Pt. 2 of 2 
December 2002

click on any cover to go directly to its review

OLIVIER MESSIAEN: The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ for mixed choir, seven instrumental soloists and very large orchestra - (Soloists include Roger Muraro, piano, plus flute, clarinet, cello, marimba, vibraphone and xylorimba)/Choir of Radio France/Radio France Philharmonic/Myung-Whun Chung - DGG 471 569-2 (2 CDs):

One of the major-length and major-size creations of the highly individualistic French composer’s ouvre, The Transfiguration bears some resemblance to the massive Turangalila-Symphony (available in the same conductor’s performance, also on DGG). The strongly Catholic composer found in the story of the transfiguration of Christ one of the principle elements of his work - the emphasis on the blinding light of the transfigured deity. Ecstatic occurrences such as this are part and parcel of Messiaen’s musical world, but as the thoughtful essay in the booklet states, this incident in the Gospels is almost bizarre - the invention of a surrealist. One might in fact think of Dali’s images of Christ. There are two sections to the work, each neatly placed on its own CD, and each has seven sections. Four of them spaced throughout are Evangelical Recitations - with the chorus, in Latin, declaiming the story of the Transfiguration. The flute, clarinet and vibes as well as the piano give opportunities for the composer’s favored impressions of bird song. There are also percussion and chanting effects redolent of the high Himalayas. This is a complex and highly-structured work worthy of study and understanding, but can also be appreciated just as an amazing trip via orchestral and choral sounds. The glorious climaxes are handled well by DGG’s engineers, but this would clearly be a perfect candidate for multichannel SACD now that Universal Music has entered the hi-res altitudes.

- John Sunier

BIBER: “Unam Ceylum” - Six Sonatas for solo violin - John Holloway, v./Aloysia Assenbaum, organ/Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord - ECM New Series 1791:

Biber was the leading violinist-composer-virtuoso of the 17th century, and today his works stand out as some of the most imaginative and expressive music created in the Baroque period. Any serious violinist would be drawn to his works, if not dissuaded by their technical difficulties such as the alternate-tuning known as scordatura. The organ and harpsichord here are obviously used to provide the basso continuo common to Baroque chamber music, but unusual is the use of both keyboard instruments simultaneously in most of the selections. There is evidence that the eclectic approach of those times would have accommodated such scoring. Two of the six sonatas heard here were never published. This is surely not typical Baroque instrumental wallpaper music. And ECM’s sonics do full justice to the crystalline spinning of notes.

- John Sunier

VIVALDI’s Four Seasons and other tunes - Gilles Apap & The Colors of Invention - Apapaziz Productions GKJ00102:

Another enthusiastically light-hearted twist on classical fare from the French-Algerian violinist based in Santa Barbara. The Colors is not a typical string ensemble, but a versatile little trio consisting of accordion, cimbalom and double bass. And in addition to the four seasonal Vivaldi movements, Apap has dropped in various folk themes - many inspired by the same poetic impressions of nature that inspired Vivaldi. They include a Bulgarian and a Romanian tune each, two Jewish tunes, five Irish tunes, two old-time tunes and one described as a “schizoid whistler.” This is a perfect antidote for those us tired of the endless straight Four Seasons from which it seems impossible to escape (like Pachelbel’s Canon). The disc packaging is creative fun too, a nice alternative to the pesky jewel box. If you have trouble finding this self-published CD visit Gilles’ web site or try Public Radio Music Source.

- John Sunier

Do lo Clasicao a lo Clasico - Duo Sincopa (guitar & Cuban tres) - Urtext Digital Classics UL 3015:

This is the first CD I’ve received from this Mexican classical label. It displays superb quality music, recording, and alternative-to-jewel box packaging. The basically two-guitar program encompasses a wide variety of south-of-the-border musical styles, including works of Leo Brouwer, Antonio Lauro, Lecuona, and even The Pink Panther Theme by Mancini. The smaller and plunkier sound of the tres provides a nice match with the Spanish guitar, and the arrangements by the two performers are a delight. A dance feeling is vital to most of the works, especially in Lecuona’s Variations on Two Dances.

- John Sunier

WYNTON MARSALIS: All Rise - Marsalis, trumpet/Paul Smith Singers/Northridge Singers of California State University/Morgan State University Choir/Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra/Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen - Sony Classical S2K 89817 (2 CDs):

Marsalis’ seemingly endless spate of releases with Sony has ended, but he has obviously not been completely dropped as this massive musical project bears evidence. It was a commission from the New York Philharmonic. It must have been a major handful to create in the first place, and its recording coordination can’t have been very easy either. But the project seems to have been a satisfying one for the involved musicians, especially the LA Philharmonic members. Among their comments in the note booklet are that Marsalis skillfully used and blended together all the various vocal and instrumental forces. One stated “This is the hippest thing the orchestra has ever done.” Truly, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is dovetailed into the symphonic and choral forces with more skill than usually heard in such jazz ensemble-and-symphony efforts.

Marsalis writes that he used the blues as the base to integrate all these musical approaches. The work has a dozen movements, broken into three sections of our movements each, and the entire thing is in the form of a 12-bar blues. Each movement expresses a moment in the experiences of our lives. The first section concerns joyous birth and self-discovery, the second concentrates on mistakes and sacrifice, and the last emphasizes maturity and joy. Elements of many different cultures which Marsalis feels are related to the blues are included, among them the didgeridoo, New Orleans brass bands, fiddlers’ reels, the samba, Chinese parade bands, Italian arias and down home ditties. Reading Marsalis’ descriptions of each movement one is reminded of Duke Ellington’s several suites as well as his Sacred Concerts. That would surely please the composer-trumpet virtuoso, who wants to be an Ellington II. Sometimes he comes close; not this time, but it’s a very enjoyable work nevertheless.

- John Sunier

British symphonic music of two composers herewith...

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Pastoral Symphony (No. 3); Norfolk Rhapsody Nos. 1 & 2; The Running Set - Rebecca Evans, sop./London Symphony orch./Richard Hickox - Chandos CHAN 10001:

“VW rolling over and over in a ploughed English field,” is how one critic described this symphony. The truth is that the pastoral scene the composer intended was not one in England but in France, where he had served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during WW I. And the mood is not really joyous as in Beethoven’s Pastoral but tinged with the sad experiences of war. The tranquil finale has a wordless vocalise for soprano solo. The two Rhapsodies are based on several folksongs with haunting melodies which the composer collected in the Norfolk region of England, and this is the world premiere recording of No. 2.

ERNEST JOHN MOERAN: Symphony in G Minor; Sinfonietta - Bournemouth Symphony Orch./David Lloyd-Jones - Naxos 8.555837:

Folk music of Norfolk also is found in the symphony by this lesser-known British composer, along with music from Ireland. One critic described it as one of the finest pieces of nature-music ever written. The four movement 44-minute work was commissioned in l924 but not completed until a dozen years later. The opening movement is lyrical but energetic, and has been described as both train music and sea music by various writers. The somber slow movement conjures up the misty marshes and dunes of East Norfolk and the finale has a bitter mood that may - like VW’s Pastoral Symphony - allude to the horrors of the First World War. The Sinfonietta is a work of the 1940s which attempts to speak in a more lean and modern symphonic language, but is still steeped in the beauty of the English countryside. Sonics are rich and well-defined, perhaps the result of the 24-bit digital recording media employed.

- John Sunier

Here’s a pair of less-known American composers served up by Naxos’ American Classics Series...

JEROME MOROSS: Frankie and Johnny (complete ballet); Those Everlasting Blues (Cantata); Willie the Weeper (Dance Cantata) - Soloists/Hot Springs Music Festival Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Chorus/Richard Rosenberg - Naxos American Classics 8.559086:

Moross, who lived until l983, worked primarily for the stage and films, writing in a very American tonal style. His works often used the folk tunes and pop songs of the day. Many musicals, ballets and 17 film scores, including that for the Western “The Big Country.” I’ve enjoyed for years an LP of some of Moross ballet music for orchestra and two pianos, so was surprised to find that the two dance works heard here incorporate vocal and choral forces. Frankie and Johnny grows out of the popular song about the hooker who shoots her pimp for philandering with another woman. The modern-day Greek chorus/trio heard throughout are Salvation Army girls in the ballet production. The short mid-program cantata uses a more modest instrumental accompaniment and more experimental tonal language, but with the closing Willie the Weeper - premiered by the Hot Springs Festival performers - we return to the jazzy, seamy-side-of town mood of Frankie and Johnny. The singers are excellent in their roles and deliver the lyrics with great clarity.

FREDERICK SHEPHERD CONVERSE: The Mystic Trumpeter; Flivver Ten Million; Endymion’s Narrative - Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta - Naxos American Classics 8.559116:

Converse, who lived until l940, studied with both Chadwick in the U.S. And Rhineberger in Germany. His main focus was symphonic tone poems, of which has here selected three. The Mystic Trumpeter was inspired by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Honegger’s depiction of a steam locomotive in Pacific 231 inspired Converse to depict the ubiquitous Model T in a similar musical manner. The rest of the work’s title goes “A Joyous Epic Inspired by the Familiar Legend ‘The Ten Millionth Ford is Now Serving Its Owner.’” His viewpoint was to wonder how Mark Twain would have handled such a theme if he had been a composer instead of writer. Endymion is one of two works Converse based on the poem by Keats which begins “A thing of beauty is a joy forever...”

- John Sunier

Two Eastern European composers deserving of more attention...

MIECZYSLAW KARLOWICZ: Three symphonic poems = Eternal Songs; Stanislaw and Anna Oswiecim; Lithuanian Rhapsody - BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal Tortelier - Chandos CHAN 9986:

Lithuanian composer Karlowicz died in a skiing accident in l909 and is known for his six symphonic poems of which three are presented here. His late-Romantic idiom was influenced by his admiration of the music of Bruckner, Grieg, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. The three sections of Eternal Songs fit into a supra-human philosophical bent that is pointed up by a Zarathustra-like theme appearing in the middle section. They are Songs of Everlasting Yearning, Love and Death, and Eternal Being. The second work is based on the composer’s travesty of Romeo and Juliet in which a brother and sister struggle against incestuous love, and the Lithuanian Rhapsody is based entirely on folk songs of that country. If you like Richard Strauss you’ll love Karlowicz.

TANEYEV: Symphony No. 2 in B Flat Major; Symphony No. 4 in C Minor - Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Valeri Polyansky - Chandos CHAN 9998:

The Fourth is Taneyev’s calling card with most listeners - its imposing three-note theme at the start is just the first of his unusual melodies, developed with interesting chromaticism and often dense counterpoint. He ends the 40-minute symphony with the second of two waltz sections, a surprising switch from C minor to C major and six strong chords at the conclusion. The much earlier Symphony in B Flat Major is more Germanic in style, with less memorable melodic content but some interesting harmonic development spiced with hunting-horn sounds in the final of the three movements. Spirited and rich performances from the Russian players and sumptuous sound from Chandos.

- John Sunier

To close, two discs of rather obscure piano music that shouldn’t be obscure...

IGNAZ MOSCHELES: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 in E Flat Major & No. 3 in G Minor; Anticipations of Scotland: A Grand Fantasia - Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley, pianist & conductor - Hyperion CDA67276:

Volume 29 in the label’s Romantic Piano Concerto series presents works by one of those virtuoso pianist-composers of the l9th century who have mostly been neglected ever since. A Jew from Prague, Moscheles began his career in Vienna and quickly became known throughout Europe. The piano was the hot new instrument at this time and the piano concerto quickly became a showpiece with which to astound audiences with not only the virtuosity of the performer-composer but also the developing expressive possibilities of the technical improvements in the grand piano. No. 2 fits the spectacular category but No. 3 is more in the Clementi-Beethoven style of pathos and longing. Some passages sound like pure Chopin. Moscheles had never been to Scotland when he wrote the Grand Fantasia, but knew that Scottish tunes were in vogue then and assembled a series of them with orchestral accompaniment.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 4 (1924) & 7 (1988) & 6 short works - Janice Weber, p. - Naxos American Classics 8.559104:

Ornstein, who died just this year, was an important composer at the beginning of the 20th century. His works range from extreme dissonance to diatonic tonality. Around 1913 he began a series of concerts in New York featuring his own wild compositions as well as works of Scriabin, Ravel, Schoenberg, Bartok and others little known in the U.S. His composing style varied completely, even day to day, and he never got around to actually notating some of his important works such as his first three piano sonatas. The program chosen by pianist Weber shows the wide range of Ornstein works. The 4th piano sonata heard here is quite normal sounding with Russian influences, yet the energetic 7th sonata mixes radical material with lovely lyrical passages. Of the short pieces, Wild Men’s Dance, and Impressions of the Thames are among the wildest. The strange closing work, Suicide in an Airplane (1913), was inspired by a newspaper story of the time and imitates the drone of the plane’s engine, which - also strangely - continues on and slowly fades out at the end of the piece.

- John Sunier>

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