David's Review Corner - April 2006


MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E flat, ‘Symphony of a Thousand'. Barbara Kubiak (Magna Peccatrix, soprano), Izabela Klosinska (Una Poenitentium, soprano), Marta Boberska (Mater Gloriosa, soprano), Jadwiga Rappe (Mulier Samaritana, alto), Ewa Marciniec (Maria Aegyptica, alto), Timothy Bentch (Doctor Marianus, tenor) Wojtek Drabowicz (Pater Ecstaticus, baritone), Piotr Nowacki (Pater Profundis, bass) Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Polish Radio Choir in Krakow, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University Choir, Warsaw Boys Choir, Antoni Wit (conductor). Naxos 8.550533-34 (2 CDs). (80' 51"). 

Be prepared for the earth to shake in this massive performance! Naxos began their Mahler cycle over a decade ago, sharing it between conductors Michael Halasz and Antoni Wit, the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra being the linking factor. Now for the enormous forces needed they have moved to Warsaw where Wit has recently become Music Director of the National Philharmonic Orchestra. The big and bold opening would signal an account of high drama. Yet Wit sees more muted colours in the score than we have become accustomed to, and I played the discs several times to wash away my preconceived ideas. Just go to the beginning of the section Dir, der Unberuhrbaren (track 11, disc 1) to experience a pianissimo that is pure magic, and you will begin to appreciate Wit's whole outlook of dynamic contrasts. Maybe it will be in the slow tempos of the score's second part that you will have to come to terms with. Yet they prepare us for the final climatic passage, a moment that can sound all too weak in readings that have already lurched from one gaudy patch of orchestral sound to the next. With enormous solo, choral and orchestral forces, Wit unleashes an enormous conclusion to the first part, his solo sopranos risking their future careers as they soar high above the deluge of sound from the massed chorus, the result as awe inspiring as you will find on disc. One would equally place Wojtek Drabowicz in his long solo at the opening of the second part among the finest singers of the part presently available. The orchestra is in superb form, pointing to a violin section as fine as any in Berlin or Vienna, while the brass are more rounded than in the American recordings of the work. The engineers have not faked the impact by going in close to the orchestra, so that with the chorus at full throttle some details are masked. I enjoyed Halasz's participation in the cycle, but this Eighth is very special in a highly competitive market, and I hope in the fullness of time Naxos will ask Wit to complete his Mahler cycle. 

PROKOFIEV: Alexander Nevsky, Suite Op.78. Lieutenant Kije, Suite, Op. 60

Ewa Podle (mezzo), Latvian State Choir, Orchestre National de Lille-Region Nord/Pas-de-Calais, Jean-Claude Casadesus (conductor). Naxos 8.557725. (58' 20"). 

The Lille orchestra has added to the Naxos catalogue some outstanding performances of French music, and now we have a most impressive disc of Prokofiev. The trumpets in the famous scene of the Battle on the Ice are less piercing than Russian counterparts and the strings are refined rather than pungent, for Jean-Claude Casadesus is offering an Alexander Nevsky full of subtle shades. The engineers have played their part in this concert performance by resisting the usual temptation of exaggerating the percussion, orchestral perspective totally realistic and clearly detailed. I love Casadesus's atmospheric opening with the shimmering qualities of daybreak, and it was a good idea to have the Latvian choir who add that important tang of Slave voices in the following Ode to Alexander. Ewa Podle is equally fine in the Field of the Dead, with Casadesus bringing the whole work to a thrilling conclusion with the Entry of Alexander Nevsky. You will gather that this is the short cantata the composer drew from the more extensive film score for Nevsky, and it allows time for a studio recording of Lieutenant Kije to be added. The fun of the piece is expressed with refinement, the Lille's playing neat, crisp and with many moments of gorgeous woodwind playing. The engineers have obtained a sound full of impact for Nevsky that can hold its place among the many demonstration quality discs the music attracts. But here I go again with my pet subject - why include the applause at the end of Nevsky, when there was time before it began to snip it off?

RUTTER: Mass of the Children. Wedding Canticle. Shadows. Angharad Gruffydd-Jones (soprano), Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone), Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Timothy Brown (conductor). Naxos 8.557922. (66' 45"). 

John Rutter's compositions have become a key ingredient in the modernisation of sacred music, his pleasing tunes and catchy rhythms bridging the gap between the church establishment and the younger generation. That fusion becomes the primary constituent in the Mass for Children, adult choir and two soloists sharing the score with the children's choir. There is more than a hint of Benjamin Britten in the opening Kyrie; Bernstein's jazzy rhythms underpin the ideas in the Gloria and the world of 'pop' classics has been the inspiration for the final two sections. It all adds up to a pleasing experience that needs little input from the listener. Shadows was composed in 1979 and is Rutter’s only song cycle to date, the work following in the English music traditions of Vaughan Williams. In eight contrasting parts, it returns to the influences of Britten in the sadness of O Death rock me asleep, and to a feel of resignation in Close thine eyes. The disc concludes with the short Wedding Canticle, a setting of Psalm 128 composed two years ago to mark twenty-five years of Timothy Brown as Director of Music at Clare College. The performances throughout are very good, the singing of the young voices being particularly attractive, while Jeremy Huw Williams is a most likeable soloist in Shadows. The presence of Rutter as the recording producer brings the stamp of approval, the engineers having found an admirable balance for the Mass, halfway between a church and concert hall acoustic.

MOZART: Don Giovanni (Highlights). Bo Skovhus (Don Giovanni), Janusz Monarcha (Commandatore), Adrianne Pieczonka (Donna Anna), Torsten Kerl (Don Ottavio), Regina Schorg (Donna Elvira), Renato Girolami (Leporello), Daniel Boaz (Masatto), Ildiko Raimondi (Zerlina), Hungarian Radio Chorus, Nicolaus Estherhazy Sinfonia, Michael Halasz (conductor). Naxos 8.557893. (75' 28"). 

A further instalment in Naxos's celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday brings this well-filled disc of excerpts from their very likeable complete recording of Don Giovanni. In the twenty tracks we have almost half of the score with all the key moments that make up the skeleton story of the debased and lecherous Don. In the title role we have one of today's leading exponents, Bo Skovhus, his approach that of a seducer rather than an outright villain. Renato Girolami sings the famous catalogue aria listing the Don's conquests very quickly and with a restraint that makes a welcome alternative to the usual exaggerations. Adrianne Pieczonka and Regina Schorg have their good moments as the two Donnas, though my favourite among the female singers is the pert and silvery voiced Zerlina of Ildiko Raimondi. Having negotiated Della sua pace la mia depende, Torsten Kerl's voice relaxes to make a pleasing contribution to the work as a whole. I did feel Halasz's elegant overture lacked something in drama, but the exemplary pace and feel through the rest of the work shows his long history in the opera house. There are plenty of highlight discs out there on the CD shelves, but at budget price this one is highly desirable.

BRIDGE: A Fairy Tale. The Hour Glass. Miniature Pastorals. Three Lyrics. Three Pieces. In Autumn. Three Poems. Ashley Wass (piano). Naxos 8.557842. (70' 06"). 

Sumptuous in content, often colourful in scoring, the music of Frank Bridge was gaining considerable popularity before the First World War, but the loss of so many friends in the conflict was to scar the rest of his life. It was to change his style to a astringent. mode and caused a decline in the performances his music received, that fact now thankfully being redressed. His earlier piano scores fall into that oft-used category of 'salon pieces', technically well within the scope of amateur pianists. Between these periods came a few years when he seemed intent on escaping reality, often returning to the shimmering colours of French composers in the Impressionist era. This first disc in Bridge's complete piano music opens in those interim years with the gentle four-movement Fairy Tale and the peaceful lyricism of the first set of Miniature Pastorals. But in The Hour Glass, the final part of Three Pictures completed in 1920, we first encounter Bridge's sadness and anger. By the time he reached the 1924 composition In Autumn the music contained the pungency of 20th century modernists. The performances from the young British winner of the World Piano Competition, Ashley Wass, are outstanding. The moments that require an outgoing brilliance are well played, though it is his wonderful ability to sustain long quiet periods that point him out as a musician of unique qualities. The pieces have few alternatives on disc, and these will be the version by which all others are judged. The recorded sound is superb.

MENDELSSOHN: Octet for strings in E flat, Op.20. BRUCH: Octet in B flat major, Op. posth. (1920). Kodaly Quartet, Auer Quartet, Zsolt Fejervari (double bass). Naxos 8.557270. (56' 29"). 

A delightful idea to link the relatively unknown Octet by Max Bruch with the frequently recorded Mendelssohn score. Completed only a few months before his death, it was a reworking of his string quintet, the seriousness contrasting with the outgoing vitality of the frothy scherzo from Mendelssohn's Octet. Naxos's two major Hungarian quartets have been brought together, the performances combining refinement with nice buoyant tempos, a feel of breathlessness introduced into the scherzo to add to the feel of urgency in the performance. At this point I should comment on the recorded sound, most engineers feeling a need to add weight to the Mendelssohn by using a reverberant venue, while here they concentrate on internal clarity by using a dry sound. It’s a matter of personal taste, but as a change I enjoyed so much detail. Such close microphones do require the utmost accuracy from the players, and both quartets are in immaculate form. The love and affection they lavish on the Bruch brings a soulful quality to the central Adagio which is most rewarding, while the happier moments in the outer movements are taken with a degree of reserve that is ideal to the work's structure. In total a most desirable addition to the CD catalogue. 

DE LA HALLE: Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion. Kathryn Oswald (Marion), Alexander L'Estrange (Robin), Tonus Peregrinus, Anthony Pitts (conductor). Naxos 8.557337. (74' 26"). 

Biographies of Adam de la Halle are littered with the word 'probably' as we know precious little about the life of the French-born composer and poet. The few facts that we have for certain are his period of birth taking place in the mid-13th century and the certainty of his having travelled outside of France. This lack of knowledge is at odds with an unusual amount of his music that has survived, the quality proving that he studied with learned teachers. Through his life he took music technically forward, and moved it away from its sacred roots, his songs pointing to a composer well versed in the music played in French and Italian courts. It is here described as the first known opera, but in reality it is a collection of songs, some probably 'borrowed' by Adam from the popular ditties of the day. These he neatly linked together by spoken text to create a little light-hearted play. The end result - as presented here - is highly attractive, its elements of naughtiness handled with good taste. Two solo singers, who are both outstanding, are employed together with a small chorus, the singing and diction being excellent throughout. The work is performed in an English translation with a narration in French. To separate the two elements, the narrator is placed in a dry acoustic with a lively sound given to the action this is taking place around it. I know it will help sales in France, but I hope that Naxos will strip out the narration - which must have been recorded at a different time - and allow the piece to stand simply as an English translation.

PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater. Salve Regina in C Minor. Jorg Waschinski (soprano), Michael Chance (alto), Cologne Chamber Orchestra, Helmut Muller-Bruhl (conductor). Naxos 8.557447. (57' 05"). 

In the short twenty-six years of his life, Giovanni Pergolesi did not savour the fame that his music was to achieve after his death, that popularity now largely residing with his comic opera, La Serva pedrona. The Stabat Mater was composed in the last few months of his life, and the sensuality inherent in the music - as we hear in the duet Fac, ut ardeat cor meum (track 8) - was unknown in early 18th century sacred French music. It was extraordinary that he was able to write such happy music as he literally completed the score while he was in bed dying, though there is an underlying sadness. The Salve Regina came in the months previous but seems to have been from less stressful times. As I have commented before, Helmut Muller-Bruhl does not do trendy period performances, his musicianship is based on solid traditional values. Neither does the orchestra have pungent strings, warmth being their trademark. He is here blessed with two outstanding soloists, Jorg Waschinski's purity of voice, as we hear in Vidit suum dulcem natum, having such a pleasing quality, while Michael Chance is one of today's most remarkable counter-tenors.

SCHOENBERG: Serenade, Op. 24. Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31. Bach Orchestrations. Stephen Varcoe (baritone), Charles Neidich (clarinet), Alan R. Kay (clarinet), Peter Press (guitar), David Starobin (guitar), Rolf Schulte (violin), Toby Appel (viola), Fred Sherry (cello), Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble, Philharmonia Orchestra, Robert Craft (conductor). Naxos 8.557522. (67' 54"). 

Almost a century later the world is still recovering from the upheaval caused by Arnold Schoenberg's creation of the Second Viennese School with his revolutionary 12-tone concepts. Though some had taken note of his earlier compositions that embraced the Romantic era, his career had been precarious until invited to take charge of the composition class at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1926. Slowly his works gained acceptance, and with his disciples, Berg and Webern, atonal music began to shape a very different musical world. It just maybe that he would have remained a curiosity had he not fled Germany in 1934 to set up home in the United States. Appointed professor of composition at the University of California, his music engaged the adventurous New World. The major work here, and one of his most frequently performed, is the Variations for Orchestra, an early creations of pure atonality. The scoring is interesting and is here realised by Robert Craft and the Philharmonia in an exemplary performance. The Serenade for baritone and chamber group is the much easier of the two works to readily accept, and is given a splendid performance from Stephen Varcoe and the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble. The disc is completed by three Bach transcriptions that are pastiche and glazed over in a gloss of Romanticism. Reissued from previous releases on the Koch label, the sound quality is satisfactory.

PALOMO: Andalusian Nocturnes. Spanish Songs. Maria Bayo (soprano), Pepe Romero (guitar), Seville Royal Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos (conductor). Naxos 8.557135. (74' 19"). 

The music of the Spanish composer, Lorenzo Palomo, continues where Rodrigo left off, adding a few modern sounds that bring a new slant to the influences of local folk music. Andalusian Nocturnes is in essence a guitar concerto in the rather unusual shape of six movements, the third acting as a scherzo, its overall character being of a light nature. The finale becomes an integral part of the score rather than the brilliant colours we may have expected. Highly attractive, pleasing to the ear, and with many moments of considerable beauty, the second movement, with its flute solo, being especially attractive. It does not offer the soloist space for showmanship, but requires very nimble fingers and a willingness to melt into the orchestral colours. The Spanish Songs obviously take their inspiration from Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, and are equally engaging, the sophisticated folksy atmosphere, with hints of flamenco, falling easily on the ear. They began life for voice and piano and premiered by Montserrat Caballe in New York in 1987 to considerable acclaim. The composer returned to the concept in1992 with another set of six songs, the two combined in an orchestrated version first heard in 1996. To have three legendary names performing the works give the recording its final stamp of approval. It was Palomo's friendship with the Romero family that brought about Andalusian Nocturnes, Pepe giving the world premiere in 1996. His playing here is fabulous, right in the centre of every note, and when required providing nimbleness that makes light of difficulties. One of Spain's greatest divas, Maria Bayo, provides as totally idiomatic quality, and together with the veteran Spanish maestro, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, every nuance is effortlessly drawn from the series of songs. Very good orchestra, very fine sound, and a disc guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

SEIXAS: Harpsichord Sonatas No. 36 in E minor; No. 19 in D major; No. 18 in C minor; No. 34 in E major; No. 44 in F minor; No. 43 in F minor; No. 24 in D minor; No. 27 in D minor; No. 42 in F minor; No. 37 in E minor; No. 57 in A major; No. 10 in C major; No. 50 in G minor. Debora Halasz (harpsichord). Naxos 8.557459. (71' 02"). 

The sizeable output of works compiled in the brief life of the Portuguese composer, Carlos de Seixas, was largely destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. What did survive, and often of questionable authenticity, included copies of 80 solo sonatas for harpsichord. Born in 1704 he was to take the major position of organist at the Royal Court while only sixteen. His life shared the period with Dominco Scarlatti, and there appears to have been some cross-fertilisation of ideas and style, though Seixas's thirty-eight years was long outlived by Scarlatti. In turn it is Seixas that we find in the music of the Spanish composer, Antonio Soler, their preference to compose both short one-movement sonatas alongside more extensive multi-movement scores giving considerable scope and variance to their works. There is also a similar love of big dramatic gestures that plays to the sheer bravura of the performer - as you will hear in the thirty-sixth sonata that opens the disc. It also allowed moments in which to relax in gentle Minuets that were Seixas's preferred partner to the vivid and fast companion movements. As with Gilbert Rowland's ongoing set of Soler sonatas, Debora Halasz does not play the works in numerical order, but builds up a well-judged juxtaposition of his scores. Her playing is high on impact; her instrument able to despatch quick and forceful music, and if at times she is tempted to embark on tempos that are adventurous even for her dexterity, better that than a cautious approach unsuited to the composer. For a sample of her brilliance go to track 3, the opening allegro of the 19th sonata, the pounding rhythm building the sheer power of her playing. With only a few Seixas sonatas on disc, the remainder is anxiously awaited.

HENZE: Royal Winter Music. Three Fragments from Holderlin. Drei Tentos. Monologues and Dialogues. Neue Volkslieder und Hirtengesange. Franz Halasz (guitar), Colin Balzer (tenor), Debora Halasz (piano), Gottfried Schneider (violin), Sophia Reuter (viola), Sebastian Hess (cello), Karsten Nagel (bassoon). Naxos 8.557344. (59' 54"). 

Once considered at the cutting edge of contemporary music, we can look back at much written by Hans Werner Henze and wonder why traditionalists were so outraged. That is particularly true when listening to this disc featuring the guitar. Often gentle and easing away from atonality, we pass through musical pictures of Shakespeare characters in the Royal Winter Music to the Three fragments from the Kammermusik, Holderlin, for tenor and guitar, a score that rather reminds you of Benjamin Britten. They are sung here by the warm and beautifully focused tenor voice of Colin Balzer. Tonality and atonality become intertwined in Monalogues and Dialogues where the guitar is joined by the piano and strings. Seven New Folksongs continue this marriage of old and new, Austrian peasant songs fashioned as part of a new contemporary world. Much of the music is new to me, the performances having a stamp of authority with much virtuosity along the way from Franz Halasz, a guitarist who has my admiration in keeping left-hand finger noise to a minimum. There is much fine playing elsewhere, Karsten Nagel requiring a special mention, the demands on the bassoon almost upstaging the guitar. Immaculately balanced sound.

PERSICHETTI: Divertimento for Band, Op. 42. Psalm for Band, Op. 53. Chorale Prelude: O God Unseen, Op. 160. Pageant, Op. 59. Masquerade for Band, Op. 102. O Cool is the Valley, Op. 118. Parable for Band, Op. 121 (Poem for Band). Winds of the London Symphony Orchestra, David Amos (conductor). Naxos 8.570123. (74' 31") 

Born in Philadelphia in 1915, Vincent Persichetti's musical studies included composition with Roy Harris and conducting with Fritz Reiner. Much of his life has been spent in education having held major posts at many of the top colleges in the States. As a composer he has not followed the latest trends but has remained tonally based, his range of commissions taking him into many fields, his catalogue of works including a number for Wind Band. I first encountered this release when it appeared on the Harmonia Mundi label towards the end of 1994 and was so struck by the readily approachable music that I decided I needed to find out more about Vincent Persichetti. Record companies have not proved helpful with new releases, this disc being one of the few available on international release. Throughout it is a disc that will bring a smile to your face, the music falling into the Copland era of American music where folk rhythms are put to good use. The scoring is resourceful, the colours spread from the muted shades in Psalm through the boisterous Pageant to the whimsical Masquerade. The surprise will come with the final track, the Parable for Band composed in 1972, where the composer moves to a modern idiom, often discordant and hard-hitting. But if you want a general taste of the disc, I would point you to Masquerade (track 5) the instruments called upon for a show of individual brilliance. The playing of the LSO is superb, with a recording to match.

STANFORD: Justorum animae, Op.38 No.1. HOWELLS: Magnificat. PURCELL: O God, Thou art my God. MENDELSSOHN: Hear My Ptayer. FAURE: Cantique de Jean Racine, Op.11. DURUFLE: Four Motets on Gregorian Themes, Op 10 No.1. Ubi caritas et amor. FINZI: God is gone up, Op. 27, No.2. BAINTON: And I saw a new Heaven. PURCELL: Remember not, O Lord. MOZART: Vesperae solennes de Confessore, K 339 - Laudate Dominum. LOTTI: Crucifixus. DALEY: Requiem - In Remembrance. CHATMAN: Remember. ELGAR: Lux aeterna. FRANCK: Panis angelicus. Karina Gauvin (soprano), Matthew Larkin (organ), Choir of St. John's, Elora, Noel Edison (conductor). Naxos 8.557493. (69' 17"). 

The smooth sound in a warm acoustic that we have come to expect from Elora is here put to the service of a mixed programme of sacred music. I do miss that the keen edge now much in fashion in performances of British church music, the pungency of the high voices - you cannot here quite tell whether they are boys or female sopranos - is missing. It will also come as something of a surprise to have the whole of Hear My Prayer in a quite dramatic account, rather than the main melody. Here and in Laudate Dominum Karin Gauvin's singing is very beautiful, the slides to notes in the Mozart being just a little naughty. The disc is obviously aimed at a wide international market and we can admire the excellent intonation, the beautiful sound produced, and the ideal balance Noel Edison has achieved between the voices. In the more outgoing pieces, the choir can produce some exciting results, God is Gone Up being a particularly enjoyable track.

VERDI: Nabucco - Tu sul labbro dei veggenti; Et toi, Palerme. Jerusalem - Grace mon Dieu! Macbeth - Come dal ciel precipita. Simon Boccanegra - Il lacerato spirito. Don Carlos - Ella giammai m'amo. TCHAIKOVSKY: Eugene Onegin - Lyubvi vse vozrasty pokorny (Gremin's aria). ROSSINI: Il barbiere di Siviglia - La calunnia. BELLINI: La Sonnambula - Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni. GOUNOD: Faust - Vous qui faites l'endormie (Serenade). MASSENET: Le Cid - Il a fait noblement ce que l'honneur conseille. PONCHELLI: Ombre di mia prosapia. Hao Jiang Tian (bass), Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Rahbari (conductor). Naxos 8.557442. (59' 37"). 

A regular at New York's Metropolitan Opera since 1991, the Chinese-born Hao Jiang Tian is here making his debut solo disc in a programme featuring some of the most popular bass arias. It is a voice that moves easily and is happy in those lyric moments that do not require the darker shades of the bass voice. Insinuation is used where those who follow the Russian school of singing often employ melodramatic excess. His Nabucco excerpts show to good advantage his use of words to characterise the role, the music falling into the most satisfying part of his voice. Maybe not born to sing Prince Gremin in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, I wish the disc would have shown Tian in more of the comic characters of the bass repertoire, Rossini springing to mind after his nicely etched aria from the Barber of Seville. The Slovak orchestra provides an unfussy backdrop, Rahbari moulding tempos around the singer.

DONIZETTI: :Amore e morte. Ah, rammenta, o bella Irene. Una lagrima. La mere et l’enfant. Amor marinaro. E morta. Su l’onda tremola. L’amor funesto. Giuro d’amore. Il sospiro. La ninna-nanna. Le crepuscule. La lontananza. L’amor mio. La sultana. Il pescatore. Dennis O’Neill (tenor), Ingrid Surgenor (piano). Naxos 8.557780. (67' 04"). 

Born in Bergamo, Italy, in 1797, Gaetano Donizetti, was to become the most prolific opera composer of his day, and on his death fifty-one years later he had written 65 stage works. He had so dominated in his native land that during his later life one in every four operas performed in Italy was by Donizetti. From impoverished parents, he accepted every commission offered to support himself and his family. This led to a prolific output in many fields apart from opera, his catalogue of songs spread throughout much of his career. It was to be his operatic background that ran through most of them, and you could easily interpolate E morte into any of his dramatic scores to good effect. His texts did allow him to compose on a wide range of subjects, Dennis O'Neill devising a nicely balanced programme, some lightweight songs spacing those of more serious intent. Technically they are often very challenging and call for fast florid decoration. O'Neill is the nearest thing to an Italian tenor the UK has produced for many years, and sings with a nice idiomatic tone though unable to disguise the fact that the songs tax him. Ingrid Surgenor offers reliable and sympathetic accompaniment. The recording enjoyed a brief life on the ill-fated Collins catalogue. 

CHOPIN: Nocturne, Op. 55, No. 2. KREIN: Dance No. 4. FOSTER: Jeanie with the light brown hair. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Flight of the bumble-bee. GLUCK: Dance of the Blessed Spirits. PROKOFIEV: March from The Love for Three Oranges. Masks from Romeo and Juliet. DEBUSSY: Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune. Golliwogg's Cake Walk. CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO: Tango. TRAD: Deep River. STRAUSS: Along the Silent Forest Path, Op.9 No.1. VALE: Preludio XV. ALBENIZ: Sevilla. DINICU: Hora Staccato. DOHNANYI: Suite in F minor, Op. 19 - Romanza. PONCE: Estrellita. GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess - A Woman is a sometime thing. Su Yeon Lee (violin), Michael Chertock (piano). Naxos 8.557670. (57' 38"). 

The disc carries the title 'Heifetz Transcriptions', the great violinist, Jascha Heifetz, having lived through that era when touring virtuosos had to have a whole portfolio of encore lollipops to keep their audiences happy. Many came up with the idea of either composing their own or making arrangements that would titillate, Heifetz's arrangements providing a whole range as the occasion demanded. Of course he did not make them all into showpieces that would only excite the listener or his recitals would never end. So we have all levels of stimulation, from the death-defying Flight of the bumble-bee to the quiet repose of Debussy's Prelude. The Korean violinist, Su Yeon Lee, knows how to put them across, often sliding tastefully to notes, and relaxed at the appropriate moments. When technique is required it is there for the taking, though I welcome her reluctance to simply make these into empty showpieces. Indeed I think she gives many of them more characterful performances than their creator, and if Deep River becomes too sentimental, she does elsewhere show admirable restraint in this mode. Heifetz kept his accompanist out of the limelight, their main purpose being to provide the backdrop. Sound quality from the Recital Hall at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music is adequately pleasing.

EL-KHOURY: Dance of the Eagles, Op. 9. Requiem for Orchestra. The Gods of the Earth, Op. 26. Night and the Fool, Op. 29. Symphonic Poem No. 1 ‘Lebanon in Flames’, Op. 14. Symphonic Poem Op. 2 ‘The Contemplation of Christ’. Orchestre Colonne, Pierre Dervaux (conductor). Naxos 8.557691. (76' 39"). 

Bechara El-Khoury was born in Beirut in 1957 and completed his musical studies in France, later taking French nationality. Working as a pianist, conductor and journalist, El-Khoury has also created an extensive catalogue of music in a very personal tonal idiom, including many major orchestral scores. I first came into contact with his music in December 2002 when Naxos issued a most interesting disc of his symphonic works. He is a composer who works first and foremost with orchestral colours, capturing our attention with unusual sonorities, the opening Danse pour orchestre a short and brilliant score. Melodic invention floods into his scores and is almost tossed aside to make room for the next idea. Much of the disc is in a serious guise with the most extensive score coming in Lebanon in Flames, part of a triptych of works recalling of the outbreak of civil war in his native country. The remaining section comes in the moving Requiem for Orchestra, the dull beat of death opening a sombre and forceful score. At times you are reminded of the best music from the cinema, the very graphic music painted in graphic colours. I do not know when this disc was made, as Pierre Dervaux, a champion of the composer, died some years ago, El-Khoury composing Harmonies crepusculaires in his memory. The playing if the Orchestre Colonne is enjoyable but the music was obviously not in their repertoire. Sound quality is dated but quite good.

COATES: Symphonies Nos. 1, 7 and 14. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Olaf Henzold (conductor); Munich Chamber Orchestra, Christoph Poppen (conductor); Siegerland Orchestra, Jorg Rotter (conductor). Naxos 8.559289 (65' 49"). 

Regular readers will recall that I have rather mixed feelings towards Gloria Coates, the American composer who was born in Wisconsin in 1938, but since 1969 has spent much of her life working in Europe. She has developed a style of musical fluidity where sounds flow in long slurred passages, these necessitating much of her symphonies relying on the orchestra's string sections. When she does introduce other instruments the results are often dramatic, as in the timpani at the end of the first movement of the Fourteenth symphony. At times her music depends on abstract atonalism, but in the Seventh symphony she uses musical pictures, the opening movement creating a very tangible creaking old windmill. You feel in the last movement of the First that the title Liberation only leads to the worrying conclusion of storm clouds on the horizon. I suppose the music has the advantage that you can read so many things into slithering sounds that usually move very slowly. At times the music does generate massive climatic moments, the second movement of the Seventh being openly aggressive. I first listened to the disc as a whole, but that was a mistake, and it is best to approach each work at different times, or they can all begin to sound very similar. The performances have that commitment new music needs, while the recordings offer good sound quality.

DRUCKMAN: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3. Reflections on the Nature of Water. Dark Wind. The Group for Contemporary Music. Naxos 8.559260. (66' 40"). 

I remember reviewing this disc eight years ago when it appeared on the Koch label, and enjoying the marimba piece, Reflections on the Nature of Water, but found the String Quartets rather tough going. Second time round I have just warmed a little more to the latter pieces, but they are not works you can love. Jacob Druckman was born in the United States in 1928 and became a composition pupil of Persichetti and Copland. His early career was in teaching while assembling a sizeable number of new works. More at home in chamber music, he has been a devoted modernist who has spent time working in the field of electronic music. In Druckman's quartets you feel every note has been important in their construction, with a fiercely analytical mind at work. The second quartet, in one continuous movement, dates from 1966, the third coming fifteen years later and is in the conventional three movements, the first two being in the form of variations. Where the Second is strictly atonal you feel at times Druckman was slipping into tonality as we progress through the Third's variations. Both scores are obviously difficult to play and the fact that Druckman - who died shortly after these recording session in 1996 - was present persuades me that they are suitably well played. The Reflections are very different, the six sections presenting fascinating pictures of water in its various modes, while Dark Wind for violin and cello is a short sound-picture far less thorny than the quartets. Reliable sound engineering.

GERMAN POPULAR SONGS OF THE 1930's: Including: Komm, Casanova; Liebling, mein Herz; Sag beim Abshied leise Servus; Heut Nacht ist mir; Der Geige Loebeslied; Irgendwo auf der Welt. Annette Postel (vocals), Salonorchester Schwanen, Georg Huber (conductor). Naxos 8.557768. (65' 43"). 

I am not quite sure how this one has crept into the Naxos catalogue, its nineteen popular songs from Germany in the 1930's played and sung by an ensemble you might well catch in a late night review. It is called Salon Orchestra Favourites Volume V and has the feel of decadence that could well have featured in the musical, Cabaret, the songs making that insidious passage into your memory that finds you walking around for days humming the melody. With that rather lazy voice that was in fashion at the time, Annette Postel was the ideal choice to pour pure seduction all over her songs, moving to a silvery voice for the fast numbers, the backing group allowed their solo spots to introduce vivacity in the programme. Featured are some of the best known light music composers of the time including Werner Richard Heymann, Gerhard Winkler and Peter Kreuder, and those with long memories will recall many of the tracks though their names are long forgotten. To sample try the disc's seduction in track 5, Du gehst durch all meine Traume, with its vocal backing group. A rather tight sound well suited to the musical content. 

STRAUSS II: Die Fledermaus: Nicolai Gedda (Eisenstein), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Rosalinde), Helmut Krebs (Alfred), Rita Streich (Adele), Karl Donch (Frank), Erich Kunz (Dr. Falke), Rudolf Christ (Prince Orlofsky),  Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, Herbert von Karajan (conductor). Naxos Historical 8.111036-37 (2CDs). (139' 44"). 

There has never been, and there is never likely to be, a more perfect cast as that assembled for this 1955 recording of Die Fledermaus with the Herbert von Karajan at the helm. It starts with the benefit of a young sounding Eisenstein who convinces that he is up for a good time; Schwarzkopf was in superb voice, suitably alluring in the mistaken identity of the second act, and the Adele of Rita Streich is pert, gorgeous and wickedly characterised. Add a suitably Italian sounding Helmut Krebs as the hopeful seducer and everything springs to life, as Karajan pushes forwards with tempos to keep the humour bubbling. We have become so used in various parts of the world to having Orlofsky taken by a female voice that Rudolf Christ's tenor will come as a surprise, but I was happy that he does not use its oft-employed exaggerations. The dialogue is also included, and it is thankfully in the same acoustic. But there is the one drawback for non-German speaking audiences - the last act spoken scene with Frosch, the gaoler, seems to go on and on, and he is not even remotely funny. Try to forget that, for the rest is pure gold, the sound coming up as bright as a new pin, with the superb orchestra nicely balanced into the proceedings. As additional tracks we have some vintage recordings of Die Fledermaus excerpts, including the end to act three with Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber heading the cast, and just for those few minutes you will hear the greatest operetta recording ever made.

STRAUSS: Four Last Songs. Arabella, Op. 79 - Act I: Ich danke, Fraulein; Welko, das Bild!; Mein Elemer!; Act II: Sie wollen mich heiraten; Ballroom Scene. Act III: Finale. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano/Arabella), Josef Metternich (Mandryka), Nicolai Gedda, Annie Felbermayer (Zdenka), Walter Berry (Lamoral), Harold Proglhof (Dominik), Murray Dickie (Elemer/Zimmerkeliner). Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Ackermann, Lovro von Matacic (conductors). Naxos Historical 8.111145. (76' 51"). 

Do not mistake this for the reissue of Schwarzkopf's Four Last Songs on EMI, where the coupling is arias from Capriccio and Arabella. This release includes the much more substantial and valuable excerpts from Arabella that originally occupied a complete LP and contains almost half of the opera. Those accustomed to present day performances of the Songs will be surprised at the urgency in the approach to the first three, a view shared by Lisa della Casa whose famed recording was issued at much the same time.  That in turn places heartbreaking sadness into the final song as Strauss took leave of the world. The great soprano was in silvery voice when she recorded the work, floating effortlessly to those long flowing passages. She had as the backdrop the Philharmonia in superb form, the subtle nuances captured in sound that has become dated. I must add that, unlike many present day performances, the songs are sung in the published order. It is something of an enigma why Columbia came so close to recording the complete Arabella only to leave us tantalisingly with these long excerpts. They even had most of the cast in the studio, though maybe the male singers did not quite measure up to the high standards the company set. By contrast the female roles were gorgeous, and under Matacic's guidance the orchestral playing is ideal. Among Strauss recordings this is one of the very great issues and I fervently recommend it to you. 

MENDELSSOHN: Auf Flugeln des Gesanges, Op.34, No.2. SCHUMANN: Schneeglockchen, Op.79, No.26. Der Nussbaum, Op.25, No.3. Er ist’s, Op.79, No.23. Auftrage, Op.77, No.5. Mondnacht, Op.39, No.5. Loreley, Op.53, No.2. Standchen, Op. 36, No.2. O ihr Herren, Op.37, No.3. Roselein, Roselein, Op.89 No.6. BRAHMS: Wiegenlied, Op.49, No.4. Vergebliches Standchen, Op.84, No.4. Nachtigall, Op.97, No.1. Der Jager, Op.95, No.4. Sandmannchen, Volks-Kinderlieder, No. 4. Der Tod, das ist die kuhle Nacht, Op.96, No.1. Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, Op.105 No.2. Das Madchen spricht, Op 107, No.3. Weigenlied, Op.49 No.4. Standchen, Op.106 No.1. Ruhe, Sussliebchen, Op.33, No.9. An eine Aolsharfe, Op.19 No.5. Bittes zu sagen denksr du, Op.32, No.7. Blind Khu, Op.58, No.1. Deutsche Volkslieder, Nos 2, 6, 15, 25, 33, 34 & 42. Elisabeth Schumann (soprano),  Gerald Moore (piano), George Reeves (piano), Karl Alwin (piano), Leo Rosenek (piano), Orchestra, Leo Rosenek (conductor), Walter Goehr (conductor). Naxos Historical 8.111099. (67' 50").

Few soprano voices have ever matched the elegance of Elizabeth Schumann, a singer who never needed to force a perfect projection that allowed her to move effortlessly around her range. In the world of lieder she will probably never be surpassed, those long sweeping phrases achieved with expert breath control. She perfected floated notes that singers of her generation used to such good effect, and even as she smooths out those long lyrical passages, she retained diction that today is becoming a lost art. I could eulogise at length on each song, but just go to track 6, Mondnacht, to hear characterisation perfectly matched to the sheer beauty of her singing. Maybe you could point at times to a more dramatic approach in other performances, but for a disc of incredible refinement this is unsurpassed. Accompaniments from a number of pianists are uniformly excellent, each informing the pieces with admirable musicianship. The sound is incredibly good for its 1930''s vintage, the material previously released on the Romophone label.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat major, K.271. BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15. LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, S.124, Walter Gieseking (piano), Berlin State Opera Orchestra, Hans Rosbaud (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Henry Wood (conductor). Naxos Historical 8.111111. (77' 55").

The Mozart performance jerks you back to the approach Mozart enjoyed in the first part of the last century. Not that Walter Gieseking's playing is other than suitably lightweight, but it is the feeling of thick textures both in his playing and that of the Berlin orchestra that today sound at odds with the music. Dynamics are often exaggerated and phrases are wrapped up in neat parcels rather than flowing into one another. I felt more at home with him when we reached Beethoven. There is nobility in the orchestral introduction, the piano decorating the melody on its first entry, with Gieseking's nimble approach just pushing the tempo into a faster mode as the opening movement progresses. In an era when 'patching' of recordings was an unknown commodity, the sheer accuracy and clarity of his playing is quite amazing. Just hearing the evenness and speed of trills is worth the price of the disc. Cool elegance takes over in the central movement, the finale avoiding the mad dash we often hear today, an element of good humor being introduced. The Liszt is full of electricity, Gieseking bristling with virtuosity, tempos quite quick. As the music hurries to the finishing line some smudges do occur, but it is still a fine and highly charged account. Dating from 1936, the Mozart sound is disappointing; the 1937 Beethoven amazing in its clarity, while the engineers even managed to catch the cymbals with clarity in the Liszt, which was almost impossible in 1932. Very good transfers. 

AITKEN: Maire, My Girl. SQUIRE: Like Stars Above. STERNDALE BENNETT: Take, O Take Those Lips Away. MARSHALL: A Child's Song. TROTERE: Asthore. LIDDLE: A Farewell. HERBERT: Natoma - My Commander as Envoy Bids Me Come. CLUTSOM: I Know of Two Bright Eyes (No. 4 from "Songs of the Turkish Hills"). MacMURROUGH: Eileen Aroon. TRAD: The Wearing of the Green. The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls. NEVIN: The Rosary. DANKS: Silver Threads Among the Gold. WOLF-FERRARI: I Gioielli Della Madonna - T'eri un giorna ammalato (with Louise Kirkby-Lunn, contralto). CADMAN: At Dawning, Op. 29 No.1. BOITO: Mefistofele - Dai campi, dai prati; Giunto sul passo. BIZET: Les Pecheurs de Perles - Mi par d'udir ancora. ADAMS: Nirvana. WALLACE: Maritana - There is a Flower That Bloometh. TOSTI: My Dreams. TUCKER: Sweet Genevieve. CLAY: I'll Sing Thee Songs of Araby. RUSSELL: Where the River Shannon Flows. John McCormack (tenor), Victor Orchestra, Victor Herbert (conductor); The Symphony Orchestra, Percy Pitt (conductor). Naxos Historical 8.110330. (77' 53"). 

John McCormack was born in Ireland in 1884 and was at first self-taught, but moved to Italy to seek further vocal training and was soon appearing on the provincial opera stage in Italy. Returning to the UK he became a favourite at London's Covent Garden before moving to America where he took up citizenship. He had a pure and lyric voice, but could never shake of that intrinsic quality of his birthplace that coloured everything he performed. He brought his stage career to an end in his mid-thirties, his opera acting ability being, by his own admission, quite dreadful. From therein he concentrated on concert appearances, his recordings of Irish traditional folk songs and English ballads bringing him popular acclaim. It is in that sphere, which dominates this release, I do loose interest, and mentally only turn back on again for his beautiful singing of the two Mefistofele arias and the delectable Bizet. But the disc is aimed at the nostalgia market, the transfers to CD being of high quality. Collectors may already have discovered the disc in its release on Romophone, and though I never heard that version, this may well be a re-mastering.

CHOPIN:Ballade No.3 in A flat, Op.47. Impromptu No.2 in F sharp, Op.36. Nocturne No.16 in E flat, Op.55, No.2. GAERTNER (arr FRIEDMAN): Viennese Dances Nos.2  & 6. WEBER: Invitation to the Dance, Op.65. MOSZKOWSI:  Serenata in D, Op.15. DVORAK: Humoreske in G flat, Op.101, No. 7. PADEREWSKI: Menuet in G, Op.14, No.1. RUBINSTEIN: Valse Caprice in E flat. SCHUBERT (arr.TAUSAG): Marche Militaire, Op.51, No.1. CHOPIN: Mazurka No.17 in B flat minor, Op.24, No.4. Mazurka No.25 in B minor, Op.33, No.4. Waltz No.9 in A flat, Op.69, No.1. SHIELD (arr. FRIEDMAN): Old English Menuet. Friedman speaks on Paderewski.. Ignaz Friedman (piano). Naxos Historical 8.111114. (70' 30") 

It would be easy to pour scorn over the excesses of Ignaz Friedman's performances, but these were the outgoing performances expected of touring virtuosos in the early 20th century. That Chopin came from deep inside him is evident in the opening passage of the third Ballade, but elsewhere the instinctive wilfulness of an exhibitionist takes over, crazily fast rhythms with which even his incredibly nimble fingers cannot handle hurtle towards the final bars. This rush to the finishing line was one of his failings, and at times phrases are thrown off as if he was extemporising. Yet at the other extreme there could never have been such a terrible performance of Marche Militaire. Of course today there would be retakes to remove the smudges, and we would be describing the sheer wizardry of his playing, and describe his playing of salon music as utterly delectable. As a sample go to track 9 for a charming account of Paderewski's Menuet. The present disc covers the recordings he made for English Columbia between 1933 and 1936, and in the heading I have shown three tracks of Chopin and one of Shield at the end, these being unissued on 78's. The disc ends with Friedman paying a tribute to his compatriot, Paderewski. The transfers are immaculate and at times they are so convincing the piano sounds more realistic than many recent recordings.