06_Ancia NAXOSShort Stories - American music for saxophone quartet
Ancia Saxophone Quartet
Naxos 8.559616

Borrowing from popular music has almost defined American “classical” music since the time of Ives, and the Ancia Saxophone Quartet has compiled a disc of commissions and favourites that capture Twentieth Century America.

The Chorale from Ives’ String Quartet No. 1 opens this disc, which also includes the third movement of his Fourth Symphony. Ives would have embraced the organ-like sound of the saxophone quartet for his collage of hymns.

The influence of Elliott Carter can be seen in Fred Sturm’s Picasso Cubed (a reworking of a Coleman Hawkins improvisation, perhaps as seen through a kaleidoscope), and in David Bixler’s Heptagon (seven short jazzy Webernesque movements). Accordionist Dee Langley joins for Elusive Dreams, where composer Carleton Macy demonstrates how well the instrument blends with saxophones.

The minimalist movement is represented by Michael Torke’s July. Written one hundred years after the Ives, Torke also likes to borrow from popular music: “Whenever I am drawn to a particular… pop song, I scratch my head and think, ‘I like that, how could I use it?’”

Jennifer Higdon – who is popular now in the orchestral world – wrote the title track, Short Stories, for the Ancia Quartet. Each picturesque movement invokes a film while listening. Higdon knows each instrument, and writes very well for saxophone quartet.

The American Classics Series on NAXOS continues to record a wide range of music and artists, and Ancia’s disc is an enjoyable listen.

Wallace Halladay

05_kleiberg_concertiTreble & Bass - concertos by Ståle Kleiberg
Marianne Thorsen; Göran Sjölin; Trondheim Symfoniorkester; Daniel Reuss
Lindberg Lyd AS 2L59SACD

The Norwegian composer Ståle Kleiberg was born in Stavanger in 1958 and now lives in Trondheim. Several of his works have been commissioned by the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, including the two excellent Concertos recorded here featuring Trondheim native Marianne Thorsen on violin and the orchestra’s Swedish principal bass player Göran Sjölin, sensitively accompanied by conductor Daniel Reuss and the excellent Trondheim ensemble.

Kleiberg’s two string concertos are both cast in a traditional three movement fast-slow-fast framework yet exhibit a very individual melodic approach that is remarkably compelling. Restricting himself for the most part to easily comprehensible two part counterpoint, Kleiberg composes long lines of chromatically inflected strands of ever-evolving melodies that captivate the listener through a process of seamless organic metamorphoses. Decidedly post-modern in their allegiance to tonality, these concertos exhibit highly effective and idiomatic string writing. This is especially evident in his double bass concerto. For such a burly fellow, the soul of the contrabass is at heart rather melancholy, intimate and a bit clumsy, and a real challenge to compose for. Soloist Sjölin performs miracles in the many extended passages in the highest register and is rock-solid in his performance of the luminous sections composed entirely from the natural harmonics of the instrument. There’s never a dull moment in either of these eminently accessible works. Highly recommended.

Daniel Foley

04_secluded_gardenLorenzo Palomo - My Secluded Garden
Maria Bayo; Pepe Romero; Romero Guitar Quartet; Seville Royal Symphony Orchestra; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Naxos 8.572139

The two glorious vocal collections by Spanish contemporary composer Lorenzo Palomo feature many influences from traditional Spanish, Sephardic or Arab roots to more modern day contemporary and quasi jazz tonalities. The rich tonal colours and harmonies are only surpassed by the ever present musical “surprise” lurking around every corner.

The eleven songs comprising My Secluded Garden are composed to the Spanish love poems of Celedonio Romero, the late “grand maestro of the guitar”. Love with all its surprises offers Palomo the opportunity to superimpose the above mentioned styles. Soprano Maria Bayo’s voice is occasionally too shrill but she is confident in her attitude, while guitarist Pepe Romero (Celedonio’s son) provides a perfect backdrop. Callen los pinos, is the melodic gem of the collection with an unforgettable fortissimo climax and a sudden sweet ending.

Love is still the lyric theme in Madrigal and Five Sephardic Songs. The composer sets the traditional texts to a more uniform musical influence, this time the melodies of Jewish songs. Now Bayo’s voice is rich and deep, her intonation flawless, while the guitar setting allows Romero to display his mastery.

Concierto de Cienfuegos for four guitars and orchestra is given a superb rendition by The Romero Guitar Quartet and the Seville Royal Symphony Orchestra. With many musical surprises, this three movement work with Spanish flavours is easy on the ears though deeply rooted in contemporary harmonies and rhythmic variations.

The biggest surprise of the day however was how much I enjoyed “My Secluded Garden” and Lorenzo Palomo’s music. Ole!

Tiina Kiik

03_korngoldKorngold - Violin Concerto
Philippe Quint; Orquestr Sinfoinica de Mineria; Carlos Miguel Prieto
Naxos 8.570791

Erich Wolfgang Korngold is now chiefly remembered for his outstanding Hollywood movie scores of the late 1930s and early 1940s, but 20 years earlier he had been an established and much-admired young prodigy in Europe, even managing to impress Mahler with his music when only 9 years old. His return to a completely changed European concert scene after the Second World War failed to repeat his earlier successes, however, and he died, scarcely remembered, in 1957.

His Violin Concerto, though, has never left the repertoire, probably because it so successfully combines both of Korngold’s musical worlds. Written in 1945 at the behest of Bronislaw Huberman and premiered by Heifetz in 1947, it is a rich and tuneful late-Romantic work, at times strongly reminiscent of the Barber concerto, with the main themes in all three movements taken from the composer’s own film scores.

Philippe Quint is, as usual, in wonderful form in a warm and beautifully recorded performance. If you don’t yet know his brilliant playing, then take advantage of the great Naxos price to discover it now!

Two early orchestral works complete the CD. Overture to a Drama, from 1911, was the first work the 14-year-old Korngold orchestrated on his own; the influence of Mahler is clearly apparent. The Much Ado About Nothing Suite dates from 1918, and is perhaps better-known in the arrangement the composer made for violin and piano, also available on Naxos.

Terry Robbins

02_kissin_prokofievProkofiev - Piano Concertos 2 & 3
Evgeny Kissin; Philharmonia Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy
EMI Classics 2 64536 2

For his third release on the EMI label super-star pianist Evgeny Kissin finds himself in convivial company with a program of Prokofiev concertos conducted by his compatriot Vladimir Ashkenazy. Prokofiev’s Second Concerto is new to Kissin’s extensive discography and will no doubt be eagerly sought out by his many fans. There is no question that his steely technique is up to the task of this technically demanding work with its crushing, heaven-storming passages, though there is poetry as well in his relatively restrained, rubato-inflected opening movement. Alas, the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra has seen better days, and Ashkenazy’s direction is, perhaps understandably as he has famously recorded all of Prokofiev’s concertos himself, exceedingly deferential to the soloist. The EMI recording balances the piano far to the fore, with unrealistic results, while excessive filtering meant to obliterate audience noises in these spliced-together concert performances create a rather dry, bass-deficient ambience.

The album also features Kissin’s third recording of Prokofiev’s ever-popular Third Concerto, following previous discs dating from his earlier contracts with RCA and Deutsche Grammophon. Again, fans of the pianist may care to invest in this newer, curiously humourless version, though Kissin’s earlier Abbado-led Berlin Philharmonic DG recording features a superior orchestra and more sensitive direction. Even better, seek out the classic Martha Argerich performance with these same forces, which remains far more compelling.

Daniel Foley

01_StravinskyStravinsky and the Ballet Russes - The Firebird; The Rite of Spring
The Mariinsky Orchestra and Ballet;
Valery Gergiev
BelAir classiques DVD BAC041

This is an outstanding and important document of an historic event. The celebrated riot that occurred on the 6th of May, 1913 during the first performance of the new ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps was the expression by the outraged audience at being assaulted visually and aurally by Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. A year earlier Diaghilev had delighted them with a work commissioned from Ravel, Daphnis et Chloë, choreographed by Michel Fokine. Earlier Vaslav Nijinsky had caused a minor riot with his languid, homo-erotic vision of Debussy’s Prelude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, which he was obliged to secretly choreograph in his room. But Le Sacre was something new, unheard of and unexpected in every respect. Pounding and brutal rhythms with rapid time changes drove the dancers to unrefined movements and inelegant poses. In a complete reversal of the usual order of things, Le Sacre began with the music for which a storyline had to be devised. It became the rites of an ancient Slavic tribe attempting to alter their destiny. The night of May 6, 1913 was the beginning of the end of Le Belle Epoch. WW1 didn’t help.

If you buy this DVD, as you really should, be sure to watch and absorb the bonus features, including an interview with art historian Kenneth Archer and Millicent Dodson whose re-construction of Nijinsky’s undocumented choreography was certainly a labour of love. This is a fascinating account as Dodson outlines and particularises on the search for documents, evidence, and people to illuminate this seemingly impossible task. Along with that, the costumes, their colors and the scenery presented further enigma. We also witness Dodson and Archer supervising the 120 hours of rehearsals in St. Petersburg. Now, one can grasp what is happening on the stage featuring up to 47 dancers, often with individual choreographic roles. The huge Kirov Orchestra under Gergiev plays with extraordinary vehemence and savagery, the like of which one would never hear in an orchestral concert. It certainly works here.

Also included is The Firebird, presented as originally staged with the choreography of Michel Fokine and the sets designed by Fokine, Alexander Golovin and Leon Bakst. These live performances were captured in high definition, wide screen video. The extraordinarily wide dynamic range is thrilling in 5.1 audio.

Bruce Surtees

Editor’s Note: See Old Wine in New Bottles elsewhere in these pages for a newly released version of Le Sacre du Printemps from a conductor admired by the composer.

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