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CLASSICAL CDs , Pt. 1 of 2 - May 2002

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FIELD: Piano Concertos 5 And 6. Benjamin Frith, piano. Northern Sinfonia conducted by David Haslam. Naxos 8.554221:

It must have been hard to live as a composer in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century; after all your peers were Beethoven and Schubert! Such was the plight of the Irish-born composer John Field (1782-1837). On the other hand, Field had a successful career as a pianist. Not of the virtuoso Liszttian ilk, but rather one whose strength was color and sensitivity of touch.

These characteristics emerge in Field's Fifth and Sixth Piano Concertos, The Fifth (1817) has the subtitle 'fire by lightning,' but the source of the title is unknown. It opens with a resounding Beethoven-like chord, but the music that follows more closely resembles the piano concertos of Chopin. The piano's role emphasizes delicate nuances, sonorous and intricate melodies, convincingly played by Benjamin Frith. The orchestral passages appropriately contrast the piano's role with drama and tension. The work brims with felicitous melodies and dramatic flourishes that engage the mind and heart.

The Sixth Piano Concerto (1819) opens with a stately orchestral introduction that extends into an engaging 20 minute dialogue between piano and orchestra. A lovely, delicate larghetto is followed by an energetic but finely spun rondo. These concertos combine the drama and tension of Beethoven with the lyric delicacy of Chopin. Both are immensely enjoyable: they express the exuberant spirit of a composer who knew and loved the piano. Benjamin Frith plays with the freshness of discovery and wit that serve the composer perfectly. The Northern Sinfonia accompanies enthusiastically and the sound is clear and close, slightly wanting in reverberation. Those wanting to explore Field further are advised to try his Nocturnes, lovely, engaging pieces that admirably predate those of Chopin.

- Robert Moon

BARBER: Violin Concerto; Souvenirs (Ballet Suite); Serenade For Strings; Music For A Scene From Shelley. James Buswell, violin. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Marin Alsop. Naxos 8.559044:

When you think of it, the twentieth century does have its share of lyrical works that reminds listeners of the previous century. Rachmaninoff and Barber are examples of composers who eschewed serialism for melody and tonality, at least in most of their works. Barber's Violin Concerto is one of the most popular American concertos performed by American symphony orchestras, and its gorgeous slow movement is one of the reasons. There have been many great recordings, starting with Isacc Stern's classic CBS disc with Leonard Bernstein. Others include Perlman, Shaham, and recent ones by Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn. James Buswell's is not in the same class, but it's a solid, musical but undistinguished performance. What's missing is the tonal opulence that this concerto unabashedly demands. Best is the dramatic last movement when Alsop turns up the heat.

Souvenirs (1952) is a captivating orchestral arrangement of a four hand piano dance suite. Annotator Peter Quinn quotes Barber's description of the work: "One might imagine a divertissement in a setting of the Palm Court of the Hotel Plaza in New York, the year about 1914, epoch of the first tangos; 'Souvenirs' ­ remembered with affection, not in irony or with tongue in cheek, but in amused tenderness." Alsop's performance is magnificent, exquisitely capturing the intended mood. The Serenade for Strings, Op. 1, is Barber's arrangement of his Serenade for String Quartet, an enchanting but slight work. Music For a Scene from Shelley, Op. 7, rounds out this enjoyable disc. Special kudos to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Marin Alsop for vibrant, idiomatic interpretations of these scores, recorded in sound just short of audiophile quality.

- Robert Moon

FINZI: Cello Concerto; Grand Fantasia And Toccata For Piano And Orchestra; Ecologue For Piano And Strings - Tim Hugh, cello. Peter Donohoe, piano. Northern Sinfonia/Howard Griffiths. Naxos 8.555766:

Gerard Finzi (1901-56) was a member of the English school of renaissance composers that included Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Holst, Ireland, Howells and others. His orchestral works are infused with melodies of delicate beauty, a nostalgic affection for the pastoral English countryside and a wistful sadness for the ephemeral nature of life. This disc is an excellent introduction to his expressive contribution to music.

The Eclogue for Piano and Strings, originally the middle movement of an uncompleted piano concerto, brims with gorgeous melodies infused with pensive reveries of the tranquil nature of life in nineteenth century rural England. It's one of the great musical examples of sadness fused to beauty that makes for unforgettable listening.

In the Grand Tocatta for Piano and Orchestra, inspired by Bach's structure, Peter Donohue's virtuosity bring to life the drama of the Grand Fantasia and nimbly expresses the less serious fugal tocatta that follows.

In the Cello Concerto (1955), one of his last compositions, Finzi created a more luminous and dramatically compelling work whose melodic strands are less clearly revealed amid larger, more dense orchestral textures. Yet, the meltingly beautiful andante is vintage Finzi: a sorrowfully exquiste hymn to past memories and times gone by. It's the musical and emotional highlight of this disc. The concluding rondo is an effervescent romp compared to the first two movements. My discarded Yo Yo Ma Lyrita disc has faded from my memory, but cellist Tim Hugh eloquently captures the somber beauty and majesty of this relatively unknown cello classic and the recording is first rate. A great disc for anyone who loves the cello or English music.

- Robert Moon


SEEGER: The World of Ruth Crawford Seeger - Piano works. Jenny Lin, piano; Timothy Jones, narrator. BIS-CD-1310:

One of the great neglected American women composers is finally getting recorded. With Chamber Works (2000, cpo) and this present volume, Ruth Crawford Seeger is finally getting recognition as a composer and not just the wife, co-parent, and collaborator of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. Thirteen of the fourteen piano works and the fairy tale with narrator are world premier recordings. Baker's Twentieth Century Classical Musicians lists only three of them! Composed over an eight year period, these delightful works span many styles. Caprice and Theme and Variations, both from the early twenties, show Crawford's affinity for Eric Satie's piano works-although perhaps more in spirit than in style. Sonata shows that she listened to early Beethoven and late Mozart very carefully. Pianist Jenny Lin plays the beguiling melody with delicacy, charm, and respect. With Five Canons, she begins to develop her own modernist style, perhaps influenced by the idiosyncratic Henry Cowell. Her style reaches an apogee with Five Preludes and Four Preludes. These introspective works feature wondrously unexpected devices like sharp dissonances, abrupt rhythmic shifts, vast dynamic gulfs, sudden ostinatos, and eastern philosophical musings, all of which Lin handles like a true professional, while imparting her own stamp as well. After such a dazzling ascent of development, it is a shock to hear the overlong and trivial Adventures of Tom Thumb. Crawford wrote the words based on the famous Grimm's fairy tale. Although well narrated by Timothy Jones and well accompanied by Jenny Lin, this hokey children's tale is a poor choice to fill the rest of the disc. I suppose it does comprise part of Crawford's "world," but her lyrical and energetic Five Songs for Voice and Piano (after Carl Sandberg) would have been a far more compelling work with which to end the CD. Even so, this disc has 62 other minutes of excellent music, more than enough to justify a purchase.

--Peter Bates

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491; Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467

Piotr Anderszewski piano and conductor, Sinfonia Varsovia

Virgin Classics 7243 5 45504 2 3 59:30 (Distrib. EMI Classics):

Recorded inWarsaw, August 2001, we hear some dramatic playing by a relatively new talent, Piotr Anderszewski, who supplies his own cadenzas to these familiar concertos. He certainly has a sense of style, and it urges comparisons to Edwin Fischer and to Andre Previn. A close listening reveals some exemplary touches: besides excellent command of the keyboard palette, Anderszewski has sensitive colors in the woodwinds and horns, and he urges the tempos; he seems quite alert to harmonic shifts as a call to a rhythmic adjustment. Various diminuendi and accelerandi make for a quietly explosive reading of the C Minor. His cadenza is stylistic without becoming cliched. The respective Larghetto and Andante movements of the concertos are graceful, delicately molded; again, in the C Major, the idea is not to rehash "Elvira Madigan" and its assorted clones. The C Minor finale, a theme-and-variations is no less explosive for its contrivances. Anderszewski is careful not to repeat passages verbatim; he makes those little adjustments Mozart would relish.

After the C Minor, the K. 467 looms large, shedding the salon for the scale of the concert hall and a shameless, extroverted virtuosity. From Anderszewski's entry on we can savor the deliberate playfulness that infects this incandescent reading. It seems the lucidity of Gieseking is as much of Anderszeski's make-up as Fischer's scholasticism. The entire disc is a happy harbinger of good things to come from this pianist, whose development bears our scrutiny and support.

--Gary Lemco

Piano concertos galore on our next four CDs...

MICHEL CAMILO: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Suite for Piano, Strings and Harp; Caribe - Michel Camilo, p./BBC Sym. Orch./Leonard Slatkin - Decca 289 468 817-2:

Just last month I reviewed the latest jazz trio album - an SACD - from the Dominican Republic virtuoso. And here is his first classical album - indicative of how more and more musicians today speak multiple musical languages. Leonard Slatkin commissioned the concerto after hearing Camilo perform at New York's Blue Note. He reports that he had never seen so many notes in the piano part of a concerto and asked Michel if he was really going to play all that. The pianist responded "Oh, no, I'll add all the other stuff later." That pretty much gives an overview of this exciting concerto. It has Latin elements of course but not overpowering. The finale is just amazing - to call Camilo's piano style sparse would be far from accurate. The Suite is more jazz flavored as Camilo employed three of his own jazz compositions plus a tango. The encore, Caribe, is the pianist's signature tune, and he recorded it in one astounding take at the end of an exhausting recording session. I once interviewed Camilo for AUDIOPHILE AUDITION and found him a very open, modest and energetic fellow of prodigious talent.

For the Left Hand, Vol. 1 - RAVEL: Concerto for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra; SCRIABIN; Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2; ST-SAENS: Six Etudes; BACH/BRAHMS: Chaconne Study No. 5 - João Carlos Martins - Labor LAB 7033-2:

Another amazing pianist from south of the border. Brazilian virtuoso Martins is known for his complete traversal of the keyboard works of Bach. He suffered some sort of injury to his right hand and thus became interested in the sizeable literature of left-hand-only piano music. (Interesting that there is absolutely nothing for the right hand alone!) Although now he is evidently two-handed again, he has begun another series of CDs, this time devoted to left-hand piano works.

This is by far the most exciting performance of the Ravel concerto I have ever heard, and I just heard an excellent live performance a few weeks ago. Scriabin's Nocturne came about when he had to compose some works to perform himself and had injured his right hand thru too much practicing. The challenge is to make the listener unaware that only the left hand is being used, and it's surprising how successful these composers and this terrific pianist are in communicating that ruse.

- John Sunier

ZYGMUNT STOJOWSKI: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor; Piano Concerto No. 2 in A flat major - Jonathan Plowright, p./BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./Martyn Brabbins - Hyperion CDA67314:

The esteemed series of mostly rare piano concertos of the Romantic period continues with Hyperion - this is number 28, would you believe. So where did they dig up Stojowski? Well, the first concerto was discovered in the (mouldy?) Moldenhauer Archives of Northwestern University and the second at the home of the composer's son Henry in New York. Turns out Stojowski, who came to the U.S. from Poland in l905 and lived until l946, was for decades one of his country's outstanding composers; he also had his works played by such artists are Percy Grainger, Josef Hofmann and compatriot Leopold Stokowski (who came to the U.S. the same year).

And the music? It's terrific! How come Stojowski has been totally forgotten? These are both exciting, lushly-orchestrated, virtuoso Romantic period concertos which would surely be a hit with concert audiences today. The one beef some critics had with the composer at the time was that his concertos were too long, and with today's short- attention-span audiences that could be a problem. Sonics, as to be expected from Hyperion, are faultless.

CESAR FRANCK: Piano Concerto No. 2; Symphonic Variations; Les Djinns - Martin van den Hoek, p. (Concerto)/Francois-Joel Thiollier, p. (Variations & Djinns)/Arnhem Philharmonic Orch./Robert Benzi - Naxos 8.553472:

The Belgian composer's Symphony in D minor is his major introduction to most audiences, and even an introduction to classical symphonic music at all for many. However, the pioneer of the cyclic form in music penned many other orchestral works besides much organ and choral music. These three provide a wider view of Franck and all three feature important parts for piano. The concerto shows more virtuoso passages than one would normally expect from the retiring and very religious church organist/composer. Les Djinns is one of his several symphonic poems; based on a Victor Hugo poem it conjures up dark forces. This bargain CD is a great way to get acquainted with more of this composer who idolized Wagner but is easily distinguished from his idol in just a few minutes of listening.

- John Sunier

A Quick Audition of a quartet of chamber music CDs herewith...

János Vázsonyi, alto sax - Shades of Bach (with Dániel Váczi, sopranino sax & Katalin Csillagh, piano) BMC Records CD 054: While not the first CD or LP of Bach on the saxophone, this beautifully performed, recorded and packaged CD from Hungary is one of the best I've auditioned. The three works are the Sonata in G Minor, BWV 1029, the Sonata in C Minor from The Musical Offering, and a solo saxophone version of the Partita in A Minor, BWV 1013. The Musical Offering offering for two saxes is especially attractive. The playing is so clean and unforced that one can almost visualize Bachian players in wigs and finery with no hint of anachronism.

GIUSEPPE MARTUCCI: Fantasia, Variazioni Op. 58; MARIO CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO: Le Sirenetta, Notturno e Tarantella Scura, Alt Wien Rhapsody, Duo Pianism, Napolitana - Aldo Orvieto & Filippo Quarti, duo-pianists - Phoenix Classics PH 98410: These are all first recordings and they constitute all the works each of these two composers wrote for two pianos. All are tonal and show interesting mixes of the Classical period with modern and Romantic elements. The booklet notes, translated from the Italian, are extremely wordy and frankly I don't understand what they're talking about - just listen to the sparkling cooperative music-making of these two pianists - in enchanting music that we're all hearing for the first time. The concert really catches fire near the end with the last movement of "Old Vienna" being a foxtrot, following by a short improvisation for two pianos and a final breakneck traversal of a Neapolitan melody.

20th Century British Music for Oboe and Piano - BENNETT; After Syrinx 1, HOWELLS: Sonata, JACOB: Seven Bagatelles, BERKELEY: Sonatina, RUBBRA: Sonata in C - Wm. McMullen, oboe/Catherine Herbener, piano - Crystal Records CD724: For some reason British composers in the 20 century were very partial to writing works for the oboe as a solo instrument. This is a collection of some of them, showing that the reed instrument is just as attractive a solo vehicle as its more popular wind section compatriot the flute. The opening work fascinated me with Richard Rodney Bennett's transformation of Debussy's familiar Syrinx for solo flute into a serialized piece. The Gordon Jacob Bagatelles are the only works here for unaccompanied oboe. Some of the seven are deliberately humorous, beginning with the opening March which calls to mind the Monty Python's "Ministry of Silly Walks."

Sonatas for Violin & Piano - ENESCO: Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, DEBUSSY: Sonata, RAVEL: Sonata - Gilles Apap, v./Eric Ferrand N'Kaoua - Apapaziz Productions GKJ99: The Debussy and Ravel violin-piano sonatas make good disc-mates, just as do their two string quartets. However, the focus here is on the Enesco sonata of l926 "In the Popular Roumanian Style." Violinist Apap fell in love with the work first in a recording by Yehudi Menuhin and later in the original one by the composer himself. Together with his French Algerian compatriot Ferrand-N'Kaoua he gives the work a fiery intensity of style such as might be heard from Nadia Solerno-Sonnenberg or Il Guardino Armonico. Since the sonata makes use of instrumental techniques of traditional Roumanian music such as sliding between notes and microtonal pitches,this approach doesn't sound excessive in the least. (I own a fine old Mercury LP of it by Rafael Druian and my own piano teacher, John Simms. However that one now sounds anemic next to Apaps's version. [This is a self-published label, so if you can't find it visit www.gillesapap.com]

- John Sunier

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