Pt. 1 of 2 • November 2002

FREDERICK RZEWSKI = RZEWSKI PLAYS RZEWSKI: Piano Works, 1975-1999. Nonesuch (7 CDs):

Composer and pianist Frederick Rzewski firmly planted himself in the modernist piano tradition with his 36 Variations on "The People United Will Never Be Defeated," a leftist marching song by Sergio Orgega of the Chilean nuevo cancion group Quilapayún. These intricate and quirky variations are not quite jazz (although they have an improvisatory feel common to jazz), nor are they typical of other contemporary art music, largely because of their optimism and sense of protest. Others like Ursula Oppens have played them more subtly before, but Rzewski performs them with broad strokes and firm differentiations. This box set features other variations on 20th century ballads, such as the spiritual Down by the Riverside and the union song Which Side Are You On? The format is similar: a statement of the melody, then sparklingly innovative variations, some no longer than a minute. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues varies this format with a lengthy and rumbling piano prelude that scarily evokes the dehumanizing machinery of a cotton mill.

In his later pieces, Rzewski abandons this formula and probes new territory. In Sonata, he reproduces some song melodies (such as the military "Taps"), but only in fragmented form. Other components include lyrical explorations on Western classical music. His Fantasia and Fouges also deconstruct traditional forms in fresh ways. His most recent pieces, such as The Road, a four-hour work in progress, are peripatetic and veer on the inaccessible, with their unusual effects like children's musical toys, train vocalizations, and percussive slappings and scrapings on the piano. They are meant to portray the richness and unpredictability of life on the road, but I find the intrusion of these awkward effects hampers the thematic sweep. The final work, De Profundis, is based on quotes from Oscar Wilde's massive letters to his lover Alfred Douglas, written while Wilde was imprisoned on morals charges. The quotes are chilling and Rzewski reads them uninhibitedly. The piano accompaniment is adventurous but subordinate to the text, and Rzewski's unusual effects, like impassioned moans and guffaws, seem strained. After two or three listenings, the piece's impact diminishes considerably. Yet perhaps this is what distinguishes Rzewski's works. Even when stumbles, he does it so bizarrely that you keep listening, knowing that pleasurable and evocative music may soon follow.

--Peter Bates

We start out this month heavy into les musique française...
Musique Française = Symphonic works by FERROUD, LALO, SCHMITT, VIEUXTEMPS & TOURNEMIRE - National Orch. Of Lyon/Emmanuel Krivine, Monte-Carlo Philharmonic/David Robertson, Useyin Sermet, piano, Daniel Galvez-Vallero, tenor/Luc Ponet, organ/Choirs of Namur & Brussels/Liege Philharmonic/Pierre Bartholomee/Gerard Poulet, violin -Naïve V4912 (5 CDs):

A most welcome collection of less-well-known French symphonic music, beautifully packaged with a series of B&W photographs of Paris and French countryside by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Probably the most familiar here will be some of the Namouna ballet by Lalo, but even that is not often heard in the U.S. We start with Pierre-Octave (appropriate musician’s name, no?) Ferroud. He was active in Paris in the 20s and 30s, writing in the current French tradition with Ravel as a model. However, he had a quite personal musical language, using both harmonic twists and often frequent changes of beat. His Symphony in A is the major one of the four works on his CD. It’s a sonorous work in the style of Ravel and Debussy - one tune even sounding like Afternoon of a Faun. Florent Schmitt had a high position in the music world at the turn into the 20th century though he is now nearly forgotten. He brought a more powerful expression to French music with diverse, dense works clothed in brilliant orchestrations. Dutilleux wrote that Schmitt was the last of that great family to which Ravel, Dukas and Roussel belonged, and that he brought back a certain grandeur to the French School. The major piece here is his Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra, which was entirely new to me. It’s very rhythmic, virtuosic and flamboyant - my kind of piano concerto! For a time it was on concert programs around the world - what ever happened to it?

Tournemire is of course known to most only as a great organist/composer of the French School. In fact he had a colossal output of works in many different genres, and his huge Symphony No. 6 takes up the entire CD devoted to him and was his central symphonic masterwork. One immediately is put in mind of Mahler here, especially in the way Tournemire also uses all his forces so sparingly, except for a few shattering climaxes where they are all the more effective. Scored for tenor, choir, organ and a huge orchestra, the piece is at once a sacred symphony and a war symphony. The composer uses Biblical texts in reflecting on his experiences in the First World War. An interesting aspect of the work is that in the overwhelming final apotheosis of the finale the choir changes to wordless vocalise. Henri Vieuxtemps was one of those violinist/composer virtuosi common to the l9th century, and his seven violin concertos have not been forgotten since that time, especially by violinists. Berlioz referred to the Fourth Concerto as “a magnificent symphony with principal violin,” and that could apply to Nos. 6 & 7 featured on the last of these five discs. Sonics are excellent throughout this set of recordings made in the first part of the 90s, and the entire package would be a perfect holiday gift for anyone with a penchant for French music a bit off the beaten track.

- John Sunier

OLIVIER MESSIAEN: Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus - Steven Osborne, piano - Hyperion CDA67351/2 (2 CDs):

This over two-hour 1945 masterpiece of the unique French composer is regarded as one of the gems of 20th century piano literature. It provides a mountain of technical and performance challenges to scale, but a number of pianists have attempted this Everest in the past. One of the best to my ears was Peter Hill on Unicorn, but this new effort engineered by Tony Faulkner surpasses the fidelity of that one. Pianist Osborne looks more like a rock musician than the magnificent classical pianist he is. Performing the work in concert aided him in tackling this recording project. Much of Messiaen’s work is noted for its Catholic underpinnings though its pervasive ecstatic qualities can be appreciated on other levels. This piano cycle, however, is on the subject of divine love, with each of the 20 pieces using quite different means to illustrate the Gazes upon the child in the manger, the Gaze of the Virgin, the Gazes of the Angels, and so on. Osborne maintains a feeling for the overall architecture of the work that makes it seem shorter than two hours if heard at once, not just ploughing thru each piece in turn.

- John Sunier

NINO ROTA: Works for Piano = Two Waltzes on the Name of Bach, Variations on the Name of Bach, Seven Pieces for Children, Ippolito Gioca, Quinze Preludes, Concerto Soiree for piano and orchestra, Balli for small orchestra, Fantasia on 12-notes from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” for piano and orchestra, Sonata for Chamber Orchestra - Danielle Lavel, piano/City of Ferrara Orchestra/Giuseppe Grazioli - Naïve V 1003 (2 CDs):

Another gorgeously-packaged, recorded and performed multi-CD collection from Naive. The catalog of Rota’s abstract works not composed for the films has built up considerably since his death, and this one must include some first recordings, though there is no reference to them in the notes. It’s interesting that there is only one paragraph printed with the discs, plus a note saying that the complete program notes will be found at the Naive web site. The recordings all date from the last decade, and feature both piano solos as well as works for piano and orchestra. The solo pieces intended for children seem to have more sophisticated turns of phrase and harmonies than most such works. Rota’s lyrical and often ironic tone suffuses all the music, and his love of Bach and Mozart is seen in three of them. Some familiar melodies from his film scores for Fellini creep into a couple works, notably a theme from 8 1/2 near the end of the Concerto Soiree - the longest of the piano orchestra works here.

- John Sunier

SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in A-Major, Four Lieder. Leif Ove Andsnes, piano; Ian Bostridge.EMI Classics 5-57266-2:

This disc is a worthy and enjoyable Schubertiad. At nearly forty minutes, Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A-Major, D 959 hardly qualifies as one of “heavenly length,” but it is his penultimate sonata and Andsnes plays it with tenderness, conviction, and anger. Yes, anger. In the program notes he rightly interprets the Andantino as being both lyrical and full of rage, and why shouldn’t it be? Schubert was facing the dark recesses of terror when he composed it. Unlike earlier interpreters like the supremely classical Walter Klien, Andsnes infuses the entire piece with heady contrasts: pianissimos bordering on pianississimos and delectable legatos that almost push too far, reminding us that some romantic excess never hurts. Toward the end of the Allegro, the music treads so faintly it almost disappears. Ah, but that Andantino. It’s pure flat-on-your-back-at-2 A.M. music. It has always wrenched my heart out, but Andsnes manages to sew it back in with the spiky Scherzo, with its abrupt fits and anti-lyrical energy. The final Allegretto is exuberant. Performing the lieder, Ian Bostridge is entertaining and poignant. His tenor voice has improved as he’s matured; perhaps it’s all that twentieth century Britten, Henze and Janaçek he’s been recording. Still, lyrical sweetness dominates in pieces like Pilgerweise and Die Sterne. Bostridge’s intonations in the lengthy Auf dem Strom are more dramatic, confidently knocking on Fischer-Dieskau’s door. The great man does not yet answer, but one day he might. While you’re listening, savor Timothy Brown’s horn. Who let Dennis Brain’s ghost in?

--Peter Bates

Two highly contrasting vocal albums next, assaying Heaven and Hell...

In Excelsis = Music by TAVERNER, TAVENER, PYGOTT, SWAYNE, HARVEY, LUDFORD, CORNYSH, SHEPPARD & TALLIS - Choir of New College, Oxford/Edward Higginbottom - Erato 0927-44657-2:

The theme of this a capella choral collection is the linking up of some liturgical composers of the pre-Reformation period with modern British composers of liturgical music. In the case of the 16th century Taverner and the modern-yet-archaic-sounding Tavener the match extends even to their similar names. The accent is on the more modern composers, given this collection more variety and interest than a typical series of such polyphony might provide. This is an all-male choir of strong and refined voices that handle the intricacies of the 20th century works with aplomb, and the hall is not overly reverberant so the clarity of the first-rate recording is exemplary. I was especially struck by the unexpected harmonies of the two works by Jonathan Harvey. 13 selections in all.

A Date With the Devil = BERLIOZ: La damnation of Faust, excerpts; MEYERBEER: aria from Robert le diable; LISZT: Mephisto Waltz; BOITO: 3 arias from Mefistofele; OFFENBACH: aria from Tales of Hoffman; GOUNOD: 2 arias from Faust; STRAVINSKY: 2 arias from The Rake’s Progress - Samuel Ramey, bass/Munich Radio Orchestra/Julius Rudel - Naxos 8.555355:

Another interesting, and completely different, theme for a classical CD. There’s been several solo violin and string section “diabolical” theme CDs since there are so many instrumental pieces around that idea, but I don’t recall a vocal one. Basso Ramey brings us different manifestations of the Devil pursuing his diabolical plans in music. Like the saying goes, the Devil gets all the good tunes, and some of these are real gems. The instrumental break in the middle for Liszt’s most diabolical waltz is a nice touch. Naxos is lucky to have the topflight Ramey’s dark voice on their label, he’s certainly no bargain-counter bass. But I found him a bit heavy on the wobble for my taste. Conjured up that Hoffnung cartoon of the opera singer turning a knob on his belt labeled “wobble.”

- John Sunier

Two recent additions to this label’s laudable American Classics Series...

GROFE: Death Valley Suite; Hollywood Suite; Hudson River Suite - Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Wm. Stromberg - Naxos 8.559017:

The creation of wide-screen descriptive suites without the movies exemplarized by the popular Grand Canyon Suite is also heard in these three rarely-heard Grofe works. The six movements of the Hollywood Suite - originally a ballet - get about as specific as any composer could: Sweepers, The Stand-In, Carpenters and Electricians, and for the finale - Director/Star/Ensemble. Ever since he orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue Grofe demonstrated an aptitude for symphonic jazz, and traces of it are heard in these works. The Hudson River Suite has movements for Henry Hudson and Rip Van Winkle, including musical effects of the latter’s dog. Obviously not masterpieces, but great fun delving into this nostalgic Americana, and at the reasonable price well worth the investment.

GEORGE FREDERICK MCKAY: Caricature Dance Suite; From My Tahoe Window; Americanistic Etude; An April Suite; Dance Suite No.l 2; Dancing in a Dream; Excerpts from Five Songs for Soprano; Every Flower That Ever Grew; Suite for Viola & Piano - William Bolcom, Logan Skelton, Sanford Margolis, pianos/Jean Morris, mezzo/Majoko Eguchi, viola - Naxos 8.l559143:

McKay was a music professor at the University of Washington for 40 years and was considered the Dean of Northwest Composers. His works covered a wide range, with many compositions for piano, although the violin was his main instrument. McKay is rarely heard today because his music was heavily in the style of art music of its particular period (the works here date from 1924 to 1965). As with Grofe, McKay was familiar with American popular songs and jazz rhythms and melodies, and some of this can be discerned in his chamber works. The brief Dancing in a Dream is for two pianos and fantasizes dancers in an Astaire film moving with ease across the stage or screen. The also brief Americanistic Etude has lots of syncopation and blue notes. The husband-wife team of Bolcom and Morris perform three of McKay’s five songs.

- John Sunier

Symphonies from the 18th and the 19th centuries...

MICHAEL HAYDN: Symphonies Nos. 33, 23, 22, 1C - Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss/Johannes Goritzki - CPO 999 380-2:

Michael was the younger brother of Franz Josef Haydn and composed for the orchestra of the Bishop of Grotwardein, as his older brother did for Prince Esterhazy. All four symphonies are for strings, two oboes, two horns and bassoon. The first two symphonies are from early in his career and the other two date from some 20 years later, showing more experimental styles - especially in the display of some ironic humor much in the style of his older brother. Good clean reproduction aids in getting into the details of the music.

HANS ROTT: Symphony in E Major; Pastorales Vorspiel - Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies - EPO 999 854-2:

Don’t be surprised if this work puts you in mind of Gustav Mahler, the two were fellow students at the Vienna Conservatory. Rott rotted in an asylum and died at age 26 and it is felt Mahler lifted some of his best-known musical motifs. The 40-minute symphony is one of Rott’s few works that has been preserved and it was recorded in l989, but this new CD surpasses it sonically. Both Rott and Mahler studied organ with Anton Bruckner and both often injected what Brahms at one point defined as “trivialities” into their music. Rott had a megalomaniacal idea of creating a so-called universal music that would reconcile the opposite features of Brahms and Bruckner. (Sounds almost like Scriabin in some ways.) He has brief quotes from Schumann, Brahms and Wagner in his work, and the finale starts with a theme too close for comfort to that of the finale of Brahms’ first symphony. Each movement of the work grows longer - moving from nine minutes of the first to over 21 of the finale. A fascinating work that could almost be a lost Mahler symphony.

- John Sunier

On to Part 2 (conclusion) of CLASSICAL for this month

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