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. 

09 transhumanThe piano four-hands duo of Paola Savvidou and Jonathan Kuuskoski have led a recording project Transhuman – New Muse Piano Duo (Blue Griffin Recording BGR407) that celebrates the work of contemporary composers who treat the piano in its fullest capacity as a percussion and stringed instrument in addition to being just a keyboard. Repertoire for the project was selected from more than 100 submissions and includes a few works commissioned especially for the recording.

The works are wonderfully varied and present an entertaining array of subjects. Transhuman Etudes by Gabriel Prokofiev looks to the computer age and expresses its mechanistic logic through layered voices and complex polyrhythms. Rambunction by Stacey Barelos reflects the American entrepreneurial spirit using recognizable melodic shapes and rhythms. The inside of the piano, its harp of strings, becomes an important textural resource for Amy Williams’ Switch. Haley Myers calls for the performers to bow the strings with rosin-coated fishing line in her atmospheric work Festina Lente. Composer Oleg Bezborodko is perhaps the most adventurous in his use of the piano strings as a cembalom or even a balalaika. His Mignonettes et poèmettes de notre temps recalls the flavours of Eastern European life from a century ago. Henrik Ajax adds knocking on the piano case to the list of effects he uses in Valse déconstruite.

Transhuman is a creative and highly entertaining recording that will stimulate your imagination about what a piano can really do.

05 Quatro ManiDuo pianists Steven Beck and Susan Grace have been performing together since 2013 and have developed a sterling reputation for performance of contemporary works. Their latest collaboration, Quattro Mani – Lounge Lizards (Bridge 9486) opens with Fred Lerdahl’s Quiet Music. Originally scored for orchestra, the composer’s two-piano version is an immediately engaging piece played almost entirely pianissimo and using texture as the main building block to advance the work. A constant stream of sixteenth notes pulses throughout the music while the pianists build density toward a climax from which they then gently retreat.

Two works really stand out on this disc: Charles Ives’ Three Quarter-tone Pieces and Lounge Lizards by Michael Daugherty. The Ives work is a study in the possibilities of quarter-tone tuning as first proposed by a German builder in 1925 who created a quarter-tone piano with two keyboards. For this performance, one of the instruments is tuned to the quarter-tone difference while the other is left at concert pitch.

Lounge Lizards is composer Michael Daugherty’s recollection of his student years when he supported his studies by playing in bars and night clubs in Europe and the U.S. It too was originally scored for orchestra and percussion but has been subsequently arranged by the composer for two pianos and two percussion.

02 Tournemire BoucherWalking into Montreal’s St. Joseph’s oratory for the first time is a memorable experience. The sheer size of the space under the massive dome and the starkly modern concrete columns are enough to shrink any ego. Perched in the rear gallery like some colossal beast sits the 1960 instrument by Rudolf von Beckerath. Organist Vincent Boucher has the regular task of sitting like an ant at the console in these gargantuan surroundings and filling the oratory with glorious music. His recent disc Charles Tournemire – Mariae Virginis (ATMA Classique ACD2 2473) is a splendid example of musicianship and sound engineering at their best. Capturing the right amount of direct sound from the instrument and balancing it with the building’s natural reverberation are always the key to successful organ recordings. This one gets it right.

The language of late-19th-century repertoire can be dense and Charles Tournemire wrote carefully to achieve those heavy textures while cognizant of the challenges organs would have in large spaces like St. Joseph’s in Montreal. Clarity of colour and harmony are vital to the writing of that period. Tournemire achieved this by writing sparsely wherever this was needed.

The works on this disc are sets of service music from a year-long collection of such compositions. They include Introits, Offertories, music for the Communion and also Postludes. The repertoire on the recording is specially focused on feasts of the Virgin from the liturgical calendar.

11 TorobaPepe Romero and his student Vicente Coves are the soloists on Torroba Guitar Concertos Vol.2 with Spain’s Extremadura Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manuel Coves, the brother of Vicente (Naxos 8.573503).

Although not a guitarist himself Torroba wrote close to 100 works for the classical guitar, thanks initially to a close working relationship with Andrés Segovia that started in the early 1920s. Despite some early attempts at a concerto there were no significant results until the 1960s, when Torroba concentrated less on his zarzuelas, the Spanish light-opera form at which he was so successful, and more on his writing for guitar. He ended up writing ten guitar concertos, all of which – like his zarzuelas – are richly lyrical and deeply melodic as well as being grounded in the Spanish folk idiom so prevalent in Spanish guitar music.

The three concertos here are Homenaje a la seguidilla from 1962 (but revised in 1975 and 1981), Tonada concertante from 1975-80 and Concierto de Castilla from 1960, with Vicente Coves the soloist in the latter. Superb playing and idiomatic orchestral support mark all three performances, my only complaint being the ludicrously short CD break – four seconds! – between the concertos.

12 Viva SegoviaNot only did Andrés Segovia almost single-handedly establish the guitar as a concert instrument, he was also responsible for a significant increase in its repertoire. A great number of works commissioned by him or dedicated to him – many never actually performed – were discovered among his private papers in May 2001; the works were later published as The Segovia Archive Series by Edizione Musicale Bèrben. ¡Viva Segovia! (Reference Recordings FR-723) is the third CD from Spanish guitarist Roberto Moronn Pérez in his Andrés Segovia Archive series, following volumes of works by Spanish and French composers.

There are two “new” English works here: Cyril Scott’s Sonatina and Lennox Berkeley’s Quatre Pièces pour la guitare, both described by Pérez as gems. Three Swiss composers – Aloÿs Fornerod, Fernande Peyrot and Hans Haug – are represented, Fornerod and Peyrot by Prélude and Thème et variations respectively, while Haug’s Étude opens the CD and his Passacaglia closes it. The Sonata in mi by the Italian composer Ettore Desderi completes the program.

Pérez displays an outstanding technique in this fascinating collection of works that were lost for so long, all of which deserve to become a part of the regular repertoire.

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