CLASSICAL CDs,   Pt. 2 - September 2001

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SCRIABIN: The Complete Preludes - Piers Lane, piano - Hyperion CDA67057/8 (2 CDs):

It's an interesting paradox that while Alexander Scriabin is best known for his massive, overstuffed choral-orchestral works (including one unfinished weekend-long piece that was supposed to bring about the end of the world), he was also a keyboard miniaturist whose Preludes conjure up just as varied and imaginative a world as do Debussy's. The French composer, along with Rachmaninoff and Chopin, gave his preludes a life independent from their original functional use as curtain-raisers to a keyboard recital.

There's an amazing variety in this over two hours of scintillating piano music. Some sound like Chopin from beyond the grave, some Romantically Rachmaninoffian, and others cram into their short existence a taste of the mystical and "perfumed" (the composer's own adjective, by the way) moods of his major later orchestral works such as the Poem of Ecstasy. The seven preludes of Op. 17 are infrequently heard but deserve more attention for their lovely melodies and Rachmaninoff reminders. The later opuses show an almost mentally-unbalanced obsessive quality in endlessly repeated phrases and hammered rhythmic passages. Some of the pieces even lack a key signature. Lane was unfamiliar to me but proves a perfect Scriabin interpreter with a wide expressive range. Recording quality, as with most of this label's efforts, is superb.

- John Sunier


HENRI VIEUXTEMPS: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 - Marie Hallynck, cello/Belgian National Orchestra/Theodor Guschlbauer - Cypres CYP4609:

The lovely cover art and design of this jewel-box-alterative package would be sure to entice most collectors even if the music contained therein were yet another New World Symphony or its ilk. But this small French label brings us caressingly-delivered playing of two rare and beautiful cello concertos from a composer better known for his violin works. Vieuxtemps had to cut short his career as a touring performer of his own virtuoso violin works when he developed a paralysis of his left hand. Therefore he depended on performance by soloist friends for whom he wrote works such as these two concertos. The first is a highly lyrical work following a classical three-movement style. The second concerto begins in a heroic mood but in the central movement adopts a solemn tone which has been described as the composer realizing he is near the end of his life but hanging on with desperate energy. The cellist is excellent and the recording conveys a subtle feeling of the hall in Brussels where it was recorded.

- John Sunier


OTAR TAKTAKISHVILI: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor; MILY BALAKIREV: Tamara (Symphonic Poem) - Jungran Kim Khwarg, p./Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/ Dong Hyock Hyun - Cambria CD-1120:

Taktakishvili, who lived until l989, was a Georgian composer whose work usually incorporated Georgian folk themes. I never expected to see a modern CD of this concerto, which I have treasured for many years on a Russian LP with typically terrible sonics. The work cannot be forgotten once heard due to the particular Russian folk song themes used in the Andante movement, which sound like an amalgam of Gershwin's Summertime plus Danny Boy.

This recent taping is a huge improvement over the LP original, the orchestra is one of Russia's best, and the pianist handles the virtuoso demands of this tunefully conservative work with aplomb. Folk themes also abound in the Balakirev work, but this time from the Caucasus region. The half-hour-length work is in a Rimsky-Korsakovian style.

- John Sunier

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - Jon Nakamatsu, piano/Rochester Philharmonic Orch./Christopher Seaman - Harmonia mundiHMU 907286:

One of the "really big" piano concertos of the 20th century, this work is less performed than the composer's famous Second but is more successful musically. While some heard folk song or liturgical sources in the work, Rachmaninoff insisted neither had anything to do with his themes. The virtuoso element is especially strong in this concerto and the intensity of the dramatic climaxes is almost over-powering. Pianist Nakamatsu won a Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn competition four years ago and turns in a spectacular performance here, captured in first-rate sonics. Even the over-played Rhapsody sounds fresher than usual.

- John Sunier


Frame - GRAHAM FITKIN: Glass; Frame; Hard Fairy; NYMAN: The Piano Sings; GLASS: Facades; SAKAMOTO-SYLVLAN: Forbidden Colors - Simon Haram, soprano saxophone/The Duke Quartet and guests - Black Box BBM1055:

This enterprising label has another winner in this collection of contemporary but tuneful chamber works with a minimalist slant and featuring the saxophone. Michael Nyman normally employs saxophone in much of his music, but soft-pedalled that in his score for the film The Piano; in his contribution to this CD that imbalance is corrected. The Philips Glass work is described by Haram as "a long journey down a short road" - those cool to minimalist works might well adopt that phrase. The melody of Fitkin's worked named Glass is really lovely and catchy. His Hard Fairy was originally a two-piano piece and with the sax added it seems an even wilder musical ride. Fascinating stuff that qualifies for the [good] crossover category.

- John Sunier

DAVE BRUBECK: Points on Jazz; Four by Four; Tamale; They All Sang Yankee Doodle - Anthony & Joseph Paratore, pianos - Koch Jazz 3-6925-2:

Talk about crossover - this CD takes the cake. This is the only sort of repertory like this the duo-piano brothers have recorded, and some of the movements even have similar titles to those of the suites by Claude Bolling which are usually put in the classical rather than jazz sections. The title work is a theme-and-variations ballet suite, originally for piano duo and later transcribed for orchestra for the American Ballet Theater. The eight movements are delightful Brubeck without the more percussive rhythmic effects one hears in his jazz quartet treatments. The last of the movements is even titled A La Turk, referring to his famous Blue Rondo a la Turk - a work with a very classical form and homage to Mozart to boot. In They All Sang... The Yankee Doodle melody is heard almost continuously on one piano or the other during its 12 minutes, which is a musical melting pot of traditional music from immigrants to the U.S. Four by Four was originally composed while Brubeck was a student of French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, California. It commemorated the centenary of California's admission to the Union. Whether you're a fan of classical two piano recitals or two piano jazz you'll dig this CD plenty.

- John Sunier


GEIRR TVIETT: Prillar; Solgud-Symphien (Sun God Symphony) - Stavanger Sym. Orch./Ole Kristian Ruud - BIS-CD-1027:

Norwegian composer Tviett lived until l981 and these are the first commercial recordings of both of these works which were previously thought to have been destroyed in a fire at his farm in l970. Tviett studied originally in Germany and lived in Paris and Vienna. His music was well received in Paris due to its mix of Norwegian and French styles. While strong on the use of Norwegian folk music in compositions, both of these works demonstrate only an indirect application of folk themes. Prillar is a massive symphonic poem; its title alludes to an ancient musical instrument constructed from a goat's horn with a reed inserted. The work shows Tviett's predilection for Hardanger-fiddle-inspired ostinatos. The second movement may remind some of Ravel's orchestral exoticisms.

The Sun God Symphony is drawn from a larger work - a dramatic ballet score that involved an orchestra of 100, vocalists, recitation, and ran more than one and a half hours. That colossal work sought to recreate a medieval Norse sound universe. Modal scales and stylistic archaisms are designed to give the work a historical coloring. The term "Norse Impressionism" has been applied to it. The ballet and the symphony's theme is of the Sun God Baldur bringing light and warmth to the winter darkness, but the darkness falls again when evil forces kill Baldur with an arrow made of mistletoe. Some grotesque as well as ecstatic orchestral tuttis predominate in this fascinating, audiophile-positive work!

- John Sunier


JOHAN SEVERIN SVENDSEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2; Polonaise No. 2 - Danish National Radio Sym. Orch./Thomas Dausgaard - Chandos CHAN 9932:

More Norwegian CD-cover-girl nudity herewith - though Svendsen spent most of his time in Denmark away from his native Norway. Inside one finds two early symphonies by this mostly 19th century composer. The first shows influences of Berlioz and Wagner and a third movement redolent with Norwegian folk music elements. Symphony No. 2 was one of the last Svendsen abstract works before he got more heavily into program music. The Andante movement has a touch of introspective Brahms and the Intermezzo movement is in the form of an energetic Norwegian folk dance. Svendsen's Third Symphony doesn't exist on this CD - or anywhere anymore - because during a fight with his wife she threw the original score into the stove! This episode later was incorporated into an important scene in Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler.

- John Sunier


DVORAK: Piano Trio in F Minor, Op. 65; SUK: Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 2; Elegie in D Sharp Major - Berlin Philharmonic Piano Trio - Summit Records DCD 303:

Wonderful chamber music from two Prague-based Czech composers; Suk was among other things an early student of Dvorak's. The Dvorak Trio is one of the finest of his chamber works, full of strong melody and the influence of his friend Johannes Brahms. The frequent juxtaposition of both major and minor modes of the same key give many sections a gypsy/Slavic folk flavor. The work's closing Rondo movement is based on a fast Czech folk dance, the furiant. Suk's early trio shows him strongly influenced by his teacher Dvorak; it has none of the pushing of tonality boundaries found in Suk's later works. Pianist Phillip Moll is a standout in all three selections. The playing and the recording - from the German Radio in Berlin - are both top drawer.

- John Sunier

BRAHMS AND FRIENDS - BRAHMS: Music for Viola and Piano - Sonatas in F Minor and E flat Major; JOACHIM: Variations for viola and piano; REINECKE: Phantasiestucke; HERZOGENBERG: Legenden; KIEL: Three Romances; FUCHS: Six Phantasiestuke; SITT: Albumblatter Op. 39 - The Zaslav Duo - Music & Arts CD 1082 (2 CDs):

The general idea of this collection is to show that there is still much good music for the viola worth exploring. The Brahms connection comes from his many friends with whom he played chamber music as well as the over 70 composers who dedicated works to him at one time or another. The composer's own two viola sonatas were arranged from his originals which were for clarinet. Reinecke was best known in his time as a virtuoso pianist. His viola pieces are reminiscent of Schumann. Robert Fuchs' graceful Fantasy Pieces are among the longest sets on the discs; they show an affinity for both Brahms and Schumann. These are all enjoyable works that will appeal to a variety of chamber music lovers and not just viola aficionados.

- John Sunier

BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique; Love Scene from Romeo et Juliette - Cincinnati Sym. Orch./Paavo Järvi - Telarc CD-80578:

This release ties in with the Estonian conductor becoming this month the 12th music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He's chosen a concert staple and an audiophile symphonic demo if there ever was one. Telarc is the perfect label to capture this with their famous bass drum and now their DSD recording system. (Those bells of the Witches' Sabbath are pretty effective here too.) Even though the high-res original has to be dumbed down a bit via a Super Bit Mapping process, some of its additional transparency makes it through and the result is surely one of the best of recent Telarcs.

Jarvi was a pupil of Bernstein and he squeezes the utmost emotional intensity out of Berlioz' imaginative score. It wasn't possible for me to do any comparisons at the moment with previous fantastiques on record, but even if one of those should prove preferred in the performance area I'm fairly certain their sonics - even on vinyl - will take a back seat to the extreme clarity and focus of this new entry. I'm waiting next to experience it in multichannel SACD! It doesn't have any off-stage instruments as in his Requiem (coming soon in surround on the Vanguard label!), but the Symphonie fantastique still seems a perfect candidate for surround sound reproduction.

- John Sunier


WILLIAM ALWYN: Piano Concerto No. 1; Overture to a Masque; Elizabethan Dances - Howard Shelley, p./London Sym. Orch./Richard Hickox - Chandos CHAN 9935:

Alwyn - a contemporary of Britten and Walton - lived until l985. He had many commissions from the BBC, wrote five symphonies, much chamber and piano music, and over 60 motion picture scores. He was also a poet and painter. The most adventurous of Alwyn's early works was his Piano Concerto of l930, written for pianist Clifford Curzon. It is only a quarter hour in length and one continuous movement, opening with strongly rhythmic figurations.

The Second Concerto of 30 years later is double the length of the First. It was never played until this recording because the pianist for whom it was written was struck by a paralysis of one arm which ended his career and canceled the concert. Alwyn's widow pieced together remnants of the work for this recording. It turns out to be full of pianistic fireworks designed to tax the arms and brain of any pianist, let alone the ill-fated original dedicatee. One is given to wonder if the arm paralysis occurred while the pianist was rehearsing the concerto! The Elizabethan Dances are, as to be expected, lighter music almost in the style of Edward German and other light-music composers - but with a bit more depth.

- John Sunier

RICHARD WETZ: Symphony No. 3 in B Flat Major, Op. 48 - Berlin Sym. Orch./Erich Peter - Sterling CDS-1041-2:

Wetz (1875-1935) is one of the many Post-Romantic style composers who fell into oblivion after major attention during their lifetimes. The reason was the revolution in compositional techniques that started around the turn of the century and has only been put in better perspective recently. The world of serious music now has a broader vista that can welcome a variety of approaches, and strong tonal language is no longer frowned upon, so composers like Wetz are getting another chance - though a bit late for them perhaps.

Most of Wetz's published works are out of print and this is the premiere recording of his nearly hour-long symphony of about l920. As with Brahms and a number of other composers, it appears that an unrequited love affair with a much younger woman was the emotional impetus for this symphony. The main key of the work is a gloomy B Flat Minor, although Wetz named it B Flat Major for only a few bars being in that brighter key. The predominant depressive tone doesn't prevent many ethereal sections of great beauty. Only in the Scherzo of the four-movement symphony does a lighter mood prevail, but it has a taste of a rather grim humor. The work does pull itself together with great effort to end in the major key.

- John Sunier

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