The musical levees have broken and I am inundated with new CD releases. In these brief reviews, I will also be playing catch-up on some overlooked items of merit. I shall proceed chronologically, which means we begin with my favorite period of music, the Classical era. The CPO label (777 526-2) has released a disc featuring four of the symphonies of Carl Stamitz (1745-1801). Carl was the son of Johan Stamitz, the founder of the famous Mannheim school, from which the classical symphony was launched. The four symphonies here, played with verve by Werner Erhardt and L’Arte del Mondo, are adrenaline-driven and delightful. These will provide refreshment on the hottest summer day.
Next in line come the complete String Quartets of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), played by the Quartetto Savinio on the Stradivarius label in a two-CD set (STR 33800). Beethoven considered Cherubini to be the best composer of his time, Beethoven excepted. If that might be an exaggeration, I will nonetheless use it to entice you to listen to these six marvelous quartets. They are Classical but with quirks, which make them all the more appealing. Stradivarius is an expensive import label, but these performances are worth it.
Ferdinand Ries (1784-837) was a student of Beethoven. Compared to his teacher, one would have to say that he produced music in the upper echelon of the second rate, which at that time was very good indeed. Two labels in particular, CPO and Naxos, have done an outstanding job in providing a full view of Reis’s music. CPO has recorded all the symphonies, and Naxos has given us all the piano concertos. I heartily recommend both series.
Helping to fill out the picture, CPO has now released a CD of Ries’s overtures. These are fun, dramatic works, ably delivered by conductor Howard Griffiths and the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne (777 609-2). For Naxos, pianist Susan Kagan has completed Vol. 5 in her complete traversal of Reis’s piano sonatas. Ries provided a connection between the late Classical and early Romantic, and he can be heard bridging that divide in these lyrical and dramatic works, so well performed here (8.572300).
The BBC label has issued another extraordinary live recording of Gustav Mahler’s music by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. Last April, I reported on the release of the 1987 Mahler Second Symphony, a truly extraordinary performance in which Tennstedt held the music in what seemed to be a state of breathtaking suspension. We now have a two-CD set (LPO 0052) of the Mahler Eighth Symphony, performed at the Royal Festival Hall on January 7, 1991.
In this performance, Tennstedt does not engage in dangerously slow tempi but delivers an absolutely riveting, highly charged performance that will keep you glued in your chair — or on the edge of it. The inner life of the Mahler Eighth comes bursting through; it is overwhelming. This recording cements in my mind the conviction that Tennstedt was one of the truly great conductors of the late 20th century. If I had to choose only one Mahler conductor, it would be he. If I could have only one recording of the Eighth Symphony, it would be this one.
I should mention parenthetically that the ICA Classics label (ICAC 5021) has released an historical performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony, conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos in October 1960, with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. Mitropoulos was a legendary Mahler conductor, and it is good to have this memento, especially since it is in very fine mono sound. Surprisingly, the performance is rather straightforward and would not, by itself, go to the top of my list for performances of the Third. But for Mitropoulos fans, this may be a must. It was after the long first movement in this performance that Mitropoulos suffered a major heart attack. He insisted on continuing the performance, which was his last. He was dead several days later.
Also of more than historical interest is the new release of a Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra performance from 1954 of Wilhelm Furtwangler’s Symphony No. 2, by conductor Eugen Jochum. This is a mega-symphony (more than 80 minutes long) very much in the tradition of Bruckner and Mahler. Though Furtwangler wrote it at the end of World War II, its language belongs solidly in the late Romantic period. However, unlike Richard Strauss’s autumnal Four Last Songs, written at the same time, the Second Symphony does not have anything valedictory about it. It is written as if the late Romantic tradition were still alive. This is a storm-tossed work, fraught with peril, possessed of fury, and written from within a maelstrom.
Jochum was a great Bruckner conductor, so one would expect him to do well with this Symphony. And he does. However, the music comes across as less molten and delirious than in Furtwangler’s own recordings, which are incomparable, even though they are in relatively poor sound. With Furtwangler, for example, a musical rest is not simply a rest. It is a heart-stopping, breath-holding moment, pregnant with peril. No other conductor, including Daniel Barenboim in his beautiful recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, catches nuances like these. Nevertheless, Jochum builds quite a thrilling interpretation on this BR-Klassik two-CD set (900702). I highly recommend that you get one of the available recordings of this extraordinary work.
A label that is new to me, Newton Classics, seems to be offering repackaged recordings from the early stereo era at budget prices. One such is its two-CD release of the music of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), all conducted by Antal Dorati. The first CD contains the three suites of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, delectable music that is irresistible in its attraction. The performances here are by the Philharmonia Hungarica. I still have the Mercury Living Presence LP on which I first heard this music, and this performance remains my favorite. The sound is excellent. The same can be said for the second CD, in which the London Symphony Orchestra and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra share the honors in performing The Birds, Brazilian Impressions, The Fountains of Rome, and The Pines of Rome (880-2048).
At the end of last year, I was happy to announce the release of Vol. 1 in the Naxos survey of the complete piano music of Giorgio Federico Ghedini (1892-1965), beautifully played by Massimo Giuseppe Bianchi. Ghedini is one of the unsung geniuses of Italian 20th-century music. Naxos has now issued the second and final volume of the piano music. All the works on this CD (8.572330) are from Ghedini’s maturity and therefore even richer than the youthful, charming pieces in Vol. 1. Five of the eight works presented here are world-premiere recordings, including the substantial Sonata in A flat major. The music is instantly appealing and full of character. Buy this CD for its own sake, but also to encourage Naxos to go on to record Ghedini’s brilliant orchestral and chamber music.
Early this spring in London, I picked up a Toccata Classics release (TOCC 0001) that I had somehow overlooked from several years ago. It features the orchestral music of Julius Berger (1897-1995), one of the Viennese composers who had to flee the Nazis. He fell into almost complete obscurity in the United States. The music on this CD is so good that if Martin Anderson had not invented Toccata Classics precisely to make such works available, someone would have to do it.
The character of this music shows its Viennese provenance. Burger was a student of Franz Schreker, but his music does not have the overheated quality sometimes found in the works of his contemporaries. It is more redolent of Franz Schmidt, Joseph Marx, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It is written in the full flower of a tradition in which one does not yet sense decay or neuroses. The two radiant songs for baritone and orchestra, Quiet of the Night and Legende, are perfect examples. The texts are exquisitely and richly set, but without the kind of suspicious sumptuousness that one finds in Strauss’s songs. Nothing is overboard or overripe. The Scherzo for strings is a lively confection that could compete at the highest level of comparable British works for strings. The Cello Concerto is a deeply beautiful work. The Adagio is very moving (dedicated to his mother, whom the Nazis shot). How can anything this fine not have been heard for more than 50 years? The final work on this CD, The Variations on a Theme by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, are a delight. The performances by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, baritone Michael Kraus, and cellist Maya Beiser, under conductor Simone Young, are inspiring. The sound quality is superb. The Toccata Classics motto is to offer “forgotten music by great composers, great music by forgotten composers.” It has fulfilled the second half of its mission with this release.
The Naxos label always does things thoroughly — and now, after having recorded his complete symphonies and a good deal of his chamber music, it gives us two more CDs of the music of British composer William Alwyn (1905-1985). Alwyn was also a great film composer (for some 200 movies, the most recent of which I have seen is Carve Her Name with Pride, which has a magnificent score), whose music is rich, lyrical, and colorful. Such is the case with his early Violin Concerto, which apparently did not enjoy success during his life. It is never too late, as you will hear in this rhapsodic piece, beautifully played by violinist Lorraine McAslan with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, under David Lloyd-Jones (8.570705). It is accompanied by an attractive suite from the Alwyn opera, Miss Julie.
The second Alwyn CD (8.572425) contains six chamber works, composed between 1934 and 1962, including sonatas for clarinet, oboe, and viola. This is all expertly made music in a variety of styles, from the highly lyrical to the slightly stringent. I think they are all gems. This is a mandatory purchase for anyone who has been following the outstanding Naxos Alwyn series.
I close with some summer fun in the outrageously raucous, highly colorful, wildly imaginative music of Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). Naxos has assembled a selection of music from his two famous ballets, Estancia and Panambi, along with a substantial piece called Popol Vuh: The Mayan Creation and Ollantay, an Inca-inspired composition (8.570999). If Villa-Lobos was Brazil’s Stravinsky of the jungle, Ginastera was Argentina’s Stravinsky of the pampas. The final movement of Estancia, “Malambo,” is deliciously raucous. In between the musical riots, Ginastera writes some gorgeously lyrical music.
Gisele Ben-Dor does a fabulous job in conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in these selections. All the poetry and drama are captured in excellent sound. I cannot imagine a better introduction to Ginastera’s exhilarating music.