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March 16th - March 22nd, 2007

NAXOS REVIEWS

NAXOS REVIEWS

CHIN, Gordon Shi-Wen: Double Concerto / Formosa Seasons

Kansas City Symphony / Michael Stern
Felix Fan; Cho-Liang Lin

8.570221

Review by Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, March 2007

Reading the album notes for this release one cannot help but be impressed by Taiwanese born composer Gordon Shi-Wen Chin's (b. 1957) stated desire to write meaningful music devoid of superficiality. He has succeeded in doing just that with the two modern sounding, but quite approachable concertos on this release. These world premiere recordings honor two Taiwanese-American soloists; veteran violinist Cho-Liang Lin and the up-and-coming cellist Felix Fan, whom you'll undoubtedly be hearing more about on the basis of his outstanding performance here. The double concerto for violin and cello is in four programmatically titled movements. The first, "Drifting Shadow", consists of highly agitated opening and closing sections surrounding a more rhapsodic central one, and may call to mind Samuel Barber's violin concerto (1939-40). The next, "A Flowering Sacrifice," is for the most part slow and repentant with occasional glissando sighs from the strings. A sprightly rondo, "In Expectation," follows providing an exhilarating contrast to what’s come before. The finale, "Yearning: A Sweet Torture," begins forcefully with a brief repeated motif played by the percussion. The soloists then enter into an increasingly heated exchange with the orchestra, interrupted periodically by additional percussive outbursts. The work ends peacefully as all the disputants resolve their differences and the soloists fade into the distance. The concerto, Formosa Seasons for Violin and Strings, was originally to be paired with Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons, but other than that there's no apparent association between the two. The first movement, "Summer," is sultry with virtuosic passages allowing the soloist to shine like the summer sun. "Autumn" opens in a restlessly driven manner and contains a rather catchy theme with a Jingle Bells rhythm before becoming quite meditative and ending quietly. "Winter" begins hesitantly, but the soloist soon dominates the proceedings only to be subdued by some heavy duty pizzicato passages from the orchestra. "Spring" bursts forth with rhythmic energy to spare, giving Lin a final opportunity to demonstrate his considerable talents. The shortest of Chin's seasons, it ends abruptly in medias res leaving the listener quite breathless. The composer creates a unique, appealing sound world in both of these pieces. Conductor Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony provide sterling support for the soloists, and the recorded sound from renowned audio engineer Adam Abeshouse is demonstration quality. This release is recommended to modern music enthusiasts and audiophiles alike.


VIVALDI: Bassoon Concertos (Complete), Vol. 4

Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia / Bela Drahos
Tamas Benkocs

8.557829

Review by Glyn Pursglove
Musicweb International, March 2007

Here, offering a further six concertos, is the latest instalment in Naxos’s recording of Vivaldi’s 37 bassoon concertos; 39 if one counts two incomplete specimens. Those who have invested in earlier volumes in the series (see below), all recorded by the same forces, will know to expect the enjoyable, fluent performances that are to be heard here.

The Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia use modern instruments but, under the direction of Béla Drahos they play with a crisp articulation that is, for the most part, stylistically convincing. Benkócs is a very fine bassoonist indeed, both technically extremely accomplished and musically imaginative. The outer movements – all six are in three movements, fast-slow-fast – frequently call for considerable fleetness of finger and certainty of breath control and Benkócs is never found wanting. There is rapid-fire virtuosity when needed and many delightfully dancing passages. In the slow movements Benkócs plays with lyrical expressivity, elegantly poignant and reflective in music which, as so often in the slow movements of Vivaldi’s concertos has a distinctly operatic feel about it.

Every one of these concertos offers things of real interest – Vivaldi’s musical imagination seems unflagging. There’s the way, for example, in which the opening allegro of RV 477 contrasts the tenor and bass registers of the solo instrument; or the dotted rhythms of the bassoon in the largo of RV 499. Or, particularly pleasant, the final allegro of RV 494 which is full of ingenious twists and turns.

It is puzzling that Vivaldi should have written quite so many concertos for the bassoon – the bassoon wasn’t generally a fashionable solo instrument in this period. Perhaps he wrote them for a specific instrumentalist; if so the identity of that musician remains unknown; certainly Vivaldi demonstrates a thorough understanding of the instrument’s possibilities. Whatever the circumstances which prompted the composition of these concertos, they certainly constitute a rewarding body of music and one of the many demonstrations of Vivaldi’s remarkable ability to produce seemingly infinite variations (and there really is variety here) on a basically simple formula.

A graduate of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, Tamás Benkócs is a member of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. I haven’t encountered any other recordings by him outside this Naxos series of the Vivaldi concertos. He is such a fine player that it is to be hoped that he will go onto record more of the bassoon repertoire.

The one reservation – though it is not one that spoils my pleasure in the CDs – that I about this series concerns the rather understated penny-plain continuo, where the concertos would certainly benefit from greater embellishment. Very decent as the contribution of the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia and Béla Drahos is, I would love to hear Benkócs playing these works with one of the best specialist baroque ensembles.

On balance though, this is an eminently worthwhile and enjoyable series, and this latest volume continues the good work begun by its predecessors. The recorded sound is pleasingly clear and well balanced.


Review by Giv Cornfield Ph.D.
March 2007

Pure delight is the best description I can think of to apply to this album, the fourth in Naxos' ongoing series of the about 40 concertos featuring "the clown of the orchestra". Benkocs' playing is nothing short of amazing, yet his breathtaking virtuosity is at the service of a strong lyrical bent when called for, in the quasi-operatic arias that consitute the slow middle movements. The orchestral support by conductor Drahos is equally excellent, and the audio quality could not be better.


ROREM: Double Concerto / After Reading Shakespeare

IRIS Orchestra / Michael Stern
Jaime Laredo; Sharon Robinson

8.559316

Music
Sonics
Review by Ted Libbey
The Absolute Sound, March 2007

Music by Ned Rorem fills the third disc in this Naxos three-bagger, and is performed here by the soloists for whom it was written. Jaime Laredo, a major American violinist with few peers when it comes to matters of tone and expressiveness, joins cellist Sharon Robinson, his partner in marriage as well as music, for the main work on the disc, Rorem's eight-movement Double Concerto. The coupling is a reissue of Robinson's 1982 Grenadilla recording of After Reading Shakespeare, a nine-movement suite for unaccompanied cello. Rorem tends to structure his instrumental pieces as though they were song cycles - stringing short movements together like a series of character studies. That's the case with each of these works, and in both cases, it works. The Double Concerto is a 30-minute love duet for violin and cello - or more accurately, for Laredo and Robinson - climaxing in the 14 1/2 minute long penultimate movement, "Conversation at Midnight." The whole work is beautifully realized, and Michael Stern and the IRIS Orchestra admirably contribute. The recording is close-up and clean, with solo instruments vividly present. Robinson's gifts are further revealed in After Reading Shakespeare, which she plays with authority and her typically energetic address. This recording is close and hot, typical of the miking of the day, but captures enough reflections to keep things from sounding too dry. The imaging is rock-solid and there's plenty of detail to savor, including the way the low strings, left to vibrate, ring for a very long time.


Review by Glyn Pursglove
Musicweb International, March 2007

Not many have been as gifted with both words and notes as Ned Rorem is. His autobiographical writings, such as The Paris Diary (1966), The New York Diary (1967), An Absolute Gift (1974) and Knowing When to Stop (1994), would have gained him a considerable fame even if his music had been a good deal less accomplished than it is; and, of course, the fame of the music itself is quite independent of Rorem’s gifts as a writer. That he has the rare kind of mind and creativity which function equally well in words and music perhaps lies behind his particular brilliance as a composer of songs – he composes settings with a musician’s skill, but he also composes them with a writer’s understanding of how words work. This present CD makes one wonder, contrariwise, whether when it comes to his instrumental music Rorem’s facility with words might not sometimes be a distraction.

The two soloists on this CD – the husband and wife team of violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson – have apparently been friends of Rorem’s for some twenty five years. The solo cello suite was written specifically for Robinson in 1980 and premiered at Alice Tully Hall in New York on 15 March 1981; in 1985 Rorem wrote his Violin Concerto “at Jaime’s behest”, to use Rorem’s own words. In 1998 a commission from the Indianapolis Symphony provided an opportunity for the composition of the Double Concerto for Laredo and Robinson.

Rorem’s booklet note on the Double Concerto contains the following rather odd statement: “Music being the least representational of the arts (it does not depict other than itself), the overall title is abstract: Double Concerto. Nevertheless, just to get the juices flowing, I did impose “concrete” titles onto the eight movements, which require 35 minutes to unfold. These titles connote whatever the listener chooses”. (They are, for the sake of reference: Morning - Adam and Eve – Mazurka - Staying on Alone - Their Accord – Looking - Conversation at Midnight - Flight). I find this hard to unravel. Particularly the suggestion, on the one hand, that the titles were “imposed” on the movements – which surely suggests that the music existed before titles were “imposed” on it? And, on the other hand, the suggestion that the titles were invented so that the composer might “get the juices flowing” – which surely suggests that the words existed before the music? In any case, we are told that the titles should “connote whatever the listener chooses” – which makes them meaningless and surely makes their presence pointless. Save that they don’t seem to be quite meaningless – Rorem goes on to declare “I will state only that in Adam and Eve the two soloists are literally born on stage: they emerge from the womb of the orchestra” (which is, incidentally, a pretty strange use of the word ‘literally!). In the case of After Reading Shakespeare Rorem’s notes contain some similarly distracting statements. In this work seven of the nine movements carry the name of characters – Lear (twice), Katharine, Titania and Oberon, Caliban, Portia, Iago and Othello – and two are given  titles in the form of quotations from Shakespeare’s Sonnets “Why hear’st thou music sadly?” (Sonnet 8) and “Remembrance of things past” (Sonnet 30).

Can the listener assume that there is a programmatic significance to these titles? Apparently not, according to Rorem: “The individual titles were not fixed notions around which I framed the music; they emerged, as titles for non-vocal pieces so often do, during the composition. Yes, I was rereading Shakespeare that July … Yet the experience did not so much inspire the music itself as provide a cohesive program upon which the music might be formalized, and thus intellectually grasped by the listener. Indeed, some of the titles were added after the fact, as when parents christen their children”. This is a bit easier to understand as a description of the process of creation, but it still leaves one suspicious that these titles, apparently intended to make it easier for the listener to “grasp” the music actually get in the way. Certainly my own experience with After Reading Shakespeare (and, indeed, with the Double Concerto) was that listening with the titles to hand trapped me into a finally rather unrewarding attempt to invent connections between the sounds I was hearing and the titles in my hand. Once I gave up that exercise and concentrated on the sounds themselves, the whole experience was a good deal more rewarding. Both of these pieces are good, interesting pieces of music; they are not programmatic music and the half-suggestion which Rorem makes that we might treat them as such does them a disservice.

The Double Concerto is scored for relatively modest forces – eight winds, four brass and strings. The absence of percussion prompts a delightfully wry observation from the conductor: “In growing older I have come to feel that percussion is, at best, mere decoration, at worst, immoral, like too many earrings or too many exclamation points!!”). Too much ‘exclamation’, being over-demonstrative isn’t something that Rorem’s music here goes in for. It operates more subtly and prefers understatement as its dominant idiom. A gentle, reflective opening and a (relatively) vertiginous conclusion frame six movements which vary in length from less than two minutes to more than fourteen. In the longest movement (‘Conversation at Midnight’) the dialogue of the two solo instruments is heard at its most interesting, the tonal interplay quite delightful. In a brief but busy movement (‘Mazurka’), both soloists are given some attractively lilting music; ‘Staying on Alone’ is a beautiful song for cello. Throughout both soloists play with utter conviction and gentle certainty of intention and execution, and Stern is a wholly sympathetic accompanist. If you insist on all your contemporary music being challenging, if you demand that contemporary music push back boundaries and extend instrumental techniques and resources, then you will presumably know better than to turn to Rorem’s work to satisfy your tastes. If, on the other hand, you can be content, at least now and then, with essentially tonal writing in which the performers use traditional instrumental techniques in the service of music of unembarrassed lyrical beauty, then you will surely enjoy this Double Concerto.

Rorem’s suite for solo cello is another attractive work, a little more searching, perhaps, in its exploitation of the instrument’s technical resources, though the idiom remains largely traditional. There are movements of powerful drama, with a sense of barely suppressed aggression or intense emotional pain; there are movements characterised by a sense of enduring melancholy and others that at least approach the playful. Sharon Robinson is an authoritative soloist and I intend no criticism of her if I suggest that the work is so rich in possibilities that I would like to hear alternative readings of it alongside hers.

I enjoyed the balance on this CD of the relative opulence of an orchestral work alongside a work for unaccompanied solo cello. Both are rewarding works, both get high quality performances on this well-recorded CD.


THOMSON, V.: Plow that Broke the Plains (The) / The River (NTSC)

Post-Classical Ensemble / Angel Gil-Ordonez
Pare Lorentz

2.110521

Review by Frank Behrens
Keene Sentinel, March 2007

By a strange coincidence, I just finished a chapter of Oscar Levant’s 1940 set of essays, “A Smattering of Ignorance,” in which he talks about the many Hollywood film scores that are not up to snuff and the few that are excellent. At the very end, he writes, “Among persons of musical discrimination the only scores for American films that are spoken of with enthusiasm were written without exception for non-commercial films. I think particularly of Virgil Thomson’s scores for The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both produced by the government.”

The coincidence is that on that very day, I had finished viewing both of those films on a Naxos DVD. Commissioned by the government in the middle of the Great Depression, “The Plow” (1936) and “The River” (1937) were directed by Pare Lorentz and scored by Virgil Thomson. I have heard the music to “Plow” many times, and I always wondered what the film was like.

On the Naxos release, the visual is improved and the narration and musical background are newly recorded by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordonez. “The Plow” is about all the mistakes made by the government in allowing crops to be indiscriminately planted without preserving the grass that held the top soil together. The result was the Dust Bowl and the suffering so well pictured in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“The River” is concerned with how the mighty Mississippi fights back against all of man’s efforts to tame it. The flood sequences here are only too familiar to post-Katrina viewers.

The visual style of both films is highly influenced by Russian directors of the time, and those familiar with Soviet films of the 1920s and 1930s will spot the similarities. Each of Lorentz’s films is basically a silent film with narration and music.

The bonuses are interviews with men who tie in the films with the events of the time (rather unimaginatively done with static shots of the speakers’ “talking heads”). Another bonus shows the original start and conclusion to “Plow,” both of which were abridged when originally shown.

Both short documentaries tell fabulous stories, are impressively filmed, and are much enhanced by Thomson’s now-classical scores.


Review by John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, March 2007

I remember being exposed to these two films in early grade school - guess that dates me. Both films were the first documentaries made by the U.S. Government for commercial release, trying to educate the public about The New Deal. They were really propaganda films with a good goal, and tried to be innovative with the film medium in a similar way the Soviets and Nazis had already been doing. They were a mix of poetic imagery, free verse narration and original symphonic scores by Thomson (who did The Plow for $500 as his first score). While Lorentz also had never made a film before, he hired great photographers such as Paul Strand, and there was an openness in the sharing of ideas among those creating the films. Lorentz had difficult getting some of the stock footage he required in Hollywood because the major studios didn't like the idea of the U.S. Government horning in on their territory.

The narration replaced sync sound, which at the time was too expensive to use, and anyway most of the images were of landscapes and more distant vistas than close-ups of people. The Plow That Broke the Plains follows the history of the Great Plains and how continual abuse of the land plus a long drought caused the terrible Dust Bowl which sent poor farmers on the road to the West Coast. Demands for wheat during the First World War are shown to have been factor in over-farming the land. The CCC and other New Deal institutions are shown at the end of the film helping to improve life the affected farmers.The River similarly traces the history of the Mississippi - draining two-thirds of the U.S. continent, it points out. Devastating erosion and floods are shown - one in New Orleans ringing bells about Hurricane Katrina. The solution is shown to be the building of dams, with a focus on the Tennessee Valley Authority. (Of course now we realize dams are seldom the answer...) While showing the disasters visited on some of them, both films honor the American land and people, and a major element in that is Virgil Thomson's music.

Thomson scoured American folk music and jazz for most of his themes, and the manner in which he presented them set the standard for what we now recognize as "Americana" in concert music works. Copland and his quintessentially American-sounding music wouldn't have been possible without Thomson showing the way. Some of the themes - such as the Doxology - were super-familiar to most of the audiences of the time and caused a strong emotional connection with The Plow's message. Thomson and Copland together offered an alternative in their spare, chamber and folk-oriented scores to the lush Romantic standard then established in Hollywood film scores by such as Korngold and Steiner.

The Post-Classical Ensemble, based in Washington D.C., recorded the entire Thomson score, including sections edited; out in later releases of the films, and their soundtrack is provided in thrilling DTS 5.1 surround as well as Dolby and PCM. If you want to hear the original, scratchy and underfed musical score, you can select that option in the extras. Actually, I preferred the approach of the original narrator to the replacement hi-fi narrator - I thought his earnest "voice of God" approach better fit the archetypal images. But the new full orchestral score in surround is a major improvement. And the extras provide fascinating background on the films and on Virgil Thomson.


Review by Daniel Felsenfeld
Time Out New York, March 2007

Once you grow accustomed to the disparity between faded Depression-era film stock and clear modern sound, this DVD of Pare Lorentz’s remarkable agitprop documentaries The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937) brings to light not only the poetry of their scripts (newly narrated by Floyd King), but also the spare elegance of Virgil Thomson’s music. Written in his trademark bric-a-brac style—a concatenation of hymn tunes, ragtime licks and what the composer called “white spirituals”—the scores lend the films a specific (and sadly bygone) homespun sweep, reflections of devastation wrought by industrialism and nature, as well as of the irrepressible human spirit.

The brainchild of American-music scholar Joseph Horowitz, this release allows Thomson’s jeweled settings to shine forth: elegant, wryly restrained, ordered. Angel Gil-Ordóñez and the Post-Classical Ensemble capture the feel of the scores’ many moods and quick cuts.

So many government-issue films featuring soundtracks by the era’s great composers, thanks to the auspices of the WPA, have yet to resurface; these include The City, scored by Aaron Copland, and a whole bevy of important British collaborations by W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. Perhaps this release will pave the way for those important films to become available, their sounds retooled for contemporary ears.


Review by Scott Cantrell
Dallas News, March 3, 2007

This release is a great gift to students, indeed, connoisseurs, of both American cinema and American music. In DVD format, it presents Pare Lorentz's pioneering documentaries of the late 1930s with newly recorded soundtracks of Virgil Thomson's no-less-pioneering scores.

Lorentz had a reputation as a film critic, but the 1936 The Plow That Broke the Plains, funded by the U.S. government, was his first essay as a filmmaker. On one level, one can sniff at both The Plow and The River, which followed soon after, as government propaganda. Both were, as filmmaker George Stoney observes on one of the DVD's extras, hymns to "New Deal philosophy – and also of New Deal hubris."

Actually, The Plow is pretty tame as propaganda goes. Originally, it had a tub-thumping close praising President Franklin Roosevelt's resettlement, reclamation and aid programs. But Lorentz correctly saw this coda as weaker than the rest of the film, which traced the wasting of the Great Plains by overgrazing and over-farming and then the great drought of the early 1930s.

In the version Lorentz actually released, one's left expecting a moral wrap-up that never comes. But the DVD, coordinated by musicologist Joseph Horowitz, also includes the original but never-released ending, vindicating Lorentz's second thoughts.

The River has taken on new timeliness, though hardly as Lorentz could have expected, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans. Again, the theme is man's abuse of the land, this time focusing on radical deforestation and resulting erosion. Crude dirt dikes installed to block off Mississippi River floodplains failed in recurrent heavy rains, leading to catastrophic floods from Cincinnati to New Orleans.

This time, at the end, salvation is announced, in the form of the Tennessee Valley Authority and its system of dams, locks and hydroelectric generators. The message, as Mr. Stoney says, is that "If we're just smart enough, we can solve all the world's problems." New Orleans, of course, proves that we're still not smart enough.

From stagy processions of tractors to erosion-gouged landscapes, from logs crowding down rivers to cattle hustling through chutes, Lorentz's images burn themselves into the mind as powerfully as the 1930s photographs of Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange. A distant steam engine traces a plume of smoke across the horizon. Molten steel boils out of Bessemer converters. A skinny dog, looking near death, lies panting on parched soil.

There's no dialogue in either of these films, just Lorentz's own prose-poem narrations whose high-flown rhetoric and repetitive strains echo Southern-evangelist sermons. In excerpts of the original film soundtracks, we hear narrator Thomas Chalmers, speaking in the pinched American stage diction – no "r"s, of course – long inseparable from film documentaries. The narrator on the new soundtracks, Floyd King, sounds a little too Shakespearean.

But it's a joy to hear Thomson's agreeably flinty music in up-to-date sonics, smartly played by the Washington, D.C.-based Post-Classical Ensemble, under conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Thomson allows himself brief moments of gnarly mood music, but otherwise the score is a nonstop medley of marches, hymns, folk songs and what the composer himself called "darn-fool ditties," in harmonizations as spare as Lorentz's Dust Bowl scenes.

As musicologist Charles Fussell reminds us, on another of the DVD's extras, the Kansas City-bred Thomson actually preceded Aaron Copland in creating a distinctively American sound in classical music. Copland's score for the Americana ballet Billy the Kid didn't come along until the end of the '30s, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring until the 1940s. Copland's style was more sophisticated, but Thomson would argue that his was truer.


Review by Elizabeth Blair
NPR’s Weekend Edition, February 17th, 2007

With heartbreaking footage, narration written in poetic verse and a folk-inspired score, a young director created some of the earliest American propaganda films.

The Plow That Broke the Plains was released in 1936. Director Pare Lorentz knew that the devastating drought on the Great Plains would be a dramatic subject for his first film. Hollywood wasn't interested, but the U.S. government also wanted to make a point about the Dust Bowl and agreed to fund his film.

Two years later, they financed The River, in the hope that it would make the case for massive flood-control projects on the Mississippi.

Both films are widely recognized for their cinematography and for music by American composer Virgil Thomson. The images have been restored and released on DVD, with Thomson's original score performed by the Post-Classical Ensemble. Spaniard Angel Gil-Ordonez conducts.

Government officials hoped the films – produced in support of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal — would help sell to the American public the need for federal assistance for the victims of dust storms and floods.

The documentaries may be propaganda, but, in the case of The Plow That Broke The Plains, the history of the Great Plains is accurate, says Tim Egan, author of The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. The films are widely recognized for their deft combination of images, poetry and music.

The River opens with a 19th-century hymn, with images of crystalline drips of water coalescing into streams. But the power of the river was also destructive, and the film culminates with dramatic footage of entire neighborhoods under water.

The plan to restore the two films was made just months before Hurricane Katrina. Since then, there have been a handful of live performances of the score by the Post-Classical Ensemble, including a benefit for hurricane victims.


RILEY: In C

Ars nova Copenhagen; Percurama Percussion Ensemble / Paul Hillier

8.226049


Review by CD Hotlist
March 2007

It's hard to imagine that any music library doesn't already own recordings of multiple performances of this foundational minimalist work, but since the performing parameters are so loose, each version tends to sound quite different. This one is spectacularly lovely, and while it probably makes little sense to call any one version "definitive," this is perhaps the most enjoyable one I've heard.



Review by Buffalo News, March 2007

Terry Riley’s “In C” from 1964 is one of the proto-masterpieces of minimalism, the movement that hoped to clear hopelessly unlovable post-serialism out of international concert halls (and eventually came close to succeeding). You’d think at this stage 43 years later that it would be virtually impossible to conceive of an entirely new way to perform “In C” but Paul Hillier has in this wonderful all-vocal version supplemented only by marimbas and vibraphone. It is even better news that he is also engaged in recording another hypnotic contemplation object from four years later, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Stimmung.”


Review by Joshua Kosman,
San Francisco Chronicle, March 2007

Terry Riley's 1964 minimalist masterpiece "In C" has been treated in all sorts of ways, as various performing ensembles have created versions ranging from the blissed out to the aggressively edgy. Now conductor Paul Hillier and two Danish groups -- the chorus Ars Nova Copenhagen and the percussion ensemble Percurama -- conjure up a new and ravishingly beautiful "In C," scored exclusively for voices and mallet instruments. A single marimba sets the pulse, and other marimbas provide soft highlights. But the main vehicle for Riley's repeated melodic atoms is the singers, their voices blending into a multicolored choral melange that reveals yet another side of this seemingly inexhaustible work. What comes through this time is not the piece's rhythmic edge but its links to medieval music, with long-sustained tones set against rapid figuration. The effect is stupendous.


GLASS: Symphony No. 4, "Heroes" / The Light

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop

8.559325


Review by Jed Distler
Classics Today, March 2007

In his 1996 Fourth Symphony, Philip Glass reworked six out of the ten tracks from David Bowie's Heroes album into orchestral pieces that function both as independent entities and integral symphonic components. It isn't necessary to know the original Heroes in order to appreciate how Glass manipulates the essentially simplistic melodic content by way of striking harmonic juxtapositions, rhythmic vamps laced with unpredictable accents from the percussion, and orchestration that's cannily varied yet clear enough to take down by dictation. In The Light, Glass also generates considerable textural and dramatic mileage from the simple, undulating motives heard at the work's outset. What prevents the signature repetitive modules from running into the ground or sticking in the mud is the composer's unerring sense of when to introduce a new idea, slightly alter a chord voicing, or vary the instrumentation.

One main difference between Marin Alsop's interpretations and Dennis Russell Davies' premiere recordings on Nonesuch concerns engineering philosophy. On Naxos, the Bournemouth Symphony emerges in a more natural, concert-hall perspective as you might perceive from a dead-center orchestra seat in a vibrant but not overly resonant hall. The Russell Davies recordings reproduce their orchestras (the American Composers Orchestra in the Symphony, the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in The Light) at relatively close, detail -oriented range and pack a more immediate punch. For example, in Alsop's slightly faster rendition of the symphony's fourth-movement Sons of the Silent Age, the antiphonal cross-rhythms midway through the work converge to more fluid and blended effect. By contrast, Russell Davies' slower, more heavily accented version beefs up the harps and low brass. And while Alsop begins V 2 Schneider (the final movement) at a bright clip that ever-so-slightly slows down within the first minute, Russell Davies is rock steady. Although I lean toward Russell Davies' recordings (which result from the composer's production team), Alsop's equally world-class interpretations unquestionably convey their own character and validity.


Review by Bradley Bambarger
Newark Star Ledger, February 2007

A trailblazer for women on the podium, Marin Alsop is one of the most prolific conductors on disc, regardless of gender. Along with a well-received Brahms cycle with the London Philharmonic, the 50-year-old, Manhattan-born Alsop has made discs for Naxos with orchestras from Scotland and Colorado. But most of her activity has been with England's Bournemouth Symphony (which she has led since 2002), yielding discs of Bartok, Orff, Bernstein, Takemitsu, Philip Glass and John Adams.

Alsop's second Glass disc showcases his "Heroes" Symphony, the score based on the titular art-rock album by David Bowie (produced in 1977 with Brian Eno). Glass's take on "Heroes" is marginally less compelling than his "Low" Symphony (based on another Bowie/Eno album), and neither comes close to the landmark originals in import. Still, Glass's orchestral makeovers have an atmospheric allure, and Alsop's ideally recorded performance is more potent than the work's first take on disc, led by Dennis Russell Davies. Having to rely on his own material for 24 minutes, Glass's 1987 tone poem "The Light" reverberates with his usual clichés. Again, though, the music is attractive, the performance organic.

TCHAIKOVSKY, B.: Symphony No. 1 / The Murmuring Forest Suite / After the Ball Suite

Various Artists

8.570195

Review by Brian Burtt
Musicweb International, March 2007

Boris, apparently bears no relation to that more famous musical Tchaikovsky, which is just as well: they are both products and developers of the Russian tradition, but they are equally clearly products of their respective centuries. Boris Tchaikovsky’s teachers included Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, and Shebalin — auspicious mentorship that appears to have produced a significant compositional voice, if one until now little appreciated in the West.

One is likely to wonder, particularly regarding the Symphony no. 1 of 1947: how much does it resemble the work of Shostakovich? Features reminiscent of Shostakovich as well as other Soviet composers of the era are present: pungent brass intrusions, glass-edged string writing, spare and austere orchestration. Tchaikovsky is in this symphony, however, more conservative than Shostakovich or even Vainberg. There isn’t the same level of searing, driving intensity that - depending on how one interprets it - conveys the personal pain of oppression and alienation from one’s society. Tchaikovsky, rather, is interested in deploying the timbres and orchestrations he learned from his teachers for more formally musical argument. He is successful in doing this through the long-line; which is to say, he is a natural symphonist. While this work will not displace any of the twentieth-century “greats,” it makes for compelling listening and deserves to be played in Western concert halls.

The Volgograd Philharmonic, founded recently in 1987, has a lean sound that suits the symphony well. Its founder, Edward Serov, displays a sure control over the global architecture of the music, a virtue not always to be found in better-known conductors.

There is a change of personnel for the two orchestral suites, written to accompany radio dramas. The conservatory orchestra provides a richer sound. Though episodic, as one would expect of incidental music, it should appeal to fans of similar works by Sibelius. After the Ball actually commences with a very Sibelian waltz.

A page in the liner-notes features the Boris Tchaikovsky Society. This group, of which the composer’s widow is a founder and many Russian musical luminaries are members, “organized” these recording. They note, “the Society welcomes everyone who admires the music of this great Russian composer. It will be delighted to answer any inquiries and to send scores.”

Naxos has also recorded the composer’s Piano Concerto (8.557727). I hope that, in their typically systematic way, they will commit his remaining three symphonies to disc.


BUSONI: Piano Music, Vol. 3

Wolf Harden

8.570249

Review by Colin Clarke
Musicweb International, March 2007

Congratulations to Naxos for foregrounding the music of Busoni, a composer often thought of as 'difficult' and hard to approach. This is the third volume - my colleague Christopher Howells has reviewed the second elsewhere on this site.

The Bach transcription is an easy inroad, it has to be said. While the arrangement is undeniably expert, with the Fugue invoking huge sonorities towards the end, it is not that interventionist. Harden plays extremely well, making the Adagio an identifiably first cousin to the slow movement of the famous Italian Concerto. The Fugue is rather peaceful but active.

Of the Three Morceaux, the Scherzo - the first piece - sounds rather slow, almost as if taken at half-speed. It leads to another Prelude and Fugue, the latter an extremely skilful example of its genre. Harden's light touch informs the First Ballet Scene, his light staccato adding an appealing cheekiness to the Second. The Fourth Concert Waltz is parenthesised, 'In the Form of a Concert Waltz' and is bitter-sweet; rather darker than anything so far - especially so towards its close. The Tanzwalzer is similarly half-lit, exploring its territory even more, veering on the hallucinatory at times.

The Indian Diary is one of Busoni's most famous pieces. If it appeals you might wish to explore the Indianische Fantasie on Chandos 10302 played by Nelson Goerner on a superbly recorded disc that also includes the Brautwahl Suite. Harden finds the quirky side of the first movement ('Corn Blossom'), the sweetness of the 'Bluebird Song' and makes the final 'Passamaquoddy Dance Song' remarkably broad-shouldered.

The recording (Potton Hall) is good, if perhaps a tad light. A fascinating disc, with a value-for-money playing time.


LISZT: Symphonic Poems, Vol. 4

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Michael Halasz

8.557847


Review by David Hurwitz
Classics Today, March 2007

First a little bit of housekeeping: Despite the identification of Le Triomphe funèbre de Tasse as "Symphonic Poem No. 2", it actually is No. "2a" (according to my score), and more pertinently is a later work dating from 1877, first performed by the New York Philharmonic under Walter Damrosch. Symphonic Poem No. 2 is the better-known Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo, which already has appeared in this series. So don't worry, you're not getting the same piece all over again, and this late piece is in fact the loveliest thing on the disc. Simply scored, relatively concise, full of beautiful melodies, and comparatively restrained in feeling, it has none of the bombast nor any of the formal diffuseness that afflicts some of Liszt's other efforts in the medium that he more or less invented.

Which brings us to Héroïde funèbre, an interminable funeral march that is nonetheless important for the influence it may have had on such later pieces as Mahler's Fifth Symphony and Sibelius' In Memoriam. Michael Halász gets through it in 23 minutes, offering a grander vision than Kurt Masur (a zippy 17 minutes) without lapsing into the longuers of Haitink's insufferable interpretation (27 minutes). It's a fair compromise, and as in the previous three volumes in this series, the New Zealanders play very well for Halász. Hungaria, despite beginning with a lament (this is a pretty dark disc, come to think of it), has plenty of fire and more than a few catchy tunes along the way. It goes on about twice as long as it needs to, but hey, this is Liszt. The sonics are very good, and if you've been collecting this series, keep right on going.


GINASTERA: Panambi / Estancia (Complete Ballets)

London Symphony Orchestra / Gisele Ben-Dor
Luis Gaeta

8.557582

Review by Hubert Culot
Musicweb International, March 2007

Apologies for giving the game away from the start, but this re-issue of a long-deleted recording of Ginastera’s ballet scores, once available on Conifer Classics, is particularly welcome. Not only do we hear the complete scores, but the performances and the recording are really first-class, defying the use of superlatives.

The suites drawn from both ballets are quite well-known by now. I suspect that many music-lovers know the suites from Eugene Goossens’ long-deleted recordings made for Everest, coincidentally with the London Symphony Orchestra. The complete scores, however, have long remained unheard and – for that matter – unrecorded. A complete Panambí has been recorded earlier by the Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrzej Borejko (once available on Largo 5122); but the present recorded performance undoubtedly supersedes it. That said, the Polish performance usefully filled a gap in Ginastera’s discography at the time it was recorded and released. As far as Estancia is concerned, this is the first recording of the complete score.

Panambí Op.1 was completed in 1937, and is thus Ginastera’s first acknowledged work. In fact he later rescued some earlier works such as Impresiones de la Puna for flute and string quartet and this has been recorded on several occasions (BIS CD-175 and Dorian DOR-90202). The libretto is based on a legend of love and magic drawn from the traditions of the Guaraní Indians, a tribe from northern Argentina. As such, parallels may be drawn with some works by Latin-American composers, such as Revueltas, Chavez and Villa Lobos. The music of Panambí draws on a number of influences that may be quite easily spotted. One hears echoes from Stravinsky, Debussy and Bartók but the complete score displays the young composer’s assurance in blending these influences into a highly personal whole. Moreover, there are many felicitous orchestral touches such as the beautiful writing for horns in Escena [track 5], the atmospheric introduction and the superbly evocative closing section El Amanecer (“Dawn”), as well as some brilliantly scored primitive dances. This tale of magic and mystery obviously fired the young composer’s imagination, and drew some highly accomplished music from him. A quite impressive Opus 1, and a work of which any young composer could be proud.

Composed several years later, Estancia Op.8 shows how far the composer progressed over the years. The music is more personal, less indebted to, say, Copland, although some might be tempted to compare it to Rodeo. For one, the score is much more structured than Copland’s colourful romp. It opens with beautiful dawn music and ends with more dawn music. In between come a series of songs and dances that provide welcome contrast. The whole is brilliantly capped by a general dance, the celebrated Malambo. The complete ballet includes parts narrated and sung by a bass-baritone, which may be a reason why the score has often been disregarded. Again, there are many fine orchestral touches throughout this relatively long work. I particularly like La Doma (“Rodeo”), the beautifully atmospheric and evocative Idilio crepuscular (“Twilight Idyll”) and La Noche: Nocturno (oh, those beautiful horns again!); but there is so much more to enjoy. This is undoubtedly a major score from Ginastera’s nationalistic period.

As mentioned earlier in this review, these performances are just splendid and unlikely to be surpassed. The London Symphony Orchestra play to the manner-born, and Gisèle Ben-Dor conducts vital readings of these colourful, rhythmically alert scores. At the same time she remains attentive to the more lyrical sections and she conducts these with feeling but without undue sentimentality. These scores and readings teem with life-asserting energy, but never at the expense of subtlety and refinement. This is a self-commending release restoring – hopefully for a long time – these indispensable readings of two of Ginastera’s most readily attractive scores.


WEISS: Lute Sonatas, Vol. 8

Robert Barto

8.570109

Review by Mark Sealey
Musicweb International, March 2007

Silvius Leopold Weiss loved the lute. An exact contemporary of J.S. Bach, he worked in the Dresden court composing hundreds of lute pieces. This volume by American Robert Barto is the eighth in his Naxos series.

For a variety of reasons - including an interdict on their distribution by his patron and the fact that many survive only in tablature, not to mention their extreme difficulty - it’s a wonder that we’re able to hear them at all. The provenance, near destruction and geographical scattering - collections exist in London and Dresden - make teeth-chattering reading. Indeed a sonata on the already-published Volume 1 (Naxos 8.553773) was misidentified as Number 36: it should be Number 11. This is all the more unnerving when one remembers in what high esteem Weiss was held both in Germany as lutenist while still alive, and subsequently by musicologists aware of his gifts and tantalised by the wished-for prospect of his having written music other than for the lute.

Barto presents three sonatas on this CD: Numbers 36, 19 and 34. It can be said from the start that the playing is sharp and expressive and thus that the CD can be immediately recommended. It will be interesting to see how a ‘rival’ series by Yasunori Imamura on Claves - so far only Volume 1 has been released on 50-2613 - compares. Barto’s approach more earthy than Imamura’s with slightly more poise and a ‘stringier’ sound; perhaps even more downright accomplished. Each has its merits and each more than passes muster. Reviews of previous volumes in the Naxos/Barto series on MusicWeb have been enthusiastic. Volume 8 is no exception.

Sonata - we should probably call it a Suite - 36 is highly typical of Weiss’s later approach: a three-part texture in cantabile style. It’s a lovely, gentle, work with intricacies and simplicities in equal measure. At times redolent of Bach - listen to the development of the end of the allegro, tr. 6, for example - the six movements follow one another like a happy, dancing couple.

Number 19 is harmonically conservative and shies away from anything at all angular or extrovert, though the music is full of impact and makes special use of folk dances. After listening to the Sonata, one seems to have experienced as much as heard the tunes, the overt and hidden rhythms and the contrasts between movements. Barto is highly skilled at leading us through that experience.

Number 34 is one of Weiss’s most popular sonatas and evidently was used for teaching. But it’s no simplified exercise. With superb part-writing and luminous, improvisatory singing sequences, it contains arguably the most lovely music on this CD.

If you’ve been collecting Barto’s Naxos Weiss series until now, you’ll need no encouragement to buy this latest volume. If you haven’t come across it yet, this is as good a place to start as any. If it’s the sound of the lute you’re after, then Weiss’s expertise drawing out every nuance will thrill and reward.


CRUMB: Vox Balaenae / Federico's Little Songs for Children / 11 Echoes of Autumn

Various Artists

8.559205

Review by Dominy Clements
Musicweb International, March 2007

Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), composed in 1971 for the New York Camerata, is scored for flute, cello and piano, all to be amplified in concert performance. The work was inspired by the singing of the humpback whale, a tape recording of which the composer had heard two or three years before writing the work. The piece opens with a prologue in which the instruments are shown in a wide variety of colours. The flautist has much singing into the flute, there are roaring strings from the piano, and the cellist’s opening ‘flautando’ whistles over them all. In many ways this is seminal Crumb, with the techniques employed embodying his philosophy and desire to live entirely within the music, to extract everything humanly possible from the available materials. His sound-world is searchingly experimental, but always idiomatic and respectful of the player and the instruments. The cello’s flute tones sing like seabirds, the flautists vocalisations give a breadth of expression beyond pure notes, and the piano’s strings can become a slide guitar, a thrumming sitar, a bass drum, an echo box, or suggest images such as the sparkling of light through water.

There are of course quite a few conventionally played notes in this piece, and the melodic lines have an exotic, sometimes oriental feel. Open intervals and expressive lines draw the listener into an often beguiling aural environment, and the return of recognisable musical motives provide handles on which to hang the work’s variation form, framed by a prologue and an epilogue. Beautifully performed, if I have any criticism at all then it is in the engineer’s approach to the ‘amplified in concert performance’ instruction. The impression is there with the cello, which is a little more distant in the soundstage but beefed up somewhere along the line, and the alto flute sound becomes a little opaque through the effect given. The piano seems however to be unaffected. While these are relatively innocuous effects I think it might have been better to leave the ‘amplification’ factor out of the equation altogether.

Federico’s Little Songs for Children, written for the Jubal Trio, was completed during the summer of 1986. The seven little poems constituting the Canciones para Niños by Federico Garciá Lorca reflect many different aspects of a child’s fantasy world. The mood can be reflective, playful, mock-serious, gently ironic, or simply joyous. An innocently playful piccolo colours the opening Señorita of the Fan, and each song creates its own atmosphere around the various poems – lyrical flute and harp for Afternoon, the birdsong of the alto flute in A Song Sung, a whispering and wistful voice, sliding harp notes played as the pedals are changed and the more breathy tones of the bass flute characterise the Snail. With each song being short in duration, this cycle is a magical world of imagination and contrast. The relatively gentle flute and harp are unthreatening but capable of their own extremes. With the final Silly Song returning to the piccolo, the sense of a completed journey is satisfying both musically and dramatically.

An Idyll for the Misbegotten for amplified flute and percussion was composed in 1985. The composer states: "I feel that ‘misbegotten’ well describes the fateful and melancholy predicament of the species homo sapiens at the present moment in time", suggesting that the music be "heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlit evening in August". Such specific instructions might seem impractical, but in fact they are a useful guide for musicians when seeking to recreate the atmosphere desired by the composer – as effective as the hand gestures of Messiaen describing the flight of a bird, even when none of us students understood a word of his eloquent French. The scoring, employing two of man’s oldest instruments, conjures up an often rough hewn primeval atmosphere. Flautist Robert Aitken is the work’s dedicatee, and of course has the technical aspects of the piece well under control – whistle tones and harmonics among them. The use of a quotation from Debussy’s Syrinx is of course instantly recognisable.

Eleven Echoes of Autumn was composed during the spring of 1966 for the Aeolian Chamber Players. The work consists of eleven pieces or echi, which are performed without interruption. Each of the echi exploits certain timbral aspects of each instrument, in the composer’s words: "for example, eco 1 for piano alone is based entirely on the 5th partial harmonic, eco 2 on violin harmonics in combination with 7th partial harmonics produced on the piano by drawing a piece of hard rubber along the strings. A delicate aura of sympathetic vibrations emerges in echi 3 and 4, produced in the latter case by alto flute and clarinet playing into the piano, causing the strings to vibrate sympathetically. At the conclusion of the work the violinist achieves a mournful, fragile timbre by playing with the bow hair completely slack." Such technical descriptions may or may not help, but do give an impression of some of the inner workings of the music. The overall effect is of organic growth though an extended ‘broken arch’, sometimes through atmospheric, Webernesque spareness: sometimes with the filigree passagework which is a fingerprint of Crumb’s expressive palette.

As far as programmatic content is concerned, the composer guides the listener towards the significance of a motto-quote from Federico García Lorca: "... y los arcos rotos donde sufre el tiempo", which translates as; "... and the broken arches where time suffers", whose words are softly intoned as a preface to each of three cadenzas. Again superbly performed, the piano possibly has a little too much of the advantage as far as recorded balance goes, pushing the other instruments aside in the ff of the climax. The engineers will have zoomed in on the strings in order to pick up all those subtle, quiet effects, and this is the penalty. Slight caveats aside, the recording is very good for all of the works on this disc, set in a pleasantly resonant acoustic and with plenty of detail - without placing the instruments right up your nose.

As ever, this kind of music won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; and those keen on ocean noises should be made aware that Vox Balaenae is more Crumb than Whale. If you are already aware of George Crumb’s fascinating sound world then you will know what to expect, and while there are one or two other versions of these pieces in the catalogue you won’t be disappointed by the New Music Concerts Ensemble. At bargain price there’s no better place to start a new exploration. George Crumb’s star in the recording catalogue continues to wax, and with Naxos’ American Series producing fine recordings of his work there can be little doubt that this trend will continue, with every justification.


CHOPIN: Ballades Nos. 1-4 / Nocturnes (Cortot, 78 rpm Recordings, Vol. 5) (1929-1951)

Alfred Cortot

8.111245


Review by Michael Church
The Independent, March 2007

The sound on these 1929 performances is primitive - and to hell with the wrong notes with which this most poetic of pianists peppers his playing - yet it represents a triumph for the sound-engineer who re-mastered it. All the original drama is here, completing the case made by Naxos's superb five-disc survey of Cortot's 78rpm output.


MAYR: L'Armonia / Cantata sopra la morte di Beethoven

Ingolstadt Georgian Chamber Orchestra / Franz Hauk
Simon Mayr Choir; Nikolay Borchev; Franz Hauk; Talia Or; Altin Piriu

8.557958

Review by Richard Wigmore
Gramophone, March 2007

Tributes to music and a great musician - but is Mayr's music up to the job?

Bavarian-born but thoroughly ltalianised by training, Simon Mayr (1763-1845) was one of the most successful opera composers of his day and a key influence on Rossini, Bellini and his own pupil Donizetti. But his subsequent eclipse is not surprising. As recordings of Medea in Corinto and Ginevra have revealed, he is all too liable to lapse into decorous amiability, even frivolity, when something far sterner or more intense is required. So it is in these two "homage" cantatas, the one composed to honour an imperial visit to Bergamo, the other hastily put together for a Beethoven commemorative concert in 1827.

L 'Armonia, which simultaneously celebrates the power of music and the glory of the Habsburgs, has its agreeable moments: a solemn "hymn to harmony" with rich wind scoring, for instance, or a charming trio and chorus with harp obbligato (something of a Mayr speciality).

Elsewhere, though, the invention tends to veer between the jaunty and the downright banal. A would-be bellicose number for tenor and chorus sounds positively flippant -like comic Rossini minus the dangerous, intoxicating verve; and when Mayr embarks on a lyrical tune, it soon becomes encrusted with otiose coloratura.

If L 'Armonia is at least worth hearing, the Beethoven cantata, partly concocted from works by Cherubini and Mayr written in homage of Haydn, was surely best left interred. The graceful, rather Mozartian opening promises more than it delivers. Thereafter blandness and empty rhetoric prevail, relieved briefly by reminiscences of the Pastoral Symphony and Mass in C. Those who do decide to investigate should find the performances more than acceptable. Chorus and orchestra, from Mayr's native city, are spirited if a trifle homespun. The three soloists all negotiate their pyrotechnics fluently enough, though soprano Talia Or sounds stretched in the high tessitura of the Beethoven cantata. Best is the young Russian baritone Nikolay Borchev, with his warmly sonorous tone and elegant sense of style: a singer to watch.


Review by David Vernier
Classics Today, March 2007

German-born Simon Mayr received his musical training in Italy (he's also properly known by his Italian name Giovanni Simone Mayr), and that's where he spent his career writing both operas and sacred vocal music at the cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. One thing's clear about this composer/teacher/choir master: he knew his Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, and if you like their sacred and theatrical music, you'll enjoy this program featuring two delightful cantatas. L'Armonia, an extended (45-minute) near-opera with three scenes, characters, choruses, virtuoso arias, and well-developed recitatives, was presented on the occasion of a state visit to Bergamo in 1825 by the Emperor Franz I and his entourage. It contains all the conventions of the day to satisfy and impress an imperial audience--the references to classical poets and mythology, symbolic associations to the emperor's benevolence and wisdom (not to mention a surprise tribute to the Empress), grand choruses and florid arias glorifying the defense of the nation's and its people's ideals in battle, and textual quotations espousing the goals of harmony and peace.

But rather than being tedious and predictable, Mayr treats us to some very appealing, expertly crafted music that handily combines some dramatic and very demanding Mozartian opera-style arias--beautifully sung by all three soloists--with choruses right out of the church works of Mozart and Haydn. The pacing is swift and conductor Franz Hauk keeps his forces tightly together most of the time--some ragged instrumental ensemble and choral intonation slips are only occasionally noticeable. Mayr also cleverly uses a harp at opportune moments to add color and for symbolic reference to the Bards, which are among the cantata's "characters".

And speaking of references, if you know Beethoven, you'll have fun picking out Mayr's nifty insertions of excerpts from some of the master's works in the Cantata for the Death of Beethoven. This 15-minute piece was basically cobbled together from original material and from existing works, and again, it's a very satisfying listen marked by strong vocal writing for the soloists and stylish orchestration. Once more I do have to mention the solo singers--soprano Talia Or, tenor Altin Piriù, and bass Nikolay Borchev--all first class and very solid in some very challenging music. They have a lot to do here, and they really carry the show. A pleasant surprise!


ELGAR: Marches

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / James Judd

8.557273


Review by David Hurwitz
Classics Today, March 2007

Nearly 80 minutes of Elgar in march tempo may be a bit much at a single sitting, but this disc fills a useful niche. The most interesting work here is the symphonic prelude Polonia, dedicated to Paderewski and composed during the First World War. Making use of various Polish melodies (including music by Paderewski and Chopin), at nearly 15 minutes it's a major statement for a mere "occasional" work, and the only reason I can think of that it isn't better known is that it's not about England so no one especially cares. James Judd and the New Zealand Symphony play it very well, as they also do the Pomp and Circumstance Marches. Frankly, you can have your Boults and Barbirollis: compared to Judd they sound far less involved. He actually has interesting ideas about phrasing (listen to how he drives the opening of March No. 2), and he makes a persuasive case for this music as music, rather than as a high school graduation exercise or some other mundane event.

The Coronation March and the Funeral March from Grania and Diarmid also are bigger than their titles might suggest, the first as reflective as it is opulent, the second really a brief, elegiac tone poem. It's a bit hard to get excited about either the Empire March or the March from Caractacus, and the March of the Mogul Emperors (from The Crown of India Suite) could crash and bash with more abandon, but there's certainly enough here to whet the appetite of committed Elgarians. The sonics are quite good--a touch low-level perhaps, but easily adjustable, with plenty of room to expand and good bass separation between timpani, bass drum, and organ pedals (which are well caught but not overbearing). In short, this is another successful collaboration between Judd and the New Zealanders--long may they continue.


STRAVINSKY: Histoire du Soldat Suite / Renard (Stravinsky, Vol. 7)

Various Artists

8.557505


Review by Malcolm Hayes
Classic FM, March 2007

Here is another of Naxos's budget-priced feasts of music by the 20th-century's ultimate composer - all of it buzzing with character, atmosphere and fun, and showing how Stravinsky responded to a lifetime's exile from his native Russia by sometimes becoming more Russian than ever. The major party pieces are the suite from the music-theatre masterwork The Soldier's Tale, and the over-the-top antics of Renard (a kind of farmyard-animal vaudeville show). Meanwhile, the smaller song-cycles are wonderful chips from the composer's bench, combining his trademark virtuoso brilliance with exquisite touch. The performances reflect this, with Susan Narucki's soprano sounding especially lovely.


BRAHMS: Symphony No. 3 / Haydn Variations

London Philharmonic Orchestra / Marin Alsop

8.557430


Review by Malcolm Hayes
Classic FM, March 2007

Fearsome competition here - but even so, these recordings hold up well. The LPO's particular kind of lustrous focus suits Brahm's music beautifully, and it responds to Alsop's direction with playing that's way beyond routine. Meanwhile she earns herself credit by including the repeat of the first movement's opening section (many conductors don't), and traces the music's big trajectory with the surest of touch. Elsewhere, while some of her hands-on shifts of phrasing work better than others, you always see her point. And her way with the Haydn Variations exactly catches the music's blend of warmth, intricate mistery and unpretentiousness.


Review by Richard Osborne
Gramophone, March 2007

Brand-new budget-price recordings which can rub shoulders with the best are rarer than one imagines (Colin Davis's 1962 HMV Concert Classics recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony was an early example) but this fine new Brahms disc probably comes into that category.

Finding a recommendable Brahms Third is more difficult than one might suppose. Since Felix Weingartner made his very fine LPO recording in 1938, the number of great, or even successful, Thirds can probably be listed on the fingers of two hands. Marin Alsop's reading is certainly fine: dark of hue, lyrical and long drawn, though never, even for a moment, comatose. Rhythm is good, articulation keen, phrasing exquisite, the reading's crepuscular colours glowingly realised by the LPO. The reading has a quality of melancholy, a wistfulness crossed with a sense of incipient tragedy, which is almost Elgarian (Elgar's fascination with the piece is well attested).

Readings such as Furtwangler's and Sanderling's, which are more inclined to tower and course, may not have allowed themselves to be overtopped by the St Antoni Variations, yet there is something rather wonderful about the transition we have here from dark to light. It is a long time since I heard a performance of the Variations as well grounded and as keenly profiled as this. Winds are splendidly to the fore: skirling flutes, songful oboes, grumbling descants on the horns "in deep B". It is, above all, a reading of great character: the horn-led sixth variation a burgherly jaunt, the seventh variation a handsome galliard, the finale a Meistersinger-like revel.


FALLA: Complete Piano Works, Vol. 1

Daniel Ligorio

8.555065


Review by John Brunning
Classic FM, March 2007

This CD is the first in a series in which Daniel Ligorio will record all of de Falla's piano music. Some of these early works, dating from the turn of the 20th century, are in the Romantic style, which Falla later abandoned. His orchestral masterpiece Love the Magician needs little introduction, but arguably the most interesting aspect of this recording is that Ligorio has revisited Falla's sketches, so as to get closer to the effect produced by the original version for full orchestra. His assured playing, coupled with a rich and natural piano sound, promise great things for subsequent releases.


MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 3
PAGANINI: Violin Concerto No.1 (Menuhin) (1934-1952)

Various Artists

8.111135

Review by Gramophone
March 2007

Naxos's Historicals offer a fascinating mix of benchmark classics and unexpected rarities. Two new issues are typical. The first gathers together some early recordings by Yehudi Menuhin, most spectacularly Paganini's First Violin Concerto under Pierre Monteux, oft reissued from well recorded 1934 78s but never sounding better than it does here. The playing is both rapturously beautiful and dazzlingly acrobatic, Menuhin on peak technical form playing the entire score with Sauret's first-movement cadenza. Mozart's Third Concerto under Enescu is also youthful and sweet-sounding, though, as Tully Potter suggests in his informed booklet essay, Menuhin would later dig a little deeper behind the notes. Novacek's Perpetuum mobile has a touch of devilry about it but the rarity is Chausson's Poeme - not the well known early version under Enescu but a 1952 recording under Boult, less good to be honest, and Ward Marston must have had his work cut out with some very tricky edits/side-joins (there's a very odd one at around 6'38").


CHOPIN: Piano Sonatas No. 2 and 3 / Polonaises (Cortot, 78 rpm Recordings, Vol. 4) (1923-1947)

Alfred Cortot

8.111065

Review by Gramophone
March 2007

A Chopin programme from Alfred Cortot is even more interesting, with a rare and rather dusty-sounding 1928 version of the B flat minor Sonata (the more familiar ones are from 1927 and 1933), the manner of rubato typically elastic but so utterly natural. The chosen version of the Third Sonata is from 1933, superbly recorded and as masterly a performance as we have from Cortot, every phrase aglow, whether singing - ­as in the Largo - or scurrying at speed in the Scherzo. Liszt's transcriptions of three Chopin Chants polonais conjure much poetry, the last and most famous of them ("My Joys") unissued on shellac. A truncated acoustic account of the Op 22 Grand polonaise brillant exhibits Cortot's finger velocity, the celebrated A flat Polonaise his inimitably stylish bravura, with only the Polonaise-fantasie from 1947, illuminating in part, showing him somewhat past his best.


BACH, J.S.: Well-Tempered Clavier (The), Book  I & II (Landowska) (1951-1954)

Wanda Landowska

8.111061-63

Review by Paul Shoemaker
Musicweb International, March 2007

At the outset it is necessary to discuss several points. First, please note that this work is not entitled the “equal tempered keyboard”, but the “well tempered keyboard.” Bach did not write this work to prove the necessity of equal temperament for keyboard instruments, as some books insist, but just the opposite: at a time when equal temperament was being promoted, he produced this work to show it was NOT necessary, that one could write pleasingly well in all keys using an unequal temperament, such as Werckmeister temperament. Some books actually say Bach invented equal temperament, which is preposterous. Equal temperament had been around for centuries; all fretted stringed instruments — guitars, lutes, viols — have always been equal tempered, while skilled performers devised various clever means (e.g., sliding bridges, rolling frets) of mitigating the resulting unpleasantness. Once you get used to hearing temperaments, you perceive that equal temperament produces a monotonous, banally sour sound; the reason to use unequal temperament is to give a sweeter sound to “near” keys and a more astringent sound to “far” keys intensifying the drama of the music.

What eventually made equal temperament commonplace was not any piece of music, but the nature of modern pianofortes. Since every note on a piano is slightly out of tune with itself - read any good book on piano tuning - the slight tuning errors of equal temperament become unnoticeable. Violinists have to play slightly out of tune to accommodate equal temperament when they play with a piano accompaniment. When a professional violinist friend first began to play accompanied by my mean tone tempered harpsichord he was startled; at first he couldn’t play at all, then discovered it was easier. All those years he’d thought the problem was in his ear, but instead it was the equal temperament of the piano.

The work is also not entitled the “Well Tempered Clavichord”. At the time of composition of the first book, Bach would have intended and expected the choice of instrument to be up to the performer, and clavichord, harpsichord, lute, pianoforte or organ would all have been suitable. He revised some of the pieces between the time of their original composition and their inclusion in the first volume of this anthology because the likelihood changed of one instrument being employed over another. Some critics notwithstanding, Bach did not struggle, like Beethoven, composing various imperfect versions of a work, hoping eventually to hit on just the right combination of notes for the perfect effect. Bach never wrote imperfect music. If Bach revised a work it was because expected performance conditions changed, such as choice of instrument.

By the time of the second book, it was obvious to anyone with a grain of sense, and Bach is generally credited with at least that, that the pianoforte would soon be the most popular, the preferred keyboard instrument. Hence, book two can with little trepidation be proclaimed to be a work at least mostly for pianoforte. The enormous success of both books of the work in pianoforte performance over nearly two hundred years bears out this observation, that the pianoforte cannot in any sense be considered unsuited for, or unintended for, this music. The work was used as prime instruction material for all great players of the pianoforte from C.P.E. Bach, to Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Debussy — right up to Sviatoslav Richter. This work guided the design and development of the pianoforte right down to the present day. Yes, I’m a reformed harpsichord snob; I love the harpsichord as one forever loves one’s first love, but eventually truth wins out.

That said, the work also sounds wonderful on the harpsichord, and indeed the work is equally responsible for the revival of the harpsichord as it was for the development of the pianoforte. Landowska naturally began studying keyboard as a pianist and made her debut as such in childhood. Her turn to the harpsichord did not occur until her studies into early music, encouraged by her husband, Herbert Yew. Yew was killed in an accident in 1919 and Wanda did not remarry, eventually hiring her student Denise Restout as personal assistant, leading to all kinds of absurd and pointless speculations by critics and biographers.

Landowska had made many recordings in her life, but the decision to record the entire WTK was a landmark effort for the time. The recordings proceeded in sessions of varying length — most often recording only one prelude and fugue, sometimes two — and spanned five years. The first sessions were held at an RCA recording studio in New York City, but apparently this proved inconvenient, so the remainder of the sessions were held in Ms. Landowska’s country house in Lakeville, Connecticut. There was reportedly some difficulty getting the people and equipment set up and used to this location. During the first sessions there, on the 27 and 28 of May 1950, four preludes and fugues were put “in the can”; they were all generally disappointing in both sound and performance quality, but were not re-done. After that, things settled down more agreeably and the next sessions produced excellent and, on occasion, brilliant results.

Landowska’s performance of the first prelude and fugue from set I is the lowest point in the set interpretatively, due to her aberrant reading of the rhythm in the first fugue, something she alone clung to, unsupported by other scholars. Also, her performance of the prelude - like most others as well, unfortunately - does not take into account the echo structure of the work and, without dynamic contrasts, the work merely sounds like an arpeggio exercise played slowly. But many of her performances of the later preludes and fugues remain landmarks in the history of recorded keyboard music. Her use of the varied sonorities of her multi-rank Pleyel harpsichord is conservative, entirely within what was then and what would later be considered good practice. My quarrel is that some of these sonorities are unpleasantly twangy and nasal, and the dated monophonic sound quality is thick and untransparent. But one gets used to that, even as one prefers the crisper, sweeter, German harpsichord sound achieved on their instruments by Ruzickova and Walcha.

The instrument (and Prelude and Fugue no. 1) aside, Landowska was a scholar and a performing artist of the first rank and hers is an imperishable monument in the recording history of this vital and entertaining work. If we play the works differently ourselves or enjoy differing recordings, we will always come back to listen to this recording with much pleasure.

One writer says Landowska was the first person to perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1933, but that is not correct; Sir Donald Francis Tovey was playing them in England and in Germany, on harpsichord and pianoforte, privately and in concert, years before that.

Although João Carlos Martins has recently earned a reputation for being a bad boy of Bach piano performance through his eccentricities and theatrics, these recordings of the WTK, among his very first, are excellent and thoroughly disciplined. The recorded sound is superlative, the playing enthusiastic, clear and balanced. In his hands the exquisite lyrical bell-like tone of his instrument’s mid-range reminds one of the early Broadwood pianos. This is the performance we would like to have had from Glenn Gould — but didn’t. Glenn Gould recorded a wilfully obtuse version that has set even his partisans to quarrelling, and left a bit of a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. Of course, like everything he did, it’s very much worth hearing, but you wouldn’t want to own it as your only recorded version. Of the harpsichord versions both Ruzickova (I) and Walcha used large German harpsichords with varied tonal quality, tastefully applied. As to be expected, Ruzickova is a little more sprightly and flexible, and Walcha leans a little toward dignity, mystery and grandeur. Ruzickova’s first recording, which I used to own, now long out of print, is evidently to be preferred over her second, currently in print and in stereo, which I have not heard but which has received some bad reviews. In general I admire Ruzickova’s Bach playing enormously; she has done the best ever Harpsichord Concerto No.2. Walcha was one of the great Bach keyboard interpreters of our time. Like Landowska’s, his recording represents a cornerstone of the repertoire, and the sound of his instrument is easier to enjoy for long periods of time. While some find his approach consistently stodgy and architecturally banal, to me he is the unassailable summit of Bach keyboard interpretation; occasionally another artist may excel him in verve, grace or sentiment, but never in intensity or authenticity, although some of his students (e.g. Paul Jordan) may approach him closely even in these areas.

With a work so intense, so diverse, so varied in mood, no single interpreter is likely ever to produce a perfect version for everybody. You must resign yourself to having multiple sets, and this Landowska set will be the centerpiece of your collection.

The RCA CD issue is sweeter in sound from the simple expedient of rolling off the high frequencies, and apparently some very subtle “stereoizing”. Working from commercial LP pressings, Producer Mark Obert-Thorn has left in all available high frequencies and added no acoustical processing; hence his transfer may be a little more difficult to listen to since the actual instrument sound was never very beautiful. Mr. Obert-Thorn avows that he has also corrected the pitch of each recording session, but left the original sound balance of each session as it stood so there is slight variation in acoustical space, but none in pitch, whereas the reverse is true of the RCA issue. Certainly Mr. Obert-Thorn’s transfer conveys a greater sense of presence and clarity.

Landowska’s recording of the Prelude Fugue and Allegro, placed here as a filler, was the first one I ever heard, but generally I have liked everybody else’s I’ve heard since then better. First, her instrument can’t compete in sound quality with a guitar; her use of the “lute stop” on the harpsichord to simulate the sound of a lute is absurd, as Jakob Lindberg shows us in his lute performances. Second, virtually all other performances of the work have more energy and brilliance than Landowska’s; she gave the work a relatively fussy, scholarly, reserved image. In the Valenti recording we have a brilliant reminder that the lute, guitar, and harpsichord were all Spanish instruments and that even the fugue form has Spanish roots, something Bach knew but we’ve forgotten. Philip Hii provides perhaps the definitive virtuoso performance on the guitar, Eliot Fisk on the guitar is really just as good and a little less of a show-off. Paul Galbraith enriches and opens up the work hugely with his deep resonant-sounding 8-string guitar. Lindberg gives us what Bach most likely heard from his friend Sylvius Leopold Weiss, but even in Lindberg’s extremely capable hands, the lute sounds less appealing to me than the guitar.

Let us hope that sales for these sets encourage and justify Naxos to enlarge the “Great Harpsichordists” series to include Sylvia Marlowe, Fernando Valenti, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Thurston Dart, Igor Kipnis, Ruggero Gerlin, Egida Giordani-Sartori, Paul Wolf, Anton Heiller and Luciano Sgrizzi, to name just a few, many of whose magnificent and once popular recordings are now out of reach.


Review by Gramophone
March 2007

Mark Obert-Thoro's transfers are fully up to the mark (forgive the pun), just as they are for Book 2 of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier played by Wanda Landowska, recorded by Victor at her horne between 1951 and 1954, grand, flamboyant performances that in this edition sound warmer, more consistent (pitch-wise) and more palatable than ever before. Naxos usefully completes the package with an earlier recording of the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV998.


TAKEMITSU: Orchestral Works

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Marin Alsop

8.557760

Review by Richard Whitehouse
Gramophone, March 2007

A worthwhile journey into Takemitsu's sound world - via Bournemouth

Discs of Toru Takemitsu's orchestral music have been numerous these past two decades but this Naxos release has the advantage of providing a chronological overview. What comes through, above all, is the consistency of his musical development during that time. The sound world of Solitude sonore (1958) might evoke an Asiatic Messiaen, yet the translucent sonorities and suspended - never merely static - sense of motion denote an already personal voice. Moving to A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1977) is to reach the point where all the elements of Takemitsu's mature idiom are in place: the music unfolding as waves of diaphonous textures in which melodies and harmonies are ceaselessly changing. Less sensuous in manner, Dreamtime (1981) is possibly the finer piece - its interplay of motifs effortlessly evoking an atmosphere remote yet ethereal. From the output of the composer's last decade, Spirit Garden (1994) stands out for its clarity and subtlety of thought - a "concerto for orchestra" that is emphatically no display piece.

On BIS, Tadaaki Otaka conducts two of these works with a greater awareness of their intuitive momentum, but the Bournemouth orchestra are by no means outclassed in what is probably their finest collaboration yet with Marin Alsop. She also includes three pieces for strings drawn from film scores - of which "Funeral Music" has a baleful intensity rare in Takemitsu's concert music. First rate sound, not too close in perspective, and detailed notes from Andrew Burn complete a worthwhile introduction to this singular composer.


VIVALDI: 4 Seasons (The) / Violin Concertos, Op. 8, Nos. 5-6

Sejong
Cho-Liang Lin; Anthony Newman

8.557920

Review by Lindsay Kemp
Gramophone, March 2007

An invigorating account of the Seasons - even if New York slyly creeps in

This is a straightforward Seasons, a perfectly good pick from the many available recordings for anyone who wants the music played with skill and commitment, and no funny business. Cho-Liang Lin and the New York-based Sejong play on modern instruments, choose uncontroversial tempi, and produce a sound which combines rich vibrancy with a clean-edged brightness and coursing freshness which recreates something of the inspiriting effect of a dose of mountain air. Comparatively little interest is shown in the music's descriptive qualities but there is plenty of sensible interpretative detail, with textures clear and ensemble tight; rapid repeated notes are not just scrubbed at, you can really hear them!

Thus there is not much to dislike, though I for one found some of the group ornamentation irritating; it is only an occasional twiddle here and there, but without the necessary spontaneity they are more distracting than enhancing. The sudden brief outburst of chamber organ activity in the final movement of "Spring" is another strange intrusion, while the background noise of New York City is also a worry - at times it is almost as if, somewhere a few fields away from where the shepherd sleeps, agricultural machinery is at work.

Two delightful programmatic companion works from Vivaldi's Op 8 make ideal fillers and are dispatched with similar bracing energy.


IMPRESSIONS FOR SAXOPHONE AND ORCHESTRA - Virtuosic Works by 20th Century Greek Composers

Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra / Myron Michailidis
Theodore Kerkezos

8.557992

Review by Richard Whitehouse
Gramophone, March 2007

Theodore Kerkezos's third album for Naxos offers a viable if by no means inclusive overview of post­war Greek music. The work by Nikos Skalkottas is his Oboe Concertino (1939), given a bracing neo­classical astringency in this idiomatic transcription for soprano sax and strings by Yannis Samprovalakis, whose arrangement of the less inspired First Violin Sonatina (1952) by Mikis Theodorakis as the Cretan Concertino is not so convincing. More persuasive is this composer's own arrangement of his Adagio (1993) commemorating victims of the Bosnian war (the original is on Dutoit's Theodorakis overview on Decca), a poignant threnody that highlights his melodic gift. Similarly adept across genres, Manos Hadjidakis is represented by the atmospheric "Mr Knoll" from the song-cycle Gioconda's Smile­ revealing an ear for melody that puts higher­profile practitioners of "crossover" to shame.

The remaining pieces here were all written for Kerkezos. Theodore Antoniou's Concerto piccolo (2000) evinces a strikingly imaginative orchestral palette - whether in its driving central "Danza" or the inward outer movements that the saxophone dominates with its searching soliloquy. Less absorbing is Vassilis Tenidis's Rhapsody of Pontos (1997), a relentless medley of melodic and rhythmic elements whose virtuosity cannot disguise its paucity of content. More appealing is Minas Alexiadis's Phrygian Litany, a processional whose take on so-called "Holy Minimalism" is informed by no mean tonal and textural subtlety. Ably accompanied by the Thessaloniki orchestra and Myron Michailidis, this vividly recorded and well documented disc is Kerkezos's most intriguing yet.


SCHUMANN: String Quartets Nos. 1-3

Fine Arts Quartet

8.570151

Review by Duncan Druce
Gramophone, March 2007

Fine quartet playing, even if the Fine Arts rein in some of the danger

The Schumann quartets can just be squeezed onto one CD; in 2004 the brisk and lively Ysaÿe Quartet managed it comfortably but the Fine Arts, playing with greater expressive weight, have to leave out the first-movement repeat in the Second Quartet. The outstanding aspect of these performances is the quality of sound, rich and beautifully blended. With a heartfelt, expressive quality, they're able to bring out fully the lyrical side of Schumann's invention, as in the Third Quartet's Adagio, sustained at a very spacious tempo. Throughout, is full and rounded, and never harsh: admirable but there's a side effect of narrowing the dynamic range. For the pianissimo in the sustained passage near the end of the First Quartet, they do produce something special, but there are other places that would have benefited from a more tenuous, mysterious sound. The Fine Arts avoid very fast tempi, as well as very quiet sounds; I certainly feel that the more dangerous speeds taken by the Ysaÿe and Zehetmair Quartets in the finales of Nos 1 and 3 make for extra excitement. On the other hand, in the Second Quartet's finale their playing is elegant and singing in a way that escapes the brusquer Ysaÿe. In No 3's first movement, the Fine Arts take Schumann's Allegro molto moderato literally; their performance is very beautiful but maybe a little lethargic. The Zehetmair Quartet's lighter style here allows them to combine tranquillity with an easy flow.

So, the Fine Arts are better at Eusebius than Florestan; but it's lovely quartet playing, and I'll want to return to it.


MOISEIWITSCH, Benno: Acoustic Recordings 1916-1925 (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 10)

Royal Albert Hall Orchestra / Landon Ronald
Benno Moiseiwitsch

8.111116

Review by Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, March 2007

Pure gold from a bygone age

Vol 10 of Naxos's "Great Pianists" consists of 21 bonnes bouches with which the incomparable ,Moiseiwitsch enchanted his adoring audiences down the years. And, as a crowning touch, there is Mendelssohn's First Concerto full of old­fashioned touches in the central Andante (repeated desynchronisation of the hands) but with a finale tossed aside with all of his legendary legerdemain and leaving most of his rivals at the starting-post.

Elsewhere you can hear a jackdaw's nest of performances where the merest trinket is turned into purest gold. In Rameau, Scarlatti-Tausig, Schumann-Liszt, Moszkowski and Scriabin, you witness an aristocratic pianism that has all but vanished from our more impersonal, contrived and democratically inclined age. Weber's Moto perpetuo is spun off with a dexterity that can make many of today's pianists seem arthritic, and Palmgren's West Finnish Dance gleams with an interior magic that at the same time eschews all artifice. Debussy's Clair de lune is offered in a freely romantic style frowned on by today's severer taste, and if Ravel's Jeux d'eau is rushed and the middle section of Schumann's Traumeswirren is oddly lethargic, even these readings are treasurable and endearing. The 1916-25 recordings may sound dated but the performances are for ever.


ELGAR: Piano Music

Ashley Wass

8.570166


Review by Jed Distler
Classics Today, March 2007

In days of yore, when the piano served as ye olde home entertainment center, a great demand existed for small pieces that were easy on the ear and required from the pianis just enough ability to get around the keyboard. Like many composers, Elgar was not averse to earning a quick buck, and he happily churned out such keyboard fluff or revamped pre-existing compositions when he was not writing symphonies, oratorios, and other serious fare.

Yet even the slightest piano trifles can sound like mini-masterpieces when the performer takes the trouble to play them artistically. And that's precisely what Ashley Wass does. His instinctive, natural sounding rubato and gift for lyrical inflection ennoble pieces such as Une idylle (originally for violin and piano) and Carissima. The Sonatina's brisk second movement is imaginatively pointed, and seems to dance off the page.

Although the Enigma Variations' textual complexity and orchestral ingenuity are considerably compromised in Elgar's keyboard reworking (those horrid silent-movie tremolos in the finale!), much of the music proves quite effective in purely pianistic terms. For example, you might consider Variation Eleven (G.R.S.) the love child of Brahms and Rachmaninov, while Variation Three (R.B.T.) takes on a more austere personality. Without the orchestra's sustaining power, the theme and the famous Ninth Variation (Nimrod) can easily fall apart, yet Wass' concentrated phrasing, chord voicings, and control of dynamics substantiate his slow tempos. There's enough Elgar piano music to fill another volume; will Naxos and Wass follow suit.


PACIUS: The Hunt of King Charles (Kaarle Kuninkaan Metsastys)

Various Artists

8.225317-18

Review by Guy Rickards
Gramophone, March 2007

The Hunt of King Charles ("Kung Karl's jakt") is Finland's first opera - or, at least, the first to be written there (in 1852) ironically since its composer was German and the libretto is in Swedish although it is often performed nowadays (as here) in Finnish translation. The action takes place in the Åland Islands rather than on the Finnish islands and concerns an abortive attempt in 1671 to overthrow the 16-year -old Swedish king, Charles XI. The story charts the hatching of the conspiracy during Act 1 by a group of Swedish nobles but interrupted by the accidental killing of a royal elk by a seal hunter, Jonathan, and his tracking down (in Act2). However, his fiancee, Leonora, overhear the nobles' resumed plotting and raises the populace to thwart their coup. As reward, she begs for and is granted Jonathan's pardon, the king's largesse extending to a 10-year tax exemption for the islanders for their assistance in his release.

Admittedly, Pacius (1809-91) did much to enrich Finland's musical life, not least in his settings of Finnish poetry, including Runeberg's Suomen laulu, which later became the national anthem. Musically, however, The Hunt of King Charles, recently revived by Finnish National Opera, is a German opera and owes far more to Der Freischütz than Kalevala. It is as much Singspiel as through-composed opera, with a deal of spoken dialogue to move the story along: indeed, the boy king's role is entirely spoken. These passages are no more distracting than in The Magic Flute, but the lack of libretto for non-Finnish speakers is a distinct drawback.

There is little overtly nationalistic in Pacius's music, although he injects some local colour into Act 3. There are good moments aplenty and some charming melodies, the pick being Leonora's ballad (disc1 tr 15) and aria (disc 2 tr 2). Pori Opera's rendition (recorded in 2001) is well drilled, the large cast - there are 21 separate roles- acquitting themselves well, though the huntsmen in the opening chorus sound more like Berliozan brigands than a royal Nordic hunting party! The orchestra support ably without being sensational, directed surely by Ari Rasilainen. The sound is very acceptable, well focused and warm.


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