2010 in Music

It’s a race to the finish of 2010 to bring you the fruits of this year before it ends. Brevity, be by my side and slay the demon logorrhea. Here, in brief, are treasures.

The Classical era is my favorite for its balance and grace, but what can be new from this period? Haven’t we heard everything? But here comes Peter von Winter (1754-1825), of whom I have never heard, in a beautiful new CPO release (CPO 777 530-2) with world-premiere recordings of symphonies, an overture, and three Entr’actes. Inventive, charming music that displays its era’s merits leaves us hoping that conductor Johannes Moesus and the Muincher Rundfunkorchester will give us more of von Winter’s oeuvre. This is Classical class, a nice discovery.

 

CPO has also blessed us with a two-CD set of Franz Danzi’s complete symphonies, performed by the Swiss-Italian Orchestra, under Howard Griffiths (CPO 777 351-2). Like von Winter, Danzi (1763-1826) studied under Abbe Volger. I don’t think Danzi was touched with genius, but he had the good sense to imitate the best, like Haydn, and these six symphonies are wonderfully engaging and highly spirited, especially in these energetic, almost raucous performances. Griffiths and his forces impart a kind of rusticity to this music that makes it all the more rollicking and enjoyable.

The Naxos label has stayed true to the music of Beethoven student and biographer Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) by issuing volume No. 4 of his Piano Concertos (Op. 120 and Op. 115), as well as Vols. 2 and 3 of Reis’s Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (8.572204 and 8.57229), superbly played by Susan Kagan. The concertos (Naxos 8.572088) display a muscular, rugged, Beethoven-like character and are robustly performed by pianist Christopher Hinterhuber and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Uwe Grodd. Anyone interested in late Classical/early Romantic music will find these CDs fascinating.

Marco Polo/Naxos gave us the magnificent symphonies of Portuguese composer Joly Braga Santos, and now Naxos is following that up with the release of the orchestral works of his teacher, Luis de Freitas Branco (1890-1955), including his Four Symphonies. The most recent CDs include Symphony No. 3, The Death of Manfred, and Suite Alentejuno No. 2 (8.572370), as well as Symphony No. 4 and Vathek- Symphonic Poem (8.572624), both under the inspired direction of Alvaro Cassuto, with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. The late Romantic Third Symphony is so immediately appealing I suggest you start with it.

 

One of the glories of symphonic music from the first half of the 20th century is the set of Four Symphonies by Austrian composer Franz Schmidt (1874-1939). Vassily Sinaisky and the Malmo Symphony Orchestra have now concluded their cycle for Naxos with a recording of the Fourth, accompanied by Variations on a Hussar’s Song (8.572118). Franz Welser-Most and the London Philharmonic duplicate this repertory on the EMI label with performances that are more intense and dramatic, but Sinaisky fully captures the glorious sumptuousness of this music. His tempi are broader, but, if you have the patience, the payoff is there. This budget Naxos Schmidt cycle is clearly one of the supreme bargains of the year.

The Hannsler Classic label has been in the forefront of restoring the music of the quixotic French genius Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) to the catalog. Somehow, I missed the first two issues of the works for piano, but volume No. 3, “Des Horizon Lointain,” inspires me to catch up. Much of the music could be located somewhere between Eric Satie and Debussy and Ravel. But Koechlin has his own particular genius, and one must be grateful to Hannsler for its enterprise. Pianist Michael Korstick deploys liquid, subtle playing that is perfect for this music. The dreamy delights here are irresistible. Try the andante con moto, and you will see what I mean.

I had no idea who German composer Julius Weismann (1879-1950) was, or that he had written twelve string quartets. I still do not know why conductor Georg Mais arranged two of them, Op. 133 and Op. 148, for string orchestra. But I am happy that he did, because these two works are soothingly mellow and delightfully melodious. They invite an open fire. On a blind listening, I would have guessed that these were English string works from the mid-20th century — a very high complement. This CPO disc captures the warm glow of the Southwest German Chamber Orchestra of Pforzheim, under maestro Mais (CPO 777 596-2). More, please.

There is good news on the Russian front: More Mieczyslaw Weinberg releases are pouring in. The Neos label has issued a two-CD set of Weinberg’s Complete Sonatas for Viola Solo and the Sonata, Op. 28, in a version for viola and piano. These are spare, concentrated works with minimum surface appeal and a lot of substance. The music nears the metaphysical, and violist Julia Rebekka Adler plays it with complete conviction. Not for the newcomer, then, but a must for the initiate (NEOS 111008/09) and for those who wonder what Bach would have done if he had lived in the Soviet Union.

Naxos has reissued an Olympia CD of Weinberg’s 24 Preludes, Op. 100, and Solo Cello Sonata, No.1, Op. 72, with cellist Josef Feigelson.  These works are even more redolent of Bach and have the advantage of the cello’s full, burnished sound. They are perhaps more immediately attractive than the solo viola music but require just as much concentration. I think only great composers try to write music this spare and this deep (Naxos 8.572280).

 

Last year, I praised the CPO release of Weinberg’s Violin Sonatas Nos. 4 and 5 to the skies. Well, move over: Toccata Classics has entered the lists with its Vol. 1 of the Complete Violin Sonatas, with only one overlapping piece in its first issue. The overlap is with Sonata No. 4, which the Toccata artists (violinist Yuri Kalnits and pianist Michael Csányi-Wills) play with such searing intensity that it is almost another piece. It is accompanied by Sonata No. 1; the Sonatina for Violin and Piano, Op. 46; and the Sonata No. 1 for Violin Solo, Op. 82.  Kalnits plays the latter with dizzying, breathtaking brilliance, completely at the service of this profound excursion into the cross-section of sound and the human soul. You must hear this (TOCC 0007).

CPO has now released Vol. 4 of its ongoing series of the 17 complete Weinberg String Quartets, with Quatuor Danel (CPO 777 394-2). It is every bit as fine as its predecessors and as necessary in establishing this cycle as second only to Shostakovich’s own in greatness. Quartets Nos. 5, 9, and 14 contain some ruminative, somewhat subdued, introspective music, but it is never that far from an exposed nerve. The level of the performances and the sonics continue CPO’s impeccable standards.

My CD find of the year may be Boris Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, released on the Profil label, with Pieces for Piano (PH 10038). This recording comes from a tape of the premiere performance in 1967 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, under Kyrill Kondrashin.  Like many such Soviet-era historic performances, it has a raw quality about it, played in a manner only heard from those who believe their lives depended upon it. Tchaikovsky (no relation to Peter) was a student of Shostakovich, but his music is less beholden to him than is Weinberg’s in its style. The huge, 50-minute symphony is a quicksilver, kaleidoscopic work of considerable brilliance and verve. The first movement is a jeu d’esprit: It begins pizzicato in the strings, and then develops its main theme. The exposition given by strings and harp is repeated note for note in the winds and percussion. This is riveting, mercurial music. The symphony is accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s utterly charming Piano Pieces, played by the composer. This CD is indispensable for anyone interested in 20th-century Russian music.

Toccata Classics immediately reinforces my impression of Tchaikovsky as first rate with a new CD containing Song-Cycles and Chamber Music (TOCC 0046). The songs, based on poems by Josef Brodsky, Mikhail Lermontov, Pushkin, and Kipling, are full of character, highly expressive, and attractively melodic. The Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello shows that Tchaikovsky wrote on as high a level for chamber groups as he did for symphony orchestra. The Two Pieces for Balalaika and Piano, written in 1991, are a sheer delight.  This is the kind of discovery that sends me on a crusade: I am embarking on an effort to find as much of this man’s music as I can.

Isn’t that what the New Year is for?

Robert R. Reilly

By

Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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