CLASSICAL CDs for JAN/2001 - Pt. 2 of 2 rainbow line

JOHN ADAMS: Century Rolls - Emanuel Ax, piano/Cleveland Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnanyi; Lollapalooza; Slonimsky's Earbox - The Halle Orchestra/Kent Nagano - Nonesuch 79607-2:

We have here Adams' first piano concerto, completed in l996. Its genesis was the result of Adams listening late one evening to CD reissues of l920s piano rolls. He liked the bright and mechanical edge that the piano roll process put on the notes (calling "rhythmic alertness") and decided to play around with it in a piano concerto commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra and pianist Ax. That listening session must have also been the instigation for his earlier Grand Pianola Music.

Most of the three movement concerto is a joint effort on the part of the pianist and orchestra to create a fast-moving complex machine effect. This was also presaged in Adams' earlier work Short Ride in a Fast Machines. Only in the second movement do we get some respite in a Satie like slow gymnopedie in waltz time. This is certainly not your usual Mozart or Beethoven piano concerto but Ax is fully up to the challenge, and so is the Nonesuch engineering. The two fillers are literally that - they are part of the ten-CD John Adams Earbox compendium reviewed here a couple months ago.

- John Sunier

CLAUDE DEBUSSY - The Composer as Pianist - Sel. From Book I Preludes, Estampes, La plus que lente; Children's Corner Suite; D'un cahier d'esquisses; Four Songs with Mary Garden, soprano - Pierian Recording Society 0001:

Piano rolls influenced John Adams to compose his Century Rolls, and back just before the First World War they influenced some of the greatest composers and pianists in the then world to sit down at the "recording piano" and preserve some of their most important compositions and performances. The rolls on this CD were cut in l913 by Debussy on the complex Welte Mignon system, which was able to capture a greater range of expression than the competing piano roll formats of Ampico and Duo Art. The Welte recorded the exact dynamic level and physical touch for each note played by the pianist, and even allowed for half-pedalling and other subtleties in performance. A tray of mercury into which spikes on each key dipped to varying depths was part of the mechanism that preserved this information. The only editing the Welte engineers did was to correct any simply wrong notes.

So although these 1913 rolls should probably be reviewed in our Reissues Section, the fact that they were taped only recently - in stereo - played on a carefully restored original Welte reproducing piano, gives us a fairly close approximation of hearing Debussy playing for us today in the 21st century! These were the only solo piano recordings Debussy every made, because he found the Welte piano rolls to be so far ahead in fidelity of the poor 78 rpm recordings of the early l900s. Some of these have been available before - on tape and LP - but played back on rather noisy pianos and not benefitting from the best recording quality. A Welte collector specialist in Texas is responsible for these lovingly-prepared recordings. He feels keeping everything in the analog, mechanical domain results in a truer match to the original performer's intent than the computerized approach (used in the recent Telarc Rachmaninoff Cds).

I don't entirely agree, and find the Debussy selections to suffer from more obvious piano roll artifacts than the Rachmaninoff CDs. But then Debussy's music by its very nature demands the smoothest artifact-free delivery, so perhaps the comparison is unfair. It is still fascinating to get an idea of how the composer performed his own music, especially in the phrasing and pedalling department. Who knows, perhaps the composer's crisp, delineated playing, with startling dynamic variations, was really the way he wanted it to sound? - and not like the over-pedalled, run-together Debussy playing indulged in by some pianists today. The Sunken Cathedral seems to be rising up out of a gravel pit instead of a lake. Debussy himself is known to have preferred faster tempos on many of these rolls, and complained that the cathedrale engloutie was "too engloutie." The filler provides a strong contrast with the piano rolls. Though recorded only nine years earlier, they are 78s of an aria from Pelleas et Melisande and three art songs by Debussy; for all except avid historical vocal music mavens they will simply show how bad acoustic recording was at this time.

- John Sunier

LEO SMIT: Chamber Music = Sextet; Quintet; Duo, Trio - Ensemble Villa Musica - DG MDG 304 0995-2:

Smit is regarded by the Dutch as one of their most gifted composers of the first half of the century. A Jew, he was incarcerated and murdered at Theresienstadt the same as Schulhoff, Victor Ullmann, Gideon Klein and others who have been recognized with CDs lately. In l927 Smit lived in Paris for several years and became enthusiastic for the music of Ravel, Roussel and Debussy, and these chamber works all demonstrate that big time. They sound more like chamber works actually penned in the Hereafter by the shades of Ravel or Debussy than the pieces supposedly channelled to piano teacher Ruth Brown some years ago. The Sextet is for piano and woodwind quintet, the Quintet combines a string trio with flute and harp, and the Duo is for the unusual combination of oboe and cello. All are finely crafted in the most sophisticated manner, calling to mind Ravel more than any of the other French impressionists. An absolutely delightful discovery and quite a contrast to the musical styles of most of the other "Entartete" composers.

- John Sunier


THE LEO WEINER ALBUM: Pastorale phantaisie et fugue for strings; Romance for cello, harp and strings;Concertino for piano and orchestra; Carnival for small orchestra; Violin Concerto No. 2 in F-sharp minor - Janos Starker, c./Melinda Felletar, harp/Gyorgy Sebok, p./Budapest Chamber Symphony/Tibor Varga & Zsolt Hamar cond. - BMC CD 018 (2 CDs):

This is the first ever entire collection of works by Weiner (1885-1960), with three world premieres included. The Hungarian composer was a contemporary of Bartok and Kodaly but not part of their newer musical language. Weiner stayed with l9th century styles but did contribute a strong French influence to Hungarian music to counteract the Germanic leanings of the time. The first work for string orchestra has a strong Baroque flavor and strong melody. The fugue section employs a Hungarian bagpipe tune. Weiner's Romance is a very lyrical work, again with a lovely melody. The Piano Concertino, a relaxed neo-classic gem, was once the composer's most-performed work and Weiner's Violin Concerto deserves to become a concert staple. Audiences would love its abundant folk flavored melodies and sunny demeanor. The alternate packaging presentation used is even more convenient than the normal plastic jewel box in the case of this double-CD album.

- John Sunier


Here's a pair of chamber music trios - one South American-flavored and the other Viennese =

Pasión = PIAZZOLLA: 4 pieces; TURINA: Premiere Trio; PENAFORTE: An Eroica Trio; VILLA-LOBOS: Aria from Bachianas brazileiras - The Eroica Trio - EMI Classics 57033:

The three previous CDs from this female trio have all been hits with classical fans. One received two Grammy nominations. For their fourth release, the trio heads south of the border for some very warm sounds. Of course a program of this type would have to include some Piazzolla; the best know of the four short tangos here will be Oblivion. The trio commissioned by the trio from composer Raimundo Penaforte sports three movements, of which the first is titled Astor, so obviously we have a bit more Piazzolla tribute here. The Turina has other recordings, but none with as much verve and sparkle as this. It opens with a prelude and fugue and the slow middle movement is in theme and variations form. Finally, the arrangement created for the trio (by composer Penaforte) of the familiar Villa-Lobos vocal Cantilena provides a fresh view of this glorious melody.

- John Sunier


Vintage Viennese - WENCESLAUS MATIEGKA: Grand Trio; BEETHOVEN (Arr. MATIEGKA): Serenade Op. 8 - Jan Boland, flute/John Dowdall, guitar/David Miller, viola - Fleur de Son Classics FDS 57945:

I see why the performers came up with the Vintage Viennese title for this CD - Wenceslaus Matiegka ain't exactly a household word in our culture today! His dates roughly parallel Beethoven's and he performed in the salons of Vienna just as Beethoven did. Matiegka didn't compose many works - most were ensemble pieces involving the guitar. His Grand Trio and Beethoven's Serenade share many similarities, including both using Menuetto movements. (Matiegka used two, Beethoven just one.) The musical styles are very similar except that Matiegka says what he want to say in five movements and Beethoven requires seven. Also Matiegka has a more developed sense of humor and exuberance. All three performers are top rate; this is an instructive and imaginatively-programmed CD.

- John Sunier


FRANCIS POULENC: Complete Chamber Music, Volumes 1 - 4 - various performers - Vol. 1 - Sextet for winds; Sonata for oboe & piano; Trio for piano, oboe & bassoon; Sonata for flute & piano; Villanelle; Vol. 2 - Sonata for Violin & Piano; Bagatelle for Violin & Piano; Sonata for Clarinet; Sonata for Piano & Cello; Vo. 3 - Capriccio Le bal masque for two pianos; Sonata for two pianos; Elegie for two pianos; Sonata for piano duet; Sonata for two clarinets; Sonata for clarinet and bassoon; Sonata for horn, trumpet & trombone; Vol. 4 - La Bal masque; Le Bestiaire; Four Poems of Max Jacob; Rapsodie negre; Cocardes; Elegie for horn & piano; Sarabande for guitar - Naxos 8.553611, 12, 13, & 14:

Poulenc, who lived until l963, was a quintessential French 20th century composer. He started as a piano prodigy and began writing music early. His favorite composers were Bach, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky. He hated Beethoven and Wagner and he described himself as a musician without a label. While the liturgical choral music he wrote later in life are among his loveliest works, it is in his solo piano music and in these various chamber works that one gets the full flavor of his very direct and felicitous style. It fits right in with his favorite composers, who all had this quality, though aside from Satie their music was quite different. In one area he differed greatly from Bach: he reported that "like all Latins," he was "more into harmony than counterpoint." The great wit and energy in all of these pieces is a delight, and the often unexpected turns of melody and harmony lend a piquancy much to be appreciated. There is a bittersweet quality to many of his tunes. And Poulenc's rhythms sometimes hark back to the quirky world of Stravinsky.

Parts of this collection demonstrates the composer's experimentation with unusual instrumental combinations. The Clarinet and Violin Sonatas are among the most-performed of these works. The Oboe Sonata, published only after his death, has a couple wonderful themes in it. Three vocal works featuring a baritone voice are part of the Fourth Volume. Both the Four Poems and Le Bal masque utilize poetry of Max Jacob. Le Bal - described as a "secular cantata" - is a wild Dada-ist romp. The surrealistic images it conjures up are perfectly and wittily supported by Poulenc's music. It's a French sort of companion to Walton's Facade Suite. The performers will be unknown to most but they are uniformly fine. The baritone soloist is Franck Leguerinel and the pianist most heard from in the collection if Alexandre Tharaud. This is altogether a very worthwhile set, and at the bargain price it makes owning the entire set no more expensive than two CDs at regular pricing.

- John Sunier


Two Recent All-Lou Harrison CDs are up next =

HARRISON: Double Concerto for Violin & Cello with Javanese Gamelan; Trio for Violin, cello & Piano - The Mirecourt Trio/Mills College Gamelan Ensemble - Music & Arts CD-1073:

The l982 Concerto, with its unique placement of the two stringed instruments against the traditional gamelan ensemble, has been suggested as a good starting point for those new to the special sort of classical world music that is Lou Harrison's bailiwick (pardon the pun). The composer's initial concern about the combination wasn't warranted - they fit together and complement one another beautifully. The center of the three movements is one of Harrison's favorite forms: the vigorous estampie, composed in an eight-note modal scale. The Trio is a more recent commission for the Mirecourt players; its four movements are all modal but melodic. One movement is dedicated to Harrison's friend and mentor Virgil Thomson.

- John Sunier

HARRISON: Rhymes With Silver (ballet music) - Joan Jeanrenaud, cello/David Abel, v./Benjamin Simon, viola/ Julie Steinberg, piano/Wm. Winant, vibes & percussion - New Albion Records NA110:

After choreographing to several of Lou Harrison's abstract works for his dance company, Mark Morris commissioned Rhymes With Silver from the composer and premiered it with Yo-Yo Ma as the solo cellist. Morris is a trained musician and travels his company with a live ensemble consisting of violin, viola, cello, piano and percussion. There are a dozen short movements; some feature just solo cello and others are duos rather than employing the whole ensemble. Several are of course dance movements, including a gigue, round dance, fox trot and Yo-mantic waltz. The vibes are heard in four of the movements and seem to echo Harrison's works for gamelan ensemble. This is witty and varied music that often conjures up dance movement, making one want to see what Mark Morris is doing with his dancers onstage. The jovial composer just keeps producing, adding to the already sizeable output of his completely original sound world of music.

- John Sunier


JOSEPH HAYDN: Symphonies Nos. 70-81, Vol. Five - Austro Hungarian Haydn Orchestra/Adam Fischer - Nimbus NI 5652/5 (4 CD Set):

JOSEPH HAYDN: Symphonies Nos. 88-92-81, Vol. Seven - Austro Hungarian Haydn Orchestra/Adam Fischer - Nimbus NI 5417/8 (2 CD Set):

This sets could perhaps also be covered in the Reissue section, but the recordings were all made in the 90's so they are fairly recent. It could also be saved for my next All Surround Sound section because nearly all Nimbus product is Ambisonic UHJ encoded for surround. All these were originally released separately on the Nimbus label. The project's orchestra was created by conductor Fischer in l987 with the specific idea of bringing together some of the best players from Austria and Hungary to perform Haydn's works in the exact places where he had lived and worked. All of the Haydn Symphony series (106 in all) has been recorded in Haydn's very own concert hall - the Haydnsaal of the Esterhazy Palace in Eisenstadt, Austria. It is one of the few concert halls from Haydn's time which has survived largely unchanged to the present day.

A word about the acoustics and miking in this hall. It is not a huge space, but if you play these discs on a standard two-channel system you will probably feel they are miked much too distantly and are too "wet" acoustically. That is the result of the Ambisonic surround information being folded into the front channels. If you merely tap onto the two + terminals of your stereo amp and power a single efficient speaker in the rear of your listening room you will find that suddenly the reverberation is not overmuch, that the musicians are closer to you, and you are surrounded by the natural acoustics of the hall. A pair of surround speakers are even better, and an actual Ambisonic decoder such as the Cantares I am using (or the Meridian if you can afford it), will give you a still better surround sound experience with all these CDs anything else in the Nimbus catalog.

While Fischer makes use of much musicological research concerning Haydn's performance practice, the orchestra is made up mainly of modern instruments - so this not a period orchestra. So the overall sound is warm and rich rather than steely and wiry as in a typical Baroque orchestra. In the Symphony No. 90 however, the original very high-pitched horns called for by Haydn were used rather than the trumpets commonly used today. Fischer encourages a traditional interpretive style shared by these top flight Austrian and Hungarian players. He describes it as dealing with certain subtle retards, rhythmic deviations, accents and so on, which make the music more alive. It must be admitted that many of these symphonies - which were instant snoozes for me in other more mainstream recordings with larger forces - now have a spark that holds my interest from beginning to end.

Haydn wrote so many symphonies that most of them are never heard in the concert hall and only recorded in complete sets such as this one. A few of the very early symphonies plus the six Paris symphonies and the dozen London symphonies get all the attention. I found discovering or re discovering those symphonies in the 70s thru 90s to be a fascinating experience and well worth the effort. There is just as much musical pleasure to be had as with any of the lesser Mozart symphonies. Normally the 20-minute-or-so length of the symphonies of this period allow for three of them to be put on a single CD. The Vol. Five set totals over 4 hours playing time.

- John Sunier

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