David's Review Corner - August 2005


WEILL: Symphony No. 1. Symphony No. 2. Lady in the Dark - Symphonic Nocturne (arr. Robert Russell Bennett). Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor). Naxos 8.557481. (73' 59").

With the current resurgence in Kurt Weill's music for the stage, it is strange that we have had to wait so long for a recording that does full justice to his two symphonies. They came from differing points in his life, the first completed in 1921, while still a student in Berlin, and is in one long movement divided into several linked sections reflecting uncertainties of life in Germany in the wake of the First World War. Twelve years later he escaped from the unwelcome attention of the Nazi's - his music seen as subversive - and was living in Paris and busy composing the Second Symphony, a score redolent with the sounds we hear in his satirical operas. Finally we move to his eventual home in the United States and to the Broadway musical, Lady in the Dark, from which Robert Russell Bennett has drawn six sections to form the Symphonic Nocturne. It is a beautifully scored light-hearted piece full of pleasing music and very different to the symphonies. The world of classical music felt he had sold his talents to the sidewalks of New York, but that is now changing, many of the musicals seen as picture of American life, satire lost on its original Broadway audiences. These are stunning performances, the symphonies in a different league to those that have gone before. The Bournemouth's playing is crisp and much in keeping with Weill's highly personal style, Marin Alsop pacing the scores to perfection and drawing colourful playing along the way. In every way a top recommendation.

ALWYN: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5. Lyra Angelica. Suzanne Willison (harp), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, David Lloyd-Jones (conductor). Naxos 8.557647. (69' 52").

Of all the neglected British composers that Naxos is bringing to our attention, William Alwyn is the most deserving, his five symphonies rightfully belonging to the important works written in the second half of the 20th century. Dismissing the notion of atonality and communicating in a way audiences could understand, they have found little favour among music's 'ivory tower' establishment. Born in 1905, his father's death terminated his musical education when he was 18, but so gifted he was invited to return to London's Royal Academy as composition tutor three years later. It was over 60 film scores that gave him the financial stability to spend the latter part of his life as a 'serious' composer. His symphonies are not long overblown edifices in favour at the time, the Second, dating from 1953 being in two relatively short but highly contrasted parts. Coming shortly after the Second World War you cannot but picture the events that took place, moments of violence and sad introspection at the loss of so many loved ones. The Fifth, completed twenty years later, is distilled into one movement of four sub-sections. It is a strong work with a deeply moving concluding section that seems to be closing a book on a world again in distress and turmoil. Alwyn valued his harp concerto, Lyra Angelica, above all his music, his ability to create a score that moves so easily from the harp's delicately embroidered sections to the more weighty orchestral passages shows a master-craftsman at work. The performance by the young British harpist, Suzanne Willison, is exceptionally fine. Since the arrival of Gerard Schwarz as their Music Director the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic can now be counted among Europe's finest orchestras, a fact reinforced by these superb and inspired performances with David Lloyd-Jones at the helm. The sound is full of impact and I can only beg of you to hear the disc.

NIELSEN:  Aladdin - Concert Suite, Op. 34. Amor and the Poet - Overture, Op. 54. Saga-Drom, Op. 39. Helios Overture, Op. 17. Maskarade - Overture; Prelude, Act 2. Pan and Syrinx, Op. 49. South Jutland Symphony Orchestra, Niklas Willen (conductor). Naxos 8.557164. (75' 07").

This has to be at the top of your Nielsen shopping list no matter how many times you have the music, the playing of the South Jutland orchestra so exciting, vital and totally compelling. Composed in 1918 as incidental music for Adam Oehlenschlager's play, Aladdin, it is brimming with colour and, as the title would suggest, full of unexpected twists and turns liberally sprinkled with quirky moments that live in the memory. A rarity in the concert hall, I still treasure a recording made by the Odense Symphony back in the 1970's and which introduced me to the score. More incidental music from the theatre comes with the fine overture from Amor and the Poet, much of the disc taken by the better-known scores of Saga-Drom, Helios and Pan and Syrinx. They too receive highly persuasive performances, Willen expertly capturing the quiet and introverted moments in Saga-Drom, though he sees Helios emerging at a spacious tempo as it reaches a big and bold central section. Throughout the brass departments are superb, never short of overt brilliance, though they can equally supply delicate shades. The strings match them in intensity, with pert and agile woodwind in Pan and Syrinx, one of Nielsen's most graphic pieces. The recording is full of impact, its internal clarity of the highest order.

MOROI: Sinfonietta. Symphony No. 3. Two Symphonic Movements. National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Takuo Yuasa (conductor). Naxos 8.557162. (68' 25").

Reviewing the disc when released in Japan last October, I concluded by saying, "I hope Naxos will eventually place it on international release, for you don't come across such pleasing music every day of the week". Saburo Moroi was one of the major Japanese composers during the first half of the 20th century, writing in a style totally derived from his education and influences in Berlin. Most of his music was written in the period 1936 to 1944, the Third Symphony dating from the end of those years and following soon after the Sinfonietta. In the Third he was writing his personal end to life before going to war with Japanese army, a conflict he was to survive. Compared with musical changes taking place in Western Europe his style could be viewed as rather old-fashioned, his reliance on tonality divorced from the world of contemporary music. During the second half of his life - he died in 1977 - he moved his career to the field of education. If you think of Russian music scored by Richard Strauss, then you have the general idea of symphonic scores that fall happily on the ear. His melodic material was not strong, but that was equally true of much music composed in that period, and he seems happy working in the delicate colours of the Sinfonietta, a cheerful and contented work far removed from the events happening around him. But for a start try track 5, the second movement of the Third Symphony, and sample the music's tremendous vitality. The NSOI seem to be enjoying the experience, playing with admirable commitment and confidence and the sound quality is particularly good.

BALADA:  No-res (Nothing): A Symphonic Tragedy in Two Parts, for narrator, soprano, chorus, orchestra and tape. Ebony Fantasies – Cantata. Denis Rafter (narrator), Chorus and Orchestra of the Comunidad de Madrid, Jose Ramon Encinar (conductor). Naxos 8.557343. (65' 36").

As I discovered reviewing previous discs, I have very mixed feelings towards the Spanish-born composer, Leonardo Balada, who since in 1956 has lived in the United States studying with Persichetti and Dello Joio. The result is a very personal modernism that seems to have been the result of diverse influences, and leaves you grasping for a recognisable Balada style. Written in response to his mother's death the Agnostic Requiem, No-res is a horrid and disturbing story line that hits us hard as a wake-up call to death that surrounds us. For me it is a one-off experience that I would find difficult to hear again. It is scored for very diverse and large forces, its impact undeniable, and I admire a performance that can convey with such conviction a score of obvious technical complexity. I was only too pleased to reach the Ebony Fantasy, a choral work in four movements based on spirituals that falls pleasantly on the ear, its scoring light and transparent. As I have already indicated the performances are extraordinarily vivid, and if I cannot 'enjoy' the disc, I heap praise on Naxos for undertaking such a venture that other companies would shun. The recording captures the vast range of dynamics without flinching.

TOWER: In Memory. Big Sky. Wild Purple. Holding a Daisy. 'Or Like a ….An Engine'. Antique Cubes. Throbbing Still. Island Prelude. Tokyo String Quartet, Chee-Yun (violin), Andre Emeloanoff (cello), Joan Tower (piano), Paul Neubauer (viola), Ursula Oppens (piano), Melvin Chen (piano), Richard Woodhams (oboe). Naxos 8.559215. (58' 24").

Thankfully Naxos's American music series is allowing space for that group of composers who bucked the trend in the second half of the 20th century, and backed out of the cul-de-sac of academic serialism, a period described as 'composing music by numbers'. Joan Tower was one of that growing number, her life starting in 1938 with a childhood spent in Bolivia where her father worked as a mining engineer, her name coming into common currency in the music world in the 1970's. Since then she has composed many high-profile orchestral works, and they, more or less, continue where Bartok left off, with just a whiff of Copland and a hint of Bernstein's colourful orchestration. This is the first time I have come across Tower's chamber music, and the experience proves rewarding. That Bartok influence comes in the opening track, In Memory, played with tremendous impact and a sense of angst by the fabulous Tokyo Quartet. Tower is never afraid of giving her musicians a piece to flout there virtuosity, and Paul Neubauer's stunning display on the viola in Wild Purple is followed by a fabulous piece of keyboard dexterity in Ursula Oppens' account of Holding a Daisy. My only reservation comes in Island Prelude, a score that seems to ramble, though it is pleasing enough. Performances could surely never be improved upon, and the sound quality is to match. Now they have dipped their toe in the water, can Naxos rescue an orchestral disc of music by Tower that includes the outstanding Concerto for Orchestra and featuring their star conductor, Marin Alsop, conducting her Colorado Symphony.

SCHUBERT: Dem Unendlichen, D291. Selma und Selmar, D286. Furcht der Geliebten, D285. An Sie, D288. Edone, D445. Das Rosenband, D280. Vaterlandslied, D287. Hermann und Thusnelda, D322. Die fruhen Graber, D290. Die Sommernacht, D289. Die Gestirne, D444. An Laura, D115. Erinnerung, D 98. Die Betende, D 102. Trost, An Elisa, D 97. Die Sterbende, D186. Vollendung, D597a. Entzunckung, D413

Stimme der Liebe, D187. Andenken, D99. Erinnerungen, D.98. Der Geistertanz, D116. Stimme der Liebe, D418. Lied aus der Ferne, D107. Geist der Liebe, D233. Der Geistertanz, D494. Lied der Liebe, D109. Geisternahe, D100. Der Abend, D221. Der Geistertanz, D15. Lebenslied, D508. Romanze, D114. Die Erde, D579b.  Skolie, D507. Naturgenuss, D118. Die Schatten, D50. Totenkranz fur ein Kind, D275. Klage, D415. Julius an Theone, D419. Adelaide, D95.  Thomas Bauer (baritone), Simone Nold (soprano), Marcus Ullmann (tenor), Ulrich Eisenlohr (fortepiano). Naxos 8.557371-72 (2 CDs). (106' 61").

Gathered together under the title 'Poets of Sensibility' this double disc set combines Schubert's settings of words by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Friedrich von Matthisson. He was to return to both through much of his creative career, Matthisson being one of his earliest sources of inspiration, and he was occasionally tempted to return to the texts for a second and third time. Though they did draw music of vitality - sample Vanterlandslied on track 7 of the first disc as an example of a pert and virile song - they have not caught public attention, most of the tracks having very few alternatives on disc. At the same time they do require singers well able to characterise the very changing moods through impeccable diction and vocal shades. Naxos has used three singers of very differing sound quality: Thomas Bauer a dark-voiced baritone able to explore the dramatic settings - I much enjoy his singing in the third setting of Der Geistertanz - while the silvery voiced Simone Nold is much at home in the quick songs, Marcus Ullmann taking the lyric male tracks.  My one concern comes with the use of a fortepiano. It is superbly played by Ulrich Eisenlohr and brings period authenticity, but will those who have chosen to collect this set from the outset welcome this change midstream? It is ideally recorded and obviously of excellent quality.

HUMMELL: Violin Concerto. Double Concerto for Violin and Piano, Op.17. Alexander Trostiansky (violin), Polina Osetinskaya (piano), Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Gregory Rose (conductor). Naxos 8.557595. (64' 19").

Johann Nepomuk Hummel was reading music at the age of three and before his seventh birthday performed in concerts as a violinist and pianist. He was later to become a pupil of Mozart who advised the parents to take the ten-year-old boy on a concert tour that proved so successful it lasted four years. In 1803 he accepted the post of Kapellmeister at Stuttgart, and the following year was offered a similar situation in the house of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy as assistant to the ageing Haydn. These were highly productive years as a composer, but in 1814 he returned to the stage as a pianist to tremendous acclaim. Indeed throughout his later life Hummel enjoyed such success, that on his death in 1837 it was discovered that he was a very wealthy man. His Double Concerto dates from 1805, and its outgoing virtuosity must have caused some ripples with the more conservative Haydn. Full of charm but just lacking a little in melodic inspiration, Hummel later composed some the finest piano concertos of his time. Though his output was large, no complete Violin Concerto exists, the conductor of this disc, Gregory Rose, finishing a score that calls for a real display of technical fireworks. It is played by the gifted young violinist, Alexander Trostiansky, his nimble fingers getting around some hair-raising complexities as the music flies around the instrument. More so than in the composer's piano concertos, the orchestral part is fulsome and here receives solid performances from the Russian Philharmonic. Though the soloists are well forward, orchestral detail is good.

ARIOSTI:  Six Cantatas, 'The Flowering and Fading of Love'.  LOCATELLI: Trio Sonata in E minor. VIVALDI: Trio Sonata in D major, RV 84. Musica Solare. Naxos 8.557573. (78' 48").

Though born and trained in Italy, Attilio Ariosti was a much travelled musician who seemed to proverbially 'fell on his feet' when he arrived in Venice, Berlin, Vienna and finally London. Illegitimate at birth, but of the noble Ariosti family, details of his musical education are sketchy, but he seems to have skilfully attached himself to various royal courts where he lived in luxury. He was to build a sizeable catalogue of music, and at one stage was Handel's rival on London's operatic stage. His Six Cantatas was published in London in 1724 in one volume on subscription, its popularity among the aristocracy said to have produced a vast sum of money for Ariosti. Pleasing melodic music that makes use of the soprano in the first three cantatas eventually moving to dramatic outpourings with the alto voice for the second group of three. It is an extensive score, here lasting little short of an hour, Laurie Reviol's clearly focused soprano voice handling the fast florid moments with confidence. The fruity quality of Truike van der Poel's contralto has the quality of a male alto and is ideal for the period. The accompaniments are reasonably well handled. What does surprise me is the use of other composers to fill up the disc when more Ariosti is our essential need. It is so out of character for Naxos. So let us forget them, as they are of no major consequence, and be happy to have discovered a historically important composer.

BORODIN: Prince Igor - Overture; Galitzky's Aria, Act 1; Dance of the Polovtsi Maidens, Konchakovna's Cavatina and Aria, Vladimir's Aria, Prince Igor's Aria & Polovtsian Dances, Act 2. Polovtsian March, Act, 3. In the Steppes of Central Asia. Angelina Shvachka (mezzo), Dmytro Popov (tenor), Mykola Koval (baritone), Taras Shtonda (bass), Ukraine National Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Theodore Kuchar (conductor). Naxos 8.557456. (57' 43").

A strange disc that starts out as the highlights from Prince Igor and ends with Borodin's picture of The Steppes of Central Asia. Though my pre-release copy has no recording details, the opera extracts seem to be 'live' performances, the tracks having spontaneity and that raw vivacity I greatly enjoy in Russian opera. Taras Shtonda starts the vocal side with a big and red-blooded account of Galitzky's aria; Mykola Koval sounding suitably weary-worn in Igor's No sleep, no rest, and a heavyweight Konchakova from Angelina Shvachka. The lean and lithe chorus in the Polovtsian Dances sings with spirit, the moment when timpani and percussion become unhinged quickly passing, the bass drum player enjoying hammering out the basic rhythm. In the Steppes of Central Asia catches the oriental quality in the music more acutely than any I have heard, and throughout Theodore Kuchar keeps the tempos moving forward at a good speed. Punchy up-front orchestral sound.

BEETHOVEN: Thirty-three Variations on a Theme of Diabelli, Op. 120. Edmund Battersby (piano / fortepiano). Naxos 8.557384-5. (2 CDs). (101' 30").

A fascinating comparison with the sounds that Beethoven would have heard, and the way we hear his famous Variations played today on a modern grand piano. On the first disc Edmund Battersby uses a copy of a Conrad Graf fortepiano of 1825, contrasting that with a modern Steinway. I am not going into the subject of copies, for there are those who will challenge the ability to create sounds we only know from original period instruments, as their tone will have changed significantly over the years. Battersby's performances are within a minute of one another, the fast variations taken with urgency, though the greater transparency of the fortepiano always convinces that he is using faster tempos. I could continue with a blow by blow comparison, but the major difference is the greater pungency with the Graf compared with the sheer weight of the Steinway. But unless you keep moving between the discs, it is strange how quickly your ears adjust to the Graf, so that after a few tracks it becomes a 'modern' instrument. That is not helped by close recordings, differences in their respective volume range, that would become obvious in the concert hall, being masked. Battersby's performances are commanding, never afraid to go to extremes of permissible tempos and dynamics, bringing greater strength than we often encounter. Why I enjoyed the fortepiano so much more than the modern piano I cannot explain, for it just gripped my attention from beginning to end. Technically the playing is good, the finger-work clean and almost unfailingly accurate, and of the many recordings I have heard his account stands among the finest. .

BLANCAFORT: Camins. Cants intims II. El parc d’atraccions. Pastoral en sol. Miguel Villalba (piano). Naxos 8.557334. (64' 10").

Born in 1897 to a Spanish musical family, Manuel Blancafort came to prominence in the 1920's with a series of keyboard works, his early life spent as a representative for the Victoria piano-roll company founded by his father. That brought him into contact with music throughout Western Europe, and in particular with the 'bright young things' composing in Paris in the early part of the century. They were to influence his catalogue of works that included orchestral, solo and chamber music. The present disc is the third volume of his complete piano works and includes his first major score, Camins, its four movements of quiet introspection setting the scene for much of the disc. Cants intims II is characterised by its static qualities and gentle colours we find in Debussy, the scene occasionally illuminated by shafts of light. His best-known work, El Parc d’atraccions, is more outgoing, and an ideal sampling point comes with track 14, the iridescent La Terrassa I la musica, the work's penultimate movement. A happy dance Pastoral en sol concludes the disc. There are few technical challenges for Miquel Villabela, but it is nice clean playing with the sound engineers providing a limpid piano tone.

SCARLATTI: Sonatas in A major, K.208; A major, K.209; D minor, K.32 & B minor K.27. REGONDI: Introduction et Caprice, Op. 23. BACH: Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV 998. AGUADO: Andante and Rondo, No. 3. SANZ / DE LA MAZA: Danzas Cervantinas. DE  LUCIA: Tarantas. TARREGA: Recuerdos de la Alhambra. Lagrima. David Martinez (guitar). Naxos 8.557808. (68' 16").

The Spanish guitarist, David Martinez, was born in Granada in 1975, his studies taking him to the Mozarteum in Vienna and the Musik Hochschule in Munich, during which time he began a catalogue of competition successes, culminating in the first prize at the Tarrega International Guitar Competition in 2004, the catalyst for Naxos's recording in the 'Guitar Laureate' series. I am not sure that the adaptation does Scarlatti's Sonatas any favours, the instrument mainly picking out the melodic line. I am happier when we move to the original guitar music from Regondi, Martinez giving a very persuasive reading of the well-known Introduction and Caprice. Indeed after his Bach I felt that Baroque was not really his musical period at all, so take the disc for his clean, athletic and excellently detailed accounts of the remaining substantial items. Try track 11, the Espanoleta from Danzas Cervantinas to sample his high quality performances, the disc as a whole offering plenty of opportunity to display the virtuosity that must have impressed judges. His intonation is spotless, left hand shifts as noiseless as would be reasonable to expect. Though for some reason there is a marked change of acoustic at track 14, the pleasing sound completes a worthy debut release.  

FUCHS: An American Place. Eventide. Out of the Dark. Thomas Stacey (cor anglais), Timothy Jones (French horn), London Symphony Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta (conductor). Naxos 8.559224. (55' 14").

Kenneth Fuchs, born in 1956, is one of the American group of composers who are bringing listeners in from the cold world of classical music created by the reactionaries at the beginning of the 20th century. Only time will tell whether they will succeed, audiences having been alienated by the Second Viennese School and their acolytes. Fuchs mixes melody, minimalism and striking orchestral colours to create modern sounds that fall easily on the ear. There is a touch of the English pastoral school, a veneer of Hollywood and fleeting moments of an American heritage. An American Place is a large-scale tone poem with much atmospheric writing, the passage for high glissando violins being particularly effective. The work's structure is well shaped with its many ideas flowing into each other to make a cohesive whole. I find it more persuasive than the following Eventide. In reality a concerto for cor anglais and orchestra, it is a work that at first hearing seems to fall into several unrelated sections that are each, in there way, pleasing. The composer has used spirituals as his starting point, and there are moments where the soloist is required to extend the instrument's usual sonorities with one extended cadenza towards the work's close. Out of the Dark, from the 1950's is in a more acerbic world with conflict among the strings in their aggressive mode, a lone horn playing a rather sad lament. It is in three movements whose titles come from paintings by Helen Frankenthaler. Some of Fuch's orchestral writing is far from easy, the American conductor, JoAnne Falletta, coming to London where they play this type of music with the impact that usually spells out long-term familiarity. The general sound quality is excellent, Stacey's superb playing just a little too far forward.

RENDINE: Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi; Resurrecrio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi. Nando Citarella (voice), Damiana Pinti (mezzo-soprano), Emanuela Loffredo, Elio Tacconelli (folk voices), Lucilla Galeazzi (soprano), Pierpaolo Pecoriello (saxophone), Gabriele Di Iorio (flute), Maurizio Trippitelli (percussion), Chorus and Orchestra of the Marrucino di Chieti Theatre, Marzio Conti (conductor). Naxos 8.557733. (58' 09").

Sergio Rendine was born in Naples in 1954 graduating from Rome's Santa Cecilia Conservatory, and presently combining composing with his post of Artistic Director of the Teatro Marrucino di Chieti and Administrative Advisor of the Orchestra of the Santa Cecilia Accademia Nazionale. He has composed a number of works to commissions from orchestras in Germany, Austria, Russia and the UK, a number of his scores receiving international prizes. The Passio and Resurrecrio was composed for performance on Good Friday in the Jubilee Year of 2000. Where do I start to try to tell you what to expect? At one moment it returns to sacred music dating back in the Baroque era; the next it is in a raucous North African folk idiom; then some haunting minimalism. I hear Puccini and a flute solo in Stabat Mater that would form a beautiful backdrop to a sentimental Hollywood scene, with a serene choral passage that follows. The Agnus Dei - the work's most extended movement - opens with a soprano solo that could have come from somewhere around Verdi's time. And so the music progresses, with 'pop' music added for good measure. Bernstein's Mass springs to mind as a previous venture into such mixed media. Try two short tracks 5 and 6 to sample its varying moods. It is a unique experience, and I can only comment that the performance has tremendous impact. Emanuela Loffredo and Elio Tacconelli sing with rustic vigour, and Lucilla Galeazzi's soprano is of beautiful quality. I presume it comes from a live performance, the sound lacking some inner detail in crowded passages.

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Hymn to the Sun. Orientalischer Tanz. Chanson Scheherazade. Hindu Song. Fantasie. DVORAK: Songs my Mother taught me. Slavonic Dance Nos. 1-3. Humoresque. Slavonic Fantasy. Negro Spiritual Melody. Indian Lament. TCHAIKOVSKY: Scherzo. Chanson Arabe. Humoresque. Song without Words. Andante cantabile. Nicolas Koeckert (violin), Milana Chernyavska (piano). Naxos 8.557388. (76' 45").

Though the disc sleeve proclaims 'Kreisler', it contains music by three composers from which the great violinist, Fritz Kreisler, made free adaptations to be used as recital lollypops. The names in the heading are those by which they have become known, the Orientalischer Tanz being derived from bits and pieces of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, a work he returned to for the Chanson, while Dvorak's Negro Spiritual Melody is part of the slow movement of his Ninth Symphony. Beloved by our forefathers, much of it has dropped from the repertoire, our young virtuosos wanting something more substantial and daunting to prove their technical brilliance. The young Nicolas Koeckert has been causing some musical ripples with highly enthusiastic notices of his London debut among his many accolades. He passes through all of Kreisler's musical hoops without faltering, though the engineers might have edited out some minute imperfections. Intonation is good and he has a feel for the many differing moods, playing the Slavonic Dances as a gypsy cafe violinist, though the Negro Spiritual a mite too cloying. Ears soon adjust to the level of reverberation and the close proximity of the violin on some tracks. If you enjoy violin lollypops, this maybe the disc you have been waiting for.

PIAZZOLLA: The History of the Tango. LYSIGHT: Initiation. WILDER: Flute and Bongos No. 1. DEVREESE: Butterfly. ABE: Wind in the Bamboo Grove. YOUNG: Ode to Nature. PART: Spiegel im Spiegel. SHANKAR: Raga ‘The Enchanted Morning’. Marc Grauwels (flute), Marie-Josee Simard (percussion)

Naxos 8.557782. (71' 45").

There appears to be an international competition that is taking place to devise the most unusual and obscure programme of music on disc. This new release has a better chance than most of taking the winner's prize, much of the music composed for the esoteric Grauwels and Simard partnership. But don’t write it off, for there is much to enjoy. Tracks 5 and 6 are a good place to start, the Belgium composer, Michel Lysight's two-movement Initiation having a haunting quality, a phrase I would also use for Wilder's music for Flute and Bongos. If I never hear another of Piazzolla's tangos life would be even more pleasant, but he is much in vogue. I love Devreese's gentle flying Butterfly and Keiko Abe's highly atmospheric Wind in the Bamboo Grove. The disc's most extended work is by the Indian composer, Ravi Shankar. The Enchanted Morning. It is a Raga unlike any other I have heard, with this combination of instruments sounding more akin to Hollywood. Much of the disc is for tuned percussion and of a gentle nature, the two excellent musicians revelling in the subtle shades, the sound quality as good as they come.

BOCCHERINI: Cello Sonatas in C major, G. 74; G major, G. 5; C minor.

FACCO: Balletto No. 3 in C major for two cellos. PORRETTI : Cello Sonata in D major. VIDAL: Andante Gracioso. Josep Bassal (cello), Wolfgang Lehner (cello). Naxos 8.557795. (72' 02").

A disc devoted to music for two cellos must be a rare entry into the CD catalogue, and I hope all you cello groupies feel satisfied. The theme is music linked or inspired by the Spanish court in the 18th century, all probably composed for cello and double bass or two cellos, the second instrument supplying a simple lower line. The Balletto's Prelude and three dances by the Italian, Giacomo Facco, is undemanding and could well have been written for domestic performance and pleasure. Domenico Porretti's Sonata is more harmonically adventurous, its second movement Allegro being quite attractive. Pablo Vidal's Andante Gracioso shares the thematic material more evenly between the two instruments, but it is only when we move to the Boccherini that we find music of real substance. Indeed it is a case of moving into a different musical world. Two of the works belong to 34 sonatas published around 1770, the C minor sonata being a recent discovery here receiving its first recording. They are duets with the two instruments intertwining, and having recently heard them played by cello and double bass, I have to say those two differing voices add a new dimension. Each is in three contrasting movements and calls for a greater degree of skill than the discs other works. I doubt whether anyone else will ever record a similar collection.

AMRAM: Symphony - Songs of the Soul. Shir L'erev Shabbat - excerpts. The Final Ingredient - excerpts. Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Christopher Wilkins (conductor); Richard Troxell (tenor), Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (organ), BBC Singers, Kenneth Kiesler (conductor); Soloists, University of Michigan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Kenneth Kiesler (conductor). Naxos 8.559420. (63' 12").

Though Naxos describe him as "one of America's most adventurous composers" on its disc cover, David Amram is numbered among the country's traditional tonal composers working in the second half of the 20th century. He did dabble with folk and jazz as we hear in the symphony, but in a way that would make Copland sound outrageously progressive. So don't let the description deter you from hearing the disc, the central movement of the symphony, an extended song without words, among the most beautiful moments in American music. Whether it then sits happily with the following jazzy dance of joy will be a matter of personal taste. The excerpts from the Sabbath Eve Service take a modern view of musical offerings, before moving to three excerpts from the opera The Final Ingredient, a story set in the German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, its musical language only one stride further than Puccini. It is deeply disturbing yet very beautiful at the same time. The performances are reliable, though it is the Michigan performers who really capture our attention. Sound quality from these far-flung sources is nicely married together.

WAGNER: Der Heidenkönig, Op. 9.Thorsten Scharnke (Radomar), Dagmar Schellenberger (Ellida), Rebecca Broberg (Gelwa), Adam Kruzel (Jaroslaw), Carsten Sabrowski (Bodo), Mechthild Georg (Werda), Wolfgang Schmidt (Waidemut), Andreas Heichlinger (Krodo), Volker Horn (Der Monch), Bergische Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Hiroshi Kodama (conductor). Marco Polo 8.225301-03 (3 CDs). (160' 06").

The only son of Richard and Cosima Wagner, Siegfried will best be remembered for his part in the development and conducting of his father's operas at Beyreuth. He had been a composition pupil of Humperdinck, but had been drawn to a life as an architect. He was to be thirty before returning to composition, and was then to complete 14 operas largely written in the style of his father's early scores. None were more than modestly successful, and there can be few operas that have been burdened with such a complex and unwieldy libretto as Der Heidenkonig. That is a pity, for of all Siegfried's scores we have on disc, this is musically his most imposing and attractive. It is impossible in the context of a review to even begin to describe the inner details of a plot that takes place when Paganism was in conflict with Christianity, the misdeeds of Ellida preventing Radomar becoming King of the Heathens. She eventually commits suicide to protect his honour, but at the same time turning his thoughts to salvation through Christianity. Well that is what I can make of it, but along the way there are plenty of 'bad' people to thwart Christianity. As you will see from the timing it is a lengthy score with many extended passages that come in direct lineage of his father, Tannhauser and Lohengrin being major contributors. The choral singing - which is a very small part - is not first rate, but the soloists are of a high standard, Thorsten Scharnke an imposing Radomar, set beside a potent Ellida from Dagmar Schellenberger. Rebecca Broberg is a suitably evil Gelwa, a character who can come between Ellida and Radomar. Adam Kruzel impresses as Jaroslaw; Mechthild Georg is a fine Werda and Carsten Sabrowski a suitably dark Bodo, a character straight out of The Ring. Good orchestral support played with that assurance of detailed rehearsal under Hiroshi Kodama. Each act occupies one of the three discs; the recording is of commendable quality, and of all Marco Polo's recordings of Siegfried's operas, this is by a very large margin the most outstanding.

LEHAR: Das Land des Lachelns. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Lisa), Erich Kunz (Gustav), Nicolai Gedda (Sou-Chong), Emmy Loose (Mi), Otakar Kraus (Tschang), Felix Kent (Fu-Li), Andre Mattoni (Sevant), Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra, Otto Ackerman (conductor). Naxos Historical 8.111016-17 (2 CDs). (152' 20").

Though Lehar is largely remembered by his operetta, The Merry Widow, it was with The Land of Smiles that he reached the zenith of his career, two-hundred productions taking place in 1930, the year following its premiere in Berlin. It used the story of west meeting east, highly fashionable at the time, the aristocratic Viennese girl, Lisa, falling in love with the Chinese prince, Sou-Chong, only to discover that the life of a woman in his country is not the one she enjoys at home. It leads to a sad ending, which, a few years later was not the story audiences around the world was looking for. It has had a slow but steady decline, leaving it on the edge of the repertoire outside of Lehar's adopted home of Austria. It's early success owed much to the presence of Richard Tauber in the leading role, his recording of Dein ist mein genzes Herz (You are my heart's delight) one of the best known in the world of operetta. Gedda is persuasive but he cannot hit home with the same degree of sadness, though for Schwarzkopf it was arguably her finest recording, the voice sounding so fresh and youthful you can fall in love with her Lisa by just hearing these discs. The remaining roles are well taken, Kunz endearing in his duet with the girlish voice of Emmy Loose. I have heard better choruses, but the orchestra has that ideal sugar and cream quality. Ackermann was a conductor well versed in the score, tempos pushed along while giving his singers plenty of time to create characters. A modicum of linking dialogue is used, the sound quality from this early 1950's recording the finest we have on the Naxos Historical series. I know I am showing my age, but I hold the original discs in such veneration I didn't really want anything adding, but you may disagree, the additional tracks featuring great Lehar singers of yesteryear.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, 'Emperor'. RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 3 on D minor, Op. 30. Vladimir Horowitz (piano), RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner (conductor). Naxos Historical 8.110787. (74' 46").

As a young teenager I bought this performance of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto as the first LP that I owned. I then spent years wondering why all the concert performances I went to had such weak pianists who could not blot out the orchestra with the completeness of Vladimir Horowitz. It took time to dawn on me that there was such a thing as recorded balance, and the engineers had taken this one almost completely off the scale of permitted highlighting. Yet I still sit in awe at Horowitz's sheer virtuosity in this 1951 recordings, the accuracy and precision of his playing in the finale is electrifying, and only the composer has really come near to his performance. He uses the 'slim' cadenza in the first movement, and how I would love to have heard him in the red-blooded earlier version. The central Adagio is surely pushed that little bit too fast, but tempos were generally in keeping with the composer's own recording. When we can hear the orchestra, it was in good form. I have never previously came across the Beethoven, which dates from 1952 and enjoyed some years in the catalogue on the RCA label. Though it too pushes forward with urgency, I find it a very rewarding performance with a magical link between the second and third movements. The balance here is much better, and Reiner brings a feel of nobility to the score that is entirely appropriate. Horowitz fans will surely buy it, as presently I find neither recording otherwise available. Very good transfers.

KREISLER: Caprice Viennois. Tambourin Chinois. Liebesfreud. Liebesleid. Schon Rosmarin. La gitana. Rondino on a theme of Beethoven. BACH: Gavotte from Partita No. 3 in E. MOZART: Rondo from the ‘Haffner’ Serenade. CHOPIN: Mazurka in A minor, Op. 67, No. 4. BRAHMS (arr. Hochstein): Waltz in A, Op. 39, No. 15. DVORAK: Humoresque. TCHAIKOVSKY: Andante cantabile. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Hymn to the Sun. Song of India. DE FALLA: Spanish dance from ‘La vida breve’. POLDINI: Dancing doll. SCOTT: Lotus land. TRADITIONAL: Londonderry air. Fritz Kreisler (violin), Franz Rupp (piano). Naxos Historical 8.110992. (67' 06").

During the first half of the 20th century Fritz Kreisler was the world's most popular violinist, even surpassing the new breed of virtuoso headed by Jascha Heifetz, his mix of a brilliant but relaxed technique, warmth of tone and musicality endearing him to audiences. He had been born in Vienna in 1875 of Jewish origins, his stupendous career in Germany brought to an end when the Nazi's came to power bringing a move to the United States where he had already become one of their favourite concert artists. His physical style of playing was flawed, and he took with him deep into the 20th century the portamentos that had by then become unfashionable. For many years he pretended that his compositions belonged to others as he feared they would not be taken seriously, and only owned up to his 'untruth' after they had achieved lasting success. Though his recordings of the major concertos were masterpieces of the era, and are still highly regarded, it was his performances of lollypops by which most people came to know him. He was to make many arrangements, this disc containing a selection of them - with the exception of the Brahms item - their content often very free in transcription. It is interesting to compare him with today's manufactured virtuosos where their clinical and razor-sharp technique would make some of his articulation rather fuzzy around the edges, a comparison that is true of the other recording of Kreisler's arrangements reviewed above. Yet in terms of musicality no one will challenge him in this repertoire, the restoration engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn, making these 1936 and 1938 originals so utterly pleasing to modern ears.

BARRERA/CALLEJA: Granadinas (Emigrantes). LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci - O Columbina. PADILLA: La Corte del Amor - La de ojos azules. TRADITIONAL: Ay, Ay, Ay (A soma te a la ventana). MASSENET: Manon - Chiudo gli occhi. MARVASI: Chi se nee scorda ‘cchiu. DI GIACOMO: Napulitanata. Quiereme mucho. PONCE: A la orilla de un palmar. PALACIOS Y SOJO: A Granada. ROSSINI: Il Barbiere di Siviglia - Ecco ridente in cielo; Se il mio nome saper, Act 1 BELLINI: La Sonnambula - Son geloso del zefiro, Act 1. THOMAS: Mignon - Ah! non credevi tu; Addio, Mignon, fa core, Act 2. OTEO:  Mi viejo amor. CIMMINO: Serenata Medioevale (2 takes). DE FUENTES: Rosalinda. SIERRA: Siete canciones populares espanolas - Jota. PALADILHE:  Comme un petit oiseau. SCHIPA: A Cuba. VERDI: La Traviata - Un di felice eterea, Act 1. Parigi, o cara, Act 3. Tito Schipa (tenor), Various Orchestras. Naxos Historical 8.110332. (77' 40").

Those who describe Tito Schipa as the greatest tenor of all time would surely have my vote. He may not always have the heroic stance of Caruso, the silky smoothness of Gigli or the ringing top notes of Domingo, but right across a whole spectrum of music his voice was so beautifully and perfectly focused. Above all he brought an impeccable good taste to Neapolitan songs taking them to a differing level of musical status than any other tenor achieved on disc. He was born in Italy in 1889 and studied piano and composition before he turned to singing, his long career continuing into his sixties and taking him both sides of the Atlantic with thirteen seasons at the Chicago Opera. Strangely he never appeared in London. This first volume in a complete edition of his recordings covers the years 1922-24, and if you want a quick sample, try track 5 (Manon) or 15 (Mignon) to hear the pure artistry he brought to his performances. Though at that time orchestral recording was rather basic, these wonderful transfers have perfectly preserved the voice.

CHINESE MUSIC MEETS WESTERN EARS

This monthly column has now reviewed a hundred of the most important discs from the large catalogue of Chinese music available wherever you find Naxos and Marco Polo discs. I hope you have enjoyed them. In the Western world you may have to place an order with your retailer.

TRAD: The General's Command.  Dance of the Golden Snake. Daring General. SHANG YI: Dagger Society - Overture; Bow Dance; Pea-Blossoms are in Bloom. HE BIN: Martial Arts. HE LUTANG: Dragon-Boat Race. MA SHENGLONG/GU GUANREN: East Sea Fishermen's Song. Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, Lin Yousheng (conductor). Marco Polo 8.223959. (51' 25").

China's answer to the swashbuckling Hollywood spectaculars comes with a series of Swordsmen films, the stories of noble bravery mirroring the image fashioned by the political circumstances in the 1950's and 60's. They were characterised by exciting visual effects and spectacular fight scenes set against a backdrop of music that would heighten the drama. In more recent times they have become the inspiration for even more spectacular remakes and television versions that have come to screens in the West. It was politically correct and prudent to use orchestrated versions of traditional folk melodies, and it is this music that occupies most of this disc. It stands somewhere between China and Western 'pop', the music orchestrated to provide the impact such films required. If you want to sample the disc go to the atmospheric opening of track 8 where we find a graphic picture of the Sea at Dawn and continue through to the scene of the Struggle with Terrifying Waves. The playing of the Shanghai Philharmonic has that string intonation we find at odds with Western ears, but the orchestra play with obvious enthusiasm, the woodwind particularly good. The original recording seems to date from 1994, but sounds freshly minted. Pop-up pictures depicting the films come with the album.

QINGZHU: River of no return. LIU XUE'AN: Song of the Red Bean. HUANG ZI: Flowers are nor Flowers. LIN SHENGXI: Magpie Fairies. HU RAN: Sand of Silk-Washing Stream. HUANG YOUDI: Whispering to Orioles and Swallows. Gentle Smiles. LI WEINING: Chance. LIU XUE'AN: The Quest. HUANG YONGXI: Parting at Yangguan. WANG ZHENG: Prelude to the Melody of Water. TRAD: All Red the River. Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, Henry Shek (conductor). Marco Polo 8.223962.

Art songs became fashionable in China during the first half of the 20th century, taking their inspiration form Western music, but picturing life and scenes in China. Most were set to poems that concentrated on the beauty to be found in the country, and here we have twelve in orchestral arrangements, the solo instruments singing the vocal melody. Wang Jue and Lu Jiauhua in a style not far distant from Hollywood have adapted most with just a little Russian influence, the frequent upward sweep of strings used to heighten the melodic line. They are generally relaxing and with just a hint of the original Chinese folk instruments that would have provided the original backdrop. I particularly enjoyed the tinkling of Magpie Fairies, with the piano having an important role, and while the story does not quite match the title of Gentle Smiles, the piece could have come straight from the Vienna of the Strauss family. The famous Chinese conductor, Henry Shek, obtains some of the finest playing from the Shanghai orchestra I have heard, the woodwind beguiling the ear. A mid 1990's original sound, the disc is one for uncomplicated late night listening.