CLASSICAL CDs,   Pt. 2 - JUNE 2001

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CHRISTOPHER ROUSE: Concert de Gaudi for Guitar and Orchestra; TAN DUN: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra - Sharon Isbin, guitar/Gulbenkian Orch./Muhai Tang - Teldec New Line 8573 81830-2:

Guitarist Isbin commissioned both of these quite different concertos. Rouse intended to give a sonic impression of the feelings that the unexpected and surreal structures of Gaudi have upon people. He sees the Spanish architect as one of the few people ever allowed to actually build his dreams and tries to give a feeling for his spirit in this musical fantasy. The influence of flamenco music is also strong in the three movement concerto. Tan Dun explores the expressive potential of the Spanish guitar from the standpoint of the ancient Chinese instrument the pi-pa. He attempts to bring together the musical cultures of China and Spain. Isbin had to perfect new approaches to making the modern guitar sound like the pi-pa. Both concertos are highly original works which are not afraid to experiment, but both are immediately accessible to most listeners. The recording was made at a live concert performance in Lisbon last year, adding to the excitement of some exciting music.

- John Sunier

Tracing Astor - Gidon Kremer Plays Astor Piazzolla - with Kremerata Baltica - Nonesuch 79601-2:

In this encore to his previous Piazzolla-centered Nonesuch CD - the best I've heard - Kremer includes not only the composer's own music but also some other works which seem to belong to the same passionate/cynical/nostalgic mood. Six of Piazzolla's Tango-Etudes are striking string orchestra works in Kremer's arrangements. A ten-minute piece for two solo cellos and strings by Sollima is lovely, and Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov contributes Tracing Astor for piano quartet, as well as some of the other arrangements. Horacio Ferrer is the narrator for Piazzolla's The Little Urchin from Bachin - and this time there is an English translation, thank you.

- John Sunier

ALBERTO GINASTERA: Estancia; Harp Concerto; Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals; Panambi - Isabelle Moretti,harp/Lyon National Orch./David Robertson - Naïve V 4860:

The gorgeous cover of this cardstock-sleeve CD telegraphs a clear impression of the pleasures to be found inside. The Argentine composer, who died in l983, created a wide variety of music - from folksong influences to serialism - always full of color and complex rhythms. He is probably the best-known Latin American composer after Villa-Lobos. The two highly rhythmic and tuneful ballets that frame the concerto and the work on themes of Casals have long been pop-concert staples. Percussion and brass are foremost in their makeup. Harpist Moretti began her connection with Ginastera at age 19 playing this concerto, and she later recorded the harp version of his hit Concerto de Aranjuez. She loves the Harp Concerto because it avoids the usual harp glissando cliches and shows the violent, wild and raw side of its expressive possibilities. Altogether a totally appealing looking and sounding album.

- John Sunier

LÁSZLÓ SÁRY: Locomotive Symphony - Budapest Music Center BMC CD 010:

The distinctive cover of this album also hints as to the unusual sounds inside. Notice there is no orchestra or conductor listed? Good reason. The l998 work which opens this CD is in actuality an electro acoustic work on tape, created entirely from the natural musique concrete sounds of steam engines and trains. The composer's father was a station master, and a fascination with steam locomotives fit perfectly with his early music studies which exposed him to John Cage's idea that "noise is music." That was no leap of faith for Sary.

The CD contains an earlier Studies on Steam Engines which was sort of a rehearsal for the 17-minute Locomotive Symphony. There is also a remastering of a 1983 Hungarian LP with 45 minutes of actual source material used by Sary in creating his tape music work. The original Ducretet-Thomson LP, Panorama of Musique Concrete (which I wore out as a youth) included a short work employing natural train sounds. Actually, it wasn't tape music at all but 78rpm music since it was created in the l940s using multiple turntables and disc recorders! Sary's locomotive opus takes that same idea and speeds down the track with it. Honegger and others have tried to portray steam engines in music and took the idea of programmatic music into entirely new areas. But Sary's piece is Reality Music! Even my wife loved it, and she hates avant-garde music. Audio buffs will also appreciate the opportunity to crank up the volume and scare the neighbors. Plus there are some head-twitching rapid oscillations of loud sounds between the two channels. Not for those subject to aurally-induced seizures. For the rest, Git On Board.

- John Sunier

OLIVIER MESSIAEN: Turangalila Symphony; L'ascension - Francois Weigel, piano/Thomas Bloch, Ondes Martenot/Polish National Radio Symphony Orch./Antoni Wit - Naxos 8.554478-79 (2 CDs):

The massive ten-section symphony is probably the late French composer's greatest symphonic work. His mix of Hindu traditions, Greek rhythms, 12 tone serialism, Debussy, and transcribed bird songs - all filtered through his strong Catholic faith - make Messiaen truly unique among 20th century composers. Turangalila comes from the Sanskrit and its various meanings include: love song, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death. Four generative themes recur during the 80-minute work: the heavy "statue theme" heard in the trombones, the flower theme on the clarinets, the love theme and lastly a simple chord succession - the chord theme. Whether or not you share the composer's theology or even his compositional style, most of his music clearly communicates a certain mood, and that is one of ecstasy. L'ascension is an early work consisting of four meditations on Biblical scripture, most of it scored with a chamber orchestra palette. There are other versions of Turangalila of course, but the attributes of fine performance and engineering of this one combined with its bargain price make it a perfect route to experience the work without any serious sacrifice.

- John Sunier

SAMUEL BARBER: Three Essays for Orchestra; Two Excerpts from 'Vanessa;' Music for a Scene from Shelley; Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance - Detroit Symphony Orch./Neeme Järvi - Chandos CHAN 9908:

These are not the first recordings of any of this music but the particular assembly of works by Barber is very welcome. It is a reissue of the Essays, which were originally coupled with Ives' First Symphony on a l992 release. It is good to have all three Essays together, showing Barber's growth as a composer since they were done over many years. The second and third are noted for their provocative use of the percussion section. While not averse to some modernisms, Barber's music is generally in a Late Romantic style though of a distinctive voice easily recognized as his own. The Shelley music gets rather chromatic for Barber but is scored with great delicacy of texture. The Medea ballet music is one of the composer's best-known works for its emphasis on winds and percussion passages that may remind one at times of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. While not as wild and vengeful sounding as Howard Hanson's version of the complete ballet on Mercury, Jarvi benefits from more up to date recorded sound.

- John Sunier

SCRIABIN- CONUS: Symphony No. 3 (Le Divin Poème); Poem of Ecstasy - Ilona Prunyi & Sandor Falvai, piano(s) - Naxos 8.555327:

Leo Conus was a contemporary of Scriabin and even served as an early piano teacher when they were both in Moscow Conservatory. He made a piano-four-hands arrangement of the Third Symphony at the same time Scriabin's wife was copying out the orchestral score. He later took over when the composer failed to complete a two-piano transcription of his Poem of Ecstasy - now his best-known orchestral work. While both lack the extravagant orchestrations of the originals, the piano transcriptions seem to work better than many such due to the composer's deep lifelong involvement in composing for the piano. They sound almost like later piano sonatas in his actual series of ten. Scriabin's development of his musical themes also seem to take on a more pronounced character since one isn't caught up in the ecstatic symphonic paroxysms.

- John Sunier

WILLIAM SCHUMAN: Violin Concerto; New England Triptych; CHARLES IVES-SCHUMAN: Variations on America - Philip Quint, violin/Bournemouth Symphony Orch./Jose Serebrier - Naxos 8.559083:

One of the latest in the label's American Classics series showcases some of the most accessible works by the important American composer who died only nine years ago. The Violin Concerto surprised me with its emotional power - something I felt lacking in much of Schuman's music. It calls for great skill on the part of the soloist, and is in only two movements rather than the usual three. Why this isn't heard on concert programs today instead of the usual violin concerto chestnuts, I haven't the faintest. Schuman's skill as an orchestrator comes out in the three sections of the New England Triptych, each based on a different early American folk song. The same goes in spades for his imaginative and rollicking orchestration of Ives' wonderful Variations on the tune America. Terrific sonic impact on this CD aids in delineating the details of Schuman's orchestrations.

- John Sunier

HORATIO RADULESCU: "The Quest" - Piano Concerto Op. 90 - Ortwin Stürmer, piano/Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orch./Lothar Zagrosek - CPO 999 589-2:

Messiaen called Radulescu one of the most original young musicians of our time, and credited him with participating in the renewal of musical language. His contribution is the "spectral language," a conceptual reply to Pythagoras and a realization of intuitions found in both Hindu and Byzantine music. There is also a use of the I Ching and microtonal pitch systems. However, much of Radulescu's music is for the standard-pitched piano. My Quest to describe this Concerto is bound to fail considering the time and space at hand. This is definitely fresh new music. One of the composer's similes is to an acoustical Calder mobile. Throw in a bit of Bartok, Scriabin and Messiaen and perhaps that's a start at describing this really wild piano concerto. The element of ecstatic yearning is again very strong here, as could be deduced from the latter two composers just listed. Here's another work that is so dense that I'm fantasizing it might eventually be heard via a multichannel SACD - that would be ecstasy for these ears!

- John Sunier

VERDI: Falstaff--Jean-Philippe Lafont, bar/Hillevi Martinpelto, sop/Anthony Michaels-Moore, bar/Sara Mingardo, cont/Rebecca Evans, sop/Antonello Palombi, tenor/Peter Bronder, tenor/Francis Egerton, tenor/Gabriele Monici, bass/Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner cond/Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique--Philips 280 462608 (2 CDs):

Verdi's glorious final outburst of song has received a number of excellent recordings, from the striking clarity of Toscanini (RCA) through Gobbi's colorful performance for Karajan (EMI) to Fischer-Dieskau's skillful acting for Bernstein (Sony). Now Gardiner brings us another first-rate version of this great comic opera, though it's more notable for its sense of ensemble and excellent sound than for conveying the humor called for by Boito's witty libretto and Verdi's ebullient score. It's idiomatically Verdian, but a rather sober affair, closer in spirit to the operas that preceded it than to what its authors were trying to achieve. Lafont sings well but takes everything a bit too seriously, and while the rest of the cast is very good, they too don't really bubble as much as they should. However, while Lafont is no Gobbi and Gardiner doesn't provide the excitement of Toscanini, he has an excellent sense of pace and structure, his chorus and orchestra provide solid support, and as a whole, this is probably the best of the modern performances.

-- Alex Morin

ANGELS HIDE THEIR FACES: Purcell: Songs; Bach; Cantata BWV 199, "Mein Herze Schwimmt in Blut"--Dawn Upshaw, sop/Myron Lutzke, cello/Arthur Haas, keyboard

Nonesuch 79605:

The protean Dawn Upshaw has sung and recorded all sorts of things with equal facility, from the most modern songs back to the Baroque music presented here: Bach's Cantata 199, the painful plea of a sinner for redemption, incongruously sandwiched between eight mostly cheerful Purcell songs. The program notes by John Harbison speak of the contrast between Purcell's "sensuality" and Bach's concentration on "moments of psychic revelation", and there is some truth in that; certainly the English court composer and the German Kapellmeister spoke to very different audiences in very different idioms, and I find their juxtaposition uncomfortable. However, Upshaw's voice has always been strong and pure and it seems to me that it has become more opulent over the years; while the Cantata could use more dramatic intensity, it's beautifully sung, and the Purcell songs are sheer joy. She has a remarkable ability to change color and timbre to suit the texts, from the creamy smoothness of "Music for a while" from Oedipus to the bright, clear ease with which she navigates the florid passages of "If music be the food of love". Everything in this disc is interpreted with intelligence and bathed in warmth, and I can't recommend it too highly.

--Alex Morin

IVES: Sets for small orchestra; Songs--Susan Narucki, sop/Sanford Sylvan, bar/Alan Feinberg, piano/Richard Bernas, cond/Music Projects

Decca 466841:

Ives frequently turned orchestral pieces into songs and vice versa. He arranged a number of his very brief songs into what he called "Sets" for small orchestra, and in turn transformed several short orchestral pieces into songs with piano accompaniment. This very interesting disc first offers four of the Sets complete plus excerpts from three others, followed by 16 of the songs to which they are related. The orchestral Sets display Ives's usual collages of tunes, tempos, tonalities, and meters. Their instrumentation is unusual, they're quite fascinating, and Bernas provides authoritative leadership for the Music Project, an ensemble of skilled musicians he founded in London in 1978. In the songs the composer shows his skill in dealing with the internal rhythms and shape of verse. Soprano Narucki has a light, clear voice, baritone Sylvan is bold and resonant, and both communicate this difficult material with strength, understanding, and considerable beauty; Alan Feinberg provides excellent support at the piano. This is absorbing music, and a good introduction to Ives's imaginative world.

--Alex Morin

HENZE: Six Songs from the Arabian; Three Auden Songs--Ian Bostridge, tenor/Julius Drake, piano

EMI 7243 557112:

In Henze's prolific career, he has written in just about every genre imaginable and moved through a variety of idioms, from neo-classicism to atonality and serialism to his distinctive fusion of them all. His recent music, exemplified by his opera The English Cat, is still angular and dissonant, but with a constant vein of lyricism running through it. That's what we hear in these two sets of songs, the first based on his own poems (except for one on a Rückert poem) and the second setting poetry by W.H. Auden. They are difficult to sing, with their mixture of forceful declamation and limpid melody and their jagged leaps, and the accompaniments are even more difficult and angular and often seem unrelated to the texts. Bostridge, whose repertoire has ranged from the Baroque to the modern, sings this material brilliantly, with excellent diction that gives appropriate color to the words, with strength and tenderness as needed, and with consummate interpretive skill. His voice here has more weight than I remember from his other recordings, but he also has a lovely high register--e.g., in an ode to a praying mantis in the first set--and is rock solid elsewhere. Drake makes the accompaniments interesting with remarkable skill, and the sound is excellent. This is fascinating music, if not always conventionally agreeable, and performed as well as this, it's easily recommendable, at least to those seeking a new musical experience.

--Alex Morin

VERDI: Opera arias--Thomas Hampson, bar/Richard Armstrong, cond/Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment--EMI 7243 557113

You've probably heard everything there is to say about Thomas Hampson, the best-known baritone of our time. He has recorded operas, operettas, musical comedies, German lieder, French chansons, and popular songs, all with equal facility and beauty, and seems to be trying to overtake Fischer-Dieskau as the most recorded singer of all time. Here he offers 11 arias from Verdi operas, most of them unfamiliar. Verdi's baritones were given dramatic rather than romantic roles, and Hampson, with his velvety voice covering a steely base, conveys these arias boldly and expressively. I particularly enjoyed two more gentle French arias, "Son regard", from the little-known Le Trouvère (the Paris version of Il Trovatore), and "Oui, je fuis bien", from Les Vêpres Sicilliennes, where he employs a lovely smooth legato. But the singer is in excellent voice throughout, the accompaniment and sound are good, and the entire recital is a pleasure to hear.

--Alex Morin

FRENCH OPERA ARIAS -- Roberto Alagna, tenor/Bertrand de Billy, cond/Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden--EMI 7243 557012:

Roberto Alagna is probably the most prominent among the current crop of operatic tenors. His voice isn't particularly well-trained, but it's easily produced and bright, with a clear, ringing top when needed. But while he sings the Italian repertoire admirably, he doesn't do as well in the French arias offered on this disc. The French style is distinguished by clear and clean-cut tone, precise diction, and an ability to color and give weight to the words that accurately reflects their sense, and these are not among Alagna's attributes. His vowels are as open as if they were Italian and they're often aspirated, his consonants aren't crisp enough, and he exhibits an unidiomatic Italianate emotionalism. However, he does sing with considerable elegance, particularly in arias that require a smooth legato, like "Rachel, quand du Seigneur" from Halévy's La Juive, and he shows off an exceptionally sweet high falsetto, especially in "A cette voix" from Bizet's Pearlfishers. There aren't any really great French singers around at the moment, so if you want to hear this music you probably have to settle for Alagna--but he's good enough not to disappoint you too much.

--Alex Morin

Restless Spirit: Songs by ADES, POULENC, PURCELL, BOLCOM, SHIELDS, and HOEBY--Dora Ohrenstein, soprano/various accompanists

Koch 3-7503:

Dora Ohrenstein has established a considerable reputation with her recitals and recordings of contemporary songs. She has a light and clear voice, with something of a dark and smoky chanteuse quality in the low register, though it's somewhat weak on top, and she has a gift for the effective communication of difficult vocal material with complex texts. Here she offers a wide-ranging recital of songs mostly about women and mostly weary and ironic in character, partly spoken and partly sung. Adès's Life Story, setting a text by Tennessee Williams, is a sad tale of a homosexual encounter, with a jazzy accompaniment by two bass clarinets and a double bass. Poulenc's La Dame de Monte Carlo is a cleverly written, ironic account of a woman at the end of her rope, and Purcell's Bess of Bedlam is a mad scene that sounded remarkably modern in its original setting that is here modernized further by an improvisatory accompaniment by electric guitar, accordion, and bass clarinet. I don't think Bolcom writes well for the voice--the music often seems artificial and unrelated to the texts, and there's very little melody in it--but Ohrenstein does as well as she can with his five unpromising songs to poems by women. Alice Shields's Komachi at Sekidara (based on a Japanese Noh play) is a fascinating exploration of the melismatic voice against the timbres of alto flute and koto, and Lee Hoiby's setting of excerpts from Ruth Draper's The Italian Lesson is an ingenious mixture of declamation and song. This material provides an exceptionally interesting survey of the contemporary art song, and in Ohrenstein's capable hands, it's an absorbing experience.

--Alex Morin

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