Bruckner at the beach? I don’t think so. Sand and high seriousness are strange bedfellows. So let us construct the aural equivalent of the summer reading list based upon music that is amiable, off the beaten path, and, well, fun. I happen to have a huge inventory of CD recommendations that fits the bill.
The first goes along with a book, one that gave me some out- loud laughs. The Bad Boy of Music, by George Antheil, chronicles this musical prankster’s adventures in Europe during the Roaring Twenties, then to Hollywood and beyond, including locking the audience in the concert hall in Budapest and putting his snub-nosed pistol on the piano. CPO has released a CD with Antheil’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, A Jazz Symphony, and several shorter pieces (CPO 777 109-2), played with wonderful verve by pianist Markus Becker and the NDR Radio Philharmonic, under Eiji Oue. This may not be great music—it is hard to imagine that these musical romps once alarmed people— but it is still infectious fun, kind of like Stravinsky at the circus.
I have never seen or heard John Corigliano’s hit opera The Ghosts of Versailles, but he has fashioned a suite out of its music, titled Phantasmagoria to Music, that is entrancing. Visions of Mozart and Rossini dance in the head, as one is wafted from our time to theirs and back in a semi-dream state, courtesy of French impressionism.
This is a brilliantly written tour de force, accompanied by other items, including Corigliano’s suite from the film music to Altered States, played with aplomb by the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, under Eri Klas on Ondine (ODE 1058-2).
If you love the sound of the double bass, indulge yourself in Richard Fredrickson’s CD on the MMC label, featuring the highly charged Psalm 130, by Vittorio Giannini, and works by American composers John Carbon and William Thomas McKinley, both written for Fredrickson, and played by the Slovak Radio Orchestra, under Kirk Trevor (MMC 2138). This disc is not a show-off vehicle for Fredrickon’s virtuosity, but is musically substantive and therefore all the more a credit to his artistry. This is short timing for a CD (46:56), but the passionate Giannini is worth it by itself.
We last spoke of American composer Ned Rorem when he turned 80 several years ago and the Naxos label celebrated with an excellent recording of his three symphonies, conducted by Jose Serebrier (Naxos 8.559149). Naxos has returned to this redoubtable conductor for a new recording featuring two Rorem premieres, Pilgrims (1958), a mesmerizing work for strings, and the Flute Concerto (2002), with Jeffrey Khaner, along with the Violin Concerto (1985) with Philippe Quint (Naxos 8.559278). The Flute Concerto is a marvelous fantasy that demonstrates Rorem’s undiminished powers to charm and fascinate. The Violin Concerto, also more along the lines of a suite than a concerto, is a highly attractive, lyrical evocation of twilight to midnight to dawn. Rorem has outlived the serial killers—the twelve-tone composers whose works he so despised. Serebrier and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brilliantly exhibit why he was right all along and still is today.
Serebrier conducts across a broad range of the repertory with an elan and freshness that not only spring new works to life but restore warhorses to their primary colors. His new Warner Classics CD (2564 60296-2) is a delectable offering of Joaquin Rodrigo’s immensely popular Concierto de Aranjuez, gorgeously played by guitarist Sharon Isbin, with the New York Philharmonic. Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Concerto for Guitar and Manuel Ponce’s Concierto del Sur are compatible discmates that show how Brazil and Mexico followed in Rodrigo’s wake.
I now need to group some things together in order to get through the list. On the fantastical side of things, you could not do better than to obtain the CD of John Foulds’s Three Mantras from Avatara, Apotheosis, and other orchestral works, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under Sakari Oramo, on Warner Classics (2564 61525-2). This is some of the most exhilarating music that I have heard from the early 20th century. Lauded for his early use of quarter tones and attention to Indian music, the fact is this British composer had a pristine imagination and could take traditional tonality and make it sound as fresh as if it were being heard for the first time. This is fabulous, thrilling music that you must hear.
Almost as alarmingly good is the CD of Charles Koechlin’s two tone poems written in France a decade or so later than Foulds’s works. The Hanssler Classic label (CD 93.106) presents an impressionist piece, Vers La Vorite Etoilee, that is so gorgeous it is hard to believe that it was not performed until 1989. Le Docteur Fabricius, premiered in 1949, was written to a scenario by Koechlin’s uncle about the indifference of nature to man and man’s ultimate transcendence. It is a strange, wonderful piece. Injustice is appropriately portrayed by an atonal fugue. The music is steeped in Bach, always the sign of a good man. Contemplation of the night sky brings calm, followed by consolation, and then ecstatic joy, made all the more special by the marvelously loopy sound of the Ondes Martenot. Though some of this music may sound old-fashioned for its time, it also seems to presage the still- stranger music of Olivier Messiaen that was soon to follow.
Does the combination of Hector Berlioz and Richard Strauss sound inviting? It should, and that is exactly what Walter Braunfels produced in his glorious orchestral orgy, Phantastische Erscheinungen, from 1914 to 1917.
This music may be highly derivative, but it delivers the goods in this excellent performance by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Dennis Russell Davies, on CPO (999 882-2).
I cannot leave the 20th century without recommending two special releases. Bo Linde (1933-1970) seems to have been a Swedish Samuel Barber, at least on the evidence of his highly lyrical Violin and Cello Concertos, released on Naxos (8.557855). They are beautifully done by the soloists and the Gavle Symphony Orchestra, under Petter Sundkvist. Over many years, I have grown to love the music of Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935). The CPO label is doing a complete survey of his works, with Sallinen’s oversight. This has produced crystalline, mesmerizing performances and recordings of his marvelously mysterious Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4, along with the Horn Concerto. This is some of the best music after Sibelius. Get CPO 999 969-2, with Ari Rasilainen conducting the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra.
When I relax, I do it in the late 18th century. A few years ago, CPO released a four-CD box of the Wind Concertos by Antonio Rosetti (17501792) that revealed the hand of a master. Now we have a new CD with two each of his violin concertos and symphonies (CPO 777 104-2). This vivacious music justifies the report of a contemporaneous critic that “certainly something easier, fuller of light, and more honey-sweet than the pieces of this man can hardly be imagined.” Of course, it was imagined, by Mozart. One of these violin concertos sounds a lot like his Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola.
When Mozart died, his widow, Constanze, turned to Joseph Eybler to finish Mozart’s Requiem. Eybler demurred, but it is a sign of the esteem in which he was held. You can hear why in CPO’s release of Eybler’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, ably performed by the Geneva Chamber Orchestra, under Michael Hofstetter. The First Symphony is a bit conventional, but the Second, in D minor, shows real depth and Mozartean spirit.
The CPO releases of Ferdinand Ries’s music go from strength to strength—from the eight symphonies to his voluminous chamber music. The more CPO reveals, the harder it is to dismiss Ries—Beethoven’s secretary and student—simply as a Beethoven clone. He was really too good for that. On anyone’s terms, the Clarinet Trio, Op. 28, is a winner, as are the two accompanying clarinet sonatas. If you are attracted by this genre, you are in for a treat, as delivered by clarinetist Dieter Klocker, cellist Armin Fromm, and pianist Thomas Duis on CPO (777 036-2).
I close by sneaking into the early 19th century with the delicious String Quintets (double cellos) of Georges Onslow, Op. 19 and Op. 51, and Luigi Cherubini (1837). When Paris was agog with opera, Onslow almost single-handedly upheld the chamber music genre by composing 34 quartets and 36 quintets. (He was independently wealthy and so could afford to indulge himself.) The sheer enjoyment quotient in these premiere recordings is high. Onslow was called the “French Beethoven,” but this music retains the classical sense of order from an earlier era. The Diogenes Quartet, with cellist Manuel van der Nahmer, plays engagingly on CPO 777 187-2