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CLASSICAL  CDs
Pt. 2 of 3   Oct. 2003

AUERBACH: 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano. Angela Yoffe and Vadim Gluzman. BIS-CD-1242

Hats off ladies and gentlemen! A polymath! Lera Auerbach is not only a composer, but a prize winning novelist and poet (untranslated alas, from the Russian), and a concert pianist who’s performed at Carnegie Hall with Gidon Kremer. Her 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano are charming, ironic, and dramatic. This is the first release of her own works. Like the oeuvre of that other writer-composer, Paul Bowles (and to some extent Robert Schumann), she has a keen sense of the dramatic. Her miniatures, the longest of which is 5:37, often tell tales. No. 3, begins with a cloyingly sweet melody, evoking a little girl prancing in the woods. Suddenly jarring chords intrude, as if tragedy strikes. A diminished version of the opening theme, higher in key and slower, winds out the piece. Are fairy tales for fools? No. 4 sounds like a melodramatics pastiche of Rachmaninov. Close listening of other pieces reveals traces of her native Russian dances, with sly dissonant interludes inserted when least expected.

Her work reminds me of the “polystylism” of her countryman, the late Alfred Schnikke. Both composers tip their hats at the music of the past, while simultaneously smirking at it. Sometimes her lyricism is quite affecting, as in the elegiac No. 8, which I never tire of playing for friends. That slow tempo! Those high-pitched violin figures! In three minutes, it evokes images of widows weeping over graves and bombed out cities. Pianist Angela Yoffe and Vadim Gluzman deserve high commendation for making this album both a thrilling ride and a good read. Check out her composition list at www.leraauerbach.com and hope more of them get released. Purchase here

- Peter Bates


Two of us thought the next new release worthy of your attention...
BACH: Goldberg Variations - András Schiff, piano - ECM New Series1825 (72 mins.):

András Schiff's second recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, coming twenty years after his first (for Decca), is the most purely joyful recording I can remember. Schiff's comfort and ease with Bach's train of thought are so complete that he can rely on relatively slight changes in speed and phrasing to carry the listener along while he improvises here and there according to what seems to be uncanny rapport with the individual listener. There is nothing clever about these improvisations, nothing doctrinaire, nothing predictable; they just happen from time to time as if they had spontaneously come into the pianist's mind and fingers.

The concert was recorded during a live concert in the Stadtcasino in Basel in October, 2001, and is amazingly free of audience noise if a trifle clinical in quality. It benefits substantially from being played at low to moderate levels; Schiff's golden tone and the sound of his lovely Fabbrini piano soon begin to fill up the listening space and the sense is that of a small chamber music hall. Schiff's own liner notes (preceded by a short paean to Schiff, Bach and Goldberg by the Indian poet Vikram Seth), though they are rich in historical information, feel as exhilarating as his playing.

There are plenty of other Goldbergs on the piano around, among which Ekaterina Dershavina (Arte Nova), Glenn Gould's (his live Salzburg performance from 1959) and Murray Perahia (too, too beautiful for some tastes) take pride of place. But there is none, on the piano-or the harpsichord, for that matter - that have the pure joie de vivre this new one has.If you're geographically fortunate, Schiff will be playing the Goldbergs live in concert this coming May in San Francisco (Herbst Theater), Santa Barbara (Lobero Theater) and (at the new Walt Disney Concert Hall) in Los Angeles. Get your tickets while you can!

- Laurence Vittes

It seems another Goldberg Variations CD comes across my desk almost monthly lately, but this entry is worthy of special attention. In a similar re-thinking to that of Glenn Gould on this work, Schiff has decided after 20 years to replace his earlier landmark recording for Decca/London with this new version recorded during a concert in Basel, Switzerland. To record the work at all is quite an undertaking, but to do it at a live concert is especially noteworthy. Schiff himself says it helped his interpretation because he sees the Goldberg as a long work of continuity - not just a sequence of 32 variations. He feels the careful timing can only be achieved in a live performance. In his early recording he transposed some of the variations up an octave in homage to the two-manual harpsichord, but he now prefers subtler means and eschews that trick. The sonic quality has also improved, which is not necessarily chronological, but in the hands of producer Manfred Eicher and his engineer at ECM it is almost a given. Also Schiff travels with not only his own special Fabbrini piano but a piano technician who makes sure it is superbly tweaked for every performance.

In spite of being partial to performance of this work on the harpsichord, I found Schiff’s interpretation exciting listening. Hungarian-born Schiff strikes the keys with more gusto than any other piano version of the work I have heard. Mr. Goldberg would not have slept through this performance and neither will any listener. Now that ECM has released their very first SACD, I await the SACD version of this disc to see if the higher resolution can reveal still more in the music. Purchase here

- John Sunier

PENDERECKI: Sextet, Clarinet Quintet. Michel Lethiec, Arto Noras, et al. Naxos 8.557052:

Krzysztof Pendereki’s collection of chamber music opens with the Sextet for Clarinet, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Piano (2000). Its Allegro features ominous marching chords on the piano that soon metamorphose into a thrilling free-for-all. For ten fun-filled minutes, the instruments shower the listener with fragmentary dance rhythms, catty dialogs, rapid tonal ascents, and ritornellos that veer back to the marching theme from time to time. The ensuing Larghetto, twice as long, is more oblique, lacking the thematic direction of the Allegro. Its moody declarations typify the best and worst of Penderecki: inspired eloquence alternate with strains of long-winded rants. A bruised masterpiece. The shorter works like the Clarinet Quintet (1993) display more unity of theme and imagination. The quintet opens with a languid Notturno stretching its legatos after a long slumber. Trim and concise, this is a true crowd-pleaser. It launches an impish Scherzo with dazzling clarinet runs and prancing pizzacatti, segues effortlessly into the ironic Serenade, and concludes with a mysterious Larghetto, an Abschied that showcases the composer’s fixation for high-register strings and brief dialogues. It’s about a minute too long.

Three Miniatures for Clarinet and Piano (1956) reminds me of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet: jazz-inspired, compact, and witty. There is a plaintive highly chromatic Andante, with the final piece featuring percussive Bartokian figures. Like Britten thirty years ago, Penderecki composes a solo cello work, the Divertimento (1994). Played with uncommon energy by Arto Noras, this piece opens with a probing Sarabande, teeters on the edge of tonality with an acrobatic Serenade, plays angular capricious tones in the Scherzo, and concludes with an elegiac and eloquent Notturno. Vastly different from the rest of the work on this CD, the concluding Prelude for Solo Clarinet (1959) proves what I’ve always felt about chamber music compilations: often they are the best digests of a composer’s mercurial style. Purchase here

-- Peter Bates

Journeys with strings to two different Eastern European countries up next...

St. Michel Strings in Poland with Tadeusz Wicherek = GRAZYNA BACEWICZ: Concerto for String Orchestra, MIECZYSLAW KARLOWICZ: Serenade for Strings, MARIUSZ MATUSZEWSKI: Seven Pictures of Poland, ROMUALD TWARDOWSKI: Old Polish Concerto - Alba Records, Finland ABCD 173:

The reason for the title is that this is 12-member Finnish string orchestra, recorded in a hall in Finland but of a program entirely of works by Polish composers. It’s not the first collection of string orchestra works by Polish composers, so that genre seems to be popular there. Karlowicz may be the best known outside of Poland of these four composers. He was a virtuoso violinist and composed in the style of Richard Strauss. His promising career was cut short when he died in an avalanche while skiing. His Serenade exudes a nostalgic taste of salon music of the period around 1900, when it was written. The other three works come much later in the century, but Twardowski’s closing concerto harks back to the style of Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Wicherek’s ensemble has a lovely tone that is well preserved on the recording. Purchase here

Romantic String Trios from Hungary = LEO WEINER: String Trio in G Minor; KODALY: Intermezzo; DOHNANYI: Serenade Op. 10 - German String Trio - CPO 999 950-2:

All three of these chamber works were written in the first decade of the 20th century by Hungarian composers. Certain Hungarian critics pegged Weiner as the Hungarian Mendelssohn, but this is an individual work which if anything anticipates the style of Kodaly later on. The other major trio here, the Dohnanyi Serenade, is in five movements and regarded as one of the highlights of his ouvre. Its central Scherzo in D Minor is the focus of the work, creating an ironic and disquieting feeling. While the finale is a bright Rondo in C Major, it too concludes in a melancholy manner. All three instruments are well-balanced with excellent presence and no hint of digititus-marred string tone. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Piano Concertos a go-go on our next pair of discs...

The World’s First Piano Concertos = J.C. BACH: Concerto in E Flat; Concerto in G; Concerto in D (Arr. By MOZART); CARL FRIEDRICH ABEL: Concerto in B Flat; PHILIP HAYES: Concerto in A Major (1769); JAMES HOOK: Concerto in D - David Owen Norris, square pianos, & Sonnerie: Monica Huggett, violin; Emilia Benjamin, violin; Joseph Crouch, cello - Avie AV0014:

The actual holder of the title of World’s First Piano Concerto is the one here by Philip Hayes. All of these were written for the small square piano which had buckskin hammer covers and such a soft sound that it could only be accompanied by a string trio rather than a chamber orchestra as with harpsichord. The restored instrument used on some of the selections is the exact same square piano upon which Mozart composed his A Major piano sonata. (The dampers are made of elk hide.) It’s fitting that three of the concertos are by J.C. Bach, who was one of the top composers of this period. The reason for the many concertos rather than solo sonatas was that making music in the 18th century was a sociable thing. Hayes published six concertos in l769 and as many composers did to maximize sales, titled them as “for organ, harpsichord or fortepiano.” This fascinating disc brings together the sounds of a neglected instrument in neglected repertory, and succeeds in balancing the historical/musicological interest with listening pleasure. Purchase here

XAVER SCHARWENKA: Piano Concertos No. 2 in C Minor and No. 3 in C Sharp Minor - Seta Tanyel, piano/Hanover Radio Philharmonic/Tadeusz Strugala - Hyperion CDA67365:

This disc is Volume 33 in the label’s indefatigable Romantic Piano Concerto Series, which just keeps going. It’s a shame these exciting and tuneful piano concertos which have been ignored for so long due to changing fashions cannot be brought back into the concert hall to replace the umpteenth repetition of the Tchaikovsky, Grieg or Schumann. Schwarwenka, who modified his Polish origin with a strong dose of Liszt, wrote four piano concertos. His Second is more in the style of Chopin than Liszt, but the Third is stronger and offers a virtuosic display for the soloist. Both are three-movement works lasting nearly 40 minutes each. Hyperion’s sonics are beyond reproach, as usual.
Purchase here

- John Sunier

Another pair of new releases allowing me to get in my two cents worth in support of classical saxophone music...

Extravaganza for Saxophone and Orchestra = R. STRAUSS: Concerto In D Major for Soprano Sax, GLAZUNOV: Concerto in E Flat for Alto Sax & Strings; RACHMANINOFF: Vocalise; DAVID OTT: Concerto for Alto Sax and Orchestra - Debra Richtmeyer, alto & soprano saxophones/Slovak Radio Orchestra/Kirk Trevor - Albany TROY593:

Well. With a CD title like that this better be good, eh? Debra Richtmeyer is one of the leading classical saxophonists today. She is Professor of Saxophone at the University of Illinois, has performed at many World Saxophone Congresses as well as with leading symphonies, and the Ott Concerto on this program was written especially for her. The Strauss work is actually his concerto for oboe and orchestra, but the range of the oboe and soprano sax is almost identical, so transcription is easy. The wider dynamic range and ease of holding longer notes makes the sax version more successful, at least to my ears. Composer Ott reports that in his concerto he explored the special haunting timbre, wide dynamics and facile capabilities of the saxophone. Latin-American rhythms are heard in the fiery finale of the concerto. There is also a concert band version of the work, and Richtmeyer has also performed it. Glazunov’s Sax Concerto is one of the most-recorded works for the instrument, but this version holds up against any others I have previously heard. Purchase here

When Wind Comes to Sparse Bamboo = Works of BACH, BRITTEN, DEBUSSY, PERSICHETTI, RANDS, MARTINO, TOWER, HEIM & Gregorian Chant - Demetrius Spaneas, saxophones - Capstone Records CPS 8717:

Not many recordings are out of unaccompanied saxophone. While the Bach Partita movement and Debussy’s Syrinx (on alto, tenor and soprano sax) are presented without electronic manipulation, most of the other 17 tracks make use of some sort of modification of the solo sax sound. There is overdubbing to create melodies in canon (as in the Gregorian Chant), digital delay with variations in distortion and feedback, and doppler effects. The theme of Heim’s “title tune” is the juxtaposition of Eastern philosophical artistic concepts with the Western saxophone, and the composer asks for different widths and speeds of vibrato as well as use of quarter tones. Britten’s work is his Six Metamorphoses after Ovid. The CD is an unusual concept that works and sounds well. Purchase here

- John Sunier

The next pair presents music old and newer for strings and piano...

SERGEI PROKOFIEV: Sinfonia concertante in E Minor for Cello and Orchestra; Sonata in C for Cello and Piano Op. 119 - Han-Na Chang, cello/London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano (also pianist in the Sonata) - EMI Classics 5 574382:

The Sinfonia was originally the Cello Concerto No. 2 but was considered a failure when first premiered in l938. Later Prokofiev heard it played by Rostropovich with such fervor that he revisited the work with suggestions from the cellist and name the final version Sinfonia concertante. It was premiered in l954 and Rostropovich has recorded the work, but Han-Na Chang’s version loses nothing to the cello master’s earlier recording. The cello-piano Sonata is quite different from the serious and often frenzied mood of the Sinfonia. In fact its simpler, sunny disposition inspired previously critical “music police” in the party to hear it as a contrite offering of a composer who had previously been censured by them. Purchase here

BRAHMS: Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 34B; MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trio No. 1 - Martha Argerich, piano; Lilya Zilberstein, piano; Renaud Capucon, violin; Gautier Capucon, cello - EMI Classics 5 575042:

Martha Argerich’s annual chamber music festival in Lugano Switzerland is always special due to the fervor and brilliance of the pianist at its helm. She seems to elicit equally impassioned performances from the other artists she invites, and this CD preserves two magnificent examples from the 2002 Festival. Even if you already have other versions of these works, get this one - you will not be sorry. Absolutely superb music-making; good sound too. Purchase here

- John Sunier

A bit of Spanish flavor spices up the next pair of discs. Both composers and pianist de Larrocha were all born in Barcelona...

JOSEP MARIA RUERA: Empúries - Four Symphonic Poems - Orch. Of City of Barcelona & cobla Ens./Antoni Ros Marbà; Ambients - Talia String Quartet; Meditació - Jordi Maso, piano; Claudi Arimany, flute - Columna Musica - 1CM0058:

Ruera, who lived until 1988, wrote works in the Neo-Romantic tonal tradition which demonstrated his strong nationalistic feelings for the folk culture of his native Catalonia. Empuries was inspired by contemplation of the history of ancient Greece. He adapted Greek modal systems to the modern orchestra in the work. Each poem is preceded by a literary reference - three written by the composer and one from Homer. They are full of sparkling orchestral color in the style of Turina and other Spanish composers, with the added color of the high-pitched flaviol Catalan reed instruments - part of the cobla group of mostly brass folk instruments which joins the orchestra. The string quartet in four movements pays homage to Catalan folklore, with the second movement being an actual sardana dance. This CD will probably not be easy to locate, so try: columnamusica@canal21.com

GRANADOS: Escenas romanticas; Bocetos; Cuentos de la joventud - Alicia de Larrocha, piano - RCA Red Seal 09026-63368-2:

It is surprising that few of the approximately 140 compositions of Enrique Granados were performed or published in his short lifetime, and even now most of his output remains in that sorry situation. (His ship was sunk by a German sub in the English Channel in 1916.) Preeminent pianist de Larrocha has here brought together three lesser known piano works of the composer. They all demonstrate the innately nationalistic Spanish or Catalan elements found in most of Granados’ music. The major piece here is the Romantic Scenes, a suite of six movements, many in dance forms. The concluding Allegretto is suggestive of Brahms, Schumann and Chopin. The Stories of Youth suite also borrows a bit from both Schumann and Schubert. These works were recorded live during a recital at Manhattan Center in NYC. Ms. De Larrocha observed the Diamond Jubilee of her performing career in l989 and is now retiring from concert tours. She won a Grammy as well as Grand Prix du Disque for her recording of Granado’s Goyescas in 1991. My personal favorites of her previous recordings include any of Spanish piano music, the Ravel piano concertos, and the Mozart piano sonatas. Purchase here

- John Sunier


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