We’ll begin this part with a variety of music for piano…
ERNST VON DOHNANYI: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Minor; Violin Concerto No. 2 in C Minor; Concertino for harp and chamber orchestra – Howard Shelley, piano/James Ehnes, violin/Clifford Lantaff, harp/BBC Philharmonic/Matthias Bamert – Chandos CHAN 10245, 75:47 ****:
Dohnanyi was at a disadvantage musically on a couple of counts. He was sort of second-string behind countrymen Bartok and Kodaly, who received all the attention. His style shows little modernistic influence of either composer and thus did not retain major interest of the musical taste-makers later in his life – since he far outlived those composers. Now it can be seen as similar to Richard Strauss and Rachmaninoff in finding plenty of fresh communication possibilities in the late Romantic idiom. (An interesting historical sidelight on Dohnanyi is that he sadly lost two of his sons, who were executed for their involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi is the son of one of them.)
Dohnanyi’s witty Variations on a Nursery Theme is probably his best-known work today. His Second Piano Concerto is an engaging work in the grand Romantic style. He designed it at the time for his own performances in a postwar tour of Britain. A Hungarian folk flavor pervades the first movement, and there’s a reference to the conclusion of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. The rather short Finale is sprightly and tuneful and the work comes to an appropriately virtuoso conclusion. The Violin Concerto was written in Tennessee in l949-50 and is unique in calling for an orchestra without any violins. It also shows some Hungarian influences, as does the harp concerto composed about the same time. Sonics are rich and clean and the three soloists are expert at their craft. I find I am greatly enjoying standard CD iterations of various concertos due to the fact that my present Von Schweikert VR-2 front speakers create such a palpable center placement of soloists in standard stereo (or SACD) recordings. I often check if the center speaker is somehow on, but it is not.
– John Sunier
RACHMANINOV: Sonata No. 2; Morceaux de fantasie; BALAKIREV: Islamey; In the Garden; Works of TANEYEV & LIADOV – Olga Kern, piano – Harmonia mundi 907399, 75:23 ****:
Speaking of Rachmaninov, here’s one his most spectacular piano works in a forceful and stirring performance by Van Cliburn winner Olga Kern. The Russian composer/pianist’s violent musical outbursts don’t faze fellow Russian Kern, who gives the impression perhaps the piano could use a bit of touching up by a tuner following her performance. The five Fantasy pieces offer a respite, being in the salon style of John Field or Liszt. Taneyev’s Prelude and Fugue in G Sharp is a bit of a surprise – a highly chromatic study in counterpoint. Balakirev’s Islamey is sort of like a nine-minute Scheherazade for solo piano. Altogether a most exciting piano recital by an exciting new performer.
Piano Works of DAVID DEL TREDICI & AARON JAY KERNIS – Out of My Hands – Anthony de Mare, piano – Koch International KIC-CD-7553, 65:09 ****:
This disc seems to fit into a recent category of classical piano music designed to reach younger listeners more heavily into pop music than classical. Kernis, especially, writes works of brilliant color, often inspired by pop dance rhythms. In this case we hear his Before Sleep and Dreams, which subdues the wilder stuff for a more subdued lullaby-like mood. Del Tredici is the composer known for his fixation on Alice in Wonderland – most of his works having some connection to that classic children’s story. For example, the longest piece in this collection, at a quarter-hour, is titled Virtuoso Alice. The pop influences are also apparent in some of his titles, such as Superstar Etude and Speed Limit Rag (the latter actually inspired by Gershwin).
Pianist de Mare is also an actor, singer and dancer – his CD’s titles implies that his attention is sometimes on other than his hands. He reports that “David’s and Aaron’s music is the perfect opportunity to get into the nitty-gritty of playing the piano.” And so he does. This is certainly not your usual Chopin, Brahms, Bach piano recital, to put it mildly. But thankfully, neither is it a Sessions, Carter, Boulez recital either!
– John Sunier
Here are two Naxos releases that are not new but warrant everyone’s attention if missed out on originally...
CHARLES GRIFFES: The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, The White Peacock, Three Poems of Fiona McLeod, Bacchanale, Clouds, Poem for Flute and Orchestra, Three Tone Pictures – Barbara Quintiliani, soprano/Carol Wincenc, flute/Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta – Naxos American Classics 8.559164, 56:08 *****:
Griffes was America’s homegrown musical impressionist, and if he had only lived longer he might have equaled the fame of Debussy and Ravel. (He died from overwork copying parts himself for an orchestral performance of his music.) Russian music of Scriabin and Mussorgsky also influenced his unique works, most of which link to poetic or literary themes. The Pleasure Dome is just one example – an evocative bit of tone-painting that also has some structure and form (unlike much of Delius). The White Peacock is Griffes best-known work, and in it one can almost see the regal creature slowly strutting thru the gardens. The Poem for Flute is one of the more gorgeous creations for that instrument and orchestra. The sonics on the disc are an improvement over the classic Mercury mono LP of Griffes works conducted by Howard Hanson.
Japanese Orchestral Favourites = TOYAMA: Rhapsody for Orchestra; Arr. KONOYE: Etenraku; IFUKUBE: Japanese Rhapsody; AKUTAGAWA: Music for Symphony Orchestra; KOYAMA: Kobiki-Uta; YOSHIMATSU: Threnody to Toki for string and piano – Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra/Ryusuke Numajiri – Naxos 8.555071, 65:41 ****:
This wonderful collection, recorded in Tokyo in 2000 by Tony Faulkner, provides an excellent survey of Japanese symphonic music that is accessible, varied, and familiar to most Japanese concertgoers. The arrangement of the early court music Etenraku was a standard part of Leopold Stokowski’s repertory, and some other works here are so old as to have been known and admired by composers such as Sibelius and Ibert. The two-movement work for symphony orchestra by Akutagawa has been a favorite of mine since I dubbed it from an NHK concert series on tape at a radio station back in the 50s. It’s a pleasure to have the work, which may remind one of PROKOFIEV, in excellent stereo sound for once. Stravinsky and Ravel are apparent influences on Koyama’s folksong variations Kobiki-Uta.
– John Sunier
ROBERT CASADESUS: Symphony No. 1 in D Major; Symphony No. 5 “On the Name of Haydn;” Symphony No. 7 “Israel,” with choir – soloists/children’s choir/Northern Sinfonia Chorus/Northern Sinfonia/Howard Shelley – Chandos CHAN 10263, 64:13 ****:
These are all three premiere recordings of the symphonic music of one of the greatest concert pianists of the 20th century – with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was the epitome of the old-fashioned musician of the past -pianist/teacher/composer. His 69 works are all in the accessible tonal tradition; he described himself as looking to Faure, Roussel and Saint-Saens as his models, but he was also a close friend of Ravel.
The First Symphony, dedicated to his wife Gaby, is a lovely work – straightforward and well-constructed. Its nearly half-hour length is a pleasurable trip of discovery for the listener. Casadesus made his homage to Haydn in his Fifth Symphony as part of an effort to bring to public light certain composers who were not getting much performance early in the 20th century. He used a musical cryptogram of Haydn’s name as the theme of the work. The Seventh Symphony was the composer’s last work and was dedicated to George Szell. The work ties into the events associated with Israel’s Six Day War, and makes skillful use of the chorus.
– John Sunier
Sueños de Amor (Dreams of Love) – Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano/Auréole – Koch International KIC-CD-7570, ****:
Soprano Murphy goes Latin in this 16-track collection, collaborating with the seven-person instrumental ensemble Aureole. The program includes familiar Latin numbers such as Besame Mucho, Tico-Tico and the Aria from Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5, but it also presents less familiar selections and fresh arrangements of unexpected melodies such as that same composer’s Little Train of the Caipera and the traditional Carol of the Birds. Part of the endeavor’s success has to go to the Aureole Ensemble, which has had many works written especially for them and bring a fresh touch to some of these familiar tunes. The whole thing is very skillfully put together, which raises it a cut above the usual vocalist-and-small group album. The sonic delivery is also first-rate , contributing to the wide appeal of this collaboration which is not your usual crossover genre but certainly promises a larger audience than the typical classical vocal album (which I frankly would pass on to someone else to review).
– John Sunier
While we’re on a Latin kick…
David Russell – Aire Latino – Latin American Music for Guitar. Works of MOREL, FAMIREZ, FALU, BARRIOS, PERNAMBUCO, REIS, LAURO, PAYES, SANTORSOLA, CARDOSO, ESCOBAR, PONCE, VILLA-LOBOS – Telarc CD-80612, 73:21 ****:
Guitarist Russell was born in Scotland but as a child moved with his parents to the Spanish island of Menorca. His father was an accomplished guitarist. Russell has twice won the Julian Bream Guitar prize and his concertized widely. His first Telarc CD was of Paraguayan guitar music, and he has done seven others since then. I found his program especially enjoyable due to the complete absence of the overly-familiar Albeniz, Ponce and other selections one finds on most such Latin-oriented programs. The notes are about the composers rather than the particular selections and most of the titles are tongue-twisters if you don’t know Spanish, so just sit back and bathe in the delightful guitar sounds and virtuosity so realistically captured by Telarc on this inestimable disc.
Frank Wallace, guitar – Sketches – Garcia Lorca’s Riddle, Friend of the San Winds, Orientale, Nuevas Cantigas, Five Polyphonic Fantasies, Harlequin in Love, Six Prayers on Six Strings, Inversions, Good Winds for Dionisio – Gyre 10052, 71:08 ****:
Wallace is not only a guitarist, but also composer (all these works are his own) and baritone. He is a performer on the ancient instrument, the vihuela de mano, and has had a colorful career – performing early music, blues and avantgarde works. He describes his mentors as John Dowland and Schubert. This collection is not your usual classical guitar recital, but demonstrates a fine talent at both composing and performing and has no dangers of boring sameness. Each of the nine works is broken up into very short movements, many under one minute length, which give an almost kaleidoscopic musical view. Some have their own titles which aid in appreciating the tone-painting. The disc is in a cardboard alternative to the jewel box and is the simplest and flattest such I have seen – it appears at first as though there is no CD inside. Probably not in every shop, so visit www.gyremusic.com
– John Sunier
Let’s hear it for wind quintets!…
Imani Winds – The Classical Underground = PIAZZOLLA: Libertango; PAQUITO D’RIVERA: Aires Tropicales; ANON: Steal Away; COLEMAN: Concerto for Wind Quintet; LALO SCHIFRIN: La Nouvelle Orleans; JEFF SCOTT: Homage to Duke – Koch International KIC-CD-7599 ****:
This young ensemble of all Afro-American performers was founded in l997 and focuses on programming that uses the traditional wind quintet in ways that haven’t been done before. I heard them in concert not long ago and can testify to their skills and professionalism. It is obvious from the program listed above that this is not your usual wind quintet. The final movement of Paquito D’Rivera’s suite brings in guest artists Rolando Matos on percussion and vocalist Rene Marie. The primary slant of most of the works is a Latin one, including even Lalo Schifrin’s tribute to New Orleans. The closing Homage to Duke is built around Ellington’s compelling hymn Come Sunday.
ANTON REICHA: Woodwind Quintets Vol. 6: Quintet in A Major, Op. 91, No. 5; Quintet in C Minor, Op. 91, No. 6 – Westwood Wind Quintet – Crystal RecordsCD266, 77:24 ****:
Reicha, who lived at the time of Beethoven and Haydn, taught at the Paris Conservatory and had Berlioz, Franck and Liszt among his pupils. He was a pioneer in writing for the woodwind quintet and created more than 24 of them. All have great tunes, show skilled appreciation of each of the instrument’s unique abilities, and sport the Big Finish in their finales. Each is in four movements, with No. 5 having the lengthiest – a quarter hour for its opening Allegro. The performers all have long experience, and oboist Peter Christ happens to also be CEO of Crystal Records.
– John Sunier
We’ll close out with two instruments not exactly mainstream to the classical repertory…
Bogdan Bácanu – Marimba D’Amore – Works of KEIKO ABE: Variations on Japanese Children’s Songs; Piacer d’amor for Solo Marimba; Memories of the Seashore; Ancient Vase; Alone; Little Windows; Wind Sketch; Wind in the Bamboo Grove, Itsuki Fantasy for Six Mallets, Kazak Lullaby; Marimba d’amore – Classic Concert Records CCR 2004-BB01, 68:40 ****:
Bacanu is a Roumanian marimbaist who as a teenager first heard a recording by Japanese marimba composer/performer Keiko Abe and was completely bowled over. He studied marimba and eventually got to meet the composer, who even wrote the work Alone especially for Bacanu for this CD. One might think an entire album of music by one composer for a single instrument such as this could become tiresome, but the variety of Abe’s compositions, the artistry of Bacanu, and the clarity of the recording process conspire to keep one’s interest throughout. If a problem locating this CD, try www.ClassicConcert.com
Karin Küstner, accordion – Works for Accordion by FRANCK, PRESCZ, WLASSOW, FRAUENDORF, SEMJONOW, MAKKONEN, PIAZZOLLA, PIHLAJAMAA & BONNAY – Harmonia mundi HMN 911846, 58:31 ***:
Classical accordion has long been better appreciated in Europe than in the U.S. A number of composers today are writing works for the much-belabored instrument, and in fact all but the Franck in this collection were originally composed for it – not transcriptions. The Franck work, the Prelude, Fugue and Variation Op. 18 was originally published for piano and harmonium duet – the latter instrument being of course very close to the accordion in using reeds. Russian, Finnish and Polish composers are in evidence here. One of the two Russian composers represented – Vlasov – brings us a five-movement suite titled Gulag, which gives disturbing impressions of different activities in the depressing prison camp. The other Russian composer specializes in works for the button accordion. The last of the composers – Max Bonnay – who gives us a “Waltz to Dream By,” is also a passionate bandoneon player (as of course also was Piazzolla).