Classical CD Reviews, Part 2 of 2

by | Nov 1, 2004 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

November 2004 Pt. 2 of 2   [Pt. 1]

ARIAQuartetto GelatoFlute works by Corigliano, Hoover etc.Biber: The Rosary Sonatas - Manze
Shostakovich for piano - AshkanazyButterfly lovers concertoPincus & the PigDvorak Cello Concerto - Miasky
Bayer: Doll Fairy BalletSUK: Quartet & Quintet with piano
Nancarrow works for player piano trans. for pianos

Let’s start off with a pair of rather quirky crossover albums…

Aria - Opera meets dance musicAria 3 – Metamorphosis (Created by Paul Schwartz) – Koch Records AD-5765 ** or ****, depending:

This disc is billed as the long-awaited followup to Aria and Aria 2, which were both on Billboard’s charts. Must say I for one wasn’t waiting. In fact the whole thing is news to me, but I found it worth listening to at the very least. What Schwartz does is cook up music for the short-attention-span crowd. He selects small but powerful moments from grand opera and transforms them into contemporary ambient/dance soundscapes designed to transport the listener to a different world. The soprano vocals on all of these is Rebecca Luker, and I gather most of the instrumental sounds are synthesized. As seems to be part of the new classical crossover effort, absolutely no credits are given for the original composers or the works these bleeding chunks are ripped from. Perhaps that’s due to this being an advance CD without the liner notes. I recognized quite a lot of Handel. In fact the second track – Furioso – might be subtitled “Dr. Who Meets Handel.” Tracks: Ombra Mai Fu, Furioso, Sogno, Metamorphosis 2: Danae, Ballo, Orchestre Engloutie, Amami, Lascia, Farewell, Metamorphosis 3: Cyane, Ascension, Metamorphosis 1: Arachne, Furioso (instrumental), Ombra (chilled mix), Pace Pace, Ebben.

Quartetto Gelato travelsQuartetto Gelato Travels the Orient Express – Works of RAVEL, PIAF, WEBER, BRAHMS, KREISLER, LEHAR, KODALY, FLANDERS & SWANN – Linus Entertainment 750078015221 ****:

Q.T. is one of those versatile little ensembles that presents catchy tunes in an accessible way no matter if they originate from serious classical, folk, popular, ethnic or what have you sources. Here in Portland we have Pink Martini who do about the same thing and there are a number of other such groups. Among the four members of Q. T. the following instruments are involved: piano, accordion, musette, oboe, English horn, violin, and cello. And the violinist also adds his tenor voice now and then. I recall a music laserdisc with exactly such a theme of traveling the Orient Express. It enables Q.T. to make musical stops in Paris, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest and Istanbul – though I don’t quite know who they got across the English channel to include both the humorous song by the wonderful Flanders & Swann and the closing Danny Boy. Aside from that last tune there are no real chestnuts here, and some unexpected delights during the cross-European trip. I especially liked their little transcription of three movements of Ravel’s Tomb of Couperin, and the Romanian Caravan was fun too. An attractive concept well carried out.

– John Sunier

Flute works by Corigliano, Hoover, YiJOHN CORIGLIANO: Pied Piper Fantasy; KATHERINE HOOVER: Medieval Suite; CHEN YI: Golden Flute – Alexa Still, flute/New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Sedares – Koch International Classics KIC-CD-7566, 73 Min. ****:

An engaging trio of modern tonal works for flute and orchestra. Corigliano based his piece, commissioned by James Galway, on the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The work has a scenario of seven scenes, and the rat music is highly interesting. Katherine Hoover is one of America’s leading women composers. Her suite was originally written for flute and piano and at the request of several performers was recast for orchestra and this is its first recording. The five movements were inspired by the characters and events in a history of 14th century France. It concludes with a desperate Demon’s Dance, intended to ward off the Black Plague. Chen Yi’s flute concerto is in three movements and synthesizes Chinese traditional music with western idioms. She was profiled in a recent documentary film, A Cantonese in New York. The New Zealand Symphony has been heard on a number of recordings, usually of worthwhile non-mainstream music such as is heard on this excellent CD.

– John Sunier

Biber: Rosary SonatasBIBER: The Rosary Sonatas – Andrew Manze, violin; Richard Egarr, organ & harpsichord – Harmonia mundi 907321.22, 72:35, 68:56 (2 discs) ****:

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber died in 1704 and this is his Tercentenary. The composer’s special place in the music of the Baroque period has become clearer a number of recordings of his works having been released in recent years. His primary contribution was in works for the violin which subject that instrument to various tunings and methods of playing that greatly expanded its capabilities. This grouping of 15 sonatas and a passacagalia is also known as The Mystery Sonatas. The works are divided into three groups of five, titled: The Five Joyful Mysteries, The Five Sorrowful Mysteries, and The Five Glorious Mysteries. A different violin tuning is called for in each of the 15 sonatas of this triumph of Baroque invention. The effects of the “scordatura” tunings are intended to be both tonal and symbolic of key events in the life of Mary and Jesus. Of course you don’t have to follow the scriptural story in order to appreciate the often amazing virtuosity of these pieces.

The duo of Manze and Egarr have had Grammy nominations, and their recording of Corelli Violin Sonatas (which we also reviewed) won Top CD of 2003 from two different music publications. Their high performance standards (and superb reproduction) keep this music interesting and very listenable throughout its nearly two and one-half hours length – which seems at first thought a challenging task with early music just for violin and keyboard.

– John Sunier

Shostakovich piano works - AshkenazySHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Works and Transcriptions = Piano Sonata No. 2, Three Fantastic Dances, Five Preludes (1921), Lyric Waltz, Short Piece and Spanish Dance from The Gadfly, Nocturne, Aphorisms, Polka from The Age of Gold – Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano – Decca B0001846-02 ****:

Early in his career Shostakovich was a much a concert pianist as a composer, and he wrote many works especially for his own performance. It was only later in life that he concentrated solely on composition, later turning to his series of Mahleresque symphonies. Ashkenazy has chosen to present herewith some of the composer’s youthful miniatures for the piano, although the program opens with the much later (1942) Piano Sonata – which is much less avantgarde than the earlier piano pieces. The Polka from The Age of Gold will be the most familiar to most listeners. The Five Preludes are the earliest works here. Some sound like Tchaikovsky in parts, but there are also motifs which sound like rehearsals for Shostakovich’s later symphony themes. Clean and precise piano sound, though again larger than life.

– John Sunier

We delve into the ethnic music area with the next two releases…

Butterfly Lovers ConcertoCHEN GANG & HE ZHANHAO: The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto; PETER BREINER: Songs and Dances from the Silk Road – Takako Nishizaki, violin/New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd – Naxos 8.557348 ****:

See what I’m saying about the New Zealand Symphony? Here’s more off-the-beaten-track music from their direction. Actually, the violin concerto is one of the best-known works combining Chinese and western music. Its two composers were still students at the Shanghai Conservatory when they collaborated on the work. It employs themes from Chinese opera and the solo violin often reflects the sounds of the erhu – the Chinese two-string fiddle. The concerto is full of lovely melodies and is in one continuous movement. The butterflies represent the souls of two immortal unfulfilled lovers in the story on which the concerto is based. Peter Breiner’s suite also uses solo violin and a western orchestra in a synthesis of East and West, although the composer hails from Slovakia. Each of its eight movements is based on a different Chinese folk song, and some of them concern secret lovers, so the subject matter fits right in with the other work on this disc. Nishizaki has won great respect for her performances and promotion of Chinese music. Her playing of the title piece is spectacular, and probably should be since it is her seventh recording of the popular work!

– John Sunier

Pincus and the Pig[PROKOFIEV: Peter and the Wolf] – Transformed into: Pincus and the Pig: A Klezmer Tale – Maurice Sendak, narrator/Shirim Klezmer Orchestra – Tzadik TZ7195 *****:

Quite a few celebrities have narrated Prokofiev’s children’s music suite, but children’s illustrator Sendak and the Shirim ensemble have recast the original completely as a delightful Jewish tour de force which will not only entertain in the most humorous fashion but also educate us goyim in a bit of Yiddish in the process, eh? There’s a cute little booklet with the whole story, illustrated with Sendak’s striking drawings of the various characters – love the little bird with the yarmulke. A glossary is on the back so you won’t be kvetching or feeling like a nudnik not knowning what he’s talking about. Of course it was ethnically understood the awful animal trapped by Pincus would be not a wolf but a chozzer – a pig! And he’s marched off at the finale not to the zoo but to the Kosher butcher. After all, they’re not meshugge.

The variations on Prokofiev’s music a la klezmer are a total gas; I don’t think I want to hear the original ever again. Prokofiev’s choice of instruments to represent the characters is also not something the klezmer musicians wanted to be shlepped with – they come up with their own versions, such as the banjo for the cat. Who would have thought? And after the Peter/Pincus tale is all done, there’s four twisted klezmer versions of music you never expected to hear in this guise, including some Satie and an ear-stretching version of themes from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade. I have a big band version of that one and was wishing the Shirim Klezmers continued with all the other movements since it was such a kick! Tzadik specializes in some extremely avantgarde stuff, often with Jewish connections, but musically speaking this effort is strictly Kosher.

– John Sunier

Dvorak Cello Concerto & Don QuixoteDVORAK: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B Minor; RICHARD STRAUSS: Don Quixote – Mischa Maisky, cello/Berlin Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta (Tabea Zimmermann, viola in Strauss) – DGG B0002054-02, 42:25 {Also available on SACD} ****:

This live recording was also released on SACD simultaneously but in their wisdom DGG sent us the standard CD instead. So I’m forced to listen to low-res… In spite of that I found the recording quality good and was captivated by this very spirited account of the familiar Dvorak concerto. Hadn’t heard Don Quixote in quite a while and found the musical adventures of the Don’s cello and Sancho Panza’s viola kept me attentive throughout. Being a live recording in the Great Hall of the Philharmonie I look forward even more to hearing the SACD surround version eventually. You may notice that cellist Maisky looks a lot like Frank Zappa…

– John Sunier

Bayer: Fairy Doll balletJOSEF BAYER: The Fairy Doll (complete ballet); Sun and Earth (excerpts) – Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Mogrelia – Naxos 8.557098, 53:50 ****:

Bayer, who lived until l913, was the musical head of the Vienna Ballet and composed over 20 one-act ballets for them, plus other dance music and operettas and light music for various Viennese venues. The Fairy Doll was the Swan Lake of its time, and to this day has been performed in Vienna over 800 times. The general story about dolls and toys coming to life may remind one of Coppélia by Delibes. The nearly 40-minute work is brimming with lovely melodies and the 21 tracks on the disc are matched with a continued description of the stage action so that one can follow along. Two excerpts from another of his ballets fill out the disc. This one dealt with the four seasons and we hear the Prelude, a polka and waltz from Winter and the entire scene titled Spring. The Seasons ballet is heard here in its world premiere recording.

– John Sunier

Nancarrow player piano studiesCONLON NANCARROW: Studies and Solos = 11 Studies for Player Piano (transcribed for piano duet); 3 Canons for Ursula; Tango?; 3 2-Part Studies; Prelude; Blues, Sonatina – Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo – Wergo WER 6670 2:

Nancarrow = One of the most unusual figures in 20th century music, noted for his highly individual approach. His early scores were so complex rhythmically that he couldn’t get adequate performances, so he moved to Mexico City and began creating his music directly on player piano rolls which could play back impossible figurations beyond the capability of human performers. He played trumpet in jazz bands early one and jazzy rhythms are found in many of his over 50 Studies.

Now the technical performance abilities of many young players has advanced to such a degree that it is possible for them to play transcriptions of some of these studies on normal instruments. The Ensemble Contemporaine has recorded some of these studies adapted to chamber orchestra, but I find they don’t work nearly as well as the player piano originals (some of which employed a pair of player pianos). The 11 Studies on this disc were transcribed from the mechanical music by piano duetists Helen Bugallo and Amy Williams themselves. The rest are works written for live performers by Nancarrow before his death in l997.

It was a challenge for the duo to imitate the sharply staccato attacks of Nancarrow’s player piano music. They have chosen some of the pieces with slower melodic ideas so that the warmer sound and resonance of the modern grand piano can be part of the mix. All of the works seem to fit the keyboard interpretation more successfully than the orchestral instruments. They are still not at the breakneck speeds and complexity of some of his mechanical works (the whole series is on 5 Wergo CDs, recorded off Nancarrows adapted Ampico player piano), but they are fascinating listening anyway.

– John Sunier

We close out with two chamber music CDs of Slavic origin…

Suk: Piano Quartet & QuintetJOSEF SUK: Piano Quartet in A Minor; Four Pieces for Violin and Piano; Piano Quintet in G Minor – The Nash Ensemble – Hyperion CDA67448, 73:00 ****:

Suk, who lived until 1953, was a favorite student of Dvorak and married Dvorak’s daughter. A famed violinist, he founded the Czech Quartet and was a senior figure in Czech music. Dvorak encouraged his students to find their own voice, and Suk cannot be confused with this teacher’s work. He seemed to have a talent for communicating expressive melancholy and in some of his orchestral works such as the Asrael Symphony has been called a Czech Mahler.

The Piano Quintet of l915 has soaring lines for viola and cello and essays some ardent themes in its 33-minute duration. The early Piano Quartet is full of character and is distinguished by a nocturne-like slow movement. The final movement combines the qualities of both a scherzo and finale. String tone is natural and singing. The disc is truly a best for off-the-beaten-track chamber music beautifully performed and recorded.

– John Sunier

LYAPUNOV: Sextet Op. 63; GRETCHANINOV: String Quartet No. 3 in C minor – Dante Quartet with John Thwaites, piano & Leon Bosch, doublebass – Dutton CDSA 6880, 74:56 ****:

Both of these composers grew up in the shadow of the great Russian musical nationalists such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Tchaikovsky. They wrote in these styles with conviction even though they were beginning to be passé. Lyapunov developed as a folklorist, traveling Russia on expeditions to collect folksongs from various parts of the Russian Empire, similar to the work Bartok and Kodaly did in Hungary. He wrote many orchestral and piano works but only one important chamber work – this sextet. It has the classical four movements, with the Scherzo being the second and the slow movement the third. This Nocturne movement is strongly romantic; the note-writer envisions a love scene in a Russian opera set in Central Asia. Gretchaninov (who died in New York in l956) was mourned by Nicolas Slonimsky as “the last living link with the traditional music of Great Russia.” His Quartet is less overtly Russian than Lyapunov’s Sextet. Though written in l916 it demonstrates the overall form of much Soviet music – starting with a generally overall depiction of strife and struggle, ending in the last movement in victory and often celebration. The Quartet’s is so sunny and sprightly that it has the mood of a public festival of some sort. Tony Faulkner was the recording engineer for this disc and the string tone and balances are superb. A recommended recording!

– John Sunier

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