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CLASSICAL CDs   Pt. 1 of 3 • October 2003

MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor "Tragic"  - Mariss Jansons conducts the London Symphony Orchestra - LSO Live LSO0038 50: 52; 30:43 (2 CDs) (Distrib. Harmonia Mundi):

Recorded live 27-28 November 2002 at the Barbican Center, this version of Mahler's A Minor Symphony (1903) makes we wonder if Mariss Jansons will traverse the whole cycle and effectively challenge the Philips survey by Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. The second of Mahler's triptych of "fate" symphonies, instigated by the eccentric, ineluctable march rhythms that correspond to the composer's heart arhythmia, the A Minor remains a feverish, emotionally elusive work that ends with three, resounding hammer strokes of fate, after a chaotic process in the last movement that superimposes Absurdity onto Heroism.

I like everything about this performance: it has a tempestuous energy and eeriness; it has emotional depth and despair; it has virtuoso ensemble and sweeping moments of exaltation. Conductors have to decide in which order to place the Andante and Scherzo; Jansons opts for the Andante to follow the frantic, opening Allegro energico, with its sudden, impassioned transport into the major, purported to be wife Alma Mahler's spiritual buttressing of the composer's omnipresent angst. For my money, the Andante is played to perfection, the quality of the LSO equal to anything they achieved with Horenstein. The outer movements and the Scherzo each have enough hysterical tension, despite some expansive tempos, to engage those of us who cut our teeth on this music with Mitropoulos and Szell. Typical of LSO Live, they only give us 30 minutes on the second disc. True, they are all blazing with excitement, but don't the LSO archives have another thirty minutes' worth of Jansons' miracles in another selection? Purchase here

--Gary Lemco


YORK BOWEN: Viola Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2; Phantasy for Viola and Piano – James Boyd, Viola; Bengt Forsberg, Piano – Dutton Epoch CDLX 7126:

JOHN MCCABE: Concerto for Piano and Wind Quintet; Musica Notturna; Fauvel’s Rondeaux; Postcards for Wind Quintet – The Fibonacci Sequence – Dutton Epoch CDLX 7125:

The Dutton record label is most well known for their generally excellent historical reissues, but their Epoch series offers new stereo recordings of somewhat neglected British composers of the twentieth century. The series so far has been engineered by Tony Faulkner, and the discs offer splendid sound (especially the McCabe), with a real sense of the recorded soundspace and excellent ambient presentation.

The disc dedicated to the works of York Bowen offers pieces dating from around the early 1900’s, when Bowen was considered one of the rising talents and preeminent new composers in Great Britain. He was one of the first composers to score works exclusively for the viola, and the three works for that instrument presented here are very representative of the late-to-post-Romantic period chamber style. Unfortunately for Bowen, his popularity didn’t last, and newly emerging compositions from Bliss, Bax, Holst and Vaughan-Williams soon eclipsed his work and rendered it less essential – and to most – forgotten. I found this disc uninvolving. James Boyd’s string tone was particularly unaffecting, and the music itself offered little to arouse my interest. Purchase here

The John McCabe disc is another story altogether, thankfully. These pieces for mixed wind instruments with occasional string and piano accompaniment all date from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, and are still relevant to contemporary audiences. The music borders on the serial, while maintaining more of a sense of harmony and melodicism, rather than dissonance. The rather odd scorings for instruments is also particularly effective; the use of the trombone in the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments gives us a most unexpected but extremely effective interplay with the other instruments. McCabe is a master at the use of silences to emphasize the very stark nature of many of his compositions.

The Fibonacci Sequence play these works as if they own them, and the excellent recording from Tony Faulkner serves to emphasizes the vitality of the program. There’s so much ambience here – I kept checking the surrounds to make sure nothing was coming from them. This disc is a must-have for fans of McCabe and this musical genre. Purchase here

-- Tom Gibbs


TAKASHI YOSHIMATSU: Symphony No. 5; Atom Hearts Club Suite No. 2; Prelude to the Celebration of Birds - BBC Philharmonic/Sachio Fujioka - Chandos New Direction CHAN 10070:

These are all premiere recordings of the very approachable modern music by 50-year-old composer Yoshimatsu. It turns out Chandos has already released five other CDs of his music. His work harks back for me to other brash, hip Japanese symphonic works to which I was introduced by tapes from NHK sent to public stations for broadcast many years ago. For example, Yoshimatsu derived the title for his Suite No. 2 here from a combination of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band, Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, and Astro Boy anime. As the Japanese say, Umbeedy! This fun work for string orchestra was originally written for a dozen cellos; it’s six movements are Pizzicato Steps, Aggressive Rock, Brothers Blues, Rag Superlight, Mr. G. Returns (theme for a fictitious spy movie), and Atomic Boogie. The whole orchestra shouts here and there and lets loose a big cheer at the end.

The story of Faust was the point of departure for the Fifth Symphony - not just the Western originals but similar tales of selling the soul from Japanese folk tales, Buddhist thought, and science fiction. Jazz influences are heard in the second and fourth movements and that fourth really rocks with much percussion and a rave-like dance delirium. The Celebration of Birds was commissioned for the millennium as a sort of fanfare for the new age, but it is just one of a series of Yoshimatsu works on the theme of birds. He holds back his vociferousness here and spins out some very lovely melodic lines. Purchase here

- John Sunier

MOZART: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3 - Sonatas Nos. 10, 11, 12 & 13 - Elizabeth Rich, piano - Connoisseur Society CD 4248:

Ordinarily I would have a ho-hum attitude about such much-recorded works and especially one disc of a complete set. Probably put it on a somewhat out-of-the-way stack to get to when I had some time to burn. But somehow I needed some Mozart at one point and put it on. What a revelation. Rich is certainly very close to Mozart and interprets his sonatas with exquisite taste and care. Within the confines of their style and period she plays with a most Romantic feeling and never lets the music degenerate into a run-of the-mill “proper” keyboard approach. The slow movements are painfully gorgeous, with very natural phrasing like the human breath. Only in the exoticism of the Turkish March of the No. 11 A Major Sonata did I miss a bit more muscular attack. Perhaps I was used to the recordings with the “Jannisary stop” on early pianos which gave a highly percussive sort of tack-piano sound. By the way, the piano tone throughout this disc - recorded in the Tarrytown, NY Music Hall - is superb. Purchase here

SAMUEL COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: Sonata in D Minor for Violin & Piano; African Dances; Hiawathan Sketches; Petite Suite de Concert - David Juritz, violin/Michael Dussek, piano - Dutton CDLX 7127:

Like Fats Waller and several other composers struggling at one point in their lives, Coleridge-Taylor sold the copyright to his great cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast to a publisher for £15. It later became the biggest-selling British choral score of its day, performed throughout the country. The composer was the illegitimate son of a doctor from Sierra Leone and an English Mother, and probably the first black classical composer to come to public attention since the Chevalier de St. Georges in the 18th century. He only lived to age 37 but gained great renown as a violinist and conductor; he made three visits to the United States. His music often explores African melodies and rhythms in the context of classical music; Dvorak was a strong influence due to his use of folk influences and his urgings to other composers to do the same.

The D Minor Sonata is a lightweight but dramatically exotic work full of great enthusiasm and obviously designed to show off the violinist’s virtuosity. The African Dances don’t sound a bit African to me but are four tuneful little pieces. The Hiawathan Sketches of course employ themes drawn from the composer’s famous cantata, and the closing Petite Suite again returns to the lighter, super-exuberant mood of the opening sonata - ending with a really rousing tarantella movement that must leave bow-hairs flailing all over the place. If you’re looking for some off-the-beaten-track chamber music to go with your morning coffee this CD will be sure to get you on track. Purchase here

- John Sunier


Woodwind Treasures = AUGUST KLUGHARDT: Quintet; BERIO: Opus No. Zoo; GEORGE HEUSSENSTAMM: Seven Etudes for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon; BORIS PILLIN: Scherzo; ROBERT LINN: Woodwind Quintet; HERMAN STEIN: Sour Suite - The Westwood Wind Quintet - Crystal Records CD250:

This should by rights be in our Reissue section because it is remastered from LP releases of l971 and 81, but the sonic quality is fully up to date in spite of its historic nature. The membership of the Quintet changed some during the decade, but clarinetist David Atkins and Oboist Peter Christ continued throughout. The oboist is also CEO of Crystal Records.

The quintet performed actively for close to 40 years and made over 15 albums. Their rich tone and polished musicianship are similar to the very best string quintet or quartet. Their choice of program is also first rate, though most listeners will find all the works new to their ears. Who knew that something from Berio could actually be a delight to hear? The fact that the movements are only from 57 seconds to three minutes length and portray cats, a mouse, a fawn and a barn dance of animals may explain it. The closing Stein suite is an even lighter and briefer four-movement piece of children’s music. 19th Century composer Klughardt’s Quintet is the major work here. Its four movements are in a diatonic language influenced by Brahms and Bruckner. The dense writing could have been easily expanded into symphonic proportions, but Klughardt makes full use of the capabilities of each of the five instruments when in the hands of such skilled players as the Westwood members. Purchase here

Horn in Trios = BRAHMS; Trio Op. 40; REINECKE: Trio Op. 274; FREDERIC DUVERNOY: Trio No. 1 - Jose Zarzo, Fr. Horn/Victor Parra, v./Radovan Cavallin, clarinet/Juan Francisco Parra, piano - Crystal Records CD771:

The Brahms Trio is the big work here, and is the composer’s only work spotlighting the horn. The instrument is given a superb part which blends beautifully with the violin and piano. There is a reference to a German folk song in the Adagio third movement. Reinecke, on the other hand, wrote frequently for the horn and other brass instruments. His trio mixes the timbres of the two woodwinds with that of the piano. Its lively finale has the rhythms of Eastern European folk dance. Zarzo is a magnificent horn virtuoso and the difficult-to-record instrument is well captured in the recording made in Spain, where these musicians perform under the name Ensemble Isola. Purchase here

- John Sunier


A quintet of recent offerings from the laudable American Music Series on Naxos...
DAVID DIAMOND: Symphony No. 1; Violin Concerto No. 2; The Enormous Room (Fantasia for Orchestra) - Ilkka Talvi, violin/Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz - Naxos American Classics 8.559157:

Another in the series of reissues on Naxos of Seattle Symphony recordings made for the Delos label in the early 90s. The First Symphony is the first of the composer’s “real” symphonies - written under the influence of Nadia Boulanger, who influenced so many American composers. It is complex harmonically but always tonal, displaying an unashamed Romantic spirit. Though written in l947 the Violin Concerto only had its premiere under Gerard Schwarz in 1991. The Enormous Room has nothing to do with Alice in Wonderland but rather the much more serious subject of imprisonment in a French detention camp in WWII, as described in a book by detainee E.E. Cummings. It is a free-form fantasia depicting a snow scene and a most beautiful instrumental work. Purchase here


GEORGE TEMPLETON STRONG: Ondine (Symphonic Poem); From a Notebook of Sketches - Suites 1 - 3 - Moscow Sym. Orch./Adriano - Naxos American Classics 8.559078:

Strong, who lived until l948, came from a musical family, studied in Germany and was friends of Liszt and Wagner. He became a teacher at the New England Conservatory at the invitation of his friend Edward MacDowell. But due to health reasons and realizing America would not give him a secure chance as a composer, he left after two years to settle in Switzerland. His music sounds more modern than many of his generation - he loved Richard Strauss, Mahler and Ravel. But he disliked Stravinsky, saying dissonance should only be used “as cayenne pepper is used in culinary art.”

A slew of composers wrote operas, ballets and other works based on the tale of Ondine the water nymph trying to regain her lost human soul by marrying a human. Strong’s is a extended (25-minute), very Romantic symphonic poem which was premiered in l940 under Ernest Ansermet. The overall title of his three suites may derive from his having spent more time painting water colors than composing in his later life. Each suite has three movements, with titles such as The Elves Blow the Horn, and The Night Watch. They are evocative little programmatic pieces with tastes of Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. Purchase here

NICOLAS FLAGELLO: Symphony No. 1; Sea Cliffs; Intermezzo from The Piper of Hamelin; Theme, Variations and Fugue - Slovak Radio Sym. Orch./David Amos - Naxos American Classics 8.559148:

Flagello, whose dates are 1928-1994, was thoroughly out of step with the international serialized style of composition prevalent during most of the second half of the last century. He steadfastly stuck to traditional tonal Romantic musical values without the irony or detachment of other composers. Therefore he was ignored. Til now. With the more democratic situation in concert music today, such non-experimental composers can find a whole new audience via recordings if not in the still generally unadventurous concert hall.

Flagello had Brahms’ Fourth as the model for his First Symphony, though the new work is more turbulent than Brahms. A three-note motif opens the symphony and is the basis for the entire four-movement work. The closing Ciaccona is the longest of the movements and is actually a passacaglia in which the motif is heard in retrograde as a repeated bass line. 19 strict variations are built on the theme. The other major work here, the Theme, Variations and Fugue, was written at the end of a year of study with Italian composer Pizzetti. It presents a somber theme into a contrapuntal design with nine variations. The fugue section is culminated with strong contributions from pipe organ and percussion. Purchase here


ALAN HOVHANESS: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra Op. 17; Symphony No. 22 “City of Light” - Janos Starker, cello/Seattle Symphony/Dennis Russell Davies (Alan Hovhaness cond. Sym. No. 22) - Naxos American Music Series 8.559158:

Recorded in l999 and 1992, this disc continues the close association the late composer had with his hometown orchestra, including conducting one of his own many symphonies. The composer stated he was thinking of a million lights of an imaginary - perhaps celestial - city. The mixing of elements of both Western and Eastern music and the strong spiritual aspect of his music was a preview of the type of meditative and mystical, timeless-sounding music now being popularized by composers such as Gorecki, Kancheli and Paart. The Cello Concerto was originally written in l936 and lacks the contrapuntal development found in Hovhaness’ later music, but is otherwise a fine work. This is its recording premiere. The Symphony is the later of the two recordings and has a somewhat more open and transparent sonic than the Cello Concerto. Purchase here

TERRY RILEY: Cantos Desiertos; ROBERT BEASER: From Mountain Songs; JOAN TOWER; Snow Dreams; LOWELL LIEBERMANN: Sonata for Flute & Guitar; PETER SCHICKELE: Windows - Alexandra Hawley, flute/Jeffrey McFadden, guitar - Naxos American Classics 8.559146:

The duo of flute and guitar is one of the most attractive and appealing sounds in chamber music. Even if already have some examples of such recital discs in your collection chances are good that you won’t have any of the works represented here. All were composed between 1966 and 1996 by some of the most talented American composers, and provide a varied and eclectic program that cuts across different genres but always with the highest musical and performance standards. Folk songs such as Barbara Allen form the basis of Beaser’s work, which is excerpted with only half of its original eight songs heard here. Joan Tower’s short work depicts a snowfall which begins gently but builds during the eight-minute work. Liebermann, who studied with David Diamond, contributes a lyrical nine-minute Nocturne, followed by an energetic Allegro half its length.

The CD is named after the Terry Riley work and it provides the major work in this duo recital. The Bay Area composer had moved from his earlier minimalist style to a more melodic one but he continues his diverse influences - including studies with an Indian classical music vocalist and writing works for the cutting-edge Kronos Quartet. Cantos Desiertos are part of a 26-piece cycle for guitar solo and with various other instruments, each with titles in Spanish. Part of it was composed during a vacation stay in Puerto Vallarta. One of the five Cantos is translated as Tango Sideways and has no particular story except that “everybody is writing tangos these days.” Peter Schickele does write music outside of the PDQ Bach framework, and his Three Pieces for Flute and Guitar is an example to close this recital. It opens with a short antique-sounding Pavane, continues with a folk-like Cantilena and concludes with a repetitive Refrain - based on traditional African music. Purchase here

-- John Sunier


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