28 APRIL 2007


The albums below are "Classical Releases Of Current Key Significance," or "CROCKS," if you will. Click any album picture or title to see where we suggest getting it.

The members of the Maggini Quartet work their magic once again with these three selections by English composer Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006).

The first quartet (1949), which is in four movements lasting only about twenty minutes, represents the composer at his most concise. When you hear it, Bartok's works in this genre will undoubtedly come to mind. Brief high-strung motifs are introduced and imaginatively developed in the first movement, while the next is a buzzing scherzo that could easily be subtitled "Mosquitos." The following andante is the longest movement and quite haunting in a pensive way. The finale is a real curiosity where the central thematic idea is never quite able to establish itself and simply disappears bringing the movement to an untimely end.

The second quartet (1975), also in four movements, lasts almost half an hour. It's more typically Arnold with unpredictable changes of mood like the light produced by windswept fleecy clouds on an otherwise sunny day. The opening allegro begins assuredly, but becomes distracted and ends with an attractive swaying melody. The second movement commences with a violin cadenza spiced with glissandi. This soon turns into what sounds like an Irish jig, which the other instruments take up as the movement ends on a bustling festive note. The andante is the emotional nexus of this work where the composer is at his darkest and most profound. The last movement consists of lovely lyrical opening and closing sections that parenthesize an agitated central development.

The Vita Abundans Phantasy (1941) begins with a rather bluesy sounding theme that withstands several life-threatening transformations only to become all the more vibrant as the piece ends. Thus the sobriquet, "Abundant Life."

Thought provoking music, superb performances and excellent recorded sound make this release a must for modern music lovers. (P070428)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Here' some music from one of America's most prolific but little known composers. Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) was a real romanticist at heart with strong Italian associations engendered by his studies with Vittorio Giannini in the United States and Ildebrando Pizzetti in Rome.

Written while he was in Italy, the violin concerto (1956) was never orchestrated because there was no chance of getting it performed once he returned home. That was because of the disdain for more conventional sounding works that pervaded the American classical music scene in the late 1900s. It wasn't until 2003 that composer Anthony Sbordoni, at the request of the Flagello estate, orchestrated the version presented here. It's a very lyrical work with an emotionally driven first movement, lovely flowing andante and lively concluding sonata-rondo that may remind you of Samuel Barber's violin concerto.

Four of Flagello's shorter orchestral pieces are also included. Symphonic Aria (1951) is a heartfelt lament that's quite operatic in concept. Then there are two very moving interludes from his operas The Sisters (1958) and Mirra (1955), as well as a crazed bacchanal from the latter. These may call to mind some of Gian Carlo Menotti's better efforts.

The program closes with five songs for soprano and orchestra, again in arrangements by Sbordoni. They prove beyond a doubt that Flagello was one of America's most talented composers to write in the late-romantic idiom. The Rainy Day (1958) and The Brook are gorgeous settings of poems by Longfellow and Tennyson. With a text by the composer, the very affecting Ruth's Aria (from his opera Beyond the Horizon) began life as a song entitled Rejection (1973). The darkly mysterious Canto (1978) is a setting of a Flagello poem written in Italian. According to the album notes, Polo I (1979) and Polo II (1980) are based on traditional flamenco songs of Arabic origin. They may well remind you of Manuel de Falla's El amor brujo.

Soprano Susan Gonzalez makes a strong case for all of these selections, and the performances by the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine under conductor John McLaughlin Williams are excellent.

The recorded sound is good except for a few upper midrange hot spots.

Incidentally, if you liked the songs, by all means make sure you try Flagello's outstanding song cycle Contemplazioni di Michalangelo. (P070427)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) considered his primary purpose in life was to compose, and that's just what he did until his conducting career took off in the early 1900s. From the late 1920s through the early 30s he not only conducted, but also held several directorial positions in Germany, which came under the control of the National Socialist Party in 1933. However, in 1934 he had a falling out with the Nazis and resigned all of his posts. For the rest of World War II he freelanced as a guest conductor and once again took up composition.

It was during this period that he wrote his two violin sonatas, both of which are featured here. Reportedly he himself once said he tried to write music that was simple, grand and monumental, and that certainly applies to both of these works. They’re late-romantic Germanic monoliths constructed on a Brucknerian scale. Thematically they’re out of Joseph Rheinberger, whom Furtwängler studied with, and have a subtlety that puts them closer to the music of Hans Pfitzner as opposed to that of Richard Strauss.

The first one (1935) is in the standard four movements and lasts fifty-five minutes, while the second (1939) is in three and runs three-quarters of an hour. Both open with gorgeous extended sonata form movements (around eighteen minutes each) that evoke an emotional response from the listener through harmonic and chromatic rather than melodic and developmental means. Their slow movements are probably best described as extended Lieder ohne Worte.

The additional movement in the first sonata is in essence a scherzo, but there's a deliberateness and seriousness of purpose that make it much more profound than what that designation usually implies. The finales of both sonatas recall previous material and are structurally quite complex. On that note, you'll probably have to hear these works several times to sort everything out.

Violinist Matthias Wollong and pianist Birgitta Wollenweber seem absolutely committed to this music and deliver magnificent performances.

The recording is audiophile quality, and both instruments should sound completely natural on even the most discriminating of systems.

Just for the record, the album notes (at least those in English) are something else again. Had Shakespeare seen them he might well have said, "And now with wearied mind I must to bed, to sleep off all the nonsense I've just read!" (Y070426)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Alexander Glazunov's (1865-1936) string quintet (1891), like Franz Schubert's, is scored for an additional cello rather than the usual second viola. In the hands of Nathaniel Rosen and the Fine Arts Quartet, it comes off as first-rate Russian romantic chamber music that should make those with a tendency to bad-mouth this composer think twice.

In four movements it opens with an allegro featuring one of Glazunov's loveliest themes and an outstanding development section. Then comes a plucky pizzicato spiced scherzo that may remind you of the one in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony (1877).

The andante with its shimmering, flowing melodies is the epitome of romanticism, particularly when played as sensitively as it is here. The exciting finale contrasts to great effect a rather boisterous Russian sounding theme with a highly lyrical one, and ends with some pentamerous pyrotechnics from everyone concerned.

Next up we have the Five Novelettes for string quartet (1885-86). This is one of Glazunov's most precocious works with a charm and worldliness that totally belie the fact he was only about twenty when he wrote it. It’s a musical travelogue that begins in Spain, where the composer pulls a couple of real winners out of his bag of melodic tricks.

Moving right along, the adolescent Alexander takes us next to the Orient with some thematic material that must have appealed greatly to his associates Mily Balakirev and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The third section finds us in the motherland for what one could imagine as something out of a Russian Orthodox religious ceremony made all the more solemn by the composer’s use of the Dorian mode.

Then we're off to Vienna for a waltz that's at times as light as a feather and others, full of Slavic soul. Next we journey east of the Austrian border for a little Magyar action. The scoring is somewhat similar to the Spanish novelette, but this one begins and ends with a theme of pure Hungarian extraction seasoned with a little Tzigany paprika for good measure. The work ends with a sustained tonic chord on the open strings of the violins, leaving you wishing that Glazunov had taken us to a few more countries.

Loving performances and spectacular sound engineered by the illustrious Adam Abeshouse (audiophiles take note) should qualify this release for some kind of 2007 music award. Don't pass it up! (Y070425)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) had such an individual style that almost everything he wrote is instantly recognizable. That's certainly true of the three outstanding pieces of chamber music on this release.

The first piano quintet (1933) was composed while he was living in Paris. Unlike the jazz and dance inspired works he wrote there in the 1920s, it's neoclassical and shows the influence of Czech folk music. The first movement is typically hyper Martinu with all those wonderfully abrupt key changes and thematic fragmentations that make his music so appealing. The andante that comes next could almost be based on some old Hussite monody, and perfectly sets the stage for the whimsical allegretto that follows. This is full of those passages which are a Martinu trademark and might best be described as sounding like swarms of excited bees. The finale begins with a brief motif resembling the Hussite-like tune heard previously. In the imaginative development section that follows, it's musically eviscerated, but then returns even more hale and hearty than before. This brings the work to an exultant conclusion that's somewhat reminiscent of the more grandiloquent passages in Bedrich Smetana's Ma Vlast.

The second piano quartet dating from 1944 was written in the United States where the composer had fled to escape the Nazi invasion of France. Like much of his music dating from the 1940s, there's a sense of anxiety and queasiness present that probably reflect the considerable psychological effect that World War II had had on him. The first movement materializes out of a gently swirling melodic mist and ends forcefully on an optimistic note. The following adagio is magical Martinu and one of the composer's most introspective creations. Repeated passages seem to anticipate what would soon come from Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. A study in contrasts, the scherzo consists of squirrely outer sections that surround a lovely pensive trio. Alternating dark and light passages make up the finale. The former are for strings only and somewhat reminiscent of the more introverted moments in Ludwig van Beethoven's late quartets. The latter gleam with a phosphorescent glow and bring the work to an exciting conclusion.

The disc ends with a sonata for two violins and piano (1932). In only two movements, the first could almost be a modern day adaptation of some lively dance from a keyboard suite by Johann Sebastian Bach. The concluding one starts off like a musical characterization of some feline on the prowl, but more of those Martinu bees buzz up a real honey of a final coda.

Pianist Karel Kosarek and the members of the Martinu Quartet certainly live up to their Czech heritage by delivering totally authoritative performances.

All this plus excellent recorded sound at a bargain price make for a highly desirable release. (P070424)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (

This is the second release in Hyperion's "Romantic Cello" series and, if anything, some may find it more interesting than the first. The four concertos included here are all by German composers, but probably only Robert Schumann's (1810-1856) will be familiar to most.

The program begins with one by Robert Volkmann (1815-1883) dating from 1853-55. It's in a single fifteen-minute sonata form movement and full of bravura passages that are definitely not for beginners. You may detect Eastern European folk influences here, which is not surprising considering Volkmann taught in Prague and Budapest. This beautifully constructed work should come as a delightful discovery worth every minute of your time. The only problem is that it ends quite simply and rather abruptly leaving you wondering whether there were additional movements that have been lost.

Next we have a work by Albert Dietrich (1829-1908), who was a student of Schumann, and it certainly shows! Composed around 1876, it's equally as virtuosic as the Volkmann, but in the standard three movements. The lyrical opening and closing ones surround a gorgeous andante appropriately entitled romanze. The finale features a zinger of a cadenza that sets the stage for a joyful conclusion.

Some of you may have fond memories of Friedrich Gernsheim's (1839-1916) four symphonies that were just rereleased last year. Well, here’s his cello concerto (c. 1907) and it's equally engaging. It’s set in one, fast-slow-fast, ternary structured movement reminiscent of the Italian overtures of old. The ghost of Johannes Brahms lurks everywhere and, as the excellent album notes point out, it parallels the music of Sirs Hubert Parry and Edward Elgar, who were also in the Brahms camp. For many listeners the finale of this colorful concerto will probably be the high point of the whole disc.

The Gernsheim is followed by Schumann's sole foray into this genre, which was written in 1850-52 not long before he took leave of his senses. Lyrically speaking, it's one of his most endearing works. The structure is similar to Gernsheim's, and it begins with a theme that may remind some of the opening one in Felix Mendelssohn's E minor violin concerto (1844). There's an infectious melodic angularity about the finale that provides a fitting conclusion to this next installment of Hyperion’s romantic cello survey.

The performances by soloist Alban Gerhardt and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under conductor Hannu Lintu are superb.

The recording is beautifully balanced with some of the best cello sound you could ever hope to hear -- audiophiles please take note. (Y070423)

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (