January 27, 2009
Music, Right Through the Bone
Here I am, staggering under a load of great new recordings, with no relief in sight. I can only hope it gets worse, which it promises to do: Enterprising CD labels are reissuing classic recordings and exploring new repertory at almost exponential rates. I must resort to staccato-style reviews to plow ahead.
First, a superb reissue from PentaTone Classics, which has rereleased Colin Davis’s great performance of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (PTC 5186 177). This has been near the top of the list of finest Fifths since it was recorded in 1975, and it still belongs there — right next to Bernstein’s Fifth, with the New York Philharmonic. This Super Audio CD reveals the original four-channel sound in which the symphony was recorded by Philips. It comes with a very fine Seventh Symphony and the symphonic poem, En Saga.
Naxos has a new Sibelius treat from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, under Pietari Inkinen. They offer stirring, crystal-clear performances of a variety of tone poems, including Night Ride and Sunrise, Kuolema, Pan and Echo, and Suite from Belshazzar’s Feast in superb sound (8.570763).
The other great Scandinavian composer of the early 20th century, Carl Nielsen, wrote music, including songs and choruses, for the 1918 production of the play Aladdin. Chandos Classics (CHAN 10498 X) has reissued its 1993 recording of the complete score (most recordings only offer a 20-minute suite), with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, under Gennady Rozhdestvensky. It is a wonderfully fun, highly imaginative romp, with a recording perspective that has you in a front row orchestra seat.
Another reissue, this time by the Naxos label, makes one of the finest releases of the full-price Marco Polo label’s traversal of the symphonies of Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973) available at budget price. Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4, and Sinfonia del Mare are on Naxos 8.570878. The Sinfonia is as beautiful an evocation of the sea as has ever been written, and it is all the more remarkable in that Malipiero wrote it unaware of Debussy’s La Mer. The two numbered symphonies show Malipiero’s magical ability to conjure Arcadian dreams in the world of sound, though the dream in No. 4 is a sad one, in memoriam for Natalie Koussevitzky. Malipiero was a unique genius with a very distinct style: If Debussy had been an Italian and had studied with Leos Janacek, he might have sounded something like this.
Were I to choose a chamber music CD of the year, it would be the RCA Red Seal issue of Julius Röntgen’s Piano Quintet; Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano; Sonata for Viola and Piano; and Sextet for strings (88697-15837-2). The CD is curiously titled Right Through the Bone, because Röntgen’s distant relative, Wilhelm, discovered X-rays. Composer Edvard Grieg, however, said Julius’s music went "right through bone," making it more powerful than his brother’s X-rays. Be that as it may, this music is drop-dead beautiful and performed with the highest level of artistry by members of the ARC Ensemble from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada. Music flowed out of Röntgen (1855-1932), who composed more than 650 works. This exquisitely lovely, late-Romantic music, called "unmodern" by its creator, reminds me mostly of Dvorak, because Röntgen’s gift for melody is comparable. His music also possesses a haunting quality, a special eeriness that makes it unforgettable. This is a major discovery — not to be missed.
Another major rediscovery comes with the music of Joseph Marx (1882-1964), another conservative who was temporarily forgotten by history, which he seemed to be on the wrong side of when he created the label of "atonality" to mark off Arnold’s Schoenberg’s music. Marx was known as the last champion of the primacy of tonality in his era, and as the most important lyricist in 20th-century Austrian music. That is quite a claim, but it is supported by a string of new releases that are beginning to give a fuller picture of this man. What is evident from them is that Marx was an integral part of the glorious Viennese sunset outburst of music, which was to sink from view in the mayhem of two world wars.
Marx’s lyricism is amply displayed in the new Chandos release (CHAN 10505) of his Orchestral Songs and Choral Works. The premiere recording of Herbstchor an Pan (Autumn Chorus to Pan) begins the CD with a nearly 20-minute extravaganza for mixed chorus, boys’ chorus, orchestra, and organ. The sumptuous choral works and songs are gorgeous, as performed by the BBC Symphony Chorus and Symphony Orchestra with soprano Christine Brewer, under Jiri Belohlavek. The rich, almost syrupy idiom is redolent of Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
A CD of Marx’s orchestral music from CPO (777 320-2) offers glowing, luxuriant evocations of nature in Eine Frühlingsmusik (A Spring Music), Idylle, and Feste im Herbst (Feasts in Autumn). Here is ecstatic, delirious nature poetry in what sounds like a fascinating blend of Debussy and Strauss, beautifully delivered by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Johannes Wilder. Unless you are immune to hyper-Romanticism, these works will be hard to resist. You can find more Marx on a new Chandos CD of his piano music, with Tonya Lemoh (CHAN 10479), and on a CPO CD of his complete String Quartets, with Thomas Christian Ensemble (777 066-2). The three quartets, each written in a different style (modo antico, modo classic, and chromatico), are a fascinating demonstration of how immensely gifted this man was.
Chandos has issued a very exciting CD of Miklos Roza’s orchestral works, in what is promisingly labeled Vol. 1 (CHAN 10488). It includes Overture to a Symphony Concert, Three Hungarian Sketches, Tripartita, and Hungarian Serenade, with the BBC Philharmonic, under conductor Rumon Gamba. Everyone knows Roza as the film composer of Spellbound, El Cid, and Ben Hur, but he is less well known for his "classical" music. He was every bit as talented in the concert hall. These works, as their titles suggest, are drenched in Hungarian spices and melodies, although they are not overtly folkloric. This is very attractive music, energetic and colorful; modern, but tonal. I will follow this series with great interest.
More treasures from Hungary come with the first two of three CDs containing the ten string quartets of Laszlo Lajtha (1892-1963) on the Hungaroton label. Vol. 1 has Quartets 1, 3, and 4 (HCD 32542); Vol. 2 contains Quartets 5, 7, and 9 (HCD 32543), all performed with authority and grace by the Auer String Quartet. While Lajtha was inspired by Bartók’s quartets, his works are far less difficult to take in on first hearing. Because of the prominent French influence on Lajtha’s music, it has a lightness of touch to it, along with the native appeal of Hungarian folk music. The reason Lajtha is not as well known as Bartók and Kodaly is that the communist regime considered him a "political resistance fighter" and suppressed his music. Considering the circumstances under which it was written, it would be no surprise if some of this music were somber and gray. What is surprising is how little of it reflects Lajtha’s difficult conditions. Because of this man’s noble spirit, he could not be reduced to his circumstances. I avidly await Vol. 3.
I am a huge fan of Franz Schubert’s music, so I was delighted by the new Naxos release of Vol. 1 of his complete overtures (8.570328). Contained therein are nine spirited works from his teenage years — concert and opera overtures that are mostly unfamiliar, but are great fun. I do not mean this as a condescending remark; Schubert’s preternatural genius was already on display in his teen years. The overtures are performed with wonderful verve by the Prague Sinfonia, under Christian Benda.
Lastly, one more terrific bargain. Faithful readers may recall my high praise for the Fine Arts Quartet in a performance of Schumann quartets on Naxos last year. Naxos now gives us the Fine Arts doing the Bruckner String Quintet, accompanied by his early String Quartet (8.570788). The Quintet is one of the great chamber works of the late 19th century, famous for its sublime adagio. The Fine Arts gives it a spacious reading of three-quarters of an hour that fully reveals its glories in a grateful acoustic. If you love chamber music and have not heard this masterpiece, this is a great introduction.
Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com. E-mail him at [email protected].