St. Martin's Church, East Woodhay, England. They project a consistent, well focused chamber-sized soundstage in a complementary acoustic that captures every nuance of the FSQ's immaculate playing. The sound is exceptionally clear, and remains quite musical despite bright spots in the violins' upper registers.
In conclusion it should be noted there are some isolated barely audible low frequency bumps most likely related to outside traffic. However, with music as captivating as this, these will probably go unnoticed even by any audiophiles.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y120407)
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