ADÈS: Asyla / City of Birmingham Symphony Orch.; Simon Rattle, conductor / …but all shall be well; Chamber Symphony No. 2; These Premises Are Alarmed, Op. 16 / City of Birmingham Symphony Orch.; Thomas Adès, conductor / Cardiac Arrest; Les BaricAdès mistériuse; Life Story, Op. 8 / Composers’ Ensemble / The Fayrfax Carol; January Writ; O Thou, Who Didst With Pitfall and Gin, Op. 3a / Polyphony; Stephen Layton, director / EMI 56818
My first exposure to the music of Thomas Adès was hearing pianist Imogen Cooper play his piece Traced Overhead on the old St. Paul Sunday radio program. I was absolutely mesmerized by his clever and intricate use of musical materials in what I perceived as a fresh, new way, thus I was eager to hear this wonderful CD compilation of his short orchestral, chamber and choral pieces. And it really is a terrific CD. Adès, in essence, took the quirky and often shocking elements of Peter Maxwell Davies’ early style, refined it, and made it work even better by his method of development and shifting thematic material.
The problem with Adès is that he somehow got it into his head that he was a great composer of larger forms. He is not. His opera The Tempest is what I would have expected form a great composer of miniatures: good bits stuck into a larger canvas of mismatched and confused pieces. The effect is much like taking a completed jigsaw puzzle, throwing it up into the air, and hoping that some sections of it stay together when it hits the floor. But I don’t really want to end this summation of Adès music on a negative note, because as I say, what is here on this collection is really challenging and enjoyable. Nearly all the performances were made under the composer’s supervision and the one that wasn’t is in the very capable hands of conductor Simon Rattle.
ALBÉNIZ: Ibéria / Edouardo Fernández, pianist / Warner Classics 5249807612
Iberia is undoubtedly Albéniz’s masterpiece, an extended piano suite (some pieces of it have also been orchestrated) encompassing a vast canvas in an ever-evolving spool of music. Nor is this just my opinion; both Claude Debussy (notorious for not liking much of anyone else’s music) and Olivier Messiaen praised it, the latter proclaiming that “Iberia is the wonder for the piano; it is perhaps on the highest place among the more brilliant pieces for the king of instruments.” Divided into four books, the score alternates between impressionist fantasias on Spanish music of various sectors and nationalist dance rhythms. It took Albéniz five years to write it, and it is undoubtedly his masterpiece. In addition to the evocations of Spanish towns and dances, Albéniz wrapped his musical fantasies in technically difficult passages—so difficult, in fact, that only the most virtuosic of pianists are really capable of playing it (Albéniz, a virtuoso pianist, admitted that he couldn’t play some parts). Happily, Fernández not only has the technique to master those “impossible” passages (like “Corpus Christi en Sevilla” where several bars had to be notated on three staves) and intricate rhythms (as in “El Puerto,” where six 8th notes in the left hand divided into groups of three are played against four 8th notes in the right bracketed in 2s).
Having heard all the recordings the experts claim are the best, I proclaim Fernández better than their picks. Why? Because he combines elegance and poetry with superb technique. Alicia de Larrocha is usually everyone else’s top choice, but honestly, she didn’t have the technique for this music. Plus I’ve always found her to be an overly-dainty, drippy wet blanket of a pianist, with absolutely no life or drive to anything she plays…and if you think her Albéniz is bad, you ought to hear her Mozart. OK, so there’s my anti-de Larrocha moment. Bottom line: get the Fernández recording. It really is the best. Trust me on this.
ALBÉNIZ: Ibéria: El Corpus en Sevilla; Triana. Navarra (completed by de Severac; orch. Arbos) / Royal Philharmonic Orch., Artur Rodzinski, conductor / included in EMI 68742
Superb orchestral performances of excerpts from Ibéria as orchestrated by Arbos, along with a great version of the lesser-known Navarra. Poor Rodzinski has become the forgotten great conductor of the 20th century. Also see collections by Emanuel Feuermann and Rachel Barton Pine for other Albéniz compositions.
PIANO MUSIC Vol. 5 / ALBÉNIZ: Suite española No. 1, Op. 47. Piano Sonata No. 4 in A. Suite ancienne No. 2, Op. 64. Arbola Azplan (Zortzico). Pavana Capricho, Op. 12 / Miguel Baselga, pn / Bis CD-1443
PIANO MUSIC, Vol. 7 / ALBÉNIZ: Chant d’Espagne, Op. 232. 6 Mazurkas de Salon, Op. 66. Deseo, estudio de concierto. Op. 40. L’Automne Valse, Op. 170. Marcha militar. 3 Improvisations (reconstructed by Milton Laufer). Yvonne en Visite / Miguel Baselga, pn / Bis CD-1953
Excellent performances of early and late Albéniz, ranging from entertaining to brilliant, played superbly by Miguel Baselga.
ALKAN: Barcarolle. 12 Etudes in the Minor Keys: 4-7, Symphonie Pour Piano; No. 12, Le Festin d’Esope. Grand Sonate, Op. 33: Quasi-Faust / LISZT-THALBERG-CHOPIN-ETC.: Hexameron / Raymond Lewenthal, pianist / Elan 82276
The great pianist Raymond Lewenthal actually had two careers: first as a rising all-round virtuoso who was viciously attacked by hoodlums in Central Park, where they broke his hands and arms, then as a specialist in late-period Romantic piano music, specifically the then-unknown music of Alkan. His introduction to Alkan came during his long years of recovery, when he moved to France and immersed himself in the eccentric composer’s music. This CD is essentially a reissue of his first RCA Victor Alkan LP along with the multi-composer Hexameron compiled and put together by Liszt from a later LP. The Alkan disc followed a radio appearance on WBAI in 1963 in which Lewenthal discussed Alkan and played some of his music, and his long, entertaining liner notes for the RCA LP are included in this reissue. For all the splendid Alkan recordings by other pianists, some of whom surpass Lewenthal in sheer digital dexterity, there is something wonderfully exciting and visceral about this recording that no one else has ever captured.
ALKAN: 12 Études in the minor keys, Op. 39. 3 Morceau dan la genre pathétique. Marches Opp. 26 & 27. Grande Sonate, “Les Quatre Âges.” 3 Petits Fantaisies. Minuetto. Capriccio alla soldatesca. Le tambour bat aux champs. Sonatine, Op. 61. Esquisses, Op. 63 No. 49. Grande Étude, Op. 76, No. 3. Petit Prélude. Prélude, Op. 31/8, “Song of the Madwoman on the Seashore” / Vincenzo Maltempo, pn / 2 Petits Pièces. 3 Grandes Études, Op. 76 / Alessandro Deljavan, pn / Chants, Op. 65, Nos. 5 & 6. Chant Op. 67, No. 2. Les Mois Op. 74, Nos. 1, 10, 12 / Stanley Hoogland, pn / Variations sur un thème de Steibelt. Rondeau chromatique. Alleluia, Op. 25. 25 Préludes in the major and minor Keys. Impromptus, Op. 32. Salut, cendre du pauvre. 49 Esquisses, Op. 63. Super flumina Babylonis / Laurent Martin, pn / 3 Menuets, Op. 51. Une fusée. Nocturnes, Op. 57, Nos. 2 & 3. Sonatine Op. 61 / Constantino Mastroprimiano, pn / 12 Études in the major keys / Mark Viner, pn / Nocturne, Op. 22 No. 1. Chants Op. 38a Nos. 1, 5 & 6 / Alan Weiss, pn / Grand Duo Concertante, Op. 21. Sonate de concert, Op. 47. Trio in G min. / Trio Alkan / 3 Concerti di Camera, Op. 10 (reconstructed by François Luguenot). 3 Scherzi de bravoure. 3 Variations on Donizetti’s “Ah, segnata e la mia” from Anna Bolena, Op. 16, No. 4. Variations on Bellini in G, Op. 16, No. 5. Variations quasi fantaisie sur une barcarolle Napolitaine, Op. 16, No. 6 / Giovanni Bellucci, pn; Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto; Roberto Forés-Veses, cond / 13 Prières, Op. 64. Impromptu sur un choral de Luther. Petits Préludes sur les 8 gammes du plain-chant / Kevin Bowyer, org / Brilliant Classics 95568 (13 CDs)
ranges between and
Generally outstanding performances of a wide range of Alkan’s output including his masterpiece, the 12 Études in the minor keys, which includes the gigantic Symphonie pour piano and the Concerto for Piano Solo. Both Vincenzo Maltempo’s and Laurent Martin’s performances are outstanding, although on one disc Maltempo is saddled with some sort of “original piano” that greatly inhibits his expressive range. The chamber music and concerto performances are also superb. I particularly liked the Esquisses and the Concerti di Camera, but was less enthusiastic about the variations on a theme from Donizetti’s trashy opera, Anna Bolena.
ALTMAN: South of New Jersey for String Quartet. Come Dance With Me* / Vesselin Geliev, Zach Brock, violinists; Caleb Burhans, violist; Elizabeth Thompson, cellist; *Randall Bauer, pianist / Homage à Stravinsky for Instrumental Octet / Kenneth Ellison, cl; Tom Buckelew, a-sax/bs-cl; Andrew Rathbun, t-sax/sop-sax; Flora Newberry, tpt; James Day, gt; Randall Bauer, pn; Tomasz Rzeczycki, cellist; Scott Lee, bs; Ruth Ochs, conductor / Calle de la Amargura / Patrice Michaels, soprano; Helen Richman, fl; Michael Fennely, pn / Theme, Variations & Finale for 2 Pianos / Ena Barton, Phyllis Lehrer, pn / 3 Antarctic Songs / Elem Eley, baritone; Laurie Altman, pn / On Course for Instrumental Octet / Fountain Chamber Music Society / States of Waiting for Solo Voice / Patrice Michaels, soprano / Albany 1041
Though he has been around for decades, Composer Laurie Altman is scarcely known to most classical aficionados. I’m sure that much of this is due to the fact that so many of his pieces are jazz-classical hybrids, which he is very good at. This splendid CD contains several of his finest works, superbly performed for the most part. The only reason this disc did not get six fish is the unsteady voice of soprano Patrice Michaels; otherwise, the performances are committed and do more than justice to the music included.
ALTMAN: Antarctic Convergence; Romare Bearden: A Gallery Tour / Andrew Rathbun, t-sax; Laurie Altman, pn; Scott Lee, bs / Pedro’s Story; Piano Sonata No. 5 / Clipper Erickson, pianist / 3 For Duke / Patrice Michaels, soprano; Helen Rathbun, fl; Laurie Altman, pn / Neos 11315
This disc contains even more superb pieces by Altman, including the imaginative Antarctiv Convergence, the brilliant Piano Sonata No. 5, and one of his signature works, 3 For Duke. There is an excellent string quartet arrangement of this on another CD, Neos 21306, but this vocal-flute-piano rendition has a wonderful freshness about it.
ANTHEIL: Ballet Mécanique. A Jazz Symphony / Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor / BMOP/Sound 1033
Antheil’s most famous and still popular composition, the 1923 Ballet Mécanique came to define the composer for all time, much to his dismay. Still, it remains a wild ride and the very short Jazz Symphony makes a fine filler on this wonderful CD.
ANTHEIL: Fireworks and the Profane Waltzes. Jazz Sonata. Sonatina, “Death of the Machines.” Second Sonata, “The Airplane.” Sonatina for Radio. Little Shimmy “Für mein nur einziger Böski.” The Golden Bird, after Brancusi. Piano Sonata No. 4: III. Finale: Presto / Gottlieb Wallisch, pianist; Christopher Roth, English narrator; Karl Markovics, German narrator / Paladino Music 0075
An outstanding album of Antheil’s piano music influenced by ragtime and jazz, played with brio and sensitivity by Wallisch. The narration between numbers by Christopher Roth come from writings and memoirs of Antheil, and are fascinating and juicy though Roth’s speaking voice is anything but, being calm and cultured.
ATTERBERG: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 6; A Värmeland Rhapsody; Suite No. 3 for Violin, Viola & Strings* / *Sara Troback Hesselink, violin; *Per Högberg, viola; Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, conductor / Chandos 5116
ATTERBERG: Symphonies Nos. 7 & 9* / *Anna Larsson, mezzo-soprano; Olle Persson, baritone; Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra & *Chorus; Neeme Järvi, conductor / Chandos 5166
Kurt Atterberg has, in some ways, become a forgotten 20th-century composer: his music was resolutely tonal albeit fresh in sound and concept, soundly constructed and often very enjoyable to listen to. Thank goodness for Neeme Järvi, who resuscitated his orchestral oeuvre with these splendid recordings on the Chandos label. The Fourth Symphony, subtitled “Sinfonia piccola,” is a frothy, light affair, and the Suite No. 3 has a certain mysterious quality about it (he wrote it for one of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist plays), but the Sixth Symphony, often called the “Dollar Symphony” because it won a fairly hefty first prize in 1928, the centenary of Schubert’s death, in a contest run by Columbia Records, is a major work, full of invention and a boisterous finale which includes a faux fugue. Arturo Toscanini gave an absolutely splendid performance of it with the NBC Symphony in 1938, which you can listen to here, but Järvi’s recording is in digital stereo and does it up pink.
Atterberg took nearly 12 years to write his next symphony, but the time was well spent. His Seventh is one of his finest works, while the Ninth, subtitled “Sinfonia visionaria,” was regarded by the composer as “evil” music—except it isn’t, really, just very serious. It is based on the Icelandic poem “Volupsa,” which explained how evil came into the world and then prophesied that evil would eventually cause total destruction. Well, maybe Atterberg wasn’t so wrong after all…just look at how international globalism, the tearing down of national borders and the influx of evil people into countries where they donot belong and are not assimilating is creating havoc all over the world nowadays. But to return to the symphony itself, the music is really splendid, one of the most serious and well-written scores Atterberg has left us. Despite somewhat infirm solo vocalists, this performance is equal to the task. Järvi conducts as if his life depended on it.
Auber, Daniel François
AUBER: La Muette de Portici / Angelina Ruzzafante, soprano (Elvire); Oscar de la Torre, tenor (Alphonse); Angus Wood, tenor (Lorenzo); Diego Torre, tenor (Masaniello); Ulf Paulsen, baritone (Officer); Anne Weinkauf, mezzo (Court Woman); Wiard Witholt, baritone (Pietro); Kostadin Arguirov, bass (Borella); Stephane Biener, bass (Moreno); Anhaltischen Theater Opera Chorus & Philharmonic Orchestra; Antony Hermus, conductor / CPO 777694
The superbly-written and historically important La Muette de Portici, scarcely known nowadays except for an aria or two which are sometimes sung in concert, was one of the first great French “Grand Operas” and a work that inspired both the Belgian Revolution of 1930 and, later, Richard Wagner, who loved it. This recording, sung and conducted with so much energy that you are literally on the edge of your seat while listening to it, goes a long way towards explaining why. And the plot is as interesting, psychologically, as the music is thrilling, concerning the 17th-century uprising of Neapolitans against their Spanish viceroy led by a fisherman, Masaniello. His mute sister Fenella has been seduced by Alphonse, the viceroy’s son, but his mistrust of revolutionary violence is shows when he meets Elvire, Alphonse’s innocent wife, who is victimized by both sides. Yet as I say, it is the music that sweeps one up in its path, and this performance is so exciting that there is scarcely a moment where one is not engaged.
AURIC: Les Facheux; La Pastorale / German Radio Orchestra of the Saar; Christoph Poppen, conductor / Hänssler Classic 93265
This splendid disc, part of Hänssler’s series of ballets presented by Serge Diaghelev’s Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo, pairs two now-little-known works by the fine composer Georges Auric. The first ballet starred Leonid Massine, the second a young unknown named George Balanchine. Both were choreographed and costumed poorly for their debuts, and both apparently sunk into disfavor, but the music is absolutely magnificent. Les Fâcheux, adapted from Molière’s comédie-ballet by librettist Boris Kochno, bears little or no resemblance to anything 18th-century, far less than Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, but the score is colorful and imaginative, a continuous 28-minute ballet of stunning color and musical invention. La Pastorale’s bright sonorities and humorous rhythms combine with musical ideas that constantly push the tonal center to its edges or beyond. Poppen conducts this music with superb dancing tempos and a certain amount of liveliness that does credit to both works.