CD Reviews

2010 - 2011

 

HUNGARIAN SKETCHES and CELLO RHAPSODY -- music by Miklos Rozsa

JAZZ NOCTURNE: American Concertos of the Jazz Age

MOBY DICK and Sinfonietta -- music by Bernard Herrmann (New review)

THE RED VIOLIN CONCERTO and PHANTASMAGORIA -- music by John Corigliano

SYMPHONIES NOS. 5 and 6 -- music by Roy Harris

SYMPHONY IN F# and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING --
music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold

PIANO MUSIC I: CIRCLES OF FIRE -- music of George Rochberg

SYMPHONY NO. 8 -- music by William Schuman/
VARIATIONS ON "AMERICA" by Charles Ives -- arranged by William Schuman

VIOLIN CONCERTOS -- music by Miklos Rozsa and Erich Wolfgang Korngold/
also music by Manuel Ponce, Arthur Benjamin and Stephen Foster

 


 

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HUNGARIAN SKETCHES and CELLO RHAPSODY

Music composed by Miklos Rozsa

 

6 Tracks (Playing Time = 57:06)

Performed by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra MAV conducted by Mariusz Smolj. Mark Kosower soloist in the Cello Rhapsody. Album produced by Mariusz Smilj. Engineered and edited by Peter Aczel. Recorded at Hungaroton Studios, Budapest, Hungary, September 12-14, 2009; and Studio 22 of Hungarian Radio, Budapest, November 8-9, 2007.

Naxos 8.572285

Rating: ****

Miklos Rozsa’s place in musical history would be secure if only his music from BEN-HUR was his sole output. That film score came at the height of the composer’s time with MGM and after he had firmly established himself as the perfect film noir composer. Historical epics would be important in Rozsa’s career and his attention to meticulous research and musical detail is often what sets these scores as prime achievements of their kind. Rozsa, like other prominent Hollywood emigrant composers, also left a large body of concert work which continues to be represented on CD, especially since the centenary of his birth. Naxos has released one chamber music disc and two orchestral discs of which this latest one is the third.

Conductor Mariusz Smolj’s earlier release featuring the Viola Concerto is simply one of the best Rozsa releases featuring a quite gorgeous work. These recordings were made a while ago, but that should not be worth hesitation. For this release, Smolj balances early and mid-career works.

The earliest work represented here is the Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 3 (1929). This beautiful work, played superbly by Mark Kosower of the Cleveland Orchestra, is filled with lyrical melodies beginning with the opening cello solo. An arch-form piece, the Rhapsody is a good representative of early Hungarian orchestral music with those ethnic rhythmic ideas alongside a more traditional European orchestral sound. The work was Rozsa’s first published piece and it receives a dedicated performance here in what is one of the examples of the composer trying to discover his unique voice.

The disc opens with what is one of Rozsa’s strongest concert works, 1956’s Overture to a Symphony Concert, Op. 26a. Apart from its poor title, the work is a perfect example of the composer’s strong melodic writing and semi-modal style heard in his biblical epics. The opening contrapuntal fanfare grabs the attention and the work continues its strong emotional pull throughout. Pure concert music does not get quite as good as this and its accessibility should help make it a good repertoire piece. The other later work was composed on through a commission arranged by Eugene Ormandy. The Notturno ungherese, Op. 28 premiered with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1963 concert season and is a work of quiet beauty (those gorgeous melodies could have come from KING OF KINGS), though with a fabulously eerie climax. (The piece is actually connected to a project to create new music of a more tranquil variety primarily for Howard Hanson’s students at the Eastman Rochester School and later expanded to encourage contemporary works for other regional orchestras.)

The last, and most substantial work on the disc, is the three-movement Hungarian Sketches, Op. 14. The work was intended to pay homage to his homeland and this is accomplished through three distinct miniatures. The opening “Capriccio” features changing meters and that at times seem a bit influenced by Stravinsky’s Firebird. The following “Pastorale” is a great example of Rozsa’s orchestration. It features two themes as well and these move through perfect tone painting of which one highlight is the depiction of birds “singing” in three different keys. The final “Danza” is a study in rhythm with three primary sections a sort of fast dance, a more stable peasant dance and an exciting fanfare conclusion.

The performances by the Budapest orchestra are well-captured and there is a real shaping of the music here that shows a dedication from all concerned. The acoustic is also quite warm and the program helps to create plenty of contrast. Fans of Rozsa’s music will surely enjoy hearing some of the same musical gestures in these concert works that would become hallmarks of his style in his film music. It would be quite fascinating to hear the orchestra perform some of Rozsa’s film works as well but these are highly recommendable performances.

 

 

--Steven A. Kennedy, 4 February 2011

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address: stev4uth@hotmail.com

 


 

JAZZ NOCTURNE: American Concertos of the Jazz Age

Music composed by James Price Johnson,
Harry Reser, George Gershwin, and Dana Suesse

 

9 Tracks (Playing Time = 70:43)

Performed by the Hot Springs Music Festival Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Rosenberg. Featuring soloists Gary Hammond, piano (Johnson); the Creole Serenaders and Don Vappie, banjo; (Reser); Tatiana Roitman, piano (Gershwin); Peter Mintun, piano; (Suesse-Jazz Nocturne); and Michael Gurt, piano (Suesse concerto).

Album produced by William Fulton. Engineered by Paul Griffith and Jamie Tagg. Edited by Richard Rosenburg. Recorded at Hot Springs Field House, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, June 5, 2005 (Johnson); June 4, 2009 (Reser, Suesse); June 11, 2008 (Reser, Gershwin); June 5, 2009 (Suesse).

Naxos 8.559647

Rating: ****

 

The melding of classical and jazz musical forms was of high interest in the early 20 th century. The lines were not as blurry around serious or popular music but it was soon to get a bit murkier as composers like Gershwin connected with the likes of Paul Whiteman. Whiteman’s concerts might be categorized today more like pops concerts but they grew out of a similar band tradition of the turn of the century where classical and popular pieces could be found on the same program. It would not be out of place to hear say “A Bicycle Built for Two” in a popular arrangement next to a brand new march by Sousa, but for Whiteman, there was more experimentation with the latest craze over “jazz” and the many syncopated rhythmic potentials. Gershwin was tapped to write what became the Rhapsody in Blue for the first “Experiment in Modern Music” concert that Whiteman was putting together. That concert had contemporary jazz music alongside more serious works by the likes of Victor Herbert (though one might say Herbert’s operettas were more the stuff of popular music).

The five works on Jazz Nocturne are all separated by no more than one degree of connection. At the center is Gershwin’s now famous work from 1924. The performance here is the complete original jazz band version with its orchestration credited to Ferde Grofe. The other works were in some way or another connected to that work through Paul Whiteman’s own request, or as a result of a performers work with the band.

The disc opens with Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody by James P. Johnson. Johnson’s more well known for popular songs (“The Charleston” perhaps his most familiar) and for developing the stride piano style. His music is a crucial connector to the sound of ragtime piano and what would become jazz piano style. The orchestral version receives its premiere recording here in an arrangement by William Grant Still. The piece was written in 1927 as a sort of response to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and was heard at a Carnegie Hall concert performed by Fats Waller. It had future appearances as film music for a short bearing the same title and Orson Welles used it as the overture for his MACBETH in the 1930s. The work has some resemblance to Gershwin’s free fantasy form but Still’s orchestration gives it a slightly more rich sound. To hear this piece for the first time is a pure joy. Engaging thematic ideas are melded into this hybrid classical-jazz piece that allows one to hear both those early ragtime piano styles with something closer to a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody. This work alone would be worth adding another version of the Gershwin to your musical library. Gary Hammond’s committed performance makes this a convincing work and he is admirably accompanied by the Hot Springs players.

The most surprising work on the release though has to be Harry Reser’s Suite for Banjo and Orchestra. Banjo players will be familiar with Reser’s name as the author behind most of the standard method books for the instrument as well as for guitar and ukulele. The banjo’s connection to dance halls, coming out of 19 th century Minstrel theater, might make the average classical enthusiast sniff in dismissal. They would be missing out on what must be one of the most difficult pieces for the instrument. The work was composed between 1922-1930 and is cast in 3 fascinating movements that explore the instrument in ways you would never think possible. Reser’s work is essentially a jazzy guitar concerto requiring a few interesting effects. A common one is to slide up the string chromatically making one forget that we are hearing a banjo. There are times when it could be a handful of people playing the solo as there is so much going on in its part. But Reser’s work, even with its fanciful subtitles indicating particular moods, still manages to explore the banjo without using cliché gestures. This is no “hillbilly” work, but one that takes the instrument seriously. The great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt comes to mind as one listens to this piece and marvels at how great an artist Reser was as Don Vappie, who arranged the work for performance, plays the piece with amazing skill.

Gerswhin’s Rhapsody in Blue has many fine performances. There were versions of Gershwin’s “original” orchestration of this piece in the 1980s and 1990s culminating in a recording by Michael Tilson Thomas which is a now a classic. Another popular release attempted to recreate the Whiteman concert and featured all the music from that program. The Naxos release has a few things going for it which has more to do with what is accompanying the work. The performance here does a good job of recreating the Whiteman sound a bit and it is helped by some clear acoustic presentation. Tatiana Roitman is in some heady company as the soloist but approaches the musical text with sensitivity and a few extra interpretive touches that some will notice are informed by period performances transcribed on piano rolls. Rosenberg approaches the work trying to strip away some of the more overwrought moments that tend to be overemphasized along the lines of a Romantic concerto than the jazzy intent of the work. That allows for things to be a bit tighter and for ensemble sections to move a bit quicker than some may be accustomed to from years of big orchestral versions. The bottom line is that there is a balance between trying to recreate a classic moment in time and providing some interpretation. Heard against the backdrop of the other works on the disc, one is prepared for how the piece sounds. The disc needs this work in order for it to have broader context for the listener to appreciate the music. Most fun will be hearing the clarity of the orchestra that even lets you hear the strumming banjo lines. Fun slides in the music are well-done too. This won’t replace your favorite Rhapsody recording, but you will be listening to this disc a lot anyway and you will eventually become quite comfortable with the performance. The recording provides good detail, though the gong/cymbal crash near the end could be louder for better impact.

Finally, there are two works by Dana Suesse (1909-1987). Suesse moved to New York City from Kansas City, Missouri, and had a career as a pianist and composer in vaudeville and radio. Her most popular song was “Syncopated Love Song” first heard in 1928. Two additional international hits began to get the attention she deserved and Paul Whiteman soon commissioned her to provide a piece for his Fourth Experiment in Modern Music. Suesse was often referred to as the “Girl Gershwin” and this disc brings to light a short and a concerto. The “Jazz Nocturne” from 1931 would become the song “My Silent Love” sung by Bing Crosby in the short film BLUE OF THE NIGHT. What makes this little piece interesting is the simplistic left-hand accompaniment that shifts from a more classically staid chordal approach to one that begins to take on jazz influences. The melody is of course simply beautiful and the arrangement by Carroll Huxley is simply superb.

Suesse’s Concerto in Three Rhythms (1932; incidentally orchestrated by Grofe) is in three movements with dance implications: Fox Trot, Blues, and Rag. The work shared a program with Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody, and I Got Rhythm as well as Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite and a fox trot version of Ravel’s Bolero (!). Unlike Gershwin’s Piano Concerto which aspired for a concert hall life, Suesse’s work is still firmly rooted in popular musical style with a more through-composed or song-like structure that gives each idea a more rhapsodic-like sound. The first movement has an episodic quality that allows the soloists plenty of melodic ideas and virtuosic displays of which one finds parallels In Rachmaninoff. The ideas move along at quite a pace as she explores the rhythms of these dances in what amounts to a fascinating work when all is said and done. Michael Gurt’s performance helps make the work engaging with the second blues movement being a particular highlight.

It is perhaps too soon to tell, but Jazz Nocturne may be one of the best classical releases of the year. The music is all engaging and top-knotch. These are not just simple curiosities that can now be checked off the recorded American music list. Each of these works provides a fascinating window into a decade of orchestral music that flirted with popular forms. They may not have the more formal structure classical concerti have, but then again there are plenty of concert concerti of the period that were experimenting formally as well. The Hot Springs Festival Orchestra really gets the style of these works and performs them with an exhuberance and high quality of musicianship under the apt direction of Richard Rosenberg.

The sound of the recording is well-matched given that the performances were recorded over the course of five years.

Here’s to more from this Arkansas festival!

Highly recommended.

 

--Steven A. Kennedy, 7 March 2011

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address: stev4uth@hotmail.com


Herrmann: Moby Dick - Sinfonietta

Moby Dick/Sinfonietta

Music composed by Bernard Herrmann

 

16 Tracks (Playing Time = 63:24)

Album produced by Bernhard Guttler. Featuring Richard Edgar-Wilson, tenor; David Wilson-Johnson (baritone); and the Danish National Choir (Moby Dick); and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Schonwandt.

Recorded at Koncerthuset, DR Byen, Copenhagen, January 8 (Moby Dick) and March 15-16, (Sinfonietta) 2011. Recording engineered by Jan Oldrup. Music edited by Bernhard Guttler. Mastered by Bernhard Guttler and Jonathan Cooper. Design by Cassidy Rayne Creative.

Chandos 5095

Rating: ****

 

The Bernard Herrmann centenary has not unleashed the sort of recorded testament that one might expect. The 1990s saw a bit of a resurgence of interest in the composer’s film music and there have been some resurrections this year of his one opera, Wuthering Heights. This new Chandos disc gives a window into two important early works from the mid-1930s before Herrmann’s work on radio and film began to take up his composing time.

In the 1930s there is a working out of the modernist and post-romantic styles in many works. Most will understand this in terms of some of Copland’s pre-Americana pieces, the latter which begin to appear as the decade ends. There is another thread though of composers revisiting Baroque forms eschewing the symphony as a viable avenue. The more modernists seemed to latch onto this well creating an alternative tonal language to the ultra-romantic and Impressionist styles.

Moby Dick is perhaps the last thing some might choose to encapsulate into a musical form. Herrmann had initially considered using Melville’s novel as the basis for an opera. But that was abandoned in favor of a “cantata” form. The religious connection formally was an appropriate one as Melville’s novel might be understood as a sort of Revivalist religious retelling of American experience in life. The music will be a revelation to those unfamiliar with the work which Sir John Barbirolli proclaimed as one of the most important works of the generation. He premiered the piece with the New York Philharmonic in April 1940—with a young Benjamin Britten in the audience.

The opening chorus, “And God Created Whales,” is like those big Shostakovich symphonic choral moments. But throughout this and subsequent moments in the work one hears Herrmann’s style already cementing itself. Deep dark orchestral colors are everywhere. Brass swells and intriguing musical combinations are among some of those early stylistic aspects of the composer’s style which will become instantly recognizable in his later film work. The woodwind writing also bears similar stylistic similarities. These musical signatures are what make the work stand out in the midst of other language that is very much of the modernist-romantic style of the period.

The sense of drama in the writing is simply amazing throughout the piece and already one hears Herrmann’s near perfect sense of narrative underscoring and dramatic writing. There are many times in this piece when one feels like Herrmann’s style somehow developed parallel to similar musical responses of Prokofiev or Shostakovich. Compare it to say Alexander Nevsky and one will find many fascinating musical responses that have the integrity of each composer’s style with different end results. This work certainly stands well against Prokofiev’s and deserves far more exposure. Songs like “Oh! Jolly is the Gale” could have come from Shostakovich and yet still have Herrmann’s decidedly unique scoring style. Somehow the music captures the thrust of Melville’s narrative with the emotional undercurrent ever present in the orchestration and dramatic support the texts receive. At any rate, the piece as recorded here receives what may be one of its finest performances.

Like many composers, Herrmann experimented with other avant-garde styles. His Sinfonietta, composed between 1935-36, is the seminal work in his output that exhibits this experiment. The piece was revised in 1975 in preparation for a recording project that was never realized due to the composer’s death. The present recording is a premiere of the original version of this piece. Even here, Herrmann’s later style is part of this string work which some may find echoes of in his score for Psycho. The five movement piece, ending in a set of variations, is a more astringent and harsher intellectual piece that falls into that style of music that one hears in Berg especially. Herrmann’s sense of dramatic writing is still rather unique. Something to note is the way he can take a single note and infuse it with an amazing amount of intensity.

What really makes this new Chandos release an important recorded document is that it comes at this music on its own terms. There is no overemphasis to try and make this sound like Herrmann’s film music and the result is that we get at a purer performance of the text of this music with all of its wealth of hints of what was to come. Not only an important release for Herrmann fans, but also an important release of American symphonic music from the 1930s .

 

--Steven A. Kennedy, 5 November 2011

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address: stev4uth@hotmail.com

 


 

Corigliano: Violin Concerto 'The Red Violin'; Phantasmagoria

THE RED VIOLIN CONCERTO and PHANTASMAGORIA

Music composed by John Corigliano

5 Tracks (Playing Time = 61:02)

Performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Michael Ludwig, violin soloist in the Violin Concerto. Album produced and edited by Blanton Alspaugh. Engineered by Mark Donahue. Recorded at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, NY; October 17-19, 2008.

Naxos 8.559671

Rating: ****


Naxos continues their fine series of Corigliano recordings with this entry featuring what is becoming one of the composer’s more popularized works, the violin concerto “based” on THE RED VIOLIN. The Buffalo Philharmonic continues there impressive string of releases under music director JoAnn Falletta which included an earlier release of the composer’s music. That Grammy-winning disc featured music derived from the composer’s first film score, ALTERED STATES, and an odd setting of texts by Bob Dylan.

The first work on the disc is based on music from Corigliano’s opera The Ghosts of Versailles. A version of what is now Phantasmagoria premiered as a work written for Yo-Yo Ma and performed by him with Emanuel Ax in its solo setting on a Sony release now a decade old. The Ondine label premiered this orchestral setting about five years ago and we have Naxos to thank for finding a way to bring this work to more people at their reduced price. The spectal quality of the earlier moments of this work feature clusters and sliding harmonics, reminiscent of Corigliano’s ALTERED STATES score. It takes a few minutes for this suite to unfold before the varieties of musical quotations and borrowings begin to appear. The work has three main structural segments that move from ghostly atonal writing, to quotation music, to contemporary orchestral harmonic writing with a tendency toward more post-romantic qualities.

At its core, Phantasmagoria is one of those “musician’s” pieces that tends to create a sense of fun in the discovery of the various styles, thematic quotes or inferences, or harmonies. Things eventually take off in a more delightfully fun way which allows the orchestral sections and soloists to shine. As such, the piece tenuously holds its own between serious and pops-like musical space. It is a work that will grow on the listener and is far more impressive here in its orchestral guise, a wise move by the composer, in what is surely the finest performance it will receive. The final moments are exquisitely realized by the orchestra managing to recall the denser light textures of the work’s opening.

Though it has been seven years since Corigliano’s Violin Concerto based on his score for THE RED VIOLIN appeared, its premiere on Sony featuring Joshua Bell (who performed the music in the film as well) is evidently only part of a larger collection, though copies of the single disc must surely exist. The original film score release featured an adaption “bonus” work cast in the form of a Chaconne which now makes up the concerto’s first movement. The present interpretation by Michael Ludwig holds fairly close to Bell’s performance timings. The performance here is fascinatingly detailed with clearly-defined solo wind and brass lines in a drier acoustic. Falletta seems to let the music flow naturally lending it a freer quality that one tends to expect when a new piece has had some distance between the present and its first appearance.

Ludwig gets tremendous background support and gives a fairly impassioned performance that features a bit more interpretive sliding to reach higher pitch values and which at times features attacks and articulation that are less intense then Bell’s approach. Ludwig approaches this work as a solo concerto taking the thematic content within the context of the present work and allowing his interpretation to grow out the piece itself and not its precursors. This makes his “Chaconne” sound a lot more like a new twenty-first century concerto with the film’s themes feeling like quotation music. His performance of the first movement is perhaps not as “perfect” as Bell’s but somehow he manages to bring to the work a deeper sense of dramatic intensity that is matched by Falletta’s support with the Buffalo players who really shine throughout the entire performance.

The second movement scherzo is superbly realized by soloist and orchestra that continues to build on what is a more mature performance overall that allows things to unfold in such seeming effortlessness. The third movement really gives us a sense of Ludwig’s lyrical expressive musicality and it is a gorgeously realized performance captured here.

Overall this is a perfect introduction to Corigliano’s orchestral concert music. Falletta’s shaping of orchestral textures and tempi allow her to show off the amazing musicians of the Buffalo Philharmonic to be more than just another regional orchestra. Ludwig’s performance is equally valid and seems to relax a bit more as the work progresses. It is the performance of a mature artist interested in performing this piece as a solo concert work on its own terms rather than simply mimicking the work’s very first recording. The result is a valid interpretation that works its way through the tension between romantically-conceived themes and contemporary orchestral writing. It might even open the door for others to consider picking up the work as well. The problem with the piece is that one has to take the final three movements as the balance to an overlong opening one and this is easier to do when one feels the third movement as a long introduction to the work’s gradually accelerating finale.

Easily recommendable even to those who have grown accustomed to Bell’s performance for precisely the alternate approach needed to keep this work from becoming a sterile recorded monument.  

--Steven A. Kennedy , 29 May 2010

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address: stev4uth@hotmail.com

 

 


 

Harris: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6

SYMPHONIES NOS. 5 anf 6 and ACCELERATION

Music composed by Roy Harris

 

8 Tracks (61:44)

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Album produced and engineered by Tim Handley. Recorded in the Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK, May 9 th and 10 th, 2008. Notes by David Truslove.

Naxos 8.559609

Rating: ****

Roy Harris is one of our great American symphonists. That said his music is sadly relatively unknown unless you happen to catch a musical survey course that focuses on American music history. Even then he tends to be overshadowed by Copland and a fairly dismissive snobbishness in academia to the continuation of the Romantic tradition. His name tended to rest on two works. Leonard Bernstein championed the truly superb Third Symphony which has seen a good number or recordings over the years (at least one performance tends to stay in the catalogue. The First Symphony was introduced in Boston under Koussevitzky and that performance was captured on tape (though the beginning was frustratingly cut off) and has appeared on historic reissues. Fortunately, Naxos has stepped in to correct a musical wrong by providing what looks to be a slow general overview of his music in their American Classics series.

Naxos has released four of Harris’ symphonies on two discs. It was Marin Alsop’s, which included the aforementioned Third Symphony that began to give music lovers hope that more was to come. It has been a bit of a wait, but we now have the present release with recordings of two important symphonies from the early 1940s. The earlier release was with the Colorado Symphony. For this one, Marin Alsop returns to Bournemouth where she is conductor emeritus. Alsop was a protégé of Bernstein, so no doubt gained a love for these pieces from someone who definitely understood their musical value. Her sensitive performances are a welcome addition to the catalogue.

The disc opens with one of Harris’ most powerful programmatic symphonies, subtitled “Gettysburg.” This sixth symphonic exercise has a truly cinematic scope that rises to the surface in its fascinating depiction of battle in its second movement titled “Conflict.” Musical tone painting is a hallmark of this work which begins quietly in “Awakening.” This opening movement features a perfect encapsulation of Harris’ symphonic style with smaller motivic ideas presented out of a mass of swirling sound that grows in intensity. There is an almost Sibelian quality to the way these motives swirl together for a long thematic line that closes off the movement (similar to Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony). The tension of war shifts into an elegiac third movement, “Dedication.” An arch-like formal structure gives the feel of a spun out melodic idea as the movement opens which gives way to a gorgeously scored central section with woodwinds and muted brass. It is an interesting exercise in motivic and harmonic movement over a pedal point as well. The concluding “Affirmation” brings brass to the forefront again in a massive triple fugue based on an earlier work of his (American Creed). Reminiscent of the climactic moments of the Third, the soaring brass bring the work to a rousing conclusion. The Sixth Symphony is one of American music’s treasures. It is a different sort of Americana than the one Copland was developing practically at the same time. It is a work that illustrates the hybrid nature of mid-century American composers with a foot in tradition and in contemporary harmonic language that perhaps finds it parent in symphonists like Bruckner. It is an important work with allegorical connotations to those who perhaps experienced it in such a way as World War II drove to a hopeful conclusion.

The Fifth Symphony hails from 1942. This is the absolute music of symphonic writing with nothing to guide us except our own program. But its numerical position suggests the potential for seriousness and Harris intended to reference the Russian’s triumphal defeat of the Nazis. The opening movement features a number of calls-to-arms and a rhythmic figure suggesting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. It is a rich textural opening that comes with great force, though seems to have a bit of difficulty wrapping up. The central movement is cast in three sections beginning with a funeral march, moving into a central string section in search of a theme, and concluding with an almost chorale-like finish between brass and strings. It is here where one recalls Shostakovich’s symphonic struggle with World War II and a need to represent in music the terrors, hope, and ultimate overthrow of invasion. Fate comes knocking in a four-note motif that appears in the opening bars of the final movement. Then we are off and running as Harris moves through a series of fascinatingly orchestrated variations on this little motive culminating in a heroic conclusion reminiscent of Beethoven.

In addition to the two symphonies, the disc is rounded off with a recording of Acceleration from 1941. The interest in this miniature is its condensed presentation of Harris’ style. It also would be recycled for the Sixth Symphony. That might be the reason why American Creed was not added to this disc, though it would have been a worthy inclusion. The 14-minute piece would have really filled out this disc. No doubt it will appear soon if Alsop continues the survey of symphonic pieces.

The performance of the Sixth Symphony is simply amazing. The Fifth is likewise a worthy recording and performance. The shaping of thematic lines, while sometimes quite angular, tend to have a sensitivity that allows them to feel less disjointed than might otherwise be the case. The orchestra seems to respond well to her direction in committed performances. These are richly-recorded in a warm acoustic that allows for interior details to be heard. The balance is truly fascinating. If you listen carefully to the central portion of the Fifth Symphony’s second movement, you can discern the various instrumental choirs vying within the texture. There is a flute line that matches the strings at times that never is artificially enhanced allowing for the subtlety of the scoring to be greatly appreciated.

Any release of American symphonic music is an event to be celebrated. There is only one other hard to find release of the Sixth from Albany Records featuring the Pacific Symphony with Keith Clark conducting. Alsop’s tempos are fairly close to Clark’s though she takes slightly more time in “Conflict” and “Affirmation.” For the Fifth, you need to hunt down a re-issue of an old Louisville Orchestra recording (which is worth acquiring for the recording of Harris’ Violin Concerto).

Alsop continues to provide fantastic performances regardless of the nationality of the music she espouses but here we have two important works worthy of attention.

Too often fans of American symphonic music are so happy to have a recording of this music that they will put up with anything. Fortunately, Naxos is providing us with an opportunity to truly hear this music in committed performances given the same loving attention that we would expect from European masters. Even casual listeners will find much to admire in the Sixth. The rest is simply more of a wonderful thing. Highly recommended!

 

--Steven A. Kennedy, 12 February 2010

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address: stev4uth@hotmail.com


Symphony in F#, Op. 40 and Much Ado About Nothing

Music composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold

 

9 Tracks (Playing Time = 67:41)

Album produced and edited by Wolfram Nehls. Performed by the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marc Albrecht. Engineering by Philipp Knop. Surround mix by Wolfram Nehls and Philipp Knop. Design by Netherlads.

PentaTone Classics 5186 373

Rating: ****

 

The music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold is finally getting its due, something which the composer never would have thought possible perhaps. Having created classic film scores for Errol Flynn films in the 1930s, the composer slowly tried to recapture some of the attention of the concert world. Unfortunately, the rich post-romantic music of the likes of Zemlinsky and Richard Strauss was already being somewhat overshadowed by a host of composers exploring atonal music and jazz rhythms. But, the communicability of Korngold’s music in and out of the concert hall perhaps meant that inevitably its day would come.

While the Violin Concerto appears to have now entered the standard repertoire, his other orchestral pieces are only slowly doing so. His one work in the genre, the Symphony in F#, Op. 40, has five-six current recordings in the catalogue each with its merits. This new release on PentaTone comes with the added multi-channel super audio stereo approach. It features the same coupling as Andre Previn’s superb Deutsche Grammophon recording now over a decade old!

Korngold’s symphony was composed in the first part of the 1950s. He had returned to Austria hoping to restart his concert career only to find that no one wanted to go back to the “good old days” and that he and his music were a relic of the past. Even the committed premiere performance by Wilhelm Furtwangler of the Symphonic Serenade by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1950 was not enough to help Korngold’s hopes come to fruition. He had already begun a symphony while in Vienna and there is a lot of the drama of opera and his film works that can be heard in it. The work bears a dedication to Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggesting his own appreciation for his refuge in America. There may have been some sense that the symphony as a genre was dead by 1950. Copland’s Third Symphony had essentially sealed the genres Americana possibilities. Vaughan-Williams’ massive Sinfonia Antarctica would be completed in 1952 and is a bit interesting with its film music connections as a companion work of far differing style. Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony was also being completed and Shostakovich’s film-like Tenth Symphony was still on the horizon. Korngold’s work then can stand by itself against any and all of these.

It is obvious from the opening bars that Albrecht has spent some time trying to get at the heart of this difficult work and hears it perhaps as an anguished extension of Mahlerian proportions. The visceral edge of the opening brass and percussion punctuations are quite crisp and when this moves on to the more Romantic, lush chromaticism, the contrast is stark and quite dramatic. It is as if these two sounds are truly fighting it out with one another: Austrian symphonic tradition versus Hollywood. The second movement’s scherzo opening zips by at breakneck speed like someone rushing with excitement only to be stopped dead by the starkness of its central section which might be like someone looking at the devastation of a huge battlefield, and yet as the scherzo returns there are moments of great hope that seems to be bittersweet before its massive final bars.

One of the great moments of the symphony is its gorgeous slow movement with recognizable themes from THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, CAPTAIN BLOOD, and ANTHONY ADVERSE. The minor cast and foreboding shifts make one wonder if these great musical moments from Korngold’s past were being looked at as somehow tragic with a sense of what could have been darkening the composer’s lived reality.

Albrecht’s performance is simply astounding. From the taut opening to the depth of the slower moments of the score, it is obvious that he takes this work on its own merits fully informed of its intended connection to its Austrian predecessors and firmly rooted in the style of Korngold at the same time. This is not a performance that tries to make this a “nice” film music symphony, nor does it try to overstate this as a concert work, instead the performance manages to grab your attention and never hesitates to move through the various episodic moments with great dramatic musical sense. You may not find a better performance of this work and the recording quality is simply amazing. The huge orchestral sections are just overwhelmingly powerful and still clear.

A quick timing comparison of other recordings of the work shows that Albrecht tends towards some faster tempi overall, though nothing ever feels rushed or out of place. Instead one gets an emotionally powerful performance. I have not heard Werner Andreas Albert’s recording of this work in his overview of Korngold’s orchestral music for comparison. The Delos was one of those great appearances of James DePreist on disc (with the Oregon Symphony) and both the Previn (with the London Symphony) and Welser-Most (with the Philadelphia Orchestra) have their plus sides as well. Albrecht’s tempi though seem to work very well as a whole making the structure of the symphony work without collapsing.

 

 

Albrecht

DePreist
(Delos 3234)

Previn
(DG 453 436)

Welser-Most
(EMI 556169)

Moderato, ma energico

14:59

15:20

15:55

12:50

Scherzo: Allegro molto-Trio

10:04

10:33

10:32

9:48

Adagio: Lento

15:27

16:57

16:09

14:45

Finale: Allegro gaio

10:30

11:04

10:31

10:11

 

By itself the performance of the symphony would be enough to recommend this disc. But the companion piece, the incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing will be of interest as well,. This 1918 work for the stage, and a chamber ensemble, was then arranged (1920) as a 5-part concert suite which has been fairly popular in concert halls. Here is where Albrecht’s recording takes on a slight lead over Previn’s in that this release includes the “Overture” for the work (Previn’s recording only has 4 of the movements. Otherwise, the timings and performance are quite similar to that earlier release. The music is simply delightful and is superbly performed and recorded about as well as one could hope.

This is easily one of the best recordings of symphonic music you will hear and it is hard to imagine a better performance of the Korngold symphony. Listener’s may be quite curious to explore the other five releases, especially those with the Strasbourg orchestra which really seems to respond to his leadership. Highly recommended!

--Steven A. Kennedy, 13 November 2010

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address: stev4uth@hotmail.com

 

 


Rochberg: Piano Music, Vol. 1 - Circles of Fire for Two Pianos

 

 

Piano Music 1—Circles of Fire

Music composed by George Rochberg.

15 Tracks (70:20) Performed by the Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo ( Evan Hirsch and Sally Pinkas). Album produced and engineered by Joel Gordon. Recorded at Spaulding Auditorium, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, December 1998. Notes by George Rochberg and Evan Hirsch. Originally released as Gasparo GSCD-343

Naxos American 8.559631

Rating: ****

 

George Rochberg (1918-2005) was one of those composers whose name you ran across back in the 1980s and 1990s. Depending on what coast you studied on his music was either raised up, or dismissed. This had a lot to do with ones experience of American serialist composers of which Rochberg was originally one and whether or not one was willing to follow his embracing of more tonal expression after the mid-1960s. By the time Rochberg came to write Circles of Fire in 1996-1997 he was quite capable of discovering ways to meld both expressively. Sometimes serialists who stray from strict writing tend to create music that is more pointillistic aurally. The result can be a series of seemingly disjoint musical phrases but often of a highly expressive nature. It can also result in what seems like utter chaos. Rochberg also was an early proponent of quotation and collage; that is borrowing segments, themes, or ideas from past classics and inserting them in different ways into his own work. All of these things are on display in the present work. The expressiveness of this particular piece in the hands of the Hirsch-Pinkas duo is what helps create the bridge necessary to enter into this strange mostly atonal world.

Rochberg’s piece is filled with 15 mostly brief sections. The work is bookended by a “Solemn Refrain” which helps delineate larger segments of the piece in three interior placements. The first “Chiaroscuro” is an arch-like piece of mostly atonal writing which is followed by a strictly serial “Canonic Variations.” The fourth movement, “Gioco del fuoco” has a great deal of Bartokian playfulness and flirts with tonality in what is the first of the four longer segments at 7 minutes. It is one of the more engaging and stronger movements of the piece. Overall the longer movements are signposts of a sort, this one seeming to focus on chaos of which pianist has the more important material. “Nebulae” is a “free” chance composition with the music allowing both performers and listeners a lengthy repose from the nervous energy that has come before it. It is at the center of the piece and is composed without meter or note values with the duration being determined by the performers. “Sognando” is a slow-moving piece of semi-quotation music with quotations from BrahmsClarinet Sonata, Op. 120, no. 1 and the Intermezzo, Op. 118, no. 4. Here the music is stretched out beyond imagining with a rather dreamlike quality that sometimes is reminiscent of a pianist working slowly through a piece of music. The post-romantic feel of this movement seems out of place in its surroundings but Rochberg’s structural need for this anchor in Romanticism is a perfect match for the fugue (with quotations from Bach), canon, ricercar (a rather short piece of repetitive music that continuously loops until the performers tire of it, hence its title “The Infinite Ricercar”), and other suggestive musical titles and forms explored in the monumental work.

In short, Circles of Fire is a monumental and essential work that encapsulates he different musical expressions of Rochberg’s output. It manages to traverse various musical periods from the Renaissance to the present through the way individual movements are structured or even in the musical language used to communicate Rochberg’s ideas. It may not be the first piano disc you turn to, but there is much to be discovered in this music that a score will help reveal to music students. Though deeply-conceived, the piece still is more than a cerebral musical exercise.

Naxos has managed to snatch up the Gasparo catalogue of which this is a part (originally appearing on Gasparo 343). It might have been nice to have more separation between the two instruments but this is a minor quibble.

Evan Hirsch and Sally Pinkas recorded 5 volumes of Rochberg’s piano music and this launching of that important addition to the Rochberg discography is quite welcome. Once again, great music, well-performed and at a price that allows for trying something new and different—hallmarks of what makes Naxos such a fine label.

-- Steven A. Kennedy, 15 March 2010

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address: stev4uth@hotmail.com

 

 


 

 

Schuman: Symphony No. 8 - Night Journey; Variations on 'America'

William Schuman: SYMPHONY NO. 8 - Night Journey/
Charles Ives: Variations on "AMERICA" (arranged by William Schuman)

 

 

5 Tracks (65:04)

Music composed by William Schuman. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Album produced by Adam Stern and Dmitriy Lipay. Engineered by Dmitriy Lipay and John Eagle. Recorded at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, on October 21 st, 2008 (Symphony); October 3 rd, 2007 (Night Journey); and at the Seattle Opera House, October 15 th, 1991. Notes by Joseph W. Polisi.

Naxos 8.559651

Rating: ****

 

Back in the 1990s, Delos enticed us all with the expectation of a complete cycle of William Schuman’s symphonies. Gerard Schwarz’s work with the Seattle Symphony on a Hanson cycle in warm sound made the prospect of his Schuman approach quite interesting. A release of the third and fifth was as far as they got until Naxos revived the project of which this is the crowning and final achievement of this five-disc cycle. Schuman’s music wavers between astringency and accessibility and this disc allows for a bit of both sides of this great American composer.

The CD opens with an intense and near perfect performance of Schuman’s Symphony No. 8 from 1962. Schuman eschews traditional orchestral melodic writing instead creating an almost overwhelming study in orchestration, texture, and tempo acceleration. The piece has a distant cousin in the composer’s monumental fourth string quartet from 1950 whose elements are further explored and extended in this piece.

The first movement is a study in dissonance and very close harmony that opens with a slow pulse that Schwarz allows time to flow into the silence with amazing power. As the movement builds in temporal intensity, the intervallic proportions begin to alter slightly and are almost pulled apart by the increased tempo. The movement essentially segues into an arch-like central slow movement with a faster central section. Here longer string lines ebb and flow in an angular idea that along the way is harmonized with extended chordal structures. Once again the music tries very hard to push its way faster into the center but is reigned in to its breaking point. Schwarz manages to create shape to Schuman’s seemingly disjointed lines here and the engineers have managed to capture the different instrumental groupings so that they can be easily heard in the overall texture. The third and final movement moves at a “Presto” tempo but aurally the effect of static motion still occurs. Skittish strings and brass alternate along with some truly fascinating pitched percussion work always referring back to those clashes of slow dissonance from the opening movement. Dissonance seemed to take over the first movement, but here tempo rules insistently driving to the close with the orchestra seeming to want to veer out of control. The winds get a chance to show off here for the first time winding their way around a small pitch level in fits and starts that gradually builds throughout the orchestra in a textural crescendo.

There is but one other recording of this symphony made by Leonard Bernstein back closer to the works premiere. The recording is available with Schuman’s 3 rd and 5 th symphonies and is worthwhile listening, but Schwarz’s new recording will be the one to beat if ever one decides to record this work again. Both performances are quite similar in their timings with Schwarz getting the better of a warmer acoustic and improved digital sound. Though playing to 32 minutes, the symphony is easily one of the composer’s finest pieces.

Bridging the gap between later-century symphonic writing and the post-Americana movement of the 1930s and 1940s is Night Journey. Written for Martha Graham in 1947, the first of four ballets he would compose for her company, Night Journey is perhaps the most familiar and played. The story takes the point of view of Jocasta, the lover and mother of Oedipus. It is both a seminal piece of American Ballet and a defining piece of music in Schuman’s career that allows us to see the fruition of his style in this miniature orchestral form. There are intriguing melodic ideas that spin out endlessly with an almost melancholic turn in the music. The scoring is quite intimate and introspective. Most fascinating for fans of other ballets commissioned by Graham is the overall shape the music takes. Consider comparing this to the more familiar Americana stories scored by Copland and there is a general dramatic structure that begins to emerge. Again, one is always amazed at the way Schuman can manipulate his orchestral textures so effortlessly.

There have been a few recordings of this work that come and go in the catalogue. The most recent was a Koch release from 1991 that featured additional ballets by Menotti and Hindemith also written for Graham. That version of Night Journey ran to nearly 30 minutes under the direction of Andrew Schenk. Both appear to have chosen a 15-instrument version of the score which Schuman prepared in 1981 for smaller ensembles which removes extra repeats and bridges necessary for stage production.

Finally, the disc closes with perhaps one of Schuman’s most popular arrangements from 1964, Ives’ “Variations on ‘ America’.” The piece was premiered at a New York Philharmonic Concert conducted by Andre Kostelanetz and had rarely flagged in popularity. It makes for a delightful and ear-relaxing encore to a quite satisfying performance. (This performance originally appeared on a Delos release of Schuman’s music with these same forces.)

No fan of American music will want to be without this quintessential series of music by one of our great composers of the 20 th century.

-- Steven A. Kennedy, 15 March 2010

 

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address: stev4uth@hotmail.com

 


 

Rozsa, M.: Violin Concerto, Op. 24 / Korngold, E.W.: Violin Concerto, Op. 35 (Trusler, Dusseldorf Symphony, Shinozaki)

Violin Concertos by
Miklos Rozsa and Erich Wolfgang Korngold

 

Violin concertos composed by Miklos Rozsa and Erich Wolfgang Korngold,
Additional music by Manuel Ponce, Arthur Benjamin, and Stephen Foster.

9 Tracks (Playing Time = 68:04)

Album produced by Jeremy Hayes.
Featuring Matthew Trusler, violin. Performed by the Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yasuo Shinozaki.
Ponce and Foster pieces arranged by Jascha Heifetz.
Benjamin piece arranged by William Primrose.
Recorded at Dusseldorf Tonhalle, June 2008.
Recording engineered, mastered, and edited by Patrick Allen. CD Design by Ken Koch.

Orchid Music 100005

Rating: ****

 

The great Jascha Heifetz inspired many composers and a future of hopeful virtuosi. His name and legacy perhaps are a far distant memory with those in a younger generation more focused on the like of Joshua Bell or Gil Shaham. Matthew Trusler is the soloist on this new release from his own label and playing a 1711 Stradivarius. The disc features music identified with Heifetz (who premiered the Korngold after its dedicatee declined) including three little encores to round off a full album. Both the main works on this release come from the pens of two of Hollywood’s giant Golden Age composers. With a talent such as Heifezt’s definitive RCA recordings on the books, it has taken a while for the pieces to gain a new generation of performers. The steep climb to awareness this recording has (new label www.orchidmusic.com, unknown artists) should not deter anyone from what is a truly amazing release featuring great performances and an awesome recorded sound.

The Rozsa Violin Concerto is familiar to fans of the film THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970) where its material played a key part in the score. Robert MacDuffie with the Atlanta Symphony is a good contemporary yardstick with a Naxos release allowing for a cheaper, though no less finer introduction to the work. Rozsa’s piece is melodically engaging and comes out of a strong Hungarian music tradition that melds the folkish romanticism of Kodaly with Bartok’s more angular writing. It is a harmonically fascinating work which holds its own against the virtuosic displays of its soloist. Trusler’s performance enfolds a bit more lyrically than MacDuffie’s which adds about a minute more to its total playing time. His playing is as committed as one could hope for and the Dusseldorf Symphony is captured in perfect clear sound in committed and near perfect performance support. The performance of this 1956 work is commanding and Shinozaki proves to be a formidable and nuanced conductor. The Rozsa concerto deserves its place among other mid-century post-romantic violin pieces. In Trusler’s committed performance we get to hear how great a piece this really is—strong enough to stand next to more performed Shostakovich and Prokofiev concerti from the period.

Trusler has a lot more competition in the Korngold concerto which seems as if it cannot receive a bad recording and continues to be featured in unique couplings often with standard repertoire. Korngold’s concerto, unlike Rozsa’s, is constructed from thematic ideas from several of his film scores from the 1930s (ANOTHER DAWN, JUAREZ, ANTHONY ADVERSE, and THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER). His rich orchestral style is part of his Post-Romantic Austrian roots, the like of which are paralleled in the music of Richard Strauss. The word is still out on just how one approaches this concerto. Previn, the conductor in both the Mutter and Shaham recordings preferred much faster tempi. John Mauceri’s approach on the Entartete Musik series for Decca, featuring Chantal Juillet, is a closer companion to Trusler’s interpretation as can be seen by a quick comparison of the playing times of the four performances below:

 


Movement


Trusler

Chantal Juillet
London 452 481

Anne-Sophie Mutter
DG 0003526

Gil Shaham
DG 439 886

  • Allegro

10:14

10:05

8:40

9:03

  • Andante

8:56

8:54

7:58

8:41

  • Presto

7:47

7:23

7:05

7:22

 

After the Rozsa, one gets literally dropped into the gorgeous soundworld of Korngold. The magical flourishes and gorgeous orchestration just grabs a hold of the ear and draws the listener in as the soloists has an almost improvisational obbligato idea that occasionally floats above the orchestral sections or takes on parts of the melody. Trusler’s high register playing is simply flawless here with remarkable tone control. The little emotional slides to pitches, a hallmark of the style, are dexterously performed without overemphasizing them. The music’s impassioned first movement structurally feels like a big improvisational arabesque that continues the dissolution of form we can hear in Strauss. The recording here is helped by a remarkable clarity that places the soloist in a comfortable audio placement against the orchestra allowing it to blend into that texture when needed or soar above it as well. Once again, the orchestra provides perfect accompaniment with great acoustic detail in the recording making this one of the better recorded Korngold concerto releases.

To round off the already impressive album, Trusler has chosen three miniatures. Two of these are Heifetz’s own arrangements of popular pieces: Ponce’s Estrellita and Foster’s Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair. These are sandwiched around the pops-like Jamaican Rumba by Arthur Benjamin as arranged by William Primrose.

If you missed the Telarc label’s Rozsa disc, or even if you think you have your favorite Korngold concerto recording, the present release will be a welcome addition to fans of these two great Hollywood composers. This is beautiful music making impeccably performed and taken on its own merits. Highly recommended!

 

--Steven A. Kennedy , 29 July 2010

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address:
stev4uth@hotmail.com

 

 

 


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