CD Reviews


American Piano Concertos: Barber, Copland, Gershwin

John Knowles Paine: Symphony No. 1;
As You Like It Overture; Shakespeare’s Tempest

Violin Concertos by Miklos Rozsa and
Erich Wolfgang Korngold



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Product Details

American Piano Concertos:
Barber, Copland, Gershwin


Xiayin Wang, piano.
Royal Scottish National Orchestra,
Peter Oundjian

Chandos 5128

Total Time:  75:44

Recording:   ****
Performance: ****

Lovers of American classical music know that recordings of pre-1950s American music are still rare, though some works are certainly gaining a foothold in the general repertoire.  A host of great young violinists has meant that we now have a host of fine Barber Violin Concerto recordings, for example.  The present release brings together lesser know works by three of America’s most well-known composers. 

Arguably, the most familiar work on the disc is Gershwin’s 1925 Piano Concerto in F.  It is the oldest work on the album, with Copland’s rarely heard concerto from 1926 serving as the centerpiece after the more substantial Barber concerto that opens the disc.  The latter two have less competition for Wang, whereas the Gershwin finds her in a crowded field, but the inclusion of the work on this disc helps raise awareness for the other two pieces for listeners new to the other works.

Samuel Barber’s tendencies for Neo-Romanticism did not lend themselves well to academia which preferred more complex music.  His work, along with a host of similar mid-century American composers would tend to be criticized for having one foot in the past far too often.  As classical audiences began to dwindle however, there was a renewed interest in modern works that were more accessible and work’s like Barber’s have become more respected with time.  His earlier Violin Concerto (1939) is perhaps the most popular of his works in this form with the Cello Concerto (1945) a distant second and the Piano Concerto, Op. 38 from 1962 a closer third.  Over the last few years, however, there have been several fine recordings of the work such that now the choices are more about additional repertoire on the CD than the performances necessarily themselves.

The Piano Concerto was written for John Browning who premiered the work with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony upon the opening of Lincoln Center’s new Philharmonic Hall.  The work managed to win the Pulitzer Prize for music the following year and would receive a number of international performances.  The concerto certainly has its moments of romanticism heard early in the orchestral response to the more modern piano solo style.  The piano itself takes some of its inflection from Prokofiev and Bartok and yet there are less angular lines here than in the work of those composers.  Barber’s themes always have pitch arrival points that are still quite like vocalises and the symphonic explosions are very dramatic in an almost filmic sort of way.  The central slow movement is another of those gorgeously romantic moments in 20th Century music reminiscent of Shostakovich’s second concerto.

Browning recorded the work a couple of times, once closer to its premiere with George Szell.  He revisited the work again in 1991 on an RCA release with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra all at the top of their game. 

Wang’s overall performance is a bit quicker shaving off about a minute and half overall in the total performance.  Her opening bars are simply quite wonderful demonstrating her technical virtuosity and the slow movement is equally breathtakingly shaped.  It is in this central movement where many listeners will find much to revel in after the more modern romanticism of the opening.  The final movement returns us to more modern territory but now with a jazzier sense of harmony and rhythm that is hinted at in the opening intense ostinato in the piano and picked up by the orchestra.  The ending is an exhilarating conclusion.

Aaron Copland’s musical legacy casts a long shadow over the 20th Century.  His historical importance tends to rest on his Americana works of the 1930s and 1940s where he was really part of a host of composers from Virgil Thomson to Roy Harris essentially “discovering” the idea of open intervals to depict the wide open expanses of America.  Copland returned from Paris though as a bona fide modernist and enfants terrible.  He quickly adapted jazz ideas into his works in the 1920s to further capitalize on the trend in contemporary art circles enamored with this new “American” style and thus rejecting the more romantic European models.  After mild success with his Music for Theater (1925), Copland wrote his only Piano Concerto the following year and performed it with Serge Koussevitzky in Boston in January 1927.  Though compared to Gershwin’s work which had appeared the year before, Copland could (somewhat honestly perhaps) assert his more Francophile training and interest in jazz through the styles of Les Six and perhaps more specifically Darius Milhaud.  Perhaps the negative reception of the work was a deciding factor in Copland’s abandoning modernism soon afterwards.  The premiere received scathing reviews and the work was hissed by musicians when it was played at the Hollywood Bowl in 1928.  It quickly disappeared and went unperformed until 1946 when Leonard Bernstein, one of Copland’s biggest advocates, would convince Leo Smit to perform it.  (Bernstein may have had more personal reasons to support his own musical career as a classical jazz symphonist with a tradition connecting to Copland at the root of this decision.)

The opening bars of the concerto are certainly signature Copland stamps with open harmonic movement and lyrical lines that have a bluesy quality.  The work tends to feel somewhat episodic with sections delineated with piano material and warm orchestral interjections contrasted with bolder brass statements.  The ideas tend to spin out from their initial statements in the opening movement towards a the climactic final bars that grow gradually more intense harmonically with stark dissonant hits that begin to set up the jazzier rhythms of the second movement.  The piano opens the second movement with a series of jagged jazz styles that seem to come from Tin Pan Alley and feel quite out of place.  Certainly they would be heard as unconnected ideas with the shock of jazz orchestral writing and syncopations not helping matters for 1920s ears.  Though the work may feel a bit tame today, heard against the backdrop of other concertos by Rachmaninov one can see why audiences of the time hated the piece.  The episodic quality of the second movement will strike modern listeners as being the germ of Bernstein’s orchestral jazz and the kinship is certainly easier to hear with the passage of time. 

The performances here are really superb.  Wang gets at the modernism of the first movement quite well and pulls together the jazzier inflections of the second movement in such a way that her attacks manage to differ as much as the polar modernist opposites of the musical style.  Today, the work feels like a grand Hollywood film score with piano.  The orchestra responds equally well to these stylistic shifts with exquisite solo line captured excellently in Chandos’ sound.  The performance manages to come fairly close to matching the classic 1964 Columbia recording with Bernstein and Copland.
When it comes to Gershwin’s Piano Concerto there are a host of great performances from Earl Wild’s classic with the Boston Pops (RCA) to Jeffrey Siegel’s lesser known, but fine performance with Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony (Vox) and even Garrick Ohlsson’s with Tilson-Thomas (RCA).  Each of these performances brings a unique approach and historical connection to the work recorded at various times in history when there was a need to establish Gershwin as an important American classical composer, show off jazz styles, or return to “original” manuscript approaches of the score.  Wang is performing from an edition edited by Frank Campbell-Watson of which very little is said. 

Gershwin’s work itself was another of the “experiments” in connecting jazz to classical forms being supported by Paul Whiteman and came after the success of Rhapsody in Blue (1924).  The concerto was commissioned by Walter Damrosch for the New York Philharmonic who gave the highly-anticipated performance December 3, 1925.  Gershwin was undoubtedly still concerned about such a great artistic opportunity for recognition and even hired an orchestra to play through the work to see how it sounded.  The initial response was mixed as most contemporaries did not know what to make of the more stream of conscious formal approaches.

The Gershwin turns out then to be the icing on a very rich cake of fabulous music making.  Wang’s affinity for Gershwin has been proven already in a previous Chandos release.  Here she manages to shape each phrase exquisitely bringing a mix of romanticism and jazzy inflection that works quite well throughout her performance.
Chandos captures these performances in superb sound.  The other quite nice aspect of the recording is that there is a proper amount of silence between works so that one’s ears can “adjust” before we launch into the next musical style.  By organizing the performances from the most recent work to oldest one can hear each piece in a fresher way.  This is seriously one of the finest collections of performances of these three concerti though that we may see.  Most will not want to be without the others mentioned above, but here in one wonderful recording you can hear them all played in performances that manage to capture each work’s style perfectly.  These are not three American concertos played by Europeans adding “American” touches, but three performances that get at each composer’s style with an understanding of the ethos that surrounded them at the time.  Here’s to the next release by Xiayin Wang who delivers here a series of performances that are among the best you can get and on a release that is a must have for any American music fan.

--Steven A. Kennedy

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address:




Paine: Symphony No. 1;
As You Like It Overture; Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Ulster Orch./JoAnn Falletta

Naxos 8.559747

Total Time:  70:38

Recording:   ****
Performance: ****


In a recent NPR interview, JoAnn Falletta mentioned that she had recently finished recording some music by American composer John Knowles Paine.  Such a passing announcement diminished what is undoubtedly an event in American music.  For those American music fans who continue to hope that our 19th-Century symphonic history will get its due, this present release has certainly been a long time coming.  When Naxos first announced an “American Classics” series for their label it seemed as if the New England School of composers would be the logical place to start, but instead the label tantalized and teased with a mix of premieres by composers whose work had never appeared on disc coupled with more commercial ventures of familiar names like MacDowell.  The surprise is that the recording was made overseas and not with the conductor’s home orchestra in Buffalo.

The late 19th Century featured a group of American composers, sometimes called the “Boston Six” that included more than competent creative talent that set about to create some of the first serious concert music.  Of these, George Chadwick, Amy Beach, and Edward MacDowell have managed to eke out some minor places in orchestral repertoire over the past century.  The work of John Knowles Paine (1839-1906) and Horatio Parker still tends to languish.  Paine was the oldest of this bunch of new composers but each, except for Beach, would shape the American musical landscape at the East Coast music schools and conservatories that appeared as the century came to a close. 

In order to better understand why this music tends to be ignored, it is important to understand the odd historical aspects of music in this period.  The first of these is that in the latter 19th Century, anyone who wanted to be a great composer headed to Germany, usually Leipzig, to learn their craft.  (We see parallels in other countries as well where similar Germanic claims about resulting pieces can seem dismissive.  Grieg and Delius for example both followed similar educational paths.)  The other is that in the early 20th Century, there was a shift for young composers to head to Paris and the result was a sort of reaction against Germanic-sounding music (fueled by political developments that would lead to WWI).  Paine would gain the attention of Clara Schumann who asked him to play some of his works for her.  He would return in 1861 to begin teaching organ at Harvard University.  The following decade he developed the first music curriculum in the United States advocating that all music students should be well grounded in music history and theory.  He would create a number of chamber works, an opera, and several orchestral works, seven in all of which three appear here (and one can hope the rest will soon come!).

The opening two works on the disc are great examples of the burgeoning cult of Shakespeare that blossomed throughout the 19th Century and was particularly part of American culture.  It was not uncommon for traveling actors to do whole shows consisting only of monologues and many plays were staged such that they would be more well known to audiences than one might otherwise think, at least to the “cultured” society that attended orchestral concerts.  The first of these is the delightful overture As You Like It inspired by Shakespeare’s play.  It was intended as a stand alone overture and premiered by Theodore Thomas at Harvard.  (Thomas would go on to found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra).  This is in essence a fine 19th-Century diversionary overture with good lyrical lines and a sonata-allegro second section.  The themes are all quite interesting but not necessarily terribly memorable.  The work though demonstrates that Paine had learned his craft well.  Thomas would also conduct the premiere of the second Shakespeare-influenced work, Shakespeare’s Tempest, in New York in 1877 with Paine himself conducting a revised edition with the Boston Symphony in 1883.  Here we see the composer adopting the symphonic poem approach of a large scale work with six dramatic sections connected to characters in the drama.  The roots of this appear in music of Liszt and Saint-Saens (Phaedra, Danse Macabre).  There is again some great orchestral writing with nice solo ideas to create interesting dramatic flair and humor.  The melodies are certainly engaging and the work is a nice surprise. 

Most of the time, those ignorant of musical history will be dismissive of Paine’s first symphony as being Brahms-like.  One could be in worse company and what else would any knowledgeable person expect from a German-trained composer writing in the same decades?!  The reality is that Paine’s first symphony was composed between the years 1872-75.  This was a very fruitful musical period that saw Brahms working on his first symphony as well, both men finding Beethoven as their inspirational launching point.  Both would even cast their work in the same key as Beethoven’s fifth symphony, c-minor.  For context it is worth noting that this is the same period of Bruckner’s fourth symphony, Dvorak’s third-fifth symphonies, and Tchaikovsky’s third with Wagner’s Ring cycle receiving its first performances.  None of which would have been heard by Paine.

Paine tended to more closely follow the Beethoven’s motivic devices, sometimes far too much, which perhaps keeps it from rising above to assert its own voice as it  tends to imitate them frequently.  The thematic ideas are quite engaging and the orchestration is equally accomplished.  As a piece written for an 1870s American audience equally enamored with Beethoven it was certainly an entertaining work.  The four movements are well-balanced with an opening “Allegro con brio” and concluding “Allegro vivace” both cast in sonata form.  The ending of the symphony is especially powerful.  The interior movements include a brisk second-movement scherzo and truly gorgeous “Adagio”.  The latter is perhaps worth the price of admission to this symphony and Falletta makes sure it does not languish or wallow but allows the beauty to unfold gracefully.  In the midst of this movement, Paine’s mood tends to shift to subtle darker colors.  It always feels as if this is a troubled historical moment that rejoices in current beauty while still recalling recent horrors of Civil strife.  But any program one adds to this work is purely coincidental as this is an absolute essay in its purest form. 

Though it is not noted on the release, the Tempest recording appears to be a premiere, at least on CD.  Any of these works alone would warrant this being a must-have CD though.  The other two were paired on a 1992 New World release performed by the New York Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta conducting.  It would seem as if that performance took some cuts as its overall playing time is around 37 minutes while Falletta’s runs to 40.  Here tempos are really spot on.  The first movement is a breezy allegro that works quite well and the scherzo movement has the sort of playful drive that one can find parallels in in the Dvorak symphonies of this period.  Both slow movement performances are fairly similar.  Falletta appears to have restored cuts in the final movement as well.  Regardless, her performances here are simply wonderful allowing the music to embrace the style and thrust of 1870s symphonic music with embarrassment and the result is a truly gorgeous set of performances cast in amazing sound.

It would be relatively easy it would seem to program any of these works on modern concerts.  The Tempest work features some great solo ideas that would engage performers and audience alike and the overall musical style is quite accessible.  Of course, even Liszt’s tone poems are rarely heard in concert these days.  As to the symphony, there is no excuse why this is not part of the standard American orchestral repertoire, though the second is an even better essay.  It is a work that certainly anyone could point to as a significant essay in the genre for the period.  Here’s to the next installment hopefully that will bring the second symphony and a few more Paine orchestral gems as well. 

--Steven A. Kennedy

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address:



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, 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:




Chantal Juillet
London 452 481

Anne-Sophie Mutter
DG 0003526

Gil Shaham
DG 439 886

  • Allegro





  • Andante





  • Presto






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

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address:




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