31 JANUARY 2021


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.

The album cover may not always appear.
Massenet: Brumaire Ov, Visions Sym Poem, Espada Ste, Les Érinnyes Inc Music, Phèdre Ov; Tingaud/RScotNa O [Naxos]
This intriguing release features symphonic music written during France's La Belle Époque (The Beautiful Epoch) by one of that country's greatest composers, namely Jules Massenet (1842-1912). He left a large oeuvre across all genres, but is mostly remembered for twenty-seven operas.

However, Jules also penned many orchestral works, five being the subject matter for this CD. Four of these are the only currently, readily available recordings of them on disc, and accordingly marked "OCAR" after their titles.

The opening Brumaire Overture (1900; OCAR) [T-1] was written as an introduction to French poet/critic Édouard Noël's (1846-1926) eponymous drama commemorating the centenary of the bloodless coup that made Napoleon Bonaparte First Consul of France. The incident took place on 9 November 1799, or going by the French Republican calendar, "18 Brumaire, Year VIII", for which the work is named.

It begins with an agitated introduction soon followed by a stirring, martial idea (SM) [01:39]. SM undergoes an exploration with a fugal episode [04:09], giving way to trumpet-initiated hints of "La Marseillaise" (LM, 1792) [06:58]. Then skittering strings [07:19] and pounding timpani [07:25] announce an SM-derived march [07:32] with a triumphant LM-based coda [09:20], which ends the work in a blaze of French Republican glory.

The symphonic poem Visions (1891; OCAR) [T-2] brings to mind Franz Liszt's (1811-1886) more introspective ones. Its singular scoring calls for an offstage support group (OSG) [06:10 & 12:07], which in this performance includes a harp, solo violin, harmonium and vocalizing soprano.

This music seemingly limns a scenario, where the vicissitudes of everyday existence are allayed by comforting visions of a better life, presumably suggested by the OSG. That said, it has a subdued, searching preface, that gives way to an increasingly anxious episode [02:53]. This waxes and wanes into comforting thoughts invoked by the OSG [06:10], and then the music again turns anxiety-ridden [08:42]. But a great tam-tam crash [11:34] clears the air, and transitory passages followed by calming OSG ones [12:12] end the work optimistically.

Next up, the Espada Suite (1908; OCAR) which is a one-act ballet. Like Jules' ever popular one for Le Cid (1885; see 14 July 2014), this is an Iberian utterance with an underlying tragic story involving a fortune-telling dancer and her toreador paramour.

It's a set of four Spanish dances, the first being a proud "Panaderos" [T-3] with a guitar-like, strummed accompaniment, and the second, a perky "Boléro" [T-4]. Then there's an animated "Toréador et andalouse" [T-5] that reflects the music of Andalusia. This proceeds attacca into "La Danse de Mercédès" [T-6], which is an action-packed cavort that ends the Suite excitedly.

Moving right along, we get some incidental music titled Les Érinnyes (The Furies, 1908; OCAR). Massenet composed it for his compatriot, poet-writer Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle's (1818-1894) eponymous drama of 1873. Based on Aeschylus's (c. 524-455 BC) tragic trilogy The Oresteia (458 BC), it involves assassination, revenge and divine intervention.

Originally scored for strings, kettle drums and three trombones (The Furies), a full orchestral version of 1876 is presented here. It begins with a dramatic, "Prélude" [T-7], having a fateful opening theme. This is followed by an agitated, tam-tam-timpanic-accented episode [02:36] awash with trombones (those Furies).

After that there's a ternary, A-B-A "Scène religieuse, Invocation" [T-8] with funereal overtones. Moreover, wistful "A"s [00:00 & 06:12] based on a subdued, gentle idea, hug a sad "B" [03:41-06:11], where the cello plays a melody that'll be familiar to all. It sets the mood for the succeeding, meditative "Entr'acte" [T-9], which has a gently rocking string ostinato.

And the work closes with three "Divertissement" selections, the first being an "Allegro" ("Fast") marked one [T-10] that brings to mind more sprightly numbers in Jean-Philippe Rameau's (1683-1764) ballets. On the other hand, its "Andante" follow-on [T-11] is a soothing reverie based on a plangent oboe tune [00:28] that's picked up by the cello [00:56].

Then there's an "Allegro très décidé ("Fast and very determined") third [T-12], which was originally titled "Air de danse des Saturnales". As its earlier marking implies, the music here is a Bacchic romp that brings the work to a spirited conclusion.

Closing this disc, there's the composer's Phèdre Overture (1873; see 14 July 2014) [T-13] based on the great French dramatist Jean Racine's (1639-1699) eponymous, five-act tragedy (1677). This gets off to an ominous start somewhat reminiscent of the opening from Mendelssohn's (1809-1847) incidental music written in 1841 for Sophocles' (c. 496-405 BC) tragedy Antigone (c. 441 BC).

It hints at a subdued sorrowful theme (SS) that soon follows on the clarinet [00:36]. This is food for a dramatic exploration, which gives way to an SS-derived, triumphant, big-tune (SB) [02:46], followed by an amorous countersubject [03:40]. Then SB returns [04:36] initiating a lively development of the foregoing ideas. It has a frenetic fugato [05:09], which conjures up a captivating recap [06:55] with a triumphant coda [07:55]. The latter ends this Overture with an SS-tinged hint of despair [08:54].

These Massenet selections fare well under fellow countryman, Conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud. He elicits enthusiastic yet sensitive renditions of some rarely heard repertoire from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RNSO). Together, they make this disc a must have for all those loving Belle Époque (see above) symphonic fare! Incidentally, soprano Poppy Shotts and violinist Maya Iwabuchi get a big hand for their offstage support in Visions. The same goes for cellist Aleksei Kiseliov, who delivers a very moving account of that timeless "Invocation" tune.

The recordings were made in August of 2019 at The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Scotland, with the Visions OSG stationed behind and just right of the RNSO. They project a robust sonic image in an immense venue for which the sound is all the richer.

Generally speaking, the instrumental timbre is characterized by pleasant highs having occasional steely spots, and a concert-like midrange. As for the lows, they go down to rockbottom, but with a hint of boom. That said, this CD should appeal to those audiophiles liking wetter sonics.

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y210131)

Amazon Records International

The album cover may not always appear.
Shor: Images from the Great Siege (An Orchestral Cycle), Verdiana; Smbatyan/Lon SO [Naxos]
Here are a couple of symphonic works by Alexey Schor (b. 1970), who's one of today's most promising composers. Born in Kiev, Ukraine, he spent his childhood there, and showed an early love for classical music. Then, not long after the nuclear power plant disaster in nearby Chernobyl (26 April 1986), Alexey moved to Moscow and studied mathematics.

Subsequently, the year 1991 saw him spend time in Israel, and move to the US, where he furthered his studies and got a Doctorate in mathematics (1996). However, Schor's continuing interest in classical music led him to become a self-taught, part-time composer. And in a recent interview he said, "My hope is to write music that's tonal, melodic, makes sense harmonically, and still has something of my own voice". Consequently, the two selections on this recent Naxos release are highly approachable creations of late-romantic persuasion. Both are world premiere recordings.

Opening the program, there's Images of the Great Siege, which was written between 2014 and 2016. It's an orchestral cycle of thirteen, titled impressions, honoring one of the most historically significant, military confrontations in 16th-century Europe. This was the four-month siege of Malta by the Turkish Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) that was launched from an armada of 200 ships and took place from 18 May to 11 September 1565.

An initial "Premonition" [T-1] sets the stage for the dramatic events soon to unfold (see the album notes). It's a moving utterance with moments suggesting the heroic defense of the area by the Knights of Malta. Then there's a valiant "Call to Arms" [T-2], nostalgic "Leaving Home" [T-3] with a hint of impending battles [02:09-02:44], and cantering "Solitary Rider" [T-4], apparently referring to a 17-year-old who'd distinguish himself in the upcoming conflict (see the album notes).

After that, the mood turns festive in "Grand Master's Ball" [T-5]. This seemingly celebrates the longstanding, annual Maltese Carnival and has some cheeky knocks-on-blocks [01:14-01:27]. It's followed by "Young Knight's Dream" [T-6], which presumably refers to that youth mentioned above. In any case the music suggests glorious deeds as well as romantic encounters. And then there's a vivacious "Mirage" [T-7], conjuring images of happy-go-lucky, watchtower sentries on the lookout for the invading armada.

"Cannonade' [T-8] depicts the ensuing battle at Fort St. Elmo, which lasted until 23 June 1565. All of the defending knights perished in this, which is presumably commemorated by a sad "St. Elmo Barcarolle" [T-9]. But it was a Pyrrhic victory for the Ottoman forces, and the subsequent "A loss" [T-10] is a more upbeat offering that implies this. Then there's a "Wartime Lullaby" [T-11] apparently signifying a child peacefully sleeping during these troubled times.

This gives way to "The Big Bluff" [T-12], and thereby hangs a tale! It involves the city of Mdina just a few miles west of the Fort. Moreover, in early September 1565, the Ottomans decided to take it and winter there, which posed a real threat as the town was lightly guarded.

However, its clever Governor ordered the peasants to dress as soldiers and join the few already on Mdina's parapets, thereby making the invaders think it was well defended. He also commanded incessant cannonades aimed at the approaching Ottoman forces long before they were within range, to show the city had abundant reserves of ammunition.

All this plus the massive casualties suffered at St. Elmo led the Turkish commander to call off the attack. But returning to Shor's music, here anxious passages surround confident ones [00:45-01:58], and then a "Victory Celebration" [T-13] brings this sonic docudrama to a rousing conclusion.

The closing "Verdiana" (2015) [T-14] is an orchestral antipasto with melodic ideas from several of Giuseppe Verdi's (1813-1901) operas. This starts with a fanfare [00:00] akin to the opening of Rigoletto (1851). But from there on, it's hard to tell exactly what others are involved, let alone where they begin and end.

Suffice it to say the album notes mention Ernani (1844), Il trovatore (1853), Un ballo in maschera (1859), Macbeth (1847-65), Aida (1871) and Don Carlos (1867-86). Be that as it may, Alexey works them into a series of South American dances such as the samba, bossa nova and tango. Moreover, the first is a strutting number [00:07] that's followed by four ideas of similar disposition [00:28, 00:55, 01:33 & 02:06].

These give way to a pause and succeeding, proud segment [02:40], which engenders respectively pensive [03:51] and relaxed [04:40] episodes. Then blustery, brass-laced passages [07:25] call up an engaging tango [07:47] that turns into what might best be described as an extended, can-can-like number [08:33]. This is followed by another break and a jubilant afterthought [11:51], which ends the piece excitedly.

Armenian conductor Sergey Smbatyan along with the renowned London Symphony Orchestra make a strong case for both selections featured here. Maestro Smbatyan's careful attention to dynamics, phrasing and rhythmic detail make a convincing case for some music that in lesser hands might come off as ordinary fare.

The recordings took place on two occasions in April and June of 2019 at the Colosseum Town Hall, Watford, England, some 20 miles north-northwest of London. They paint a generous sonic image in spacious, reverberant surroundings, for which the sound is all the more opulent. The orchestral timbre is characterized by pleasant highs, a lifelike midrange and lows that plumb the depths with some pants-flapping bass drum thwacks. Audiophiles won't be disappointed!

-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (, Y210130)

Amazon Records International