CLASSICAL CDs , Pt. 1 of 2 - March 2002

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C.P.E. BACH: 6 Sonatas; 3 Rondos; Andante con tenerezza

Mikhail Pletnev, piano

DGG 289 459 614 78:27 (Distrib. Universal):

I can recall discovering the mysteries and joys of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) in the form-and-analysis class of Alice Mitchell at SUNY Binghamton, where Ms. Mitchell was wont to quote the venerable Strunck on Bach's use of "circuitous routes" to describe his harmonic, chromatic treatment of modulation procedure. This tonal world was new to me: the pre-Classical mode of the empfindsamkeit, a mouthful of German meaning "the emotional" school of affections, the emphasis on the darker, turbulent humors. A cross between his father's "learned" (i.e., polyphonic) style and the brilliant, bravura-style we associate with virtuoso Mozart, C.P.E. Bach's music is ever improvisational, meandering, musically surprising, even enthralling. His G Minor Sonata, Wq. 65/17 is a perfect case in point: it sounds like a forerunner for Beethoven's Op. 77 Fantasia. Chromatic runs, meditative, halting (stile brise) sections, a flexible melodic line, sudden discordant bass tones, all combine in a weird collage of affects. Pletnev plays with the elan and the detache we associate with Glenn Gould.

The Rondos are even more reminiscent of late Mozart and middle Beethoven, alternating between a healthy optimism and transparent harmonies, to turgid, bold declamations that point to more morbid sensibilities-in-variation. Did Alkan know C.P.E. Bach? The A Major Rondo allows Pletnev a pearly play (in fine recorded sound) and tonal brilliance we might think belong to Gilels and Kempff. Occasionally, the sheer dazzling displays, coupled with dynamic audacity, suggest Antonio Soler, though the rhythms are more stolid here. Those unfamiliar with the "tender" Andante, Wq 65/32 will find more than a fitting companion for Haydn's lovely Variations in F Minor. Musicians and collectors will prize this disc.

--Gary Lemco

ARNOLD BAX: String Quartets No. 1; No 2. Maggini Quartet. Naxos 8.555282:

Although the late romantic English composer Arnold Bax (1883-1953) is best known for his colorful orchestral tone poems and seven symphonies, he wrote chamber works that contain some of the best British music for smaller ensembles. In addition to the two quartets on this CD, the Viola sonata, a Nonet, and Sonata for Harp and Viola are worth seeking out.

String Quartet No. 1 is a flowing, melodious, and affectionate work that was popular for twenty years after it was written. There were two recordings of it made on 78s. The tuneful opening movement is followed by a somber but beautiful slow movement, perhaps a reflection of the sadness of World War 1, which was ending when Bax wrote this quartet in 1918. The composer was enamored of all things Irish: he lived in Dublin and wrote poetry, short stories and plays under the pseudonym Dermot O'Byrne. The last movement of the First String Quartet reflects his love for Ireland. The opening reminds me of a jaunty Celtic dance and the melodic middle section sounds Irish in origin. This quartet deserves to be performed more today, especially if it is played as idiomatically as the Maggini's do on this disc.

The Second String Quartet (1924-5) starts with an extended, startling cello solo passage that portents the austere mood of this work. The second movement is tinged with a melancholy beauty that is somewhat relieved by the vigorous and brilliant last movement. The Maggini Quartet continues their superb work for Naxos in British chamber music and the sound is clear and bright. Highly recommended for those wishing to explore worthwhile unfamiliar, accessible chamber music.

- Robert Moon

PERLAS CUBANOS: Songs by Lecuona & Garay--Rosa Vento, sop--Roméo7213:

Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) dominated Cuban musical life for more than 50 years. He was a prolific composer, probably best remembered for his piano pieces, but he wrote in other genres as well, including over 400 songs. Sindo Garay (1867-1968) was essentially a street troubadour, unlettered but capable of remarkable harmonic and melodic invention. This disc presents eight songs by the former and six by the latter, all of them with strong, propulsive rhythms and lovely melodies. Unfortunately, Rosa Vento doesn't do well with them. She is said to have sung in many of the world's great opera houses, but judging by the evidence here, her voice lacks color and vitality, is breathy and insecure, and has a pronounced wobble. It's a pity, because these charming songs would be very enjoyable if they were better sung.

--Alex Morin

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: An Anthology of Song--Stephen Roberts, bar./Roger Vignoles, piano--GMN 0110:

On the whole, I'm not fond of the English pastoral school--their music seems to meander rather pointlessly over hill and dale--but Vaughan Williams's songs are among his most attractive works. Often pervaded by a nostalgia that stays just this side of sentimentality, they are skillfully written, conveying a range of scenes and emotions with vigor or tenderness as the text requires, and are quite lovely. Stephen Roberts has made a specialty of the English song repertory and responds to it with sensitivity and easy expressiveness and with a clear, robust, wide-ranging if slightly nasal voice. The piano accompaniments are complex and are played extremely well by Roger Vignoles. The disc includes V-W's best-known song, "Linden Lea", and three of his song cycles, The House of Life, Songs of Travel, and Four Poems by Fredegond Shove, all of them evocative and often moving, in an interesting and attractive release.

--Alex Morin

Two of the most interesting Russian composers active today...

RODION SHCHEDRIN: Carmen Suite, Concerto No. 1 "Naughty Limericks," Concerto No. 2 "The Chimes" - Russian National Orchestra/Mihail Pletnev - DGG 289 471 136-2:

Shchedrin has written an amazing variety of music over his life, starting with works that showed some independent spirit but remained safely within the strict guidelines of what "the peoples' composers" were expected to deliver to the Soviet state. Later he experimented with serial and other avant techniques, yet probably his best-known work with American audiences is his imaginative and witty arrangement for strings and percussion of 13 tunes from Bizet's Carmen. It includes the movement with the familiar military march tune, but playing only the rhythmic accompaniment with no melody whatever - our minds create the melody since it is so familiar to everyone! While the Naughty Limericks is strictly orchestral, its variations on many themes are designed to call to mind a type of satirical topical dance or song which often pokes fun at leaders of the people, not excluding Marx, Lenin and Stalin. There are several competing versions of the Carmen Suite, of which the Boston Pops seems to have the most life, but Pletnev's has better sonics and the two concertos are equally accessible works deserving more hearings.

SOFIA GUBAIDULINA: The Canticle of the Sun; Music for Flute, Strings and Percussion - (1) Mstislav Rostropovich, cello & percussion/Simon Carrington & Neil Percy, percussion/John Alley, celeste/London Voice/Ryusuke Numajiri. (2) Emannuel Pahud, flutes/London Symphony Orch./ Mstislav Rostropovich cond. - EMI Classics 57153-2:

Seeing the credit for Rostropovich playing cello & percussion right away indicates that this is not your ordinary CD of contemporary cello concertos. Gubaidulina earned her keep in Soviet Russia writing film music - her abstract works were once banned by the authorities; she now lives in Germany and has risen to a position of one of the greatest living Russian composers. Her father was a Muslim Tartar and she is interested in non-European music as well as unexpected methods of producing sound. She also likes to use her music to express spiritual or religious ideas. For example, the vocal texts for Canticle come from St. Francis. Gubaidulina wrote the work for Rostropovich's 70th birthday celebration because she feels the great cellist has a sunny personality. He probably didn't even object to the performance requirements of the work, which involves his de tuning one string to the lowest possible pitch, playing on top of the bridge and the tailpiece with a drum stick, and finally abandoning the cello to play the bass drum and flexatone! The Music for Flute demonstrates the composer's interest in arithmetical and architectural principles of composition, including microtonality. All in all this CD provides a fascinating sound-world worthy of exploration.

- John Sunier

ANTON RUBINSTEIN: Symphony No. 1 in F Major; Ivan the Terrible - Slovak State Philharmonic, Kosice/Robert Stankovsky - Naxos 8.555476:

ANTON RUBINSTEIN: Symphony No. 2 in C Major "Ocean" - Slovak Philharmonic Orch./Stephen Gunzenhauser - Naxos 8.555392:

Rubinstein, generally known today only for his famous Melody in F, was around the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries one of the best known composers in the world. He toured as a child virtuoso, and like the Mendelssohns in Germany experienced anti-Semitism in Russia. He was a very prolific composer whose opera included a score of operas, five piano concertos and six symphonies. The early First is in a cheerful Mendelssohnian style. The music for a stage play on Ivan the Terrible shows the influence of fellow composer Liszt's tone poems. The Ocean Symphony of 1851 has seven short movements representing the Seven Seas. Great contrasts evoke both calm seas and dangerous storms and turbulence in this series of graphic musical depictions.

- John Sunier

LEOPOLD GODOWSKY: Piano Sonata in E Minor; Passacaglia - Marc-Andre Hamelin, p. - Hyperion CDA67300:
LEOPOLD GODOWSKY: Studies on the Chopin Etudes (incl. All alternate versions) - Carlo Grante, p. - Music & Arts CD 1093 (2 Cds):

Lithuanian-born Godowsky was one of the world's foremost concert pianists for the first three decades of the last century. As a composer his fame rests primarily on his very elaborate re workings of 53 Etudes of Chopin. He said in his introduction to the music that he intended to build upon the solid foundation of these important piano works to further the art of piano playing, but he also stated that he had no intention to replace the original Chopin works, which he hoped would reveal hidden beauties after listeners were exposed to his own studies on them.

Grante is a foremost concert pianist in Italy and recorded the studies once before, in l993. He flies thru the bewildering technical hurdles of Godowsky's studies with ease - he must be as quick and perfect a learner as Godowsky was also said to be. The Piano Sonata and Passacaglia are just about the only completely original compositions of Godowsky remaining, and this is the first time they have been paired on one recording. The tendency to re-work more famous composers' music is shown both in the Passacalia - which ends with a fugue on the opening theme of Schubert's Unfinished, and in the huge (47-minute) Sonata - which ends with a technically daunting fugue on B-A-C-H. Performer Hamelin wonders in his notes why this magnificent sonata is never brought out to supply some refreshment to recital programs

- John Sunier

24/7+7 - Roy Eaton, piano - CHOPIN: Preludes, Op. 28 (complete); Preludes Op. 45 in C Sharp Minor & (1834) in A Flat Major ; GERSHWIN: Preludes (7); STILL: Preludes (5) Summit DCD 318:

Another musician heavily into mathematical games. OK: the 24 refers to the 24 Chopin Preludes of Op. 28; the first 7 refers to the 7 Gershwin Preludes (thought there were only 3, 'eh?) and the last 7 refers to the 5 preludes of Wm. Grant Still plus the two additional Chopin Preludes that close out the CD. Eaton studied piano and especially Chopin with Edwin Fisher in Switzerland, but his concert career was "temporarily interrupted for 27 years" while he became a copywriter and composer for New York ad agencies.

Now he's back with a vengeance. The Chopin Preludes are inspired playing, and it's great to hear the Still Preludes, which match up well with the Gershwins. But the real kick for a Gershwin fan like myself (who once played the Concerto in F at a college recital) is hearing for the first time the four additional Preludes - just discovered in l995. This is the first time they have all been recorded along with the original three (which I also played in that recital). The first one, in G Minor, was recycled by the composer to be the opening theme of the last movement of the Concerto in F. And here's an interesting reason for Gershwin and Still being on the same program with Chopin: Gershwin clearly was inspired by Chopin's 24 Preludes, and even titled one of his No. 17 - it's in the same key as Chopin's No. 17. He just never got around to composing the other 17.

RACHMANINOFF: Moments Musicaux; MOUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition - Alain Lefevre, piano - Analekta FL 2 3122:

This disc is from the Quebec label's series titled The Finest Canadian Musicians. Lefevre won first prize nine times in the Canadian Music Competition and appears on many symphony programs as soloist in John Corigliano's Piano Concerto. This is a good pairing of two works of Russian composers, both piano cycles. The Rachmaninoff shows a more personal style that arose after he suffered "composer's block" which was solved thru therapy. It immediately preceded the Second Piano Concerto. Lefevre delivers his impression of Moussorgsky's Pictures with a freshness that makes them come alive. Sonics are superb.

- John Sunier

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