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Part 1 of 2  [Part 2]

ROSSINI: Stabat Mater – Netherlands Radio Choir with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly, Conductor – Decca 460 781-2:

Most of the Italian composers of the Nineteenth century were taught the tradition of sacred music from childhood. Although most chose to concentrate on opera for their mature compositions, Rossini (and Verdi, obviously) still had a love and longing to express himself musically on that which he was raised on. Thus we have the Stabat Mater, a glorious work that while, sacred in intention, is so filled with the orchestration and melody that Rossini gave to all his operatic compositions that any of the individual movements or arias could easily have been integrated into any of his operas.

Riccardo Chailly directs the forces here with aplomb, and the soloists acquit themselves gracefully on all arias. The recording is superb, and gives an excellent representation of the recorded acoustic with plenty of ambience (although the supplied booklet does not specify the recording location). The playing time is somewhat on the short side, but considering the unusual nature of the work in Rossini’s canon, what work would you pair it with? This is one of those Redbook CDs that is so excellent in its presentation that it blurs the line between CD and SACD. Very highly recommended. Purchase here

-- Tom Gibbs

RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F# Minor, Op. 1; Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 - Nikolai Lugansky, piano - Sakari Oramo conducts City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - Warner Classics 0927 47941-2 67:59 (Distrib. WEA):

There is no biographical information on this disc pertaining to our virtuoso Nikolai Lugansky, but his fingers make a convincing argument for the acquisition of his discs on the Erato label of music of Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Britten. I find his rendition of the Op. 1 Concerto more explosive than the more touted "Rach 3," but collectors can make their own decisions. In several respects Lugansky reminds me of the hard edged yet digitally accurate playing of Mikhail Pletnev. The lines in the F# Minor Concerto are brilliant and supple at once, with some dextrous filigree in the more punishing aspects of the work, like the 9/8 passage in the finale, which makes the most seasoned veterans wince. Anyone who plays the Rachmaninov Third Concerto must bear comparisons--often invidious--to the Horowitz inscriptions of this formidable work. Lugansky plays a version with a few judicious cuts, but the flow is solid and breadth sustained and executed with no sag. I just miss being really thrilled by this account, as I am still by the Mogilevsky-Kondrashin rendition, even after fifteeen years. That Lugansky understands Rachmaninov's idiom is unquestionable, and his innate lyricism and musicality suggest that a recording of the Paganini Rhapsody would be a good investment. Conductor Oramo, no less a newcomer to me, makes some positive moves, especially in the Op. 1, which in its ferocity and occasionally tender utterances, engaged my musical fancy. Purchase here

--Gary Lemco

Joshua Bell - "Romance of the Violin" = PUCCINI: O Mio Babbino Caro/DEBUSSY: Girl With the Flaxen Hair/CHOPIN: Nocturne in C# Minor/SAINT-SAENS: The Swan/SCHUBERT: Staenchen/BELLINI: Casta Diva/MOZART: andante from Piano Concerto No. 21/GLUCK: Dance of the blessed Spirits/BORODIN: Nocturne/DVORAK: Songs My Mother Taught Me/MONTEVERDI: Pur Ti Miro/MASSENET: Elegie/SCHUMANN: Traumerie - Joshua Bell, violin/Michael Stern conducts Academy of St. Martin in the Fields - Sony SK 87894 51:35:

After one of his concert appearances in Atlanta, I briefly spoke to Joshua Bell, suggesting he depart from standard violin fare and look at the unplayed Concerto in D by Reynaldo Hahn or perhaps the Martinu Concerto. He does sport a wonderful violin tone, and several of his chamber music inscriptions, like those he did for Musical Heritage Society, are of enduring, musical value. But when this disc arrived, some fifty-minutes-plus of musical saccharine packaged as high-art encores, I really felt my hackles rise. Maybe yuppies looking to get lucky on a romantic evening will treasure these morsels and opera-aria transcriptions, but please don't invite me over. To be trapped in an elevator with classical mus-ack is only a slippery step from my feelings about rap music. Keep the cellophane on this one. Purchase here

--Gary Lemco

ETHEL - Works of JOHN KING, PHIL KLINE, TODD REYNOLDS and EVAN ZIPORYN - CANTALOUPE CA21017:

Ethel is a New York City-based string quartet that strikes me as a sort of Kronos Quartet on speed. Why is it called Ethel? Don’ ask. Their CD booklet looks like a scribbled-out rough dummy for a real CD booklet and their actual CD is imprinted to look like a 5-inch sugared doughnut. I believe all four of the composers wrote their quartets with Ethel in mind. They use all the tricks and techniques of the Bang-on-a-Can NYC school, in spite of the rather tame movement titles of some of them - such as Kline’s The Blue Room and Other Stories: The River, March, The Blue Room, Tarantella. Composer/clarinetist Ziporyn joins the quartet in his composition, Be-In. Not my cup of chai but perhaps yours. Brash, up-close sonics. I’m going out for a doughnut now. Purchase here

- John Sunier

MICHAEL COLGRASS: Deja vu; Dream Dancer; GUNTHER SCHULLER: Symphony No. 3 “In Praise of Winds” - percussion soloists/Kenneth Radnofsky, sax/New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble/Charles Peltz - Mode 125:

Colgrass began his music career as a jazz drummer and many of his works involve percussion and a strong jazz influence. Deja vu is scored for a quartet of percussionists and a wind orchestra. There are a series of conversations between the two forces, often contrasting and combining their widely-separated timbres. Dream Dancer is for saxophone and wind orchestra; rather than jazz influences, the score delves into the musical styles of Arabia and the Asian pentatonic scale as well as western music. Schuller is a Renaissance man of music and has created his powerful Third Symphony for a large band of at least 104 members. Couched in a generally serialized structure, its second movement is surprisingly lyrical and melodic - dedicated to the late composer Alec Wilder. The Rondo Finale concludes with an approximation of big band music. Purchase here

- John Sunier


FRANK MARTIN: Mass for double choir; Passacaille for organ solo; ILDEBRANDO PIZZETTI: Messa di Requiem; De profundis - Choir of Westminster Cathedral/James O’Donnell, Master of Music & organist - Hyperion GAW21017:

The Special Limited Edition CD is part of a series of reissues of their Gramophone magazine Award Winners. The album was named Record of the Year in l998 and also Gramophone Critics’ Choice for Choral Music. Martin’s musical style - as carefully crafted as the workings of a fine Swiss watch - amalgamates Bach, the German Romantics, French Impressionists, and Italian Renaissance with Schoenberg’s serial system. In spite of the latter his vocal works often have beautiful melodies and harmonies. The 11-minute organ solo is a striking piece as well. Pizzetti also looked to the Italian masters but went back further to Gregorian Chant in his Requiem, which demonstrates the influence of the great Italian opera composers in its more tonal structure. This is one of the best choral recordings in the 44.1 format I have heard to date. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Some contrasting piano concertos up next...

The Romantic Piano Concerto Vol. 32 = MOSCHELES: Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 6 & 7 - Howard Shelley, piano & conductor/Tasmanian Sym. Orch. - Hyperion CDA67385:

Difficult to believe this praiseworthy series is already up to volume 32. At least one of the eight piano concertos by Ignaz Moscheles was recorded for Columbia by Raymond Lowenthal - I forget which one now. He was born in Prague but settled in Vienna and like Chopin his compositions primarily involved the piano. The First Concerto shows the influence of Mozart’s concertos, and is a joyful and happy sounding work which one writer characterized as “Haydn meets Rossini.” While most of his works show an experimental frame of mind, his final three piano concertos expanded the classical form into a very Romantic style. He even gave them the titles of Fantastique, Pathetique and Pastorale. Concerto No. 6 is written as a continuous work, often in a Beethoven/Mendelssohnian style. The Seventh Concerto is a most original work which shows some influence of the composer’s good friend Schumann. Its closing pages are a virtuoso whirlwind of note-spinning. Hyperion’s sonics are up to their usual high standards, with a more sensible balance of the piano sound with the orchestra than many such concerto recordings. Purchase here

SHEILA SILVER: Piano Concerto; Six Preludes on Poems by Baudelaire - Alexander Paley, piano/Lithuanian State Sym. Orch./Gintaras Rinkevicius - Naxos 21st Century Classics 8.557015:

A native of Seattle, Sheila Silver was born in l946 and has become an important voice in American concert music through her wide range of compositions. Her musical language mixes the tonal and atonal and is distinguished by interesting rhythmic complexities. Her piano concerto was conceived as a symphony with piano solo. A chant-like motif heard at the beginning returns throughout the piece’s three movements as a leitmotif. The third is the longest of the movements, running 21 minutes, and features an Hasidic melody which grows from a few notes in the right hand of the piano to overtake the entire orchestra in a wild dance. The Baudelaire based work was written while Silver was in residence at a composer’s foundation in France’s Provence region, on the shores of the Mediterranean. The poems speak of sail boats, walks in the forest, and exotic places, among other things, and seemed to provide a suitable stimulus for the piano pieces. Naxos’ low price gives you an attractive opportunity to discover this new music which may be right up your alley Purchase here

- John Sunier

SCRIABIN: Complete Mazurkas - Eric Le Van, piano - Music & Arts CD 1125:

This recording from the Bavarian Radio presents a pianist acclaimed for his Scriabin interpretations, the Opus 3, 25 and 40 Mazurkas of the great Romantic maximalist. While they mostly fall in the shadow of Chopin - though most skillfully - the final two from Op. 40 show in their slightly-over-one-minute lengths a hint of the super-colorful and magical ecstasy of Scriabin’s final multi-sensory orchestral works. Very clean and natural piano sonics. Purchase here

- John Sunier


RAMEAU: Complete Works for Harpsichord - Michel Kiener, clavecin - Harmonia mundi Spain - (2 CDs) HMI 987039.40:

The many suites and pieces for harpsichord of Rameau are gems of the French Baroque period. Running two-and-one-half hours on this pair of discs presented in a lovely fold-over package alternative to the jewel box (adorned with close-up photos of the harpsichord used), the works comprise basically five suites of short movements. The sections carry titles of familiar court dances of the period such as the allemande, courante, gigue, saraband, and menuet, along with fanciful names alluding to classical mythology or court happenings and descriptive titles of a more programmatic nature. Le Rappel des Oiseaux and Les Tendres Plaintes would be examples of the latter. The Premier Book of Pieces for the Clavecin dates from 1706, next are the two suites for Clavecin dated 1724, and lastly are the two New Suites of Pieces for the Clavecin of 1728. The note booklet has details on each and every selection. The harpsichord is copied after a French original of 1730 and is by famed instrument builder William Dowd. The instrument has a wonderful rich quality which is transmitted successfully by the recording. Both the performance and sonics clearly put in the shade an earlier set on this label of the complete Rameau keyboard works. Purchase here

- John Sunier

ANDRE MATHIEU: Concerto de Quebec; RICHARD ADDINSELL: Warsaw Concerto; GERSHWIN: Concerto in F - Alain Lefevre, piano/Quebec Symphony Orchestra/Yoav Talmi - Analekta AN 2 9814:

An interesting trio of concertos from Quebec’s leading orchestra. The first of the concertos will hold the most interest for most listeners since it is its first recording. Mathieu, who lived until l968, had been pronounced a genius by none other than Rachmaninoff, but was dealt with unkindly by fate. Also he studied composition in New York and in Paris with Honegger, he never advanced to writing successful large scale works - mostly just little piano pieces. His concerto, in the style of Rachmaninoff, shows many weaknesses. Pianist Lefevre says to think of it as an uncut diamond. Since Addinsell’s concerto created for the soundtrack of a British movie was deliberately intended to model Rachmaninoff, it’s a perfect choice for this program and fun to hear again. The Gershwin concerto is a much better-realized work than Rhapsody in Blue, and the Quebec forces give it a rousing treatment. But it still doesn’t match the best of the many other versions out there. (Of all versions, I’m very partial to Mitch Miller’s on Arabesque.) Purchase either here

- John Sunier

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