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45 SACD & DVD-A Reviews This Month
December 2004 - Part 2 of 3 - Classical (beg.)
[Part 1]    [Part 3]

  Click on Any Cover to Go Directly to Review

Byron Janis plays Rachmaninoff Con. 2 & 3 Respighi Ancient Dances and Airs Suppe & Auber Overtures Stravinsky: Firebird
Bach: 6 Cellos Suites - Starker Tchaik.: Piano Con. 1 - Van Cliburn Richard Strauss in Hi-Fi Bortnyansky Italian works
Taneyev: Cantata No. 2 Glinka: Russlan and Ludmila Sequentia - Lost Harper Tietz orchestral works, SACD
Conductors' transcriptions of Bach Bridge: Chamber Works, SACD Baroque Recorder Concerti Zemlinsky: Symphony

Since the first five of the new Mercury Living Presence three-channel SACDs are now available everywhere and the next five have been released but not yet received here, I’d like to update readers on this unusual hi-res reissue event. The general idea here is that this hi-res reissue project turned out much better than the RCA Living Stereo one, but the discs sell for the full price rather than the mid-price point of the RCAs.

Part of the reason for the terrific sonics of the new hi-res Merc might be that though - as with the Living Stereos - they were not played back on the original Ampex machines with tubed electronics, the German engineers used one of Wilma Cozart Fine’s own Ampexes for constant comparison and mixing. And they really used their ears, because these transfers are nothing but superb.


Byron Janis in Rachmaninoff Concertos 2 & 3RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3; Preludes in E flat and C sharp minor - Byron Janis/Minneapolis Symphony/London Symphony/Antal Dorati - Mercury 3-channel 470 639-2, 75:18 *****:

I’ll start with the best of the bunch so far - the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3 with Byron Janis, and Antal Dorati conducting the London and Minneapolis Symphonies. Though one of the other Byron Janis Mercuries utilized their 35mm film recording technique, this one used tape, but it is probably the most exciting version both sonically and performance-wise one could possibly expect of both concertos. I had two other SACDs of the Third Concerto plus two of the Second. Volodos brought in a very exciting and virtuosic performance of the Third on a Sony Classical stereo SACD, but the sound was quite distant and way too wide a spread of the piano sound - in fact it sounds like two pianos, and there is no middle to the soundstage at all.

Stephen Hough on a new Hyperion set of all four Rachmaninoff concertos spent time studying the composer’s own recorded performances of all four concertos, and pulls out all the tricks of Late Romantic-style pianistic fireworks in his well-recorded SACD set. [Complete review below] But the sonics are a bit distant and even though these live concerto recordings with the Dallas Symphony do sound more Rachmaninoffy than most, they lack the center channel of the Mercuries - being 4.0 channel - are just plain less exciting than the Byron Janis sides.

Mercury did all of their recordings with three channels and three mics, mixing the center channel equally to the left and right channels for the LP mastering. The hi-res multichannel formats allow for the first time for such master recordings to be heard the way they originally were heard in the studio. The CD layer on all these hybrid SACDs contains the two-channel mixes carefully created for CD reissue in the early l990s by Wilma Cozart Fine. To my ears they sound identical to the CD-only versions - neither better nor worse. But they never matched the sonics of the original Mercury LPs, being harder and more forward sounding and with that digital edginess. The stereo SACD layer is a great improvement, with a warmer and more analog-sounding mix that retains the clarity and impact of the originals. However, the center of the orchestra lacks definition behind the piano and the piano itself sounds far too wide. It is the three-channel playback (if you have a center channel that matches up usefully with your L & R frontal speakers) that really demonstrates the impact of these wonderful recordings. (Another online publication has scooped me on reviewing these, but the writer had no center speaker and reviewed only the stereo mixes, which seems rather beside the point.)

Janis’ piano as well as the orchestra is more in your face, but both the performance and sonics are so exciting that you won’t want to move back. The piano still sounds mighty big but it is centered on the very wide soundstage and both it and the orchestra itself benefits from a very open and transparent sound that is nothing short of breathtaking. There is more depth than with the two-channel version. You can dive into the super-emotional music, air-conduct, dance or whatever you want to do; this recording almost demands interactivity! Both the solo instrument and the orchestral sounds are almost holographic in the three-channel version. The hiss level is very low because Mercury tended to cram as much level as technically possible onto the tape in this pre-Dolby -A era. This has got to be the hands-down winner in the “Battle of the Rach Bands.”

The overly-familiar Second Concerto provided an interesting A/B comparison of the Mercs with the Living Stereo SACDs (“2 Rach 2s in 3 Channels”). Van Cliburn is heard in the work on the RCA 3-channel reissue, along with the Tchaikovsky First Concerto. Both display similar wide stereo soundstages in three channels, with solid placement of the piano in the center, and considerable depth to the orchestral sound. The two performers’ styles are strikingly similar and the sound is quite transparent - though more so on the Mercury. However, the Living Stereo has noticeable distortion, especially in the right channel in the string section of the orchestra. Cliburn’s piano tone is more clanky and tinkly and lacks the rich low-end foundation heard in Janis’ piano.

Respighi Ancient Dances & AirsRESPIGHI: Ancient Dances and Airs or Lute Suites 1, 2 & 3 - Dorati - Mercury 3-channel 470 637-2, 54:32 *****:

Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances Suites, with Antal Dorati conducting the Philharmonia Hungarica, was one of my favorites on Mercury vinyl. I was unable to put my finger on the vinyl for an A/B just now but I couldn’t be happier with the exquisite detail and fine textures of the string sounds of the SACD, especially when they are plucked. Not a hint of string digititus here! The orchestra has more depth and richness in three channels, though the improvement is more subtle than the jump from standard CD to stereo SACD. Most prominent was the increase in low bass support in the three channel, giving a richer sound to the orchestra. The pizzacatto section at the beginning of Track 3 is glorious, giving a real image of string players in the orchestra. The CD layer had the same sort of harsh and strained sound as the original CDs and the strings were afflicted by digititus. The whole was flat-sounding at 44.1. The SACD stereo option provided an improvement in clarity, much better string tone and more separation of the different sections of the orchestra and instruments withint the sections. Altogether more “musical.”

Suppe & Auber OverturesSUPPE: The Beautiful Galatea; Pique Dame; Light Davalry; Poet & Peasant; Morning Noon and Night in Vienna; Boccaccio; AUBER: The Bronze Horse; Fra Diavolo; Masaniello - Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Paray - Mercury 3-channel 470 638-2, 65:44 *****:

The Paul Paray collection of Overtures by Franz Suppe looks like the sort of thing that might be a complete bore on a standard CD, but this thrilling three-channel SACD will get your circulation going and make you feel like there’s some sort of celebration going on even when there isn’t. The dynamic range is wide and the transient impact of some of the music is really something to hear. There are six Suppe overtures plus three from Auber, and the Detroit Symphony turns in sparkling performances of every one. Most entertaining listening and highly recommended.

Stravinsky: Firebird etc.STRAVINSKY: The Firebird (complete); Fireworks; Song of the Nightingale; Tango, Scherzo a la russe - Mercury 3-channel SACD 470 643-2, 74:07 *****:

Dorati conducts the London Symphony in the complete Firebird Ballet of Stravinsky, along with the Song of the Nightingale and three Stravinsky encores. This is another winner in the three-channel form. The spread, depth and sense of envelopment from the orchestra is such that one doesn’t miss the surround channels at all (though I have occasionally wished there was a way to feed the L & R channels thru the Dolby Pro Logic II decoder and channel it only to the surrounds). There is a lot going on in these works and the great resolution of detail in the orchestra is very important in sorting out the complexities. Even in big climaxes there is no straining, as I used to sometimes hear on the original Mercury LPs (but perhaps that was due to the cartridges available back then lacking the accuracy of today’s high end cartridges).

Bach Cello Suites - Janos StarkerBACH: Suites for Solo Cello; Sonatas in G & D - Starker/Gyorgy Sebok, piano - Mercury 3-channel SACD 470 644-2 (2 discs). 139:36 *****:

Famed cellist Janos Starker has recorded the six complete Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello several times, but this version for Mercury Living Presence has to be not only his best-recorded but perhaps the best-recorded from any cellist. The towering version by Pablo Casals from 1930s 78s remains a super classic - especially in the amazing restoration using the CEDAR system on Grammofono 2000, AB78627/28 - and I won’t be getting rid of it. But Starker has a more modern style, informed by more recent musicological research, but certainly not bereft of emotional communication.

I remember how early in the stereo era many recordings of solo instruments such as piano remained mastered in mono while orchestral recordings were stereo. It was felt that a single instrument did not benefit from two-channel reproduction. Well, that was obviously wrong, and three channels is obviously even better than two. The fantastic variety of musical textures realized by this single instrument are communicated with a great presence full of impact and with plenty of air around the sound source. The cello is most music listeners’ favorite instrument but even if it isn’t yours, get this magnificent double SACD (which sells for the price of a single disc).

- John Sunier

In addition to the first of the Mercury 3-channel SACD, we have another couple of the RCA Living Stereo 3-channel reissues to add this month, as well as some interesting qoutes about a much earlier proposed consumer 3-channel format in the mid-50.

Tchaikovsky: Piano Con. No. 1, CliburnTCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat - Van Cliburn/RCA Symphony/Kiril Kondrashin; RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor - Van Cliburn/Chicago Symphony Orch./Fritz Reiner - RCA Red Seal Living Stereo 3-channel SACD 82876-61392-2, 69:02 ***:

Like most of the Living Stereo SACDs, this one pairs up the contents of two former LPs onto a single disc. The Tchaikovsky was the first recording to go platinum in classical music - recorded during the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 at the height of the Cold War. The l962 taping of the chestnut Rachmaninoff concerto with Reiner pulls out all the super-Romantic qualities built into the score, but being Reiner it doesn’t seem corny in the least.

The stereo stage is extremely wide compared to the two-channel option, with solid placement of the piano in the center and good depth to the orchestra. Cliburn’s style is quite similar to Byron Janis on the Mercury 3-channel disc reviewed above. But the Living Stereo had some noticeable distortion in the strings, Cliburn’s piano is more clanky and tinkly-sounding, and the extreme low end is not as strong. I still have the original LP of the Tchaikovsky but time didn’t permit doing an A/B at the moment.

- John Sunier

Richard Strauss in Hi-Fi“RICHARD STRAUSS in High Fidelity” - Also sprach Zarathustra; Ein Heldenleben - Chicago Symphony/Fritz Reiner - RCA Victor Living Stereo two-channel 82876-61389-2, 75:40 ****:

This may be the classical equivalent of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, in having been reissued in every imaginable format so audiophiles could purchase it again and again. I even have a Mobile Fidelity cassette of Also sprach. BMG missed an obvious opportunity here since neither of these blockbuster Strauss extravaganzas were recorded in three-channel: they made both the surround layer and stereo layer the same identical two-channel transfers. They could have added just a subtle amount of L - R and a slight delay to the surround channels for a somewhat more enveloping listening experience. In fact, I wish all the 3-channel Mercuries and RCAs did that - without impinging on the frontal channels. Then users could either turn off the surrounds or employ them, to taste.

These 1954 recordings still sound pretty good, and nobody has wrung the impressive orchestral fireworks out of these pieces as has Reiner. The opening deep organ pedal tone is always a good test of deepest low end reproduction. There is some hardness on the string tone. They certainly sound superior to any previous CD incarnations, but don’t surpass the naturalness and “air” around the instruments provided by even the Classic Records vinyl reissues on a quality turntable, and if I had the original LPs around I’m sure they would rate even higher.

- John Sunier

In 1956 Bert Whyte - known for his engineering of the Everest audiophile recordings - wrote a series of articles on three-channel recordings for Radio-TV News magazine. The first covered the “live or recorded” performance given by the San Francisco Symphony using a three-channel half-inch-tape Ampex deck and three Voice of the Theater speakers at the back of the auditorium stage. The second reported on a visit to Mercury Records in New York City and a demonstration of some of their three-channel masters on half-inch tape.

Whyte enthused, “The most startling aspect...was the infinitely greater sharpness and delineation of the inner orchestral details. This was quite unbelievable and I heard things on the tape that were but tenuous hints on the discs. String tone? You’ve never heard anything like this! Even in the highest registers of the first violins there was no screech, no eardrum-piercing edginess - rather there was a smoothness only previously encountered in the confines of the concert hall. The richness of the second strings, the mellow throb of the celli, the dark sonority of the contrabass, all were vibrantly alive with realism...With 3-channel stereo, brass sonotities are breathtaking. Trumpets have a clean brightness equaled only th the real thing. And with this brightness there is a roundness and fullness of tone, a sense of swelling power not found on discs or on regular tape either...The woodwinds are quite extraordinary...The characteristic breathiness of the flute and piccolo is almost palpable in its liveness and realism. Vibrato is noted to a much greater degree than on the other media. The clarinet, bassoon, oboe, English horn, are heard with exceptional purity of tone.”

Whyte goes on to describe the fantastic directionality of what he begins to call “tristereo,” and says he was surprised at the degree of superiority over two channel stereo. He found it unneccessary to stay in a circumscribed sweet spot, and found it best of all that there was no longer any hole-in-the-middle evident. Next he predicts “here is the thing that is going to stagger you!” And describes how Mercury has been recording everything in 3-channel stereo “with the intent and purpose of releasing recorded tapes for public consumption! No, I’m not kidding you... it’s a fact!”

We we all know that exciting prospect was in fact never realized.. . Until now - 48 years later.

Bortnyansky: The Italian Album - SACDBORTNYANSKY: The Italian Album – Galina Knysh, soprano; Elena Pozjidaeva, alto; Anton Vassiliev, baritone – members of the Russian Patriarchate Choir and the Moscow Boys Cappella – Pratum Integrum Orchestra / Pavel Serbin, Artistic Director – Caro Mitis CM 0042003 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 55 minutes *****:

Dmitry Bortnyansky is almost exclusively known as the father of the Russian Orthodox liturgical choral tradition (for a truly superb cross-section of that work, get the excellent Powers of Heaven SACD on Harmonia Mundi – very highly recommended). His combined output exclusive of his liturgical works totaled more than 200 other compositions, including operas, concertos, sonatas and symphonies. Manuscripts for most of these are lost, and the remaining works in general have been largely forgotten, with only fragments of his five operas and various motets remaining.

Bortnyansky showed great promise as a youthful choirboy in the court of Catherine the Great, and the Italian composer Galuppi (also a member of Catherine's court) begged to be allowed to take him to Venice for further education. The selections on this excellent disc are taken from his output during that period, hence the name, "The Italian Album."

Although all of the selections are performed on period instruments, there's none of the harshness or "thinness" sometimes associated with historical performances. The vocalists are superb; soprano Galina Knysh, who most often gets the spotlight, has a purity of tone and range that are equally impressive and thrilling to hear – she hits the really extended notes effortlessly. Most of the works here have a real chamber feel to them, but when the combined forces of choirs, orchestra and soloists join together on the finale, it's both passionate and majestic. As with the Bach disc noted above, every aspect of the sound presentation is superb, and bodes well for Caro Mitis. Very highly recommended.

-- Tom Gibbs

Taneyev: Cantata No. 2TANEYEV: Cantata No. 2, Op. 36 "At the Reading of a Psalm" - Lolita Seminenina, soprano; Marianna Tarassova, alto; Mikhail Gubsky, tenor; Andrei Buturkin, bass/ Mikhail Pletnev conducts St. Petersburg State Academic Capella Choir, Boys Choir of the Glinka Choral College, and the Russian National Orchestra - PentaTone SACD 5186 038 (Hybrid multichannel) 69:01****:

The last published work of composer Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915), this massive, contrapuntal, choral/orchestral composition (1914-1915) is an anomaly among the Russians since religious cantatas, even oratorios, are quite rare. The Russians tended to direct their national idealism into opera, while their liturgical impulses found their way into vespers or pieces conceived for orthodox personae, like St. John Chrysostom. Taneyev, an acolyte of Tchaikovsky with a penchant for counterpoint, wished to fuse his polyphony to Russian folk song and sacred hymns. The influence of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis factors powerfully, but so too does Mendelssohn’s fiery cantata, The First Walpurgis Night. Taneyev took his libretto from a poem by Khomyakov, a meditation pursuant to a reading of Psalm 50. God appears in a storm admonishing his people for making burnt offerings without the attendant faith and the keeping of His commandments. Only purity of heart in the rendering of brotherly love suffices to please God.

While the text alternates between God’s grandeur and man’s moral responsibility, the music becomes alternately complex with double and triple fugues and then lyrically tender and intimate. We can hear allusions to Beethoven’s use of triple meter (Dona nobis pacem) and to the solo violin of the Benedictus from the Missa Solemnis. God rejects the three gifts of gold, incense, and fire in appropriately chromatic terms. The high tessitura for soprano and tenor, along with the solo violin, seem to proclaim he human longing for God’s grace, for the release of divinity within the human heart. The Interlude to the Third Movement is most Mendelssohnian, even Scriabinesque, with some virtuoso writing for the woodwinds. Conductor Pletnev, who has a series of fine credits with the Russian National Orchestra in purely symphonic work, provides plenty of firepower
--Gary Lemco

Glinka: Russlan and LyudmilaGLINKA: Ruslan and Lyudmila – Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre Moscow / Alexander Vedernikov, Conductor – Pentatone PTC 5186 034 – 3 Multichannel Hybrid SACDs – 204 minutes *:

This set is extremely problematic right out of the gate; unfortunately, this is becoming pretty much par for the course for Pentatone, whose offerings are alternately either to die for, or abysmally bad. At least this new recording of Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila falls somewhere in the middle – artistically, there's much to enjoy here, but only when the frequently horrid recording allows. For this to be a pure DSD recording, it offers some of the most congested, range-restricted, compressed and lifeless music to be heard on any SACD.

Know how some recordings are described as very "left-right" sounding? Well, this one is very "front-back" sounding (when listened to via the multichannel layer). There's very little cohesion to the orchestra's sound, almost as though there's a massive time delay between the front and rear channels – at no point during the recording are we given any kind of illusion that this is a real orchestra playing in a real acoustic space. When the soloists begin to appear, things get really screwy, because the playback levels for the soloists badly match those set for the orchestra – I don't know if this was a miking problem or is inherent to the Bolshoi Theatre. However, set playback levels for the orchestra appropriately, and the soloists sound really distant; set the levels for the soloists correctly, and the orchestra just about blows you away! Which is a real shame, because some of the singing is exceptionally good, especially soprano Ekaterina Morozova, who is excellent as Lyudmila with superb voice and intonation. Switching to the stereo layer helped ameliorate the surround discontinuity found on the multichannel layer, but didn't do much with the overall level-matching problems. I'd pass on this one.

- Tom Gibbs

Lost Songs of a Harper, SACDLost Songs of a Rhineland Harper – Sequentia / Benjamin Bagby, Director – Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 82876 58939 2 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 75 minutes ****:

This excellent disc from the early music ensemble Sequentia explores medieval secular music (ca. 1050 AD) from the Cambridge manuscript known as the Carmina Cantabrigiensia. Although the original sources for the songs contained in the manuscript vanished long ago, extensive research has uncovered much evidence pointing towards a bi-lingual harpist from the Rhineland, who traveled extensively and entertained bishops, nobles, clerics and the intelligentsia with his songs and music. It's our good fortune that the monks of Canterbury were so taken by this music that they took the time to copy them down into the manuscript, along with extensive information about how the music was performed. The songs themselves are in pretty stark contrast to the much more well-documented liturgical music of the day, and deal with matters of folklore, myth and legend, eroticism and the pleasures of everyday living.

The instrumentation is pretty sparse, with only harp, lyre, flute and vocals: even though there's no real historical precedent to assist the performers in the recreations here, Sequentia draws heavily upon their extensive background in medieval music, and the results are quite credible. On most of the songs, the harp and lyre accompaniment is really light and delicate, but don't be tempted to crank the volume too high, because the vocals occasionally come through quite forcefully. Track 6, Cigni, is an unaccompanied flute solo played on the upper registers of the instrument, so be especially mindful of the volume here – otherwise, you'll get quite a start!

There isn't much in the liner notes in terms of technical information, but I'm pretty certain the SACD was transferred from a PCM source. The recorded perspective is really up-close, but you get a good sense of real performers in a real space. The sound is superb nonetheless, and this disc is highly recommended, even to those who may be a little squeamish towards medieval music. I'm not particularly enamored with the genre, but I found much of the music here enchanting and entertaining.

- Tom Gibbs

Tietz: Instrumental musicANTON FERDINAND TIETZ: Instrumental Music = Symphony in C Major No. 4; Quintet in D minor for two Violins, two Violas and Bass No. 6; Duet in C major for Violin and Cello; Quartet in D minor for two Violins, Viola and Bass Op. 1 No. 5; Concerto in E-flat major for Violin and Orchestra - Pratum Integrum Orchestra of historical instruments/Pavel Serbin - Caro Mitis multichannel SACD CM 0022004, 57:31 ****:

Another stellar program of 18th century music, lovingly performed and recorded, and this time every selection is a world premiere recording. This ensemble unites Russia’s top performers of early music, consisting of soloists selected from some of the country’s leading chamber orchestras. In addition to performing familiar composers of the Baroque and Classic eras, Pratum Integrum works to bring back the musical heritage of Russian and foreign composers who lived in Russia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And Tietz, who lived from 1742 to 1810, is one of them.

He was a German violinist and composer who after starting in Vienna got a job at the court of Catherine II of Russia, and had a major role in the musical life of the court in St. Petersburg. Tietz absorbed all the special features of Russian folk song and polyphony and became one of the first creators of instrumental concert music in Russia. Yet most of his works belie the Viennese ensemble style of his background. The opening symphony and closing violin concerto are rich and melodic works on a par with Haydn or Hummel. The cheery symphony concludes with a Prestissimo Russian dance. The center three chamber works are equally enlightening, especially the very Romantic Quintet with a charmingly melodic Cantabile at its center. The sonic quality of the 5.0 channel recording is top rate and there is none of the thin, wiry timbre which one often associates with early music ensembles playing authentic instruments.

- John Sunier

Conductors Transcriptions of BachJ. S. BACH: The Conductors’ Transcriptions = Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Stanislaw Skrowaczewski); Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring (Eugene Ormandy); Herzlich tut mich verlangen (Erich Leinsdorf); Orchestral Suite No. 6 (Sir Henry Wood); Air on the G String (Sir Malcolm Sargent); Sheep May Safely Graze (Sir John Barbirolli); Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (Dimitri Mitropoulos); Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (Vittorio Gui); Bis du bei mir? (Otto Klemperer); A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (Walter Damrosch) - BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin - Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5030, 73:19 ****:

The first thing most collectors will note about these ten transcriptions is that not a single one is by that most famous Bach re-arranger, Leopold Stokowski. Conductor Slatkin felt that since there are several recordings out of both Stoky’s own recordings of his Hollywoodish transcriptions as well as recordings of them by others, there was no need to include any in this collection. Slatkin observes that all of the famous and not-so-famous transcribers he selected showed the highest degree of respect for Bach. That’s true, but even when Bach isn’t shown the highest respect his music seems to overcome any obstacles and sound wonderful regardless. it has probably been re-arranged for a greater variety of instruments and sounds than music of any other composer.

The longest of the transcriptions and perhaps most surprising is the Suite No. 6. Of course there are only four Bach Orchestral Suites; Sir Henry Wood created Nos. 5 & 6 from various Bach selections for Proms Concerts in London in the early 1900s. No. 5 used string arrangements of movements from Bach’s organ sonatas. Material from No. 6 came from the keyboard music mainly, with a prelude from a work for solo violin. Ormandy made many Bach transcriptions but never recorded the one heard here, and there are five other recording premieres on the disc. Glorious string tone is one of the fine qualities of the Chandos surround mix. The two-channel option shares this quality but also sounds squashed to the frontal area compared to the 5.0 version. [More Bach Transcriptions in our CLASSICAL CD reviews this issue.]

- John Sunier

Bridge Orch. Works Vol. 3FRANK BRIDGE: Orchestral Works Vol. 3 = Coronation March; Summer; Phantasm (Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra); There is a Willow Grows aslant a Brook; Vignettes de danse; Sir Roger de Coverley (A Christmas Dance) - Howard Shelley, piano/BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox - Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5018, 69:55 ****:

Bridge, who lived until l941, is not nearly as well known in the U.S. as in his native UK, where a considerable amount of his opera has been recorded over the years. He began his musical career as a violist and later was given the opportunity by Sir Henry Wood to become both a conductor and composer. His music has a strong lyrical bent with often ravishing melodies. The Phantasm for piano and orchestra is both the longest and most unusual of the works here. In one continuous movement, it evokes a mysterious and ghostly mood. The piano part is not that of a virtuoso soloist but an instrument the equal of the other in the orchestra. The Dance Vignettes are lighter works - sort of musical postcards from a trip thru the Alps and along the Mediterranean coast. One has here a varied bouquet of Bridge works in enveloping surround sound, with the first and last ones being recording premieres.

- John Sunier

Baroque Recorder ConcertosBaroque Recorder Concertos = VIVALDI: “Concertos per Flautino” in G major, C minor and C major; TELEMANN: Suite in A minor; SAMMARTINI: Concerto in F major - Pamela Thorby, recorders/Sonnerie/Monica Huggett - Linn Records multichannel SACD CKD 217, 68:50 ****:

These three “Flautino” concertos were only discovered and published for the first time in the early 1950s. The big question about them was What was a flautino? Musicologists now generally agreed it most have been a sopranino recorder. But Thorby plays one here on a straight soprano recorder, and another on an alto recorder. Regardless, the rapid and difficult virtuoso writing for the recorder in these works removes any doubt that the little wind instruments are serious music makers. The Telemann suite is that composer’s most-played work and has a structure similar to Bach’s Orchestral Suites. It honors the composer who may have written more works for the recorder than any other in history. Sammartini’s concerto uses the soprano recorder and has a lighter style than the Vivaldi works but with the added spice of more chromaticism. This is a fine program for recorder-lovers and surround adds a realism that draws the listener in much more than does the two-channel option.

- John Sunier

Zemlinsky: the Mermaid; Sym. in dALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY: Die Seejungfrau - Fantasy for Orchestra (The Mermaid); Symphony in D minor - Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Antony Beaumont - Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5022, 70:35 ****:

Zemlinsky was part of the Viennese music scene around the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. Early on he had a passionate relationship with Alma Schindler, who later married Mahler, and like Mahler he was a Jew who converted to Christianity for carerr reasons and to escape anti-Semitism. His orchestral fatansy was based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the mermaid who attempts to live as a mortal. Richard Strauss was a strong influence in this work. The Symphony in D minor was Zemlinsky’s final work to complete his studies at the Vienna Conservatory. A lengthy Allegro movement opens the work, its Scherzo has a light and similing demeanor, and the lyrical Trio which follows it may remind one of Schubert. Although an early work and not yet totally skilled in orchestral thematic development, the Symphony shows a striking expertise in orchestral color which keeps the listener’s attention throughout. Chandos’ evidently makes all their recordings as 96K/24-bit PCM and then converts to DSD for SACD release, but fidelity is excellent and the surround field suitably enveloping without putting players all around you.

- John Sunier

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