Friday, July 30, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #NAFTAclassics Week 4

The Classics a Day team once again made NAFTA Classics the theme for July. Two of the three countries in North America have significant holidays in the month -- Canada Day (July 1), and Independence Day (July 4).

As always with this theme, I simply alternated between Canadian, American, and Mexican composers. And the process discovered a lot of great classical music north and south of the border. 

Here are my #ClassicsaDay posts for the fourth and final week of #NAFTAclassics.

07/26/21 Edward Burlingame Hill (US 1872-1960) Concertino No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra

Hill is best remembered for his pupils -- Leonard Bernstein, Elliot Carter, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, and Virgil Thompson. But he was also a composer who brought American influences into his music.

07/27/21 Clarence Lucas (Canada 1866–1947) - Holiday Sketches

Lucas had a rich and varied career; composer, teacher, music proofreader, music magazine editor, transcriber, conductor, music director, and lyricist.

07/28/21 Macedonio Alcalá (Mexico 1831–1869) Dio nunca muere

Alcalá was asked by residents of Tlacolula to write a waltz in honor of the Virgin Mary, their town's patron. It was an instant hit and is now the unofficial anthem of Oaxaca.

07/29/21 Florence Price (US 1887-1953) Violin Concerto No. 2

Price completed her second violin concerto in 1952, a year before her death. It was discovered in 2009 when renovations were done to her former home.

07/29/21 Healey Willan  (Canada 1880-1958) Symphony No. 1 in D minor

Willan is best known for his choral compositions. Of his over 800 works, only two were symphonies. This is his first written in 1936.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Say Hello to Vítězslava Kaprálová with "Waving Farewell"

Vítězslava Kaprálová is considered one of the Czech Republic's greatest female composers -- and with good reason. She was a student of Vítězslav Novák and Bohuslav Martinu. 

She conducted performances of her works with both the Czech Philharmonic and the BBC Orchestra. She wrote over fifty compositions, several of which won awards. And she was dead at age 25.

This release features live performances from the Kaprálová Festival in Michigan. Kenneth Kiesler conducts the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra in some enthusiastic and firey performances.

Kaprálová's music bristles with youthful energy, dazzling with brilliant orchestral colors. But there's substance here, too. These are well-crafted works that one might expect from a composer in a mid or even later career.

I could hear echoes of both Novák and Martinu in passages of Kaprálová's music. But I think those were the Czech elements that colored the sound of all three composers. In terms of organization and orchestration, Kaprálová was very much her own woman.  

Pianist Amy I-Lin Cheng does the 1935 Piano Concerto justice. Her playing melds Romantic expressiveness with an edginess that seems in keeping with Kaprálová's character. 

Another standout is the title track, "Waving Farewell." Kaprálová wrote 33 songs, only a few given orchestral accompaniment. The music swirls around the text, conveying the roiling emotions it suggests.

This recording presents five of Kaprálová's fifty compositions. I don't know about you, but I'd like to collect them all. 

Vítězslava Kaprálová: Waving Farewell
Sad Evening; Piano Concerto; Prélude de Noël; Military Sinfonietta; Suite en miniature
Nicholas Phan, tenor; Amy I-Lin Cheng, piano
University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra;  Kenneth Kiesler, conductor
Naxos 8.574144

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Domenico Silvio Passionei - Famous Cardinal, Closet Cellist

What do you do when you're between gigs? If you're Domenico Silvio Passionei, you publish a set of cello sonatas. Cardinal Passoinei was the pope's official representative to the peace conference that produced the Treaty of Utrecht in 1712. With no further assignments on the horizon, he retired to his family estates until recalled to service in 1721.

Passionei was an enthusiastic amateur musician and composer, although he apparently downplayed such activities once he went to Rome. Nevertheless, during his temporary retirement, Passoinei managed to compose a set of twelve cello sonatas. This collection was published, presumably at his own expense, in 1718. 

The sonatas, for the most part, follow the model of Corelli. They have four movements, alternating slow and fast tempos. And the sonatas have a basso continuo - a harpsichord to provide the harmony, and a second cello to play the bass line. 

The musicians in this recording are first-rate. Cellist Gioele Guberti turns in home beautiful performances. Passionei may have been an amateur, but he knew his instrument. His music is full of double stops, rapid passagework, and other elements that lay well on the cello.

The musicians are closely mic'd, which adds to their performances, I think. Hearing that sharp intake of breath right before a sweeping arpeggio gives the passage some additional emotional weight. 

Passoinei knew his instrument, and he knew how to write melodies. There's something here for listeners as well as performances. Fascinating music from someone whose biography seldom mentions music at all.

Domenico Silvio Passionei: Sonatas for Cello
Gioele Guberti, cello; Claudiio Frigerio, cello; Marija Jovanovic, harpsichord
Urania Records


Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Tobias Borsboom Delivers with Vítězslav Novák Tone Poem

I think there's a general assumption that orchestration makes music better. Consider the popularity of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." The orchestrated versions are much more commonly performed (and recorded) than the original piano version. 

But is the piano version of a work just a black and white image compared to the technicolor brilliance of the orchestral counterpart?

Not necessarily. 

Vítězslav Novák composed his massive tone poem "Pan" originally for piano. And as this new recording demonstrates, it compares quite favorably to his orchestrated version. 

Novák wrote the work in 1910, giving free rein to his imagination. The poem presents four aspects of nature: mountains, sea, forest, and woman. The work is cyclic, with themes returning in various forms throughout. The harmonies are rich and exotic. 

To my ears, this version reminded me of Scriabin, with some Debussy and Janacek blended in. And while the orchestral version has its merits, this version's strength is its unity of expression. 

One performer, one mind, one interpretation. Tobias Borsboom does just that. He easily executes the Lisztian complexities of the score. He deftly shapes the sound, bringing out melodies buried in the midst of chords. 

And he maintains his artistic vision for a solid hour of playing. Throughout the entire work, I had a sense of purpose and direction. All of this was leading somewhere, and that somewhere was the final movement. Borsboom's lovingly crafted phrasing brings out the beauty of the score and the beauty of its emotional core. 

Highly recommended.

Vítězslav Novák: Pan - A Tone Poem for Piano
Tobias Borsboom, piano
Piano Classics PC10219

Monday, July 26, 2021

Fiori Musicali Return to Renaissance Roots

According to the liner notes, the purpose of this release is to "uncover the fine thread of cultural exchange between high art music and popular music tradition." Sure, I could hear that. You can also enjoy this release as a great collection of early music hits.

I use the word "hits," because many of these selections are well-represented in recordings. The selections from Michael Praetorius' "Terpsichore" are prime examples. And the selections from Cabezòn, Ortiz, and Vásquez I have on other releases. 

But the Ensemble Mezzo is true to its purpose. This release also includes music from French Baroque composer Charpentier, and early Italian masters Claudio Monteverdi and Barabar Strozzi. And it also has some Greek traditional dances. 

And hearing all of this music together -- late Renaissance, early/middle Baroque, and folk --brings out the connections between them.

The Ensemble Mezzo plays in an energetic fashion, with a slightly rough edge to the sound. It sounds perfectly authentic for the dance and folk pieces. And it pulls the "high art" pieces a little bit closer to the ground -- and helps highlight that connectedness between the works. 

If you're just looking for a program of well-performed early music, Fiori Musicali satisfies. If you're looking for insights, that's where the Ensemble Mezzo's program really delivers. 

Fiori Musicali: Songs and Dances of the 16th and 17th Centuries
Ensemble Mezzo
Stradivarius STR37195

Friday, July 23, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #NAFTAclassics Week 3

The Classics a Day team once again made NAFTA Classics the theme for July. Two of the three countries in North America have significant holidays in the month -- Canada Day (July 1), and Independence Day (July 4).

As always with this theme, I simply alternated between Canadian, American, and Mexican composers. And the process discovered a lot of great classical music north and south of the border. 

Here are my #ClassicsaDay posts for the third week of #NAFTAclassics.

07/19/21 Ernest Gagnon (Canada 1834-1915) - Ave maria stella

Gagnon is remembered primiarly for his collection of French Canadian folk music published in the 1860s. He was also a virtuoso organist and an accompished composer.

07/20/21 Francisco López Capillas (c. 1615 – 1673) - Magnificat a 8

Capillas was a native-born Mexican composer, and spent his life working in the Mexicao City Cathedral. He's credited with composing the most Mexican masses of the Baroque era.

07/21/21 Arthur Foote - (US 1853-1937) A Night Piece for Flute and String Quartet

Foote was a member of the Boston Six, and a founder of the American Guild of Organists. The majority of his catalog.

07/22/21 Charles A.E. Harriss (Canada 1862–1929) - The Alma Patrol

Harriss emigrated from the UK, and gained prominance as an organist. He founded the McGill Conservatorium of Music, as well as several Canadian music festivals.

07/23/21 Aniceto Ortega (1825–1875) - Marcha Zaragoza

This talented physician and composer composed the Marcha Zaragoza in honor of the famous Mexican general and patriot in 1862. It has since become Mexico's second national anthem.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Les Escapades revive Georg Christoph Strattner sacred music

Georg Christoph Strattner is best remembered today for some of his hymn tunes. But in the late 1690s, he was a well-respected composer of many forms of sacred music. 

Strattner spent most of his professional life at the court chapel at Weimar. Like Heinrich Schutz, who was of the previous generation, Strattner blended the ideals of protestant simplicity with the beauty of the Italian baroque. 

This release features seven of his hymns. These are not four-square melodies set to block harmonies. Many of the selections strongly resemble Italian arias and some late-period madrigals. 

Strattner uses chromaticism effectively, giving an edge to the emotional content of the text. He's also not afraid to use counterpoint. And some of the vocal lines veer close to intricate ornamentation. 

And yet Strattner hues the ideal of clarity and simplicity of Luther's church. There may be polyphony, but all lines are easy to follow. 

Even when the entire ensemble is playing, the texture is transparent. This is simpler music than Schutz's, and in some ways, it points towards the arias of Bach's sacred works.

The soloists are first-rate. Individually and collectively they sing with a crystalline clarity. The ensemble blend is wonderful. 

Les Escapades compliments the vocalists effectively. This is a small group of musicians, as would have been assembled for a court chapel. 

Not a lot of Strattner's music has survived. Based on what I heard here, I hope more will be recorded.

Georg Christoph Strattner
Ich will deh Herrn loben allezeit: Sacred Concertos
Miriam Feuersinger, Monika Mauch, soprano; Alexander Schneider, alto; Daniel Schriber, tenor; Markus Flaig, bass
Les Escapades; Cosimo Stawiarski, director
Christophorus CHR 77454

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Grazyna Bacewicz Piano Music in Good Hands With Joanna Sochacka

Pianist Joanna Sochacka is a woman on a mission. And that mission is for Grazyna Bacewicz's compositions to receive the performances they deserve. 

Bacewicz is already recognized as one of Poland's musical geniuses. She was both a virtuoso violinist and pianist. Her compositions won numerous awards and critical acclaim. And yet, sixty years after her death, most of her catalog remains under-recorded.

Sochacka thoroughly researched Bacewicz's solo piano music. Her program supports her assertion that this is music that needs to be heard. 

Bacewicz's Piano Sonata No. 2 is her most-recorded solo piano work. Bacewicz had extraordinary technique and often used the full range of the instrument with Liztian abandon.

This sonata is one long thrill ride, especially as performed by Sochacka. She has all the skills necessary to pull off this sonata, both technically and musically.

Bacewicz felt her first sonata, along with her Two Etudes for Piano weren't worthy of publication. This despite the fact that both won the Fryderyk Chopin Composers’ Competition!

Sochacka performs both from the manuscript. The etudes are challenging works for the performer, but quite appealing to the ear. The first sonata isn't quite as complex as the second, but it's still a densely composed work. And one I'd like to see enter the repertoire.

Sochacka also includes Bacewicz's earliest sonata from 1930. Written when she was 27, it's a fascinating post-Romantic work. I heard passages that reminded me of Rachmaninov, albeit with more complex harmonies (really). The double fugue in the final movement is a real tour-de-force.  

Why haven't more pianists programmed these works? I'm hoping it's just unfamiliarity. Because that's something this recording can remedy. Highly recommended.

Grazyna Bacewicz: Piano Music
Joanna Sochacka, piano
DUX 1689

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

L'Orfeo Bläserensemble continue to please with Telemann

It's been two years since the release of volume one. And, I think, worth the wait. L'Orfeo Bläserensemble presents three more Georg Philipp Telemann written for winds.

What I like best about this series is the sound of the ensemble. L'Orfeo Bläserensemble performs with period instruments. The result is a much warmer sound than that of a modern wind ensemble. 

And the basso continuo is ever-present, although not as prominent as it is in other ensembles. The ensemble uses a bassoon for the bass line, and alternatively a lute and a harpsichord for the harmonies. The harpsichord is buried deep in the mix, softening the edge of the instrument's sound.

The bulk of the melodies are performed with natural horns and baroque oboes. These two groups of instruments contrast nicely while maintaining the warmth I mentioned earlier.

The Baroque wind ensemble has a unique sound I quite enjoy. And perhaps you will, too. If you do, pick up Volume One as well. It's equally good.

Georg Philipp Telemann: Wind Overtures, Vol. 2
L'Orfeo Bläserensemble; Carin van Heerden, conductor
CPO 555212-2

Monday, July 19, 2021

Robert Simpson Symphonies 5 & 6 - worth a listen

I first became aware of Robert Simpson through The Symphony. This two-volume work, edited by Simpson, was a collection of essays about the great symphonists and their music. Simpson not only knew how to write about symphonies, he knew how to write them. 

This release features two of his eleven symphonies, both dating from the 1970s. These performances are taken from BBC broadcasts. Although the sound is somewhat in soft-focus, it's still quite good and didn't detract from my listening experience. 

Simpson's 1972 Symphony No. 5 was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra. This recording is of the work's first performance in May 1973. Andrew Davis conducts the LSO, unleashing the full power of the orchestra. The result is electrifying, especially the opening movement. 

The London Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned Simpson's next symphony. The performance presented here is by the LPO, although not the premiere. Rather, it's from an April 1980 broadcast, conducted by Charles Groves. It's an assured performance, delivered by an ensemble well familiar with the piece.

One contemporary critic suggested this was a "Pastorale symphony for the 20th Century." There may be some detectible Beethoven influences, but I think that's a stretch. Rather, Simpson simply builds a sound world out of some very basic motivic elements.

Two symphonies -- and two performances -- I'm very glad I heard.

Robert Simpson: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6
London Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Davis, conductor
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Charles Groves, conductor

Friday, July 16, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #NAFTAclassics 2021 Week 2

The Classics a Day team once again made NAFTA Classics the theme for July. Two of the three countries in North America have significant holidays in the month -- Canada Day (July 1), and Independence Day (July 4).

As always with this theme, I simply alternated between Canadian, American, and Mexican composers. And the process discovered a lot of great classical music north and south of the border. 

Here are my #ClassicsaDay posts for the second week of #NAFTAclassics.

07/12/21 Francisco López Capillas (Mexico c. 1615 – 1673) - Magnificat

Capillas was born in Mexico City. He was the chapelmaster of its cathedral and is credited with writing the most masses during the Baroque era in Mexico.

07/13/21 Horatio Parker (US 1863-1919) Suite for Piano Trio in A

In his day Parker was a respected composer and organist. His opera "Mona" was designated the best composition of 1911 and performed at the Met. Parker wrote the suite in his late twenties, although not published until a decade later.

07/14/21 Stephen Codman (Canada c. 1796–1852) The Fairy Song

Codman emigrated from England in 1816 to be the organist t Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral in Quebec City, a post he held for life. The Fairy Song is one of the earliest published Canadian music.

07/15/21 Cenobio Paniagua (Mexico, 1821–1882) - String Quartet No. 1

Paniagua founded a music academy in Mexico City. He composed the first Mexican opera seria, as well as over 70 masses.

07/16/21 Daniel Gregory Mason (1873-1953) Symphony No. 3 "Lincoln" Op. 35

Mason studied with members of the Boston Six, as well as Vincent D'Indy. He worked to increase the stature of American music, often incorporating American folk music or themes into his work.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Peteris Vasks - Music for Strings deeply spiritual

In recommending music, I often say that if you enjoy Arvo Part, you should listen to Pēteris Vasks. Both composers come from the Baltic States, and both infuse their music with deep spirituality. Vasks' music, like that of Part's, ignores the "isms" of the 20th Century. 

What matters is the emotion the composer's articulating. And though Part and Vasks may have similar styles, you won't mistake one for the other. Vasks uses tonality when it suits, but never in a traditional fashion. 

This release presents four works for string orchestra. Three of them express a single mood. The Musica Serena spins out step-wise melodies that seem to float over a layer of ever-shifting chords. 

Vasks composed the Musica Dolorosa while dealing with the death of his sister. Its somber tones give voice to that grief. The strings gradually rise as the work progresses, ending with a feeling of tentative hopefulness.

Musica Appassionata is passionate indeed! Long passages that pile dissonant intervals one atop another ramp up the tension. Then the clouds break and the orchestra dances lightly through the next section. 

The Cello Concerto No. 2 is an elegiac work that uses accompanying strings to amplify and reinforce the gestures of the soloist. Cellist Uladzimir Sinkevich delivers the emotional intensity of the work, making this a powerful close to the program.   

The Munchner Rundfunkorchestrer has a clear, lean ensemble sound. Ivan Repušić effectively directs the orchestra, getting to the heart of Vasks' compositions. The very large heart of Vasks' compositions. 

I recommend this release not only to fans of Arvo Part but to anyone who wants to be truly moved by music.  

Peteris Vasks: Musica Serena; Musica Dolorosa; Musica Appassionata; Klatbutne
Uladzimir Sinkevich, cello; Anna-Maria Palii, soprano
Munchner Rundfunkorchestrer;  Ivan Repušić, conductor
BR Klassk 900336

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Anton Arensky - Egyptian Nights suitably exotic

This recording of Anton Arensky's ballet suite was originally released on Marco Polo in 1996. I'm glad to see it back in print. Arensky may not be a great composer (Rimsky-Korsakov didn't think so), but he's a very good one. And there's a lot to like in this work. 

The ballet, which premiered in 1900, is full of late-Romantic orientalisms. But it's also more than that. Arensky actually researched Egyptian music in preparation for writing this score. And although the Egyptian melodies he used are heavily cloaked in rich Western harmonies, the essence is still there. 

The ballet tells the story of a young man who becomes infatuated with Cleopatra. An infatuation that almost proves fatal. Once Cleopatra enters, there are lots of opportunities for dancing to entertain the Queen. 

Arensky was a great admirer of Tchaikovsky. His dances in this ballet reminded me strongly of a similar sequence in "The Nutcracker." There are dances of the Jewish Girls, the Egyptian Girls, the Ghazi, and the Snake Charmer. Each has a distinctive character, and each enhanced by the same type of exotic orchestration that Tchaikovsky used in "The Nutcracker."

The Moscow Symphony Orchestra, directed by Dmitry Yablonsky delivers some fine performances. This is a reissue of a 1996 recording, and it holds up well. The sound isn't quite as finely detailed as, say, a 2006 recording would be. But it still works for me. 

If you only know Arensky through his "Tchaikovsky Variations" or his first Piano Trio, give this a listen. You might be pleasantly surprised.   

Anton Arensky: Egyptian Nights, Op. 50
Alexander Avarmenko, violin Solo; Vladimir Kolpashnikov, cello solo
Moscow Symphony Orchestra; Dmitry Hablonsky, conductor

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Władysław Żeleński Chamber Music - True Polish Treasures

Władysław Żeleński is one of those composers who are musical giants within their own country but are barely known outside it. In 1887 Żeleński founded the Conservatory of Music in Cracow. 

As its director, he helped shape the face of Polish classical music in the early 20th Century. As a composer, he was a craftsman of the first rank. Żeleński wrote in the late-Romantic style of Brahms, tempered with Polish folk music traditions. 

This release presents two of his most expansive chamber works. The Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello is based on a Latin maxim. Roughly translated, it's "I call the living, I mourn the dead, I repel lightning." Each phrase sets the character of a different movement. 

The first, which "calls the living," is a traditional sonata-allegro that's brimming with energy. The slow second movement may mourn the dead, but it does so in an elegiac fashion. The music exudes more hope than sorrow. The lively finale suggests that repelling lightning is nothing more than a game. 

It's a composition that works just as well if you don't know the program (which is what good music should do). The Trio Lontano delivers a masterful performance. I especially enjoyed the interchanges between the instruments when lines overlapped. 

For the Piano Quartet, the trio added violist Adrian Sanciu. The extra instrument thickens and darkens the ensemble sound. And that's just the effect Żeleński wants. The quartet is a more mature work and a more somber one. 

Here emotions are heartfelt, yet frustrated. There's a sense of yearning that runs throughout the work. I found it quite beautiful and moving. If you enjoy late-Romantic chamber music, you should give this a listen. This is exceptional music by a truly talented composer. 

Władysław Żeleński: Chamber Music
Trio Lontano; Adrian Stanciu, viola
DUX 1735


Monday, July 12, 2021

Theodor von Schacht Symphonies continue to entertain

Theodor von Schacht was appointed director of court music in Regensburg in 1773. It was a big deal. 

Regensburg was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and the home of the Perpetual Diet. In 1663 the Diet convened. Fearing that the Emperor wouldn't hold another, the body simply never adjourned, continually in session from 1663 through 1806. 

That made Regensburg a magnet for emissaries across Europe. They had to be entertained -- and impressed -- by the Imperial Court. Von Schacht was more than equal to the task. 

This is the second volume of his symphonies Gernot Schmalfuss and the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra have recorded for CPO. Von Schacht used Haydn as his model, so these are lengthy works. Each release features three symphonies. 

Von Schacht wrote about 33 symphonies, so only nine more volumes to go!

Von Schacht used Haydn's symphonic structure, but he wasn't a Haydn imitator. The symphonies presented here all have Haydn's mature four-movement form. The first movements start with a slow introduction, The second movements are slow, and the third movements are minuets. 

The difference in the music von Schacht fills out those forms with. His ideas are direct, straightforward, and darned catchy. His role was to entertain rather than enlighten, and these symphonies deliver. 

They're well-crafted, with some imaginative use of winds and brass. I caught myself humming along more than once. 

Gernot Schmalfuss and the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra perform with light-hearted energy. In the liner notes Maestro Schmalfuss writes, "The ESO and I hope that you will obtain just as much pleasure from listening to this CD as we did when we recorded it."

I certainly did.

Theodor von Schacht: Symphonies, Vol. 2
Evergreen Symphony Orchestra; Gernot Schmalfuss, conductor
CPO 77 912-2

Friday, July 09, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #NAFTAclassics 2021 Week 1

The Classics a Day team once again made NAFTA Classics the theme for July. Two of the three countries in North America have significant holidays in the month -- Canada Day (July 1), and Independence Day (July 4).

As always with this theme, I simply alternated between Canadian, American, and Mexican composers. And the process discovered a lot of great classical music north and south of the border. 

Here are my #ClassicsaDay posts for the first ten days of #NAFTAclassics.

7/1/21 Murray Adaskin (Canada) Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra

Adaskin was a violinist, composer, and director of the University of Saskatchewan's Music Department.

7/2/21 Julian Carillo (Mexico) Symphony No. 1

Carrillo was famous for his theory of microtonal music, "Sonido 13." His earlier works -- such as this 1901 symphony -- use more traditional harmonies.

7/5/21 Benjamin Carr (US) Federal Overture

Carr emigrated to America in the 1790s. He's known as the Father of Philadelphia Music for his work as a composer, conductor, and teacher.

7/6/21 Charles-Amador Martin (Canada) - Prose de la Sainte Famille

Martin was the second priest to be ordained in New France. His sacred works are the earliest attributed to a Canadian composer.

07/07/21 Juan de Lienas (Mexico) Salve Regina

De Lienas (ca. 1600-1654) is only known to us through two surviving manuscript collections. It is thought that he was a chapel master in Mexico City, and perhaps Havana.

07/08/21 William Henry Fry (US 1813-1864) Macbeth Ouverture

Fry was the first native-born American to compose for orchestra and the first to compose an opera. As a music critic (another first), he encouraged his readers to support American composers.

7/09/21 Calixa Lavallée (Canada) - Le papillon

Lavallée composed "O Canada," which was later adopted as the national anthem. Lavallée was born in Montreal but spent a good deal of his career working in the U.S.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Rediscovered British Clarinet Concertos Deserve a Listen

This is a wonderful collection of music. And, I think, it makes a point. The classical repertoire is so rich that no matter how tightly focused the program, there are plenty of gems to chose from. In this case, the focus is clarinet concertos by British composers from the first half of the 20th Century -- specifically, 1930-1947.

Clarinetist Peter Cigleris presents four works that make me wonder how many other such concertos -- and composers -- are awaiting rediscovery. Cigleris plays with a warm, mellow tone that brings out the lyricism in these works. His exceptional breath control lets the melodies spin out, making gossamer traces through the air. And yet he can give his clarinet's sound an edge when called for. 

I had never heard of Susan Spain-Dunk before this release. She was most active in the 1920s and 1930s. Her 1931 Catalina for clarinet and orchestra is gorgeous. Stylistically, it seemed to me like a blend of Debussy and Elgar, creating something familiar yet new.

Pianist Rudolph Dolmetsch was part of a musical family. His Concerto for Clarinet and Harp from 1939 is a good-natured showpiece. It has more of an English character than Spain-Dunk's work, with a more modern sound that leans towards Arthur Bliss. The interplay between clarinet and harp makes this one a winner.

The Serenata Concertante for Clarinet and Small Orchestra by Peter Wishart is the most dramatic of the four concertos. It was written in 1947 and perhaps articulates some of the turmoil of the times. There are also some very fine lyrical passages. Wishart incorporates a tune that sounded to me quite close to a Christmas carol. 

Elizabeth Maconchy is the best-known of the four composers. But her Clarinet Concertino still needed rediscovery. Machonchy's concertino is the most modern-sounding of the four concertos. It's highly rhythmic and quite energetic. And I'm hoping more clarinetists will program it. 

Peter Cigleris has done a singular service by recording these works. It's not likely I'll ever hear any of them in live performances. And all four are works I've very glad I heard.

Rediscovered: British Clarinet Concertos by
Susan Spain-Dunk, Elizabeth Maconchy, Rudolph Dolmetsch, Peter Wisart
Peter Cigleris, clarinet
Deian Rowlands, harp
BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Ben Palmer, conductor
Cala Signum SIGCD631

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Piano Protagonists - a triumph for Orion Weiss

Pianist Orion Weiss assembled this program around a theme - the composer responding to a specific source of inspiration with a virtuoso composition. It's an interesting idea, and it yielded an album that virtually spans the Romantic Period. 

The earliest work is Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” by Frederic Chopin. And the inspiration was Mozart's music. Nikolai Rimmsky-Korakov's Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor was composed in homage to Franz Liszt, who had recently died. 

And Eric Wolfgang Korngold's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in C-sharp minor was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein. This virtuoso pianist had lost the use of his right arm in the First World War. He was determined to rebuild his career by commissioning the best composers in Europe to compose music for him. Korngold's was the first such commission. 

I really enjoyed Orion Weiss' thoughtful performances. While each work is full of technical challenges (and fireworks), they're never the point with Weiss. His playing brings out the underlying thematic organization of each work. And he adapts his technique to suit the piece.

The Chopin variations retain a certain Mozartian elegance and the feathery keystrokes that Chopin was known for. In the Rimsky-Korsakov work, I heard joy and exuberance -- just what I imagine Franz Liszt feeling as he performed. 

In the Korngold concerto, I heard the struggle inherent in the music. This is a piece filled with big gestures -- gestures that Wittgenstein overcame with the sheer force of will (and incredible left-hand technique).

The Orchestra Now directed by Leon Botstein makes excellent performance partners for Weiss. While the names on the album are famous, these works aren't. This is a great opportunity to hear some finely crafted and inspired music and music-making.

Piano Protagonists: Music for Piano and Orchestra
Orion Weiss, piano
The Orchestra Now; Leon Botstein, conductor
Bridge Records 9547

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Auber Overtures Volume Four - The Hits Keep Coming

Like the other three volumes, this Daniel-François-Esprit Auber release delights. Kudos to Dario Salvi for some innovative programming. Volume Four features three opera overtures, plus an unusual orchestral work. Most of these receive their world premiere recordings here. 

Fra Diavolo is Auber's best-known (and most recorded) work. Dario Salvi's interpretation of the overture compares favorably against the others I've heard. And in many ways, it's the version I prefer. Salvi has immersed himself into Auber's music -- and not just his operas. That deep understanding, I think, gives these performances an added lift. 

The overtures to the other operas don't disappoint. Le Duc d’Olonne, Le Philtre, and Actéon won't be staged at the Met anytime soon (if ever). But there's plenty of great music to enjoy in these neglected operas. Auber was a master of both grand opera and opéra-comique. He knew how to write melodies, and how to orchestrate them for his intended audience. 

Although the series is primarily about Auber's overtures, some of his other works are included. This volume features  La Fête de Versailles, ‘Divertissement de Versailles’. this 26-minute work was used to celebrate the opening of the museum at the Palace of Versailles in 1837. Auber masterfully weaves together melodies from many sources to tell the history of Versailles. 

Auber references music from the court of Louis the XIV, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, as well as -- of course -- some of his own operas. The music accompanied a masque, and so is episodic by nature. And yet it all hangs together quite well. Part of the fun of listening to this piece is finding out all the quotes and the pastiches Auber includes. It took me more than a few listens. 

The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Salvi's direction has a tight, clear sound. It can be light and transparent as the music requires. But the orchestra can also deliver when darker, more dramatic sounds are needed. 

Well done. Again!   

Daniel-François-Esprit Auber: Overtures, Vol. 4
Le Duc d’Olonne, Fra Diavolo, Le Philtre, Actéon, Divertissement de Versailles
Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; Dario Salvi, conductor


Sunday, July 04, 2021

July 4th Classical Music - Making a Federal Case

I've shared my thoughts many times about traditional Fourth of July classical programming. Sousa marches, Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and -- of course-- Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" are pretty much the default. 

But there's so much more. American composers have been writing music celebrating their heritage right from the beginning. Sometimes it was expressed simply in the style of the music. Other times it was overtly patriotic in character. 

Interested in celebrating America's rich classical music heritage this holiday? Here are a few suggestions from the Federalist Era, when America first grew into its own as a new nation. 

John Antes (1740-1811)

Antes was born in Pennsylvania and served as an American Moravian missionary. The Moravians had a vibrant music tradition and kept current with European composers in the 1700s. 

Antes was also an instrument maker and is credited with making one of the earliest violas in the U.S. He composed a set of string trios in 1780. They're among the earliest American chamber works, and model Haydn's trios (written around the same time). 

William Billings (1746-1800)

Billing was born in Boston and was a tanner by trade. By avocation, he was a choral composer -- American's first. His hymns were in a new, distinctively American style, with melodies and harmonies that came from folk traditions.

Billing's music was written for amateur choirs, and distributed through hymn collections. They proved quite popular, especially in non-denominational churches that sprang up along the frontier. There were other composers of fugueing tunes, but none as popular as Billings.

"Chester" was originally a patriotic hymn for the new nation, composed in the 1770s.

Benjamin Carr (1768-1831)

Carr emigrated from England in 1793. He became a prominent figure in Philadelphia's music scene. He was a sought-after teacher of piano, organ, and voice. He founded the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia and ran a music publishing company. One of his publications was awarded the very first copyright in 1794 awarded under the then-new U.S. Constitution

His 1794 Federal Overture incorporates many of the tunes Americans were singing at the time. 

Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809)

Like Carr, Reinagle was born in England and emigrated to the States. He settled in Philadelphia and continued Carr's work. Reinagle introduced American audiences to the music of Mozart and Haydn. He also produced over 75 opera ballets in Philadelphia.

Reinagle was a friend of George Washington and wrote music in his honor, as well as a presidential march for another friend -- James Madison. Reinagle's Federal March was published in 1788.

Friday, July 02, 2021

#ClassicsaDay #SchumannsCircle Week 4

The Classics a Day team honors Robert Schumann's birthday (June 8, 1810). The theme for June is Schumann and his circle. During the month, you're encouraged to share works written by Schumann, his friends, his colleagues, his rivals -- and of course, his wife.

Here are my #ClassicsaDay selections for the last week of #SchumannsCircle.

6/28/21 Joseph Joachim plays Brahms Hungarian Dance #1

Joachim recorded this work by his close friend on August 17, 1903. It was as part of a session for  Gramophone and Typewriter Ltd.

6/29/21 Ignaz Moscheles: Piano Concerto No. 6 "Fantastique"

Moscheles, who had studied with Beethoven, didn't think much of younger composers like Chopin. But he did admire Schumann very much.

6/30/21 Niccolo Paganini: Caprice No. 24

Schumann saw Paganini perform in 1830. He wrote, "How he cast his magnetic chains into the listeners lightly and invisibly so that the latter swayed from one side to the other!"

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Josef Schelb Orchestra Music Vol. 2 features concertos

German composer Josef Schelb lost most of his manuscripts in a Berlin air raid during World War II. He made up for those losses after the war, creating 150 new works between 1949 and his death in 1977. This album features three of his post-war concertos.

The Kammersymphonie Berlin seems the ideal ensemble for this music. Schelb's music has a stripped-down sound to it. The ensemble's tightly focused sound adds intensity to the stripped-down nature of Schelb's works. 

Overall, Schelb's music bears some resemblance to that of Paul Hindemith. One of the real values of this release is hearing how Schelb moves beyond Hindemith as time moves on. 

The 1949 Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra is the most Expressionistic work of the three. Schelb seems to use Hindemith's concepts of tonality in this piece. Pianist Tatjana Blome performs with authority and energy. 

The Viola Concerto, completed in 1956, has a different character. Schelb's use of chromaticism is much more aggressive. Although there's still a tonal framework, the music has an unsettled quality to it that works quite well. Violist Sarina Zickgraf delivers an engaging performance that sounds organic to that of the orchestra. 

Schelb's Concerto for Cor Anglais and String Orchestra was written in 1970. The chromatic elements seemed to have softened. They're still present but used to create consonances rather than dissonances. 

Dominik Wollenbweber plays the cor anglais with supple lyricism. Even the most angular of Schelb's melodies have a smoothness to them that softens their sharp edges. 

Josef Schelb: Orchestral Music, Volume 2
Orchestral Music, Volume Two
Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra; Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra; Concerto for Cor Anglais and String Orchestra
Tatjana Blome, piano; Sarina Zickgraf, viola; Dominik Wollenweber, cor anglais
Kammersymphonie Berlin; Jürgen Bruns, conductor
Toccata Classics TOCC 0604