Pt. 2 of 2 
October 2002
click on any cover to go directly to its review

These first two CDs were the most interesting I auditioned this month...

BARTOK: The Miraculous Mandarin; Suite of Dances; Four Pieces for Orchestra Op. 12, Sz.51 - Lyon National Orch./David Robertson - Harmonia mundi HMC 901777:

The Miraculous Mandarin, which was Bartok's third and last stage work, shows the composer at his most brutal and erotic, using unusually large orchestral forces. The ballet consists of a single continuous action and therefore the composer called it a pantomime rather than ballet. The clarinet portrays the erotic dances of the young girl to entice the Mandarin, and this is some of the most lascivious concert music to be found - makes Salome's Dance sound very tame. I should have compared this to the classic Mercury Dorati recording but time didn't permit. The sonics on this one are more lush and refined for certain, but most of all I thought this was the most exciting version of the work I had ever heard. Period. Part of that could be due to it being a restoration of the original score by Bartok's son Peter (a recording engineer among other things), which restores dynamics, bowings and other details left off the published score. The other two works are not exactly Bartokian standards either; the Dance Suite of six movements incorporates not only the usual Hungarian influences but also dances from Romanian and Arabic influences.

- John Sunier

WILHELM FURTWANGLER: Symphony No. 2 - Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim - Teldec Classics 0927 43495 2 (2 CDs):

While our Reissues section each month usually has at least one Furtwangler historical recording reviewed, it's rather a departure to have something from the highly-regarded German conductor in this section of new recordings. The truth is that Furtwangler thought of himself originally as a conducting composer in the style of his contemporary Richard Strauss. His massive Second Symphony was started in l944, just ten years before his death. He was still in war-torn Germany, where he had spoken up to save the lives of many Jewish musicians. He finished the work in Switzerland, to which he had escaped in January of 1945. It boasts four lengthy movements in the late-Romantic tradition, reminding one of Bruckner with somewhat more complex harmonic development. The fourth movement alone takes up an entire second CD running over 30 minutes. It sounds more like it was composed in l904 instead of 44. Generally tragically-inclined, in keeping with the tenor of the times in which it was written, this was Furtwangler's masterpiece. The conductor composer was the center of controversy after the war, accused of being anti-Nazi while in Germany and pro-Nazi everywhere else.

I recall having either an obscure label LP of this symphony or perhaps it was a reel tape of a radio performance of it, and the sound was execrable, ruining a real appreciation of the work. This new recording is very good and of course the Chicagoans almost can't do anything wrong performance wise, but in some of the many dense climaxes I was wishing that this might eventually come out on a multichannel hi-res recording for even more transparency of the thick orchestral textures that build up like Bruckner's sonic building blocks. Barenboim is a brave conductor of strong convictions - he's the first to give this important work its proper due. The Furtwangler reputation matter will remind some that Barenboim recently caught hell in Israel for programming music of Wagner in his concerts there for the first time since WWII.

- John Sunier

The folk music influence is vital to many European composers. Here's just two of them...

LEOS JANACEK: Danube (Symphonic Poem); Moravian Dances; Suite Op. 3 - Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Libor Pesek - Naxos 8.555245:

This is part of a series of earlier Naxos recordings made in the mid-80s; actually it was released on the Marco Polo label. Often bizarre juxtapositions of music and performing forces were forced on many labels by the costs of recording in the U.S. (for example: The Icelandic Philharmonic playing Copland). But in this case the match-up couldn't be more appropriate. Janacek's four-movement Danube portrays the famous river as a woman with various passions. Moravia was his homeland and that region's folk music is a strong influence in both the Moravian Dances the Suite for Orchestra. The fidelity is somewhat better than it was on the original CD release and this is a very fair price for some fine music from a composer whose highly individual genius deserves more attention than it has received in the West. (I'm presuming you already own his Slavonic Mass...)

GEIRR TVEITT: A Hundred Hardanger Tunes - Suites Nos. 2 & 5 - Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset - Naxos 8.555770:

Must admit to not having heard of this Norwegian composer before. Thanks to Naxos I've now had some delightful time getting acquainted with another composer heavily influenced by the folk music of his own culture, but displaying it in a highly original manner. In the area of the Hardangerfjord in West Norway where the composer made his home until his death in 1981, the Hardanger tradition melds together its music, everyday life, nature and the supernatural. Living with these people, Tveitt wrote down over a thousand of their folk tunes - some were played on the Hardanger fiddle with resonating drone strings like an Indian sitar, and others on a dulcimer-like stringed instrument. Some tunes Tveitt created himself in the same style. The variations - 15 per suite - are mostly quite short, with the longest around 3:30. Many of them come with folk tales attached; there are references to trolls, skiing, wolves and reindeer, strong ale, glaciers, fairies, etc. The orchestrations are dynamic and imaginative in the extreme, and the second suite ends in a tumultuous portrayal of Judgement Day - complete with seven tympani and clanging bells.

- John Sunier

We're going concerto-crazy with the next pair of CDs...

NINO ROTA: Concerto for Harp and Orchestra; Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra; Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra; Ballad for Horn and Orchestra (Castel del Monte) - Luisa Prandina, harp; Paolo Carlini, bassoon; Guido Corti, horn; Andrea Conti, trombone; I Virtuosi Italiani/Marzio Conti - Chandos CHAN 9954:

Now that much of the wonderful film music of Rota has been committed to disc it's satisfying to see more of his abstract music show up, because this fine composer was much more than just a movie music maven. Three of these four works for a solo instrument and orchestra are recorded here for the very first time. The opening harp concerto is the largest of the works and the earliest; in a modal setting, it boasts a melodic and compelling center slow movement. The three movements of the bassoon concerto have an unusual pattern: Toccata, Recitativo, Theme and Variations. The title of the horn concerto makes reference to a well known 13th century castle, and the work's final movement may remind one of Prokofiev. These are all most enjoyable and accessible works full of the special melodic gifts which Rota displayed in all his works.

EDGAR MEYER: Double Concerto for Cello and Double Bass; Concerto in D for Double Bass and Orchestra; GIOVANNI BOTTESINI: Concerto No. 2 in B Minor for Double Bass and Orchestra; Grand Duo Concertante - Edgar Mayer, double bass/Joshua Bell, violin/Yo-Yo Ma, cello/St. Paul Chamber Orchestra/Hugh Wolff - Sony Classical SK 60956:

It's unusual for two composers paired on an album to be separated by 150 years, but that's the situation with this CD. Both Bottesini and Meyer wrote works to display the possibilities of their believed string basses as solo instruments. They both also employed in their works some of the music they grew up with; in the case of Bottesini it included Mozart and for Meyer a variety of Americana including string band music. The three string soloists her have collaborated on several previous projects centered about the music of Appalachia, so this CD is more toward the standard concert hall repertory - although the Double Concerto is full of allusions to blues and American roots music. Meyer also was influenced by Mozart in writing his Double Concerto. In it's third movement he used the structure of the third movement of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat Major. You may be surprised at the great variety found in the four works here, in spite of the string bass being front and center. With it's exploration of the lowest string frequencies it's also a good audio demo - with music of this nature you will hear it if the transition between your subs and the other speakers is not a smooth one.

- John Sunier

Music for solo piano on our next pair of 44.1s...

American Piano Sonatas = COPLAND: Piano Sonata; IVES: Three Page Sonata; CARTER: Piano Sonata; BARBER: Piano Sonata Op. 26; GRIFFES: Sonata for Piano; SESSIONS: Second Sonata for Piano; IVES: Sonata No. 1 for Piano - Peter Lawson, p. - Virgin Classics 5 61928 2 9 (2 CDs):

A conscientious and commendable compilation that could well be the cornerstone of the library of anyone into American keyboard music of the last century. You may have already have one or two of these sonatas in your collection but these are such high quality performances and recordings that some duplication is acceptable considered the discounted price of the double-CD set. Some of us may want to hit the skip button when the Carter and Sessions sonatas come up, but it's still a pretty good deal. The strikingly rhythmic Copland Sonata makes a great start to the recital, and I'm willing to bet many will be hearing the exciting sonata by Charles T. Griffes for the very first time. For some reason Ives gets two pieces to himself.

EDMUND RUBBRA: Complete Solo Piano Works - Michael Dussek, piano - Dutton Labs CDLX 7112:

British composer Rubbra, who lived until l986, had such diverse influences as 16th century polyphony, Bach, Debussy, Cyril Scott and Holst. His mature harmonic language emphasized counterpoint. Nine works are in his collection. The two longest are his Sonatina of 1928-29 - lyrical but technically challenging - and his Eight Preludes of 1966, which all come from the same melodic pattern heard in the very first prelude - a succession of four rising notes. The wide range of settings and strong feelings evoked by these preludes is quite astonishing; they have been compared to Frank Martin's piano pieces, which also show a connection to Bach. Tony Faulkner was the engineer for this disc and the piano sound is rich and immediate.

- John Sunier

It's reeds galore for our closing pair of albums....

Captured - The Bassoon Brothers - Crystal Records CD875:

Well, I guess I have to review a CD that prints a quote from my earlier review of the group's first CD, "Wanted." I would anyway, having recently enjoyed a rollicking in-person concert by the ensemble. First, one of the brothers is really a sister; second, all four hail from the bassoon section of the Oregon Symphony, in fact they are the bassoon section of the Oregon Symphony with the exception of their contrabassoonist who recently defected to the Atlanta Symphony. Each one is also called upon to play other unexpected instruments, such as the tenoroon, tromboon, electric wah-wah bassoon, bocal, and "strange utterances." As you might suspect, the Bassoon Bros. Programs don't consist of back-to-back Vivaldi bassoon concerti. They mix it up with many short arrangements of classical, pop, and movie themes ranging from the entirely appropriate for-their-instrumentation (The Funeral March of a Marionette by Gounod) to totally inappropriate but fun (Jim Hendrix' Purple Haze). To get around some of the challenges arranging solely for a quartet of bassoons, the groovy group occasionally employs guest musicians on guitar, accordion, violin and so on; as well as computer MIDI tracks. A hint of their tongue against-reed wit is their list of acknowledgements on the back of the note booklet. It includes Peter Schickele, Spike Jones, Ernie Kovacs and the Hoffnung Festival. Most of the arrangements are by first bassoonist Mark Eubanks, and looking over their programs it's apparent there's absolutely no tune in any genre for which he can't come up with a functional arrangement. For example, among the 22 tracks on this CD: Hey Jude, My Girl, Louie Louie, The Godfather Waltz, Fanfare for the Common Bassoonist.

MARTIN SCOT KOSINS: Love Letters; Winter Moods; FRANCOIS BORNE: Fantaisie Brillante on themes from Bizet's Carmen; DEBUSSY: Le Fille aux Cheveux de Lin; THEOBOLD BOEHM: Variations Brilliantes sur un Air Allemand; DINICU: Hora Staccato - David Shostac, flute; Anita Swearengin, piano - Crystal Records CD314:

One of the large number of CD recitals by mostly reed soloists in the Crystal catalog, this one presents the principal flutist of the LA Chamber Orchestra. Shostac's program is a successful mix of the familiar and unfamiliar, but be assured that the three unfamiliar composers here are full of melodic invention and will not be a listening task by any means. Kosins speaks in his notes about choosing the flute since it is so effective at playing the many strong melodies in his works. The instrument is also effective at speedy virtuoso somersaults of note-spinning, and that aspect is explored fully in both of the colorful variations on Carmen themes and the variations on a German folk song. Most of this CD is actually a reissue of an earlier LP release on the label, with one added digitally-recorded selection. Quality is excellent nevertheless; see if you can discern without looking which one is the newer recording.

- John Sunier

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