CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
15 NOVEMBER 2013
The albums below are "Classical Releases Of Current Key Significance," or "CROCKS", if you will. To purchase an album, simply click on one of the Web site retail outlets given in the "AVAILABILITY" table under the write-up.
Blumenthal, Jac.: Grand Trio (pno, vn & vc; w Cohen, Pasdeloup, Saint-Saëns); Soloists [Maguelone]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
"Vendredis" (French for "Fridays") not only played an important part in nineteenth century Russian chamber music (see 12 April 2012), but French as well. The latter is explored on this new release from Maguelone featuring a sampling of works played during the Friday evening concerts at the Louvre in the middle 1800s. These are the only recordings of them currently available on disc.
The program opens with a real rarity by German-born Jacques (Jacob) Blumenthal (1829-1908), who studied in Hamburg, Vienna and Paris. His Grand Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello of 1853 is accordingly of Germanic-Gallic persuasion, and a significant discovery. In four movements, the initial sonata form allegro [T-1] contrasts two themes to great effect. The first is an arresting rhythmically driven idea [00:00] of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) lineage, and the other a lovely melody [02:05] anticipating Fauré (1845-1924).
The romantic adagio [T-2] is built around a gorgeous singing theme, and followed by a mercurial presto [T-3] that's a scampering scherzo-like offering in the Mendelssohn (1809-1847) tradition. It sets the tone for the final allegro [T-4], which is a much shorter relative of the opening one. An abundance of memorable ideas are juggled about, and made all the more exciting by some dramatic key changes that include shifts from major to minor. The movement then ends much like it began bringing the trio to a thrilling conclusion.
Next we get Trio sur un canzone de Stradella (Trio on a Song of Stradella; c. 1850) for piano, violin and harmonium [T-5] by French-born and educated Jules Cohen (1839-1901). An accomplished keyboard artist, who performed regularly at the Louvre concerts, he arranged this from a harmonization of the song by one of his teachers at the Paris Conservatory, Fromental Halévy (1799-1862) of La Juive (1835) fame. It's a chorale-like piece where the harmonium adds an air of sanctity.
A piano selection by the organizer of this series of concerts, French conductor and impresario Jules Pasdeloup (1819-1887), follows. His Aurore, valse de concert of 1851 [T-6] is an effervescent concert waltz, and one of those first rate salon pieces which never seems to wear out its welcome!
And last but not least we get a choice tidbit from one of the best known French composers of all time, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). It’s his Sérénade for piano, violin, cello and harmonium of 1863-4 [T-7], which he dedicated to Princesse Mathilde (1820-1904), who was Napoleon Bonaparte's (1769-1821) niece. A reigning figure in Paris salons of the mid-1800s, she and her coterie must have found this lovely piece with its simplicity and directness one of the composer's most endearing creations.
Pianist Christophe Maynard, violinist Jean-Claude Bouveresse and cellist Odile Bourin with Philippe Picone at the harmonium give generally excellent accounts of these little known works. The only reservations would be with Monsieur Bouveresse's violin work in the last moments of the Blumenthal [T-4], where his intonation seems somewhat slippery.
Presumably made sixty miles northeast of Paris in one of the Château de Compičgne’s salons, the recordings project a suitably sized soundstage for these chamber groups in accommodating surroundings. The strings and harmonium are very natural sounding, and the piano well captured except for some upper end roughness in the more forceful passages of the Pasdeloup [T-6].
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P131115)
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Constantinides: 4 Concs (gtr; vc; 2 vns; pno); Soloists/Constantinides/Riazuelo/LSU Sinfta/SO [Centaur]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
Centaur continues their survey of Greek-American Dinos Constantinides' (b. 1929) music (see 7 June 2011) with this release featuring four of his concertos. A prolific award-winning composer, he's professor of composition at Lousiania State University (LSU), and has been director of the LSU Contemporary Music Festival for the past twenty-two years. During that time he's championed many outstanding works by some of today's best composers. These would have to include the ones here, which are the only recordings of them currently available on disc.
The CD begins with Concerto of Psalms for Two Violins, which was written in 2000 and is in three movements that draw their inspiration from Psalms 130 ("Out of the depths..."), 19 ("The heavens declare..."), and 150 ("Praise the Lord.") respectively. The opening movement subtitled "From the Heart" [T-1] is a De Profundis contemplation that starts with an ominous tuned percussion chord [00:01]. One of the violins then states a Gregorian chant-like melody (GC) [00:21] that at times resembles Miklós Rózsa's (1907-1995) main title for Spellbound (1945) [00:25]. There are also hints of the Dies Irae [02:30], after which GC is elaborated and becomes more agitated, rousing the other soloist. The pace then subsides ending the movement in the same spirit it began.
The following "Eternal Song" [T-2] is more upbeat, and begins with what we're told are some unidentified quotes from Mozart (1756-1791). It features a lovely recurring melody [00:11] that's interspersed with bouts of fancy fiddling. These include a demanding cadenza for the soloists [03:34-04:58], and then the movement ends humbly.
The final "Paean" [T-3] couldn’t be more different and opens with an infectious Sino-sounding jig (IS) [00:00]. This becomes the recurring subject for what develops into a joyful rondo. Toward its conclusion there are last reminders of GC [06:01] followed by a percussion-spiked episode that hints at IS and ends the concerto abruptly.
Next, a piano concerto from ten years later (2010) whose five movements reflect a variety of musical moods. The initial "Fantasia" [T-4] is obsessive-compulsive and in the grand romantic tradition, while "Scherzoso" [T-5] is an antsy whimsicality that segues via a drumroll into the hip "Giocoso" [T-6]. The latter has Chopsticks-like moments punctuating more relaxed passages that owe a debt to George Gershwin (1898-1937, see 31 March 2011).
Then we get a case of "Clusteritis" [T-7] as Dino calls it, whose symptoms take the form of spasmodic outburst from soloist and tutti. The closing "Festa" [T-8], which is a fetching rondo built on an earworm theme [00:00], brings the concerto to a stirring conclusion with some piano pyrotechnics.
Constantinides' Baroque Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (1995) pays homage to that period of music with allusions to pieces by some of its star composers. In four movements, the first subtitled "for J.S. Bach" [T-9] draws on material from his second violin concerto (E Major, BWV 1042, 1717-23), which is transformed into passages that are a cross between Vivaldi (1678-1741) and Giuliani (1781-1829).
The succeeding "for Telemann" [T-10] honors one of the most prolific composers who ever lived, and borrows from one of his concertos for four violins. Then two baroque birds of a feather are represented in "for Handel and Corelli" [T-11] by references to the former's beloved "Largo" from Serse (Xerxes, HMV 40, 1738), and the latter's ever popular Christmas Concerto (Op. 6, No. 8, 1708-12).
In closing there's "for G.B. Sammartini and Grand Finale" [T-12], where this Sammartini is not Giuseppe Baldassare (1695-1750), but his younger brother Giovanni Battista (1700-1775), who was one of the founding fathers of the symphony. He's appropriately recognized here by the work's longest and most developed movement, ending the concerto on a symphonic scale.
The disc is filled out with the last of four orchestral works that were inspired by Chinese cities and are collectively known as the China Quartet (1991-2, No. 3 currently unavailable). Subtitled "China IV Shenzhen," it's a three movement cello concerto devoid of any formal Chinese musical elements. Rather it's the composer's impressions of Shenzhen, which is one of China's most occidental communities. Accordingly he tells us the music is rooted in the tradition of the West's finest literature for the cello. Many will find it the best selection here.
The opening "With Expression" [T-13] is an emotional outpouring where the soloist delivers an extended aria based on an alternately tearful and argumentative idea (TA) [00:02]. Dramatically supported by the tutti, it generates a great deal of tension that's assuaged by the next "With Serenity" [T-14]. This movement has the cello spinning out a soothing rocking melody to a subtly scored orchestral accompaniment, and includes a moving cadenza [06:02-06:48].
The work ends with "Playful and Mischievous" [T-15] made all the more impish by some colorful percussion. There's a cheeky irreverence about this vivacious movement that counterbalances the anguished opening one. The final measures build along with some arresting chimes [03:04] to a restatement of TA by the cello [03:40], and a frenetic coda that concludes the concerto emphatically.
All of these recordings were taken from live concerts (see the audio commentary below) featuring soloists with LSU associations. Violinists Renata Arado and Espen Lilleslätten, guitarist Ronaldo Cadeu and cellist Dennis Parker along with the Louisiana Sinfonietta conducted by the composer give us the "Psalms", "Baroque" and "China IV" concertos. While pianist Michael Gurt and the LSU Symphony Orchestra under Carlos Riazuelo perform the remaining one. What their playing may lack in refinement is made up for by an enthusiasm for this spirited music undoubtedly helped by the presence of an audience.
Done at a couple of indeterminate locations in Louisiana, the recordings are not audiophile but certainly serviceable. The violin, guitar and cello concertos are spread across a wide soundstage in a hospitable acoustic with the solo instruments convincingly captured and balanced against the orchestra. The instrumental timbre is characterized by bright highs, a musical midrange and clean bass.
The piano concerto doesn't fare as well, presenting a more constricted sonic image that seems directly below the listener. Maybe this was a consequence of using just a couple of microphones high above the performing stage. Be that as it may, the piano does seem adequately balanced against the orchestra, but the overall instrumental sound suffers from peaky upper-mids and highs.
As far as extraneous audience noise is concerned there's good news and bad. On the black side of the ledger, the Centaur engineers have managed to excise any applause, but on the red there are a couple of strange instances of things that "go bump in the night." They include a consumptive cough [T-10, 00:11], and some sounds that for lack of a better description seem alimentary-canal-related [T-14, 06:09-06:40]. Fortunately this is a small price to pay for making the acquaintance of these little known concertante gems.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P131114)
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Jongen: 3 Sym Mvmts; Samuel, A.: Sym 6; Brabbins/RFlem P [RFlem P]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (1 CD)
This invaluable release gives us world premiere recordings of two Belgian orchestral sleepers. Separated by sixty years, they include Joseph Jongen's (1873-1953) last work, Trois mouvements symphoniques (Three Symphonic Movements) written in 1951, and a symphony by Adolphe Samuel (1824-1898) from the early 1890s.
Fans of the former's ever popular Symphonie concertante for organ and orchestra (1926, see 26 March 2010) won't want to be without this colorful opus, whose opening movement is entitled "Nocturne" [T-5]. Of impressionistic persuasion, the restful opening and closing conjure up images of evening mists. They surround a militaristic episode that brings Debussy's (1862-1918) "Fętes" from Trois nocturnes (1900) to mind.
The following "Dance" [T-6] starts as a simple rustic saraband [00:01], which undergoes one of those engaging chromatic developmental transformations so typical of Jongen [02:14]. Opulent dynamic passages reminiscent of Ravel (1875-1937) alternate with more reserved ones. But the former prevail, and the movement ends festively.
This sets the tone for the final "Toccata" [T-7], which has all the flamboyance and rhythmic flair of Joseph's more animated organ works (see 13 August 2008). Its thrilling final measures leave the listener wondering why this treasure has taken so long to surface!
The companion piece by Adolphe Samuel, whom most have probably never heard of, is another worthwhile discovery. It's the sixth of his seven symphonies which was completed in 1891 and has four movements. A highly programmatic work with Old Testament associations, it reflects his strong ties to Berlioz (1803-1869), Wagner (1813-1883, see 26 October 2011) and Liszt (1811-1886).
The first movement marked "Genesis" [T-1] is Lisztian, and begins with a seven-note pizzicato motif (SP) [00:01] which not only acts as an idée fixe, but also the seed for a couple of ideas that follow. These are masterfully developed and recapped with the movement ending in a stirring coda based on SP.
The following andante titled "Eden" [T-2] opens blissfully, presumably invoking this garden paradise with phrases echoing the more sublime orchestral moments in Wagner's Rienzi (1840-3), Lohengrin (1846-7) and Tannhauser (1845-61). It would seem the composer turns his attention to Adam and Eve in the amorous middle section [04:10-08:05], which brings Tristan and Isolde (1857-9) to mind.
The scherzo [T-3] labeled "Cain" [T-3] is for the most part upbeat with occasional phrases in minor keys hinting at the fratricide to come. However, the last measures become tragically subdued presumably reflecting the murder of Abel.
But good triumphs in the final "Lux luceat! -- Laus et jubilatio" ("Shine Light! -- Praise and Rejoicing") [T-4] which begins with radiant passages for woodwinds and strings that flicker with a Mendelssohnian light. These hint at and introduce an SP-based big tune in a major key (SB) [00:53] that will dominate the movement.
A spirited elaboration and exciting development with traces of past motifs and a catchy Schubertian rhythmic wiggle follow. SB is then joyously recapped [07:46] and fuels an exciting final coda that brings the symphony to a triumphant close.
Conductor Martyn Brabbins has long been known for his association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. But in 2009 he became principal guest conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic with whom he's turned his attention to unexplored Belgian repertoire. This has included music by Vieuxtemps (1820-1881) as well as Mortelmans (1868-1952, see 27 November 2007), and now he gives us spirited performance of the two selections included here.
Made at the Romanesque Kristus Koningkerk in Antwerp, the recordings project a wide soundstage in a cavernous space with a seven-second reverberation time. All this adds a romantic aura to the music, but at the cost of a diffuse sonic image. The instrumental timbre is characterized by a tinselly upper end with hints of digital grain in the extreme highs, a musical midrange, and clean bass. While this disc may not be demonstration grade, the recordings are serviceable and a welcome addition to the catalog considering their undeservedly neglected content.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P131113)
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Mascagni: Eternal City Ste; 5 Orch Wks; 3 Voice & Orch Wks; Ganci/Noseda/TurinF'900RTh O [Chandos]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
One of the most popular operas ever written, Pietro Mascagni's (1863-1945)Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry, 1890) would kick off the Italian Verismo era later associated with such greats as Leoncavallo (1857-1919), Puccini (1858-1924) and Giordano (1867-1948). It guaranteed Mascagni overnight worldwide fame, but its stupendous success has unfortunately even to this day eclipsed his other creative efforts.
They include a number of nonoperatic works, and Chandos gives us a sampling of them on this new release. As presented here these are the only recordings of them currently available on disc. The order in which they're written up seemed a little more logical than that on the CD, and you might want to try playing them accordingly.
Two years after Cavalleria... Pietro turned his attention to writing incidental music for Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine's (1853-1931) five-act play The Eternal City (1902). The manuscript for this was lost for a number of years, but finally rediscovered giving us the five-movement symphonic suite and brief Serenata for tenor and orchestra included here.
The former’s five movements are taken sequentially from music that preceded each of the play’s acts, beginning with the prelude to Act I titled "Silver Trumpets March" [T-9]. This starts with a rhythmically catchy idea [00:00] that dominates its opening and closing sections, which surround a pensive episode with a lovely central melody [01:21].
The intermezzo to the second act [T-10] and interlude prefacing the third [T-11] that come next are chromatically amorous and echo Wagner (1813-1883). But not the introductory fourth act interlude [T-12], which is of A-B-A design [T-12] with jolly folkish outer sections wrapped around a more reserved Eastern-colored one [01:30-03:35]. Curiously enough, its opening is at one point somewhat polonaise-like [00:38].
The suite’s conclusion [T-13] is drawn from the interlude to Act V, which is the most atmospheric of all. It begins by evoking night over the Eternal City, and turns into a peaceful epilogue. Chimes simulating tolling church bells [03:24] reflect the play's beatific ending, details of which can be found in the informative album notes.
The Serenata [T-8] appears in the last act, and is associated with the male protagonist (see the album notes for an Italian-English text). It's a comely cantilena set to a guitar-like instrumental accompaniment that includes piano, where he expresses his eternal love for the heroine.
Along the lines of the French ballet L'éventail de Jeanne (Jean's Fan, 1927), Fiori del Brabante (Flowers of Brabant dating from 1930 was a collaborative choreographic effort by a number of Italian composers, including Mascagni. His contribution was L'apoteosi della cicogna (Apotheosis of the Stork) [T-1], which would be his last purely orchestral work. Brilliantly scored, this highly dramatic offering begins delicately with moments reminiscent of Ravel (1875-1937). It then builds to a series of bell and tam-tam reinforced cataclysmic moments that'll knock your socks off!
Dating from 1922 Visione lirica (Lyrical Vision) [T-2] was inspired by Bernini's (1598-1680) Ecstasy of Saint Teresa statue in Rome. There's a melodic grace, harmonic sophistication and relaxed impressionistic aura about this delicately orchestrated tiny tone poem that make it all Mascagni.
Next up, La gavotte delle bambole (The Gavotte of the Dolls, 1900) [T-3], which began as a piano piece Pietro later arranged for strings, giving us the version heard here. A highly regarded conductor, he apparently often included this charming bauble on his concert programs.
The following Danza esotica (Exotic Dance, 1891) [T-4] seems distantly related to the "Arabian Dance" in Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) Nutcracker (1891-2), Verdi's (1813-1901) Aida ballet music (1871), and even Luigini's (1850-1906) Ballet égyptien (1875). This is the East seen through Western eyes ŕ la Saint-Saëns' (1835-1921) North-African-related pieces.
It begins with the orchestra strumming a subdued accompaniment to a lovely theme for the flute [00:05]. The music gains momentum, developing into a rhapsodically whimsical waltz (RW) [01:53] with charming flute embellishments. A Tzigane violin cadenza follows [05:53-06:27], and then the orchestra returns sounding somewhat Eastern. The piece ends festively with more flute work and a final reminder of RW [07:40].
In 1887 Mascagni wrote Il mio primo valzer (My First Waltz) for string quartet. Then in 1896 a Berlin publisher printed various arrangements of it under the title Mein erster Walzer. These included the version for violin and string orchestra presented [T-7] here, which is in essence a short suite.
It opens reservedly in concerto fashion with a pensive exchange between soloist and tutti. A vivacious waltz with Viennese leanings then breaks out, and is the subject of some inventive transformations that end the piece in Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899) fashion.
The disc is filled out with two short sacred vocal works sung here by a tenor (see the album notes for the Italian-English texts). The earlier one, Padre nostro (Our Father) of 1880 [T-6], takes as its text a popularized version of the Lord's prayer, and finds the composer at the height of his melodic powers. It would have brought the audience to its feet had it been in an opera.
Cavalleria... fans will delight in the other from 1904 where he sets the familiar Ave Maria to the beloved intermezzo from that opera [T-5]. The music fits the words beautifully, which is not that surprising when you consider it began life as a piano piece with the annotation "In imitation of a prayer."
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda continues his invaluable exploration for Chandos of little-known nineteenth-twentieth century Italian music (see 18 February 2013), this time spotlighting symphonic fare played by the Turin Filharmonica '900 Royal Theater Orchestra. One couldn't ask for more committed performances even if the violin section sounds a little undernourished (see the audio comments below). A big round of applause goes to tenor Luciano Ganci for his loving interpretations of the three vocal selections.
Made at Italian Radio and Television’s Arturo Toscanini Auditorium in Turin, the recordings present a robust soundstage in a nourishing acoustic. The overall sound is good with the vocal and instrumental solos well highlighted against the orchestra.
The instrumental timbre is generally pleasing with a musical midrange and clean bass. However, the violins suffer from a bit of upper end brittleness, which also holds true for the tenor. In that regard, it's too bad this wasn't a hybrid disc whose SACD tracks typically produce silkier sonics.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P131112)
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Musto: Pno Concs 1 & 2, 2 Conc Rags (fm 5 for solo pno); Musto/Cortese/Greeley PO [Bridge]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Considered one of America's finest living vocal composers, particularly in the operatic field, John Musto (b. 1954) also has a reputation as an outstanding pianist. That's borne out by this new Bridge release with him playing the two concertos he’s written for that instrument as well as a couple of his concert rags for solo piano. These are the only recordings of them currently available on disc.
The program starts with the first concerto, which had a long gestation period taking the composer seven years to complete (1988-1995). In three movements the first is the longest [T-1], and begins with a somber clarinet duet (SC) [00:00] recalling the opening of Prokofiev's (1891-1953) third piano concerto (1928). A pensive passage for soloist and tutti follows, after which the music becomes more anxious as a troubled dialogue breaks out. The tension mounts and subsides in an introspective cadenza [13:30-15:35]. Then SC returns, and the movement ends in a quiet ambivalent exchange between piano and orchestra.
The 1970s saw the revival of ragtime, and like many of us Musto fell under its spell. He has subsequently spiced some of his compositions with it, a good example being the next andante [T-2] movement. Lying somewhere between the opening of Mahler's (1860-1911) fourth symphony (1899-1901) and Joplin's (1868-1917) The Easy Winners (1901), John describes it as a "Mahlerian Rag."
It's an infectious diversion setting the tone for the scorrevole (flowing) finale that follows [T-3]. Here a catchy woodblock-accented theme for the piano [00:00] becomes the recurring idea for what turns into a skittering rondo. This builds to a spastic climax with a brief reminder of the work's opening measures [07:17], and ends the concerto explosively.
Ragtime again colors the next two solo piano selections titled "Regrets" (1996) [T-4] and "In Stride" (1990) [T-5], which are drawn from a set of five published in 1998 (others currently unavailable on disc). Rather than being informal salon music, these are technically demanding pieces designed for the concert hall, which the composer accordingly calls Concert Rags
The former is a relaxed harmonically adventurous Joplinesque piece, while the latter comes off as a bouncy keyboard caper honoring James P. Johnson (1894-1955, see 31 March 2011). He was the father of stride piano, which linked ragtime with the jazz era, and also wrote the ever popular Charleston (1923). The latter’s turn-on-a-dime rhythms haunt the lively outer sections of Musto's piece.
Originally commissioned for a chamber-sized orchestra with a substantial percussion section (three players and twenty-one instruments), the composer's second piano concerto of 2006 completes this release. Done here with a full complement of strings, it's in the usual three movements, and a virtuosic romp compared to its predecessor.
The initial Tempo giusto [T-6] is announced by a crotales-overlaid broken chord (CB) on the piano [00:00]. A percussively laden tutti then surfaces, and we get a jazzy ditty played by the soloist [00:14]. This undergoes a harmonically searching elaboration followed by a chugging motif for the orchestra [02:48].
Both ideas inform the succeeding bravura development that includes a demanding cadenza [06:21-08:30] at times reminiscent of Bernstein's (1918-1990) West Side Story dances (1960). The opening ideas are then recapped in reverse order, and the movement ends uneventfully with a repeat of CB.
The soloist opens the middle Molto moderato [T-7] with a somber bluesy tune. This is set to an arresting accompaniment made all the more colorful by moaning woodwinds, saucy percussion and muted trumpet. At one point the music becomes combative only to once again turn lethargic recalling the opening measures.
But not for long as a stentorian whack on the bass drum (SW) worthy of Haydn's (1732-1809) Surprise Symphony (No. 94, 1791) announces the concluding Allegro energico [T-8]. This is a virtuosic undertaking for everyone concerned, and for the most part a helter-skelter rondo fashioned from a frantic jazzy riff (FJ) [00:36].
At one point the piano hands FJ off to the tutti where it's the subject of a brief fugue [03:50]. However, a big surprise comes shortly thereafter in the form of a relaxed lyrical waltz [05:52-07:40]. This is a brief respite before the music resumes its hectic pace, and the concerto ends with a final SW.
With the composer at the keyboard, these performances qualify as definitive. All the more so considering he receives splendid support from the Odense Symphony Orchestra of Denmark conducted by Scott Yoo, and Colorado-based Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra under Glen Cortese in the concertos.
Made in Demark (first three selections) and the US, as with most Bridge releases mastered by audio guru Adam Abehouse these recordings are superb! Despite the different venues, they present generous well-focused soundstages in accommodating acoustics, with the second concerto seemingly a shade narrower and closer.
The orchestral timbre is natural with shimmering highs, a lifelike midrange, and clean low bass. The piano is perfectly captured across the board with percussively piquant well-rounded notes, and ideally balanced in the concertos. With the exception of some isolated action noise in one of the rags [T-5; 01:42], audiophiles will find piano recordings on conventional CD don't get any better than this!
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y131111)
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Zeisl: Little Sym…; November (6 Orch Sketches); Conc Grosso (vc); Lysy/Stulberg/UCLA Pa [Yarlung]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
As Schoenberg (1874-1951), Korngold (1897-1957, see 31 March 2011) and Tansman (1897-1986, see 25 May 2011) did, Viennese-born Eric Zeisl (1905-1959, see 20 June 2007) fled Europe when the Nazis came to power. Like them, he was also lured to Hollywood, eventually taking up residence in the Los Angeles area. However, he soon abandoned the world of cinema for more serious compositional and academic pursuits.
The adventurous Yarlung label now gives us a release featuring three of his orchestral works written during and after his years in Austria. All are world premiere recordings, beginning with his only symphony of 1935 entitled Kleine Sinfonie nach Bildern der Roswitha Bitterlich (Little Symphony after Pictures of Roswitha Bitterlich).
Each of its four movements is a musical impression based on one of Bitterlich's (b. 1920) bizarre pictures, the first being her "Der Wahnsinnige" ("The Madman", see the album cover above) [T-1]. Winds dominate the opening [00:00], bringing to mind Dukas' (1865-1935) The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1897). They’re joined by strings along with brass, and the work accelerates coming to a momentary halt.
This is succeeded by a whirling folksy dance number [02:07] and another pause. Then the music continues in locomotive fashion [02:38] ŕ la Honegger's (1892-1955) Pacific 231 (1923) followed by a series of erratic outbursts for full orchestra [03:26]. The piece concludes perfunctorily with reminiscences of the first measures.
The next cold and stark "Arme Seelen" ("Poor Souls") [T-2] begins with a single stroke on the chimes representing a church bell. It’s followed by cymbal rolls, muted violin trills in addition to wind, harp and lower string glissandi suggestive of wailing winds.
A forlorn chorale representing apparitions in the picture [01:34] ensues. These are the souls of sinners, and as the movement ends with that church bell striking once more, they’re left to wander the earth forever.
"Der Leichenschmaus" ("The Wake") [T-3] is based on a colored charcoal drawing showing two Austrian peasants shedding tears while stuffing themselves. They're represented by the trombone and French horn, which engage in a tipsy glissando-embellished dialogue. There's a scherzoesque air about this movement recalling the more cheeky moments in Ibert's (1890-1962) Divertissement (1930).
The concluding Die Vertreibung der Heiligen (Expulsion of the Saints) [T-4] is presented here in its expanded version done by the composer for the work's 1939 American debut. A bit longer than all the preceding movements put together, it's a theme with seven variations depicting Bitterlich's painting of sorrowful saints driven from the church by people who no longer believe in them. The main subject representing the saints is a solemn commanding chorale (SC) [00:00] that brings Martin Luther's (1483-1546) "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" ("A Mighty Fortress is Our God", 1527-9) to mind.
The first variation titled "Church Windows" [01:24] sets SC to a plucky accompaniment that might well represent the bits of multicolored glass in them. The second "A Plaintive Saint" [02:51] as well as third "Figure of Jesus" [04:44] are restrained and mournful. However, the following "A Man from the Crowd" [06:33] is angry and belligerent as opposed to the shy retiring fifth "A Female Saint" [07:18].
The last two variations take on a more sinister tone. More specifically, the sixth labeled "The Storming Crowd" [09:45] is fitfully aggressive with intervening reminders of SC. While the throbbing final "Expulsion of the Saints through the Mob" [11:40] comes off somewhat like an American Indian war dance (see 27 November 2009) as they're drummed out of town.
The late 1930s, which saw Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria (1938) and Zeisl’s departure from Vienna for Paris and the United States, were the most trying time in his life. Still he managed to complete the next set of six orchestral sketches, eventually collectively known as November (1937-40).
There's a cool autumnal serenity and melancholy about this music that undoubtedly stemmed from his depressed state of mind. This is evident in the initial lugubrious, reverential “All Souls” [T-5], which commemorates an Austrian Catholic holiday at the beginning of November corresponding to the Mexican Day of the Dead.
It's followed by the nostalgic "Souvenir" [T-6] triggered by memories of better times, and “Rainy Day” [T-7] with woodwind precipitation falling on soft string meadows. Then we get the Bacchic "Dance of the Fallen Leaves" [T-8], which is a contemporary counterpart of "Autumn" from Glazunov's (1865-1936) ballet The Seasons (1899).
It's succeeded by a calm, cool and collected "Shepherd's Melody" [T-9], after which the work ends with an anguished chilling "Victory of Winter" [T-10]. This has a sense of drama worthy of Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995, see 18 April 2011), whom Zeisl must have known from his Hollywood days.
The disc closes with Eric's last major orchestral effort, Concerto Grosso for Cello and Orchestra, which was written in 1955-6 and dedicated to Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976, see 31 October 2009). The title is meant to reflect the cello's solo role as well as the intimate exchanges it has with the string as well as wind sections of the orchestra. Frequently reminiscent of Ernest Bloch's (1880-1959) music for this instrument, there's a dark Hebraic dimension to this work.
In three movements, the initial "Pesante" ("Weighty") [T-11] opens with the orchestra stating a tragic sobbing idea (TS) [00:00]. The soloist then makes a dramatic entrance [01:34] and is joined by the tutti in an elaborative TS-based dialogue. After a brief pause we get a winsome rhapsodic episode [04:45] followed by another caesura and a rustic fugue [08:12]. The latter transitions into a stirring recap of TS ending the movement full circle.
The infectious folksy "Scherzo" [T-12] has outer sections where it's easy to imagine merry peasants dancing around a trio of their companions who've had one too many [01:52-03:19]. However, the dolor of the first movement returns in the final "Theme and Variations" [T-13].
This begins immediately with a main subject that's an ominous Rózsa-like cantillation (OR) stated by the orchestra [00:00] and then the soloist [01:58]. It's followed by a more anxious variant with bravura passages for the cello [03:42], and a heartrending lyrical number [06:08].
A change of pace is next with the succeeding transformation, which is a tiny capriccio where soloist and tutti play monkey see, monkey do [08:13]. A surprise forte chord for full orchestra [09:08] acts as a transition into the next variation, which is a sprightly fugue [09:11]. This gives way to a final coda that begins with an agonized reminder of TS [10:36] and OR [11:11]. The key then switches from minor to major and the concerto ends with a triumphant final reference to OR.
Cellist Antonio Lysy gives an impassioned performance of the concerto made all the more compelling by enthusiastic support from the UCLA Philharmonic (UCLAP) conducted by its music director Neal Stulberg. Described as a "training orchestra," all of its members are music students at UCLA, which would account for occasional rough spots in these performances. But what these up and coming artists lack in technical refinement, they make up for with their commitment to these interesting scores.
The recordings were derived from two live concerts at UCLA's Royce Hall in Los Angeles. The good news is with adept miking and editing the producers have minimized extraneous audience noise and eliminated any applause. On the other hand, the soundstage is somewhat pinched despite surroundings which would seem to be ideal.
The cello is well captured and highlighted against the orchestra, but the overall instrumental timbre in this and the other selections suffers from scrappy highs. However, a presentable midrange and clean bass make these recordings serviceable, which is fortunate considering they'll most likely be the only ones available for some time to come.
There are occasional low level edit anomalies and outside traffic sounds, but they don't detract from the overall enjoyment of the music. We did encounter a tracking problem on the initial review CD towards the end of the concerto [T-13, 09:22-09:34] that rendered some twelve seconds of music unintelligible. However, we recently received a second copy which played just fine thereby indicating this was probably an isolated case.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P131110)
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