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Classical Music - Part 15 - June, 2000

Made in America: A Three-Part Survey of Recent Recordings of Music by American Composers

Part I


Jason Serinus

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Ratings:
Extraordinary
Good
Acceptable
Mediocre
Poor

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Sometime in 1999, the august Gramophone publication featured a survey of the American symphony. With rare exceptions, it was one of the most disparaging, dismissive, attitude-filled critiques I have ever read. Is the history of the American symphony really filled with so many derivative, second-rate compositions? Or is this particular Gramophone critic still smarting over the loss of the American colonies? Although I am neither equipped nor motivated to write a counter symphonic survey, I shall attempt herein to give an honest assessment of the sizable number of recently released American music recordings that have come my way.

At last count, there are over thirty discs in my review stack. Well above and beyond the call of duty, I must say. Some of these I have auditioned on a portable CD player as I’ve walked around Oakland’s Lake Merritt, or on my car system as I’ve driven across the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The ones I’ve loved, as well as many of the others, I have heard on various incarnations of my high-end system, the sound constantly changing as I’ve reviewed various preamps and amps. My home system, in fact, has just now returned to reference quality as I’m writing this survey. For all these reasons, you will discover that many of my ratings do not include sound quality. I hope to compensate for this loss with the length and breadth of this offering.

We begin with three versions of

DVORAK SYMPHONY NO. 9, OP. 95 “FROM THE NEW WORLD"

1.         Berlin Philharmonic • Claudio Abbado with “OTHELLO” CONCERT OVERTURE OP. 93 Deutsche Grammophon 289 457 651-2Performance: , Sound:

2. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra • Nikolaus Harnoncourt with THE WATER     GOBLIN, OP. 107 Teldec 3984-25254-2, Performance: , Sound:

3. (1929 mono) Berlin State Opera Orchestra (on No. 9) • Erich Kleiber with CARNIVAL OVERTURE, OP. 92; SCHERZO CAPRICCIOSO, OP. 66; SLAVONIC DANCE NO. 1, OP. 46; SMETANA THE MOLDAU Naxos Historical 8.110907, Performance: , Sound: (As naturally redeemed as possible)

Go figure. What many contemporary critics considered the first great American symphony was in fact penned by a Czech composer who was invited to the States in hopes that he would give American music exactly the lift it needed.

Offering memorable melodies, a serenely beautiful second movement, and a fresh, drama-filled “new world” optimism, Antonin Dvorak’s (1841-1904) much loved Ninth Symphony reflects his fascination with and appreciation for the “Negro and Indian” folk songs of the United States. Interspersing distinctively American tunes and rhythms with others somewhat reminiscent of Dvorak’s countryside, this great work’s pre-Coplandish recollections of the prairie, open spaces, and Manifest Destiny continually summon up images of the America of yore.

The symphony was completed in 1893, less than a year after the Czech composer had been brought to New York City to direct a music conservatory. Dvorak’s skill with integrating nationalistic themes and melodies into his works was responsible for his hiring, creating expectations that he would help create a distinctively American school of composition. That he answered the call, and successfully created a model “American” work in such a short span of time, was reflected in acclamations by contemporary critics that he had written “the first great American symphony.”

The biographer of Victor Herbert, Edward Waters, notes that both Dvorak and Herbert had been commissioned by producer Steele McKaye to supply the orchestral portion of a Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 spectacle, planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World. Although the project collapsed due to lack of funds, Waters believes that the materials Dvorak collected found their way into his New World Symphony. Herbert, on the other hand, greatly transformed these themes into what finally became his programmatic Columbus Suite.

The Ninth here receives three distinctly different treatments. Claudio Abbado’s proceeds from a dramatic beginning to an energetic and engaging first theme. The playing is lovingly lyrical, the pace ideal, the ending superb. The serene second movement Largo begins most touchingly. As it progresses, the contrasting string sounds are especially beautiful, the bass ostinato wonderfully articulated, the ending elegiac and heartwarming. In Abbado’s hands, this Largo glows with the feeling of sunrise, sunset, and open prairie. The third movement Scherzo’s themes are thrilling, with the already-familiar melodies of the first two movements interwoven toward the end. The final Allegro con fuoco receives a treatment true to its name; its opening notes, voiced with a rousing thrust, introduces over 11 minutes of deliciously dramatic melody. The dramatic grandeur of Abbado’s thrilling finale crowns this performance.

Harnoncourt’s first movement, 31 seconds faster than Abbado’s, begins very gently, proceeding into the first dramatic theme with wonderfully bold percussion and blasting horns. Alas, what follows feels more rushed than propelled, its last 45 seconds lacking the drama and thrust that make Abbado’s interpretation so winning. The second movement Largo lacks Abbado’s deep, elegiac feeling; I found my mind wandering until brought back by the lovely, sweet ending. Despite the third movement Scherzo’s convincing louder passages, distinguished by great percussion, the basses lack impact; Harnoncourt again feels far less than compelling than Abbado. And though the final movement’s dramatic ending is quite good, Harnoncourt’s tendency to replace drama with speed again detracts from pleasure. Abbado offers a far more exciting finish.

The two recordings offer quite different sonics. DG’s boasts far more color and dynamic contrast, with a compellingly wider soundstage. Although Teldec scores points with the slam of its wonderfully impactful percussion, DG trumps them by capturing the all-important rich cello and double bass foundation of the work. Teldec’s recording, nonetheless, sounds much better than most early digital recordings. I briefly compared Harnoncourt’s The Water Goblin with Neeme Jarvi’s 1987 Chandos recording of the work, and found the earlier sonics plagued with the one-dimensional digital brightness that has sent so many audiophiles scurrying back to their LP collections.

Once past the ever present, excellently “de-clicked” swish of the ’78 grooves, the amazing energy of Kleiber’s much-praised 1929 Ninth wins one over. Kleiber plays the first movement 2:34 faster than Abbado, yet never seems rushed as he masterfully alternates between whipping his orchestra into a veritable white heat and slowing the tempo for the quieter passages. I was bowled over, tempted to shout “Ride ‘em cowboy!” as the movement reached its ending. Sadly, due to the sonics, the cor anglais solo of the second movement, and the quieter playing in general, makes less of an impact. Regardless, Kleiber’s direct, “tell it like it is” approach and amazing flexibility of tempo thrill like none of the above. Neither playing nor interpretation is perfect, but there is undeniable greatness here. 

Naxos, the $6.99 (in the U.S.) bargain label that seems dedicated to recording every piece of classical music ever written, has already issued a sizable number of recordings in its American Classics series. This is quite a quality series. The piano music of Zez Confrey (reviewed below) received a 1999 Grammy® nomination for performance, while series producers Marina and Victor Ledin were nominated for a 1999 Grammy® for Classical Producers of the year for their work on Barber: Complete Piano Music, the Confrey, and three other non-American Classics titles. Finally, John Cage: Piano music was nominated for an AFIM Indie® award.

In roughly the order of the composer’s birth, I shall discuss a good eight of these recordings. When other labels have recently released competing recordings by the same composer, those shall receive mention within this Naxos survey..

Let us begin with the rare music of three pioneering African-American “Creole Romantic” composers, as featured on two Naxos CDs: EDMOND DEDE (1827-1901) Naxos 8.559038, CHARLES LUCIEN LAMBERT SR. (c. 1828-1896),  and LUCIEN-LEON GUILLAUME LAMBERT JR. (1858-1945) Naxos 8.559037. These recordings feature the Hot Springs Music Festival, conducted by Richard Rosenberg. To Rosenberg must go thanks for resurrecting this music from the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

Charles Lambert Sr. was the first music teacher of both Dede and Lucien Lambert Jr. As one might expect, none of these men found himself able to compose freely in New Orleans. All emigrated, with Dede and Lambert Jr. eventually studying in Paris, a city that has traditionally welcomed “colored” American artists with open arms (e.g., Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, and the contemporary Barbara Hendricks). Dede studied with Halevy and Alard, while Lucien Lambert Jr. worked with Dubois and Massenet. Lucien also became good friends with Louis Moreau Gottschalk, with whom he enjoyed an amicable pianist/composer rivalry.

The music? Dede’s 1852 melodie “Mon pauvre coeur,” here sung by soloists and chorus, is the first surviving sheet music from a New Orleans Creole of color. Immediately upon hearing Dede’s instrumental music , I was reminded of the pseudo-Johann Strauss music that used to play on the mechanized instruments at the merry-go-round I loved as a child. Dede even writes a song, “Tond les chiens, coup’ les chats,” whose meowing is reminiscent of a cat song by Mozart. The music of the Lamberts had me constantly asking, “Is that Chopin? Is that ______?” It’s all delightful stuff, good spirited, and even witty. Some will certainly find this music charming and delightful, but I found it both hilariously derivative and terminally boring.

VICTOR HERBERT (1859-1924) COLUMBUS SUITE • IRISH RHAPSODY • AUDITORIUM FESTIVAL MARCH Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra Keith Brion    Naxos 8.5509027

This disc features music by the Dublin-born musician who, after emigrating to New York at the age of 27, became one of the leading composers of American operetta. In addition to his Broadway career as composer of Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta, The Red Mill, and maybe 45 other musicals, Herbert was a major orchestral conductor, presenter of pops concerts, successful bandmaster, and star cellist.

Featured herein are the three “serious” classical compositions mentioned in the title, plus orchestral selections from Herbert’s opera, Natoma. Supposedly based on American Indian themes, which Herbert transformed into characteristically tuneful melodies, Natoma was first staged at the Metropolitan Opera in 1911.

Except for his two operas, most of Herbert’s classical works were written earlier in his career. The reasons become apparent upon listening. As opposed to film composers such as Korngold and Rosza, whose classical compositions transport the listener to a very different territory than Hollywood, Herbert’s classical compositions sound remarkably similar to everything else he wrote. I listened to his 27:40, four-movement Columbus Suite more than once, trying to find some subtleties and transitions that might have alluded me. I found none. If one drops any expectation that this former principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera and conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony developed into an Irish-American Richard Strauss, and instead accepts that operetta was his forte, there is a fair amount of enjoyment to be had from these works.

ZEZ CONFREY (1895-1971) PIANO MUSIC Eteri Andjaparidze, Piano Naxos 8.559016

Zez who, you may ask. Why, the “People’s Paderewski” of course, the playing of whose delightful, decidedly American music from an earlier era received a 1999 Grammy® nomination as Best Solo Instrumental Album (without orchestra). (Ashkenazy playing Shostakovich won instead).

Edward Elzear “Zez” Confrey was born in Peru, Illinois. A pianist from age four, he eventually studied classical music at the Chicago Musical College and formed an orchestra with his elder brother Jim. Their orchestra recorded many “dance music” hits before Zez joined the Navy, playing piano in shows with a violinist named Jack Benny (!) Between 1918 and 1927, Confrey recorded 171 piano rolls plus a large number of discs. In 1923, he authored a classic text on novelty piano playing. And in 1924, he was engaged by Paul Whiteman to play in the historic New York Concert, “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Confrey, who received top billing, began the concert with a popular medley followed by his own Kitten. Then came a foxtrot adaptation of a Ferde Grofe song, three songs by Irving Berlin, Victor Herbert’s first work for jazz orchestra, and a piece entitled Rhapsody in Blue by some fellow named Gershwin.

As George Gershwin’s star ascended, Confrey’s began to fade. Zez continued composing for jazz bands, and wrote his last pieces in 1959. Parkinson’s disease marked the last stage of his life.

This disc begins with Kitten on the Keys (1921), an all of 2:27 ditty (the liner notes call it a “masterpiece”) that made Zez an instantaneous celebrity. Ah, Scott Joplin on speed, I thought. But then I listened some more, and found myself enjoying the catchy melodies and infectious rhythms of Zez’s inventive little gems. (Many of Confrey’s compositions sound exactly like the piano music frequently heard accompanying silent film episodes.)

With titles such as African Suite, Amazonia, Wise Cracker Suite, Moods of a New Yorker, and Stumbling (which drew praise from Aaron Copland for its jazz age rhythms), this Caucasian American composed countless likeable pieces that variously tease, tango, rumba, and ruminate all over the keyboard. Three Little Oddities (1923) are sweet and wistful, while the 1959 Fourth Dimension reminds me of little blips on a Star Trek screen.

Soviet Georgia-born Eteri Andjaparidze, who teaches part time in New York State, is an amazing pianist with either two extra fingers or wings attached to her digits. I don’t know how she is with Chopin, but she plays this music as if she had mainlined it from birth. Light, enjoyable fare, and a definite pianistic showcase.

VIRGIL THOMSON (1896-1989) SYMPHONY ON A HYMN TUNE • SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN C MAJOR • SYMPHONY NO. 3 • PILGRIMS AND PIONEERS New Zealand Symphony Orchestra • James Sedares Naxos 8.559022

Kansas City-born Thomson studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, taught at Harvard, spent many years in Paris (where he befriended Gertrude Stein), and eventually became music critic of the New York Herald-Tribune. Best known for his recently revived opera, Four Saints in Three Acts (to a libretto by Stein), Thomson composed over 150 works. Of his body of work, Leonard Bernstein wrote in a memorial tribute, “We all loved his music and rarely performed it. Most of us preferred his unpredictable, provocative prose. But he will always remain brightly alive in the history of music, if only for the extraordinary influence his witty and simplistic music had on his colleagues, especially on Aaron Copland, and through them on most of American music in our century.”

Listening to this music, one can understand what Bernstein was talking about. There is an all-American feeling here, very patriotic, very simple, but for the most part lacking the distinction that makes Copland’s work so memorable. Most interesting to these ears were the sections that employed dissonance, as in Pilgrims and Pioneers. Perhaps Thomson never took to heart Dorothy’s words, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

A review of several recent recordings of Copland’s varied output will appear in Part Two or Three of this American Music Review series.

HOWARD HANSON (1896-1981) PIANO MUSIC Thomas Labe, piano  Naxos 8.559047

The son of Swedish immigrants, Howard Hanson was born and raised in Wahoo, Nebraska. Known primarily for his accessible orchestral and choral works, which frequently evidence Nordic and Sibelian influence, Hanson was the first American to win the Prix de Rome. He was 25 at the time; most of his piano compositions were written before then. After that, the influence of his teacher, composer Ottorino Respighi, drew him away from the piano to compose for the far more coloristic palette of the orchestra. 

Hanson’s piano music is quite romantic, and makes for most pleasant, tuneful listening. Although not terribly unique, it for the most part eschews the extreme throws of emotion that distinguish the works of Chopin and other romantics. Over half the pieces on this disc, some of which were reconstructed from manuscripts by pianist Labe, have been recorded for the first time. Fans of either Hanson’s well-known Second Symphony, which some consider one of the great American symphonic works, or romantic piano music in general, will certainly want to have this well-played collection.

GEORGE ANTHEIL (1900-1959) SYMPHONY NO. 4 o SYMPHONY NO. 6 National Symphony of Ukraine o Theodore Kuchar Naxos 8.559033 Performance: ,  Sonics:

GEORGE ANTHEIL SYMPHONY NO. 1 "ZINGARESKA" (1923) o SYMPHONY NO. 6 "AFTER DELACROIX(1947-1948) o ARCHIPELAGO RHUMBA (1935) Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt * Hugh Wolff cpo 999-604-2 Performance: , Sonics:

Antheil was born in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of a husband-wife shoe store team. He received his first piano and violin lessons at the age of six, and went on to study composition with Ernest Bloch.

The early years of George Antheil’s compositional life, when his Symphony No. 1 was composed, were the most exciting musically and socially. A 1923 piano recital of his works caused an audience riot at the Champs Elysee Theatre, and drew him close to Stravinsky, Satie, Piccaso, Joyce, Ray, Milhaud, Les Six, Ezra Pound, and many other notables. Antheil went on to produce his greatest work, Ballet Mecanique, which was designed to be shown with a silent film featuring the painting of Ferdinand Leger. When the synchronization of the silent film proved impossible with the eight automated pianos originally called for in the score, the film idea was dropped, and the piece was re-scored for eight grand pianos, four xylophones, two airplane propellers, doorbells, and other percussion. While the revised piece received a successful French debut, a repeat performance in Carnegie Hall, where just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong, was an abysmal failure.Although Antheil’s notoriety was assured, the reaction caused him to retrench to a far more conservative compositional style.

A revival performance of Ballet Mecanique just took place at the June 2000 San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Mavericks Festival. The mechanized technology that Antheil envisioned was finally put into effect via computer synchronization of 16 Yamaha disclaviers. The experience was tremendous, bringing the entire audience to its feet, cheering Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra, and the man responsible for making the performance possible. A future performance synchronizing score and film is also envisioned for another venue. Antheil’s early piano pieces are simultaneously enjoying a mini-renaissance through live performances by the superb 20th century music specialist, pianist Sarah Cahill.

Antheil continued to compose throughout his life. In 1947, the American composers whose music was most performed in the United States were, in descending order, Gershwin, Copland, Barber, and Antheil. However, the man who once drew a pistol during a piano recital to silence a restive audience seems to have transformed from bad boy to good. His music still retained its strong voice and dramatic outbursts, but the form and content were no longer designed to shock.

In addition to composing operas, piano concertos, symphonies, and a host of film scores, Antheil served as a World War II correspondent; collaborated with actress Hedy Lamarr in the invention and patenting of a World War II torpedo technology, wrote a Chicago Sun Syndicate daily advice-to-the-lovelorn column; and published several books. One of his books featured an astonishingly accurate prediction of the outcome of World War II.

Antheil wrote eight symphonies, of which Symphony No. 6 is actually the last. All are quite fascinating and exciting, if at times more derivative than shocking. The Fourth Symphony, written during the period when war correspondent Antheil was trying to develop an "American Style," concerns itself with the horrors of war. Ending with a military victory, it is filled with severe musical imagery. While, to these ears, Shostakovich does it much better, there is undeniable power here. Symphonies 1 and 6 are friendlier and more engaging works. McKonkey’s Ferry, written in 1948, is as American and patriotic in style as Antheil got. Lots of fun, is his 1935 rumba, which later transformed into a movement for one of his symphonies.

The Naxos recording is perfectly fine, but cpo offers better bass and greater instrumental color. As an introduction to Antheil’s important orchestral output, either disc is recommended, with the cpo production getting an extra nod.

PHILIP GLASS (b. 1937) VIOLIN CONCERTO • PRELUDE AND DANCE FROM AKHNATEN • COMPANY Adele Anthony, Violin • Ulster Orchestra • Takuo Yuasa Naxos 8.559056

PHILIP GLASS SYMPHONY NO. 3 • INTERLUDE NO. 1 AND NO. 2 FROM THE CIVIL WARS • MECHANICAL BALLET FROM THE VOYAGE • THE LIGHT Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra • Dennis Russell Davies Nonesuch 79581

Born to Jewish immigrant parents, Philip Glass studied first with fellow minimalist Steve Reich, and then with Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger. Since the mid-1960s, he has written compositions based upon the repetition of a minimal amount of musical material. While Glass has certainly branched out into post-minimalist melody, there is a basic consistency to his work that connects early compositions to the present day.

That’s the polite way of saying it. One of my first reviews for this website, of the McDuffie recording of the 1987 Violin Concerto also performed on the Naxos disc, made clear that I am not the best person to impartially review Glass’ music. I find it, for the most part, repetitious and boring. Occasionally, just the things about Glass’ music that drive me crazy perfectly serve Glass’ aesthetic ends; his score to the powerful movie Koyaanisqatsi, is a case in point. There, Glass wishes to illustrate a technological society gone mad. That his music succeeds in driving me mad most of the time is another story.

I know I am not alone in this. I originally began to audition the Nonesuch disc at the home of a woman who is about to graduate with top honors from the California College of Arts and Crafts. When I told her that since Glass frequently collaborates with artist Robert Anton Wilson, she’d probably find his music interesting, she disagreed, explaining that,, when one of her CCAC instructors had made her class watch an hour video of a Glass/Wilson collaboration, she had interrupted the showing by protesting that being forced to watch the entire video was “abusive.” Having sat through at least two such live collaborations, I cannot disagree.

I must confess that I skipped Glass’ Violin Concerto entirely, having heard it enough times when I reviewed it some months back. (Check the archives, please). Instead, I tried to get through the early ‘80s Company score and Akhnaten opera excerpts. When the batteries in my portable CD player died during two different attempts to audition the pieces - I am not making this up - I decided that God was being kind to me. Besides the fact that what I did listen to impressed me in the same way as most of Glass’ other works, I can simply report that this Naxos disc features Adele Anthony, winner of the 1996 Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition in Denmark.. Even though Glass indicates metronome markings for each of the three movements of his Violin Concerto, Anthony’s second movement is 1:22 shorter than McDuffie’s.

The Nonesuch disc features the world premiere recording of Glass’ 1995 Symphony No. 3, scored for strings. I found it quite depressing. The Voyage ballet comes from Glass’ 1990 commission from the Metropolitan Opera, and concerns the consequences of Columbus’ discovery of the “New World.” The Light dates from 1987, while the opera The Civil Wars is a 1984 collaboration with Robert Wilson. Given that these performances are premieres, Glass fans will want to have this disc.

STEVE REICH New York Counterpoint (1985)/Eight Lines (Octet, 1979/83) /Four Organs (1970)  Nonesuch 79481-2

For reasons unbeknownst to me, neither Steve Reich recording I have on hand lists his birthdate. Probably in his ‘60’s, Reich is one of the founders of the minimalist school, and, to my mind, a far superior composer to Glass. His music has gone through many phases, but retains the originality, interest, and beauty that has marked much of his oeuvre. He is about to conduct his music in the San Francisco Symphony Mavericks Festival.

Of the three pieces on this disc, I found New York Counterpoint most engaging. Reich’s minimalist repetition, here allied to upbeat rhythms and melodies moving with the speed of the city, creates a most energizing experience. It’s that same “New York, New York” optimism that marked the movies of the ‘40s, and it’s quite a delight. Eight Lines is also likeable, if a bit wearing.

The early Four Organs, however, begins by repeating the exact same phrase over and over and over again. Reich says of this piece, “I had the idea that if a group of tones were all pulsing together in a repeating chord…one tone at a time could gradually get longer and longer…. The tones would simply begin in unison, …and then gradually extend out like a sort of horizontal bar graph in time…”

The unchanging chord Reich used was common in ‘70s rock, while the organs Reich employed are the same as those used by the Doors rock group to create their distinctive sound. Over the duration of the piece, almost 16 minutes in this recording, the chord grows from a brief eighth note to a dense sonic mass.

I did not get to the sonic mass. Within 30 seconds, the image and feeling that refused to leave me was of a little child, pulling on his mother’s coat, nagging her over and over, trying to get her to pay attention to him and stop her grocery shopping. (This is an autobiographical image, I might add.) The child would not stop, and neither would that irritating chord. The piece got under my skin in a bad way, and I found myself with no choice but to either turn it off or scream. I realize this may not be the kind of criticism you expect or wish from a reviewer, but it is honest. I could make up any number of culturally elevated sentences about this piece, but the only truth I can share with you is that it drove me nuts. You, however, may love it. Fans of Reich’s work will rejoice in this disc.

BARBER AND MEYER VIOLIN CONCERTOS Hilary Hahn The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Hugh Wolff Sony Classical SK89029; Performance: Barber – , Meyer – , Sonics:

Let us end on a happy note, with two important twentieth century violin concertos, the second written at the close of the last millennium. Both are beautifully played by 19 year-old Hilary Hahn.

American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was 29 when he was commissioned by a wealthy Philadelphia industrialist to write a violin concerto for the man’s adopted son. When the violinist complained that the concerto’s first two movements weren’t flashy enough, and the final movement was unplayable, his industrialist father demanded his money back. Happily, after just a few hours of study, a student at the Curtis Institute where Barber taught was able to successfully perform the final movement for Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti (composer of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and founder of the Spoletto Festival), and two other witnesses. As a result, Barber kept the money for the commission, the industrialist relinquished all rights to the work, and the world ended up with a masterful Violin Concerto.

The concerto begins gently and lyrically, growing increasingly more brooding and dramatic in its second movement andante. The finale is an exciting, “pull out all the stops” virtuoso showpiece. Hilary Hahn plays with unfailing smoothness and beauty of tone, flawlessly zipping through the final Presto in less than 3 1/2 minutes. By contrast, violinist Gil Shaham, on a Deutsche Grammophon recording featuring Andre Previn conducting larger orchestral forces, is far more successful in expressing the dramatic contrasts, darkness, and poignancy of the first two movements. Shaham’s slightly slower Presto also gives the music far more substance. As appealing as Hahn’s playing and Sony’s superior sonics may be, to these ears, Shaham’s performance succeeds far more in conveying the greatness of the composition.

Hahn’s tone and emotional range perfectly suit the 1999 Edgar Meyer concerto. Written expressly for her, the piece offers catchy, friendly melodies that quickly feel like old chums. With a winning second movement that progresses from suspended mystery through what sounds like an Appalachian version of the Anvil Chorus, and a rousing conclusion, this amiable concerto finds ideal expression in Hahn’s sweet lyricism. As a means to explore Meyer’s work, and to leave your listening experience on a sweet note, this disc is highly recommended.

 - Jason Serinus -

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