06 Rossini AdelaideRossini – Adelaide di Borgogna
Sadovnikova; Gritskova; Anderzhanov; Vlad; Zubieta; Watanabe; Lewenberg; Camerata Bach Choir, Posnań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Luciano Acocella
Naxos 8.660401-02

Here is a rarity of rarities, an opera by Rossini not only recorded for the first time, but one dating back to 1817 and staged scarcely more than a dozen times. Since it disappeared from the repertoire in 1825 (due in large part to the unfavourable reception of Roman critics – it was Rossini’s first opera written for Rome), there were only a few efforts to revive it. Why then history’s cold shoulder? Well, that is the $64,000 question. Yes, Rossini was young, only 25, when he wrote it, but this is not juvenilia. It came right on the heels of Armida (with whom it shared a librettist) and La Cenerentola, both well-loved and often-performed operas.

Adelaide di Borgogna is centred on the events in medieval Italy (circa 950 AD) that led to extending the Holy Roman Empire from Germany into the Apennine Peninsula. The action is, unusual for an opera, historically accurate, well-paced and intriguing. We cannot fault the music either – Rossini himself frequently reused passages from this work in his later operas to great effect. So, in the end, yet another great work killed off by negative reviews. Listening to this recording truly has made me more aware of my responsibility as a music critic. My only regret for this unique recording is the relative mediocrity of the assembled cast, with the notable exception of Margarita Gritskova in a splendid trouser role as the Emperor Otto the Great.

07 Wagner ParsifalWagner – Parsifal
Marco-Burmester; Petrenko; Struckmann; Ventris; Lang; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Iván Fischer
Challenge Classics CC72619 (challengerrecords.com)

German Romantic opera reached its pinnacle under Wagner. Once he found his stride, Singspiels and Italianate number operas would be side-tracked in German-speaking opera houses. Wagner melded mythical stories to seamless, powerful symphonic music in masterpieces including his iconic Ring Cycle. Then Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera, broke that mould, when it was premiered at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The opera – an adaptation of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century epic poem Parzival – caused a stir with its depiction of religious fervour, purity of caste and women as sexually depraved heathens. Reactions were confused at first but by 1887 they turned vehement. Still, Wagner remained adamant and, in an era increasingly bereft of sacred experience, he was emphatic in his belief that music dramas should fully absorb audiences in mystical truths.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s performance of Parsifal, conducted by Iván Fischer is a considerably minimalist production directed by the Wagner expert and director of the Dutch National Opera, Pierre Audi. Produced for television and DVD in 2012, it may be short on the lavish density of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s acclaimed 1982 production. However, with a wooden strut-like framework depicting the castle that houses the suffering Amfortas drenched in his blood, and its preternatural stairway to heaven, an atmosphere of both horror and pity is superbly created. Such spare environs are perfect for the cavernous voices of Titurel, founder of the Knights of the Grail and his son Amfortas, sung by Mikhail Petrenko (bass, who also sings Klingsor) and Alejendro Marco-Buhrmester (baritone) respectively. Falk Struckmann (bass) as the veteran Knight of the Grail, Gurnemanz, rumbles on sublimely too. But the tenor Christopher Ventris’ Parsifal and soprano Petra Lang as Kundry leave indelible marks on both roles.

The magnificent vocal colouring and shifting tonalities in the agony and ecstasy from Act I to Act III is convincingly Wagnerian. More important than that is the transition from agonizing sinful states to depictions of redemption and salvation. Here, in their complete transformation, every principal cast member shines. Anish Kapoor’s set design especially in Act II – where the backdrop of an orb of sorts seems to reflect the depth of the characters’ changing emotions through spectacular lighting by Jean Kalman – is absolutely magical. There are minor fluctuations of volume in the DVD sound, but these are minor irritants. The miraculous translation of the three-dimensional depth of the play onto the flat television screen is a major production triumph.

08 Gurrelieder DVDSchoenberg – Gurrelieder
Soloists; chorus of the Dutch National Opera; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Marc Albrecht
Opus Arte DVD OA 1227 (also on Blu-ray)

This is a video of an attempt to stage Schoenberg’s extraordinary cantata based on poetry by Jens Peter Jacobsen. It is not an opera and actions on the stage do not always match the libretto. The text is dreamy and melancholic, a Tristanesque tale of impossible love. I confess that over many years of listening, although totally absorbed, I have not mentally pictured or “seen” the events described by the singers and the orchestra. The score does its job and the goings on, the thoughts, events and emotions are unmistakable, but remain abstractions.

The great room of Gurre Castle is director Pierre Audi’s set for this production with various props to define a scene… a large bed, screens, panels, etc. The prominent curved metal staircase adds a vertical dimension and supports some of the action. A huge, rather formidable fish, perhaps representing a fantastic eel, passively enters into the room in Part Three during Klaus Narr’s pantomime-like scene that follows the rousing, exhilarating Wild Hunt.

King Waldemar is sung by tenor Burkhard Fritz, who is scheduled to sing Siegmund in Leipzig’s Ring Cycle early next year. Tove, his beloved, is soprano Emily Magee and the Wood Dove is contralto Anna Larsson. Bass-baritone Markus Marquardt is the Peasant and tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is Klaus Narr, the court jester. Actress Sunnyi Melles is the narrator who introduces the evening, settling the audience down for what’s to follow. She moves as an observer through the scenes, sometimes commenting and finally breaking into an unusually impassioned delivery of the sprechgesang exultation of the sun. Internationally renowned for her interpretations of Mahler, Larsson’s Wood Dove is outstanding and genuinely tragic as it should be, delivering the news of Tove’s murder and closing Part One. Incidentally, because she is acting it out, Larsson is completely caught up in the role as she was not in the very fine recent version conducted by Edward Gardner reviewed in March. The chorus is better than outstanding. Under Marc Albrecht, the orchestral balances, so brilliantly recorded, are dynamic and expansive, letting the brass sing out, most importantly in the awe-inspiring choral finale as the sun rises and the nocturnal fantasies are banished.

On first viewing, not knowing what to expect, the staging was something of a letdown. By the third playing, no longer expecting anything different, I was enrolled, appreciating this most unusual experience immensely. As noted above, the surround sound is awesome. All in all, quite an experience.

09 Floyd SusannahCarlisle Floyd – Susannah
Susan Hellman Spatafora; St. Petersburg Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Mark Sforzini
Naxos 2.110381

In an interview included in this DVD, Carlisle Floyd describes the two major influences on the creation of his most-performed opera. As a young university professor in Florida, he witnessed what he calls “the destruction of innocence” by false accusations during the 1950s McCarthy era. The son of a Methodist minister in South Carolina, he had also experienced the mob hysteria of small-town revival meetings. “I personally found it very terrifying as a child to go to these meetings,” he says. “What offended me most was mass coercion – and it still does!”

Floyd’s self-written libretto transfers the Apocrypha tale of Susannah and the Elders to “New Hope,” a small town in Appalachian Tennessee. Susannah’s folk-flavoured, often quite beautiful score amplifies a powerful drama – the innocent Susannah victimized both by the townspeople who believe her “pretty face must hide some evil” and the evangelical preacher, Olin Blitch, captivated by that same face.

Susannah has been performed hundreds of times since its 1955 premiere, but this is its first, very welcome, commercial DVD release. The St. Petersburg (Florida) Opera’s 2014 production is low budget yet highly effective, the single set doubling as Susannah’s house and the New Hope Church. Soprano Susan Hellman Spatafora is a feisty, radiant Susannah, baritone Todd Donovan a sturdy voiced Blitch, the revival-scene chorus truly “very terrifying,” while conductor Mark Sforzini revels in the music’s beauty and passion.

If you don’t already know this opera, you should – it’s unforgettable!

10 Gordon GettyGordon Getty – The Canterville Ghost
Oper Leipzig; Gewandhausorchester; Matthias Foremny
Pentatone PTC 5186 541

“Stage and page have different needs,” writes composer Getty, son of billionaire Jean Paul, explaining in the CD’s booklet the alterations in his libretto when adapting Oscar Wilde’s novella. Wilde’s whimsical tale remains essentially intact, however, with the Otis family moving into an English manor haunted by the 300-year-old ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville, unable to find release in death.

Instead of being frightened, Mr. Otis offers the Ghost oil to lubricate his chains, Mrs. Otis gives him a tonic to quell his moaning, and the young Otis twins throw pillows at him, push a cream pie in his face and douse him with water.

Only 15-year-old Virginia hasn’t offended him. In the longest scene of the hour-long opera, the Ghost tells her, “You must weep with me for my sins… pray with me for my soul… and then… the Angel of Death will have mercy on me.” His skeleton is discovered the next day. The final scene takes place five years later at Sir Simon’s graveside, where Virginia, now married, sings a lovely duet with her husband, “Stay with me, beautiful,” the opera’s lyrical highlight.

The Canterville Ghost was premiered in Leipzig in 2015 by the performers on this disc. Bass-baritone Matthew Treviño is the forceful but sympathetic Ghost, soprano Alexandra Hutton is all sweetness as Virginia, and Getty’s bright, witty score strongly supports the action.

This is a very stage-worthy and entertaining addition to the repertoire of one-act, English-language operas.

01 Elinor FreyAngelo Maria Fioré – Complete Cello Sonatas
Elinor Frey; Suzie LeBlanc; Lorenzo Ghielmi; Esteban La Rotta
Passacaille 1026 (elinorfrey.com)

Oh my, this is an elegant recording! From the simple opening bars of Fioré’s G Major Cello Sonata, the highest calibre of music-making is established and doesn’t waver for the duration of the disc. There are three strands to the program: the complete sonatas for cello by the little-known cellist of the late 17th and early 18th century, Angelo Maria Fioré; a half-dozen arias by contemporaries of Fioré which feature cello obbligato lines; and two pieces from the same period for solo harpsichord.

The handsome CD booklet features a well-written, substantial essay by Elinor Frey on the early history of the cello, the life – such as we know it – of Fioré, and a detailed contextualization of the works on the program. The cello sonatas themselves are pleasant, have a great deal of variety and are clearly idiomatically suited to the instrument. Fioré was a few years younger than his celebrated contemporary Arcangelo Corelli, and his sonatas – at their best – share a drive and musical interest with Corelli’s early trio sonatas.

The arias are by Paolo Magni, Francesco Ballarotti and other rather obscure Italians of the mid-Baroque and have themes of – what else? – the raptures and torments of love. The highlight is Magni’s É caro il tormento soave il dolor featuring sophisticated and truly moving interplay between Suzie Leblanc’s voice and Frey’s cello.

The performances throughout are well-conceived, leaving ample room for spontaneity and fancy. Kudos to Lorenzo Ghielmi and Esteban La Rotta for their warm and classy support.

02 Back Before BachBack Before Bach
Piffaro The Renaissance Band
Navona Records NV6106 (navonarecords.com)

Just one look at the photographs of Piffaro’s musicians – and from the sleeve notes the range of instruments played – will confirm this ensemble’s sheer diversity of expertise. Listen to the 38(!) tracks and you will appreciate the exuberance of their playing.

From the outset the shawms and sackbuts take us back to the Renaissance – we are listening to compositions by Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Isaac and many others. What is surprising is the Chorale (with sackbuts and dulcian) by none other than J.S. Bach. Mind you, Bach’s father, godfather and father-in-law were all city trumpeters.

Then two highly popular Renaissance tunes. Joan Kimball is solo bagpipes player in Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen: her intense interpretation is balanced out by Priscilla Herreid’s perky recorder playing and, indeed, by some spirited crumhorn playing in the other variations.

The second variations are of Tandernaken op den Rijn; no bagpipes or crumhorns but the mellow and ethereal tones of the recorder. In particular, enjoy Antone Brumel’s two-part scoring and the deft playing once again of Herreid and Kimball. This set is perhaps the most involved – yet enjoyable – on this CD. Play the set to anyone who still believes recorders are for schoolkids!

And so to A solis ortus, variations commencing with one by Coelius Sedulius for two recorders which would grace any modern church (Sedulius died in 450 – early music composition with a vengeance…). Recorders again hold sway courtesy of, inter alia, a Praetorius Chorale played on eight(!) recorders, and another Chorale by J.S. Bach.

German dances, as may be expected from the late Renaissance, feature heavily. In one suite shawms and sackbuts can be heard separately and in harmony, the former in the Scheidt Allemande with deep rich tone, the latter in the Praetorius Passameze. La Volta lives up to its name, Praetorius placing his stamp on this breathtaking popular dance.

The CD is rounded off with another suite of German dances, dominated by Praetorius. Joan Kimball arranges Ballet des Aveugles for bagpipes and shawm, a skirling effort with many variations, followed by the relatively delicate Padouana by Johann Schein played on sackbuts. This dignified piece well deserves its popularity among early music enthusiasts. And this CD is well worthy of an audience wider than just the latter.

03 Bach MarimbaBach – Solo works for marimba
Kuniko
Linn Records CKD 585 (linnrecords.com)

Playing any classical music on the marimba would have been unthinkable before 1892. After all it was only then that the instrument was equipped with additional notes to include the chromatic scale by adding another row of sound bars, akin to black keys on the piano. However, playing Bach on the marimba – if not unthinkable – would still be enormously thought-provoking, but not challenging enough, it seems, for Kuniko, a profoundly brilliant virtuoso at home on both keyboard and percussion instruments. Still, even the fact that she has performed and recorded the music of Iannis Xenakis and Steve Reich could not have been sufficient for approaching these masterworks on Bach: Solo Works for Marimba.

Approaching the Prelude No.1 in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, a work unequalled in the profligacy of its inventiveness, sets the tone for this exquisitely sculpted music by Kuniko. The result is a fascinating opening, with its sprightly dance-like passages and concise melody creating myriad resonances and perspectives for the cycles of Cello Suites and Violin Sonatas that follow. Here the mallets lead the ear, cherishing motivic snippets, highlighting arresting harmonic progressions with crystalline articulation. Kuniko’s enormous insight into Bach and her own limitless inventiveness make for muscular, exhilaratingly voiced and contrapuntally lucid performances of the solo works for cello and violin, in which harmony and counterpoint are implied through frequent spreading of component notes. A bedazzling set of discs, singing with innate beauty.

04 Bruckner 9Bruckner 9
Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti
CSO-Resound CSOR 901 1701 (cso.org)

There is no lack of fine recordings of Bruckner’s Symphony No.9, a work left incomplete at the time of his death in 1896. Among American orchestras, the Chicago Symphony has long been renowned for its performances of Bruckner’s music, and it was the CSO who actually gave the North American premiere in 1904. So this latest recording featuring the CSO conducted by Riccardo Muti seems particularly fitting.

This is not Muti’s first foray into Bruckner – he has also recorded Symphonies Four and Seven – but from the forbidding opening measures of Symphony No.9, the orchestra displays a deep engagement with this monumental score. The first movement – 26 minutes in length – is majestic and dignified, with CSO’s outstanding sound displaying rich tonal colours and a full dynamic range. We could only have hoped for a little more prominence of the renowned CSO brass section, which at times seems too muted.

The strident Scherzo has a rightful mood of defiance, Muti approaching it with a suitable amount of intensity.

The third and final Adagio is all serenity, with Muti and the CSO invoking a true sense of nobility. Even without the final movement, Muti instills a satisfying sense of conclusion that doesn’t leave the listener wanting for more.

This is an exemplary recording, one that can rightfully take its place alongside more established performances. An Italian-born conductor leading an American orchestra in music from the late Romantic period – proof indeed that fine music-making does indeed transcend international boundaries – highly recommended.

05 Mahler 5Mahler 5
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
BIS BIS-2226 SACD (mnorch.org)

The conductor Osmo Vänskä has an enviable reputation as an orchestra builder, having previously transformed the provincial Finnish orchestra of Lahti into a major player with his survey of the complete works of Sibelius in an acclaimed series of recordings on the BIS label. In 2003, Vänskä became the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra and turned his attention to well-regarded box sets of the complete Beethoven and Sibelius symphonies, also on BIS. The present recording is the first in a projected series of the complete Mahler symphonies, with Symphonies Six and Two due to arrive shortly.

I must admit I was initially a bit dubious about the project; a Mahler cycle is a pro forma bid for the big leagues and a potentially ruinous gamble from entities whose Mahler tradition is often negligible. I need not have worried. As Mahler was fond of saying, “Tradition is laziness.” This is a fresh-faced, supremely confident performance that cleans away many a cobweb from the customary overheated interpretations of this popular work. Vänskä lets the music flow naturally without resorting to dramatic excess at structural transitions, and his orchestra responds with admirable assurance and precision to his subtle tempo modifications. The refinement of the string section in particular is exemplary, allowing the delicate arc of the Adagietto movement to be stretched to a near-record duration of 13 minutes. Special praise is due to the experienced team from BIS for producing an exemplary, richly detailed studio recording in an age in which cheaply sutured “live” performances predominate.

06 Strasuss OboeRichard Strauss – Oboe Concerto; Wind Serenade; Wind Sonatina No.2
Alexei Ogrintchouk; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Andris Nelsons
BIS BIX-2163 SACD bis.se

Alexi Ogrintchouk, principal oboist of the venerable Concertgebouw Orchestra since 2005, headlines this new recording of two late works by Richard Strauss. Chief among them is the Oboe Concerto of 1945, which the composer was encouraged to write by the occupying American soldier and, by chance, professional oboist John de Lancie. Strauss, then in his 80s, was cool to the idea at first, but he liked to keep busy even as his cozy world collapsed about him. The resulting 25-minute, single-movement Concerto, while not technically difficult, is exceedingly prolix and taxes the endurance of the soloist to the utmost. Ogrintchouk, blessed with a tone both sweet and secure, is more than up to the task and receives outstandingly sensitive support from the orchestra and conductor Andris Nelsons in this recording nicely cobbled together from three live performances.

The disc also includes a performance of the composer’s skilful Serenade in E-flat Major, composed at the age of 18. While it is a minor work, its inclusion here does presage in a curious way the retrogressive, four-square melodic profile of his late style. Personally I was drawn to this recording by the presence of the Wind Sonatina of 1944-45. Subtitled “The Happy Workshop,” it is a companion work to the even stranger Sonatina of 1943, “From an Invalid’s Workshop.” Both are scored for an ensemble of 16 wind instruments, including rare assignments for the clarinet in C and basset horn. The moniker of “Sonatina” is truly droll, as the Second Sonatina is a symphonically conceived, multi-movement 40-minute work. Here the senescent Strauss revels in his expertise in the slippery art of sidestepping chromaticism. The performance, presumably captured under studio conditions, is simply glorious and is captured in pristine sound across a wide and detailed sonic spectrum. Ho boy is it good!

07 Schmidt StraussSchmidt – Symphony No.2; Strauss – Breathing by the Fireside
Wiener Philharmoniker; Semyon Bychkov
Sony Classical 88985355522

After Mahler and Strauss, my favourite late Romantic among German and Austrian composers is Franz Schmidt (1874-1939). Virtuoso pianist, Vienna Court Opera Orchestra cellist, and distinguished teacher of several subjects at the Vienna Conservatory, Schmidt composed in every major genre. Of his four symphonies the Second (1913) is charming, grand and dark in turn. The Vienna Philharmonic under the masterful Semyon Bychkov shines in this Sony release, especially the strings from the first movement’s opening “bubbly stream” onwards. The brass section predominates later with horns that amaze; contrapuntal ingenuities and vivid contrasts of tone colour abound in woodwinds from the piccolo on down. Bychkov, the orchestra and the recording team achieve admirable pacing and balance, for example where everything gears down darkly till only soft tam-tam strokes are heard before the opening passage’s return.

I believe there are subtle allusions to composers with Vienna associations. In the second movement, an ingenious theme and variations, the first chord references that of Brahms’ Haydn Variations in key, chord, and melody; the finale fugato begins with the E-flat major two-note horn call of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (Bruckner was Schmidt’s counterpoint teacher). Though ingrained in Viennese musical life, Schmidt became his own joyous and tragic compositional personality, and comments like “sounds like Richard Strauss” are tiresomely shallow. In any case the disc includes the interlude known as Dreaming by the Fireside from Strauss’s opera Intermezzo (1924), allowing comparison.

08 Ives Three PlacesIves – Three Places in New England; Orchestral Set No.2; New England Holidays
Seattle Symphony; Ludovic Morlot
Seattle Symphony SSM1015 (seattlesymphony.org)

This Naxos recording is the third in a series paying homage to the music of Charles Ives, recorded live by the Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. The disc opens with the St. Gaudens in Boston Common from Three Places in New England. Here, the ensemble invokes a moving and wistful mood as befits music honouring fallen Black soldiers in the Civil War. The raucous Putnam’s Camp is a true Fourth of July celebration while the mysterious Housatonic at Stockbridge is a personal and sensitive musical depiction of the mystical river flowing through New England.

More patriotism follows in the Orchestral Set No.2 and New England Holidays, where the orchestra’s exemplary winds and brass are heard to great advantage, particularly in the middle movement of the set, The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting. New England Holidays is a study in contrasts, from the icy New England landscape of Washington’s Birthday in February, to the reverential Thanksgiving where the orchestra is joined by the Seattle Symphony Chorale.

In all, this CD is a wonderful representation of Ives’ music, the well-selected program further enhanced by the SSO’s polished performance. As to whether or not a French-born conductor has an affinity towards American music, the answer is most decidedly “Oui!” Morlot may hail from Lyon, but this performance has “America” written all over it – highly recommended.

09 AntheilGeorge Antheil – A Jazz Symphony; Piano Concerto No.1
Frank Dupree; Adrian Brendle; Uram Kim; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Karl-Heinz Steffens
Capriccio C5309 CD

In 1945, the American composer George Antheil (1900-1959) published his memoirs titled Bad Boy of Music. Antheil had attended the Sternberg Conservatory in Philadelphia and later studied with Ernest Bloch. He composed six symphonies and two piano concertos, in addition to operas, ballets, chamber music and a song cycle plus some 30 film scores including In a Lonely Place, Bogart’s 1950 film noir. All this in addition to writing a regular newspaper column for the lovelorn and authoring a layman’s guide on forensic endocrinology. He collaborated with actress Hedy Lamarr to invent a guidance system for torpedoes that was adopted by the Navy in WWII. His compositions always attracted attention, most particularly the shocking Ballet Mécanique (1925) a work for orchestra, mechanical pianos and an airplane engine.

Here is the original 1925 version written for Paul Whiteman of A Jazz Symphony for three pianos and orchestra, a year after Gershwin’s original Rhapsody in Blue and before Ferde Grofé’s orchestration of that piece. It is a crazy, 12-and-a-half-minute potpourri of many ideas and tunes that enter and leave usually without further development. Antheil briefly quotes from Petrouchka and Varèse comes to mind. Of course, this is not jazz but it utilizes many jazz instruments and figures. A hoot.

The Piano Concerto No.1 (1922) is equally entertaining and is clearly from the same hand. Bright, original and entertaining, including brief quotes from Le Sacre.

To the naive boy from a village in Spain, Madrid was Capital of the World where, eventually, he meets an admired bull fighter and is ultimately fatally knifed. The suite is in three scenes, The Tailor’s Shop, Meditation and Knife Dance and Farruca. Antheil’s Rhumba is orchestrated in the by-now-familiar mode, providing a suitably festive closing-out for this very unusual, interesting and entertaining program. 

10 Copland 3Copland – Symphony No.3; Three Latin American Sketches
Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin
Naxos 8.559844

Aaron Copland’s life encompassed nearly the entire 20th century. During it he was exposed to a crossfire of many European modern influences, but miraculously he could still achieve his own voice, a distinctive style that’s unmistakably American. Interestingly he began like Stravinsky, by writing for the ballet, a good way to make his music accessible to the public and become popular, so by the time he wrote a purely orchestral piece like Symphony No.3 right after the war in 1946, a joyful, optimistic work, it was instantly well received.

The entire symphony is full of inspiration: the hymn-like quiet beginning, the rip-roaring Scherzo punctuated by whistles on the piccolo which is like a group of wild horses storming out of the paddock, and the peaceful third movement where we can feel the vast prairies and the overarching sky. This insinuates itself into the tremendous Fanfare for the Common Man that introduces the fourth movement, with those shattering chords by the brass interrupted by thundering cannons. I am suddenly aware how this music has already become embedded into the soul and as conductor Jaap van Zweden aptly put it, “into the DNA of every American.”

Now this new recording with the gorgeous, spacious sound of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a band very much underestimated and under one of the best American conductors, Leonard Slatkin, I like it even better than the previous benchmark issue with Bernstein. As an added bonus the Three Latin American Sketches with Mexican influences shows Copland’s lighter side and versatility.

11 Randall ThompsonRandall Thompson – Symphony No.2; Samuel Adams – Drift and Providence; Samuel Barber – Symphony No.1
National Orchestra Institute Philharmonic; James Ross
Naxos 8.559822

A trio of American composers – Randall Thompson, Samuel Adams and Samuel Barber – are featured on this Naxos American Classics CD, the second in a series of recordings performed by top conservatory students of Maryland’s National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by James Ross.

Despite being written during the Great Depression, Thompson’s Symphony No.2 from 1931 is anything but angst-ridden. The opening movement is lively and spirited, owing much to the jazz rhythms of the 1920s. The lush second movement Largo is warmly Romantic, while the third and fourth movements are marked by a mood of buoyant optimism, the strings melding perfectly with the stirring brass, particularly in the gregarious finale.

Drift and Providence by Adams is a musical voyage inspired by the Pacific Ocean. The 32-year-old composer explained that in creating the piece, he recorded sounds of the ocean, transformed them digitally, then transcribed them for instruments. With a sparing use of electronic media, the result is highly atmospheric music.

Despite an initial mixed reception at its 1936 premiere, Barber’s Symphony No.1 ultimately gained greater favour and was the first American symphonic piece to be presented at the Salzburg Festival. More strident than Thompson’s symphony, the piece is well constructed, with the orchestra deftly handing the four contrasting sections.

This is a fine recording – how appropriate that an orchestra of gifted young American musicians would perform music by American composers who had not yet reached the age of 35 – and do it well. Recommended. 

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