01 Bach Duo ConcertanteThere’s another lovely release from Duo Concertante, the Newfoundland-based husband and wife team of violinist Nancy Dahn and pianist Timothy Steeves, this time a two-CD set of Bach’s Six Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard (Marquis MAR 81521).

In an interview with the duo in the booklet notes, Steeves admits to having no reservations about playing Bach on the piano, given the instrument’s connection with Bach’s music for over 200 years. Dahn also uses a modern instrument, but notes that although they knew they were going against a trend they found that focussing on the language, harmony and style of the sonatas still enabled them to play them in a way that was historically informed.

A German press review during their recent European tour noted the beautiful balance in the Bach slow movements – on the one hand not too romantic, on the other not too austere – as well as the ease, lightness and naturalness in the fast movements; it’s an observation more than justified by the performances here. There’s warmth, clarity, sensitivity and empathy to spare, with crystal-clear violin lines, faultless intonation throughout the most difficult passages and a thoughtful and always sensitive piano contribution.

You tend to run out of superlatives with performances like these, and there’s simply not much you can do other than sit back, listen and be carried away by the complete artistry. Suffice it to say that this is as totally satisfying an account of the sonatas as I have heard.

02 Shaham 1930sTake one of my favourite violinists – Gil Shaham; add one of the best accompanying orchestras around – the New York ensemble The Knights under Eric Jacobsen; throw in one of my favourite conductors – Stéphane Denève; and have them perform two of my favourite 20th century concertos – the Prokofiev No.2 and the Bartók No.2 – and it’s not surprising that the new CD 1930s Violin Concertos Vol.2 on Shaham’s own Canary Classics label (CC16) was the first one I took out of the box when this month’s discs arrived.

It should also be no surprise that it more than lived up to expectations. The 1930s was a simply astonishing decade for new violin concertos, with works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Prokofiev, Bartók, Szymanowski, Hindemith, Barber, Britten and Walton among others. Shaham started this series with a two-CD set featuring the concertos of Barber, Berg, Britten, Hartmann and Stravinsky and is clearly intrigued by the extent to which the works reflect the spirit of a turbulent era; he has been exploring this repertoire in concert performances since the 2008/2009 season.

The Knights are the support in the Prokofiev, with Denève leading the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Bartók. Shaham’s trademark mixture of a warm sweet tone, faultless technical assurance and impeccable musical intelligence make for immensely satisfying interpretations of both works, and he is matched by both orchestras and conductors every step of the way.

No word yet on a Volume 3, but here’s hoping.

03 Tetzlaff StorgardChristian Tetzlaff also has a new concerto CD pairing the Dvořák Violin Concerto in A Minor Op.53 and the Romance in F Minor Op.11 with the Fantasy in G Minor Op.24 of Josef Suk on a Super Audio CD (Ondine ODE 1279-5). John Storgårds conducts the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

Suk, who was Dvořák’s son-in-law, was a topnotch violinist (and grandfather of the Czech violinist Josef Suk) who is probably best remembered as a composer for his early Serenade for Strings. His music is very much in the tradition of Smetana and Dvořák – indeed, despite stylistic differences his music often sounds very much like that of his father-in-law.

The Fantasy is a substantial single-movement work from 1903, and while attempts have often been made to view it as being in three-part concerto form it is essentially a rhapsodic and passionate work with numerous tempo changes, and one which makes great demands of the soloist.

The Dvořák concerto has never quite made itself at home in the top echelon of violin concertos, but it’s an absolute charmer from the early 1880s – bright, lively, typically Dvořák throughout, and with a simply lovely slow movement. The Romance pre-dates it by several years and, much like the Beethoven works with the same name, is more about linear phrasing and clarity and beauty of tone than pure virtuosity.

Tetzlaff meets all the demands, both technical and emotional, with ease and conviction, and with passion and sensitivity, throughout a really lovely CD.

04 Bruch String QuartetsIn 1852 the 14-year-old Max Bruch wrote a string quartet to apply – successfully – for the scholarship of the Mozart-Stiftung (Mozart Foundation) in Frankfurt. While musicologists researching Bruch’s music knew of its existence, the work was always considered lost – until January 2013, that is, when Ulrike Kienzle, researching a book on the history of the Mozart-Stiftung, found the manuscript in a box in the foundation’s archives.

The String Quartet in C Minor, Op. Posth., is an astonishingly self-assured and mature work, bursting with energy and full of flowing melodies and rich harmonies. It’s the opening work on a simply outstanding CD of Max Bruch Complete String Quartets performed by the Diogenes Quartet (Brilliant Classics 95051). The String Quartets No.1 in C Minor, Op.9 (which, as it turned out, incorporated a substantial amount of material from the earlier work) and No.2 in E Major Op.10, both also early works from 1859 and 1861 respectively, complete the disc.

Not unexpectedly, the influences of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann are plain to hear, but these are far from being mere stylistic copies, despite the composer’s youth. They also remind us not only of how wonderfully gifted a composer Bruch was, but also of how little he strayed from his German Romantic roots throughout his long life.

These are rarely heard but simply beautiful works (there’s that word “beautiful” in a Bruch review again) beautifully played and beautifully recorded. The Diogenes Quartet is apparently recording the complete Schubert string quartets for Brilliant Classics; I, for one, can hardly wait.

In November 1918, shortly after the end of the First World War, Arnold Schoenberg founded the Association for Private Musical Performances “to provide artists and art lovers with a real and precise familiarity with modern music” – in Alban Berg’s words, “from Mahler up to now.” Members frequently transcribed large orchestral works for chamber ensembles.

05 Reger Violin ConcertoMax Reger, who died in 1916, seemed to be especially favoured by the group, although his music was generally regarded by the critics as being excessively long, overly chromatic, turgid and far too complicated. In fact, it’s more a case of an overabundance of creative ideas making it difficult for the listener to discern the overall shape and form in Reger’s music.

That’s certainly true of his Violin Concerto in A Major, Op.101, completed in 1908. It’s a simply huge work (almost one hour) but melodic and accessible, and very much in the post-Brahms tradition – in fact, Reger mistakenly believed that his concerto would soon become as popular as the Brahms. The German Capriccio label has been issuing a series of recordings by the Linos Ensemble of chamber transcriptions made for the Association for Private Musical Performances, and the 1922 arrangement of the Violin Concerto by the violinist Rudolf Kolisch for flute, clarinet, horn, piano, harmonium and five strings is featured on the latest volume (C5137). Winfried Rademacher is the solo violinist.

The original full orchestral version in a performance by Tanja Becker-Bender was reviewed in this column in April 2012, and it’s clearly the more satisfying of the two, although the chamber version does clarify the texture to some degree as well as rendering the virtuosic solo part more playable. There have been various attempts over the years to apply cuts to the concerto, but it has retained its original length and structure – not to mention difficulty – and as a result has remained on the fringe of the repertoire.

Rademacher does full justice to the solo part, and the Linos Ensemble is excellent in this 2010 recording, apparently made for German radio. However, while the reduced forces may well help to reduce the complexity of the work they also make its more ponderous and meandering moments more apparent, and reduce the concerto’s overall effect.

Still, it’s an interesting alternate view of a complicated and challenging work.

06Bartok Becker BenderSpeaking of Tanja Becker-Bender, her latest release is a two-CD set of Béla Bartók: The Works for Violin and Piano with pianist Péter Nagy (SWR 19003 CD). Each performer also takes a solo turn in the spotlight, Becker-Bender with the Sonata for Solo Violin BB124 and Nagy with the Piano Sonata BB88 from 1926.

CD1 has the two Rhapsodies for Violin and Piano and the two Sonatas for Violin and Piano. CD2, in addition to the two solo works, has the early Andante in A Major (a simply beautiful piece) and the Sonata in E Minor from 1902 and 1903 respectively, as well as the Romanian Folkdances in the transcription by Zoltán Székely, to whom the Rhapsody No.2 was dedicated. The two early works are both late Romantic in style, but everything else here clearly reflects the composer’s lifelong fascination with Magyar folk music that began in 1905.

There’s terrific playing from both performers, with Becker-Bender mixing toughness with the brilliance where necessary without ever compromising the interpretation. The second movement of the Rhapsody No.2, in particular, is quite superb.

07 IngolfssonThere’s another outstanding violin and piano recital disc (Accentus Music ACC 303711), this time from violinist Judith Ingolfsson and pianist Vladimir Stoupel with works by the French composer Albéric Magnard and the German Rudi Stephan, both of whom were killed in the First World War. It’s the first in their three-CD series Concert-Centenaire that will also feature works by Gabriel Fauré and Louis Vierne.

Magnard and Stephan were both killed in somewhat bizarre circumstances, Magnard in September 1914, when his house was burned down by the advancing German army after he had shot and fatally wounded two German soldiers – Magnard’s remains were never identified – and Stephan in September 1915, when he was shot by a Russian sniper two days after his unit had moved into trenches on the Eastern Front; he was apparently the first casualty in the 900-strong unit and was only 28.

Stephan was considered to be one of Germany’s leading young composers, but it’s difficult to judge from this distance – his works were neglected in the 1920s and 1930s, and many of his unpublished manuscripts were destroyed in the Allied bombing raids in 1945. He is represented here by his Groteske for Violin and Piano from 1911, the manuscript for which was only discovered in 1979 in the Bavarian State Library; it’s a short but really effective piece that shows the influence of pre-war Impressionism.

Only 49 when he was killed, Magnard was considered one of the greatest French composers of his era; his style owed more to Vincent d’Indy and César Franck than to Debussy. The major work on the disc is his Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Major Op.13 from 1901; it really is a very impressive piece.

Ingolfsson’s playing is simply superb throughout a fascinating CD, with Stoupel providing terrific support.

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01 Lang Lang ChopinLang Lang’s new release The Chopin Album (Sony 8872548960) is a demonstration of his belief that Chopin is all about emotion. The sheer amount of it that he releases from the dense black spots on Chopin’s pages is a wonder.

There is something about the way the human brain is wired that allows gifted pianists to play the way they do. A single player can sound like two people, with hands at every point of the keyboard, drawing melodies out of dense swirls of elaborate runs and arpeggios. The scale of this genius grows when one considers that composer-pianists first conceived such phenomena in their minds then coded them to paper fully expecting their conceptions to be interpreted accurately. Pianistic genius is something shared inexplicably between creator and performer. Obviously Lang Lang is a pianist who really connects this way with Chopin.

Because technique has long since ceased being a barrier, Lang Lang concentrates on content. He plays the 12 Etudes Op.25 with complete commitment to the power of both force and fragility. It would be difficult to find another performance where emotional poles are so distant from each other. The Nocturnes in E-Flat Major Op.55 No.2 and F Major Op.15 No.1 are amazing examples of this approach.

Every track is a treasure and the listening experience simply begs to be repeated.

Review

02 Yundi ChopinI wrote about Yundi a few months ago and now have another Chopin disc by this prolific recording artist. to enjoy. A prolific recording artist Chopin Ballades, Berceuse, Mazurkas (Deutsche Grammophon 4812443) is his 19th CD. Yundi is a direct player who doesn’t venture far beyond the notes on the page unless Chopin suggests the risk promises some reward. Yundi seems to calculate his artistic risks carefully. In the Four Ballades we have impeccable playing through the first three but No.4 in F Minor Op.52 is altogether different. Here Yundi moves the expressive boundaries out further based on the potential of the emotional content of Chopin’s melodic material. It’s a brilliant and successful choice that speaks to Yundi’s maturity.

Similarly, the Four Mazurkas Op.17 give us the familiar rhythmic pulse of one of Chopin’s favourite dance forms. But Chopin expresses so much more than just dance. No.3 in A-Flat Major begins to open the languorous dark side of this music and Yundi exploits this with great care. No.4 in A Minor is, however, a powerful exploration of the rich melancholy Chopin weaves so skillfully. Yundi glides through this making the most of every possible hesitation and lingering idea. It’s a magical way to end the program.

03 Trifanov TchaikovskyRussian pianist Daniil Trifonov has all the fire of his mid-20s age. On Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1, Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev (Mariinsky MAR 0530) Trifonov leaves no doubt that he can conquer the most difficult passages Tchaikovsky has written into the score. Trifonov and Gergiev take many of these tutti passages at blazing speeds, making them truly exciting. But all this would be nothing if Trifonov couldn’t retreat, as he does so effectively, into the concerto’s introspective moments. The second movement offers a generous sanctuary for this repose, where Trifonov shifts between wistfulness and playfulness. But it’s the two outer movements that really underscore the contrasts of Tchaikovsky’s large-scale vocabulary. The whole concerto frequently has a balletic feel, which is no surprise with Gergiev conducting.

While the concerto gave us all the muscle of this young pianist, the rest of the disc is a moving testament to his gift for tenderness. The Chopin Barcarolle, and the Shubert/Liszt Frühlingsglaube are played with great vulnerability. Die Forelle, similarly moves with great care, but impressive technique, through Liszt’s rapid and skittish portrayals of the legendary trout.

The final track is wisely given to Liebeslied (Widmung) wherein Liszt speaks to Schubert’s original idea in broader more embellished keyboard style and creates a grand final impact by building the simple musical idea into a great edifice. Trifonov really shines in these smaller scale works with flawless technique, intelligent and deeply believable interpretations.

Review

04 Scriabin LeeKorean-American pianist Soyeon Kate Lee has a modest discography but a talent that deserves more exposure. Her newest recording Scriabin – Piano Music (Naxos 8.573527) is a deliberate choice of the composer’s lesser known works, and as such, a wonderful find. Scriabin’s language for the piano has its well-known Chopinesque accent. Much of it is late 19th-century but a few pieces are from the early 20th. The Two Pieces, Op.57 (1908) are the most contemporary of the set and Lee delights in all the gentle angularities of Scriabin’s melodies. She is always completely certain of where the most important material lies and highlights it artfully, even if only a passing note. Lee is very generous with her rubato, taking all the time to exploit hesitant moments for their greatest effect. Her consistently fluid technique is a pleasure to experience, especially in the Nocturne in D-Flat Major Op.9 No.2, written for the left hand alone.

While Scriabin made little of the dance nature of his Mazurkas and Polonaises, Lee nevertheless chooses to underscore this with a subtle pulse on the beat of certain measures as if to remind us of the missing choreography. She closes her recording with a remarkable piece Scriabin wrote at age 11. This Canon in D Minor already bears the distinctive melancholy of its Russian composer. This is a very engaging recording for its fine repertoire choice and thoughtful playing.

05 Lewis Schubert

Not many pianists can boast of having performed all the Beethoven concertos in a single season. Paul Lewis can. When one considers this, his 15 recordings, and sees his discography is mostly Schubert and Beethoven, we begin to understand this artist. While such specialization early in a career may be unusual, one can’t argue with the results.

Lewis in Schubert – Piano Sonata D.845 (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902136.37) leaves no doubt that he is a master of Schubert’s musical language. His grasp of the large forms like the Wanderer Fantasy in C Major Op.15 D760 and the Sonata No.16 in A Minor Op.42 D845 is often orchestral in conception.

The smaller forms like the Four Impromptus Op.Posth.142 D935 are wonderfully fresh and credible. The Impromptu No.2 in A-Flat Major is moving in its simplicity and fluid middle section. No.4 in F Minor is often Listzian in its delivery, suggesting that Schubert was a finer pianist than history might have allowed.

Lewis plays the Six Moments Musicaux Op.94 D780 in a beautifully contemplative posture, especially the final Allegretto. It’s a memorable performance.

06 BurattoItalian pianist Luca Buratto is the 2015 Laureate of the Honens Piano Competition. His two-disc set Live at Honens 2015 (Honens 201601CD) of performances at the competition is a reminder of how well-rounded the judges expect the winner to be. The latest “Complete Pianist” has assembled a live performance program of impressive variety to demonstrate his abilities as soloist, accompanist and ensemble player.

The standard repertoire items for solo piano reveal Buratto’s unerring grasp of the genre. His inspired approach to the final movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major Op.17 moves it to a new level of dark and rich solemnity. He delivers Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse with a rare sparkle and remarkable firepower for the ending. Etudes 15 and 16 for Piano by György Ligeti are breathtaking in their closing measures, restating at maniacal speed, the opening ideas originally heard at a meditative pace. This is brilliant interpretation and performance.

Buratto’s recording includes songs by Viardot and Obradors, sung by Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio K498 for piano, viola and clarinet and other works variously combining the voice with the wind and string instruments.

The true highlight of the set is, however, the Hindemith Sonata for viola and piano in F Major Op.11 No.4. Buratto and violist Hsin-Yun Huang understand this music at the deepest level, capturing all the melodic beauty in Hindemith’s writing. This is especially effective in the second and third movements where the theme and variation format offer seemingly endless opportunity for restatement. The 2015 Honens recording is a must-have.

Review

07 Freire BachNow in his early 70s, Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire has recorded most of the classical and romantic repertoire. His latest recording Bach Piano Works (Decca 478 8449) is a reminder of how universal an artist he is. While not regarded as a specialist in the historical performance practice of baroque keyboard repertoire, he is nevertheless highly credible because of his interpretive maturity.

All the Bach on this recording is clean and unpedalled, as it should be. The wild sweeps of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor BWV903 are beautifully conceived, using only a minimum of the piano’s natural resonance. By contrast, Freire steeps himself in all the available tonal richness of the Andante from the Concerto in D Minor BWV974.

The unidentified instrument used in the recording surrenders a lovely mellow ring to Freire’s touch. His remarkable technique is at once light and fluid. He’s masterful in knowing how to culminate the hammer strike through each keystroke to achieve the precise colour he wants. The Allemande of the Partita No.4 in D Major BWV828 is an arresting example of this keyboard caress. The closing Gigue is a rapid cascade of crisp articulated notes impeccably phrased.

Equally impressive is his shift to the modern transcriptions of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Myra Hess and two chorales by Ferruccio Busoni. The stylistic shift is flawless while preserving the Germanic baroque discipline of Bach’s melodies and modulations. This is a performance of exceptional beauty.

08 RazumovskayaAll performance art benefits from the companionship of passion and intellect. When a highly intelligent artist with impressive academic credentials undertakes a quest to know a composer at the most essential level, we have to listen. In her new recording Liszt – Sonata in B Minor, Petrarch Sonnets, Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen (Malachite Cu20301), Maria Razumovskaya informs her pianistic virtuosity with a profound understanding of Liszt and the nature of his music.

The Three Petrarch Sonnets are exquisitely cast in a pictorial yet spiritual way. Razumovskaya fully grasps the pilgrimage Liszt undertook both physically and creatively. The Sonnets have a simple and ethereal quality in their performance that is quite remarkable. It’s an approach that’s very similar to her treatment of the Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen. So much of this piece is played introspectively. It ends with very a moving statement of the Bach chorale.

The anchor of Razumovskaya’s program is, of course, the B Minor Sonata S178. This may possibly be the least tormented and most contemplative performance I have heard. There is a confidence of statement found throughout even the darkest and most troubled passages which seem to point naturally to all the moments of modal and emotional resolution. It’s an effective interpretation based on a direct inquiry of Liszt’s intention at every moment and constantly reconciled with the person Razumovskaya knows him to be. It’s a very satisfying approach, the companionship of passion and intellect.

Author: Alex Baran
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01 BrucknerBruckner – Symphony No.9
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Mariss Jansons
RCO 16001

On his knees, the ailing Anton Bruckner beseeched God, “Let me be well, I need my health to finish the Ninth.” The devout composer even dedicated the symphony to “lieben Gott.” Apparently, God disdained the dedication: Bruckner died before completing the work.

Although Bruckner scored some of the fourth movement and various completions have been performed, the Ninth is almost always presented, as on this CD, unfinished, ending with the sublime Adagio. This movement, along with the Adagios of Bruckner’s Seventh and Eighth, and those of Beethoven’s and Mahler’s Ninths, ranks among the most profound and exalted slow movements in all music.

Yet many music-lovers scorn Bruckner for his disjointed lumbering, often conducted at lugubrious tempi. Devoted Brucknerites wallow in this expansive timelessness; this CD is not for them. Instead, it makes an ideal, painless way to introduce Bruckner-scorners to this transcendent music.

Recordings of the Symphony No.9 often last an hour or more; this performance, while under 55 minutes, is no superficial run-through. In the opening Misterioso, Jansons favours cohesive lyrical flow over mystery and granitic grandeur. Nonetheless, the movement ends in a sonically stunning climax, highlighted by the RCO’s magnificent brass.

The Scherzo, with its powerfully punctuated, rugged main theme, emerges unusually cheerful and buoyant, with tightly accented rhythms. In the closing Adagio, Jansons and his great orchestra produce glorious, heaven-storming, organ-like sonorities, bringing this Ninth to a memorable conclusion. Recommended to all Bruckner scorners.


02 DvorakDvořák – Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8
Houston Symphony; Andres Orozco-Estrada
Pentatone PTC 5186 578

Every so often a disc comes along that is truly cross-cultural and this is certainly one of them. The renowned Colombian-born conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada leading the Houston Symphony in Dvořák’s seventh and eighth symphonies on the Dutch Pentatone label is proof indeed that music in the 21st century is truly a global affair.

Dvořák was at the height of his fame early in 1884 when he received a commission by London’s Royal Philharmonic Society. The resulting Symphony No.7 is a dark and dramatic work, heavily influenced by the political situation in Bohemia and the composer’s ongoing troubles with his publisher Simrock. Nevertheless, its premiere in April 1885 was a huge success and the work has remained a landmark ever since.

Orozco-Estrada and the Houston Symphony masterfully evoke a sense of tragedy and tension throughout, creating a dark but warmly romantic sound particularly in the second movement Poco Adagio. The third movement Scherzo is all lightness and grace while the grand and triumphant fourth receives a fittingly solid and heroic performance.

The much sunnier Symphony No.8 was completed in 1889 and received its premiere in Prague early the following year. In contrast to its predecessor, the music is cheerful and optimistic and the precision, expression and energy created by the Houston Symphony make this an exciting performance. The wistful third movement waltz contains just the right amount of sentimentality while the buoyant finale – introduced by the famous trumpet fanfare – is a true tour de force with Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra going for the gusto all the way to the brilliant conclusion.

This is an exemplary recording, one that can rightfully take its place alongside the more established performances. Judging from this CD, fine music-making does indeed transcend international boundaries. Highly recommended.


03 KrehlStephan Krehl – Clarinet Quintet; String Quartet
Wonkak Kim; Larchmere String Quartet
Naxos 9.70173

Another unfairly forgotten composer re-emerges thanks to an enterprising ensemble and record company. This is, apparently, Stephan Krehl’s debut on CD, as it is for the Larchmere String Quartet, based at the University of Evansville in Indiana.

Krehl (1864-1924) was a fixture at the Leipzig Conservatory as student, teacher and author of books on theory and composition, eventually becoming the conservatory’s director. Although a contemporary of Mahler and Richard Strauss, Krehl was no forward-looking stylistic adventurer, instead drawing inspiration from Schumann, Brahms and one of his predecessors as Leipzig Conservatory director, Mendelssohn.

Yet for all his looking backward and academic credentials, the music on this CD never sounds imitative or academic. The performances are similarly un-stodgy, expressive and vivacious. Krehl’s String Quartet Op.17, published in 1899, is filled with attractive, yearning melodies and unexpected, engaging changes of texture, tempo and rhythm. In the Clarinet Quintet Op.19, the strings are joined by Wonkak Kim, professor at Tennessee Tech and a regular Naxos artist. Krehl’s Quintet, published in 1902, is patterned on that of Brahms, even being written for and dedicated to clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, for whom Brahms had composed his Quintet. Again, we are treated to wistful melodies, imaginative part-writing and frequent, effective changes of mood.

Considering Krehl’s obscurity, I was happily surprised by just how good and downright enjoyable this music is, with lovely melodies and attention-holding narratives. Naxos, more Krehl, please.


04 BraunfelsWalter Braunfels: Don Juan; Symphonic Variations on an Old French Nursery Song
Altenburg-Gera Philharmonic Orchestra; Markus L. Frank
Capriccio CD C5250

Review

Born in Frankfurt am Main, Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) was the best, most well-equipped of the German composers whom the Nazis managed to sideline completely after their ascension to power in 1933. Braunfels seems to have been the most surprised at being outed as a Jew since he considered himself a staunch, practising Roman Catholic. He was already in mid-career, having produced a string of major compositions. In fact, the Cologne Conservatory had been especially formed around Braunfels as principal. He belongs in the same user-friendly idiom as Richard Strauss although he sounds nothing like Strauss. He had already written his operatic masterpiece, The Birds, an excellent recording of which can be found on Decca in their Entartete Kunst series. Three of his other operas enjoy fine recordings.

Don Juan was written when the composer was at the pinnacle of his career. This is very much the Don Giovanni of Mozart, specifically the Champagne Aria upon which there are seven entertaining variations. It was premiered by Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1924.

The Symphonic Variations on an Old French Nursery Song dates from 1909 and remained in the repertoire until 1933 when it was banned. It is a thoughtful, more serious work, beautifully orchestrated. Neither work presents any challenges to the musicians or the listener.

In case you’re wondering, in 2001 the Provincial Orchestra of Altenburg amalgamated with Philharmonic Orchestra of Gera, forming an orchestra that honours the centuries-old traditions of both cities.


05 CoplandCopland – Orchestral Works I: Ballets
BBC Philharmonic; John Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5164

In 1979, I interviewed Aaron Copland and asked him how he, a boy from Brooklyn (like myself), developed such a feel for Western and rural America. “That’s not so odd,” he answered. “There’s a whole legendary feeling about the West. I think any young American, wherever he might live, would have some sort of feel about the wide open spaces. Beyond that, it’s just a feat of the imagination.”

Copland’s imagined wide-open spaces are front-and-centre in this CD’s three ballet suites. The cowboy ballets Billy the Kid (Billy – another Brooklynite!) and Rodeo receive atmospheric, colourful readings with emphasized percussion. (The booklet notes identify Rodeo choreographer Agnes de Mille as Cecil B.’s daughter; she was his niece.) In Appalachian Spring, conductor Wilson underlines “the spaces between the notes,” building a grand climax on the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts.

The CD opens with an unusually slow and sombre Fanfare for the Common Man, followed by Wilson’s less-than-raucous treatment of El Salón México, Copland’s musical postcard from a Mexican dancehall. (Though not intended for the stage, it has occasionally been choreographed.)

Aided by brilliant recorded sound, Wilson’s measured approach adds uncommon depth and dignity to these works, often tossed off as pops repertoire. The Roman numeral “I” on the cover indicates more Copland CDs are planned. Here’s hoping the unjustly neglected film scores will finally get the comprehensive coverage they deserve. In any event, the series is off to a promising start.


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