Classical gems vividly played and beautifully recorded.
“MASTERPIECES IN MINIATURE” = LITOLFF: Scherzo from Con. symphonique No. 4; MAHLER: Blumine; FAURE: Pavane; DEBUSSY: La Plus que lente; SCHUBERT: Entr’acte No. 3 from Rosamunde; IVES/BRANT: The Alcotts from A Concord Symphony; RACHMANINOFF: Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14; DVORAK: Legend for Orchestra, Op. 59, No. 6; SIBELIUS: Valse triste; DELIUS: On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring; GRIEG: The Last Spring, Opus 34, No. 2; DELIBES: Cortege de Bacchus from Sylvia—Yuja Wang, piano/SF Sym./Michael Tilson Thomas – multichannel SACD, SFMedia 821936-0060-2, 78:08, *****:
What’s the role of the symphony orchestra in the 21st century? “It’s a preserve for endangered emotions, such as wistfulness,” answered Michael Tilson Thomas, the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, in an interview at the 2015 Music Critics Conference of North America. Masterpieces in Miniature is a disc loaded with emotions that music is uniquely qualified to express: the exhilarating speed of a virtuosic performance; sensuous refinement; nostalgic memories; lush romanticism; a remorseful farewell to life, to name a few.
This album celebrates MTT’s 70th birthday and the twentieth anniversary of his tenure as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. Its inspiration derives from his earliest memories of music in his home in the rural San Fernando Valley. “A big red book lived on the piano. It was a collection of short pieces called something like Music the Whole World Loves to Play,” he mused. Members of his family would play these works on the house piano as he grew up. He remembers hearing them played as encores by the world’s great musicians. “It was electrifying to hear and see Heifetz playing Sinding’s Suite so rapidly that his bow became a blur,” he remembers.
Yuja Wang’s virtuosity is thrilling as this listener visualized her hands fly up and down the keyboard playing Litolff’s witty showpiece the Scherzo from Concerto symphonique No. 4. Mahler’s Blumine movement—removed from his First Symphony by the composer, is a nostalgic paen to his Bohemian youth. Principal trumpet Mark Inouye infuses it with warmth and affection. Faure’s Pavane is a diaphanous late-Romantic version of a court dance of seventeenth century Italy. The cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer, adds a foreign element to Debussy’s emotionally complicated waltz. Schubert knew he had a winner in the quietly beautiful Third Entr’acte of his Rosamunde music—he used it in his String Quartet No. 13, Rosamunde.
The Ives/Brant ‘The Alcotts’ from A Concord Symphony is an orchestration of Ives’ monumental Concord Sonata that Brant wrote and revised from 1916 to 1947. It’s a nostalgic remembrance of Bronson and Abigail Alcott’s salon where Ives heard American hymns, like the one he uses here: “Ye Christian Heralds.” Ives wittily emphasizes the same notes that begin Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Rachmaninoff’s tender Vocalise is a familiar concert standard and Dvorak’s Legend No. 6 is a reference to the composer’s Bohemian folk heritage.
Although it was an early waltz (1903) written for a play called Death, Valse triste expresses a variety of moods: a contemplative sadness, a quiet beauty, joy, fear and, finally acceptance. MTT’s languid tempo lets this gem breathe, revealing its full emotional range. Grieg’s The Last Spring longs for spring while surrendering to the coming winter. On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring is Delius’ folk-infused welcome to the arrival of a new season. The album ends with an upbeat fanfare Cortege de Bacchus from his ballet Sylvia that’s drenched in celebration by the god of wine and harvest.
Not only are these gems played superbly but producer Jack Vad has recorded them in gorgeous surround sound. These works are all easily enjoyable by anyone who likes music that is alluring, lovely and simply delightful. It would make a wonderful gift as an introduction to classical music.