CLASSICAL CDs   December 2001

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VERDI: String Quartet; BENJAMIN BRITTEN: String Quartet No. 3. Verdi Quartet - Hanssler Classic CD 98.394:

What possible connection could these two quartets have, written more than a century apart by two radically different composers? I'll get to that in a minute. According to Verdi, he wrote his charming quartet "without attaching the least importance to it . . . I don't know whether the quartet is beautiful or ugly . . . ." The composer needn't have worried. This quartet stirs emotions as deep as any by Brahms or Dvorak. Verdi dramatically states the first theme, suppressing its urgency until the cello's scampering figure releases the tension. Like the interlude between two stormy acts, the Andantino is melancholic, marked to be played con eleganza. Listen to the Prestissimo and you'll have no doubts that an opera composer had to have written it. In its middle section, the cello plays lyrically, like the tenor singing the serenade "Deserto sulla terra" from Il Trovatore, with a pizzicato accompaniment instead of mandolin! Benjamin Britten's final string quartet was once of his last works and, like Shostakovich's Fifteenth string quartet, contains obvious strains of impending death.

There are many quiet corridors winding through this piece: three of the movements are marked "with moderate movement," "very calm," and "slow." The "very calm" III, with its high register first violin leading the way, is most disquieting. Although played adagio, it is as dramatic as the "Burlesque" IV, with its raucous self-parody and danse macabre aura. Ashenbach's "I love you" motif from Britten's opera Death in Venice appears repeatedly in V, sometimes distorted, sometimes barbed with regret. The Verdi Quartet performs both works superbly, presenting an eminently likeable rendition of the Verdi; however, they particularly shine brightly through the misty themes of Britten's swan song. So what do these works have in common? They're both quartets from opera composers. The final work is a curious inclusion: Thomas Rabenschlag's eight-minute "Paraphrase on Themes from the opera Aida." As a transcription, it is adequate, but barely touches Beethoven's transcriptions from Mozart's Magic Flute or Lizst's various transcriptions. Hanssler might have capped off this CD with the more delectable Crisantemi ("Chrysanthemums"), Puccini's only work for string quartet.

--Peter Bates

Witold Lutoslawski: Orchestral Works, Vol. 7. Polish National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antoni Wit - Naxos 8.555270:

It is not Krzysztof Penderecki nor György Ligeti who inherited the East European mantle of Bela Bartok. It is Witold Lutoslawski. From his Concerto for Orchestra, a direct tribute to his Hungarian mentor, to the works in this volume, Lutoslawski probed the edges of late 20th Century angst and forged his uniquely secular reaction. Antoni Wit conducted the previous highly successful volumes in this series (as well as a notable series on Penderecki for Naxos). His barbed and intense renditions of the Three Postludes cling persistently to memory long after playing. The opening bars of Postlude No. 1 convey a squirmy unease that finds release in the shattering orchestral tutti, only to settle back to a tenuous calm. It is a perfect sandwich analog of impending doom, resolution, and more doom that we've all gotten painfully used to these days. In contrast the three short fanfares and the Mini Overture lope about the musical landscape good naturedly, with raucous brass and bizarre contrasts.

Similar to Bartok's Divertimento for Strings, Lutoslawski's Preludes and Fugue for 13 solo strings is a bleak masterpiece of slurs peppered with pizzicati, low growling bass notes, and other jarring effects, all offered in the service of irony and forbearance in the face of disaster. Compare these pieces with those on Matrix 22 (EMI 65865), conducted by Lutoslawski twenty-four years ago, and you may notice subtle differences. Apart from the analog engineering and less sophisticated miking, the earlier version features more muted effects, particularly notable in the fugue section in Preludes and Fugue. In Wit's rendition, pianissimo string figures stand out more boldly, like figures in a bas relief sculpture. His glissandi in Postlude No. 1 are more dramatic, their precipitous falls more wrenching. In some places Lutoslawski's conducting seems abrupt; for example, when he shifts gears from agitato to lento, there is a corresponding drop in volume that sounds extreme. Wit draws the listener in on the composer's wry and disjointed world, like an enthusiastic guide tugging on your sleeve proclaiming, "You have got to see this!"

--Peter Bates

Ravi Shankar: Carnegie Hall. Anoushka Shankar, sitar - EMI 5 349222:

Like father like daughter? Not quite . . . and not bad. Anoushka Shankar's fourth album (the first one without her dad's accompaniment) is sprightly, intensely rhythmic, inventive, and altogether satisfying. Ravi Shankar composed the four pieces, so his influence is not far off. However, Anoushka forges her own identity in these tradition-based ragas, some of which contain very modern touches. The energy simmers beneath the lid even in her classically contemplative pieces, like the alap (slow arrhythmic introduction) in Raga Madhuvanti, only to boil over in the last two minutes. By the time the tabla players join her in the second movement gat, she is playing the sitar allegretto with palpable restraint. Nearly all of her work consists of staccato plucking, with little of the legato whine notable in her father's recordings from the sixties. As with the piece Yaman Kalyan on her Anourag (2000), she performs Raga Mishra Piloo as variations on a simple melody. She states the melody, takes it on a wild spin, then returns to it to snatch another variation, even more energetic than the first. Incidentally, the piece bears little resemblance to her father's Raga Mishra Piloo from A Morning Raga, An Evening Raga (1969), recently re-released by EMI. The previous piece moves at a classic pace, starting very slowly, gradually building speed and intricacy, then ending in a compacted and frenetic outburst. Anoushka's piece is quite different, wild and whirling almost from the first few minutes and virtuosic throughout. While she expressed misgivings about releasing a live album, she needn't worry. Like her father's show-stopping appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967), this one is a crowd pleaser.

- Peter Bates

M O R I M U R - (Music of J.S. Bach) - The Hilliard Ensemble/Christopher Poppen, baroque violin - ECM New Music 1765:

This has rapidly become one of the top-selling classical CDs today. It became so by attempt something pretty audacious, at least in musicology studies. Around the Baroque period it was the fashion to make up games, references and allusions that used numbers to represent hidden messages. A musicologist at the University of Dusseldorf claims to have discovered all sorts of such hidden numerical messages in the Partita in D Minor for solo violin of J. S. Bach. She says the work is a complex hidden epitaph in music for the death of the young composer's first wife, Maria Barbara. She finds both special symbolism in the numerical patterns in the music as well as actual quotations of Lutheran chorales in the lower and middle voices of the piece. The numbers come from such arcane discoveries as the way Bach would notate quarter notes or dotted eighths in certain passages - adding up the eighths would result in double the sum of numbers, for example. According to annotator Herbert Glossner Bach scholars have now collected so much evidence about the encoded messages in much of Bach's music that the only question is how narrow or broad the limits of this practice might be. The word Morimur refers to death as a passage into heavenly life; this Christian idea was an important part of Bach's thinking.

The album opens with two of the chorales sung by the Hilliard quartet, then violinist Poppen first plays the Allamanda from the solo Partita that uses elements from the chorales. This continues thru the entire Partita. Finally Poppen and the singers perform together the 14-minute Ciaccona in which the hidden chorales are sung right along with the violin lines. It struck me as similar to the previous improvisations of saxist Jan Garbarek with the Hilliards on this same label. There is considerable controversy over the correctness of this whole idea. Detractors point to the ability to find quotes of many different tunes in certain music if you look hard enough. You can read about all the arcane research that is behind this musical connection or just listen for the thoughtful beauty of the riveting, both spiritual and sensuous sounds, which are cleanly reproduced with the appropriate acoustics of the monastery where the recordings were made - that must be what has made this a classical hit.

- John Sunier

STEVE REICH: Triple Quartet; Electric Guitar Phase; Music for Large Ensemble; Tokyo/Vermont Counterpoint - Kronos Quartet/Dominic Fransca, elec. Guitar/Alarm Will Sound and Ossie/Alan Pierson, cond./Mika Yoshida, MIDI marimba - Nonesuch 79546-2:

Now for something completely different. Although in one way Steve Reich and Bach have something in common - they borrow from themselves in their music. We're familiar with how Bach did it, and Reich - the most rigid of the minimalists - does it by having performers mount new versions of his previous works, as in this collection of four of them. The string quartet written for the Kronos is written for three string quartets (12 players). The Kronos recorded the second and third parts first and then played along with their tapes in sync to create this version of the three-movement work. The short last movement modulates between different keys rapidly and with the interlocking lines of all dozen strings becomes very dense and dissonant for Reich.

The original Violin Phase was a very early Reich tape piece which involved the live solo violin becoming slowly out of phase with a recording of itself. The violinist came up with this new version by multitracking four different lines. Sharp rhythmic attacks give this version a stronger feeling than the original. The work for Large Ensemble was reconstructed by the conductor Pierson, who added two violins to the ensemble and dropped the original vocal parts. The last piece - Counterpoint - was originally written for flutes and piccolos but is here performed on an electronic sampler system laid out like a marimba. The intent was to have a marimba-like timbre but to shorten the duration of each sound so that it did not overlap the next note. It is a very sprightly and jovial work. Fortunately, the ennui factor is low in all these works because of their shorter length than some of Reich's extended compositions.

- John Sunier


Two contrasting approaches to the beautiful women & classical music mix...

Sarah Brightman - Classics - Angel 33257:

I should point out that this illustration is not the front of the jewel box but the back. It brings a whole new slant to the efforts of the major classical labels to improve their poor sales penetration via a dizzying variety of crossover gimmicks (a few of which are actually commendable) and that modern advertising approach best summarized as sex sells. And this photo is mild compared to the Penthouse-style spread in the enclosed booklet of the CD.

The songs include Ave Maria, O Mio Babino Caro, Pie Jesu (by ex-hubby Webber), Nessun Dorma and a clever vocal version of Tarrega's Recollections of the Alhambra. I ask you, does this look like appropriate artwork for a CD that starts off with Ave Maria? Well, Angel's ploy is working, because this CD is right up there with Morimur as one of the top sellers in the classical genre. Brightman has ridden to her current heights partly as result of hooking up with Andrea Bocelli for a duet CD that has sold over 40 million copies worldwide to date. They are both beautiful individuals with not-quite-ready-for-prime-time voices that are amplified, processed, equalized and promoted into a classical phenomenon giving the Three Tenors a run for their money. Brightman's arrangements on this CD are given the full blown Hollywood-cum-Nashville over production. To quote the reviewer for Portland's Oregonian, it's like "pouring Enja on Aida."

- John Sunier

Duo Similia - Cantabile (flute & guitar) - Analekta AN2 9810:

Now here's a fine example of using feminine pulchritude to add interest to a classical program. It's backed up with superbly attractive and skilled playing from sisters Nadia and Annie Labrie plus a well-selected program of 14 short selections, reproduced with very natural sonics. Some of the gems are the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, Ravel's Pavane, and a delightful little Sonatina by Castelnuovo-Tedesco. They sport matching straight blonde hair down to their waists. I wonder when they're appearing locally.

- John Sunier

Two new releases involving pianos...

CLAUS OGERMANN: Piano Concerto; Concerto for Orchestra - National Philharmonic Orchestra, London/Claus Ogermann, pianist and conductor - Decca 440 013 949-2:

Ogermann is a modern composer and arranger whose primary desire is to reach the listener. His main influences have been Scriabin and Max Reger and his works are for the most part tonal with serial techniques used occasionally used for coloration as did Bartok. Ogermann composed a piano/orchestral work for Bill Evans in l974, a Preludio & Chant for violinist Gidon Kremer, and a number of ballet scores among other works. Glenn Gould was a great supporter of Ogermann's music, which often shows jazz influences. The composer says that both concertos are written in terms of the major-minor principle. Like Scriabin, in the piano concerto he takes tonality into rare areas, building up from consonance to dissonances, but in a strongly lyrical way. It might almost be called lyrical atonality. The first of the only two movements of the concerto ends in a clear C Major. An extended meditative piano solo begins the second movement but this work concludes with an impressive hymn of glory or transcendence that also may remind one of ecstatic passages of Scriabin. The highly elegiac orchestral concerto is in three movements with a central funeral march movement.

- John Sunier

RACHMANINOFF: Symphonic Dances for 2 Pianos; Suite No. 1 for 2 Pianos; Suite No. 2 for 2 Pianos; Fantaisie-tableaux - Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman, pianos - Sony Classical SK 61767:

The Symphonic Dances was Rachmaninoff's final composition, begun as a two-piano work. While it's one of his most spectacular symphonic works, with all sorts of impressive orchestration, it retains plenty of snap in the original version, especially under the hands of Ax and Bronfman. All three works were recorded at a recital in New York City and the live situation seems to add a dynamism that even some of the other fine recorded versions by top pianists lack. The two Suites demand high technical prowess and like the Symphonic Dances are brilliantly optimistic in mood, unlike much of the composer's music. Strangely, the movements of the second suite are not listed in the notes, but those of the first suite are: Barcarole, A Night for Lovve, Tears, and Russian Easter.

- John Sunier

Continuing on the pianistic road, we have next two imaginative tributes to two great composers for the instrument...

DEBUSSY - Music of Tribute, Vol. 2 - Pavlina Dokovska, piano - Labor Records LAB 7032-2:
VILLA-LOBOS - Music of Tribute, Vol. 1 - Jose-Eduardo Martins - Labor Records LAB 7031-2:

These CDs are evidently both parts of a series. Neither are the expected recital of only works by the composer in question, but bring in other music and on the Debussy CD other performers for a more rounded view of the composer's music and a much more interesting program to listen to. For example, the Debussy album, featuring a Bulgarian pianist who won a Debussy competition in France, opens with The Tomb of Debussy, by Paul Dukas and follows it later in the program with works of the same title by Eugene Goossens, Roussel, Stravinsky, Bartok, Falla and Satie. Guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima and violinist Evgenia-Maria Popova are among the guest performers on some of the 17 selections in this Debussy program. The Debussy piano solos include Fireworks, L'Isle joyeuse, Footsteps in the Snow, and La plus que lente waltz.

The Villa-Lobos program has only three works by the Brazilian master, including the four-movement Ciclo Brasileiro. Three of the piano works by other composers are homages to Villa-Lobos, including a short improvisation by Guarnieri. Most of them were unfamiliar to me but most enjoyable, especially a Noturnas Saudades do Rio by Almeida Prado. Martins, whose Bach series for this label garnered much praise, is the pianist in all 14 selections on the CD.

- John Sunier

DAVID CHESKY: Psalms 4, 5 & 6 (Remembrance for the Victims of the Modern Holocausts) - Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Stephen Somary - Chesky CD203:

The booklet for this latest composition from David Chesky carries his ardent statement about the world's general indifference to the many holocausts of the past century and to those that continue today. The three instrumental works are all a bit over 20 minutes each and have the following subtitles: Sorrow, Aftermath, Rage and Despair. Sorrow features cello soloist Jan Slavik in some strongly elegiac passages with the orchestra. The general tenor of the works is in the spiritual, meditative style of the Eastern Europeans such as Paart and Kancheli, but with a more Western polish. So the economy-forced employment of the Czech orchestra instead of U.S. forces becomes extremely appropriate.

- John Sunier

VANGELIS: Mythodea - Music for the NASA Mission: 2001 Mars Odyssey - Kathleen Battle & Jessye Norman, sopranos/London Metropolitan Orchestra/National Opera Choir of Greece/Blake Neely/Vangelis, electronic keyboards - Sony Classical SK 89191:

Greek musical visionary and New Age Music icon Vangelis likes to think big. The new epic choral symphony from the composer of the Chariots of Fire score and dozens of others commemorates the ongoing NASA Odyssey mission to Mars. In addition to the two famous sopranos as soloists and Vangelis performing on his various electronic keyboards and synths, there is a 120-strong chorus and a huge orchestra with a battery of 20 percussionists. A live performance was given in the Temple of Zeus in Athens last June and filmed for international telecast and a DVD. The theatrical gala included both space images from NASA and mythological icons tying in with the idea of Homer's original Odyssey. The composer coined the title Mythodea - a combination of myth and ode, representing both the past and future. The work has ten movements plus an introduction. There is no libretto included in the seven-section foldout note booklet and frankly I didn't find a single word of the lyrics intelligible. No matter, the generally epic, percussion-heavy nature of the work comes across. This score cries out for multichannel reproduction. The symphony even has its own web site at with excerpts from the score, images from the film and other features - which may include the lyrics, who knows?

- John Sunier

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