May 28, 2009
Summer Listening List
This month’s column is more of a list than a series of reviews. I mean to arm you with unassailable enjoyment for the lazy, sunny season. If only I can control my logorrhea!
Faithful readers may recall that I was somewhat put off by Charles Mackerras’s unrelenting breakneck speeds in his traversal of the Mozart symphonies on Telarc. I find the new Ambroisie two-CD release of Symphonies Nos. 31, 39, 40, and 41 (AM 182) from the Naïve label much more to my liking. These are very lively performances from conductor John Nelson and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, but they are not frenetic, and Nelson uses the essential element of flexibility to gain maximum expressivity. (It’s selling new on Amazon from some merchants for less than $13 — a great bargain.)
When I was listening to Ignaz Pleyel’s two delightful Symphonies Concertantes and the Violin concerto in D on a new Naxos release (8.570320), I was reminded of Albert Einstein’s remark that "the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." The first thing that came to mind was Mozart’s glorious Sinfonias Concertantes. Why not be influenced by the very best? If you have room for some charm, here it is in Mozartian fashion.
Naxos has continued its survey of Beethoven protégé Ferdinand Ries’s excellent music. The latest release (8.5700440) features the Piano Concerto Farewell to England (Op. 132), which is a wonderful romp. It is accompanied by some ingenious fun in the Grand Variations on "Rule Britannia" and another work.
Volume 13 of Marco Polo’s complete String Quartets of Louis Spohr (1784-1859), featuring Nos. 9 and 17, is now out (8.225315). If you have been following my reviews of this long-running cycle, you will know what to do. Get it.
After hearing Giuseppe Martucci’s and Freitas Branco’s First Symphonies, I might have nodded, "Yes, this is mildly interesting," but then yawned a bit. Luckily, I held fast until I heard their Second Symphonies, which are fascinating. Martucci’s Second Symphony (Naxos 8.570930) combines Sibelius’s majestic symphonic sweep with Italian lyricism in a wonderfully stirring first movement. Later movements sometimes sound like Elgar, with his sweetness and nobility of expression. I am not sure how these influences infiltrated Italy at that time (1904), but it is no wonder that Toscanini championed this piece. Branco’s Second (Naxos 8.572059) reveals a marvelous imagination working in Portugal around 1926. Branco starts with Gregorian chant and builds an imposing edifice larded with gorgeous melodies. The two tone poems accompanying the Symphony are knockouts. Please, Naxos, record his Third and Fourth Symphonies.
In Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek’s Symphony No. 1 (CPO 777 223-2), the sheer orchestral mastery is breathtaking. If you think you have heard everything, you haven’t. This is an eye-opener for Strauss lovers. It turns out that he had real competition. Only music of the brilliance of Strauss’s could have blown von Reznicek (1860-1945) off the musical map. CPO’s revelatory series shows that this should never have happened.
It is a complete mystery to me how the new Naxos recording of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Concerto dell’estate (1928) could be the first one in 40 years and the only one on CD. It is one of the most beautiful, evocative pieces of Italian orchestral music in the 20th century. It is right up there with Respighi and Malipiero. When you hear it, you will wonder, too, and be grateful for Naxos’s enterprise in getting the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra, under Myron Michailidis, to record it, along with several other Pizzetti pieces, which are receiving their recording premieres. The translation of the concerto’s name is "summer music." What could be more fitting for this pastoral symphony? It’s magic time on Naxos 8.572013.
Having mentioned Gian Francesco Malipiero, I should tell you that magic strikes again in the Naxos release of Vol. 2 of his complete Symphonies, offering Nos. 1 and 2 and the Sinfonie del silenzio e della morte. The second movement of the Sinfonie will place you in a languid Arcadian reverie in which Malipiero seems to suspend time. The First Symphony, a "four seasons" piece, begins in the same vein. Symphony No. 2 is beautifully valedictory. This is musical beguilement and enchantment at the genius level. Only Naxos has this magic potion (8.570879).
I am stunned by the CPO release of Rudolph Simonsen’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (CPO 777 229-2). Who? Exactly — and I am supposed to know. In Denmark, Simonsen (1889-1947) came in the generation after Carl Nielsen (though he is no mere imitation of him), but apparently his music was eclipsed after his death in 1947, if not before. The symphonies are remarkably good, with great dramatic grip and a sustained sense of power, leaving me to hope that CPO will record the other two. The second movement of the First Symphony, subtitled The Promise, is one of the most radiant pieces of music I have heard in some time. In the liner notes, it is compared to Nielsen’s terrific Helios overture, and deserves to be. It is a mesmerizing 18-minute span of sheer beauty. You must hear it.
There is very sad news from Great Britain on the death of conductor Richard Hickox (1948-2008) last November. However, he did not leave us empty-handed. One of his last gifts is a radiant recording of Gustav Holst’s orchestral ballets, The Perfect Fool and The Lure, and two choral ballets, The Golden Goose and The Morning of the Year. Obviously, Hickox was still at the top of his game in these rousing, finely detailed performances, given brilliant sound by Chandos’s SACD recording (CHSA 5069).
At first I wondered why I was not as taken with Vol. 2 of Hans Gál’s complete string quartets (Nos. 2 and 3, with five Intermezzi) as I was with the first release. I discovered it was because I was not quiet enough to take these works in. The liner notes have it exactly right: Gal’s world "is civilized and exists for those who have the patience to listen attentively." This is not music that grabs you by the lapels and shouts, "Listen to me!" It is unobtrusive. Its beauties are subtle, finely wrought, and exquisite in detail. This is contemplative, gentle music. Not many composers in 1969 wrote works like Quartet No. 3. The youthful Intermezzi from 1914 are a sheer delight, on Meridian CDE 84531, with the superb Edinburgh Quartet. I am also enjoying a Camerata CD (CMCD-28149) of Gal’s Piano Trios, which display his signature refinement. It is a measure of the 20th century’s brutality that music such as this could have been neglected.
Naxos has a new recording of Malcolm Arnold’s delightful Concerto for Two Pianos, Concerto for Piano Duet and Strings, Fantasy on a Theme of John Field, and Overture: Beckus the Dandipratt (Naxos 8.570531). I cannot think of more agreeable summer listening. In one movement or even moment, the music is piercingly lovely (the first concerto’s exquisite Andante con moto), in the next raucous; the priceless element of fancy and play in this most mercurial music is pervasive. It is a riot of humor and whimsy, with interjections of sudden, wild drama. I love it.
I already declare the Fourth of July CD to be Albany Classics’ release of Morton Gould’s Cowboy Rhapsody, Roy Harris’s Symphony No. 11, Cecil Effinger’s Little Symphony No. 1, and Douglas Moore’s Symphony No. 2. Anyone who loves Aaron Copland’s Rodeo will also love the Gould romp, which uses some of the same melodies. No one could put together a confection of Western tunes the way Gould did in Cowboy Rhapsody and have it melt your heart and delight your ears, no matter how many times you may have heard this medley. Obviously very much under Harris’s influence, Cecil Effinger displays the same blissfully meandering style as Harris. Lastly, we have Moore’s fine work, written, as he said, "in clear, objective, modified classical style." Wonderful work is done by the Sinfonia Varsovia, under Ian Hobson, on this Albany TROY CD 1042.
If you love the cello, Naxos’s new release of Krzysztof Penderecki’s works for cellos and orchestra will enrich your summer (8.570509). His Concerto Grosso No. 1 from 2000 is full of doleful, gorgeous sounds from three cellos. It is wonderfully rich and phantasmagoric in places. It closes with a meltingly lovely adagio. The Largo for Cello and Orchestra from 2003 also features a drop-dead beautiful, keening lament. Penderecki is still working at the top of his neo-Romantic vein.
The Centaur label has introduced the music of Charles Roland Berry, an American composer originally from Michigan, with his Symphony No. 3 and his Cello Concerto (CRC 2898). These are beautiful works and have a Dvorak-like emotional warmth to them. The appeal is immediate in the singing, somewhat breezy character of the Cello Concerto, endowed with a typical American spirit of openness and optimism. The sweet, lovely melodies clearly come straight from Berry’s heart and will go straight to yours. This is a man who obviously does not give a hang for modern schools of composition. He writes it as he feels it. I cannot think of when I have heard contemporary works of music that are as big-hearted as these. It is wonderful news that Centaur will be releasing more of Berry’s music.
More to come!
Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com. E-mail him at [email protected].