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David's Review Corner - December 2006

CAVALLI: Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne. Mario Zeffiri (Apollo/Titione), Marianna Pizzolato (Dafne), Marisa Martins (Aurora/Venere/Itaton), Agustín Prunell-Friend (Cefalo/Pan), Assumpta Mateu (Filena/Procri/1st Musa), Carlo Lepore (Alfesibeo/Peneo/Sonno/2nd Pastore), Jose Ferrero (Cirilla/Morfeo/1st Pastore), Soledad Cardoso (Amore), Ugo Guagliardo (Giove/Panto), Fabiola Masino (Musa/1st Ninfa), Luisa Maesso (Musa/2nd Ninfa), Orquesta Joven de la Sinfonica de Galicia, Alberto Zedda (conductor). Naxos 8.660187-88 (2CDs). (144' 48").

Though the earliest operas date from late in the 16th century, their popularity began in the days of Francesco Cavalli who presented regular opera seasons in Venice, and followed the pioneering scores from his mentor, Monteverdi. Born in 1602 he was educated and eventually settled in Venice, and though he became one of the great composers of secular music, it was his employment as a singer and Maestro di Cappella at St. Mark's Church that provided his financial base. He was to write 32 operas between 1639 and 1673, most of which have survived and are presently finding new interest. Gli amori d'Apollo e di Dafne, an early score dating from 1640, uses the same story that was revisited in the 20th century by Richard Strauss's Daphne, and tells the unlikely plot of Cupid trying to pair off Apollo and Daphne. Rejecting his advances Daphne demands her father to turn her into a laurel tree to bring it to an end. At the time of composition the music would have been of virtuoso quality, the long florid passages, particularly for Daphne, still offering a technical challenge. Above all it is a highly pleasing work, abounding with happiness early on, and later containing Apollo's sublime lament. Of course we know nothing of the style of singing in the 17th century, but at least we here have a period orchestra. A fiery Daphne from Marianna Pizzolato revels in the vocal acrobatics when coming face to face with Apollo. She is matched, in a sub-plot for two lovers, by the vocally attractive Marisa Martins as Aurora. Mario Zeffiri is a light tenor well suited to Apollo, Carlo Lepore sounding rather older than the role of Alfesibeo really demands. Alberto Zedda is as reliable as ever, keeping the music flowing while allowing the singers ample time for decoration. Good in the opening act but less secure as the performance continues, split horn notes early on confirms its 'live' performance origins. Stage noises apart, the general sound and balance is perfectly good, and I cannot find trace of another recorded performance. 

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor. London Symphony Orchestra, James DePreist (conductor). Naxos 8.557990. (72' 43").

If this marks a new Mahler cycle from Naxos the omens could not be better, for among existing recordings of the Fifth this is very much a front runner and in every way an improvement on the label's laudable version from Poland. James DePriest, already well known for many acclaimed releases, directs a performance somewhere between Bernstein's hysteria and Simon Rattle's cerebral thoughts. Tempos are kept moving forward with a welcome degree of urgency and without lingering in the beauty of the famous Adagietto. His opening is a barnstorming March, the brass unleashed for some gigantic climatic moments, the bass drum as realistic as you will hear on disc. He avoids that twitchy approach that is becoming common in the following movement; the Scherzo is sharply etched and the Rondo finale returns to the highly charged atmosphere of the opening. DePriest does allow himself some personal phrasing in the Adagietto, but otherwise this is a purposeful reading that abides by the conductor's detailed instructions. Maybe the engineers could have helped the horns in moments where the composer was rather optimistically expected them to crown climatic moments, but this hat apart it is a Mahler sound as good as they come. As one would expect, the London Symphony revel in the virtuoso moments, the excellent trumpet solos from Maurice Murphy's just one of the many distinguished orchestral soloists.    

ALWYN: Elizabethan Dances. The Innumerable Dance - An English Overture. Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Strings. Aphrodite in Aulis – An Eclogue for Small Orchestra after George Moore. Symphonic Prelude 'The Magic Island'. Festival March. Jonathan Small, (oboe), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, David Lloyd-Jones (conductor). Naxos 8.570144. (71' 08").

Anglophiles can never repay Naxos for taking British music around the world, the ongoing cycle of William Alwyn's complete orchestral works being one of the real and rare jewels. His career began at that awkward time when the lineage of Elgar was on offer, though the brazen quality of a young upstart called William Walton was capturing musical headlines. Alwyn, born in Northampton in 1905, fitted into neither scenario, spurning modernists with works that were often highly charged but wedded to melody and tonality. He returned to London's Royal Academy as a composition tutor only three years after having left at the age of 18 when family finance demanded that he found work. In 1939 he dismissed all works composed before that time, and set about a new and highly critical phase which yielded five symphonies and one of the great British operas of the 20th century, Miss Julie. That he wrote over 200 film scores surfaces on this disc, the mix of styles from the time of Elizabeth I and her modern namesake creating some of the most colourful, lightweight and instantly likeable music from anyone in the 20th century. That mood continues through the disc, the frothy Innumerable Dance dating from 1933 contrasting bold and delicate colours. Of a rather serious nature is the two-movement Concerto, a score more akin to Vaughan Williams, the harp in the title referring to the orchestral harp. A brief Eclogue is to a historic novel by the Irish writer, George Moore, before moving to The Magic Island a score whose scene painting owes something to Bax, the inspiration coming from Shakespeare's play The Tempest. And finally, and in the best Elgarian tradition, the Festival March was commissioned for the morale boosting Festival of Britain in 1951. In David Lloyd-Jones we must surely have the most inspired and idiomatic conductor of British music since Boult and Barbirolli. He draws splendid playing from the recently rejuvenated Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, their outstanding principal oboe coming as the soloist in the concerto. Big-boned, cleanly delineated sound, and at this price a pure, joyful gift.

SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 3. Symphony No. 5. Judith. Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (conductor). Naxos 8.559317.  (67' 45").

Nothing is quite straightforward with William Schuman, his music so wide ranging in style and content you never quite know what to expect. Born in 1910 he was, with his appointment as President of the Juilliard School of Music and President of the Lincoln Centre for Performing Arts, the most influential person in American music during the second half of the 20th century. He had studied with Roy Harris and that influence was evident throughout his output. The Third Symphony is cast in two extensive movements that look back at the Baroque era for their format, the opening in the form of a Passacaglia and Fugue with a forceful Toccata closing the piece. Completed in 1941 it was to cement Schuman's place as one of leading symphonic composers in the States. The Fifth came two years later, the number never given by Schuman who described it as a Symphony for Strings in three movements. Highly inventive in the use of the instruments it does not have the striking colours that characterise his scores, and which he was to use in the ballet Judith from 1949. By now he had moved much closer to atonality, using the interplay of unusual rhythms and abstract pungency to relate the Biblical story. Much of the writing throughout the disc places the performers under intense scrutiny, the Seattle Symphony with its inspirational conductor, Gerard Schwarz surmounting most of the challenges. The sound for the Third recorded in 2005 being a major advance on the early 1990's quality for the remainder. 

DITTERSDORF: Sinfonia in D major (Grave D6). Sinfonia in E flat major (Grave Eb9). Snfonia in A major (Grave A6). Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra, Alvaro Cassuto (conductor). Naxos 8.570198. (61' 56").

One of the most prolific composers of symphonies in the 18th century, with around 120 to his name, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf came from a wealthy Viennese family, their offspring becoming an accomplished violinist while still a teenager. From therein his fortunes were variable, and after years spent as a touring musician he accepted a post in the comfort of the castle Johannisberg as the Kapellmeister to Prince-Bishop of Breslau. That gave him a long period of stability well away from that young upstart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who was garnering all the attention. Sadly towards the end of his life the changing fortunes at Breslau left the ailing Dittersdorf in poverty. The first two works on the disc shows his ability to use the much larger orchestras coming into fashion towards the end of his life, and in particular his gift for melody. Try track 2, the andante of the D major, a movement that is comparable with anything in Mozart's later symphonies, while the bubbling finale is full of happiness. Indeed both scores are full of inventiveness and look forward. The earlier A major harks back to Haydn, its construction the work of a craftsman, though its thematic material lacks an arresting input. With the outstanding Portuguese conductor, Alvaro Cassuto, as an enthusiastic champion these are superb performances, the flexibility, intonation and pleasing quality of the Lisbon orchestra always a joy to hear. First class sound quality, and if you love Mozart I urge you to buy this disc.

BAX: Viola Sonata. Legend. Trio in One Movement. Concert Piece. Martin Outram (viola), Laurence Jackson (violin), Julian Rolton (piano). Naxos 8.557784. (61' 07").

Arnold Bax was born on the outskirts of London in 1883, yet it was something of a revelation when he discovered a Celt lurking within him - the race that inhabited Ireland and parts of Scotland - and it was this spiritual background that was to colour much of his music. As a composer he struggled to gain acceptance, and went through a period when he felt too much was expected of him, and resorted to the style used by other composers, including Elgar, Ravel and Debussy.  In the early 1920s he drastically changed his style, the impressionistic mood giving way to a sharp-edged atmosphere akin to Nordic and Finnish music. It was at that time he met the viola virtuoso, Lionel Tertis, his playing becoming the inspiration for the Viola Sonata, its abstract opening movement giving way to a violent central scherzo before returning to the mood of the opening. There had already been an apprentice piece in the 1904 Concert Piece, an attractive Irish idiom as a foil for the austere atmosphere of the Legend from 1929. Completing the disc is the delightful one-movement Piano Trio from 1906 unusually scored for piano, violin and viola. Two members of the Maggini Quartet link with the pianist, Julian Rolton, the creamy tone of Martin Outram's viola linked with immaculate intonation is a joy throughout. Rolton comes into his own in the highly rewarding role Bax gives to the piano in the Trio. Only the Sonata has previously featured on disc, the earliest recording coming from Tertis and Bax, but with its modern sound, excellent playing and keen sense of style, this is the obvious choice.    

Musical Sleighride. COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: Christmas Overture. MASSENET La Vierge - The Last Sleep of the Virgin. LANE: Overture on French Carols. The Night before Christmas. NICOLAI: Christmas Overture. CARMICHAEL: Sleighride to Thredbo. LISZT: The Christmas Tree Suite. CARWITHEN: On the Twelfth Day. Stephen Fry (narrator), BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth (conductor). Naxos 8.570331. (69' 29").

Those of us who have the annual task of devising our orchestra's 'Christmas Concert' quickly realise how few pieces have been composed with the festive season in mind, usually having to resort to the tenuous link with Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty ballet suites. We have all been through most of the music on this disc, Philip Lane cheating by including two of his own pieces. The Night Before Christmas for narrator and small orchestra sets to music Clement Clarke Moore's well-known Christmas poem. Graphic and charming it should fine a place in the 'music for children' repertoire. I am envious that I never thought of Doreen Carwithen's music for the short film On the Twelfth Day for my concerts, the piece here reconstructed by Philip Lane for chorus and orchestra. The performances are all most enjoyable, and recorded in the ideal acoustic of the Watford Town Hall, the sound typical of BBC Radio 3 with top frequencies cut back. Balance between singers and orchestra is ideal, though Stephen Fry sounds in a totally different studio. The disc seems primarily intended for the UK so you may have to buy on the Internet.

DOWLAND:  Lachrimae Pavan. Galliard to Lachrimae. Pavan (P16). The Earl of Essex, his Galliard. Pavan (P18). M. Giles Hobie’s Galliard. Dowland’s Tears (I saw my lady weep), (arr. North). Sir Henry Umpton’s Funeral. Sir John Langton's Pavane. Langton's Galliard. Piper's Pavan. Captain Digorie Piper's Galliard. Dowland's Adieu. Galliard (P30). Mignarda (Henry Noel's Galliard). Lachrimae (alternative version). Semper Dowland Semper Dolens. Nigel North (lute). Naxos 8.557862. (66' 03").

At a time when lute music was richly fashionable, John Dowland's fame and fortune was assured as a celebrated performer in European courts. He had travelled widely around the turn of the 17th century, the French influence from younger years spent in Paris remaining to colour the English feel of his works. Though a fine composer of songs with lute accompaniment, Dowland is now mainly remembered for his solo lute compositions, with over a hundred works having survived through to the present day, a fact mainly due to his son, Robert, who edited his father's works after his death. For his second disc in the complete lute pieces, Nigel North - who has edited all of the music - has concentrated on the melancholy that was much in vogue at the time. Having lived with Dowland's music for so long, his performing knowledge of the composer exceeds any other lutenist I have heard. It is played with great beauty, but maybe a complete disc in such sombre mode is one you should play in part rather than as a whole. Langton's Galliard coming as a midway change to happiness, affording North a chance to show off his agility as the music flies around the instrument. Basically the sound quality is excellent, though a few notes 'catch' the microphone giving them a slight 'ping'.

HOVHANESS: Khrimian Hairig, Op. 49. Guitar Concerto, Op. 325. Symphony No. 60, ‘To the Appalachian Mountains’, Op. 396.David Leisner (guitar), Lars Ranch (trumpet), Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz (conductor). Naxos 8.559294. (73' 30").

The opus number for the Sixtieth symphony tells you much about Alan Hovhaness, the most prolific major composer of the 20th century. Though born in the United States in 1911, he was of Armenian parentage, his real name being Alan Vannes Chakmakjian, and it was that background which played an important part in the creation of his works. At first he took up where the late 19th century left off, but he became increasingly drawn to the sounds of Indian and Asian music, into which he built his own version of minimalism. Often described as "a highly gifted composer who spread his inspiration over too many works", his music at times ascended to rank among the finest that came from the States in his lifetime. Khrimian Hairig is the earliest work here, dating from 1944, its long hauntingly beautiful melodic material scored for solo trumpet and strings. It was described by his wife as his 'true masterpiece' and in this gorgeous performance you would subscribe to that. The opening of the Guitar Concerto carries on in much the same mood though it came thirty-five years later in 1979. It's use of the solo instrument is unusual in commenting on the orchestral part, often in short phrases, the pastoral atmosphere of the first two movements briefly changed with an energetic opening to the finale. The Sixtieth symphony came from the seventy-four year old composer, its gently flowing content seeing the Appalachian Mountains at their most peaceful, the general mood being of a film score. I just felt a little more forward momentum in the concerto would not have gone amiss, though the playing from the Berlin orchestra is excellent throughout. The concerto and symphony are world premiere recordings, the 2005 sound quality being perfectly satisfying.

KAGEL: Szenario. Duodramen. Liturgien. Margaret Chalker (soprano), Roland Hermann (baritone), Martyn Hill (tenor), Romain Bischoff (baritone), Wout Oosterkamp (bass), Gulbenkian Chorus, Lisbon, Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mauricio Kagel (conductor). Naxos 8.570179. (.59' 33").

Mauricio Kagel is musically one of the most outspoken of 20th century experimentalist, having set no boundaries to his exploits as a composer. Born in Argentina in 1931 he studied music privately, his university education being in literature and philosophy. He had already displayed his credentials as a modernist before moving in 1957 to make his home to Cologne. Quickly becoming an idol of the modernists and intensely disliked by the establishment as he revelled in the distortion of conventional music. His output was often swinging between tonality and atonality as he worked in sounds rather than conventionality, Szenario propelled by strong and insistent rhythms with a passing relationship to minimalism. In one extended movement it explores orchestral colours and certainly appealed to my ears. Duodramen is in six relatively short sections, the solo voices adding to the general orchestral sound textures, the highly charged third section at odds with our idea of an Andantino. Indeed you would hardly link any section with its title. It cannot be an easy work to sing with the voices often at opposite poles to the orchestra. There is the influence of Berg's Wozzeck in abundance, the finale's torment suggested as the singer battles against waves of orchestral sound. Liturgien, scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra should be approached with caution and is destined for hardcore atonalists. At times it sounds like the backdrop for a Frankenstein movie, particularly when the organ bursts upon the scene. Music must move forward or it will stagnate, but whether this is its direction only future generations will decide. Under the direction of the composer we can take the performances as authentic, and you can only admire the amount of work and rehearsal that must have been needed. The sound is typical of European radio stations with some treble cutback.

ERNST: Fantaisie Brillante sur la Marche et la Romance d’Otello de Rossini, Op. 11. Concerto in F sharp minor, Op. 23 (Concerto Allegro-Pathetique). Elegie sur la mort d’un objet cheri, Op. 10. Concertino in D major, Op. 12. Rondo Papageno, Op. 20.

Ilya Grubert (violin), Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky (conductor). Naxos 8.557565. (70' 30").

Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst was a disciple of Paganini's brand of technical pyrotechnics, and many considered his virtuoso armoury even more exact than the great Italian maestro. Born in Brno in 1814 he was a prodigiously gifted child, who at the age of 14 abandoned his formal study and set out touring as a soloist. His travels eventually took him to London where he made his home in 1843, and much of his composing took place there. Most employ the violin in the major role and were intended as display material for his technical brilliance. Every devise developed by Paganini was used, the orchestra employed as a backdrop for the soloist's acrobatics. His problem was one of finding memorable melodic material, the fascination in his pieces being that of performing the highly improbable. So it is the themes by Rossini for the Fantaisie Brilliant, that prove the most attractive score, the Concerto offering a violin part that dives around the instrument, only occasionally coming to rest on a sugary melody. He did create a most beautiful melody for the Elegie, though the most instantly attractive is the happy and cheeky tune that opens the Rondo Papageno. In Ilya Grubert he has an able protagonist capable of performing every conceivable trick, reminding one of the adage 'its not that he plays well, it is that he can play it at all that is remarkable'. Now living in Holland he plays the wonderful instrument once owned by Wieniawski, and the engineers have placed the soloist well forward much in keeping with the music. A 'must have' for violin enthusiasts.  

SCHUMANN: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1. String Quartet in F major, Op. 41, No. 2. String Quartet in A major, Op. 41, No. 3. Fine Arts Quartet. Naxos 8.570151. (79' 05").

The Fine Arts Quartet is this year celebrating its 60th birthday, having had remarkably few changes in its membership over the years, with Ralph Evans as only its second leader. Founded in Chicago in 1946 the required changes have been largely staggered so that the original tonal quality has been handed down and has changed little. For this information I am indebted to December's excellent article in The Strad magazine which chronicles in detail the quartet's distinguished story through to this recording. Their first disc in their association with Naxos links the three Schumann works, scores that had been in gestation for some time before emerging in a flurry of activity in the summer of 1842. In many ways they picture the many personalities that were combined within Schumann and require performances that can capture those quickly changing moods. The Fine Arts are mostly successful and will greatly appeal to those who see the music as an extension to Schumann's songs. Long phrases are a characteristic of the playing, the four priceless instruments sounding exquisite in the quiet and pensive passages, the slow movement and opening to the finale of the second quartet never having emerged with greater beauty. The first and second quartet's scherzos bubble with pleasure and, as always, prove naughty in placing a searchlight on intonation. The sound is ideal for those who enjoy intimate surroundings.  

RACHMANINOV: Trio elegiaque No. 1 in G minor. Trio elegiaque No. 2 in D minor, Op. 9. Valeri Grohovski (piano), Eduard Wulfson (violin), Dmitry Yablonsky (cello). Naxos 8.557423. (57' 23").

By the time Sergei Rachmaninov had his first success as a composer at the age of twenty with the opera, Aleko, he had already written two Piano Trios, though the unusual fact that he never recorded either gave them the stigma of being 'juvenilia'. Whatever the reason for his apparent indifference, they have been gratefully taken into the repertoire, the second receiving frequent concert performances. Structurally they are rather unusual, the first being a single movement that was probably a student exercise, while the second opens with two substantial movements followed by an almost throwaway finale. To make their mark they need performances of intense Slav passion that mixes soulful melancholy with outgoing brilliance. Both ingredients are here in abundance, Valeri Grohonski thankfully never falling into the usual trap of dominating his colleagues. That problem you can place as the composer's shortcoming, for the piano part often so dense in texture. String intonation is clean and the interplay between instruments well judged. That is greatly helped by the sound engineers who have provided a warm yet clearly delineated ambience, though there were a few moments when I felt later edits had been added.

HARRIS: O hearken thou. Strengthen ye the weak hands. Faire is the heav’n. Love of love. King of glory. Praise the Lord. The night is come. The shepherd-men. O joyful light. From a heart made whole. I said to the man. Bring us, O Lord God.

Choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, Roger Judd (organ), Timothy Byram-Wigfield (director). Naxos 8.570148. (65' 45").

By the time he was fourteen William Henry Harris - born in a London suburb in 1883 - showed such musical aptitude that finance was gathered to enable an organ apprenticeship at St. David's Cathedral in South Wales. Though he was to later study organ and composition at the highest possible level, his career was not completely happy or fulfilled until he was persuaded to take the post as organist at St. George's Church in the royal castle at Windsor. He was to remain there for thirty extremely happy years, during which time he was to act as tutor to the royal children, while his work in the church was to lead to a whole series of works for choir, many, as we shall hear on this disc, being unaccompanied. Critics would say that he was more interested in crafting music that reflected the words rather than creating melodic invention around which words could be moulded. True to an extent, but few British sacred composers of his time knew how to use voices to such good effect. To sample go to the sublime beauty of The night is come (track 7). When he came to Windsor he had in his charge a choir that dated back to 1348, and apart from a brief period in the 17th century, had performed all of the church services for almost six hundred years. Apart from concert tours abroad, the choir today appears in the church every day during school term time. Timothy Bryam-Wigfield has continued the traditional sound of British church choirs, avoiding the changes that have taken place elsewhere in recent years. The boy trebles still have that bright incisive and - though badly described - hooty projection. In a way it tends to cause an imbalance with the mature tenors and basses, but that is how it was and so should be retained. Intonation is in the centre of every note, phrases perfectly shaped, the high passages taken with fearless attack. The disc tells us that this is the first of a series for Naxos from the choir - how welcome that will be. Engineering is spotlessly clean.

MAYR: L’Armonia – Azione drammatica per soli, coro ed orchestra. Cantata sopra la morte di Beethoven per soli, coro ed orchestra. Talia Or (soprano), Altin Piriu (tenor), Nikolay Borchev (bass), Ingolstadt Georgian Chamber Orchestra, Simon Mayr Choir, Franz Hauk (conductor). Naxos 8.557958. (66' 36").

Born in Mendorf, Bavaria, in 1763, details of the early years of Simon Mayr are sparse. We pick up his life when he was 23 and studying music in Bergamo and Venice, and though he initially worked in sacred music, it was in the field of opera that he became best known. He is known to have written sixty-three, though the total may well have been closer to seventy, and he eventually dominated the Italian stage in the first half of the 19th century. Now largely forgotten, his legacy was the influence his music had on later composers and in particular on the dramatic operas of Donizetti. He was a master craftsman extensively admired throughout Europe though he had seldom journeyed outside Italy. Sadly in 1824 he went blind and his work as an opera composer ended, much of his later years devoted to the church. Both works on this disc come from those later years, L'Armonia a scenario for three solo voices, chorus and orchestra, the happy chorus that opens the work setting the scene for the whole substantial score. The arias are very florid and with elaborate decoration, the writing requiring considerable vocal agility, and while the soprano does not arrive until late in the piece, she is given the obligatory virtuoso aria. At the mid-point a Sinfonia is inserted from the opera Ercole in Lidia, an opera dating from 1803, the whole score being most enjoyable. The disc is completed with Mayr's homage to Beethoven in the year of his death. The soloists are enjoyable, Nikolay Borchev a particularly impressive bass, while the chorus are at least enthusiastic, and the orchestra offered weighty support. Good honest sound quality, and I gather the recordings are the only ones available.

CRUMB: Vox Balaenae for Three Masked Players. Federico’s Little Songs for Children. An Idyll for the Misbegotten (Images III). Eleven Echoes of Autumn (Echoes I). New Music Concerts Ensemble, Robert Aitken (director). Naxos 8.559205. (59' 42").

George Crumb, born in 1929, was one of the new group of American composers emerging in the first half of the 20th century that were completely educated in the States. It was a radical group who set out to create a new modernism divorced from European influences. Crumb's position among them was an overt progressive whose presence in many new music festivals planted his music on the international scene, and there followed many prestigious grants and awards to supplement his teaching posts at major music colleges. The influence of Federico Lorca's verse imagery shaped much of his music, whether in the many songs or in the instrumental colours the words created in his mind. It is his words that are used in the most extensive work on this disc, Federico's Songs for Children scored for soprano, flute and harp, though I would not expect children to warm to the atonal sounds, the seven songs certainly not easy to sing. But when we move to pure sound, the Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for amplified flute, cello and piano we have a most intriguing piece that readily captures the imagination. To enter Crumb's word go to track 9, where the virtuoso percussion part creates a very dramatic impact for the 1986 composition, An Idyll for the Misbegotten. The Eleven Echoes of Autumn is caught up in a 1960's time-warp, academics at the time turning out this type of composition in prodigious quantities on both sides of the Atlantic. The performances throughout have commitment, quality and an understanding for the style of the era. Close-up sound is ideal for the music.  

BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (arranged for two pianos). JOACHIM: Demetrius Overture (arranged for two pianos). Silke-Thora Matthies, Christian Kohn (piano duo). Naxos 8.555849. (66' 16").

It always sends a cold shudder through me when I think of the time before radio and recordings, and the only way to hear music was at the 'live' performances you could afford to attend. So when Brahms was composing great symphonic works, many would only hear his music gathered around a piano when a talented family member struggled through a keyboard arrangement. Of course when it came to the piano duo version of his piano concertos they had to sacrifice everything that Brahms was aiming to achieve, the juxtaposition of piano timbre pitted against the weight and colour of a large symphony orchestra simply evaporating. Much though I enjoy the playing of this fabulous duo, particularly in a powerful finale, today the result is little more than an oddity that recalls days thankfully long gone. I presume the Joachim arrangement comes from Brahms, its dramatic content showing that we miss much by ignoring his output. The sound quality is very good.

STRAUSS: Funf Klavierstucke, Op. 3. Sonata in B minor, Op. 5. Stimmungsbilder
(Moods and Fancies), Op. 9. Stefan Veselka (piano). Naxos 8.557713. (67' 33").

Richard Strauss is well known for almost every genre of music, but piano music does not feature among them. Indeed these three works, which is his entire output the instrument, are all from a precocious teenager who had never received any formal tuition in composition. The music is beautifully put together The Five Pieces in a mood that mixes Schumann with Schubert and adds a dash of Mendelssohn's good humour. I suppose had any of those three composers appended their name to the work it would certainly have an occasional concert outing. Fortunately Stefan Veselka believes in their worth and injects real feeling into the slow Largo at the heart of the work adding a dashing account of the sparkling fourth piece. Beethoven was the inspiration for the Sonata, the outer movements just stretching the thematic material a little too far, though the Scherzo is highly attractive. Stimmungsbilder came only three years later, yet he had taken a massive leap forward. Chopin was now much in evidence, the writing so assured and attractive and the outcome quite gorgeous. Throughout the nimble and sympathetic performances are a major plus, while the recording offers an ideal piano tone. Strangely there are quite a few alternatives on disc, but this one will be an easy choice at budget price.

HIGDON: Piano Trio (Anne Akiko Meyers, (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Adam Neiman (piano)). Voices (Nicholas Kitchen and Melissa Kleinbart (violins), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), Wilhelmina Smith (cello)). Impressions (The Cypress String Quartet). Naxos 8.559298. (57' 42").

Jennifer Higdon's music has been described as 'Martinu and Britten meet Bartok head on'. A generalisation but a reasonably safe guide as to the content of this new disc from the forty-four year old New York born composer. A pupil of George Crumb and Ned Rorum, she has inherited little from them in style, and has chosen to follow that current vogue of moving quickly between tonality and atonality. Probably better known for orchestral scores that have received high-profile performances, the three works on this disc coming from the last thirteen years. Opening in melodic mode, the Piano Trio is in two relatively short movements the first, Pale Yellow, leading to a powerful, hectic and virtuoso Fiery Red. I just wish we were given time to catch our breath before the following track Blitz, the hard hitting opening to Voices. It is to all intents a string quartet in three linked movements, the opening extremely complex before the shimmering soundscape of Soft Enlacing, returning to a poetic finale. Impressions in a four movement format is the disc's most extended score and the most atonal. Again Higdon is working in sound pictures arriving back to the world of melodic invention for the penultimate movement. The heading shows the artists for each work to simplify the large number involved. Headed by the famous violinist, Anne Akiko Meyers, the Piano Trio gains a splendid performance and I much enjoyed the reading of Voices where the subtle colours are beautifully captured. The Cypress Quartet is given the most exacting task and at times that does show, though you will admire their commitment. As I only have an advanced copy I do not know if more than one location was used, and if so they have been matched very well, the recorded quality admirable throughout.  

VITALI: Sonatas Op. 1, Nos. 1 - 12. SempreConsort. Naxos 8.570182. (68' 30").

The Vitali family was among the most influential in 17th and 18th century Italian music, their development of musical form spreading far outside of the national boundaries. Giovanni Battista Vitali was the founder of the dynasty, his work as a composer, sting player and singer taking him into the service of the Italian nobility. He was credited as the first major composer of the Baroque sonata. Of his two sons, Antonio became a noted violinist, but it was Tomaso who was destined to carry the name forward in the world of composition. Though taught the violin by his father he was to become a composition pupil of Pacchioni, a leading musician in Moderna. Unlike his father, who composed in all genres, Tomaso, who was born 1663, wrote only instrumental music. Maybe his output was limited by the time available from his work as an orchestral violinist, but his surviving scores are few in number. The opus 1 sonatas scored for two violins, cello, bass or organ contain the conventional two sets of six works and were composed very much under the influence of his father and Corelli. The result is certainly enjoyable, and if the shape and format becomes predictable as we listen to all twelve, the melodic content is always most appealing and a cut above much that Corelli composed. The performances are neat, crisp and with unfailing intonation. Tempos seem just right and the sound quality is very good. Maybe not a ground-shaking discovery, but this premiere recording is one that I can strongly recommend. However you may have to buy through your Internet source as it comes in Naxos's 'Limited Edition' category. 

BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. BWV 870 - 993. Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat major, BWV 998. Wanda Landowska (harpsichord). Naxos Historical 8.111061-63 (3CDs). (192' 51").

If you missed my review last September of the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, let me just briefly recall that today's healthy interest in the harpsichord was sparked by the emergence of Wanda Landowska on the international concert scene in the early part of the 20th century. Born in Poland of affluent parents in 1879, she came to realise that playing 17th and 18th century music on the piano was stylistically incorrect. Accepting that harpsichords available were so weak they could not command approval from audiences who were used to the sound of the modern piano, she commissioned Pleyel to build her a two-manual instrument whose tone could fill a large concert venue. It was a move despised by period purists, but it proved the turning point in the public perception of the instrument. That combined with her love of Bach was also the key to improving the marketability of the composer at a time when his popularity was on the wane. She was never quite able to throw off the approach to music she had obviously used at the piano, and as you will hear her phrasing often created a very personal view of this massive work. Yet I hope you will join me in finding her performance of this second book - far preferable to her reading of the first book - a totally fascinating experience. By the time the sessions took place over the period 1951 - 54, she was well into her seventies, yet the energy, pungency and structured response to the printed page remained undimmed. If by her standards the Prelude of BWV 891 sounds tired, it is her unbounded energy that was so remarkable through many sessions recorded at her home in the United States. I know some Bach purists will find many faults and period anachronisms, but just put their comments on hold and wallow in playing that came right from the heart. Naxos have done wonders with the transfers to CD which sounds newly minted, though I still suspect the original engineers 'helped' with dynamic grading. As an appendix the much earlier recording of BWV 998 has a very woolly bass heavy quality.

VERDI: Don Carlo. Boris Christoff (Filippo), Mario Filippeschi (Don Carlo), Tito Gobbi (Rodrigo), Antonietta Stella (Elisabetta), Elena Nicolai (Princess Eboli), Giulio Neri (The Grand Inquisitor), Orchestra and Chorus of the Opera House, Rome, Gabriele Santini (conductor). Naxos Historical 8.111132-34 (3CDs). (212' 03").

Even at the first performance in Paris in 1867, Don Carlos suffered many setbacks, the management forcing Verdi to make extensive cuts so that the audience could return home before midnight. An Italian translation and the removal of the opening act in 1884 did nothing to improve its fortune, and we really have to come forward to the 1950's, with stunningly staged performances in New York and London, to find the work finally accepted as a masterpiece. Even the prospect of Boris Christoff's King Philip and Tito Gobbi as Rodrigo could not push HMV past the truncated four-act version when they recorded the work in 1954. In that form you never really know how the relationship between Elisabeth and Carlo originated, and that rather undermines the story. The original release came from that hectic period in the history of recording when long playing discs made operas all the more attractive to the listener, and companies hurried to get new albums on the market. Many were tempted to compromises in casting and here we have two of the very great singers surrounded by those of a less elevated stature. Tito Gobbi opted for a subtle and at times understated Rodrigo that many hold as the finest performance on disc, while Christoff's powerful voice and large presence tends to dominate whenever he is 'on stage'. Mario Filippeschi was a well-respected lyric tenor, but his Carlo is a wooden character, while Antonietta Stella's vocal sound could never create a warm and loving Elisabeth. The remaining singers were just this side of adequate, a description applicable to the chorus and orchestra. At the end Naxos add some earlier Don Carlos aria recordings, Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill's Rodrigo and Carlo duet only highlighting just how ponderous and stiff Gabriele Santini's conducting could be in the complete opera. Still this is Christoff and Gobbi's Don Carlo, and at the Naxos price you can well afford to enjoy some great opera singing. The engineers have done wonders in rejuvenating the original sound.

MOZART: Exsultate jubilate - Alleluia. Il re pastore - L’amero, saro costante, Act 2. Le nozze di Figaro - Non so piu, Act 1; Venite, inginocchiatevi, Act 2; Voi che sapete, Act 2; Deh vieni, non tardar, Act 4.  Don Giovanni: Batti, batti, o bel Masetto, Act 1.Vedrai carino, Act 2. STRAUSS II: Die Fledermaus: Mein Herr Marquis, Act 2; Spiel’ ich die Unschuld vom Lande, Act 3. ZELLER: Der Vogelhandler - Wie mein Ahn'l zwanzig Jahr (2 versions). Der Obersteiger - Sie nicht bos. Der Landstreicher - Sei gepriesen du lauschige Nacht. Der Fremdenfuhrer - O Wien,mein libes Wien. BERTE: Das Dreimaderlhaus - Was macht glucklich. HEUBERGER: Der Opernball - In chambre separee. KREISLER: Sissy - Ich Glaub' das Gluck. JOSEF STRAUSS: Sparenklange. BENATZKY: Ich muss wieder einmal in Grinzing sein. SIECZYNSKI: Wein, du Stadt meiner Traume. Elisabeth Schumann (soprano), orchestras, Georg Byng, Lawrence Collingwood, Carl Alwin, Walter Goehr, Leo Rosenek (conductors). Naxos Historical 8.111100. (72' 12").

Elizabeth Schumnann's life would have kept today's media throbbing with news of romantic scandals, intrigues, broken contracts and finally her escape with her Jewish husband from the clutches of the German invasion of Austria. On stage she became opera's hottest property in the 1920' and 30's the beauty of her voice unsurpassed at the time. It was essentially a lyric soprano, not large in size but perfectly shaped to sing the Mozart arias included on the first part of this disc. Indeed in almost every respect they have vocally never been improved upon. Yet it is her singing of operetta that is so utterly gorgeous you would say she was born to sing in that musical world, the teasing quality in her approach to the Die Fledermaus arias and the creamy voice for Heuberger's In chambre separee.are supreme examples. The orchestral support is functional and for the 1920's above the norm in recorded sound. Anyone who enjoys great singing have to buy this.

MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216. PAGANINI: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major. NOVACEK: Perpetuum Mobile. CHAUSSON: Poeme, Op. 25. Paris Symphony Orchestra, George Enescu, Pierre Monteaux (conductors), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Adrian Boult (conductor). Naxos Historical 8.111135. (77' 27").

I had just finished reviewing a new period instrument version of the Mozart Violin Concertos when this disc arrived to show how far we have moved from the dark days to out present realisation of a realistic Mozart style. Yet there will be plenty who still enjoy Menuhin's vibrato-laden playing and the over-endowed accompaniment from the Paris orchestra. Its big plus point was the obvious enjoyment of the performance with the outer movements full of joy. Much has been written of Menuhin's preparation for this 1934 recording of the Paganini concerto when his record label were marketing him as a virtuoso performer, his character ill-fitted to this style of musicality. The end result is, from his standpoint, far better than many commentators have made out. There are few blemishes at a time when they could not be edited out. The real drawback is the orchestra that at times charge through the score in the most rough-hewn fashion. Thankfully they are less in evidence for the finger-knotting Perpetuum Mobile. So far we have been in the mid-1930's, and we move happily to the ecstatic performance made in London in 1952 of Chausson's Poeme. True the LPO were not of the quality we know today but good enough to support Menuhin's gorgeous account. Though occupying only six minutes of the disc I would happily part with my money just for this track. Naxos's transfer people could not do anything with the congested Paris sound, the London sessions - obviously - of a very differing status.

JOHANN STRAUSS I: Kunstler-Ball-Tanze, Walzer, Op. 94. Cotillons nach Motiven der Oper Die Hugenotten, Op. 92. Die Nachtwandler, Walzer, Op. 88. Belebte Sperl-Polka, Op. 133. Erinnerung an Deutschland, Walzer, Op.87. Jubel-Quadrille, Op. 130. Heimath-Klange, Op. 84. Original Parade-Marsch, Op. 102. Kronungs-Walzer, Op. 91. Wiener Carnevals-Quadrille, Op. 124. Slovak Sinfonietta Zilina, Ernst Marzendorfer (conductor). Marco Polo 8.225286. (62' 06").

The tenth volume of music by father Johann Strauss takes us to the year 1836, by which time he had become firmly entrenched on the music scene of Vienna, his orchestra booked for the most prestigious balls, Strauss not only conducting but equally expected to provide new works. Maybe it was the demands made upon him that seems to have found him running short of memorable thematic material. That he was a master of his craft comes to the fore in compiling extended waltzes, The Sleepwalkers Waltz being a fine example. He did make one serious miscalculation with his Cotillons on themes from Meyebeer's Les Huguenots, when the censor held up the opera's first Vienna performance, poor Strauss finding his pastiche played before the local audience had seen the original. The work fell on deaf ears. For a sampler try track 8, the stirring Original Parade March. Certainly in the hands of the doyen of Viennese music, Ernst Marzendorfer, the ebb and flow of the music is perfectly captured, the small Slovak orchestra something like the size Strauss would have used. A feast of 'only available recordings', first class sound and a truly idiomatic orchestra. What more could you want.  

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