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Classical Music - Part 18 - September, 2000

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

Part III - America and Beyond


Jason Serinus

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Ratings:
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Acceptable
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Welcome to another mammoth roundup of classical recordings. Many of the discs reviewed below have been nominated for Gramophone awards. In my opinion, they deserve this honor.

My two preceding maxi sets of American music reviews promised you a Part III. While I am not turning my back on American music, discussing a number of such recordings in the first part of this set, I am crossing the border. My heart and soul have been crying out to write about some of the other music in the piles of CDs that have now engulfed over half my dining table, and I have succumbed. After all, what is life without Brahms and Schubert? Besides, given that my sound system is now graced by a complete set of top-of-the-line Nordost cable (revisit forthcoming), Shunyata Black Mamba and Sidewinder powercords (review forthcoming), a multiwaved P300 Power Plant (joint review forthcoming), and the P-1A/P-3A/Monolithic Power Supply combo, how could I possibly limit myself to playing only one kind of music?

Lean back in your chair, my friend, and enjoy a potpourri of delights. If, after reading through these reviews, you wish to contact me with your feedback and suggestions, please write me at healrmn@planeteria.net

THE MUSIC OF NED ROREM

SONGS OF NED ROREM SUSAN GRAHAM • MALCOLM MARTINEAU • ENSEMBLE ORIOL • Erato 8573-80222-2

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MORE THAN A DAY: MUSIC OF NED ROREM • BRIAN ASAWA • LOS ANGELES CHAMBER ORCHESTRA, JEFFREY KAHANE COND. •
RCA VICTOR 09026-63512-2

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Born in 1923, the great American composer Ned Rorem has so far composed four piano concertos, three symphonies, numerous orchestral and chamber works, and well over 100 songs. First hooked on classical music after hearing Debussy and Ravel when he was 10, Rorem went on to win the 1948 Library Association award for his song The Lordly Hudson, to text by one of his early influences, Paul Goodman. Publication of numerous revealing and witty diaries detail Rorem's associations and amorous liaisons with other composers and artists. He was recently elected President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Here, two very different, well-recorded recitals, containing 48 songs (with only one duplication) plus Rorem's 1966 Water Music, allow us to hear and feel how Rorem's sophisticated and economic use of word, text, and melody have created a unique, beautiful, and deeply satisfying sound world. 

Perhaps these recitals will serve to lift Rorem's spirits. In a May, 2000 Gramophone interview, he acknowledges depression over the death of his long-time companion, Jim. He despairs "the assumption that anything [classical] written today is something people will put their hands over their ears not to hear;" and acknowledges that "the art song can't, by definition, have millions and millions of people in the audience …it is rarefied."

Rarefied, poised, fluid, and exquisite are apt descriptions of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham's disc of Rorem's songs. Hers is a one-in-a-million voice, beautiful throughout the range, evenly produced, and infused with a depth that can only arise from an open heart. Whether she is singing the 27-second "I am Rose", to text by Gertrude Stein, or Walt Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon", Graham's ease and perfection consistently underscore Rorem's ability to perfectly meld text and music. Listen to Witter Bynner's "The Wintry Mind", in which the cold sparseness of winter is brilliantly mirrored in the piano accompaniment, or Frank O'Hara's "I Will Always Love You", in which the last line seemingly hangs in space. It takes a great singer (and accompanist) to convey that each song is truly a gem. This disc is one of six making it into the second round of nominations for the Gramophone Year 2000 Vocal Recital award.

On the Brian Asawa disc, Rorem's "More Than a Day" cycle memorializes James Bridges by scoring nine verses written by James' life partner, Jack Larson. After the first seven brief songs, "Do I Love You [More than a Look, Word, Room, Mirror, Day, Rock, the Air]," Rorem abruptly transitions into "My Brain is Littered," a six-minute outpouring of "capsules, adhesives, broken syringes …flowered graves." The cycle's concluding "Oh Love, See How the Flowers Mate" bespeaks feelings that many who have experienced loss know firsthand. The disc concludes with the delightful, brief seven-song cycle "From An Unknown Past", which Rorem re-orchestrated for Asawa. Offering a wonderful light spirit when appropriate, the countertenor sings with great skill, but his tone lacks variety. His voice, which Rorem clearly admires, may not always touch, but it consistently fascinates. 

A future review set will discuss a new disc of Rorem chamber works on Newport Classics.

SAMUEL BARBER ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 1 • ROYAL SCOTTISH NATIONAL ORCHESTRA • MARIN ALSOP • NAXOS 8.559024

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Samuel Barber (1910-1981), known especially for his "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" and overplayed "Adagio for Strings", wrote only two symphonies. The First was penned when he was 26, and the Second was composed shortly after his 1943 conscription into the US Air Force.

As the symphonies and two shorter orchestral works on this CD demonstrate, Barber's writing basically remained within a romantic, tonal vein. The "School for Scandal Overture, Op. 5", evoking Sheridan's comedy of the same name, begins dramatically, but quickly transitions into most enjoyable music that variously teases, plays, and frolics. The one movement "Symphony No. 1", featuring a final Andante tranquillo section whose plaintive beginning reminds one of Barber's famed Adagio for Strings, attracted the attention of Arturo Toscanini, who commissioned Barber to write the justly famous "First Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12" for the NBC Symphony Orchestra. This wonderful eight-minute piece, grave and moving in the beginning, is filled with drama and memorable invention. And while Barber was never satisfied with his dark, war-influenced "Symphony No. 2, Op. 19", eventually destroying almost all copies - powerful as it is, Shostakovich certainly "did" war better -- its beautiful, yearning Andante was saved, revised and resurrected separately as "Night Flight". 

Conductor Marin Alsop's forces do a wonderful job with these works. Though the sonics fail to convey the ultimate wallop that she and Barber pack into parts of this music, they are certainly clear and impressive. A great start to the Naxos Barber orchestral series, and good enough to enter the second round of nominations for the Gramophone Orchestral Award for the year 2000.

JOHN CAGE: THE SEASONS • AMERICAN COMPOSERS ORCHESTRA: DENNIS RUSSELL DAVIES, CONDUCTOR • MARGARET LENG TAN, prepared piano & toy piano • ECM NEW SERIES 1696 465 140-2

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WIZARDS & WILDMEN: PIANO MUSIC OF CHARLES IVES, HENRY COWELL, LOU HARRISON • ANTHONY DE MARE • CRI CD 837

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These two fine discs provide the opportunity to hear rewarding, thoroughly "modern music" - the kind some love and others run from - written by some of the greatest American maverick composers of the twentieth century. Music by all these men was featured in the recent San Francisco Symphony Maverick series, perhaps the most comprehensive of its kind offered in the United States.

John Cage (1912-1992), artistic collaborator and life partner with choreographer Merce Cunningham, spent over 40 years composing music rooted in an aesthetic of "non-intention." Cage's technique of chance composition grew out his Zen Buddhist beliefs, especially as interpreted by espouser of Buddhism philosophy, Alan Watts. Concern with harmony and tonality as the building blocks of music was replaced by preoccupation with units of time, timbre, and rhythm. "Seventy-Four" (1992), composed just five months before Cage's death, was written for conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his orchestra. The score consists of just two parts: one for high instruments, the other for low ones. All performers are guided by a video clock, allowing chance to determine when they begin and end. The disc contains two of an infinite number of possible versions of this piece, allowing us to fully experience the consequences of chance.

Among the CD's other offerings are two versions of Cage's "Suite for Toy Piano" (1948), the second in an orchestral arrangement by Lou Harrison. The contrast is fascinating. When Harrison replaces the naοve sound and limited range of the toy piano with a full orchestra, what initially seemed simple and sweet becomes either somber or as monumental as "The Great Gate of Kiev" from Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The wonder of this transformation is alone worth the price of the disc. Like several others in this review set, it is one of six in its category nominated for a Gramophone Award, this time for contemporary music.

Wizards & Wildmen aptly describes the composer triumvirate on gifted pianist Anthony de Mare's excellent compilation. Renegade Charles Ives (1874-1954) is showcased via early compositions and late, recently transcribed improvisations. All are beautiful, some expectedly way out there. Henry Cowell (1897-1965) wrote astounding, provocative piano music that sometimes requires the musician to play keys with forearms and fists, or to strum, scrape, and pluck piano strings. (To mix similes, Cowell and Cage did more to alter the sound of the piano than any hairdresser has ever accomplished with coiffure.) Cowell also introduced Ives' music to his student, the still productive, great composer Lou Harrison (b. 1917) -- like Cage, shockingly unlisted in The Penguin Guide to Compact Classics; Henry Cowell is represented by only one meager entry! Harrison went on to edit many of Ives' manuscripts; his conducting premiere of Ives' Third Symphony led to Ives receiving the 1947 Pulitzer Prize. Harrison's small piano output is little known; five of the seven fascinating early compositions on this disc, reflecting harmonies variously modern, traditional and eastern, receive premieres. 

GREAT AND ALMOST GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE MUSIC OF FRANZ SCHUBERT

1. FANTASIE IN C MAJOR FOR PIANO D 760 (WANDERER-FANTASIE) • FANTASIE IN C MAJOR FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO 
D 934 • ANDRAS SCHIFF, PIANO • YUUKO SHIOKAWA, VIOLIN • ECM 289 464 320-2

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2. FANTASIE IN C MAJOR FOR PIANO D 760 (WANDERER-FANTASIE) (with Schumann Fantasie in C major Op. 17 and Kinderszenen Op. 15) • CLIFFORD CURZON, PIANO • DECCA LEGENDS 289 466 498-2

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3. WINTERREISE • PETER PEARS, TENOR • BENJAMIN BRITTEN, PIANO • DECCA LEGENDS 289 466 382-2

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Franz Schubert's (1797-1828) short life span of 31 years seems directly related to his seemingly insatiable sexual appetite. He was still a teenager when he contracted syphilis. Haunted by the inevitability of an early death, and frequently suffering from bouts of syphilitic ill health, Schubert allowed music to pour out of him at an unstoppable rate. The man produced over 900 compositions, more than 700 of which were songs. Many of his works meld extraordinary lyric beauty, a love of nature, and joy at the act of composing with the darker realization of impending demise.

Comprised of four movements, the symphonically proportioned "Wanderer-Fantasie" conveys many swings of Schubert's emotional pendulum. The Wanderer's emphatic opening theme, which receives Schubert's characteristic theme and variations treatment throughout the piece, haunts the memory long after the work has concluded.

The Wanderer demands a pianist who possesses supreme technical virtuosity, poetic imagination and an open heart. Andras Schiff certainly has these, but his interpretation lacks dramatic thrust and poetic license. Schiff's softer passages do touch a place of tenderness within, but the strong declamation, rubato, and imagination necessary to elevate an interpretation to greatness are not in evidence. Certainly ECM's sonics, which diffuse sharpness of attack, have something to do with this. But since Clifford Curzon, in a 1949 mono performance, transcends clangy sound to astound with his force and creativity, the issue clearly extends beyond sonics.

Curzon's performance, a classic of the gramophone, takes the listener on an emotional and inner spiritual journey filled with countless nuances and miracles of phrasing. One example is in the composition where Schubert stops the music for several seconds, remains silent, and then begins anew. Hearing Schiff, one might wonder why Schubert did this; with Curzon, the pause seems like the only thing Schubert could have possibly done. Curzon's is one of those rare performances that can leave one in a state of wonder. Heard at the right time, it has the potential to open wide a neophyte's eyes to the magical world of classical music.

The floating, mystical opening and continually joyful, songlike melody of Schubert's C major "Fantasie for Violin and Piano" bring constant delight. The thin tone of Schiff's violinist wife, Yuuko Shiokawa, occasionally becomes acid in the midrange. Neither is her playing always steady in piano passages; nor does her bow lightly skip over the strings as parts of the music warrant. But this composition is so filled with delights, not least of which are its playful final variations on Schubert's great song, "Sei mir gegrusst," that the performance, thanks to Schiff's gossamer touch, conveys enough of this great music's gifts to warrant your attention.

Art song is perhaps the most rarefied of classical music genres. While newcomers to the form may find an easier entry via Arleen Auger's transcendently beautiful "Love Songs" (Delos 3029), the 1963 Britten/Pears collaboration in Schubert's despairing 1827 "Winterreise" (Winter's Journey) song cycle deserves its fabled status. Pears' unique tenor may not immediately ingratiate, but if you follow the words carefully, you'll discover that instead of listening to a man singing songs to piano accompaniment, you are experiencing the emotional core of a profound poetic journey literally lived and breathed out in song. Rarely have singer and accompanist so united in the act of creation as these two life partners and geniuses.

DANIEL TAYLOR PORTRAIT • ATMA ACD 2 2228

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The young Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor possesses a voice of consummate loveliness; his evenness of emission only adds to the pleasure. This "Portrait," which precedes by a month the release of a Dorian "Lie Down, Poor Heart" disc featuring Taylor singing English lutesongs and folk ballads, gives ample evidence of Taylor's perfect combination of sweetness and simple sentiment. The countertenor mostly excels in nine selections by Bach, Dowland, Purcell, Blow, and the omnipresent Anon. (The wonderful soprano Suzie Le Blanc, who joins Taylor on "There is no Rose of Such Virtue," leaves one wondering just who's the boy and who's the girl.) Although he lacks the range of emotion and tone that distinguish the singing of the astounding countertenor David Daniels, Taylor is perfectly suited to all but the final selection, Bach's "Saget, saget mir geschwinde" from the Easter Oratorio, where the fast tempo leaves him sounding a bit more old maid than young maiden.

Taylor sounds superb in person. If you discover him performing in your area, by all means take advantage of the opportunity to experience him live.

ELISABETH SCHWARZKOPF - UNPUBLISHED EMI RECORDINGS 1955-58 • TESTAMENT SBT 1178

Performance: Ranges from 3 - 5 Stars
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(fabulous restoration job)

The highlight on a disc containing previously unreleased Mozart and Bach recordings by the great soprano, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, is her incomparable 1955 mono rendition of Mozart's famed concert aria, Ch'io mi scordi di te?…Non temer, amato bene K505. Featuring Geza Anda, piano and Otto Ackerman, conducting, it will henceforth be known as one of THE great Mozart vocal recordings. Showcasing the beauty of Schwarzkopf's unmistakable soprano, it contains more perfectly tasteful, subtle inflections, modulations, and changes of color than a CD has bits, and finds her in fresher voice than on her other 1968 stereo rendition with Brendel and Szell. 

The Bach is more problematic; neither by voice nor temperament was Schwarzkopf ideally suited to his works. (Her fabulous Jauchtzet Gott in Allen Landen, available on other discs, nonetheless feels like the entire German army advancing on God's kingdom.) While Schwarzkopf's Bach sometimes sounds serene, delightful, and nigh perfect, it can also feature slightly hysterical tone and quasi-screamed highs more suitable to Donna Elvira than Jesus Christ or nuptial bliss. 

This disc's two different versions of "Sheep may safely graze" reveal how attempts to improve on a rejected take only resulted in further fussing, adding fuel to criticism that Schwarzkopf over-intellectualized many of her performances. (Now in her mid-eighties, and acutely aware of this reputation, she has written in the July Gramophone, "I reacted solely to what the composer put before me, so my singing was always instinctive. …There was never any deliberate thought process, only an instinctive reaction." With all due respect, I am not convinced.) Regardless, all Mozart lovers will cherish the eleven minute wonder on this disc.

MELINDA WAGNER: CONCERTO FOR FLUTE, STRINGS AND PERCUSSION • POUL RUDERS: CONCERTO IN PIECES (PURCELL VARIATIONS FOR ORCHESTRA) • PAUL LUSTIG DUNKEL, FLUTE / WESTCHESTER PHILHARMONIC • MARK MANDARANO, CONDUCTOR • BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, ANDREW DAVIS, CONDUCTOR • BRIDGE 9008

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Yes, it's a long title, but it's a special CD. After Melinda Wagner's (b. 1957) piece, which was commissioned by the Westchester Philharmonic and written for flutist Paul Lustig Dunkel, was recorded by Bridge, the American composer received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Her composition is here paired with another fine work, a BBC commission to Danish composer Poul Ruders (b. 1949) as a celebration of both the tercentary of the death of Henry Purcell and the 50th anniversary of Benjamin's Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Not only are both works given definite performances by the orchestras which commissioned them, but they are supplemented with invaluable seven-minute interviews with each of the composers. 

Because I listened to this disc while focusing on close to 40 recordings of American music, I concentrated on Melinda Wagner's Concerto. Wagner, faced with the task of composing for flute, which cannot compete with the forces of a full orchestra, chose to omit winds and brass from her composition, and devised the means for the accompanying ensemble to, in her own words, "participate fully in the music." The result is a somewhat magical piece, filled with atmospheric effects. Thanks to Bridge's recording techniques, which create a huge soundstage marked by generous air around instruments, the flute variously sings, dances, and darts above, around and through a variety of precisely placed instrumental combinations. This serves to further highlight the quasi-mystical nature of the piece. 

Wagner's is a most accessible work, quite listener friendly. While repeated playings do not suggest that her Concerto will be regarded as one of the masterpieces of the end of the old millennium, the entire disc, with the fine Ruders piece and invaluable composer interviews, comes highly recommended.

CLAUDE DEBUSSY: SYRINX, "BILITIS" (ED. KARL LENSKI), LA PLUS QUE LENTE • MAURICE RAVEL: CHANSONS MADECASSES • SERGEI PROKOFIEV: FLUTE SONATA IN D, OP. 94 • EMMANUEL PAHUD, FLUTE • STEPHEN KOVACEVICH, PIANO • KATARINA KARNEUS, MEZZO-SOPRANO • TRULS MORK, CELLO • EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 56982 2 3

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While Wagner and Ruders offer music from the end of the last century, Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) provide examples of what was happening earlier in the century, when the supremacy of tonality was giving way to more enterprising harmonic expression. 

This wonderful disc has made it into the second round of Gramophone Awards nominations in the Chamber Music category. It certainly deserves the honor.

Two of the Debussy pieces are special favorites of many listeners. Debussy's sensual 1913 "Syrinx" expresses in music the last breath of the god Pan. His equally sensual Bilitis music of 1913 - the "Bilitis/Epigraphes Antiques" are here arranged variously for flute and piano by Karl Lenski - builds on the erotic qualities of Pierre Louys' 1895 "Chanson de Bilitis" poems, which he falsely claimed were written by a contemporary of Sappho. "La plus que lente", a more conservative waltz piece composed in 1910 with the intention of mocking the cafι-concert, has lived beyond its satire to become one of Debussy's most oft-played works. 

Faced with the challenge of scoring for voice, flute, cello and piano, Ravel composed his three "Chansons madecasses" in 1926, setting to music the phony poetry that Evariste-Desire Parny's claimed to have collected from the so-called noble savages of Madagascar. The anti-colonialism of the second of the songs, "Aoua!" ("Aoua! Aoua! Beware of white men…"), caused a riot at its premiere. This is gorgeous music, cooly sensual in nature, somewhat of a musical counterpart to the exoticism expressed in the painting of Gaugin and other "Impressionists." The last song of the trio, celebrating "enjoyment and the abandon of pleasure," trails off with the ironically prosaic line "Go and prepare the meal," leaving the listener simultaneously sated and wanting more.

Prokofiev's 1943 "Flute Sonata" was rearranged by the composer for violinist David Oistrakh, and renamed "Violin Sonata No. 2". Presented here in its original form, it is an irresistible, infectious wonder of color, delight, and lyrical flight. 

Emmanuel Pahud, Stephen Kovacevich and Truls Mork are well-known star players; their faultless solo and joint efforts create a rare melodic communion that consistently delights. Mezzo Katarina Karneus certainly deserves equal recognition. Her voice and passionate sensuality are perfect for these songs. Supported by the other three musicians, Karneus' performance rivals if not surpasses interpretations by Jessye Norman, Janet Baker, and the woman with whom Ravel recorded them 70 years ago, Madeleine Grey. 

DEBUSSY • FAURE • RAVEL: PIANO TRIOS • THE FLORESTAN TRIO • HYPERION SACDA67114

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This is the first dual density (two-layer) SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) to make its way into the classical catalogues I receive from virtually every major label. That Hyperion and other classical labels have not followed the release with other SACD discs seems a sad commentary on the slow acceptance of Sony's new two-layer CD process. A SACD sounds like a normal 16/44.1 recording when played on a conventional player. Its sonics, however, when played back on the 1-bit, 2.8 million sampling rate SACD players and transports now being manufactured by Sony and others, rival if not trounce analogue recordings. Played in my SACD-deficient, sonically superb system (reproduced in either 20/48 bit sound via the Perpetual Technology P-1A/Theta Gen. Va DAC combo. or 24/96 sound via the Perpetual Technology P-1A/P-3A combo), this disc's sonics are clearly superior to the Beaux Arts Trio (Philips) and Collard/Dumay/Lodeon (EMI) renditions of the Faure, and the Fontenay Trio's performances of all three pieces (Teldec).

While the Claude Debussy (1862-1918) "Piano Trio in G minor" (1880) is an early work, providing but a hint of what was to come, the 1914 "Piano Trio" by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and 1922-1923 "Piano Trio in D minor" of Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) provide mature examples of these composers' craft. The latter two works are simply gorgeous. Ravel's, written at the outbreak of WWI, is moving and passionate, while the somewhat more restrained trio of the increasingly deaf Faure, his penultimate opus, equally speaks from the composer's soul. 

Faure's music is quite refined. Even when two instruments in his trio soar upward in passion, the third will tend to both complement and balance it via descending notes. Comparing interpretations of his great trio, I found the "Beaux Arts Trio" too relaxed and slow-paced to fully convey the subtle but nevertheless profoundly moving passion of Faure's work. The French musicians move in the other direction, playing with a passion and fire that are usually unheard in Faure interpretations. While the Florestan Trio could benefit from employing more rubato and subtle changes of dynamics, their performance strikes a balance between the two that is hard to resist. Their Ravel interpretation rewards in a similar manner. 

Everyone who loves the intimacy and subtlety of chamber music will want to own at least one recording of these works. Though these performances are hardly the "last word," they absolutely succeed in conveying the beauty behind the notes. Warmly recommended, and a MUST for anyone who is SACD-equipped.

Next time: Brahms and Dohnanyi sextets, a new Robert Shaw release, several Bach recordings, Mahler No. 10, a superb release of live Jussi Bjoerling performances on VAI, Ensemble Alcatraz and Kitka on Dorian, and perhaps other Gramophone nominees and winners. 

 - Jason Serinus -

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