CLASSICAL CDs,   Pt. 2 - October 2001

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VIVALDI: Laetatus sum, RV607; Laudate pueri, RV 601; Vestro Principi divino, RV 633; Jubilate, o amoeni chori, RV 639; Gloria in excelsis Deo, RV588--Susan Gritton, sop/Carolyn Sampson, sop/Nathalie Stutzmann, cont/Charles Daniels, tenor/Robert King/The King's Consort--Hyperion CDA 66819:

Apart from his many concertos, Vivaldi wrote a good deal of choral music. Most of it is lost, and Robert King and Hyperion have been performing a great service by bringing us the 50 or so compositions that remain. This Volume 7 of their "Sacred Music" series offers five rarely heard works, all of them displaying Vivaldi's characteristic genius with their long and lovely vocal lines, skillfully written choruses, and ingenious and imaginative orchestration. The soloists are splendid, and I'm particularly impressed with Carolyn Sampson, previously unknown to me, who sings the solo passages in Laudate pueri with a warm, sweet, accurate, agile, and well-focussed voice without a trace of vibrato. Stutzmann and Gritton are better-known and both sing well, the former with remarkable agility for so weighty a contralto. The knowledgeable Robert King leads with his customary briskness, and his orchestra and choir produce rich and well-blended sounds. The choruses are set fairly high in range, suitable for the girls at the orphanage where Vivaldi worked, but the Pietá must have had some exceptional contraltos to carry the bottom lines as well as outstanding sopranos to handle the florid passages. The sound is excellent, the music is beautiful, and it's a pleasure to recommend the disc to you.

--Alex Morin

+++++ More Quick Auditions +++++

Super-Tune CDs Times Four! Shameless melody-spinning galore to be found in these new releases...

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Scheherazade; Russian Easter Overture - Atlanta Sym. Orch./Robert Spano - Telarc CD-80568:

Robert Spano is the new Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony, coming from the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He has a rather fresh approach to this potboiler, bringing out the colorful programmatic writing of orchestration-specialist Rimsky-Korsakov. And Telarc's DSD recording, even after reduction via Super Bit-Mapping down to the old 44.1 Red Book standard, shines in its ability to hear deep into the orchestra. Now of course I've got my hopes up for the multichannel SACD version of this, but in the meantime and for those who are anti-early-adopters, this CD certainly deserves your purchase.

FRANCOIS AUBER: Overture and Rare Ballets - Opera Orch. Of Gothembourg/B. Tommy Andersson - Sterling CDS-1039 2:

This collection of super-melodic French theater music from the mid and late 19th century is heard in several world premiere recordings and the first appearance on CD for all the rest of the repertory. The works were selected from collection of French music, musical instruments and letters assembled over 50 years by a Swedish wine merchant and music lover. Included were the full scores to 34 operas by Auber, and that was the source of these selections. There are five overtures and several ballets, of which Le Dieu et la bayadere is the lengthiest - consisting of a rousing overture followed by a ballet. While other Auber sources have been used for various popular ballet scores, these melodies will sound fresher and less hackneyed since for the most part they haven't been heard in this century or the last one. The Swedish opera orchestra plays them with gusto and the sound is up to the task.

FLORENCE PRICE: The Oak, Mississippi River Suite, Symphony No. 3 in C Minor - The Women's Philharmonic/Apo Hsu - Koch International 3-7518-2:

The San Francisco-based Women's Philharmonic has presented many worthwhile works by women composers, including many premieres. This one is additionally of interest being the first CD appearance of the African-American female composer Florence Price, who lived from l887 to l953. She was also a concert pianist, organist and teacher and wrote over 300 compositions. The three works here are in a conservative, very strongly melodic style similar to that of fellow black composer William Grant Still. In fact, her music is simply brimming over with wonderful melody, often quoting spirituals and folk songs. Several spirituals are used in her Mississippi River Suite, which takes the listener on a journey down the river to New Orleans. (It makes an interesting contrast with Ferde Grofe's similarly-titled suite as well as Jerome Kern's Mark Twain.) However, in her l938 symphony Price eschewed actual folk songs, intended an abstract impression of African-American life, thought and heritage of that day.

SAMUEL COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: Danse Negre, Petite Suite de Concert; FELA SOWANDE: Sel. From African Suite; WM. GRANT STILL: Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American" - Chicago Sinfonietta/Paul Freeman - Cedille Records CDR-90000 053:

I've wondered at the need for some of the past repertory-duplicating releases from this small Chicago-based classical label, but efforts such as this one (and it's Vol. 1 in a series) couldn't be more useful. It was Dvorak who started American composers thinking about using their folkloric sources to develop a distinctive American music style. He was followed by the black British composer Coleridge Taylor, whose visit to the U.S. early in the l9th century showed black composers here that their culture deserved more respect and dignity. About the only work of Coleridge-Taylor with which collectors might be familiar is Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, so it is good to have these two orchestral pieces from the esteemed composer. Sowande was a Nigerian composer who studied in London and taught at American universities. He may have given the first British performance of Rhapsody in Blue, in l936. Three movements from his African Suite are based in part on Nigerian melodies. Still greatly admired Coleridge-Taylor and became the first black American composer to gain attention in the symphony hall. His symphony of l930 has jazz elements plus unusual orchestration - marimba and piano in one section. Gershwin and Still knew and appreciated each other's music.

- John Sunier

The Russians Are Coming...

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 9 - Russian National Orchestra/Vladimir Spivakov - Well-Tempered Productions HDCD WTP 5190:

Much has been written about these two favorite Shostakovich symphonies. Some of the most exciting recordings of both have come from Russia or the Soviet Union (though it's difficult to surpass Bernstein's explosive Fifth on Sony Classical). So here are brand new, skillfully recorded Russian entries that were recorded in concert at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. The orchestra is the first in the country since l917 to be entirely free of government control and supported by private funding. Completely captivating versions of both works. One would be well put to properly decode the HDCD processing because unlike most Russian recordings up until recently the ambience of the hall is not crudely added artificial reverb that would only be exaggerated via HDCD. This is the real thing and the wide dynamics and micro detail also benefit from decoding.

SHOSTAKOVICH: Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Orchestra; Concerto no. 2 in F Major for Piano and Orchestra; Quintet in G Minor for Piano and Strings Op. 57 - Yefim Bronfman, piano/Thomas Stevens, trumpet/LA Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen; (in Quintet:) Bronfman/Juillard String Quartet - Sony Classical SK 60677:

Another side of the huge variety of music created by the man some authorities (not just Russian either) regard as the greatest composer of the 20th century. The 17-year-old Shostakovich earned money playing thye piano for silent movies and later in life wrote more film scores than any other well-known composer. In his First Concerto you can hear some of the melodrama found in the so-called "silents." The Second Concerto comes almost a quarter-century later and is also playful; it was used for one of the animations with toy soldiers in Disney's Fantasia 2000. The Piano Quintet is the gem of this CD and one of the chamber music masterpieces of the 20th century. It has a strongly heroic cast but without the strained feeling of many Soviet-era "heroic" symphonic works. It is full of intense melodies and some sarcasms worthy of fellow composer Prokofiev. I have several versions of this superb quintet and none equal the white-hot excitement of Bronfman and the Juillard. Bravo!

RACHMANINOFF: The Bells; TANEYEV: John of Damascus - Soloists (in Rachmaninoff)/Moscow State Ch. Choir/Russian Nat. Orch./Mikhail Pletnev - DGG 298 471 029-2:

Rachmaninoff's poem for soprano, tenor and baritone plus chorus and orchestra, is based on a text adapted from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The four movements describe the sounds of various types of bells which encompass the entire range of human life. The composer thought it his best composition. The Taneyev cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra is in three movements and is based on a short poem and was used at a memorial concert for the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein. Taneyev used many different forms of Bachian counterpoint while attempting to fuse Russian liturgical and folk music. Again, the Russian performers win the day vs. some of the more tepid Western recorded versions of The Bells. (The Taneyev may be a first recording for all I know.)

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: The Maid of Pskov; Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (Symphonic Suite); Fairy Tale; Fantasia on Serbian Themes - Moscow Sym. Orch./Igor Golovchin - Naxos 8.553513:

If you tire of hearing the umpteenth Scheherazade, this bargain collection of off-the-beaten-track Rimsky-Korsakov may be just your ticket. The first two suites - the major works on the disc - are taken from two of the many operas in which the composer specialized. His self-taught skills in colorful orchestrations come thru here just as well as in his music without operatic connections. The four movements of the Legend depict the various battles, abductions, weddings and city-disappearances of the opera.

- John Sunier

Four For the Musically Brave Listener...

TERRY RILEY: Requiem for Adam; The Philosopher's Hand - The Kronos Quartet; Terry Riley, piano, (Philosopher's) - Nonesuch 79639-2:

While part of the San Francisco-based Kronos continuing effort commissioning works for them by contemporary composers, this one has a stronger personal tie-in. It was composed in memory of the 16-year-old son of the quartet's first violinist David Harrington, who had died suddenly. Riley, who single-handedly started the repetition arm of minimalist music with his l964 In C, here opts for more density and complexity. He even employs a prerecorded tape of processed sounds in sync with the string quartet. The last of the three movements includes a funeral march but also a jazzy blues dance in 7/8 time. The closing five-minute piano solo by Riley was improvised in the Skywalker studio where the recording was made and returns to some of his minimalist piano meditations.

INGRAM MARSHALL: Kingdom Come; Hymnodic Delays; Fog Tropes II - American Composers Orch./Paul Lustig Dunkel (Kingdom); Paul Hillier's Theater of Voices (Hymnodic); Kronos Quartet (Fog) - Nonesuch 79613-2:

More cutting-edge music from Nonesuch. Marshall is known for his incorporation of recorded sounds of the real world into his music. Fog Tropes was created almost two decades ago using a tape of sounds of San Francisco fog horns, seagulls, flute and vocalizations plus a live brass ensemble. The new version uses the same sound effects tape but strings instead of brass. Hymnodic Delays reworks several psalms by early New England vocal composers, but run thru digital delays. The title selection uses several recordings made in Yugoslavia in the l980's plus the orchestra to communicate the composer's thoughts on the terrible war there fueled by ethnic hatreds. I can think of some groups here in the U.S. Who could well listen to this work at present.

- John Sunier

The Zappa Album - Ensemble Ambrosius - BIS Northern Lights CD-5013:

This innovative ensemble is the second European one I've heard focusing on the wild and wooly-bully music of the late Frank Zappa. The first was from Holland, but they didn't perform on most Baroque instruments as does the Finnish Ensemble Ambrosius. These amazing players have thoroughly studied early music as well as contemporary. This album grew out of a performance during a summer course on early music where the harpsichordist joined with a Baroque cellist to perform Zappa's Uncle Meat. Most of the instruments are amplified and the idea of the basso continuo group was applied to their arrangements of Zappa's music. They found that with the basso continuo the rules of accompanying the melody harmonically and rhythmically were pretty much the same as with the rhythm section of a rock group. 15 instrumental tracks, including Igor's Boogie, Alien Orifice, and G-Spot Tornado. Ear stretching, to say the least.

Goldrush - Works for Percussion - The Safri Duo (Morten Friis & Uffe Savery - Chandos CHAN 6651:

This is not your usual serious percussion Cd but more of a sampler of accessible music skillfully transcribed for two percussionists. There is a straight Bach Prelude and Fugue and also three Bach preludes re-arranged by Per Norgard as "Well-Tempered Percussionists." The transcriptions are of familiar melodies of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Ravel. But then with the listeners softened up by the more familiar sounds, things get lots wilder and more atonal with Soren Barfoed's lengthy Safricana suite and the CDs title piece Goldrush.

- John Sunier

Piano Concertos x Four close out our Quick Auditions this month...

LUKAS FOSS: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, Elegy for Anne Frank - Jon Nakamatsu, Yakov Kasman, Lukas Foss, pianos/Pacific Sym. Orch./Carl St.Clair - Harmonia mundi HMU 907243:

Both concertos are early works of leading American composer Foss, and this is the first recording of No. 1, written at age 17. He had been studying with Hindemith and followed his teacher's chromatic tonality but with a distinctly personal voice. A Hungarian flavor pervades the third movement of the concerto. The second concerto is virtuosic and ends with a surprising cadenza. The Elegy is a short tone poem on the life of Anne Frank, heard in two versions - one with Foss' daughter reading the narration.

MACDOWELL: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Second Modern Suite for solo piano - Seta Tanyel,p./BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./Martyn Brabbins - Hyperion CDA67165:

This CD brings the Romantic Piano Concerto series on Hyperion to No. 25. We reviewed another MacDowell Piano Concertos CD recently, but this one has the edge sonically (Tony Faulkner the engineer) plus a more lively soloist, plus a filler of the original piano version of the suite heard in its orchestral garb on a Mercury Living Presence with Howard Hanson.

GINASTERA: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 - Dora De Marinis, piano/Slovak Radio Sym. Orch./Julio Malaval - Naxos 8.555283:

Argentine Alberto Ginastera is often grouped with Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos and Mexicon Carlos Chavez as the three greatest Latin American composers of the last century. Most famous for his melodic and very rhythmic ballets Estancia and Panambi, which made use of Argentine folk music, he later developed a less tonal style as shown in these concertos. While not using actual folk elements, these works still have the strong rhythmic structure and exotic sonorities of the folk music. The fourth movement of the first concerto, for example, is a toccata with a driving and almost violent malambo rhythm. The later concerto is distinguished by Ginastera's use in the first movement of 32 variations on a chord from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and in the final by a theme taken from Chopin's Funeral March movement of his piano sonata.

MOZART: Sturm und Drang - Fantasie in c minor, Sonata in c minor, Adagio in b minor, Sonata in a minor, Fantasie in d minor - Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano - Fleur de Son Classics FDS 57951:

OK, these are not piano concertos, but they are not your usual innocent Mozart piano sonatas either. The term "Storm and Stress" came out of German literature of the late 18th century that pitted youthful genius against the oppression of society's conformity. In music, Haydn and CPE Bach were among its main practitioners. Mozart wasn't really part of this movement, but pianist Bezuidenhout feels that in some of his minor-key sonatas and free fantasias Mozart achieved feelings of shock, terror and awe in contemporary audiences. He tries to defy the bounds of musical notation just as a jazz improvisor might do today. Try to listen to these works with an 18th century ear and you will begin to appreciate what Mozart accomplished. The use of the mild-mannered fortepiano detracts not a whit from the impact of this music and seems an excellent middle ground between the harpsichord and the modern piano, considering the repertory.

- John Sunier

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