Archive for Naxos

Brits Under the Radar

Posted in Classical music, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Howells is so good he's on a t-shirt

When I first started to get into English music I fed on a steady diet of Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bax (yes, I know he’s Anglo-Irish). After attending the New York premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice I was turned onto Britten. Eventually I came around to Walton, but that was pretty much it for a while.

Eventually I found myself working for an English music publisher so I discovered Lennox Berkeley, Kenneth Leighton, William Mathias and others. Attending weekly high church Anglican services each Sunday introduced me to a world of choral composers I never knew. Many of them are 20th century composers, so while I still worship at the altars of Vaughan Williams and Britten, I spend much time with Edmund Rubbra, Herbert Howells and living composers like Jonathan Dove, Jonathan Harvey and Gabriel Jackson.

While it’s all but impossible to hear an American orchestra program an English work that’s not by Elgar–and even he is rarely heard these days–record labels have taken up the slack. Hyperion, Delphian, and Signum are strongly committed to English choral music and Chandos and Naxos are doing their share for chamber music and orchestral works.

Howells: St John’s Magnificat

For some unfortunate reason Herbert Howells is a composer who is little-known outside the world of choir and organ aficionados. Think about it, when was the last time you heard a Howells work in concert? How sad. Howells was a remarkable composer who had superior melodic chops, an original harmonic palette and a knack for piercing the heart with passionate, deeply felt music. He is one of the giants of the Anglican choral tradition and I revere him. This new recording by the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge is a sure thing for choral fans and is the first release in a new series of recordings by the choir for Chandos.

Howells has been treated pretty well on recent recordings. There’s a very good recording of his sublime Requiem and other works sung by the St. John’s Choir that was released by Naxos in 1999— fortunately not much of the repertoire is duplicated on the Chandos disc and this new disc actually has two world premieres: A Grace for 10 Downing Street and chant for Psalm 147. If you want more Howells I also recommend recordings by The Choir of Wells Cathedral on Hyperion and The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin on Signum.

This is a terrific program with many highlights. A Sequence for St. Michael is a dramatic motet with striking choral writing and an extended solo for tenor. By the Waters of Babylon is a little-known masterpiece, something akin to a choral tone poem. Here’s the English pastoral tradition in full glory with a highly expressive solo part for baritone and rhapsodic violin, cello and organ accompaniment. The premieres are quite strong too.

There are also some chestnuts. While it’s one of my all-time favorite English carols, perhaps not every Howells collection needs A Spotless Rose? Aficionados will also be familiar with Like As A Hart and the Te Deum he wrote for King’s College. The two sets of evening canticles are pretty well-known and are beautifully performed. The Gloucester Service was composed in honor of Howells’ “own” Cathedral at Gloucester, while the Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense was originally intended for Salisbury Cathedral (the story of how it ended up at St. John’s is the result of a mix-up in a newspaper article about Howells – read the excellent liner notes for details). These are superb settings and are magnificently sung.

As you would expect the choir sings magnificently. This music is in their blood and Andrew Nethsingha (their new Director of Music) leads gorgeous performances filled with clarity and power. This is an indispensable recording for any lover of choral music and a wonderful introduction to Howells for those who haven’t yet made the great man’s acquaintance.

Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Arthur Bliss

I’ve never been able to warm up to the music of Arthur Bliss. I can’t say that there’s anything in his music that puts me off, but there is also nothing in it that moves me as much as the other composers I’ve mentioned But I relish the English music series on Naxos and figured this volume with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones would present a good case for the composer. It does indeed.

Bliss Meditations on a Theme by John Blow

It’s a tidy bit of history that Bliss would be appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953, the same year he would encounter John Blow’s setting of Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd.” Bliss (who had a commission for an orchestral work sitting on his desk) was inspired by one of the tunes in Blow’s setting and composed a set of meditations on the tune.

There are five Meditations, preceded by an Introduction and followed by an Interlude and Finale, each movement illustrates one of the psalm’s verses. The Introduction (“The Lord is my Shepherd – I will fear no evil”) balances brooding dark with softer-hued English pastoral.
The third Meditation “Lambs” is scherzo-like, while the fifth “Green Pastures,” is a gorgeous reverie for harp, winds and strings. The violence of the seventh Meditation “Through the valley of the shadow of death” is peppered with edgy percussion. The Finale “In the house of the Lord” is thrilling with Blow’s tune singing out gloriously.

The Metamorphic Variations were written in 1972 in tribute to the artist George Dannatt. Masterfully orchestrated and filled with shifting moods and tones, this is quite an orchestral showpiece. Yet for all the composer’s creativity and superb craftsmanship, the work does have a certain rambling quality and emotional detachment that makes it less than a revelation for me.

The Bournemouth Symphony plays brilliantly. The delicate wind and string writing in the Meditations comes off beautifully, the brass playing is stellar throughout and the percussionists really bang away in the Variations. The excellent liner notes by Giles Easterbrook are fascinating and the sound quality top-notch.

The late Geoffrey Burgon

While writing this I learned that Geoffrey Burgon passed away last month. I first encountered his music on Remembrance, a brilliant St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir recording on Hyperion. Burgon’s piece was a setting of the Nunc dimittis, a work that appeared in his soundtrack to the BBC film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This Chandos recording is the first recording of his orchestral music that I’ve encountered.

Geoffrey Burgon: Viola Concerto – Merciless Beauty – Cello Concerto

Burgon was a jazz trumpet player so it’s not surprising that he would associate the sound of the viola’s lower range with American dance music of the 40s. The Viola Concerto has an alto saxophone and drum kit in its orchestral texture, but it’s the composer’s crafty mix of the pungent percussion and warm-voiced viola that makes this a winning work. I was especially impressed by the Shostakovich-like tango in the middle movement. Philip Dukes is outstanding in the solo part and is blessed with the warm, amber tone that inspired Burgon.

The drum kit also appears in Burgon’s Cello Concerto, a work from 2007. There are darker things afoot in this piece. Burgon doubles the low winds and asks the percussion to play in their lowest registers in this score. This is brooding music that pays homage to film noir, (Burgon said “I began to view the soloist as a protagonist in such a film.”). The Concerto is a marvelous work and a major addition to the cello and orchestra repertoire, I hope that more cellists take it up. Cellist Josephine Knight has just the right bite for the Concerto’s more muscular passages while also playing gently and quietly in the moodier moments.

The song cycle Merciless Beauty was written in 1996-97 for countertenor James Bowman. Four of the seven songs in the cycle are set to texts by the contemporary writer Kit White while the others are from traditional British sources: Chaucer, Blake and the ever-popular Anonymous. This is a marvelous cycle filled with some lush melodies and showcases Burgon’s gift for achieving big emotional power with subtle gestures. These days there are few mezzo-sopranos who can stand up to Sarah Connolly (Burgon asked her to record the songs) and she is brilliant throughout. Connolly is sweet-voiced in Letter to Anna, pregnant and powerfully intense in The Sick Rose. Rumon Gamba leads the City of London Sinfonia in performances that are perfectly colored, masterfully shaped and beautifully recorded.

Geoffrey Burgon’s Nunc dimittis

Mahler

Posted in Classical music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Mahler. The Resurrection Symphony was the first Mahler I ever heard. I remember seeing it listed in FM Guide magazine for broadcast on New York’s WNCN at the ungodly hour of 1AM back in 1974. That was when the Music Through the Night With Fleetwood program was on, a bit of a problem since it was a school night, but I actually set my alarm clock and put my headphones on to hear Bruno Walter lead the New York Philharmonic. I was hooked. I saved my lunch money to buy the recording – back in those days I would eat a 75 cent pretzel and save the rest of my lunch money to buy records—and two weeks later I had a double LP Odyssey recording of the Walter performance. God bless all the budget labels that I was able to buy back then, they were my musical education. Odyssey, Seraphim, Nonesuch, Turnabout, Vox, London Stereo Treasury, RCA Victor were my lifeblood. There was no Naxos back then and these labels, unlike Naxos, were the golden age recordings of an earlier generation.

I bought the Mahler and 36 years later have never looked back. Mahler has been one of those composers who always nails me right between the eyes. Sentimental, acerbic, neurotic and schmaltzy, Mahler connects with me.

I have two and half large binders filled with Mahler CDs. The collection is ever-growing but here’s some of my favorites. I believe all of them are currently available, I only wish the older recordings still had their original cover art.

Symphonies

Symphony No. 1
The London Symphony Orchestra
Georg Solti

The original cover had a glowing red sun burning the surrounding sky

Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”
Emilia Cundari, soprano; Maureen Forrester, alto; The Westminster Choir; The New York Philharmonic
Bruno Walter

I remember the Odyssey reissue has having a blue cover?

Symphony No. 3
Petra Lang, mezzo-soprano; Prague Philharmonic Choir; Netherlands Children’s Choir; The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Symphony No. 4
Reri Grist, soprano; The New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein

It's a little faded, but the original artwork is charming



Symphony No. 5

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein


Symphony No. 6

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Claudio Abbado

Symphony No. 7
The Cleveland Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Symphony No. 8 “Symphony of a Thousand”
Soloists; The Chicago Symphony Chorus; The Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Sir Georg Solti


Symphony No. 9

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Carlo Maria Giulini

Symphony No. 10
The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Song Cycles

Das Klagende Lied
Marina Shaguch, soprano, Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Moser, tenor; Sergei Leiferkus, baritone; San Francisco Symphony Chorus; San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson-Thomas

Das Lied von der Erde
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; The New Philharmonia Orchestra
Otto Klemperer

Das Lied von der Erde (version with baritone)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; James King, tenor
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein

The original cover had Lenny in profile against a black background

Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; The London Symphony Orchestra
George Szell

Kindertotenlieder
Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; Hallé Orchestra
Sir John Barbirolli

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; North German Radio Symphony Orchestra
John Eliot Gardiner

Rückert Lieder
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Daniel Barenboim, piano

Resurrection Symphony finale — nothing more can be said

Best of 2009

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

Lots to chose from and most of it from living composers who create outside the tedious and ugly world of the conservatory. Proving that the future of music is really in the hands of those who care about originality and beauty rather than residing in the clammy claws of the sterile academics.

CD of the Year

Phil Kline: John the Revelator
Lionheart; Ethel
(Cantaloupe Music)
I can’t say enough about John the Revelator. Phil Kline has created a work whose stark beauty connects on so many levels. You’d have to be made of stone not to feel this one.

John Adams: Dr. Atomic Symphony
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson, conductor
(Nonesuch)
A strange and beautiful world of orchestral color and rampaging rhythms.


Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Ivan Fischer, conductor
(Channel Classics)
Big-boned, heroic Brahms that rivals my favorite recordings by Otto Klemperer and Istvan Kertesz. Speaking of Kertesz, I wish the corporate troglodytes at Universal would get a clue and reissue his Decca recordings.

Michael Daugherty: Fire and Blood
Ida Kavafian, violin; The Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Neeme Jarvi, conductor
(Naxos)
Daugherty’s Fire and Blood concerto has balls and Kavafian delivers a brilliantly muscular performance. Daugherty’s music is disliked by the pasty-faced academics–“it’s glib and filled with cheap effects”–they shriek. All the more reason to love his music. Check out the recording of his Metropolis Symphony too.

Gabriel Jackson: Not No Faceless Angel
Polyphony
Stephen Layton, director
(Hyperion)
Jackson grabbed some deserved acclaim with “The Christ Child Sat On Mary’s Lap,” the carol commissioned for the 2009 Festival of Lessons and Carols at Kings College, Cambridge. This sublime CD is an ideal introduction to his music.

Rued Langgaard: Messis
Flemming Dreisig, organ
(Dacapo)
An organ work that clocks in at over 2 hours? Yes please! Langgaard’s music is hyper-Romantic and Dreisig is a superb organist. It’s been quite a Langgaard year with Dacapo releasing a boxed set of the quirky Dane’s complete symphonies.

James Macmillan: St. John Passion
Christopher Maltman, baritone
London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis, conductor
(LSO Live)
A deeply moving and piercingly dramatic telling of the Passion story. A gorgeous performance led by the greatest living conductor.

Mahler Symphony No. 4
Miah Persson, soprano
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Ivan Fischer, conductor
(Channel Classics)
Fischer’s excellent Mahler cycle hits a high point.

Felix Mendelssohn: Complete Organ Sonatas
William Whitehead, organ
(Chandos)
Church organists love these little gems but they are not especially well-know outside the organ loft. Whitehead plays a marvelous old instrument on this terrific recording.

Olivier Messiaen: Saint Francois d’Assise
Rodney Gilfry, baritione; Camilla Tilling, soprano; Hubert Delamboye, tenor
Netherlands Opera Chorus, Hague Philharmonic Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher, conductor
(Opus Arte)
Pierre Audi’s hypnotic staging is remarkable and Messiaen’s score will probably never be better-served. I think they will be serving frozen margaritas in hell before this opera is ever staged in New York, so grab this DVD and prepare to be overwhelmed.

A video treat

I’m deeply in love with soprano Miah Persson, the soloist on Fischer’s Mahler 4th. Here she is singing “Come scoglio” from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.

Happy 2010! I hope…

A few new recordings

Posted in Classical music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2009 by Craig Zeichner

Some interesting August and September releases

Contemporary music with muscle

Contemporary music with muscle

Michael Daugherty
Fire & Blood
(Naxos)

Recently, I was reading an article in the Finnish Music Quarterly about composer Kalevi Aho. In the article Aho mentions a criticism that was made of his music by an Austrian journalist who accused Aho’s music of being “not dehumanized enough.” My complaint about much contemporary music is the opposite, it’s too dehumanized. I shun the over-intellectualization of music, loathe works that sound like they were composed with an abacus and notated in battery acid. Thankfully the three works on this fantastic recording of music by Michael Daugherty are filled with passion, wit and drama to spare.

 Fire and Blood is a full-blooded, knock your socks off violin concerto that makes pressing technical demands of the soloist but never descends to the level of an empty-headed violin showpiece. The work draws its inspiration from the Detroit Industry murals by the great Mexican artist Diego Rivera and the color and energy that Rivera brought to his art is reflected in the music. Violinist Ida Kavafian plays this music with muscle aplenty and the Detroit Symphony under conductor Neeme Järvi is nothing short of spectacular.

 The other works on the recording, Motor City Triptych and Raise the Roof, are also superb. Motor City Triptych is a brilliantly jaunty evocative piece which pays tribute to the Motown sound, Michigan Avenue in Detroit and Rosa Parks. This seems like something of an odd mix but Daugherty’s vivid orchestration and rhythmic skill make each movement a memorable tone poem. Brass lovers take note, there’s plenty of interesting work for trumpet and trombone throughout. Raise the Roof is a concerto for timpani and orchestra and was inspired by such grand architectural wonders as Notre Dame Cathedral and the Empire State Building. The work offers the timpanist an opportunity to play some melody and even stretch out with a showpiece cadenza. Once again Daugherty pushes hard and the effect is thrilling. This is an essential recording for anybody who cares about the current state of American music – it’s very encouraging indeed.

Revolutionary or revolting?

Revolutionary or revolting?

Sergei Prokofiev
Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution
(Chandos)

It’s been nearly thirty years since I first encountered this very weird work by Prokofiev. I remember buying a recording on the Melodiya label that featured a worker-hero and his girl in full party (Communist, that is) regalia on the cover (he was also toting what looked like a 9mm Parabellum pistol). I was struck by the energy and color of the work but I also remember that I didn’t like it nearly as much as the other Prokofiev works I was enjoying with youthful enthusiasm: The Gambler (an opera I saw when the Bolshoi company came to New York in the 70s), Alexander Nevsky, Scythian Suite and the Piano concertos. Thirty years later and my opinion has not  changed, this is not top-notch Prokofiev, but there is enough to hold your interest and this 1992 recording (Chandos is re-releasing lots of their Prokofiev recordings) is quite good.

 
This Soviet patriotic cantata was written in 1936 and is based on texts by Marx, Lenin and Stalin. The work wasn’t premiered until 1966 and by then the texts by the disgraced Stalin were removed. As you would have suspected, none of these gentlemen were Soviet versions of Lorenzo Da Ponte so such lyrical phrases as “No class now stands on both sides of the barricades” must have presented problems to Prokofiev. All kidding aside, Prokofiev rose to the wretched occasion and wrote a wacky and frequently exciting piece that features chorus, orchestra, military band, accordion band and a speaker shouting speeches by Lenin through a megaphone. In a delicious bit of cameo  casting, the great Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky gets to shout the Lenin bits.

 
If you can get over the fact that the people who demanded the work were monsters and the philosophy that inspired it was miserable, there is plenty to like. As a matter of fact, if you are a fan of film music you will be in heaven. The kaleidoscopic Revolution movement features chorus colliding with orchestra and bellowing Lenin speeches, it’s like the Battle on the Ice from Nevsky on amphetamines. The Oath, another big choral number, brings in the accordion band and the purely orchestral Symphony movement offers the energetic, at times frenzied Prokofiev in full flight. Neeme Järvi leads a superb performance and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus are brilliant. It’s all weird fun and very much worth a listen.

A German Romantic you need to know

A German Romantic you need to know

 
Joseph Rheinberger
(Ars Musici)
The first sentence of the liner notes sums up the story of Joseph Rheinberger pretty well, “[Rheinberger] shares the fate of many German composers of the second half of the 19th century, that of the “forgotten masters.” True that. I’ve always been a fan of Rheinberger’s music. My first exposure to his music was a recording the organist E. Power Biggs made of the composer’s organ concertos. Over the years I’ve become more familiar with his many solo pieces for organ and a work that my church choir regularly sings, the Cantus Missae, Op. 109.

 This recording by the Regensburger Domspatzen (a choir of men and boys) is especially welcome for its mix of sacred and secular repertoire. The centerpiece of the recording is the a cappella Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis, Op. 117.  The Mass impresses with its simplicity and gentle lyricism. The opening Kyrie is a hushed plea that is moving and marvelously understated. The Gloria is a straightforward song of praise that eschews bombast. The Credo displays Rheinberger’s fine contrapuntal gifts and showcases the pure vocal tonal quality of the excellent chorus. The hymn-like Benedictus sets up the gorgeous Agnus Dei that closes the work.

 The same soaring melodies and skilled choral writing that make the Mass so special are found in the motets and hymns that open the recording. Rheinberger knew his old music too, and the these pieces have their share of contrapuntal flights of fancy, as well as some interesting chromatic turns that would have been heard in the Baroque. Special note most be made of the Salve Regina, Adoramus te and Ave vivens which have a marvelous melodic sweep that is unforgettable.

 The recording closes with the Waldblumen, Op. 124, a set of nature pieces look back to the earlier Romantic period and are filled with folk-like melodies and occasional flashes of drama.