Pt. 1 of 2 • July-Aug. 2003

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5 – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Piano/Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Conductor – Teldec 0927 47334-2 (3 CDs):

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s involvement with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe has produced some controversial records over the years. Most of the complaints have come from those who feel that a chamber-sized orchestra isn’t appropriate for typically large-scale symphonic music, such as just about anything by Beethoven or Schumann, regardless of how historically informed the choice may be. Harnoncourt’s traversal of the four Schumann symphonies (currently out of print, on Teldec) is in my opinion, to die for, both in performance and recorded sound, and blows away some pretty stiff competition. This recording of the five Beethoven piano concertos is no less compelling, and deserves a serious listen.

Performance-wise, Pierre-Laurent Aimard is a stunningly virtuosic player, with an amazing technical facility. His playing never fails to delight, and consistently throughout the five concertos his phrasing and timing is impeccable. The main complaint from the traditionalists here will come during forte passages (usually in the outer movements of each concerto) when the tympani and strings just aren’t quite as powerful and impactful as in most traditional recordings. The slower, inner movements are sublime, with a much more chamber-like feel to the proceedings, and the piano never seems drowned by the orchestra. The recorded sound of the piano is astonishingly good, and has a really “woody” tone, which suits these recordings perfectly. The only real complaint I have with the overall sound is that the orchestral climaxes often seem somewhat congested and compressed, which is a shame because I’d otherwise give this one highest marks. Worth owning, if for no other reason to hear Aimard’s brilliant and lovely playing. Purchase Here

– Tom Gibbs

SCOTT EYERLY: The House of Seven Gables - based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne - Conductor: David Gilbert, Manhattan School of Music Opera Orchestra. Clifford: James Schaffner; Hepzibah: Christianne Rushton; Phoebe: Kelly Smith; Holgrave: Bert Johnson; Jaffrey: Dominic Aquilino - Albany Records 447, (2 CDs):

Based on Hawthorne’s classic tale of a family curse, this opera which premiered at the Manhattan School of Music in 2000, is for the most part faithful to its Gothic plot and a joy to listen to. To steep himself in the story’s nineteenth-century atmosphere, Eyerly spent one blustery night alone in the actual House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, and took notes; the results of his care are evident in the meticulously composed motifs, subtle orchestration, and ever-changing moods that hold our attention from beginning to end. The Wagnerian trick of endowing each principal character with his/her own motif and singing style adds to this work’s musical interest.

Smith’s birdlike lyric voice renders the high-spirited Phoebe wholly believable, and her wistful song in Act 1 is delightful. Rushton as Hepzibah is a full-throated mezzo-soprano whose concern over her brother, Clifford, is touching. Schaffner as the long-suffering Clifford has excellent diction and an expressive, if slightly nasal, voice. His paean to light is reminiscent of Loge’s music in Wagner’s Ring cycle. Aquilino sings the role of the overbearing villain, Jaffrey, with passion. The weak link here is Johnson (Holgrave), who sounds dull and has somewhat disappointing intonation. The conducting is accomplished, and sound is good. Purchase Here

-Dalia Geffen

HUMMEL & SCHUBERT: Quintets - Trio Wanderer (Vincent Coq, piano; Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, violin; Raphaël Pidoux, cello) with Christophe Gaugué, viola, and Stéphane Logerot (double bass) - Harmonia Mundi HMC 901792 (59 mins.):

A classic pairing of the two best works for the unusual combination of piano trio, viola and double bass (or, as liner note writer Andreas Friesenhagen puts it, piano, string trio and double bass), makes what may be its first joint appearance on CD.

It is a very attractive combination tonally, one that brings out the best in its performers. And as there have been many great recordings of Schubert's Trout Quintet (so called because of the theme and variations movement based on the composer's song about the silvery fish), there have also been a surprising number of fine ones of the quirky, perky and extremely seductive quintet by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), the Hungarian born virtuoso and occasional rival of Beethoven.

The standard was set by a recording on the Oiseau-Lyre label made by the Melos Ensemble and released in 1966 (paired with Hummel's Op. 7 Septet); in fact, the vinyl still sounds magnificent, a true audiophile recording, with the kind of perceived timbral richness, depth and energy that comes only from great analog sound. The performance was dominated by the great first-movement solos of pianist Lamar Crowson and the inimitable viola playing of Cecil Aronowitz. It has not been surpassed and yet, as far as I know, it has never been reissued on CD.

The performance by the Wanderer Trio is interpretively alert, instrumentally gorgeous and, even if it lacks the last bit of sex appeal, will likely be stunning in its impact on the first-time listener. There are three outstanding competing versions, on MDG, ASV and Praga, but this may be the best. If you're like me, you'll want to have them all.

The musical excellence continues on to an outstandingly fresh and happy performance of the Schubert, fully aware of its beauties, yet avoiding its sentimentality. The variations movement is exceptional. The recorded sound is rich and dynamic, the instruments perfectly balanced within a lovely, clean space at IRCAM in Paris. This CD is a gem. Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

The Sackbut = Music by CASTELLO, ORTIZ, FALCONIERO, MORALES, SCHEIN, SCHEIDT, SCHÜTZ, MERULA - Michel Becquet (tenor sackbut) and Les Sacqueboutiers de Toulouse (2 cornets, 2 sackbuts, theorbe, vihuela, organ and percussion) - Ambroisie AMB 9929. (56 mins.):

Everyone knows that sackbuts exist but some may be confused as to where, when and why. The sackbut (the French word is sacqueboute) was the earliest form of the slide trombone and derives from the Old French sacquer (to pull) and bouter (to push), referring to the movement of the slide. It was a popular brass instrument in Renaissance and early Baroque Europe, taking part in civic, military and religious ceremonies, played by minstrels at dances, and by more respectable musicians (perhaps) in churches and cathedrals. It was also to be found in the orchestras of theatres and opera houses. Sackbuts played roles of great emotional and dramatic range; they could roar and snap, or woo and charm.

By the early 17th century, however, sackbuts were increasingly being used as special effects instruments to create, as Bernard Fourte puts it, "the awesome mystery of the underworld, or spine chilling ages of the deep, or to accompany telluric and aquatic divinities." The instrument made a comeback in the Classical and Romantic periods as the trombone we know today, but more as an orchestral color than an equal member of the band.

You don't devote your life to the sackbut (Les Sacqueboutiers have been in business for more than twenty-five years!) without putting together a program like this with infinite care. It's like these pieces had been meant to be played together and in this order. And it's not like there are 30 or 40 tiny bits and pieces here. After the familiar martial strains of the opening bars of Scheidt's Canon La Bergamasca, it's ten cuts that add up to nearly sixty minutes of delight. Whether it's the hypnotic swing of Tarquinio Merula's Ciaconna or the majesty of Heinrich Schütz's Es steh Gott auf, which concludes the disc, this could be the brass music CD that breaks your heart with its grace and beauty.

The sound from the young French company Ambroisie is not only startling in an audiophile way, with its wonderful dynamic brass and occasional percussion and organ sounds, there is equally a delicate immediacy and sense of poetry that comes through in every bar. Excellent liner notes by Fourtet and Jean-Pierre Canihac. Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

“Ricercar” - BACH: Fugue for 6 Voices (Orchestrated by WEBERN); Cantata No. 4 “Christ lag in Todesbanden;” WEBERN: String Quartet l905 (Orchestrated by Christoph Poppen); Five Movements Op. 5 for String Orchestra - Munich Chamber Orchestra and The Hilliard Ensemble/Christoph Poppen - ECM New Series 1774:

Poppen worked with the Hilliard Ensemble in their previous ECM album Morimur. His intent in this special program is to establish a relationship between some early works of J.S. Bach and some early works of serialist Anton Webern. The works listed above actually alternate between the two composers, and are bracketed at the beginning and end by duplicate performances of Webern’s orchestration of the Bach Fugue for 6 Voices. Poppen feels that when the work is again heard at the conclusion it will sound completely different because of what has been heard in between. The Hilliards are heard in the cantata Christ in the Bonds of Death as the centerpiece of this program. A long essay titled “Shadows of Death, Signs of Life” in the note booklet explains the theory behind this program of the two composers old and new. The Bach work did sound different in its repetition, and the two Webern works sounded more normal and approachable than I had ever believed they could be. And sonic connections between the two seemingly widely-separated composers did seem to assert themselves. So perhaps the highly Germanic imposition of this unique program achieved its purpose! Sonics are of course up to the label’s normal highest standards. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Some brass excursions via our next pair of CDs...

BERNSTEIN: West Side Story suite; PROKOFIEFF: Romeo and Juliet suite - Matt Tropman, Euphonium; Gail Novak, piano; Chris Rose, percussion; Eric Sabo, bass - Summit Records DCD 316:

One wouldn’t expect a Euphonium recital disc to be anything but academic stuff of interest only to students of the instrument. But a great programming concept, wonderful arrangements and recording, and a true virtuoso of the instrument make for a gem of a general interest or perhaps even a crossover CD. Since West Side Story is a re-telling of the Romeo and Juliet story, the two suites make a perfect pairing. Turns out the Euphonium has a wider range than other brass instruments, and is able to do soft and lyrical passages as well as stentorian brassy blats. Together with the piano, bass and percussion it creates a very full and rich sound that can give an almost orchestral feel in some passages. Both suites are not quite a half hour long and both are full of familiar and evocative tunes. You could do worse than to make this disc the sole Euphonium CD in your collection.

The Lyrical Trumpet - Phil Snedecor, trumpet; Paul Skevington, pipe organ - Summit Records DCD 349:

The combination of a brass instrument and pipe organ is a thrilling one. This program is unusual in that most of the transcriptions for the trumpet/organ duo are appearing here for the first time, and in addition there are four original works by trumpeter Snedecor. The theme is short works which attempt to emulate aspects of the human voice in the trumpet part. A couple of the tracks are for organ alone: Barber’s Adagio and an arrangement for organ of Bach’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. The recording is clean and wide-range. Other tracks (not in disc order): SNEDECOR: Toccata, Tribute, Air for Erin, Serenade; MOZART: Laudate Dominum, Queen of the Night Area fr. The Magic Flute; BERNSTEIN: Olympic Hymn; ALBINONI: Adagio, Cantabile; DONAUDY: Aria; MAHLER: Gieng heut Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Orchestral music from Japan and China on the next duo of CDs...

Japanese Orchestral Favourites = TOYAMA: Rhapsody for Orchestra; KONOYE: Etenraku; IFUKUBE: Japanese Rhapsody; AKUTAGAWA: Music for Symphony Orchestra; KOYAMA: Kobiki-Uta for Orchestra; YOSHIMATSU: Threnody to Toki - Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra/Ryusuke Numanjiri - Naxos 8.555071:

These Japanese orchestral works -spanning over 50 years - are well-known and often performed in Japan. I recall enjoying the Akutagawa work many years ago when I dubbed off a radio station tape from an NHK-supplied concert which featured it. Shades of Prokofieff are heard in this strangely exotic yet naive orchestral work. Konoye's re-imagining of ancient Japanese court music is another piece that may be familiar to some listeners. Ravel and Stravinsky were influences on the Koyama piece, while the closing Threnody is closer to the more contemporary music of the late composer Takemitsu. Tony Faulkner was recording engineer for this CD recorded in Tokyo. It’s a superb and bargain opportunity to become familiar with some fascinating and exotic modern symphonic music. Purchase Here

BRIGHT SHENG: China Dreams; Nanking!, Two Poems From The Sung Dynasty - Juliana Gondek, soprano; Zhang Qiang, pipa; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orch./Samuel Wong - Naxos 8.555866:

Sheng is one of the leading Chinese-American composers and has had commissions and performances of his music all over the world. Among his teachers were Leonard Bernstein, Mario Davidovsky and George Perle. The opening work is a very accessible four-movement suite that is a sort of travelogue of Chinese scenes. Nanking! is in the form of a Threnody for orchestra and the stringed pipa, with a very virtuoso part for the Chinese classical instrument. It commemorates the brutal attack on the city by the Japanese army in l937. Lyrics are in the note booklet for the two short songs for soprano and orchestra. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Heritage & Legacy 2 = ELGAR, his forebears and successors (ELGAR: In the South Overture. MacCUNN: The Land of the Mountain and the Flood Overture. FREDERIC AUSTIN (1872-1952): Symphony in E Major. BLISS: Pyanepsion - Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Douglas Bostock - RLPO Live in association with Classico (Olufsen Records) RLCD501 (70 mins.) (distr. by Qualiton):

This is a release of major importance from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's own label, a unique compilation leading off with performances of two well-known concert overtures both of which equal or surpass the previous standard setters (Constantin Silvestri in the Elgar and Alexander Gibson in the MacCunn, both for EMI). The RLPO is simply stunning in the Elgar with Bostock's lithe interpretation leading them to illuminating, musically intoxicating insights into how the music is put together. The strings get it together as no recorded performance has, the other-worldly viola and horn solos in the slow middle section are exquisitely set up and played, and the succession of bass thumps in the brass that precede them are as cataclysmic as any I have ever heard.

The world premiere recording of Frederic Austin's 30-minute long Symphony from 1913 introduces a composer from the circle around the composer and patron Balfour Gardiner in the early 1900s that included Vaughan Williams, Holst and Bax. The score disappeared shortly after the first performances and has only come recently to light. In four amorphous movements, the music has a diffuse sense of beauty streaming from distant places, as if it were accompanying an alchemist creating gold.

The sound by Michael Ogonovsky and David A. Pigott is magnificent, the perspective is towards the back of the hall (with no overhang), the clarity and detail are breathtaking without becoming antiseptic, and the huge dynamic range simply eats up volume - the more you can drive this recording the more stupendous it will sound. There's probably no holding back multichannel sound, but this is a great reminder of the focused power and beauty two-channel sound produces at its absolute best.

Adding a final touch, the elegantly printed program notes by that great champion of British music, Lewis Foreman, are so authoritative, so informative and so beautifully written that they deserve an award of their own. (The extensive notes on Frederic Austin and his long forgotten Symphony are by his grandson, Martin Lee-Browne.)

Of the conclusion of Bliss's Pyanepsion, a reworked version of the original last movement of the Colour Symphony, Foreman writes, "Two timpanists, on six drums, insistently hammer out the rhythm of the second fugue subject - final fanfaring gives way to the brilliant closing chord which has the force of a burst of light." Heady stuff, gloriously realized by Bostock and his Liverpool forces. An amazing recording which in every way a CD can be, is an exhilarating experience. Purchase Here

- Laurence Vittes

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