Pt. 1 of 2 - June 2002

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Paganini's Dreams - RACHMANINOFF-KREISLER: 18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini/CHOPIN-RICCI: Souvenir de Paganini/PAGANINI-MILSTEIN: Paganiniana, Var. 1 7/PAGANINI-KREISLER: Caprice No. 20/LEHAR: Violin Solos from Acts I-II Paganini/SZYMONOWSKI: Trois Caprices de Paganini/PAGANINI-LISZT-KOCHANSKI: La Campanella

Ruggiero Ricci, violin/Brooks Smith, piano

John Marks Records JMR 11 41:41:

Recorded in 1998, this disc is a kind of homage, much as the Ginastera Violin Concerto (which Ricci debuted in Atlanta) pays obeisance to the influence of Niccolo Paganini. Ricci and the late Brooks Smith are in top form, as they had been for their all-Sarasate program for American Decca. Ricci's intonation can be fiercely accurate and his drive infectious: witness his glossy playing in the Lehar excerpts from the operetta devoted to the Paganini legend. The Milstein arrangement is abbreviated, but it does contain the "La Chasse" caprice in brilliant form. The "Mose" fantasy makes a brief appearance in the Lehar. Chopin's tidbit is merely a resplicing of The Carnival of Venice." While the Rachmaninoff is a most familiar sentiment, the Szymanowski has the advantage of looking forward, through a kind of hazy impressionism, in music. The Kreisler arrangement of Caprice No. 20 might have degenerated to romantic mush if it were not that these two musicians are so fervent in their collaboration. The concluding La Campanella provides the big bravura flourish we expected from the outset. Given the brevity of this disc, we wonder why Ricci didn't add the Kreisler arrangement of the D Major Concerto. Even with the good sound, the disc is for a few Ricci admirers out there.

--Gary Lemco


Take a Weill to laugh und cry mit der next two discs...(sorry...)

KURKA: The Good Soldier Schweik - Chicago Opera Company. Alexander Platt, conductor. Jason Collins, Marc Embree, Kelli Harrington. Cedille Records CDR 90000 062:

Based on the picaresque 1919 novel by Czech author Jaroslav Hasek, Robert Kurka's opera The Good Soldier Schweik is a surprising success. Surprising because this obscure American composer was the first to attempt to create this opera. (You'd think the project would have tempted Hasek's contemporary countryman Leos Janaçek.) Surprising because this is a world premier recording of an opera written in 1958. And surprising because the Chicago Opera Theater gives such a spirited production. The story is about naïf Josef Schweik who blunders his way through a great historical event, similar to Chauncy Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinsky's Being There. Schweik's event is World War One and through his hapless interactions with government and army officials, he exposes the futility and insanity of war. Musically, it is a marriage of American folk opera (like the Ballad of Baby Doe) and the edgy European opera of Kurt Weill. The Weillian influence is evident in the Prelude to Act 2, where mocking march rhythms overflow into the Scene One, the Army Infirmary. Here Kurka experiments with fugatas and three-part counterpoint.

The roots in American folk opera poke through when Schweik sings one of his guileless plaints, such as Act I's "Who will go to the war when it comes?", which contains a level of earnestness foreign to the novel. Sometimes Kurka betrays his youth--he died at 35--as in the psychiatrist trio. A parody of psychoanalysis, this aria flirts with complex counterpoint, then ends too abruptly. The ensemble between the soldiers and the baroness has brilliant moments, particularly the list of items she gives the soldiers ("manicure sets and a white lily in a flower pot") . More effective is the chaotic scene between Schweik and his long-suffering master, Lt. Lukash, Lukash's lover, and a dog. Often there are jazzy moments -encompassing a 1920s European idea of jazz, the kind beloved by composers like Schulhoff and Stravinsky--such as the finale to Act I. Other pieces, like the chorale with the chaplain, are uproariously funny. Conductor Alexander Platt paces the action quickly, so even if one aria flags, like Schweik's chorale about the army, another takes its place with delightful new inventions. Five stars!

- Peter Bates

KURT WEILL: Berliner Requiem, Violin Concerto, Vom Tod im Wald - Alexandre Laiter, tenor; Peter Kooy, bass; Elisabeth Glab, violin/Choir of the Chapelle Royale/Ensemble Musique Oblique/Philippe Herreweghe - Harmonia mundi France 901422:

This was recorded originally a decade ago and is part of a newly reissued series devoted to conductor Herreweghe, but it seems more fitting in this section than our Reissues. (Also it pairs up well with the Kurka opera reviewed above.) The Requiem of 1928 follows on the success of The Three-Penny Opera and is a very secular requiem, using a text by Brecht. It grew out of Weill's involvement in creating works especially for radio broadcast - feeling it had great potential for teaching, art and social change. The musical scoring is similar to that of his opera Mahagonny. It uses tenor, baritone and male choir with wind band, guitar, banjo and percussion. Brecht's tone as well as Weill's is hard, cynical, angry and depressed. The section named Great Hymn of Thanksgiving is indeed very far from that. One selection difficult to forget after hearing is Ballad of the Drowned Girl, macabre in the extreme but at the same time very moving, especially when the Epitaph to the ballad reveals why the girl committed suicide.

The short cantata The Death in the Forest continues the dark and macabre mood and is scored for bass and ten winds. Interesting how hung up Brecht was with colorful (and exotic to him) American place names such as Mississippi; this one begins "A man died in the Hathoury Forest (?) where the Mississippi flowed." And remember the Weill-Brecht "Alabama Song" in Mahagonny? Lotte Lenya had to learn all those exotic words phonetically because she didn't yet speak English. Weill's l925 Violin Concerto for wind band was before he threw over serial techniques in favor of music hall tonalities and appealing to the masses. Yet it possesses - at least in this fine performance - more heartfelt emotion and interest than most atonal works, reminding one of one of the few atonal works I'll listen to anytime - Alban Berg's violently emotional Violin Concerto.

- John Sunier


Our next four CDs get very brassy on us...


Since some of the originals in this compilation date back to as far as l970 I suppose this should also be in our Reissues section, but nothing in the album sounds the least bit dated musically or sonically so I'm starting this brass bunch with it. The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble had a run of over 35 years, ending sometime in 1986, and they were central to enhancing the literature for modern brass by their performances, uncovering neglected music, and commissioning new works. Many of the above composers created works especially for them because they were confident of getting the very best performances. The Ensemble is a quintet but frequently sounds much larger than that. This set is a feast of music for brass that I find one of the most enjoyable I have ever heard. Among the highlights for my ears were Poulenc's Sonata for Horn, Trumpet and Trombone, the French pomp and circumstance of Tomasi's Procession du Vendredi-Saint, Malcolm Arnold's witty Symphony for Brass Instruments, and the closing familiar instrumental suite from The Three-Penny Opera.

- John Sunier

Sotto Voce Tuba Quartet - Consequences - Summit DCD 322:

Something completely different in chamber music, eh? I've long been a pushover for any small ensemble consisting entirely of similar instruments - guitar quartets, sax quartets, cello quartets. But this is my first experience with a tube quartet. Who'd a thought of it? Well, four tuba and euphonium majors studying at the University of Wisconsin did. And its not a one-time deal either - that was in l996 and Sotto Voce is performing all over the place as a professional ensemble, garnering raves as serious performers. It doesn't take long to realize that the relegating of the tube to the basement of the pitch spectrum is unfair - it has quite a wide range. And of course the Euphonium higher still. Since most of the selections are quite short, I'll list them as with jazz CDs: Forbes: Consequences, Auburn is the Colour, Gasparini: Adoramus te, Bach: Contrapunctus IX, Kupferman: Kierkegaard, Haydn: Achieve is the Glorius Work, Grovlez: Petites Litanies de Jesus, Schulz: Profiles for Tuba Quartet, Handel: The Harmonious

- John Sunier

American Brass Quintet - BERTALI: Two Sonatas, BACH: Contrapunctus VII, EWALD: Quintet No. 3, WM. LOVELOCK: Suite for Brass; GILBERT AMY: Relais - Crystal Records CD214:

With a track record of 42 years, the American Brass Quintet was named by Newsweek as "the high priests of brass." On this, one of over 45 recordings they have done, both the Lovelock and Amy works were written for or dedicated to the quintet. Also, the quintets of the German-born St. Petersburg composer Ewald were first brought to the attention of American audiences thru the work of musicologist Andre Smith and premiered by the American Brass. No. 3 shows Ewald's connections with his contemporaries Rimsky Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Glazunov, as well as Brahms and Bruckner.

The Verdehr Trio - American Images 2, Music by American Composers - SEBASTIAN CURRIER: Verge, JOAN TOWER: Rain Waves, GERSHWIN/WM. BROHN: I Got Variations, DAN WELCHER: Phaedrus, JOHN BIGGS: Renaissance Bouquet, CHARLES HOAG: SweetMelancholySlowDrag Rag - Crystal Records CD943:

Walter Verdehr, violin; Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, clarinet and Silvia Roederer, piano make up the Verdehr Trio, and this disc is just one out of their 13-CD series on Crystal titled Making of a Medium. The Trio has defined the violin/clarinet/piano trio form thru transcribing and playing many 18th and 19th century works for themselves and via commissioning and performing nearly 130 new trio works from prominent composers. The ten-minute re-thinking of Gershwin's Variations on I Got Rhythm is a real kick, Welcher's two part Phaedrus contrasts Socrates' philosophic estheticism with Dionysian sensuality, and John Biggs wove into his suite transcriptions of ten pieces he selected from the Renaissance period to show their varied emotions and techniques. Hoag's Rag that caps the CD recalls "lovingly but not entirely reverently" the Weltschmerz found in compositions of Mahler and Rachmaninoff.

- John Sunier

RAVEL: Complete Solo Piano Music - Angela Hewitt, piano - Hyperion CDA67341/2 (2 CDs box):

A number of complete Ravel piano music collections are available on CD and I haven't auditioned them all, but I feel this new effort recorded in 2000 and 2001 immediately goes to near the head of the class. Hewitt has a perfect touch for Ravel, sensual and full of varied tone color but extremely precise in all details, just as Ravel's music is. Her tempi sound just right. She is aided by absolutely exquisite piano reproduction. The shorter pieces are given as much loving attention as the three major works - The Tomb of Couperin, Gaspard de la nuit, and Miroirs.

- John Sunier

DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande--Anne Sofie von Otter, sop/Wolfgang Holzmair, bar/Laurent Naouri, bar/Bernard Haitink, cond/Orchestra National de France--Naive V 4923 (3 Cds):

Debussy's setting of Maeterlinck's dreamy fantasy isn't easy to conduct; if its tensions and mystery aren't properly balanced and controlled, it can lapse into tedium. It almost does with Haitink; his slack direction drains the score of its drama, and while the cast sings beautifully, their characterizations aren't clearly defined. It gets better as it goes along, with some wonderful singing and effective climaxes toward the end.

I've always been fond of a 1962 recording with Victoria de los Angeles led by Jean Fournet; she sings beautifully, but as a whole it lacks a sense of mystery and the sound is archaic. Among modern productions, you can choose between those that emphasize the music and those that emphasize the words, which is probably what the composer had in mind when he asked that the singers' declamation be half-sung and half-spoken. Among these, the best is Dutoit, with his excellent Montreal Symphony and a fine cast of French-speaking singers. But Haitink isn't all bad; the singers are splendid and the music, as always, is tender, evocative, and moving.

--Alex Morin

ELENI KARAINDROU: Trojan Women, by Euripides; directed by Antonis Antypas; Socratis Sinopoulos: Constantinople lyra, laouto; Christos Tsiamoulis: ney, suling, outi; Panos Dimitrakopoulos: kanonaki; Andreas Katsiyiannis: santouri; Maria Bildea: harp; Andreas Papas: bendir, daouli; Veronika Iliopoulou: soprano; Chorus of Captive Trojan Women ­ ECM New Series 1810:

Euripides wrote The Trojan Women in 415 B.C., but in Karaindrou's musical composition of this drama hardly any time seems to have elapsed since its first performance. Throughout the thirty short tracks (performed on folk instruments or sung), Karaindrou conjures images of bygone eras that are very much with us. The music is so quietly evocative and deceptively simple that it swiftly transports us to the rocky shores of a city in ruins, where the widowed and orphaned women's suffering seems as real to us as it was almost two and a half millennia ago.

Here we meet legendary women--Cassandra, Andromache, and Hecuba--whose sorrow betrays no rancor toward their Greek captors. Theirs is a quiet and dignified grief, like a fine drizzle. Their short themes have a hypnotic, meditative quality, as though the women were trapped in the Land of the Lotus Eaters. Karaindrou makes good use of percussion, particularly in "Terra Deserta" and the first "Exodos."

Listeners familiar with Karaindrou's atmospheric sound tracks, such as Ulysses' Gaze and The Suspended Step of the Stork (both on ECM), will find that this CD represents a departure for her, but only because it is based on a play rather than a movie. The vocal parts come with English translations, but a transliteration of the Greek would have been helpful. Also, it would have been helpful to have captions for the numerous photographs taken at a live performance. But the superlative sound quality of this CD more than compensates for these deficiencies. It comes so close to simulating a live experience that one can easily imagine being present at the piece's world premiere in August 2001.

-Dalia Geffen

LULLY: Persée--Paul Agnew, ctr-tenor/Anna Maria Panzarella, sop/Salomé Haller, sop/Jérôme Correas, tenor/Vincent Billier, bass-bar/Monique Simon, mezzo/Robert Getchell, ctr-tenor/Béatrice Mayo Felip, sop/Christophe Laurent, dir/Les Talens Lyriques--Naive E 8874 (3 CDs):

It's ironic that French Baroque music in its grandest forms owes its existence largely to an obscure Italian musician who became the all-powerful Maître de Musique  at the court of Louis XIV. Persée  was written in 1682 as a tribute to his patron; the story of Perseus, Medusa, and Andromache, derived from Ovid, was intended to parallel the King's triumphs over his enemies. However, it stands on its own as one the masterpieces of French Baroque opera, especially as presented here. Its use of the natural rhythms of the French language is gratifying in the dialog between the orchestra, chorus, and continuo is, as are the many tuneful solo and concerted arias and orchestral interludes and divertissements.

Rousset knows what he's doing and elicits briskly led and fully idiomatic performances from his forces. The mostly French-speaking cast sings well, with excellent diction in declamation and song, and the expert period instrument musicians of Les Talens Lyriques display their virtuosity. Rousset's skillful harpsichord continuo and appropriate and tasteful embellishments add to the total effect. Some may find it long-winded, but its many musical wonders more than make up for that in this splendid presentation.

--Alex Morin

SIBELIUS: The Maiden in the Tower; Incidental Music to Pelleas et Melisande; Valse Triste--Solveig Kringellborn, sop/Lars-Erik Jonsson, ten/Lilli Passikivi, mezzo/Carry Magee, bar/Paavo Jarvi, cond/Estonian National Symphony Orchestra--Virgin 545493:

The Maiden in the Tower is a melodrama based on a text by Rafael Herzberg; the eight short scenes are conventional and unconvincing, though it contains some lovely music and some excellent singings by singers I've never heard before, especially the robust baritone of Carry Magee. Sibelius' incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande, along with the works by Debussy, Faure, and Schoenberg, is another testament to the popularity of Maeterlinck's play, and here again it doesn't live up to the inspiration of the others. Paavo Jarvi's leadership is unexciting, but his Estonian forces play well. These pieces aren't by any means Sibelius' best music, but they're pleasant enough to hear.

--Alex Morin

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