Storms are not the only things that have been flooding the United States this summer. There has been a deluge of wonderful classical music CD releases. I aver that this time — our time — will go down as the golden age of recording. The riches are unbelievable. It’s not simply that I am now able to listen to things that I never thought I would be able to hear; it’s that I am getting to know volumes of wonderful music that I never knew existed before. This comes along with wonderful new recordings of old treasures.
This and next month I will give a two-part itinerary of these new recordings — more of a recommended list with notes than a critique of each CD. Otherwise, space constraints will make us miss too much.
There is no better place to begin than with Haydn, the composer of all seasons. Naxos has released a sublime new recording of Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 4, 9 and 11 (8.570485). Pianist Sebastian Knauer and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra, under Helmut Muller-Bruhl, give highly poetic, finely nuanced, though amply energetic performances of these jewels. Surely they will have to record the others after this triumph. Do not miss the wonderful bargain.
Naxos has also recorded Haydn’s three extant violin concertos with the same forces, and violinist Augustin Hadelich (8.570483). I do not find these works on quite a comparable level with the piano concertos, but they are still a delight, especially with this fine soloist. All concerned perform as if these concertos were new. It is playing of real character and freshness. I so loved the Adagio of the Concerto in C major that I looped it on my CD player.
There is no pretense at greatness in the string quartets of Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831). They are defined by a simple charm. If that interests you, go no further than the new CPO release (777-315-2) of Quartets Nos. 7-9, with the Pleyel Quartet Koln.
Naxos has given us a number of excellent recordings of the music of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), none better than this recent addition (8.557845), offering four works with piano from the peak of his career. There may be no great profundities here, but the entertainment value is very high. The storm scene in Oberon’s Zauberhorn, for example, is terrific fun. Another delightful bargain.
I am a great fan of the chamber music of Louis Spohr (1784-1859). Some of it reaches greatness. I never took to his symphonies, however, though they were rated in their time with Beethoven’s. New recordings of Nos. 3 and 10 on CPO (777 177-2) give the best case I have heard so far for his work in this genre. I can only hope that the NDR Radio Philharmonic and conductor Howard Griffiths are commissioned to record the other symphonies so we can experience their real merits.
The CPO label has performed marvels in bringing us the music of Beethoven clone Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), including a magnificent survey of his symphonies. He may have imitated Beethoven, but so what? He was his student and had real talent. CPO now gives us Vol. 2 of the string quartets (777 227-2), with the Schuppanzigh Quartet performing Quartets Nos. 2, Op. 70, and 20. These are rich, substantial works that demonstrate his stature. The meltingly lovely Larghetto from Quartet No. 20, never published in Ries’s lifetime, is worth the price of admission by itself.
Another CPO surprise is Ries’s oratorio, The Kings in Israel (777 221-2). This nearly two-hour work may have it longueurs, but it contains many outstanding numbers, including deliciously creepy music for the witch’s scene, enough to warrant its success in 1837 with, according to Ries, "a completely enchanted public."
Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832) published his Piano Sonatas Op. 59 with the description "facile et brillantes." That they may be, but their charm is what appeals in a new Naxos recording by Hungarian pianist Jeno Jando (8.570709), who has also done some wonderful Haydn and Mozart recordings for Naxos. These works, with the accompanying Piano Sonatinas, Op. 20, are perfect for light summer listening.
Someone needs to explain where Friedrich Kiel’s music has been all these years. For his time (1821-1885), he was more inclined to his Classical forbearers than to his Romantic contemporaries, so perhaps he got lost in history. However, that is no reason to miss his Complete Piano Quartets, works of great warmth and huge melodic appeal, offered by CPO (777 076-2). I knew this composer from his outstanding Missa Solemnis. Now I add these works to my favorites. If you love chamber music, do not miss this one.
What would summer be without a good orchestral wallow in Wagner’s music? And who knew how to wallow better than Leopold Stokowski, who created Symphonic Syntheses from Das Rheingold, Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, and Die Walkure. Portions of these are served up by the sorcerer’s apprentice, Jose Serebrier, who was Stokowski’s deputy when Serebrier was a young man. It is all beautifully done by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Naxos (8.570293).
Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900) may have been to Brahms what Ries was to Beethoven, though he was only an admirer and friend of Brahms, not his student. Apparently, Herzengoberg’s Piano Trio No. 1 was close enough to the master that it spooked Brahms when he heard it. CPO lets us listen to both Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2, with the Atos Trio (777 335-2). Surgingly dramatic, contrapuntally complex, and beautifully melodic, these works make the neglect of Herzogenberg a mystery. CPO adds the delightful Wind Quintet and the Wind Trio to our growing view of this composer’s claim on our attention (777 081-2). These are lighter, breezier works than the piano trios, though written at the same high level. This is very appealing music, as performed by pianist Oliver Triendl, and members of the Orsolino Quintet.
I do not know how I missed volume 1 of ATMA Classique’s release of Theodore Dubois’s Works for Piano and Strings, but I am delighted to have volume 2, with the Piano Quartet and Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Violin, Viola, and Cello. Dubois (1837-1924) is principally known for his choral work The Seven Last Words of Christ. These elegant works, written early in the 20th century, may have seemed conservative for their time. However, that is no reason to overlook them now. The level of lyricism in these two compositions is irresistible, as is their great melodic warmth.
Poor Dubois wrote at the end of his life:
I don’t think that people have always been fair and equitable toward me. . . . I still think that some of my works deserve better than the cold disdain that has greeted them. I almost have the certainty that if later, after I am gone, they fall into the hands of fair-minded musicians and critics, the tide will turn in my favor.
That is just what has happened here with lovely performances by the Trio Hochelaga, with pianist Stephane Lemelin, oboist Philippe Magnan, and violist Jean-Luc Plourde. Next I will hunt down the Piano Trios from Vol. 1.
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) was a French musical genius of great individuality. (I dedicated an article to him in Crisis magazine.) For the first time, we have available his String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, performed by the Ardeo Quartet on the Ar Re-Se label (AR 2006-3), which can be found on Arkivmusic.com. Anyone who loves French musical impressionism (think of the Ravel String Quartet), especially when imbued with warmth and nostalgic yearning, will love these works.
The First Quartet has become a favorite. In the first movement, Koechlin goes from bittersweet heartache to the ecstatic. The andante has a kind of lazy sorrow to it, and the finale sparks with Mozartian vivacity. The Second Quartet begins with one of Koechlin’s experiments: He tries to see how close he can pare things down and approach stasis without losing our interest. He succeeds in this haunting work. Bravo — or, I should say, brava — to the four ladies composing the Ardeo Quartet.
Belgian composer Joseph Ryelandt (1870-1965) was a devout Catholic who seemed almost indifferent to the fate of his works, which included a number of large-scale oratorios on different aspects of Christ’s life. He wrote, "If God wants my work to be recognized one day, it will. If not, what does it matter?" One might say, then, that the new release from the Phaedra label with four of Ryelandt’s chamber pieces is providential. It reveals another unjustly neglected composer whose somewhat anachronistic style is irrelevant to its merits. Ryelandt did not place a premium on being stylistically au courant. Throughout his long life, he remained in the late-Romantic tradition of the 19th century. He declared: "Whether the artist makes use of the most modern techniques or decides to work in a traditional manner is not really important. Techniques wear out, but what remains is that which breathes life into the work."
The Spiegel String Quartet, double bassist Joost Maegerman, and pianist Jozef de Beenhouwer breathe ample life into Ryelandt’s Piano Quintet (1901), Adagio for StringQuartet (1895), String Quartet No. 2 (1903), and Andante "Ach Tjanne" and Variations (1933). It seems that Ryelandt excelled in composing exquisite adagios and andantes. His lovely and moving Adagio from 1895 is all that he retained from an otherwise disowned string quartet. Thank heavens he kept this gem. The Adagio religioso from the Piano Quintet is also very touching. Had Ryelandt pushed much further in the direction in which he was going with this music, it might have become cloying, but he kept his balance and its effect. The Andante from the String Quartet is also extremely fine, with real depth of expression. Gorgeous melody abounds throughout these pieces. One can only hope that the Phaedra label will be encouraged to give us more. This CD (DDD 92055) is a special import thorough Records International.
Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com. Contact him at