CLASSICAL CDs , Pt. 2 of 2 - March 2002

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Bela Fleck - Perpetual Motion - with guests - Sony Classical SK 89610:

It looks at first like Fleck, who has brought the lowly banjo to a front-and-center position in pop/rock/jazz, wanted to get equal time with fiddler Mark O'Connor, who's made a major splash on Sony Classical. But the truth is this classical project grew out of his friendship with musical genre-bending bassist Edgar Meyer, who encouraged him to get into classical. Fleck's liner notes reveal that he had lots of unexpected work ahead of him. There were problems with the banjo notation, and he even found that playing many of the works was more physically taxing than what he normally plays. He had to have massage therapy to make it thru Perpetual Motion. There must have been great fun in the studio. Fleck's guest performers were: Joshua Bell, violin; Gary Hoffman, cello; Evelyn Glennie, marimba; Edgar Meyer, bass & piano; Chris Thile, mandolin; James Bryan Sutton, steel guitar & John Williams, acoustic guitar. Tracks include 2 Scarlatti Sonatas, 8 Bach selections, 3 Chopin pieces, 2 by Beethoven, and one each by Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Brahms,and Paganini. As usual, the Bach transcriptions seem to come out the best - old J. S. Is bulletproof.

- John Sunier

Gilles Apap, violin (with string orchestra, harpsichord, cimbalom, accordion, harp, bass) - No Piano On That One - Apapaziz Productions GKJ001:

Another genre-bender is violinist Apap, who is known not only for his mixing of musical lines but also for his non-traditional behavior and performance during mainstream classical solo stints. I have him as a sort of male version of Nadia Solerno-Sonnenberg. His ardent individualism is shown in his non-jewelbox album packaging and self-label release. It includes photos of all the guest artists and Apap's note which concisely tells the story: "Most of the beautiful creamy, juicy, cheesy pieces are standards of the violin repertory and are normally played with piano. It was a simple thing to exchange the 88 keys of the piano for the sounds of accordion, bass, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord and string orchestra." The French, Viennese and gypsy influences are balanced in the program, and there are plenty of Fritz Kreisler's miniatures. The 23 tracks (whew!) are: Flight of the Bumblebee, Lookin' for a Title, Variations on a Corelli Theme, Piece en forme de Habanera, Entracte, Sicilienne and Rigaudon, Sonata in A Major, Melodie, Zapateado, Chanson Louis XIII and Pavane, Allemande, Berceuse, Improv. On the Fifth Caprice of Paganini, Caprice in A Minor, Scherzo-Tarantelle, The Nightingale, Les Barricades Misterieuses, Aubade Provencale, Schon Rosmarin, Zigeunerweisen, Hora Staccato, Ptit bits, Lookin' for a Title (string Orch. Version).

- John Sunier

It's Brahms Galore on our next three CDs...

BRAHMS: Piano Trios No. 1 in B Major & No. 2 in C Major; Hungarian Dance No. 6; Lullaby - Eroica Trio - Angel 7243 5 57199 2 8:

I thought the Angel label was now for crossover material and EMI Classics for other classical, but this standard-repertory chamber music is issued on Angel. Could it be because the three Eroica ladies are so cute? Anyway, these are the most lively and energetic versions of the Brahms trios I've heard - they almost reminded me of the new gutsy approach to formerly soporific Baroque music carried out by such ensembles as Il Giardino Armonico. No. 1 was the first published work of Brahms. No. 2 - 80 works later - is more concise but full of Romantic lyrical grandeur. Both show the occasional gypsy music influence, especially of alternations between minor and major, that are so central to Brahms' sound. And Angel's sound is angelic.

BRAHMS: Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano in E Minor and E Flat Major; Trio for Clarinet, Cello & Piano in A Minor; Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B Minor - Stanley Brucker, clarinet/Leonid Hambro, piano/Carter Brey, cello/Gerald Robbins, piano/Elysium String Quartet - Elysium GRK 720 (2 CDs):

Late in life Brahms learned to love the clarinet and had a very close connection with the first-chair clarinetist of the court orchestra of Saxe-Meiningen, Richard Muhlfeld. The musician's expressive and powerful playing of both the Weber Clarinet Concerto and Mozart's Clarinet Quintet made a strong impact on Brahms and he immediately began to study the possibilities of the instrument before writing a series of four works for it. This double-CD set presents all of them. The two Sonatas were the composer's only works for a solo wind instrument with accompaniment, and Brahms himself played the piano part with Muhlfeld for the premieres of both works. The lovely Quintet differs from most others involving similar forces in that Brahms used the clarinet to support and blend with the string instruments rather than being in opposition to them as other composers had done.

- John Sunier

Top young Russian violinist Vengerov in first an encore CD and then two serious modern concertos...

Vengerov & Virtuosi - Maxim Vengerov, violin/Virtuosi (11 violins)/Vag Papian, piano - EMI Classics 57164-2 5:

SHCHEDRIN: Concerto Cantabile; STRAVINSKY: Violin Concerto in D; TCHAIKOVSKY: Serenade melancolique in B Minor - Vengerov, v./London Sym. Orch./Mstislav Rostropovich - EMI Classics 56966 2 5:

There seems to be a spate of violin encore CDs lately and I fully expected this one to be as much of a yawn as the others. Not so. Vengerov hadn't considered doing such an album until he heard the Russian 11-violin ensemble known as Virtuosi. Their arrangements are a complete delight and they play with enthusiastic commitment. This one would be a blast in 5.1 surround with the violins surround you... Program: Rachmaninoff: Vocalise, Ponce: Estrelita, Brahms: 3 Hungarian Dances, Novacek: Perpetuum Mobile, Dvorak: Humoresque in G Flat Major, Tchaikovsky: Souvenir d'un lieu cher, Schubert: Ave Maria, Bazzini: Scherzo fantastique, Khachaturian: Sabre Dance, Massenet: Meditation from Thais, Vittorio Monti: Czardas.

More Shchedrin in the concerto package from Vengerov. The composer has specialized in concertos for various instruments, and his Concerto Cantabile of l998 is dedicated to Vengerov. It uses only the string section of the orchestra. In its finale Shchedrin wanted to give an impression of his childhood hearing the sounds of a shepherd's pipe, which is represented by the solo violin. The Stravinsky concerto partakes of some of the devilish sounds he gave the violin in The Soldier's Tale, but other sections come as close to lyrical as Stravinsky ever gets. Both works demonstrate the strides that have been made in reproduction of more realistic and pleasing violin tone with the standard 44.1 CD format. Just listen to a mid 80's CD of the Stravinsky if you want to be reminded how bad string tone could sound on CDs.

- John Sunier

Four different composers' approach to writing for the Cello on the next CDs...

NINO ROTA: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 - Dmitry Yablonsky, c./I Virtuosi Italiani/Daniel Boico - Chandos 9892:

These are world premiere recordings of both works from the late Italian film music master. They were composed in l972 and 73 respectively. They share a leaning toward chromaticism, but not to the extent of losing listeners; the melodic possibilities of his themes are merely maximized. The device of augmentation is used in isolated passages - slowing down speed thru doubling of the value of each note. The first concerto is the more dramatic one and the orchestra is appropriately more robust; the second concerto is lighter in mode and with a somewhat smaller orchestra.

DEBUSSY: Cello-Piano Sonata in D Minor; RACHMANINOFF: Cello-Piano Sonata in G Minor; JANACEK: Fairy Tale for Cello and Piano - Elizabeth Dolin, cello; Francine Kay, piano - Analekta FL 2 3160:

An attractive program of three cello/piano works and another in the label's series of The Finest Canadian Musicians. The Debussy is one of the composer's loveliest works; it evokes both happy and satirical imagery and has more dramatic content than many of his chamber works. Hearing the Rachmaninoff sonata immediately following the Debussy is quite an experience. It ramps up the dramatic content but in an entirely different context, with bold exchanges between the virtuoso piano part and the cello. This work was another successful creative result of the composer's daily visit to a hypnotherapist to overcome his clinical depression.

- John Sunier

A pair of early music CDs with a distinctive difference...

OTTAVIANO DEI PETRUCCI: Harmonice Musices Odhecaton - Fretwork viol ensemble - Harmonia mundi HMU 907291:

Fans of Tous les matins du monde (whose soundtrack has just been reissued on this label with a bonus CD) will jump on this latest CD from the ensemble regarded as world's finest viol consort. They play music from the first collection ever to be published (1501) of instrumental part-music. Petrucci, the publisher, gets the credit because of his unique process of music printing which involved three steps (staves, music, text). The actual composers are mostly from the Low Countries - Obrecht, Isaac, Josquin etc. The accurate composer credits established via modern musicology are printed in the booklet listing of the 32 selections.

Alfabeto - After FOSCARINI, PELLEGRINI, GRANADA & CORBETTA - Ensemble Kapsberger/Rolf Lislevand - Astrée Naïve E 8852:

Alphabets was another name for the guitar tablature used until the 18th century, similar to guitar tablatures used in rock and jazz today. The simplified notations gave the player the grid and key, leaving him to display his skills at improvising. Rolf Lislevand divides his time between the Baroque and jazz and feels they are allied in their attitude about improvisation. That comes to the fore in this CD, as the eight members of the ensemble - including three Baroque guitars, viol, harp, organ, a type of bass viol and percussion - take all sorts of liberties with the original works by these four 17th century composers. Among the appellations for the resulting sound suggested by Lislevand are "18th century world music" or "Old New Age Music." The original recordings were done at 96K/24 bits and are audiophile quality for sure.

- John Sunier

Here are two widely-separated composers whose music is based on their respective ethnic backgrounds...

GEIRR TVEITT: A Hundred Hardanger Tunes - Suite No. 1; Suite No. 4 "Wedding Suite" Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset - Naxos 8.555078:

What a wonderful discovery! And more of the suites are coming soon! Norwegian composer Tveitt, who died in l981, studied with Villa Lobos, and Honegger but had strong musical roots in the culture of his family's native area of western Norway, where the Hardanger fiddle held musical sway. This decorative instrument almost seems to have connections to East Indian instruments in its additional resonating strings and many different tunings. The Hardanger folk tunes sang of everyday life and often mimicking a fiddle or flute. They used modal scales instead of major or minor. Tveitt wrote down over a thousand of these songs and they provide the basis for his suites, melded with his individual harmonies and orchestrations - he studied with Koechlin and loved both French and Russian music. This is heady stuff - read about the specific folk songs: one is about farting and another about a bridge who strands who new husband on a reef so when the tide comes in he drowns. Perhaps it is the richness of these original folk melodies, but Tveitt's suites make other composers who have claimed to draw on their culture's folk music sound pale in comparison.

VILLA-LOBOS: Symphonies Nos. 6 & 8; Suite for Strings - SWR Symphony Orch. Of Stuttgart/Carl St. Clair - CPO 999 517-2:

Another composer who focused on the folk traditions of his native area was Villa-Lobos. The largely self-taught composer, most of whose works have strong programmatic content, nevertheless wrote 12 abstract symphonies, of which these are just two. No. 6 originally had the subtitle "On the Profiles of the Mountains of Brazil." It was the second work for which the composer derived the main theme by projecting the contours of the mountains onto chart paper and applying successive tones to the lines. Its tonality is ambiguous, there are several contrapuntal passages, sections of folk song quality, and the final movement makes heavy use of the percussion section. No. 8 differs from most of the others in its steadfastly consonant harmonies and more classical approach, without obvious influence of Brazilian traditions.

- John Sunier

Our first CD-ROM Review closes out the Classical Reviews...

DSCH - Shostakovich DVD/CD-ROM. Cultural Heritage Series, Vol. 1. Chandos 500001 (CD-ROM) 55001 (DVD-ROM):

What a concept! A multimedia production of the life of one of the last century's greatest composers. It will keep you amused for hours and enlighten you too. There are 15 documentary clips of the composer (33 with the DVD-ROM, which is the only difference between the two versions). The earliest is a 1933 fragment of a rehearsal of the infamous "Lady Macbeth," with the venerable teacher V.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko, who looks and acts like G.B. Shaw and expounds on the genius of Shostakovich with the composer peering over his shoulder. You can increase the size of the film image, but it does not automatically reset to the beginning. You must click the back button to play it again. The DVD-ROM contains a truly bizarre black-and-white animation for which Shostakovich wrote the music in 1933. Humorously portraying characters from a marketplace, it has the appearance of Constructivist art of the early 1920's. One harrowing clip from 1947 shows him at a meeting of the Composer's Union where his music was condemned for "formalism." Unfortunately this clip contains neither sound (except the pointlessly inserted whirring of a projector) nor subtitles, but Shostakovich's dour expression and body language speak tomes.

There are also 87 music fragments, which represent 60 percent of his published work. Whenever possible, contemporary musicians perform the pieces (for example, the Beethoven Quartet playing String Quartet No. 3). Many of the works have rarely been recorded, such as obscure music from films like "Simple Folk" and "Children's Notebook," which he wrote for his daughter Galina. The disc's music player is a bare-bones device; it has neither a pause button nor a time slider, although you can vary the volume. While a piece is playing, related material is sometimes available for display, such as Shostakovich's diary entries about the piece or relevant photos.

The disc contains 350 pages (screen, not print) of text including 230 letters of the composer. There are also more than 800 photos, documents, and autograph music manuscripts, most of which contain only the first couple of pages. A cloying animated film (made for this disc) plays when you initialize the disc, but you can easily bypass it. The composer's discography is generally useful, containing both CDs and vinyl record listings, mostly from the 1970's and 1980's. "Commentaries" is an impressive glossary containing dozens of names from Shostakovich's life, with links to his letters and works whenever appropriate. The casual style of the interface is sometimes creative, but often limited. The photo album thumbnails look like they're in an actual photo album and Shostakovich's letters and diary entries are displayed in a crude typewriter font. The main menu is listed in handwritten script, as if by Shostakovich himself. You cannot minimize the screen or even resize it. Sometimes the screen content for a work is clogged with minutiae. The one for "The Gamblers" has an untranslated postcard, a score fragment, the beginning of Shostakovich's written commentary (which you can expand), and a puzzling line of parchment in Russian. Despite these occasional annoyances, DSCH is well worth purchasing. It gives you more information than any single biography and provides material (like the film clips) that you can't get anywhere else.

--Peter Bates

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